Allison Iraheta On Halo Circus And Her Musical Evolution

There was only one American Idol season that fully captured my interest from start to finish: the eighth. Part of that, yes, may have been due to it airing during my last semester of high school and my needing a distraction from senioritis, but mainly it was because of its incredible talent. The specifics of the competition escape me now, nearly seven years later — but I definitely remember Allison Iraheta.

Sixteen-years-old with red hair and a voice ready to rock, Iraheta left what she described to me as “a pretty normal teenage life in South Central Los Angeles” to offer up her own fresh spins on songs like No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” on the famous reality show. Reflecting on her experience with Idol, she said:

“They shoot you up into the sky with fame, success, and stardom — that’s the beauty of the show. You get to skip all these steps you’d normally have to take when you’re starting up as a musician. It was a whirlwind of a time in my life, and everything felt so surreal.”

While Iraheta placed fourth in the competition, she was still able to record an album, Just Like You, with Jive Records — only to be dropped after the album didn’t sell as many units as hoped. “I thought about just not doing the music ever again,” she told me.

Fast forward to 2015, however, and Iraheta is now the lead singer of the bilingual alternative rock band Halo Circus. Begun in 2013, their debut album is due to release in 2016 after three years of being, as Duran Duran’s John Taylor dubbed them, “the best live band in the USA.”

I caught up with Iraheta over the phone at the beginning of December, as she was gearing up for Halo Circus’ triumphant return to the Los Angeles venue The Troubadour. We talked about how she began Halo Circus, the overlooked intersection of darkness and beauty, and the things she did — and didn’t — learn during her experience on American Idol.

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The Establishment: How did Halo Circus begin?

Allison Iraheta: I wasn’t planning on starting a band or even doing anything musical; when this all came about I was just doing demo sessions here and there, after my Just Like You tour. I needed a little processing time after being dropped from the label. I thought about just not doing music ever again — it’s a scary world. But the beginning of Halo Circus was a natural thing.

My guitarist David Immerman was writing with Matthew Hager, and David asked me to sing a demo for the song they wrote. It was an instant creative connection between the three of us — it felt like an unfamiliar home to me, if that makes any sense. After I did that session, Matthew suggested we all write together. It started off as a second solo album, but after the third song, we kept writing together.

This band came from a perspective I didn’t even know I had; it allowed me to uncover a lot of things that I hadn’t seen myself, that I’d gone through. I feel protected by them, especially since it’s really hard to write lyrics that are vulnerable and raw.

The Establishment: How did you come up with the name for the band?

Allison Iraheta: We wanted to connect our lyrics and songs with the universe and our fans. Halo means the sacredness of the world we live in, and circus is this world being fucking crazy at the same time. It’s the light and dark that we all live in. We also want to represent that darkness is beauty at the same time. And that behind sadness there’s happiness, and behind happiness there is anger.

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The Establishment: It feels like from talking to you that your experience with working on your first album Just Like You was probably very different than what you’re doing with Halo Circus.

Allison Iraheta: It’s night and day; starting a band has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. With American Idol, they just take care of everything for you. That’s the magic of what they do. I was fortunate enough to work with top everything: producers, lawyers — even dentists. I recorded the Just Like You album in under three months, while I was on the Idol tour. In today’s standards, I guess that’s normal, but really, that’s not that way it used to be. People would take years to do albums, years to even develop a sound.

On Idol, the producers developed a sound and an album for me, and I didn’t have to think about it. I was super stoked to be just doing it because I didn’t think that I would make it that far. I was also sixteen, so I was like, “Tell me what to do because I’m 16 and I don’t even know who the hell I am as an adult yet.” Now it’s very different. Writing is a complete game changer. This might sound cheesy, but it becomes like a mother and child relationship between the songs and me. Those are my kids and you cannot fuck with them.

The Establishment: That makes a lot of sense since what you’re writing right now is very personal. What makes your album different from everything else out there?

Allison Iraheta: I think I mentioned earlier how we really believe that there’s beauty behind darkness and sadness behind happiness, and happiness behind sadness and anger. I grew up not being able to really feel those feelings. And with being on a show like Idol, even just being performer, I got to make people happy, it was my job. But at the same time, Matthew was the one who encouraged me to really dig into my ranchera roots, that was something I probably wouldn’t have thought about ever again if it hadn’t been for him bringing it up. I realized that’s a big part of my musical past, and it’s a big part of why I like singing and expressing a lot of emotions while I sing. With Halo Circus, we want to be the voice of the sadness and the frustration in our culture right now. I feel fortunate to be in a band where it can be protected by four people saying, “This is who we are.”

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The Establishment: Do you feel like you’re reaching your true place as an artist and getting in touch with how you want to present your music and yourself?

Allison Iraheta: Definitely, this is the first time I’ve ever been sure of who I want to be and what I want to represent. When I was working on the Just Like You album, I had no clue. People were referencing me as the “rock chick” on Idol, so I was like, “All right, cool, I’m the rock chick from Idol.”

I was all about that, and I was all about them telling me what to do and where to go because I didn’t know how to think for myself at the time. They’re really good at telling you what to do, where to be, who to work with, and who you are. I think that at 16 years-old it’s good. But at 19, it’s bad, because you’re wondering how the hell to do really simple normal day-to-day things. You become really confused after you leave all of that. I almost had to learn how to do everything from scratch.

The Establishment: What do you feel that American Idol taught you about the music industry?

Allison Iraheta: Unfortunately it didn’t really teach me a lot about the music industry because it was a reality TV show. Idol taught me a lot about reality TV and how ratings work. It’s almost one-dimensional — they have to reach an audience and they have to sell; it has to be easy and quick. I wasn’t fully present for all of it. My high school was in front of the camera, with a bunch of other people, trying to win a competition. It gave me a perspective completely different than what I grew up with. I learned more about how TV works, but the music industry I learned more about after it was over.

The Establishment: Looking back now, is there anything you wish you could go back and tell yourself?

Allison Iraheta: You’re going to be fine. It gets so scary that you don’t want to leave the house. I remember moments where I was just terrified of meeting people. What I would say is that it’ll be just fine. It’s okay. Feel whatever you need to feel, be scared. It’s okay to be scared, but you’ll make it.

The Establishment: Kind of also changing gears a little bit, I’ve heard that you’re a big Duran Duran fan and you’ve gotten to work with John Taylor.

Allison Iraheta: Yeah, he came here and wrote “Something Special” with us. Then we were on their tribute album singing “Do You Believe in Shame?”

The Establishment: Could you tell me what that was like? I can imagine that must have been absolutely amazing, but also very intimidating at the same time.

Allison Iraheta: Absolutely, all of the above. John Taylor was good friends with Matthew, so there was a rhythm they had that we just had to jump on. It’s not like we had to create a brand new relationship from scratch. It was natural and fun, and “Something Special” became a beautiful song that he wrote with us that’s become a crowd favorite. They’ve become a family to us, and John’s a part of the circus at this point.

The Establishment: What are you most looking forward to in 2016?

Allison Iraheta: We’re ready to tour and to release this album. Next year is about face time with people who have been supporting us and thanking them and giving them with what they’ve been helping us create over the past three years.

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