Friday, June 8, 2012

Nothin' But the Reality Thing, Baby: An Interview with Erin Willett ("The Voice" )

The hit singing competition show The Voice, being on NBC after all, really has a thing for amping up contestants' hardship stories, much like its coverage of the Olympics. It's as if there's concern that the intensity of competition and the thrill of witnessing top artists demonstrate their skills aren't enough to keep viewers interested without the added drama of a little personal tragedy tossed in. Well, when it comes to that reality television dream combination of talent and gut-punching dramatic arc, they don't get much better than Erin Willett, the 23-year-old Maryland native with a big voice and fantastic screen presence who made it to the semifinals on the team of judge/coach Blake Shelton, losing out to the ultimate winner of the program, Jermaine Paul.

In the Blind Audition episode, we learned that Willett's father Chuck, who was a musician himself and who appeared in the episode, had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the episode in which Willett faced teammate and friend Gwen Sebastian in one of the toughest Battle Rounds, emotionally and talent-wise, Willett learned that her father was in his final days. After conferring with Shelton, who had also just lost his own father, she decided to remain on the show, and Shelton selected her to advance in a tearful, bittersweet decision at the end of the episode; the final credits began with a dedication to Chuck Willett, who had passed by the show's air date. Dry eyes were in short supply.

Willett advanced to the quarterfinals along with Paul and 17 year old country bumpkin (and assumed Shelton fave) RaeLynn on viewer votes. After performing Adele's “Set Fire to the Rain” in the quarterfinals, she had to compete with RaeLynn for Shelton's save after Paul won the vote, performing a rollicking rendition of Tina Turner's “Proud Mary”; the credits were rolling (Christina Aguilera had babbled quite a bit first) when an obviously torn Shelton made his surprising but justified verdict (“I'm saving Erin!”), eliminating the only country singer left on the show. In the semifinal, Willett performed a slowed- and stripped-down cover of David Guetta's “Without You,” a clear tribute to her late father that left the singer in clearly unexpected tears throughout Shelton's compassionate comments; it was a powerful moment, largely because while regular viewers knew the reason for Willett's emotional reaction, it was not explicitly shown or spoken by either the performers and coaches or the show's reality segments. Few were surprised when Paul won the vote to advance to the finals, least of all Willett herself; it almost seemed like the right place for her story to end.

In my initial post ranking my top ten contestants leading into the Live Rounds, I wrote of Willett that “I almost don't want her to win because then she'll be too cool to hang out with me someday.” I got in touch with her with an interview request the day after she left the show, and she arranged things herself to give me a call on the Friday afternoon following the show's finale three days earlier. She apologized at the outset for residual noise, explaining that she was flying home for good the next day and in the process of moving out of the accommodations contestants had lived in since last fall, so she didn't “really have any place to go.” Our planned twenty-minute Q&A turned into almost an hour-long gabfest: part interview, part dish session, part shrink visit (on both sides), part philosophical discussion; most of my questions got answered at some point in the conversation but I'd abandoned my prepared script early on, and while it didn't necessarily make for the easiest transcription and journalistic formatting job I've ever done, it was one of the most exhilarating conversations I've had in a long time (I felt a little drunk when we finally hung up). I've done my best to stay true to the nature and tone of the conversation while shaping it into a readable account of a fascinating, informative, and ultimately enjoyable discussion with a wonderfully real reality star.

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I wanted to start with your origins as an artists to begin with. Can you tell me when and how you decided to pursue music as a career in the first place?
I was interested in the music business. I always grew up around music – my dad was a musician; he played in bands when he was growing up. I always was good at music, I sang in church and stuff, but I never really pursued it. Then when I decided I wanted to go to college (I went to Hofstra, in Long Island) I got more interested in the business side of it. It was like Well, I'll use my business talents and the fact that I have a knowledge of music to help me propel into working in the industry, being a manager or possibly working at a label. Then once I started learning about the industry I never really wanted to be an artist, because I got so intimidated by everything. And then I kind of one day said “Fuck it,” and was like, “You know what, if I really want to pursue this, let me just try it.”

So I ended up graduating with a degree in marketing and a minor in music industry. I thought, I'll just use this business degree as a background to help me work my music as a business. I moved to Brooklyn right after I graduated last year, in 2011, and I just started playing shows and then I auditioned for the show on a whim with my friends. So, yeah it kind of...that's the thing, I really haven't actually pursued music for that long, so this was kind of crazy great timing, you know? Right place right time kind of thing. I think because I didn't have any expectations, and I was just kind of there along for the ride with my friends to the audition, I didn't put any pressure on myself. And so this whole experience has just kind of been a whole, “How the hell did I end up here?”

So what led to your experience on The Voice? I mean you kind of answered that, you just kind of went with your friends and poof, there it is?
Yeah, it's really kind of crazy how it all happened. My friends were going and I was just like “Hey, yeah, I'll just come along.” I had actually auditioned for American Idol in high school - my mom was like “Well, we're visiting colleges in Memphis, you might as well just audition.” I didn't even get through the first round there, and so that just kind of was something that gave me that “don't have any expectations” thing, and... I mean, I went to college, so I got a chance to know who I was and what I wanted to do, and this was just kind of a fun thing, but yeah, every step of the way it was just kind of just like How am I gonna get a callback right now? Casting, wait, like, I'm on a team? It was just very surprising every step of the way.

And I mean I grew, and became more confident in who I was through the whole thing. I graduated from college last year, less than a year ago, and to think a year later I'm somewhat known by people, that's really crazy for me. So, it's just riding the wave and not putting all my eggs in one basket, and just kind of having fun. I mean I'm super young; I just turned 23 - actually the day I got eliminated, that was my birthday. It actually was a good thing: I ended up getting to hang out with Blake that night because I ended up getting kicked off the show, because we didn't really get that extra time and all that. You know how you always remember where you are on your birthday? To know that even though I got eliminated it was kind of like this conclusive beginning of a new journey and realizing where I was last year on my birthday and knowing that I've come so far in such a short amount of time and gone through so many crazy life-changing things, but I'm stronger for it, and it's just really weird that I'm where I am, I'm still just, like, sitting in disbelief.

That's one of the things that makes you so compelling. I don't know if you've seen The Hunger Games – I haven't, but...
I haven't either.

Because I'm not really a reality show person, but I love The Voice, though I've only watched this season, and I wonder sometimes like should I feel guilty? I mean I'm watching people live out their lives in reality, and you're probably the most direct one of that, like I've seen you go through things that we're all going to go through at some point, but up there and sometimes it's like...It's nice that you're so composed that we don't ever feel like you're being exploited...
Yeah, I mean there were people who kind of thought that. It's really weird, a lot of people don't know, and it's really stupid that they don't know, but there's so much casting that's involved, you know what I mean? Like half of my process was just casting. There are tons of people that audition for the show, and only the people that you see are...there's such a long process. And the thing is, especially with my story, and what had happened to me, my dad wasn't even diagnosed until I found out that I was going to be on the show. So it was never part of anything.

A lot of people think that these people suck you for all you're worth, and sometimes they do, but with this show it's very different. Everyone was so respectful; our producers made sure that if anyone came up to us and said something sideways they took care of it, it was crazy. They were on our sides the whole time. And for me, when everything was happening, I was given so many opportunities to be like “Do you want to stay? Do you want to go? Do what you need to do.” I had a really good, strong foundation with them, and with my family. I don't know, I just didn't take things too seriously. There are people who freak the fuck out backstage, but I was just never one of those people. I was just like “dude, there are a bunch of people who didn't even get to be on this show, I'm so lucky for where I got to be.” And especially a pretty shitty point in my life, it could have completely made me fall apart, but it made me a lot stronger.

And it's interesting for me personally; I'm kind of halfway in between; I'm a viewer, but I'm also moderately aware of what's going on backstage. I'm kind of in this weird limbo, like it's nice because I can see what people are seeing, and then I can also see your side of it. I think one of the reasons The Voice is so popular is you can tell that they feel that way, that they treat you that way. I don't like watching people get taken advantage of, but it didn't seem like that was happening in this show. In fact, that leads me into this next question: for some artists it seems like the voice is a platform for reaching an audience, like Jermaine for instance, he's an established artist who knows who he is and he was able to reach an audience who know knows who he is, but then there's also other types of artists like you, Katrina Parker, who grew and changed as artists, and that's also compelling. Do you think The Voice contributed to your artistic growth as well as your visibility, and were you expecting that?
Of course, and that's something the producers would tell us all the time: “Whether you think that you want to be a reality show contestant or not, this is going to propel you, because you're in front of such a large audience.” Even the people who didn't get far, who didn't get to the Live Rounds, their audience has grown incredibly, because, you know, who ever gets to sing one song in front of millions of people? You know what I mean? Like, that doesn't happen. And so, I mean for me it's just really weird that people [pause] know who I am, because I haven't even gotten to play a show yet! I haven't even really gotten to go home and kind of see the fruits of my labor, but people like Jamie Lono, who got kicked off during the Battle Rounds - he kind of has a story similar to mine, where he would play shows but it was like pulling teeth to get 10-15 people out so you could meet your ticket minimum. So I went to his show, and it was packed! And he told me, “I barely even really promoted this show. I kind of just threw it up online, and people just like reacted and came out because they're now fans of mine.” He lives in Chicago, the show was in Chicago, and there were people who drove from New Jersey to see him! That's something that, he's like me, you know? Trying to make our friends come out to a show, like “please can you just come out?”

It's the same with writing, too.
And even with Katrina Parker, it's incredible her story. With her she was so, like, [dramatic announcer voice] “Going against Tony Lucca, the man with 500,000 Twitter followers,” this that and the other... and if Adam would have gone 50/50 she would have stayed! That's crazy! And I mean I think for her it was a little frustrating, but like at the end of the day she can say “I kind of won a battle in a way,” like, “my performance alone would have gotten me to stay.” That's crazy. And I think the really great thing about these shows is that we're held to a different standard because a lot of people are established artists; we're not really picked from nowhere. These are people who've been working towards it. And someone like me, I had to raise my game because I'm going against somebody who's been doing this for like eight years, ten years. So when I did “Without You,” when I kind of completely broke down, I knew that that wasn't... for me, that wasn't enough to get me to the next round. So I kind of expected it when I went home. But with Jermaine, he deserves every bit of success. And I always say, you know...

It's better to lose to the eventual winner?
Yeah! Well that, and also like I kind of look at things in a somewhat funny way, like...I sort of got like second place a little bit.

That's what I was just thinking! I was just thinking that before you called, I was like, yeah you kind of have an argument for second place!
Yeah! So I can't really be mad. And because me and him were the last people on our team, I got really close with him, so I know that he's really been at this for a while. So for me to beat out people like...and these are all my friends, like I've become very close to them, but to beat out people who've been at this for so long, I'm just kind of... I just decided I wanted to pursue music, like, a year and a half ago. I can't really be mad at where I ended up.

Well what's interesting and what kind of makes it a little bit different is, whereas Jermaine has been Jermaine – and I think this will become more obvious to you when you have a chance to step back and see it, but for you and Katrina, the person that you were when you came in for your live audition was very different and you have grown so much by the end, and you're always going to have that.
Yeah, it's crazy. [Pause] It's so weird that this is my life. That I can step back and think that this is where all my decisions have taken me.

Imagine a perfect world. What kind of career would you envision as your perfect career as an artist?
I mean, for me, I've always said if I can comfortably live off music that would be my dream career. I don't need to be famous...

Too late!
I want to be able to be comfortable, you know? I don't want to be struggling all my life to make a dream happen. And I think that that really opened my eyes when I got so far on the show, and I was like, holy shit I can actually do this! It's not really about being famous... I mean of course you need people to know your name if you want to be successful....

And you've already done that!
I know [clearly disagreeing], but I think that I've always looked toward people like Kelly Clarkson, or Sara Bareilles, who are amazing singers, songwriters, and they don't need all the other extra hoopla around them to get a song to number one; it's genuinely their music that takes them where they want to go. I've always been really into entertainment, and through the show I've made really good connections that I've kind of found a niche for hosting and such. Me and [The Voice “Social Media Correspondent”] Christina Milian would talk all the time and she was like “You would be an amazing host!” You know, I thought about it but I never thought I would have the opportunity. I want to make a career out of this, and a lifelong one, and I want to make music that's timeless. That's why I love singing the Motown stuff, because it's songs that people still love to this day; they're really great throwback hits. I just love that type of music.

I wanted to talk to you about Adele. You were one of, I think I counted at least five contestants, that got to enjoy the whole “Well, you know, doing an ADELE song, blah blah blah,'” which I didn't always feel was the right critique, and I wonder if the unwillingness to compare somebody to Adele, you can't touch Adele, has more to do with the judges and the audience than with the singer's capability? I just don't buy that anybody, Adele or otherwise, is untouchable. What are your thoughts about that?
I think it's one of those things that because she's so great, like... it's like basically doing a Whitney Houston song. It's not that no one can do it, it's just that the person who's made it their own made it the classic. Like the fact that “I Will Always Love You” was done by Dolly Parton, and it was a hit, but it wasn't what “I Will Always Love You” was when Whitney Houston did it. And I think that when someone like Adele... she does what she does so perfectly, and a lot of people realize that, thus why so many people cover her damn songs. I think it's just held to such a high standard because it's so great, that if you do it you have to either do it that way, or do it in an interesting way, or do it better than what they do.

Honestly, I thought that my performance... I had done that song a lot better in rehearsal. Blake kind of told me... it was kind of like my challenge. Like “You seem like you could sing anything, Erin, so let's do Adele.” That was kind of his thing. Some people's challenges are to emotionally connect with a song, and some people's challenges are to show a different side of their voice, or show that they can arrange a song differently. But my challenge was to do a song that's very overdone and do it well and do it memorably. I think I could have done it better, and I'm thankful that I got to prove myself the next day singing “Proud Mary,” It was funny because I think when you sing for your life - and that was the whole point of the night before, “sing tonight like it's your last night, because one of you is going home,” um... it puts you in a weird position. I think the stress got to me when I did the Adele. I don't know, I agree with you on the fact that it's not untouchable, but it's a very delicate thing to go after, because it is so overdone and people hear it so damn much that they don't want to hear it anymore, whether you can do it great or you can't do it great.

And it's not like there's a shortage of songs out there to do.
Yeah, exactly. But someone told me, “I'm glad that you didn't sing that song like Adele sings it,” because her little things that she does, the tiny little things that she does are what make her music great, and that's why when people sing exactly like her it's like “you just ripped her off.” And someone said to me “Why are people giving Erin hell because she sang Adele? Because you sang Adele like Erin Willett, you didn't sing just a ripoff cover of it.” I think that that was commendable for me, because I didn't just do a karaoke version, I tried to make it my own.

Well it's interesting you bring up the details, because when I was watching it, it was the details of your performance that made me go “Oh, this is Erin.” Like the way you did the last “fi-yeerrr,” the way you enunciated it. I think you approached it in very much the same [details-oriented] way but with a different result. How much of what we saw on TV was you, how much was Blake, and how much was the producers?
Um, I think, I mean everything was me... honestly, when you get into a competition like this - and people ask me all the time, “What's your advice to me, if I want to audition for something?” - my advice always is... I didn't realize how much you needed to know who you are and what you wanted to do. Because there are people, I can tell you right now, that can get swayed into doing something that they might not really want to do. But if you really know who you are, and where you want to go, and what you want to be as an artist, and that whole complete circle of thing they call an “image,” then you won't be swayed by it. And I don't think that I was. I think that most of it was me, I really do. Blake as a coach was always very comforting, and just very much there for my mental psyche. There were some coaches that are there to make you sing bigger, or to push you, like what Adam said with RaeLynn when she sang her last song, “I would have pulled some of this back.” But Blake was always so much like “I picked you for you. I'm not gonna change you, I just want you to be very comfortable in who you are.” And that was the great thing about Blake: he always made you feel so comfortable with him. If he suggested something and I was like “ehhhh,” he would be like “If you're not comfortable, then we're not gonna do it.” That was kind of his thing.

With the producers, they're always just there to kind of smooth you out. The entire process has really helped me zone in on exactly what I want to do, because my fucking mind was everywhere before I came to this thing. I remember one time we had to sit down with industry people and in front of everyone else tell them what kind of record we wanted to make. That's kind of scary, and you just gotta do it, you just gotta go up and be like “this is who I am, and this is what I want to do.” That was a great thing about the show, because it wasn't – and I started realizing it – when we came in here there were so many conspiracy theories, like “Oh the producers can do this, can do that,” …. I'm serious. And a lot of people still think that. But through this entire process I've totally realized that this show really is about … the coaches choose who they want to choose, America chooses who they want to choose, and that's “The Voice.” There's no pull from anybody else. That really opened my eyes, because I came into this show being like [haughty accent] “This is all a bunch of crap,” but as like certain producers' favorites personally left, like they were in tears, like “I can't believe you got voted off.” Even with us, like Jordis [Unga] was my roommate, and she got booted off and I was completely mentally fucked for a little bit, because I didn't expect that. Not to say I expected anyone else, I just didn't know what was going to happen, and... I don't even remember the question anymore, I apologize.

No no, this is great. I was wondering when you said you had to describe your record, if you were asked that question again today, would it be any different?
I told them, and I think this is pretty true, that I want to make a classic record. I don't want to make something that's going to fit into mainstream radio now and I think that I would say that any day of the week. I love great music like the Eagles, Eric Clapton, or Jackson 5, or Stevie Wonder, because those are classic artists that people will listen to til this day. That's why I love Motown, because it's such an iconic point in music history, and that's why I love Jessie J, like “Mamma Knows Best” is just a throwback....

I love that you said that, because nobody else knows her for that kind of song.
No, dude, I love...! That was one of my audition songs. I love records like that, it has horns, and it kinda, everything's not completely perfect, and I love stuff like that. I love upbeat, fun music, and that's the kind of music that I love to perform, and I think I'm really good at performing. That's why I loved my “Proud Mary” performance; it just was so full of energy and a completely “Fuck it” performance. Like, if I'm gonna go out, I'm gonna fuckin' go out on a high note. And I loved doing that song, and I would love to make a record like that. I want it to be emotionally honest, but I want it to be something that people can connect to. I feel like my story held me down so much in the emotional realm that I kind of kept waving my hands around like “No, no no! I'm not really a sad person, this isn't who I am, I'm just at a shitty point in my life.”

But I think you got to put it to bed nicely. “Without You” was the perfect performance to go out on: you said your piece, you got your closure, and it's weird saying this because as a character, if you were a fictional character, that would have been a perfect ending to the story. But you're a real person, and I would imagine that gave you a similar kind of closure to the whole story arc, because The Voice is always going to be associated with the passing of your father, and from the outside it just looked like a great way to cap that off. I would think that would be a nice place to be when you're going through a hard time.
Yeah, it was. It pulled me up, it made me get out of my rut, and be like, “Okay, this happens to everyone, as unfortunate as it is, you know,” I had to do an interview with someone and I was like “We're not gonna live forever. Sorry, these aren't things that are gonna happen.” My father was such an important part of my life that he kind of seemed so immortal.

Well, in a way, now, he is.
Yeah. [Thoughtful pause] And that's the cool thing, because I did this show and because everything happened the way it did, I can always look back on the Blind Audition and get to see him, and get to see him talk about me. I have a voicemail that he left me for a reality that never showed, and it was really cool for him to be a part of it all. He never got to see me on TV, but he got to see the beginning of the journey, and it's really cool that I had everybody in the show who was really supportive of me. I dunno, I just, I can't look at it as a negative experience, as much as there will be people who will not agree with something, at the end of the day it's not their decision to make. If I hadn't stayed I wouldn't have gotten as far as I did, and I wouldn't have had the support from people around me on the show to make me feel comfortable in a situation where honestly I really do feel like if I didn't have the show this is something that could have broken me.

What do you have planned next?
I am playing a few shows in Maryland, and going back home and thanking everybody for their support because now it's really been a big thing of mine, and I've lived there all my life and so many people have reached out from there. Going to New York for a little bit, playing a few shows, and possibly recording a quick EP, and then probably moving to LA and working my connections and seeing where that takes me. Just really really hustling to kind of create a name for myself past The Voice. Whether that means getting a record deal or whether that means just playing shows to pay my rent, that's fine with me. Once again, I want to just be able to be commended for my talents and that doesn't mean that I want to be “Erin Willett: The Reality Star.” I think I'm pretty entertaining...there have been producers who are like “You should take comedy classes!” It's like these things I never thought I would ever be good at that this process has given me the confidence to go out and look for. And that doesn't mean I would leave music behind, but I've always said music was gonna be a hobby, whether it was something that made me money or not. I don't know! We'll see. I just hope that I can become successful and really hustle to stake a claim – I owe this to myself.

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Erin Willett recently released a new single, "Home," which she described to me as "a thank you to everyone who supported me through the show, especially where I'm from in Maryland." The single is available as a "Name Your Own Price" purchase on Bandcamp; I always encourage readers to support artists whose work they enjoy by purchasing their music, especially new and up-and-coming artists; you can, however, give the tune a try here first.

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