Doug Robinson: Ellee Duke: The singer who said no to 'Idol'

Published: Monday, April 28 2014 7:18 p.m. MDT

Utah's 18-year-old Ellee Duke is a prolific singer-songwriter who collaborates with veteran Nashville writers and is hoping to make a career of it. She's pictured here Monday, April 28, 2014, in Draper.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

You probably haven’t heard of Ellee Duke, but someday you might. She is a passionate, precocious, singer-songwriter from Utah who is so serious about her craft that she said no to "American Idol."

Which sounds counterintuitive, of course. Other kids would trade a sibling for a slot on the show. Invited to Hollywood and a national stage, she declined after much deliberation.

Ellee Duke. Even the name sounds ready for the stage. She is 18 years old and has made music for most of her life. Piano lessons at 5, voice lessons at 9, guitar lessons at 12, songwriting at 13, more voice lessons at 14, recording at 15, trips to Nashville at 17. She’s written more than 100 songs, many of which you can hear on iTunes, YouTube or her website, Elleeduke.com.

She no longer goes to school. What was the point? She would call her mother in the middle of the day with a song on her brain that she had to finish. “You gotta check me out of school,” she’d plead. “I need to come home.” She would race home and run upstairs straight to her room, shut the door and go to work with a notebook and guitar. A couple of hours later she would emerge with a new song, which she would try out on her parents, Jim and Marci.

Melodies and lyrics are constantly popping into her head. Out on a date, she’ll suddenly excuse herself and retire to the restroom to finish a song that was trying to take shape, dashing off lyrics in a notebook or singing them into a smartphone recorder.

She has written songs in hotel rooms and bathroom stalls and school locker rooms and gyms and classrooms and church and restaurants and just lying on the grass in the back yard. She has been filling notebooks with lyrics since she was a girl, which she has stored in three boxes. She is finishing her senior year of high school at home so she can spend more time composing music and travel to Nashville, where she collaborates with several accomplished songwriters.

Her brothers and parents have grown accustomed to hearing her singing in her room till the wee hours, but no one complains. You know the kid’s got something going on when her brothers don’t mind the late-night music and actually make requests for her original songs.

“I just want to share my music with the world,” she says. “Music has a way of touching people and making them feel things that help them get through life.”

When a high school classmate was struck with cancer, she composed and recorded a song on piano in two hours. Later she played “I Came to Win” for the girl in her hospital room (you can hear it on YouTube). They were all crying — the girl, her father, the nurse, Ellee. When a friend’s mother died, Ellee wrote “From the Other Side,” which was recorded and played on FM100’s “Sounds of Sunday.”

Ellee, a tall, doe-eyed beauty, has performed around the Salt Lake Valley. She has opened for pianist Paul Cardall and singer-songwriter Peter Breinholt. She has performed in Nashville and for various talent-show programs.

When "American Idol" came to Salt Lake for tryouts last summer, she was urged to enter the competition. Despite personal misgivings, she did so. After passing the preliminary rounds, she faced the celebrity judges — Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. and won the so-called “golden ticket” to Hollywood for the national contest.

“As soon as I walked out of the room, I got a pit in my stomach,” she says. “I acted like I was excited, but after the cameras went away I didn’t have a good feeling about it. I was choking back tears. I didn’t expect to feel like that. I went home that night and didn’t know what to feel.”

A few weeks later, "Idol" sent a camera crew to her home and interviewed her for a couple of hours in preparation for the event. She was still vacillating when travel arrangements were made for her to fly to L.A. in December to tape the show. They gave her a list of songs to learn, but she couldn’t make herself do it. It didn’t interest her.

She didn’t believe the show was the best route to a sustained career as a singer-songwriter. Some of her Nashville confidants warned her that the show would saddle her with contractual obligations that would limit her artistic freedom, impeding her ability to record and perform as she chose. She believed "Idol" was more about creating a show than developing music careers and talent.

“I wanted to work with people who wanted what was best for me and not the show,” she says. “And I wanted to be free to be the artist I want to be and sing the songs that come from me.”

She finally told her family that she was bowing out of "American Idol." “I prayed about it a lot,” she says. “I felt totally at peace with the decision.”

By then, Ellee had other promising prospects and new opportunities were opening for her. After her "Idol" tryout, she flew to Nashville for the second time and recorded 10 original songs. Tipped off by a friend, veteran songwriter Will Robinson came to the studio to listen to her recordings. Robinson, who has worked with Reba McEntire, Alabama and Disney and produced eight No. 1 hits across several genres, listened to the songs and then turned to Ellee. “Did you write all those songs?” When she said yes, he replied playfully, “I hate you!” A week later he contacted Ellee and arranged to fly to Salt Lake City, where he spent two days co-writing songs with her at her parents’ home. They have continued to collaborate via Skype.

After watching singer-songwriter Heather Morgan perform in Nashville, Ellee introduced herself and gave her a CD of original songs that she had recorded at the age of 15. Morgan, whose songs have been performed by Keith Urban, Billy Ray Cyrus, Trisha Yearwood and Tim McGraw among many others, Tweeted her the next day: “I’ve been listening to your music. I love it. I want to write with you.” Ellee went to the studio the next day and co-wrote a song with Morgan.

Through Robinson, she also has collaborated with Rob Crosby, Liz Hengber, Kellys Collins and Stephanie Bentley, who all have major song-writing credits to their names. “I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of people who have helped me,” she says.

Ellee will make her fourth trip to Nashville next month and hopes to move there next year. Her goal is to win a record contract for her music and/or a publishing deal for her original songs.

Meanwhile, she will continue to do what she has always done: Write songs and create music.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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