In the year following her audition in last season's "American Idol," Carly Smithson lived in one of pop culture's most public bubbles.
The tattooed Irish rocker made it through Hollywood week, the big stage at Idoldome, the bittersweet national press tour after her elimination, the finale show -- which boasted the year's second-largest TV audience -- before finally ending with a grueling 53-city summer-long "Idol" tour.
Then suddenly she found herself standing alone on the curb at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport with no road map for the future. For some, like Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, the path led to riches and viable careers, but for many more, the post-"Idol" journey has been marked by disappointments, bitter misfires and struggles to find a place in an often unforgiving entertainment landscape.
"When you're in 'American Idol,' you are in a fishbowl," said Smithson. "But as soon as you get out of the whole process, you're still in a fishbowl. But it's just a bigger bowl."
For Smithson, arriving at such a crossroads has been especially poignant, as she has been here before. Six years prior to her "Idol" stint, Smithson came to Los Angeles as a 17-year-old singer, was signed by a major label and was represented by one of the biggest management powerhouse in the business. But her label melted down before her album was released, leading to it being dumped on the market.
With "American Idol's" Season 8 premiere less than a month away, Smithson now finds herself in the conundrum of "Idol" alumni. They are famous, but without having their contract options picked up by the "Idol" co-production company, 19 Management, they must build their careers on their own. Her plan, as it took shape, involved ditching her former home in San Diego for an apartment in Hollywood, securing representation and eventually getting a deal to record an album.
"It's kind of bizarre that you start this process of making your record and being an artist when you're already famous," said Smithson. "I did it in coming from Ireland as a girl and went into the record company, no one knew who I was, and I signed with them and they liked my voice and I went from there and made a record. But this time it's like I'm famous and I have nothing to show for it. It's weird like that."
Drawing on her contacts from the first time around, Smithson signed with Arthur Spivak, a veteran entertainment manager whose clients past and present include Tori Amos and Three Days Grace. Spivak advised Smithson that, rather than seeking an immediate record deal, she should work with a co-writer/producer and record a handful of songs that would create an artistic identity.
"American Idol," for all the fame it bestows, can be a marketing handicap. A surprising number of former contestants face the question, "What kind of artist are you?" This is certainly the case for Smithson, whose powerful vocal skills broke through the clutter in Season 7 but whose pop/rocker style was difficult to express around the songs of Mariah Carey, Dolly Parton and Broadway musicals.
"On 'Idol' " Smithson said, "I don't feel . . . that I solidified with the music choices exactly, who I wanted to be music-wise -- the exact sound that I wanted, who Carly Smithson is. So I really felt that when I came back to L.A. before meeting with a lot of record companies and trying to explain who I wanted to be, I wanted to let them hear that this was my sound, that this is who I am."
And so on a blustery afternoon three months after her moment of despair at the Burbank airport, Smithson labored in the Santa Monica studios of EMI on a series of songs she has fleshed out with producer and songwriter Chris DeStefano. Smithson developed the songs during the long nights on the "Idol" tour bus and by singing into her iPhone recorder on the freeway between San Diego and L.A.
In the studio, two songs seem to be the full expression of the power she only hinted at on "Idol" -- an intense ballad titled "Lie With Me" and "Let Me Fall," a blazing power-rock anthem. The songs seem very personal (although she insists they are not taken from her life), about relationship anguish and tormented love.
"I really love to sing my heart out," she said. "I like all the high notes. But I wanted powerful, powerful rock songs."
In an industry in which so many Idols rush albums to market only to see them belly-flop, Spivak has urged Smithson to take her time.
"There've been so many Idols who have failed," said Spivak. The music industry people scratch "their heads and they don't quite know what to do. They say, 'OK, you're a nice girl and that's nice.' And 'Arthur, we like you and you've been in the business a long time. But who's going to produce? Who's going to write? And we're so busy. And we have no money.'
"She has all of the tools to be great. But Carly will need to have song after song that are just undeniable hits because her voice is there. Her look is amazing. She sells it live, so it's all there. If we give the community and the audience the hits, then what are people going to say, no to it?"
Once the demo is finished, next is perhaps her greatest challenge after "Idol": recording and releasing a new album.
"I don't want to just make a record to put a record out there," said Smithson. "I understand that when you come off of 'Idol' there's that window of opportunity that you have to grab ahold of, but at the end of the day it's very important to take your time and make something that you're so proud of."