Saturday, May 12, 2012

Extraordinary People: An Afternoon with Mathai ("The Voice")

On a recent mythologically sun-drenched Saturday afternoon I arrived at Paramount Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard to meet with Mathai, the Indian-American former nursing student who reached the quarterfinals on the second season of NBC's The Voice. The studio entrance is unnervingly nondescript, and when I was directed to Studio G, I found myself temporarily lost in a gated parking lot with a few closed, unmarked doors, a smattering of cars, furniture, and boxes of equipment. Fortunately, behind one door I could hear the muffled but unmistakeable falsetto I'd grown so fond of since Mathai first appeared in the Blind Auditions, singing a sassy rendition of Adele's "Rumour Has It" that caused me to leap out of my seat.

Mathai was there to record a feature spot for the young hip-hop artist Luke Christopher, a song called "As I Walk the Streets," which will appear on the upcoming mixtape/EP TMRW, TMRW. I sat outside on one of the couches until some of Christopher's entourage emerged for a food run and invited me inside as Mathai finished up (everyone told me numerous times that I needed not wait outside; it was a friendly bunch). The precocious young emcee ran the sound board himself, and Mathai was preternaturally confident and at ease in the booth, laying down some final harmony tracks before coming out to greet me. Christopher offered us space wherever we liked for the interview, but I wasn't in any hurry and for a while we all sat around the room and talked about Mathai's upbringing and her thoughts about The Voice, which she'd left two weeks earlier.

Among us was Beth Hubbard, a producer who had helped arrange the collaboration after seeing Mathai on The Voice and alerting Christopher, who told me he'd immediately thought her voice would be perfect for the song and wasted no time setting it up. Hubbard asked Mathai about her upbringing, coming from a family of strict Christian Indian immigrants first in Queens and later in Dallas, Texas. Conversation soon turned to The Voice; judge Cee Lo Green was alternately lauded as "the black Buddha" and "the Elton John of today," and at one point Christina Aguilera was referred to as a "hot mess" (meant as a compliment). "She cares, though. She's invested more than Adam [Levine] and Blake [Shelton] I think," Mathai responded.

Mathai spoke honestly but warmly about Levine, her coach, saying he was "booked literally every day until next January... and he's not a big production guy. But nowadays, production is everything. Cee Lo is like, Wardrobe! Hair! Production! He was awesome. Adam's great, he was just so busy for this season I think." Hubbard asked Mathai if the whole experience had been a fun one, and she agreed fondly. Of her fellow contestants, she said "We've basically been living with [each other] since last September, so we get really close. It's awesome to be with artists. You [normally] feel like you're so different, but then you're with artists and they're all crazy, so it works."

The topic shifted back to Cee Lo ("That's not even his real cat," Mathai revealed with a laugh, hinting that the judge wasn't even terribly fond of the famous feline). It was a bit of a group love-fest for the "Fuck You" singer, which I'm sure he'd have appreciated. "He's a really great guy," Mathai gushed. "Off-camera he would come up and talk to me, like 'You've got something.' No other coaches would talk to me, it was just Adam. Cee Lo, if he liked you, it didn't matter if you were on his team or not."

I suggested going ahead with my interview questions right there, since we were already on the subject and Mathai was clearly comfortable talking about her experience in a group setting. As I moved across the room to bring my recorder closer to my subject, Hubbard commented that a large part of Mathai's appeal is her “infectious approach to the audience... bringing them in, warming them up before they even know who she is.” Everyone agreed, myself very much included.

*  *  *  *  *

How did you get started with The Voice?
I moved to Atlanta August 4th, and my friends told me about the audition August 5th, so I was just like, "Let's do it.” I went with my mom and my brother and manager and we just did it for fun really, just to knock it off the list, you know? But it worked, and I had another audition two days later, and then I was flown into LA a month later, and it just happened.

Unlike, say, Glee, the singles from The Voice that are sold on iTunes are listed with the individual performer as lead artist, instead of "The Voice" or NBC [all Glee singles are credited to "GLEE Cast"]. How does the licensing work? Do you see any of the profits from those sales?
Yeah, we do. I mean, everyone gets just a little bit because you have to divvy it up so much, but you do, you do get profit from that. It's so crazy having stuff on iTunes.

And it does sell a lot, especially on the first night.
It does, and it's up there on the charts.

How do you manage and mobilize your fan base?
I just use Twitter and Facebook, and my manager, and I have a social media friend who kind of helps me out and does the mass replying, stuff like that. Because I want to make sure fans stay interested individually; you know, if they comment, I want to see if I can reply, but I can't reply all the time.

The basic principle of your "story" on the show was your apparently sudden decision to abandon your pursuit of a medical career to be a career musician. How did you make that transition, in the practical sense?
Well, it happened two years ago. I'm a very one-track person, like there's one goal in my head and before music it was school. I was a total nerd, I was literally... school was my thing. I had to be perfect at that. Then it switched for me, literally overnight. January, two years ago, I woke up and was like “Mom, I think I'm supposed to sing.” And I just, I don't know, my whole mindset changed literally overnight. And she was like “Okay...” And literally that day I heard about this talent search and I auditioned for the talent search that very weekend, because it happened to be that weekend, then I made it, then I went to the summer convention and I met my managers there, and that's what prompted me to move to Atlanta, and then I auditioned for The Voice, and....

[Hubbard] Was kind of meant to be.
Yeah, I believe it.

One of the great moments of that audition episode was how your dad had been "Well, we support her, but we'd really rather she be doing something else" and then Adam turns his chair around and they freak out with excitement. How is your family involved at this point, musically and career-wise?
Just trusting me, I think. That's a huge thing. Because they don't necessarily love what I'm doing; obviously they want me to be secure over everything. They'd rather me have the simple life, because it's just easier, with all the things kind of lined up and that happen at the right time: finish school, find a job, get married, have kids, you know. That's what they'd prefer. But they see that this is what I want to do, and they do trust me. Because I'm not here just to get rich and be famous and smoke weed and be crazy and get the most out of it and die young. I want to do this because I think I can make a difference. I think I can help people in the industry. I thought I could help people in nursing, and I think I'm supposed to help people in this field.

You said earlier that you didn't get to listen to popular music until pretty recently. What was your first experience with mainstream music?
I grew up in a really conservative environment. You've seen my parents now, but if you'd seen them when I was a kid, I mean... They were insane. I couldn't do anything, couldn't go anywhere, you know, they were just scared of the world for me. But they didn't grow up in America; they moved here after they got married, from India. I don't know, I've always loved to sing, but wasn't really anything. Like my brother was the good one growing up: he was the athletic one, the smart one, the artistic one, and I never thought I would have a thing. And then I started listening to... the first non-Christian song I really listened to and kind of changed everything for me was Christina Aguilera's, um....”Miss Independent” or something like that, the one with the music video she's like dressed as a spider... ”Fighter?” Yeah.

Which she then performed on The Voice, which was exciting...
Yeah. That was the first song I was kind of like “Oh my gosh, I like this kind of music!” And I started listening to... I loved, fell in love with Amy Winehouse; just like, she just doesn't care what people think. It's natural, it's not an effort. Music should never be something unnatural. You shouldn't have to work at it for twenty years to be good at it; you should just work with what you were born with, you know? I guess that doesn't work for everyone, but that's what I feel. Amy Winehouse... but even then, I really was an academic-focused person; music wasn't my focus. I wasn't looking at bands and going to concerts every spare moment, I was studying, and getting ready for med school, and all that. But then when my mindset switched two years ago, all that went down the drain and I was like “Ok, now music is my thing.” It was a transformation in the way I thought.

Did you listen to Indian music?
No, for [Indian] culture, religion and culture are so intertwined that if you were a Christian you couldn't really do the cultural thing, because everything that's cultural is also religious. Especially for Hinduism, a lot of that culture is the religion. So my parents... we only grew up in that Christian environment. We were in this whole “Christian parents who'd come from India” group in Queens, because everyone goes to Queens, and it was very much our own little cultural group. It was good; I think it's why I am kind of naive for my age, but I don't mind. It kind of gives you a freshness. I'm glad I broke out of that but that I have that backing.

How did what you first listened to impact how you actually sing, how you think about performing?
I never made a conscious effort to sit down and think “Okay, I need to sing like this.” I kind of just did it, and whatever came, came.

What do you think is the necessary relationship between different factors, like performing live, songwriting, and so on? This is a much debated question in pop music today. How important is it to do all those things yourself, or does it matter to you how others go about it as long as it works?
I think each person knows what they're supposed to do. I'm not going to say “this is right for you,” you know; everyone has a calling. If you're a performer, then that's a gift in its own. If you're a songwriter, that's a gift in its own. If you want to do both, or learn one, or dabble in both, or either, then whatever you want, really. [Pause] Such a general statement.

Well no, it's great, because a lot of people would say something very different.
Well I mean performing is hard too, it's not easy. That's why not everyone can be on the show, you know? And writing is obviously not easy, producing isn't easy, having a creative ear... they're all individual gifts, and not everyone gets all of them.

You didn't seem thrilled about the song you performed in the quarterfinals, Nelly Furtado's "Like A Bird." How does the song choice aspect work on the show?
It depends on your coach. Adam was cool with us picking the songs. I had about ten songs I wanted to do but they all got knocked off because other coaches had called them or producers had issues with them. So in the end I wasn't sure what to do because literally all my songs had gone, and then Adam surprised me in rehearsal and was like “We're gonna do 'Like A Bird'.” It wasn't what I was expecting to sing, but... you know, there's no use complaining. I just made the best of what I could with that situation.

Would you have done [Red Hot Chili Peppers'] “Under the Bridge” if you had stayed? [Mathai had recently released a live cover of the song, which she said she'd worked on with Levine for The Voice.]
Oh, yeah. I LOVE that song.

And you do it really well. But that does bring up a point that was made during the show: I assume you have never gone under a bridge and shot up heroin. How do you go about singing other people's songs about experiences you haven't had and still make them work?
You just make it relate. I mean, the words I sing might not be exactly what I've experienced but what are the emotions of that experience? I take those emotions and think, when in my life did I have those? And as I sing the words, I'm singing the emotions, not the words necessarily. The words come out, but it's the core of it that I try to relate to.

[To Luke Christopher] As to this collaboration here today, tell me more about this.
[Christopher] This is a mixtape/EP that we're doing. It's gonna drop in a month, and it's called TMRW, TMRW. Common's on it, Kendrick Lamar might go on it; it's hip-hop, but it has a lot of singing.

I think she just has the perfect voice for the song. I don't just write and sing and rap; I like to make songs from the bottom to the top, and when I hear people's voices who can sing – like, for me, singing is not just being able to do runs really fast or have a crazy range, but emotion behind it. Like you were saying earlier, that's exactly what she captures in what she sings. She loves it and you can tell. That's what I wanted for this song - that's what I want for most of my songs, and when I heard really do have the emotional depth. A lot of people say, who does it greatest? Christina Aguilera, because when she sings, it's great because she's so into it and she loves it. But yeah, and she killed it.

[To Mathai] So, what do you have planned coming up?
Right now we're working on an album. As soon as I get back to Atlanta I'll start writing again and doing the stuff I was doing before the show, and just keep going with it, and we'll see what happens. And I will be posting covers along the way, weekly!

Is there anything else you want people to know, or something you'd like to be asked?
I want my music to help people, and I think they get that, you know, like they feel what I feel when I sing, which is why I sing, you know, to translate that. I love it, and thank you to the fans that get it, and understand it's not really about much else but feeling it, you know, and letting it affect you. That's why I sing.

*  *  *  *  *

As I walked back to my car after wrapping things up at the studio, I thought about how surprising it was that this young singer who had won the admiration of millions of people across the country with her effusive stage presence and assured musical skill was so very new to the art. Mathai, on television and in person, goes about her craft with the kind of focused competence of a seasoned veteran (as does Luke Christopher, whose razor-sharp intelligence and non-ironic optimism make him as compelling as his music), and it was even harder after our conversation not to believe that, as she had said, she really was meant to be a performer. That she has an entire life and career in which to learn, grow, and improve ahead of her is almost chilling to consider. "We're just ordinary people," she sang in her best performance on The Voice; on the contrary, it's increasingly apparent that Mathai, in fact, is anything but.

Mathai's singles from The Voice are available on iTunes; she posts new live covers on her YouTube channel each Monday. "On Fire," the first single from Luke Christopher's upcoming mixtape TMRW, TMRW, is available now: hear it below.

Mathai on Facebook, Twitter, Web                 Luke Christopher on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud
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