In September 2014, singer Emily West was crowned runner-up on the TV reality competition series America's Got Talent, coming in second to a magician. But anyone who tuned in for her electrifying live performance on the show or who has seen her live in concert knows West has a magic all her own. Case in point: "Bitter," the first single from the Iowa native's upcoming album, All for You. The mournful yet steadfast theme of this rumination on a failed relationship swells and soars thanks to West's impassioned vocals. Heartbreak has never sounded quite this uplifting.
"I was in a bad state when I was writing it," the singer tells Rolling Stone Country. "I was going through a breakup. I was in London writing with dear friends of mine, Jodi Marr and Julian Emery. Julian started playing this really cool guitar lick that kind of reminded me of Celtic music. The melody started floating out and it was this Jessica Rabbit kind of melody. I didn't know what it was forming into."
West, who has in the past described herself as a hybrid of that sultry cartoon character and Tom Waits, once posted on Instagram, "I love hearing beautiful melodies telling me horrible things." So it's natural that what "Bitter" formed into is much more than the title suggests.
"It's my first attempt to write a roll-your-windows-down kind of song," she says. "I write more kind of vaudeville stuff for my live shows and this song is a little bit more uptempo and radio-friendly. The title is very bitter, but it's bittersweet when you think back to it, because everything works out. It's an empowering song."
The renewed success of the powerhouse vocalist, who currently divides her time between Nashville and New York, is a longstanding testament to the power of persistence. Signed to Capitol Nashville, in 2007 she released an EP with the minor country hit, "Rocks in Your Shoes." A 2010 single, "Blue Sky," featured her then-labelmate Keith Urban, but it stalled just inside the Top 40 on the country chart. But as a songwriter and a vocal interpreter capable of a wide array of styles, West has hit her stride with the upcoming All for You LP, which features versions of some of the well-known tunes she covered as an America's Got Talent contestant, including Sia's "Chandelier," the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" and a duet on "True Colors," with the song's originator, Cyndi Lauper.
"Cyndi Lauper is like my fairy godmother," says West, who first collaborated with Lauper when the pop icon was a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice in 2010. "She is the most incredible human I have ever met in my life. I've only ever auditioned for one play when I first moved to New York, and that was Kinky Boots [the Tony-winning musical written by Lauper]. I'm dyslexic, and I get really nervous reading in front of people. Basically, I didn't get the part for the national tour but in the end I got to have Cyndi Lauper sing with me on national TV."
West believes she bonded so easily with Lauper, whose own image has encompassed everything from kooky pop star to blues chanteuse, because neither of them are comfortable in the neat little boxes that radio – and the music business in general – like to create for artists.
"She's branded herself as this beautiful force of nature," says West." She's always been herself, and that's why people love her. She embraces all of her personalities beautifully. I'm learning to do that. Just being myself, whether it's this person one day or that person another day. I believe if you want to love a man and you're a man, you should do it. If you're a woman and you fall in love with a woman, you should do it. If you want to sing a blues song, do it. Life is beautiful, and if you've been given a gift, sing it."
West's admiration of the multi-award-winning singer and actress was not lost on her best gal pals back in Music City, and figured into a recent birthday celebration.
"I sold my car to move to New York. I don't have a house. I lived with my parents while I was in Nashville to write music," she explains. "My girlfriends, for my last birthday they gave me some lipstick, a purse and a keychain in hopes that one day I'll have a house and my own car. The keychain says 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun.' I prayed every night, 'God, please let me get to work with Cyndi Lauper.' That was a year ago. My life is like a freaking Cinderella story."
West's album, which was funded in part by a PledgeMusic campaign and will be released this summer on the Sony Masterworks label, may not settle once and for all the type of artist she is, but that battle is nothing new for the singer.
"When people can't pinpoint someone it makes them uncomfortable," she explains. "The curse with me has always been, 'Where does she belong? Is she a pop writer? Is she a Broadway star? Is she a country star?' It's frustrating because I feel like I'm so many things. This record captures every personality as an artist that I am. It's so freeing to have something out in the world that is very different and that still fits. They all somehow morph into the same person. I have a lot of originals on there that I'm really proud of, along with the [America's Got Talent] cover songs that we've done."
West is currently in the middle of a residency tour encompassing shows in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and the first show, at New York's Subculture, proved an emotional experience for her.
"I cried twice, being overwhelmed with all the people there," she confesses. "It was completely surreal."
All for You is due out in August.