Student musician shines on 'Idol'

Chandler Leighton can't remember exactly when she started singing.

"I don't remember the age, but really, really young," the San Francisco State University freshman said. "I would go to summer camp and I would sing my cabin to sleep, and that was when I knew, 'Oh, I can sing.'"

SF State student Chandler Leighton

People around the country have realized the same thing over the past few weeks. Leighton is a contestant on "American Idol" and one of about 200 performers invited to travel to Los Angeles for the "Hollywood Week" round of the popular television singing competition, which continues airing this week.

Leighton records covers of popular songs as well as her own compositions and posts them to her YouTube page. One of her videos caught the eye of "Idol" producers, and she was eventually asked to audition in person at the Cow Palace, where she sang "Bloom" by The Paper Kites and Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" for judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr.

The Los Angeles native hopes to stake out a career as a professional musician, but is also studying audio production at SF State. Below, she talks about her love of music, learning how to just be herself on stage and what it was like to sing in front of J. Lo.


What do you love about music?

I think when you're an artist, you know that's what you want to be, and you don't really want to be anything else. It's the one place I feel at home. I can be myself. It's nice to feel like I can make others happy with my music. That's the best feeling of it all, that I can put out songs on YouTube and get people's feedback, like, "Oh, I cried to this." It's not the money, it's not the satisfaction of feeling fame or anything like that. It's the satisfaction you get from others feeling what you're writing or singing.


What was the "American Idol" audition like?

Terrifying. I feel like I blacked out when I entered the room because everything was so surreal. I could not believe that I was standing some place that I used to watch when I was a kid -- in the exact same room that I watched Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson audition in. It was really one of those gotta-make-the-best-of-your-moment kind of things, because you have a minute to prove that you're ready for this. That was the most terrifying part, because there is no room for mess-ups. You get one chance and you can't blow it. You can't re-record a live audition, in front of cameras and judges. I feel like J. Lo, Keith and Harry, they're just people, and I just saw them as people judging what I was singing. I was more nervous about all the cameras in every direction.


What were the judges' reactions?

I was so sad they didn't air that! They were all super cool. Keith and J. Lo said that they liked that I picked two songs that I sang softly instead of belting, that I went with my style. I'm not Kelly Clarkson, I'm not Jennifer Hudson. I can't come in there belting these crazy notes, but I kind of brought my own thing to the table and was hoping that they would enjoy my performance.


What was going through your mind when they gave you a ticket to Hollywood for the next round?

I couldn't move. I stood there with my hands over my mouth and I did not move at all, and J. Lo was like, "Take the ticket!"


What did you learn from the experience?

"American Idol" taught me how to be myself and that the music that I sing is OK, people enjoy it and I don’t have to be a Jennifer Hudson to make people like me. I can be me. I was OK with being Chandler Leighton there, and that was the greatest part.


"Hollywood Week" on "American Idol" continues Feb. 11 and 12 and airs on FOX. To see video of Leighton performing, visit her YouTube page at

-- Jonathan Morales