By Whitney Pastorek
Updated July 15, 2010 at 08:06 PM EDT
Lani Lee

Image Credit: Lani LeeThree weeks ago, an unknown, unsigned 23 year old café employee named Christina Perri found her life changed by So You Think You Can Dance — without dancing a step. Billy Bell and Kathryn McCormick danced to Perri’s mournful “Jar of Hearts” on the June 30th telecast, and after overwhelming response on the singer-songwriter’s MySpace, the ballad was rushed to iTunes, where it’s since sold more than 100,000 copies. Perri’s already gone to New York to meet with record labels and perform on the CBS Early Show. Tonight, she’ll sing “Jar of Hearts” live on SYTYCD. We caught up with the Philly native to talk about what she calls her “rollercoaster ride.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me the story of how this happened. You were having the worst day ever at your café job?

CHRISTINA PERRI: Yes. The Friday before the show, I was having the worst day ever at work. I was getting yelled at, and there were terrible things happening, almost to where I thought I was in some show. I’m like, “Okay, this isn’t real.” I quit in my head like 17 times. I imagined this big, grandiose storming into the office and quitting. Which I didn’t do. But I got in my car at the end of the shift, and was really defeated. And I got the call that they’re using the song on that Wednesday’s episode. Can I just go backwards a second? Just about ten days or so before that happened is when my best friend on the planet, Keltie Colleen, sent my song to [SYTYCD choreographer] Stacey Tookey and was like, “Hey, I think this song would be great on your show.” Stacey and Keltie went to school together in Canada, and they’re good friends. Stacey heard the [rough demo] and loved it, but was like, “I gotta put you through to my producers, so don’t get your hopes up.” So it was like this weird kind of in-between stage where we didn’t know what was going to happen, but we thought, “Oh, we should probably record the song now.”

Did you ask Keltie to send the song over?

She suggested it. She’s my best friend and she had a copy of it because I was like, “Hey, look what we just did!” She just kinda took the initiative and it just happened. It’s overwhelming in a great way, but at the same time, I have this insane feeling of, “I have so much work to do!” I’m super excited to keep working and keep writing, and finish this EP, which I plan to have done by the end of the summer at the latest. ASAP. I just want to get to work.

When did you write “Jar of Hearts”?

In December. Started working with my producer and management team in February. I was just recording an EP, including the song, but at our own pace, really. The song would have been probably a little different, had a band with it, but once we started it for the show, the instrumentation — with just the strings and the voice and the piano — I imagined people dancing to it. It was all a big “just in case.” And within five days it was on the show.

Who’s the weirdest person you heard from after it aired on the show?

Oh my god. Um, every boy I’ve ever kissed in my whole life?

Did they all think it was about them?

You’re probably right! Yeah, I bet. But that totally freaked me out. I was like, “Really? I haven’t seen you since kindergarten.”

Who’s your producer?

His name is Barrett Yeretsian. He’s so wonderful. He’s the ying to my yang. He gave me an assignment right off the bat, and asked me to make a mix of all my favorite songs. I have like 200 favorite songs. So it was like 12 mix CDs, and we listened to each one and talked about why they were each my favorite song. And by the time those listening sessions were over, he was really in my head, and I was in his head, and by the time we worked together, it was magic. I really can’t imagine a better experience.

What were some of the songs?

Oh man. I have the list right here. Iron & Wine, Coldplay, Jason Mraz, Sarah Bareilles, George Harrison, Counting Crows, Richard Swift, Julian Casablancas, Adele, Bright Eyes, Feist, Fiona Apple… I got Dean Martin in there… I kinda went all out.

I read something in one of your bios that you learned to play guitar by watching old Shannon Hoon videos.

I did!

That’s the most random thing. Not a lot of people whip out the Blind Melon.

I can’t make it up! It really happened. I don’t know if you remember mixed VHS tapes. I had a VHS tape of all his live performances that I got a record store. And I was a little hippie back in the day, and I loved Blind Melon. I would watch those videos of him playing live, and pause it, and look where his fingers were, and then I would pick up my guitar and learn that way.

Your brother Nick is a guitarist who played in Shinedown. Did you never think to ask him for a tab book or a chord chart?

He was on tour! He got swooped up and signed, and they took him from me! I was very upset about that. So I didn’t have him in the house to teach me, and that’s really why I picked up the guitar in the first place.

This was when you were how old?

Just turning 16.

How long have you been in LA?

For three years. Almost.

Prior to this magical event, how was your morale?

It’s funny — I had kind of a rollercoaster ride since coming to L.A. I worked on some stuff, and that didn’t work out, so I was getting a little bit thin with my determination. And then I got married, and then I got divorced… it was just up and down, up and down. So I went home to Philadelphia in December, which is when I wrote the song, and I recharged my batteries, and said to my family, “Listen. I moved out to L.A. for a reason, and I’m gonna go back and try one more time.” And when I got back, I jumped right in. I realized that this was going to be my last try.

Did you have these managers already?

Nope. They found me in February. I came back in January, got the job at the café, and just started preparing my new material, and that’s when I got an email from Tom over at Bill Silva [Entertainment] who said, “Hey, I found you on YouTube, are you managed? We manage Jason Mraz…” and I melted into a puddle.

And you’ve gone to New York to shop around to some labels? How’d that go?

It was epic. I’ve never felt so cool and so special in my whole life. Everybody was so amazing.

Do you know where you’re leaning?

I don’t. I mean, I do, but I can’t say.

You’re performing live on So You Think You Can Dance on Thursday [i.e. tonight]? How do you feel about that?

I am very nervous, but very excited. It’s almost like my first child is So You Think You Can Dance. I will do whatever they want me to do. And if it’s perform in front of millions of people, I’ll do that too. I’m pretty certain this is gonna be the biggest audience I’ve ever performed for.

Can you dance, if called upon?

Uh, no. I’m going to stick to singing.

Where do you hope this part of the rollercoaster ends up?

Well, I feel like if I can just make music that people like and get something out of, and I can enjoy it and everyone else enjoys it and it’s one big happy enjoying life and music kind of thing, then I’m set. I just want to sing and write songs and now that I know people are listening, it just feels so right.

Did you quit your job yet?

Yeah. That was a great day.