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An American idol comes home


After burst of TV fame, local musician happy to play theater show

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: KATY WEAVER PHOTOGRAPHY - Haley Johnsen is ready to dazzle audiences closer to home, beginning Friday night at the Aladdin Theater. For many musicians, performing on an internationally popular TV show is pretty serious business.

Beaverton’s Haley Johnsen, however, views her appearances last year on “American Idol” as more of a starting point toward artistic growth.

“I’d dabbled in writing,” she says. “But I started really getting serious once I got off ‘American Idol’ last March. I’ve been homing in on that skill since — trying to get better at it.”

After finishing in the Top 24 in season 11 of “Idol,” the celebrity- and audience-judged music competition show on FOX, the 24-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist is indeed stepping back from the spotlight. Working on songs and assessing her career goals, the Beaverton High School graduate jumped at a chance to hit a stage in her own backyard.

As part of the “Portland Soundcheck” showcase, Johnsen will perform a solo set at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., on Friday at 8 p.m.

Organized by Raymond DeSilva, “Soundcheck” provides an opportunity to check out local musicians who may be “on the cusp” of a wider breakthrough, including those who recently appeared on national shows like “Idol,” “The Voice” and MTV’s “The Real World.”

“ ‘Portland Soundcheck’ offers a taste of the diverse musicians currently playing their talents here in the Rose City,” DeSilva says. “(The concert) creates an opportunity for music enthusiasts here in Portland to catch a fresh glimpse of this rich culture.”

A lone Idol

Johnsen, who majored in sociology and minored in music at Oregon State University, cut her musical teeth singing a cappella during her freshman year. Moving on to choir groups, it’s only been a couple years since she started her “solo thing.”

“I realized I wanted to become an artist, and had to figure out what I had to offer as a solo musician,” she says. “That’s what I’ve been working on ever since.”

After taking on guitar lessons to augment her natural vocal abilities, Johnsen took notice when “American Idol” held auditions in the Rose City during the summer of 2011.

“I surprised myself how I kept making it through,” she recalls of the process. “After the first audition, I decided to take it seriously and practice my songs. I was in it to win it. I had that mentality. I worked really hard to get where I got.”

Although she performed frequently on the “Idol” stage, particularly during the show’s “Vegas Week,” she only made it to the small screen a few times.

“It was a brief thing, my ‘Idol’ journey,” she says. “On the live show, they didn’t air me much at all.”

Her “Idol” interpretations included Brandi Carlile’s “The Story,” Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love is Fair,” and the Eurythmics’ early 1980s synth-pop classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

“The producers recommended I sing that song,” she says. “It had never been done on the show. It didn’t turn out as well as it was supposed to. I still had a great time.”

Her favorite “Idol” performance was a cover of 1960s crooner Bobby Vee’s “Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” at the Aria Hotel’s Elvis Stage.

“Me and my group, we super-bonded,” she says. “We sang and did an awesome job. Meeting all the people on the show was just incredible. It became a family. It was just an experience like I’d never had before.”

Comfort zone

Back on her home turf in Beaverton, Johnsen moved in with her parents to keep expenses down, worked part time as a gymnastics coach and started playing blues songs with local musician friends. When DeSilva caught her performance at the Dublin Pub in Raleigh Hills, he offered her a slot on his “Portland Soundcheck” lineup.

“It started as one person asking me to sing somewhere,” she says. “Since then I’ve met a whole bunch of (performers). It’s gonna be a real awesome show.”

For a performer fresh from Vegas stages and thousands of TV screens, a medium-sized Portland theater may seem like a comedown. Johnsen, however, sees it as an opportunity to broaden her horizons — closer to home.

“It definitely is a well-known venue that many talented artists have performed at,” she says. “I’m really excited to be able to perform there.”