Sonyae Elise was the queen of concepts on Platinum Hit, and her status took her all the way to victory in the songwriting competition. She repeatedly impressed judges with her clever wordplay ("Love Me to Life" was among her praised tracks) and keen understanding of what makes a pop song work. The 22-year-old winner was able to defeat even the most musically trained of her competitors, despite not playing an instrument herself.
Below, she discusses her victory, her prizes (which include a publishing deal with Sony and the Writers Camp, as well as a record deal with RCA/Jive), opening up on national television and her secret to understanding pop music so well.
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You won the show's first hook challenge, making yourself the front-runner from the start. Were you surprised to win Platinum Hit?
Elise: I was surprised at the shock factor of winning and looking back, like, "Damn, all my hard work paid off." But at the same time, I was very confident in myself and I thought that if I stayed true to what I'm good at and had an open ear and heart to learning and not being super-sensitive to the feedback, I thought that I would win.
Your ability to conceptualize a pop song won you consistent praise from the judges. Were you always aware that was your strength?
Elise: I always knew I could write a good damn song, but ... [the show] put it into perspective for me. I'm not bad at writing melodies at all, but I think I'm way stronger at concepts and lyrics.
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It's interesting that you were able to win the show without playing an instrument.
Elise: It's interesting because I was in a competition with people who played other instruments, but in the writing realm, it's pretty typical to be a topliner and collaborate with well-known producers.
Is that how you foresee your future? Collaborating with someone who can realize your musical ideas?
Elise: I can get on a piano and I'll play a little bit of what I'm hearing. I'm not good enough to get on national TV and play a full song, but I can communicate what's going on in my head pretty well through my voice, which is my instrument. I'll sing a melody to them and they'll create around me. I can easily communicate what's going on in my head. It's hard for those like rappers who write R&B songs and can't sing to save their lives. It's pretty funny watching them trying to communicate what's going on in their heads.
It seems like you're a real writer's writer. Do you have real interest in being a performer, as well?
Elise: Definitely want to perform, definitely want to write within music and outside of it. I want to write scripts, I want to publish books, and write poetry. Everything that has to do with writing.
Judge Kara DioGuardi said that you really understand pop music. What's the secret?
Elise: I think being one of the youngest contestants had to do with it. They brought us to a high school, and you see who's driving the music, or who's telling you what's cool or catchy is the kids. I'm right at that age where I'm a young adult, but I'm still kicking it with my little sister, who's 16, 17. I think having an ear to the youth, as well as being able to communicate what goes on in the heart of an adult helped a lot. Being able to have lyrics that make sense and that adults give a hell about and then being able to say it in a way that kids can relate to because it's cool or catchy, I think that played a big role.
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Have you signed your Sony and RCA deals yet?
Elise: I'm signed, sealed, delivered, baby. I'm in the process of making great music for other artists and myself.
Is there anyone specifically that you're working with?
Elise: I'm working with Midi Mafia. They are super dope, they're like my brothers. They work with so many different artists and genres. They helped me expand the things I can do and who I'm able to pitch for. I've always had to adjust to what they were working on. It helped for the show. Without even knowing, I was preparing for the show all this time without knowing it specifically.
You revealed a lot of past hardship on the show. Did you expect to be as open as you were?
Elise: No. I was on there with armor, like, "I'll leak what's going on inside of my heart through my music, but that's it. I'm not about to come on here and expose my life story. I want to be loved and respected for what I'm doing musically, and that's it." But getting to know those people ... I made a true friend out of this, Scotty, and he taught me a lot. He was laying it all out on the line. You take Scotty for who he is, and that's it. I like to keep my personal stuff a little bit closer to me. Getting to know Kara and Jewel outside of recording and having girl talks with them, they broke me down. I ended up exposing a lot of stuff, but I'm glad that I did. People are telling me, "I connected a lot more with you knowing a little bit more about you."
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What are some artists you'd like to write for? When I hear you sing, I immediately think Beyoncé.
Elise: Definitely Beyoncé. Mary J. Blige, Queen of R&B! Hands-down I want to write for her. She's my favorite. I want to work with Raphael Saadiq and Kanye West, as far as producers for myself and for songs I write for other artists. I'd like to get in the studio with D'Angelo, just to create. Kendrick Lamar, Yelawolf, they're like my peers that I'm digging right now. I wanna write for Gaga if she'll let me. Cher, s---! Whitney! Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Miley Cyrus. Hell, I wanna write for everybody.