Article by Caroline Cooney | Photography by Joseph Wasilewski | Owl Staff
The first riffs of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” blast from the speakers as the spotlight illuminates Emma Klein. Her soulful voice immediately overpowers the track as she transforms a classic hit into her own, mesmerizing the sea of staring people.
For the first time, Klein feels completely in the moment. She almost forgets that she’s performing on a beautiful beach in a national competition. She can’t help feeling emotional at the sight of her brother Alex waving a massive sign with her name on it.
This performance in Kapolei, Hawaii would mark the end of the 23-year-old singer’s time on American Idol’s tenth season. Although she didn’t make the top 20, her career as a singer-songwriter has skyrocketed since she began, resulting in new beginnings.
Music has always been a part of Klein’s life. At age five, she recalls watching Star Search, a national talent competition television series, knowing she wanted to become a singer.
Klein considered becoming an entertainment manager while studying at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. However, after going on a songwriting school trip in Ireland, she knew she wanted to focus on the art of singing and writing music instead.
“[Management] is awesome, but if I spent my whole life managing other artists, I’ll always wonder what would have happened and would regret not giving it a shot myself,” she explains.
Although living in Tennessee was overwhelming at first, she improved her songwriting skills and learned to appreciate the “creativity and collaboration” of the industry. In particular, co-writing with other artists in Nashville has shifted Klein’s perspective.
“I’ve learned that any time I’m selfish with creativity and I try to make something on my own without asking for help, it’s never as satisfying or rewarding. I stopped looking at it as a competition and started looking at it as a source of motivation,” she says.
Music has not only allowed Klein to connect with others, but has also been extremely therapeutic, especially after her brother Alex attempted suicide in 2018. The incident left him with a brain injury and forced him to relearn how to walk, talk, and eat.
“Immediately after it happened, I became super angry like nobody understood what I was going through. I was so sad, lost, and frustrated,” she states.
At first, Klein struggled with writing songs after his attempt. “The thing I needed to write about was Alex, but it was so painful and so close that I couldn’t do it,” she explains.
She was able to eventually come to peace with the circumstances due to her belief that everything happens for a reason. “No matter what happens, everything will turn into something new and beautiful. Somehow, even if it’s painful, even if it takes a long time, it will be okay,” Klein says.
Through this experience, Klein’s relationship with her brother has grown stronger. With the help of electroconvulsive therapy, Alex’s condition has improved drastically and he has slowly been able to act like “old Alex” again.
“Every brain injury is very different, so there’s not one way to predict when people are in the hospital,” Klein elaborates. “I feel like I’ve seen three miracles within the last year. I’m just very hopeful and excited.”
Her brother’s suicide attempt was part of the reason she decided to accept the opportunity to audition on American Idol, which “literally fell into [her] lap.” Walker Burroughs, her friend from Belmont University, had given her name to the producers of American Idol, who had immediately wanted her to audition.
“When I was doubting whether I should try out for Idol or not, I knew how excited Alex was about it. [He] has always been my biggest support for music stuff, and I would do literally anything to make him smile,” she says.
After sharing Alex’s story on American Idol, she received tremendous support and was able to understand the true impact mental illness can have on families. “People from all over the world were sharing stories with me that were similar, and it just made me feel really close and understood by a lot of people that I didn’t even know,” she says.
Bobby Bones, a mentor on American Idol, interviewed Klein for the series. Afterward, he asked her to come play keys on the nation-wide tour for his band, Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots. Although he had never heard her play before, he was confident in her ability.
“I was terrified because I had never played piano for somebody else before,” Klein says, adding that piano was not her strongest instrument.
With practice and advice from Bones himself, she quickly strengthened her piano skills. She was even able to sing one of her original songs while the band was opening for country singer-songwriter Kip Moor in Bakersfield, California.
“As a songwriter, it’s such a gift when even one person takes the time to really listen to the stories I’m telling. So, when you multiply that number exponentially, it’s honestly overwhelming,” she says.
Since her first show with Bobby Bones and The Raging Idiots, Klein has been promoted to the opening act on Bones’ comedy tour. She was replaced on keys by her friend Burroughs after he was cut from the top ten on American Idol.
Klein states, “I think my favorite part of [touring] is getting to do it with one of my best friends. We have been on every part of this journey together and now getting to fly with him around the country and perform by his side has been such a blessing.”
Overall, touring has been a “terrifying, exhausting, [but] rewarding” experience. Klein hasn’t just improved musically; she has also learned to understand the power in being vulnerable.
“It’s scary to tell that many strangers about my deepest thoughts, but after each show, even if one person tells me that my music allowed them to feel seen, I know I’ve done my job,” she says. “It really has been such a gift.”
With this rising fame, Klein has been able to stay grounded with the help of her family and friends. She realizes success and fame don’t matter if she can’t connect with people.
Klein says, “No career goal, relationship, song, or performance will complete me if I do it without God and good people in my life.”