This is the story of a journey. It starts typically enough—a Midwestern girl who wants to sing, dealing with heartbreak and adolescent experimentation and family issues. But then it takes a dramatic turn when that girl is thrust into the national spotlight, sprinting at top speed to improve her craft and keep up with the celebrity whirlwind, only to wind up returning home and trying to make sense of everything that happened to her.
“This album is the story of my becoming a woman and becoming an artist,” says Jena Irene Asciutto of her stunning debut Cold Fame. “The songs are very blunt, very raw and authentic. I think it’s a good thing for girls my age to know that it’s OK to be open and be yourself.”
Cold Fame was written and recorded after a teenage Jena spent six months as a contestant on American Idol, ultimately placing as the runner-up in the 2014 season. Through her performances on the show and the subsequent tour, fans became familiar with her big voice and daring attitude. But given the chance to write her own narrative, she displays a range of sounds and sensibilities that take us through the life of a modern young woman.
“The lyrics just poured out of me,” she says. “It’s everything I was feeling, going back and putting my head in these different experiences. People might think that I’ve changed, but I just wasn’t able to show all of myself on the TV screen.”
Born in a Detroit suburb, Jena started playing the piano when she was nine years old and immediately began writing songs. She made her first recordings in a family friend’s basement when she was eleven. “It was almost therapeutic to me,” she says. “Music was my way of communicating and getting my thoughts out.”
She started a rock band; they stayed together for five years, but her ambitions were pulling her higher. She began writing in a more electronic style, sketching out some of the songs that would eventually find their way onto Cold Fame. Then, on a whim, she auditioned for American Idol, singing “Rolling in the Deep”—and after getting selected, went on to survive seventeen rounds before finishing in second place.
“The show was a great experience in terms of developing my work ethic and finding out if I wanted to do this the rest of my life, turning a hobby into a career,” she says. “I was learning every single day, every day was a new adventure. It’s very stressful, but that’s what it’s all about—how you handle yourself when you’re under pressure like that.”
Jena found that her voice was changing as the show’s coaches were teaching her better control, and her listening was changing, as well. “I loved Paramore, Green Day, Blink 182,” she says, “and then I found out about the greats, about Etta James and Amy Winehouse, and I thought maybe I could put the two together and make my own sound.”
After she returned to Michigan, she digested all she had been through, went into isolation, and wrote most of the Cold Fame songs. Soon, she discovered a pattern emerging; “Everything had a double meaning, where it was about my experience with Idol, but also with a relationship, or with coming home to Detroit.”
One of the first songs Jena wrote was “Innocence,” about losing her virginity. “I remember asking my producer, ‘Is this OK?,’ “ she says. “And he said, ‘It’s your show now—you don’t have to think about what anybody else is going to think.’ And that sunk in, so I just went for it.”
It also became clear, as she searched for a defining sound, that she needed to record her songs live in the studio. “These songs are so personal and so direct, there’s really no other way to present them correctly,” she says.
Jena’s music was introduced in early 2016 with the release of her EP titled Innocence. Her debut album,Cold Fame, will be released June 2, 2017. first taste of the record was “Unbreakable,” which served as not only a personal anthem, but also a tribute to her hometown. “It’s about me coming back to Detroit and deciding to stay and make my career here,” she says.
The rest of the album takes listeners through Jena’s experiences and growth—from the opening mission statement “Song For Myself” through searching for clues to her identity through experimentation with marijuana and alcohol on “Floating Down the River.” She delves into romantic melodrama with “Wait” (“That’s about me stealing somebody else’s man,” she says with a laugh, adding “I was in the wrong, so I’m making fun of myself and the situation”) and into the pain of her parents’ divorce on “Help Me.”
Having learned lessons and come into womanhood, Jena can finally let go on “White Girl Wasted,” the record’s raucous final track. “That was literally just sitting down and writing down phrases that I use in my daily life, and making a song out of them,” she says. “After getting into all this deep shit, now it’s time to have fun. At the end of the whole journey, I’m extremely happy to be where I am.”
Jena ultimately backed up her feelings about Detroit by signing with local independent Original 1265 Recordings. “I had all these meetings with major labels and it was very intimidating and the vibe was wrong,” she says. “Then I came back to Detroit and met Kevin Nixon and Sarah Clayman and they were just real with me. I could see myself working with them for my career.
“There really hasn’t been much going on with the music industry in Detroit for a while,” she continues, “and to be a trailblazer to shooting the city back up to where it should be is a powerful statement.” (She is also working toward a bachelor’s degree in creative songwriting through the Detroit Institute of Music Education, an accredited music institute where she is studying via their online program, DIME ONLINE.) “Having my record label, family, and school all based in Detroit really keeps me connected and inspired.”
Jena’s mindset is encapsulated by the album’s title, which is taken from a song by Band of Skulls. “The lyrics are about how fame can be abused,” she says. “It acted as a cautionary statement for me—putting yourself out into the public is a completely different world, and the least I can do is be honest with the audience. I think that can only happen if I’m surrounded and supported by the right people.”
In fact, she had tattooed the phrase on her hand before selecting it as the title. “It will always remind me to keep my feet on the ground and make sure I’m proud of what I put out there.”
Rattling off a list of her favorite musicians—Amy Winehouse, Lana Del Rey, Coldplay—it’s clear that Jena is aiming for something bigger than fleeting pop stardom, and that Cold Fame is a warm-up for all that will follow. “I don’t just want those fifteen minutes of fame,” she says. “I wanted to make an album that would tell my story, and that’s what it ended up being.”