The voice that lit up millions of TV screens this year will help light Detroit's holiday tree Friday night. Jena Asciutto — you may know her as Jena Irene — the pride of Farmington Hills and runner-up this season on American Idol, headlines the 11th annual Detroit Tree Lighting Ceremony presented by DTE Energy Foundation at 6:30 p.m. in Campus Martius Park. Olympic gold medal skater Ekaterina Gordeeva, the Second Ebenezer Mass Choir, the Rhythm Society Orchestra with Paul King, and the Corktown Popes are also among the evening's performers.
Jena, who began her professional career at age 12 fronting the metro Detroit kid band Infinity Hour, became the first female Wild Card contestant in Idol history to make the finals, largely on the strength of her original song "Unbreakable Me." After playing 41 major concerts on the annual American Idol Live summer tour, Jena, who has relocated to Los Angeles, is completing her first CD.
MT: First, the cliché question: How has your life changed since the American Idol finale last May?
Asciutto: Honestly, everything has kind of cooled down right now. People recognize me and I get fans who come up and say hi when I'm out. I got home for a week around Labor Day after the tour, which went about three months and was such a fun experience. I took a week off, then went right back into writing. I'm so excited to start writing my own stuff and stop singing somebody else's stuff, which I've been doing for the past year.
MT: What's the status of your first solo CD?
Asciutto: I just finished my first block of demos and sent them out to all the labels that are interested yesterday. So it's been a fun couple of months.
MT: The Campus Martius tree lighting has become a big event. What will you be singing? Will you have a band?
Asciutto: I'm actually going to do this one solo. It's going to be an intimate deal. I know I'm singing "Can't Help Falling in Love" (one of the songs she performed to close Idol's 13th season) and "All I Want for Christmas (Is You)" by Mariah Carey, but with my twist. I cannot wait. As soon as we got the offer, I said, "Heck yes, we'll do it!"
MT: Do you sense that your hometown friends treat you differently now?
Asciutto: Even before the whole Idol thing, everybody kind of knew me as "the girl who sings." And I really only hang out with, like, five people. I have a very close, tight, fun group. None of them really treat me different. They were all excited for me.
MT: What's your favorite or most vivid memory from the Idol experience?
Asciutto: I remember we shot an episode every Wednesday. After every show, we went through a press line, then all the remaining contestants were filmed during dinner. So we'd sit around a table and they would feed us information to talk about so it would be kind of a promo for the following week. I always had the best time at that dinner! They probably had to cut out 90 percent of the footage! It was so much fun. We were all hyped up after performing. And we cherished the moment we had together, because we knew the next day someone would be gone.
MT: And, the question all America wants to know: What's Ryan Seacrest really like?
Asciutto: Oh, my God! I thought he was going to be a butthead, but he was so incredibly nice. He was probably the nicest person on the set. I really give him props. It was a pleasure to work with him.