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Now in the 'American Idol' Top 10, Leah Marlene's arrow is still rising

Leah Marlene continues her trek to be the next American Idol
Leah Marlene Facebook page
Leah Marlene continues her trek to be the next "American Idol."

Social media in Central Illinois is jammed with posts and well-wishes for Normal’s Leah Marlene, who has now made the Final 10 of this year’s "American Idol" competition. School districts, including Unit 5, but also District 87, Tri-Valley, as well as city of Bloomington, town of Normal, and hundreds of individuals in Bloomington-Normal, are cheering on their bubbly hometown talent.

Marlene was a senior at Normal West high school during her first WGLT interview in 2018. By then she was already a veteran area performer and had recorded a few singles. In the time, she had just recorded her first EP, titled “Arrow,” which she called her opening statement. It was an impressive debut, but two years later, she characterized that first album this way:

“(It was) kind of like my first songs I had cowritten and they didn’t really personally mean a lot to me. It was just like a next step in making music and learning how to do things,” said Marlene.

Despite downplaying that album, she did give some hint of the ambition that got her to the final 10 of "Idol" on that EPs title track. As she was questioning her post high-school path, you can hear the normally upbeat and confident Marlene start to wonder what lay ahead …

Cause life’s like is like an arrow
A shot in the dark
Don’t know where you’ll land
When it all starts with your heart
- From the song “Arrow” by Leah Marlene

“So, there was just a lot of confusion that song was being written out of. As in ‘I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but I’ve just got to let my arrow go and I’ve got to go for it,’” said Marlene in 2018.

You can hear the uncertainty, but ultimately, she surrenders herself to the wind, or in this case, using the metaphor of an arrow being shot from a bow. And if you stop right here, it ties a nice bow on this story knowing she's tantalizingly close to being the next "American Idol."

But it was her follow-up album in 2020, “The Space Between,” that went beneath the surface of that energetic “go go go” personality. You can hear it’s a much more introspective album, and much more subdued musically. She was a freshman at Belmont University in Nashville – music city – attending a school steeped in music history. The album is an interesting window into Marlene beginning to reconcile the public vs. private Leah.

“It was very much the space between what people see in me … like very charismatic and on like ‘another level’ all the time,” she laughed during a 2020 conversation with WGLT. “And then I was silently miserable and suffering for a very long time. So, I think it’s the space between what was really going on and what other people perceive of me.”

I’m restless
It’s time for something else
- From the song “Winding Road” by Leah Marlene

“Winding Road” from “The Space Between” shows the normally confident and upbeat young woman struggling to understand who she is … and while at Belmont University, comes to a surprising conclusion.

I wrote that my first semester. I live in a dorm with a roommate who is awesome, but you’re always around people, you never get personal space. I didn’t realize how introverted I actually was until I was in that environment,” revealed Marlene.

And for those who have watched Marlene's powerful performances on "American Idol" the past few weeks and the easygoing but upbeat way she engages with judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan, you'd never know that Marlene, like most of us, occasionally just needs space to assimilate everything coming at her.

The next round of "American Idol" is Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC-TV.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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