Six months ago, Javier Colon was considering abandoning his music career in exchange for a more stable profession. Last week, he took home the crown on NBC’s hit freshman singing competition The Voice. Colon got on the phone with TVLine to talk about his musical decisions over the course of The Voice‘s inaugural season, his duet with the legendary Stevie Nicks, and what you can expect from his upcoming album and tour.
Let’s talk about your life before The Voice: You had two albums on Capitol Records — Javier in 2003, and Left of Center in 2006. After you parted ways with your label, how did you pay the bills? Were you able to support yourself on music alone, or did you have to think about getting a day job?
From the time I was on Capitol Records, even after I got dropped in 2006 and up till early 2011, I had found a way to make a living — college [gigs], corporate events and such. But at the beginning of 2011, the well seemed to be drying up. I had five college shows on the books from February to the end of the spring semester, and I had no shows for the summer; it was looking really bleak. I was already talking to my wife about the possibility of doing something else, and that’s when The Voice came along.
Tell me about choosing “Time After Time” for your blind audition. Did you have the option to sing whatever you wanted, or did you have to choose from a list of pre-cleared songs?
I went into the [non-televised] auditions in New York [in front of The Voice producers] with “Time After Time,” and when that put me through to the second phase — to go to Los Angeles and do the blind auditions — that song was on the list, and I put it as my No. 1 choice and was able to get it. “Time After Time” is a song I’d been doing in my shows on and off for the last year. I thought, “This really shows who I am as an artist.” It’s what I love to do — sit there and sing and play the guitar, make a song my own.
The blind auditions had to be a strange experience. How nervous were you performing in front of four celebrity judges who had their backs turned to you?
I was ill about it before I went out on stage, probably more nervous than I’d been for anything I’d ever done. But I got out there and saw the crowd and the chairs turned around in the opposite direction, and I told myself, “This is like any other show. Go out and sing it like you always do.” I definitely thought about what I’d do if somebody turned around, because you don’t want to forget your words or mess up because you’re excited about that happening. You still have a job to do, which is to try to get everybody to turn around. I’d have been happy with one person, but I was lucky enough to get all four.
So tell me about the battle rounds, where you sang “Stand By Me” with Angela Wolff. From where I was sitting, there was a friendly vibe between the two of you, but there were moments where Angela looked awed by your singing, like she knew going in that the outcome was never in doubt.
That’s not how I took it at all. Angela and I were and are good friends. Some folks approached it as an actual battle — stopped talking to one another and got really competitive — but Angela and I never let it get that way. It doesn’t mean she gave up in any way, or that I was taking it lightly. We wanted to go out there and sing our best, but do it in a loving manner as opposed to a competitive manner. We’re friends, and I felt like that’s how it looked when I watched it back. In my mind, there were no guarantees that I was going to stay. Anything can happen when it’s up to one person to keep you or send you home. Honestly, it’s television. Even if people were saying I was a front-runner at that point, if they had sent me home, it would’ve provided a shock factor. I tried not to think about it, but I never felt like I was safe.
For your quarterfinal performance of “Angel,” we saw some footage of you and your coach Adam Levine talking about when to insert runs and when to follow the melody. Talk to me a little bit about how you balance those two aspects of a performance.
It’s funny, the show made that more of an issue than it was between Adam and me. Because it was a non-issue, really. We talked about it briefly, but he really let me do what it is that I do in making a song my own. We did talk about making sure that the melody was nice, especially when you’re singing the melody of the chorus for the first time, making sure you sing it really purely and exactly like people know it — [Singing] “…in the arms of the angels” — you want it really, really clear. But after that, do you. Adam liked what I was doing from there on out. There were folks who thought I did too many runs. [Laughs.] It’s a preference thing. There were parts where I stayed true to the melody. And there were times I embellished a little more to make the song my own.
Do you sketch it out beforehand — this is where I’ll do this run, this is where I’ll follow the original — or is it more intuitive and organic?
Certain songs I’ll pick a particular spot to sing a certain run. Or sometimes I’ll just go off the cuff and sing whatever comes to mind at the time. That’s the fun of making a song your own, especially when you’re out on tour and doing a bunch of shows, you can make the song in some ways different for yourself every time.
You wound up performing Coldplay’s “Fix You” for the semifinals. That was a different, rock-leaning direction for you.
At first there were some other song choices in play: Alicia Keys’ “No One,” and the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” I liked those two options, but I wanted to do something a little more unexpected. I’m a huge Coldplay fan, and I’ve performed “Fix You” previously; usually it’s just me and an acoustic guitar. But I was excited to try that song with the incredible Voice band, so I offered that as a suggestion, and Adam loved the idea. People had seenmy mellow side on “Time After Time” and “Angel,” and this one started mellow, too. But the band kicked it into high gear. And it was really important to have the band in close proximity to me and really rocking out, so we pulled them up closer to me, and I loved that aspect of it.
It’s funny you say that because it always looks weird to me on a show like The Voice or Idol when the band is 40 feet behind the singer, and the singer is sort of floating out there on the stage alone.
Exactly. That’s really difficult. A lot of that is about feeling their energy collectively around you, and if you can’t feel that, then it’s like you’re out there by yourself, and you might as well be playing to an awesome-sounding track.
Tell me about choosing “Stitch By Stitch” as your first single, and as your final Voice solo. Did you listen to a lot of songs before you chose it?
There were a couple songs we heard, and this one I loved from the moment I heard it. It sounded like something I’d have come up with myself, especially the guitar part.
You spent a lot of years trying to make a hit record, and you had one song (2003′s “Crazy“) that even cracked the Billboard charts without really breaking through. What was it like for you to get up the morning after a performance show on The Voice and see your song near the top of the iTunes charts?
It’s an unbelievable feeling, and it’s hard to actually go to sleep because you’re looking at the chart. You look every 10 minutes, and it’s going in the right direction. And there was a progression going: “Time After Time,” I think the highest it got was No. 14, “Angel” got to No. 11 — I wanted it to crack the Top 10 but unfortunately it didn’t — and then “Fix You” got as high as No. 5, and “Stitch By Stitch” eventually went to No. 1. “Man in the Mirror” was Top 10 as well. Refreshing that page becomes an addiction. You want so badly for the song to go as [high] as it can go, but it’s a great feeling to even have that problem, I guess.
You got to duet with Stevie Nicks on “Landslide” during the Voice finale. There was a ton of eye contact between the two of you throughout the performance. Had you had a lot of time to rehearse? What was going on between you two at that moment?
It was so awesome. [Laughs.] We were so dialed into each other. We’d maybe gotten to rehearse it three times that day. I was super nervous about it, because I was singing with Stevie Nicks, and she’s just a legend. You’re looking over to your left and there’s this icon, and you’re singing these wonderful harmonies with her. And I was moved to realize the amazing opportunity I’d been given. There are so many accomplished artists who’ve been performing and famous for decades who haven’t gotten a chance to sing with her. Something special was happening. Eye contact was key; I was following her every move and I wanted it to be as clean as possible. We were looking right into each other’s eyes and connected for three and a half minutes. One of the most amazing things ever.
So some of your fans already know your work from your two prior albums on Capitol. Will your new album be similar, or do you expect your sound will shift in a different direction?
My first album [2003′s Javier] was who I always have been. The second album [2006′s Left of Center] was heavily centered in an R&B vein that didn’t really feel like myself. And that was due to the record company saying “You need to be more R&B; that’s why the other album didn’t work [commercially].” Some of those songs were definitely out of my character. The new album — we’ll be going into the studio in the next week or so — it’ll be a pop-centered album. I’m a singer-songwriter at heart, so that’ll hopefully be the center of everything we do. Think James Taylor via Stevie Wonder, with John Mayer and Babyface in there.
Have you picked your tour set yet? I saw an old clip of you singing “Use Me” on a VH1 special [embedded below], and it was pretty awesome. Maybe you could perform that?
Oh, that would be really cool. It’s one of my favorites, and doing it with a full band would be really nice. We don’t have the set list finalized yet. But you can expect some duets with each other, some songs we did on the show, and some new ones.