"I'm eating a Clif bar at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. It's not very exciting," Brielle Von Hugel jokes when I call her right on time. But because of nonstop touring this year, her mind is jumbled between time zones, long stretches of highway and the same day, different vending machine--so, she's thrown off by the hour difference. The vocalist is far away from the bright lights of Hollywood where she rose to early fame on "American Idol" nearly five years ago. Her journey was abrupt on the show, wrapping with her Wild Card cover of Adele's smoldering hit "Someone Like You." She was a young and naive with a booming old-school voice, typically a favorite among "Idol" voters in the earlier seasons; her presence hadn't quite ripened yet, still unpolished and bumbling, but there was a star swimming somewhere below the surface.
Half a decade later, and Von Hugel has blossomed into a nuanced, careful (but carefree) and articulate singer. Earlier this year, she teamed up with Postmodern Jukebox, led by Scott Bradlee, for a stark and powerful cover of John Legend's "All of Me," which saw the 22-year-old bask in the big band sound and offer up a commanding performance. Her rendition sits deep in the group's Squad Goals LP, which also features contributions from such heavy weight talents as Haley Reinhart, Von Smith, Kenton Chen, Addie Hamilton, Dani Armstrong and Melinda Doolittle. To say Von Hugel more than holds her own among so many robust performers is an understatement. "We went for a more gospel, soul sound. The song is incredible itself. We had a little fun with the harmonies and the dynamics. It's a favorite of mine," she reflects exclusively with Popdust. The doo wop style fits her like a glove, which isn't too surprising considering it runs in her blood.
Her father Bill Corritore is a former doo-wop singer, notably of The Duprees in their later years. So, the influence certainly rubbed off on Von Hugel in immeasurable ways. "I have the most supportive family there is. Growing up, I listened to a lot of doo-wop and oldies. That's why I feel so happy to be a part of the group because it mixes the pop with the real deal music," she says.
Now, she is eyeing a brand new album, expected to drop in early spring on F.R.E.E.D.O.M. Records. It follows her self-released debut EP, Turns to Gold, in 2014 and will be distinctly more soul and R&B in flavor. "That EP [contained] some of the first songs I had ever written or recorded. I wasn't allowed to write or record while I was on 'Idol.' So, everything happened around when I was 17," she shares. "The EP was definitely more pop. I've also grown as a person since then. A lot of my writing concepts are more mature and focused on empowering others."
Von Hugel leads her new record with the b.o.b.-assisted "Stronger (Growing Pains)" (a rather EDM-soaked jam) and the stunning piano ballad, "Naked," a co-write with her manager Laura Monaco-Martino, producer Joey Martino and Todd Schroeder, who she met through her work with Postmodern Jukebox. "The entire writing process [of 'Naked'] was about two hours. It was really amazing. We wrote and recorded it in the same day. I knew it was a special one," she says. There are no bells and whistles to be found--she displays every crack and tear in her voice unlike anything she has ever previously attempted. "Every single inch of me is changed for good," she wails. "You gave me your soul and I let you in...so I bet my bones and let love begin..."
If Von Hugel has more songs like "Naked" up her sleeve, she could be well on her way to blazing a path to superstardom...once again. "It's the most personal song I've ever written. It's about self-empowerment and finally feeling comfortable in your own skin," she says. "Growing up, I had a lot of female role models to look up to, and I feel girls today need a lot of help with confidence. I would love to be that role model through my music. I feel more confident when I'm singing, writing music and performing, so I wanted to express myself through this song. It doesn't have to be about making it in the music industry; it's just about whatever your dream is. I want everybody to know they are beautiful in their own way."
Five years can be a long time in the life of a talented 20-something musician. Von Hugel reflects on her life since "Idol," ambitions for her new album and 2017 and how she handles touring for the first time. Check out our Q&A session below:
What as your journey been like since "American Idol"?
My "Idol" experience has definitely played a huge role in my career. I was super young, and I didn't know who I was as a person, yet, or as an artist. I was basically singing songs that I loved and knew I enjoyed singing, but I didn't realize how big of a passion I had inside of me. The show challenged me and taught me a lot about the backside of the business and [allowed me to do] a lot of things I could never get the chance to experience at 16 years old. It made me stronger and determined and strive to grow. It definitely prepared me for the ups and downs of the music industry. I wrote my first single "Stronger" about that experience.
What have you been doing in the past five years?
After I graduated high school, I went full-force into career mode. I have my team now, my manager and a production team and now my label, F.R.E.E.D.O.M. Records. Of course, a PR team, Josh and Susan. I've been growing my team and brand and pushing forward. I've been playing live and recording my upcoming album and touring with Postmodern Jukebox and then this tour now with Remember Jones. I'm also doing my own headlining shows.
How did you land with F.R.E.E.D.O.M. Records?
I was doing everything on my own before I signed with them. Laura and Joey gathered up a team and put together the label with a bunch of industry people and investors. Basically, I have the family I had before, but with more power behind it.
Had you been courting labels previously?
I definitely had my press kit together and my music. We were headed for that, but this came up first. It was more special. It felt right.
Is the album complete?
Nope. We have over 20 songs written and recorded. We are still going and taking the best out of what we have. We haven't picked the track list yet. The singles are being released until then.
How did you get connected with B.o.B. for "Stronger"?
I linked up with him through my label. Tim [Patterson] had a contact who knew B.o.B. We reached out to him to be on another track. When we sent him all my material so he got a taste of who I was, he actually liked "Stronger" better. We didn't plan on having a rapper on that one but we were like "of course, he's incredible!" Everything just worked out.
Did you two record together or separately?
He was actually on tour at the time. On his only day off in Flint, Michigan, we found a studio to open up and let him record. I didn't get to meet him. Hopefully, soon. I'm super grateful for his work. It's really amazing.
Other than "Stronger" and "Naked," are there other standout songs you know you'll cut for the record?
We are definitely attached to my song "Stereo." It's the first song we wrote for the project with the new label. It's about my dedication and love of music during high school and my teenage years. Basically, it's me going to the studio all night rather than going to a club or drinking or hanging out with friends. I've always been dedicated to the music. It also has a super catchy, pop radio hook. I wrote that with the team and also Mike Campbell, who is an excellent writer. His songs have been featured on multiple charts.
Earlier, you talked about touring. What have been some of your favorite experiences?
This year was the first year I ever toured. I was on another tour called Summer of Love, which was a bunch of '60s and '70s Woodstock music with some really seasoned musicians. That alone was a great experience. Then, we did this Amy Winehouse tour back in July; it's the same one we're doing now. Also, I've been touring with Postmodern Jukebox. This is the first time I've ever slept on a tour bus or been away from home that long working. I honestly just feel I've grown so much in 2016. I know I keep saying "growth" a lot but right now is the prime of my life. A lot of things have been happening to me, personally and musically. I feel like my career is finally taking off. I've never been more sure of what I want to do.
Did you get homesick out on the road?
Of course. I love my animals and family. I love New York food. I'm a big foodie. At the end of the day, I'm sharing my voice with people all over the country. It's an incredible feeling. I know people out there search their whole lifetime to figure out what they love to do and their passion. I'm really grateful I found what mine is at such a young age.
Touring can be extremely taxing on the body. How have you learned to take care of yourself?
Laura sends me vocal warmups, which are super important to keep the voice healthy. Of course, I try to eat healthy and take vitamins and get rest.
Von Hugel's new track "Naked" is out now on iTunes.
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