Grace Kinstler and her dad always shared a love of music.
When she was 4, and he was sick with cancer, she coped by “fiddling on” piano and singing.
“My dad had cancer twice. [Music] was always an outlet for me,” said Kinstler, 20, now a songwriting major at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and a talented competitor on “American Idol.”
On karaoke nights, dad’s song was “My Way,” by Frank Sinatra. And he proudly taped little Grace singing the Carole King-written Aretha Franklin hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” when she was just 8.
“It was god-awful,” Kinstler, a native of Crystal Lake, Ill., recalled with a chuckle. “He always acted like I walked on water.”
The family would watch “American Idol” together, with Grace dreaming of landing on the show. As a teen, she tried out for both “Idol” and “The Voice.” But she never made it.
And then, in February 2020, her dad, Mitch Kinstler, died unexpectedly.
“I was at Berklee. It was like 7 a.m. and college kids, we usually sleep in. But something told me to pick up the phone. My brother was like, ‘Hey, you should start looking for flights home today. They just took dad to the hospital and he’s not breathing.’”
Her dad “was always the one who was like, ‘Don’t let obstacles and sadness stop you from achieving anything in your life,’” she added.
Months later, Kinstler tried out for “Idol” again. This time, she made it.
So this time, she said, is for Dad.
Kinstler is one of five area contestants who started the season — but she’s the last local standing as we head into Sunday’s live episode, having been voted into the Top 9 by viewers.
Kinstler has wowed the judges all season, right from her season-opening audition when she belted out the song Dad loved to hear her sing: “Natural Woman.”
“Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness,” judge Luke Bryan repeated afterward, his eyes glassy. “[T]his is the first time in four years that just someone singing made me cry.”
Bryan turned to his fellow judges: “That’s gotta be right up there with the Kelly Clarkson audition, the Jennifer Hudson audition.”
In another episode, Kinstler delivered a powerhouse rendition of Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman.” Judge Lionel Richie called it “an Oh-my-God performance.”
After she opened a recent episode prowling the stage, smiling through a cover of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” the judges commented on her confidence and pushed Kinstler to think about her post-Idol artist identity.
“I mean, you can sing the telephone book,” offered judge Katy Perry. “But I’m just thinking of what kind of record you’ll make after ‘American Idol.’”
But talking to Kinstler on the phone this week, there was an entirely different vibe.
“When you talk to me, I’m a nervous person. I talk very fast. I’m pretty shy and quiet. I feel like I’m an introverted extrovert,” she said. “Beyoncé has her Sasha Fierce. I do a similar thing. When I get on stage I become a completely different person.”
One of her goals, Kinstler said, is to use that stage confidence to build up her fans. On social media, she hears from “young girls who talk about how they’ve had such a struggle with their body image. But seeing me on stage, just owning myself and putting on that face — being confident and happy — has inspired them.
“I struggled a lot with body image when I was younger,” she added. “I don’t want anyone to have to go through the same issues I did. So the fact that I’ve been able to help someone else has been really rewarding.”
Kinstler arrived in Boston in 2018. Berklee was “the only school I applied to,” she said. “It’s definitely helped me expand my knowledge. Not only in terms of music theory, but helping me navigate who I am as an artist.”
It’s also helped with confidence. “I always felt I had to fit some sort of mold, in how I looked and how I sang. Going to Berklee opened my eyes. It exposed me to a lot more.”
It’s also where she met her boyfriend (and Instagram cheerleader), the beatboxer Joseph Wheatley, now in grad school at Northeastern.
With Wheatley and other Berklee friends, Kinstler used to busk in front of the Prudential Center. “We loved to busk there,” she said. “It’s a little bit different with COVID, but that was a favorite spot.”
Kinstler was in LA this week, having just returned from an “Idol” trip to Disney World, where she got songwriting lessons from Uncle Jesse himself, John Stamos. (Sunday’s theme is Disney.)
She dreams of returning to Boston. “I’m just excited to walk around Newbury Street again. There’s this place Coco Leaf — they have the best bubble tea I’ve ever had.”
But for now, she’s happy to be readying for Sunday night, competing for a spot in the Top 7.
“To be here right now is just insane,” she said. “I wish my dad was here to see it.”
On ABC. May 2, 8 p.m. Vote at idolvote.abc.com.
Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @laurendaley1.
Lauren Daley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.