Singer/songwriter and guitarist Jessica Meuse always gets a reaction when she’s introduced as a native of Slapout, Ala. “People are like, ‘wait, what?’” she laughs. She’s back home in the tiny Elmore County town, continuing to write songs and perform. Meuse is best known for reaching the top four in season 13 of “American Idol,” and became the first person in the history of the show to perform her own original song during the finals. Her first full-length album, “Halfhearted,” was released in 2018, and she’s planning to record again in 2020. We asked her about her upbringing and her experience in Hollywood. – Allison Law
Talk about growing up in small town, rural Alabama. How did it shape you as a musician?
I’ll be very honest with you, I was not the most accepted kid in school. I was actually bullied quite heavily. Music was the thing that I had when I went home. When everyone else was at prom, I went home and practiced, and I ended up teaching myself guitar. … I also got into violin – that was actually my first instrument. I auditioned for the Montgomery Youth Orchestra, and I worked my way from the back to the front. … I think I was so dedicated to my craft and being better and always learning because I wasn’t accepted by my peers. It forced me to focus on something that actually made me happy.
Do you still play violin?
I do. I’m rusty, don’t get me wrong. You can tell when I play that I was once a lot better than I am now. … I know this is weird, but I play it mentally a lot, so I think about it in my head. I also taught myself piano. Anything with strings, if you hand it to me, I can figure it out.
Most folks know you were on “Idol,” but you went on “The Voice” first.
Yes. In 2012, I was on “The Voice” season 3, and nobody turned around. It was not good feedback. It was very negative toward me. … I remember getting on the plane (to Hollywood), and thinking, “I’m going to make it.” You get out there and you realize, it’s so cutthroat, it’s so hard core, and I felt for the first time, I’m not going to make it. My hopes got totally shot to the ground.
So I went back home, and I was in college full time, and I kept working on my degree and I kept singing. I just don’t have the “give up” bone in my body. I just can’t do it.
Then came “American Idol.”
It was very surreal to keep getting through and hitting my goals. I tried to take the most constructive criticism from the judges. Not opinions, those are two different things.
My favorite judge was Harry Connick Jr., because he had the most technical stuff. My violin and classical music background allowed me to understand what he was saying. So he helped me the most as an artist. Then, boom, top 4, and I was like, I didn’t see that coming.
Do you keep up with any of your fellow contestants?
One of my buddies is (fellow Alabama native) Bo Bice. I know Taylor Hicks too. We’re all buddies. Bo’s really a good dude. I love him to death. We actually did a duet on “Halfhearted,” called “Without You.” We work together with the Helena Miracle League.
What other charitable causes do you support?
I have a handful of very, very, very important causes to me. One of them is St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Sometimes I work with the Children’s Cancer Association, and the LA Children’s Hospital. Just kids in general, since they’re our future, I want to do what I can to help them and show them that the world is good.
The other cause is domestic violence. I’d been looking for this cause for such a long time, because I’ve been through my own stuff, and I’ve never talked about it and I feel like it’s time to. (She recently played at a kickoff party for FavorHouse of Northwest Florida, a shelter for domestic violence victims.)
What’s next for you?
I’m always writing, because anytime there’s an experience or something I can live through, (I like to) write it out in a way that will hopefully inspire others. A lot of my music is about finding your inner strength of being tough, even when you don’t feel it. There’s always a song to write.
Follow her on her website, jessicameuse.com, and on her Facebook page. Interview edited for length.