Since finishing a surprising ninth place on American Idol back in 2011 after starting out as a season 10 favorite, Pia Toscano has gone through a series of false starts in the music industry, including watching “Heart Attack” — which she recorded for Interscope — get released by Demi Lovato instead and become a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. She’s continued to work as a singer in the years since, and her path has led to the upcoming release of her debut album, I’m Good, due Oct. 14, and lead single “Walk Through the Fire,” co-written by Usher and Nasri (frontman of MAGIC! and songwriter for Justin Bieber, H.E.R., Halsey and more). “Usher and Nasri provided such a safe space for me to tell my story authentically and I couldn’t be more proud of the outcome,” Toscano says of the song, out Friday.
Below, read about Toscano’s decade-plus journey to her very first album, in her own words, and watch the premiere of the music video for “Walk Through the Fire.”
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From the age of 16 years old, I started my Idol journey and my all too frequent run-in with rejection.
As if not making American Idol one time wasn’t bad enough, I didn’t make it three times after that. But as the saying goes, “Fifth time’s a charm”?
Thank God for the change in the judging panel because if it was up to Simon Cowell, he maybe would’ve still thought that “there was nothing at all interesting about me”– his words not mine, but honestly I kind of believed that too.
When I finally made it onto Idol, it was the most nerve-racking and whirlwind experience of my life. I was battling extreme anxiety and they had just launched Twitter, so not only was I being judged by a panel, but also by tons of people hiding behind a keyboard to troll you with opinions on everything from the clothes I wore to the notes I sang and the moves I didn’t do. There was even this horrible site called “Vote for the Worst” that would just tear my appearance to shreds, which made an already insecure girl even more self-conscious. Thank God for [American Idol‘s on-call doctor] Dr. Nasseri being by my side after every show, to bring me down from my nerves. Even with all that was going on, things still seemed to be going in my favor. I was slated to win the show according to Vegas and online polls, and the only time I was ever in the bottom three happened to be the night I got voted off. I did win something, though: I was voted one of the most “shocking eliminations” in American Idol history.
It was the headline heard around the world and received more fan and celebrity support than I could have ever imagined. As part of my goodbye tour, I had the opportunity to perform on shows like Jay Leno, Ellen, Dancing With the Stars, etc. and was the first contestant to sign a recording contract with Interscope. I had the option of a seven-album deal, and after recording over 60 songs only ONE was released. Well, two were, but only one by me and another by Demi Lovato. The song I fought to be my second single was a groundbreaking success for her. That song was called “Heart Attack,” and if you listen really closely you could still hear some of my vocals singing in the background.
Then I had the opportunity of a lifetime, to perform for Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party in Kentucky with David Foster, one of the greatest producers of all time and the person I spent half of my childhood trying to get to notice me through Oprah’s fan mail. Well, that didn’t go exactly as planned. I came down with laryngitis, still tried to perform anyway and absolutely blew it. He ghosted me for the next seven years after that, and it wasn’t until I became a background singer for Jennifer Lopez that I got a chance to reconnect with him and redeem myself at one of her Christmas parties.
For one reason or another, Jennifer really took a liking to me on American Idol. As a judge, she really pushed me and was one of my biggest cheerleaders. She was also one of the first ones to console me the night I got eliminated and told me that she had so many doors slammed in her face and that this would only lead to more opening. I’ve heard that saying “when one door closes another one opens” a million times before, but it just felt different coming from Jennifer Lopez. She was right, though: Another door did open, and she’s the one that opened it.
Three years and a failed record and production deal later, Jennifer’s team reached out to me and asked if I wanted to join her for a performance on American Idol to debut her new single “I Luh Ya Papi” for an a cappella moment with me, [fellow Idol alumni] Jessica Sanchez and Allison Iraheta, and without hesitation I obliged. The performance was so fun and went really well. There was a comfort and undeniable blend that led to being asked to accompany her on her promo tour as a background vocalist. At first, the thought of me going from a semi-household name to a background singer caused me some inner turmoil, but I figured who better to learn from than the best female entertainer in our industry.
So I said YES, and it was one of the best decisions I had ever made.
A few shows turned into a few more, which then turned into an offer to be a part of her Vegas residency. To be honest, by the time I signed on to be a background singer for her residency, I had started to give up on my dreams of a solo career. I had so many almosts and maybes at this point, I was totally defeated but knew God had me exactly where I needed to be. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be in the front just yet, and honestly, Jennifer had my back for so many years, I wanted to have hers too.
Watching Jennifer prepare day in and day out for months started a fire inside me again. I truly believe that no one in this industry works harder than her. She always runs at 110% and performs every show like it was her last, not to mention she is juggling multiple projects at once. She demands greatness from her team and inspires them to give it their all as she does. I soaked up everything like a sponge and cherished every moment I got to be on stage or in a rehearsal room with her. It fueled me to work harder on myself and my own artistry.
In December of 2016, I got invited to Jennifer’s Christmas party. I saw the guest list, and guess who was on it?
David Foster. He RSVP’d yes. My heart dropped to my stomach and I was already trying to come up with excuses for why I could not attend. You see, these weren’t just parties where you dance, hang out and mingle. It was a night of live music attended by her friends who are some of the most esteemed artists, record executives and singers in our industry. I was still battling my PTSD from my laryngitis mishap with David several years back and I kid you not, I just got over my fear of losing my voice every time I’m presented with an opportunity to perform with him. Anyway, I prepped a few Christmas songs, mostly David Foster-produced ones, and mustered up the strength to attend. I did hide in a corner with a glass of whiskey, nervously swaying, hands shaking and praying to God I wouldn’t be called up to sing. However, God didn’t answer those prayers and I’m glad he didn’t. Right after R&B singer Tank flawlessly covered “The Christmas Song,” [Jennifer Lopez’s manager] Benny Medina called me up and asked me what I wanted to sing. I responded with “O Holy Night.” He said, “David, didn’t you produce a version of this? Get up and play it with her!” I died a little inside. My voice when I’m nervous is very shaky and hard to get control of. And then David starts to play in a key that is way too high for me. I knew it was wrong within the first few chords, but how could I tell David Foster that he’s not playing in the right key for me? He would think I was the girl with all the excuses. So I went with it, sang the beginning in a breathy head voice, trying my best to control the nerves and prayed to the voice angels to carry me through. For anyone who knows David’s version with Celine Dion, it ends very high, and in the key we are in it’s literally in the stratosphere of my range. As the song approached the climax, Jennifer and I locked eyes and she mouthed to me “come on, baby… you got this,” because she, too, knew that it was incredibly high.
But I guess it’s true when they say when “preparation meets opportunity.”
I was prepared for this. I didn’t want to let her down, or myself for that matter. I wanted to prove to David that I did really have what it takes, and thanks to all the years practicing behind the scenes, I managed to get out those final notes of the song, and David was thrilled. He then realized that he did it in the wrong key and asked if we could do it again in Celine’s. Magic happened and then we talked the rest of the night about my current projects and what I was working on. Three months later, he reached out to see if I can perform with him for one of his shows, and I have been touring with him ever since. I call David the gift that keeps on giving because he has brought so many beautiful experiences into my life.
It’s not often that we get a second chance. But sometimes rejection is God’s protection and my step backwards was the path I needed to take to move forward. Maybe that was supposed to be my journey all along.
I am so grateful for the highs and the lows because it led me to an exciting new chapter. I have been blessed with the opportunity to join Andrea Bocelli on his previous tours and now after years of writing the soundtrack to my life, I am finally able to share my debut album I’m Good with the world this fall. I also landed my first starring acting role in a feature film called 1660 Vine. I will still continue to work on myself and will probably continue to face some letdowns in the future, but I will keep humbly persevering, because the word “NO” only fuels me to go harder.