Ayla Brown looks back fondly on her time on American Idol, appearing on the show's fifth installment — what many consider to be the pennacle of the former ratings juggernaut. As the basketball-playing vocalist, it was her first time playing live for so many people, 35 million to be exact, as well as her first time with a full band. "I had so many firsts with that show," she ponders to NashvilleGab, exclusively."
"It is so weird. I always say, ‘oh yea, I was on the show when people actually watched the show,'" she continues. "It’s kind of true. There are so many shows out there right now that I can not keep track of anyone."
"It kind of takes away from the special quality that the show used to give me and families who wanted to sit down and watch a talent competition," she says. "At the time, there was nothing else like it. It was the highest watched show. After that, it started declining in viewership. Man, am I honestly so grateful for that opportunity to be one of the contestants. I had to go through so much at such a young age."
Only 17 at the time, she admits that it was a lot to take in. "I was really into sports, as well. I had already had a basketball scholarship to Boston College. So, every time someone told me something or gave me criticism, I always took very constructively," she explains. "I did want to get better, because I had never done it before. I don’t think I ever got offended by anything anyone said to me."
She recounts, "At one point, during the audition, Simon [Cowell] said I was robotic. I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’" But with eight years removed, she admits, "Yes, I was. I was so nervous, and I didn’t know what I was doing. If he hadn’t said stuff like that, I wouldn’t have known. It may not have led to some of the things I do or don’t do now. It’s funny when people say, ‘I remember you on ‘American Idol.’ Man, you are just so much better now.’ I’m like, ‘yes. I’ve learned a lot vocally, and I’m writing my own songs.’"
Brown does concede that, perhaps, waiting a few years to do the show might have been better, " I kind of wish it had been a couple years ago and not eight years ago." However, she doesn't regret a single moment of it. "I think, at the time, it gave me everything I wanted and needed. Of course, it was kind of a buzz kill when you make it on the show and then you realize you have to go play basketball after you get eliminated."
"I wasn’t really able to truly dive headfirst into the music. [But] when I was in college, I was still singing and performing every free day I had and every weekend during the summer. I was able to make money and do stuff a regular college kid would not even be able to do. The timing was fine, ultimately. I’m not regretting it at all."
Having been on the show in 2006 before Twitter and Faebook took off, she says "the most frustrating thing is…you know, Twitter wasn’t around when I was on the show. Facebook, I didn’t even have an account. You needed to be in college. Remember those days? I didn’t have anything when I was right off the show like these contestants have now. Social media is such a powerful tool that I wish I was in that realm back in the day."
Since Idol, Brown has released two albums, including 2013's Heroes And Hometowns. She's also been hard at work touring the country (including performances at the Grand Ole Opry) and developing her own unique brand of country, as evidenced on her current single "Miss You Already." As a song that first appears on her self-titled 2012 album, something drew her back in. "There are some artists I can think of, like Chris Young who recorded ‘Voices,’ and then re-released it two years later or something, because he really believed in the song," she notes of her own musical journey with her own music. "I feel like I’m in that boat right now. Everytime I play [the song] or let people listen to it, they automatically connect. They’re like, ‘that is the single’ or ‘that’s the hit.’"
"It’s kind of the one song when I first put out the album, I seemed to overlook it, because I was more into the upbeat side of the album. This is only one of a couple slower songs on the album. I’m kind of going back to my roots, and releasing this to the people who may not have heard it or have my album right now. It’s still brand new to them."
While she's working the single to radio and her fans, it won't, in fact, lead to a new album. She explains, "When I do a new album, I’ll definitely be recording all-new material. I’m not going to put this song on there. The goal is definitely to get back into the studio."
"Right now, I’ve just been getting feedback on [some of my stuff]. Every week, I’ve been releasing a new song on my Facebook page, via Soundcloud," she shares of her online campaign. "I keep it up for a week, and people are able to give me feedback. If, for example, a song doesn’t have a ton of views or listens, then I’ll know, ‘ok, well, maybe that one wasn’t as strong as last week’s.’ It’s kind of an interesting way to bring the fans in and do a little trial run. It really helps. I don’t want to put songs on a CD and spend a lot of money putting them into production, if people aren’t going to relate to them."
One of those standout teasers is the tongue-in-cheek "My Boyfriend Thinks He's Elvis," which she co-wrote with Jan Buckingham. "SHe’s been around for many, many years. She’s had songs on Whitney Houston’s albums and Brian White and Pam Tillis. She spent 20 years writing out in LA. Now, she’s back in Nashville. She and I have written together before. We actually had a couple cuts by an Irish country singer named Pete Kennedy, who has won U.K.’s Country Male Artist Of The Year and Album of the Year."
"One of the first writing appointments we had on our own, I came in with this idea," she says of the song's inspiration. "I don’t know if anyone remembers, but when I was on ‘American Idol,’ they did a little feature on me before I went up on stage where I basically told everyone that for years and years I thought my dad was Elvis Presley. He told me he was. [laughs] Every time a song came on the radio, he’d be like, ‘that’s your daddy. That’s me!’ It wasn’t until I was a little older, about 7 or 8 years old, that an Elvis song came on in the car and by best friend was like, ‘oh, I love Elvis.’ I’m like, ‘what are you talking about? That’s my dad.’"
"I had this funny song title of ‘My Dad Thinks He’s Elvis.’ And we changed it and made it into this fictional story about my boyfriend thinking he’s Elvis. It’s just a really funny song. We wrote it in 25 minutes. The whole thing was done, and afterwards, we were like, ‘did we really just finish that?’ We ended up demoing it. That was one of the songs I really wanted people to hear."
One of her more recent songs is "Heading For Sunshine," which came to be through her frustration with the cold Nashville weather. "I wrote that [one] with Morry Trent. It was freezing one day, and I was looking out at Nashville from ASCAP. I was like, ‘you know what, are you sick of this weather? Let’s write a song and pretend it’s not cold and that we’re looking forward to summer.’ He had that title. Right when he said it, I was like, ‘let’s do it.’"
In the modern landscape, she says her sound is varied, going from acoustic, intimate songs to more rock-based material. "My shows are very different depending on what the environment is. When I open up for someone and they say, ‘it can only be solo acoustic,’ then I’m up there alone in front of two thousand people at a theater, usually singing songs that I’ve written and have some sort of lyrical importance to me. So, when people are sitting there listening, they can hear every word I’m singing about. But when I’m with a full band, I do all completely uptempo, rock-out songs," she says.
"I can be vulnerable and intimate when it comes to writing lyrics and interacting with the crowd, but I can also perform in front of thousands and thousands of people and do something totally different."
Some of her touring experiences include opening gigs on tours with Josh Turner and Darius Rucker. She says that opening for Turner was her absolute favorite live show of her career so far. She shares, "This I will never, ever forget: It was the first gig my agent got me, and he said, ‘do you want to do an opening slot for Josh Turner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, solo acoustic for two thousand people?’ At the time, I didn’t know how to play the guitar. He said it was for a 45-minute set. I committed to it because I was like, ‘I wanna do this. It sounds amazing.’"
"I practiced and practiced and practiced those 10 songs as much as I could leading up to it. I remember getting up on stage, and my palms were sweating like crazy. I’m up there pretty much praying that I can get through these songs without horrible mistakes happening. I get done, and I remember I put my guitar away and told everyone I’d be at the merch table. My mom and sister and my sister’s now-fiance were at the show, as well, and I come around and I see this humongous line. I go up to my mom, ‘what is this line for?’ She’s like, ‘these people bought stuff. These people need stuff signed.’ I’m like, ‘this line is for me?!?!’"
"I will never forget that. It proved to me that I could do it. 45 minutes now seems short. I can do longer than that and be OK. It totally got me out of my comfort zone," she says happily.
In support of her new single "Miss You Already," Brown has a very different approach, instead choosing to do a TV tour, in lieu of a radio one. "I’m starting off in Texas. I’m going to Houston on March 24. Then, I drive up to Little Rock, Arkansas. Then, I do Memphis and back to Nashville by that Friday. At the end of April, I’m definitely going to be doing Florida. I’m really excited about this TV tour because it’s a different approach than going on a radio tour, which costs a lot of money. At least with the TV, I get to do an interview and I get to perform a song. People get to interact with me. I get to see all the sights, too!"