From School Days to ‘School Nights’: Former Willard Student Hits All the Right Notes
By Canton Post
The gleaming stage lights shine upon her, the roaring applause fills the air after every breathtaking song and fame blooms as she takes her musical talent further than she ever has before. These are all things that one former student from Willard, Mo., never saw coming until an ordinary school talent show changed her life.
Willard alumna Kayleigh Amstutz headed to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams in 2015 near the end of her junior year of high school. She signed with Atlantic Record Company May 8, 2015, and became Chappell Roan. With her new name, she released an EP titled, “School Nights,” featuring her hit single, “Good Hurt.”
Middle school choir director Emily Witt said she was one of the first ones to hear Roan sing at the middle school talent show auditions in December of 2011.
“When she opened her mouth to sing, all the judges’ jaws dropped,” Witt said. “When she left the room, I started crying…she had the most unique voice I have ever heard out of anyone, let alone an eighth-grade student.”
Witt said she doesn’t believe she was the reason Roan sang at the talent show, but if she hadn’t encouraged Roan in the moment, she may not have gotten the nerve to do it.
“She was practicing and had the drive to do it,” Witt said, “but I know that at that time she was extremely nervous and she was still having this idea that she wasn’t as good as other people and she was struggling with her confidence.”
Witt said as soon as she heard Roan sing at the auditions, she asked her to be in her advanced class because she didn’t want her voice to go to waste.
“Beyond that, I encouraged her to follow her own path,” Witt said. “And to never let anyone change her voice for the negative.”
Middle school English teacher John Post said he was at the middle school talent show when Roan made her first appearance and described her singing as “God-given talent.”
“She sang the first line of ‘A Christmas Song’ and the hair on my arms stood up,” Post said. “That voice that she had just didn’t sound like it was coming out of a middle school student.”
Post said it’s no surprise to him that she’s a good songwriter because she excelled in poetic writing.
“I hoped she learned some writing skills in my class,” Post said. “But it’s obvious that she’s got such a unique gift in addition to her songwriting ability.”
Roan’s parents, Dwight and Kara Amstutz, said they were shocked when Roan told them she was going to sing while playing the piano at the talent show.
“Honestly I was a little worried,” Kara Amstutz said. “I was thinking, ‘Uh oh. What if she’s not really good?’ I didn’t want the other kids to make fun of her.”
Kara Amstutz said everyone was amazed at the song she chose as she made it her own.
Roan said many teachers and educators have influenced where she is today.
“Aside from Mrs. Witt and Mr. Post, [middle school theater teacher] Amanda Graves got me to where I was comfortable on stage, which is what I do now,” Roan said. “[middle school English teacher] Robin Parrish taught me, ‘There’s a nice way to say everything.’ I always remember this when I don’t like someone’s idea for my music — it’s always stuck with me.”
Roan said along with teachers, her parents also helped her tremendously throughout school.
“When I said I didn’t want to do it or when I wanted to give up, they pushed me and pushed me,” Roan said. “They always believed in me, they were supportive and generally thought I was amazing.”
Roan said it’s hard being away from family and friends on tour.
“Even though you’re around thousands of people every night, it’s very lonely especially since I’m 10 years younger than everybody there,” Roan said. “You get homesick ‘cause you’re always traveling every second of the day.”
Roan said graduating high school earlier than normal was a tough obstacle for her, and it wasn’t the typical way most high schoolers accomplished this obstacle.
“Normally, you were supposed to know at the end of your sophomore year when you were graduating and how you were going to get all of your credits done,” Roan said. “You have to fill out tons of paperwork by the end of your sophomore year. I didn’t know that I needed to graduate early until February of my junior year, which was a huge setback.”
Roan said she had one semester to pass three online courses and get a certain score on her ACT test, which was not easy for her.
“It was stressfully difficult because I would come home from school and then have more school,” Roan said. “I was traveling from Los Angeles to New York practically every other week so I physically and mentally could not do school.”
Roan said she was relieved to hear that the school board was generously letting her graduate high school early to pursue her dreams.
“I’m very lucky they let me graduate early because that’s not normally the case,” Roan said.
Roan said the first time she ever walked out on stage to sing her first song while on tour with Vance Joy was exhilarating but nerve-racking.
“It was about 1,300 people, so I was shaking so much and trying not to look at anyone,” Roan said. “Also, right after I started singing the speakers blew out, which I was told that there was a 1 percent chance they would, but I didn’t think it would actually happen.”
Roan said after every show following that initial one, her stress levels became less and less.
“By the 17th show, I was nervous, but I knew what to expect,” Roan said. “My nervousness wasn’t just with singing, but talking to the crowd. It was hard at the time.”
Roan said now that her first tour is over, she isn’t planning on opening for Vance Joy again.
“I won’t headline for a long time; I’m too young of an artist,” Roan said. “But I would love to tour with him again. He was so calm, respectful, and quiet and he’s also a very talented artist. He made tour smooth and easy for me.”
Roan said since she signed with Atlantic Record Company, the procedure to get her EP released has been a process.
“I just wasn’t mature enough as an artist to understand what I was doing or how I wanted the music to sound,” Roan said. “I, at one point, got so impatient that I threatened to quit music altogether. Now, I’m glad that it took so long because otherwise, it wouldn’t have been right.”
Roan said she doesn’t really think the fact that her dreams are coming true are hitting her yet.
“There have been little moments. Like when I saw my music on ‘New Music Friday’ on Spotify, or when I’m on stage speaking and singing to tons of people, or when people buy my CDs and t-shirts,” Roan said. “I don’t think it’ll hit me until I release an album. I’m just doing little EPs right now and I’m okay with that.”
Roan said her current goal is to make as many “genuine connections” as possible.
“Just building a base of people who listen to my music, enjoy it, and just catering to them — not to the people who don’t like my music, or the ‘haters’,” Roan said.
Roan said that she’s not the best at giving advice, but she’s learned a lot of advice for those who may be afraid of chasing their dreams.
“Do what makes you happy, and if that means flying across the world or the country and doing something that everyone thinks is crazy, do what makes you happy and you know in your gut that this is what you’re meant to do,” Roan said.
Roan said while her parents pushed her hard and loved her, they also gave her unforgettable advice to love herself.
“Genuinely love yourself or you won’t get anywhere in life. If you don’t love yourself, then just toss your dreams out the window because you’re not going to get there…that’s what they told me,” Roan said.
Roan said she’s proud to be from Willard and to be following her passion for singing.
“I feel very different being a Willard alumni and having the career I do,” Roan said. “It makes me feel different because people always ask where I’m from. They would have never guessed that I’d be from the small town of Willard, Mo.”
**Photos provided by Chappell Roan and family.
**Want to find out more? Visit her website at http://iamchappellroan.com/.