The Voice's Chris Mann on Leaving Glee Behind, Covering Josh Groban and Defending Xtina

chris mann christina aguileraChris Mann may have ultimately finished fourth on Season 2 of The Voice, but the classically trained vocalist says he feels like a winner anyhow. Having entered the competition doubting his future in the recording industry and uncertain about his own musical identity, Mann says the intense process of a televised singing competition and lots of support from his coach Christina Aguilera helped restore his confidence, and pinpoint exactly the kind of singer he wants to be. TVLine caught up with Mann to dish the highs and lows of his Voice experience, including a brutal Battle Round, a triumphant dose of Schubert, and that much-buzzed-about tiff between his mentor and fellow coach Adam Levine during the Season 2 finale.

TVLINE | Before we dive into your run on The Voice, I wanted to talk to you about your previous experiences in the music business. You’d said during your blind audition that you felt like you were constantly being asked to tamp down your natural voice. Tell me about when and where that sort of thing happened.
I had a record deal on Sony a couple years ago, and I was trying to do this classical crossover genre. I got dropped [from the label] right before my record came out, and that really prompted a knee-jerk reaction, feeling like my voice, my music was not good enough. I started running away from the sound that I made, tried to make it smaller, tried to make it sound similar to what other pop singers sound like, thinking that maybe that would remedy the rejection that I had gotten. But in reality, it just made it worse, because it wasn’t natural and it wasn’t me, and I think it really showed. It took a couple of years of me trying to hide my true desires and my true identity before I finally was like “This is a terrible, terrible idea.” And so when it came time to audition for The Voice, I was like, “Win, lose or draw, I have to go out there and genuinely do what I’m passionate about, to the point where I [sang in] Italian. It was scary, but the truth is, when I really did show my true self and didn’t hide my voice, that’s when I sounded unique, and I almost won the whole show.

TVLINE | Having been dropped by a major label, was it tough turning on the radio and hearing a lot of the less distinctive voices dominating the airwaves?
There’s so much character that is lost. The last couple of years, I did a lot of session work for TV and film. It was a wonderful, wonderful thing, but your character needs to not be there, and that makes it really hard as an artist. I definitely lost a lot of my confidence and my “voice,” because I had to constantly be vanilla for work. That’s when I stopped working on Glee. I had to get my own voice back because I was losing it. That’s a scary thing.

TVLINE | What were you doing with Glee?
I sang on many, many, many of the Glee records. I was very lucky to be doing that.

TVLINE | What was your mental state heading into The Voice auditions?
I almost didn’t go, which is amazing. I’ve auditioned for shows like this before, like Idol, and I never got on. I was missing a friend’s wedding to audition [for The Voice], and I was really torn with that because after 11 years of sacrifice, I was fed up with missing out. I contemplated not auditioning at all, but my friends really encouraged me to do it, even though I was missing the wedding.

TVLINE | Your Battle Round performance against Monique Benabou was interesting. On paper, it seemed like a mismatch, but she really stepped it up on “The Power of Love.”
That was the worst part of the show for me. I did kind of go in thinking that I had an edge, but in that first rehearsal with her, she was incredible. And very quickly, I was like, “This is not going to be a shoo-in, and I have to kill it, or else I’m not going to be able to advance.” Then I got sick. In the coverage of the Battle Rounds, they didn’t really show the fact that I was sick, but my voice was cracking and my confidence was really shaken. At that point in the competition, I was still really doubting that I had the goods. So to have the combination of sickness, self-doubt, and this head-to-head battle round, it was really terrible.

TVLINE | Going into the live shows, what was your approach to song choice? Were you still grappling with the debate between a full-on classical sound versus the notion of maintaining some pop edge?
Well, first of all, my goal going into the live rounds was to have fun, because I realized that I wasn’t having fun in the first two rounds. I was so nervous and caught up in the pressure that I was — and I think it showed on camera — a ball of knots. So that was the first thing that helped me out. Second, yeah, it was very important to me to sing songs that allowed me to really use my voice. That’s why “The Power of Love” was fantastic, and my final audition [“Because We Believe (Ama Credi E Vai)”] was great, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” wonderful. At the same time, I fought a little insecurity [going up against] people like Lindsey Pavao, who were so edgy and so cool and singing songs that were currently in the Top 5, or even No. 1. I began thinking, “I’ve got to do something cooler. I have to figure out a way to compete with this, because ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and ‘Ave Maria’ are where I’m at my best, but can I win on a pop show against people who are singing Gotye?” I talked to Christina about it a lot, because I wasn’t convinced that I could, but it turned out that I did. Ultimately, my goal was, regardless of what the outcome was, to sing things that represented me as an artist, because if I left the show at any point, I wanted it to be so clear who I am and what I want to do.

TVLINE | “Viva La Vida” was my least favorite performance of yours. It felt like an odd fit to me. I’m just wondering how you felt it turned out, what your goal was with it, and if you had any worries after you were finished, any fear that you might get eliminated.
You know, I did, because to be honest, it was the only time when I sort of got mixed feedback from the coaches. Otherwise, I got pretty positive reviews consistently. But I think it was the right move. It was very important to Christina and it was important to me to show some range. And from a selfish standpoint, I was seeing these incredible productions happening, and I really wanted to have that experience for myself, whether I got kicked off or not. It’s not every day you get to sing on this huge stage with these lights, and these sets, and people and music. So, I wanted to do something fun. “Viva La Vida” is symphonic, which is one thing I’m immediately drawn to, and it actually has a very beautiful lyrical melody. The thing is, I didn’t really get to sing very many songs that had pace or tempo. So it was an opportunity for me to not sing a ballad, but yet sing something that wasn’t too far off in terms of the elements that I am drawn to in songs. And it paid off. I was voted through by America. I know it was kind of strange, but it also hopefully means that when you think of me, that’s there in the deck of cards. It’s not just “ballad, ballad, ballad.”

TVLINE | That’s a good point, letting people know that in your post-Voice life that your concerts won’t be just 20 ballads.
Yeah. It might be 15 ballads, but I’ll break it up here and there. [Laughs]

TVLINE | In the semifinals, you were up against Lindsey. As Christina said, “It’s apples vs. oranges.” Because the two of you were really doing two very, very different things, was it strange to go into that round knowing it was an either-or proposition, that only one member of Team Xtina could advance to the finale?
It’s kind of funny because at first I just wanted to make the show, then I just wanted to make the live rounds, then I just wanted to make the Top 8, which is the number of people that went on last season’s tour. So making Top 4 was further than I had expected to go. Lindsey, I respected her. She was such an unpredictable iTunes force. I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to beat that going into the semis. And then she did Bon Iver and I did Schubert[‘s “Ave Maria”], which was hysterical.

TVLINE | Indeed!
It was completely current vs. completely classical. Christina, she knew I wanted to do “You Raise Me Up” all season, but she encouraged me to sit on it — just in case I made it through. Honestly, Adam Levine sort of hooked me up after I did “Viva La Vida” by saying, “that was really good, but I want to hear you do opera, because you’re the only one who could do it.” And that was really the final encouragement that I needed to hear. So again, through the show, I was still fighting with myself to just do what I do. Which is ridiculous, but that’s why I grew so much. It got to where I was thinking, “Screw it! If I get kicked off because of this, fine, but I know that at least I’m going to sing it!” And I believe the semifinal round was probably my best performance ever, with “Ave Maria.” And it got me to the finale.

TVLINE | Speaking of the finale, Christina wore a dangerously revealing dress during your duet. Had you known what she was going to be wearing?
I hadn’t seen it until she walked up on stage, so I was like, “Hello!” Christina has such a distinct style, and I always appreciate whatever she’s going to wear, because she wears it with confidence and isn’t afraid to turn heads. And she certainly did.

TVLINE | You obviously got to know her over your run on the show, but was there still a little intimidation factor when it came time to sing with her?
There’s always going to be an intimidation factor, but it felt so natural and I was just so excited. That was really a pipe dream that had come true, and I was really appreciative of her being willing to go into my world and just learn the Italian, and bring the Christina Aguilera sound to such an incredible song. It felt so good and it was the high point of the night, and I think everyone knows that. I think it was a really incredible musical event that happened on The Voice.

TVLINE | I have to ask about your finale performance of “The Voice Within.” Was that your idea to run the letter you wrote to Christina on the screen behind you? And what exactly was that letter? Some of the words seemed to be based on things you said to her in your blind audition, but it wasn’t entirely obvious.
Yeah, I wish that it had been a little clearer on the screen. But anyway, I wrote a letter to Christina — a letter that I’m going to send to her on my own, because I’m not sure that she actually got to see it all during the perfomance. You see when they asked us to cover a song from our judges’ catalogs, it was such an obvious no-brainer for me since Christina had a song about finding her voice, and hello, it fit me perfectly. So I wrote this letter about what she had done for me, how I had given up hope and I couldn’t find my voice, and by her really forcing me to get my own confidence back, she literally saved my career and changed my life. And of course, the song is just so fitting. We were really smiling at each other through the performance. It was just a fun moment.

TVLINE | Tell me about your other solo that night. Was there any concern about picking “You Raise Me Up,” a song that’s closely associated with Josh Groban, an artist who’s very much residing in the genre you want to conquer? In a worst case, did you fear people might write you off as a pale imitation of him or did you figure you might as well try to slay the elephant in the room?
I thought, “Let’s just go for the jugular here.” I never would have considered doing that a couple of years ago, just because I respect Josh so much and I want to have my own identity. However, in this situation, [the song represented] exactly what I’m trying to do. You think about Michael Buble and Josh Groban, and I’ve always wanted to be the third name in that category. It was almost too easy, just to go out there and be obvious about what I’m trying to do. Christina was concerned about how to make it my own, though, because it is so associated with Josh.

TVLINE | How did you guys strategize that?
When she heard me sing it, I don’t sing it like Josh. Plus, we added some edgier guitar elements to it. One thing that’s important to me is to really bring 2012 into classical crossover, to give it a little bit of edge. Just the combination of my stage delivery and my voice and a couple little instrumentation things made it different. I didn’t get any slack at all for doing a Josh Groban song, and in fact he commended it on Twitter, which was really amazing.

TVLINE | I know you’ve been asked about this a lot — and I know you probably don’t want to dwell on negativity and drama — but what went through your mind when Christina indirectly inserted you into her feud with Adam Levine and his contestant, Tony Lucca, by pointing to you and saying, “This is a real man right here.” It was pretty obvious that her statement was making a comparison to Tony’s rendition of “99 Problems,” and the possible implication from Adam and Tony that she’s a bitch.
It was just really, really disappointing that all of this media attention [on the Xtina-Adam feud] has taken away from the whole point of the show, especially having done three inspirational songs that I couldn’t have been prouder of. I believe [the feud] really affected where I placed, I think it was completely related to this media frenzy. I don’t blame Christina, because Christina was baited, and I think that’s what has been a little frustrating to me, is how she has taken all of this blame and criticism when Tony and Adam blatantly were calling her a bitch. And I think it happened 13 times in the song, but yet somehow, nobody acknowledges this. It’s so strange. All she said was, “I don’t appreciate it, and that’s derogatory.” And then that caused this huge frenzy and people didn’t vote for me because of it, which is unfortunate. However, I couldn’t have performed any better, and I’m not resentful about it, and I really didn’t think that she did anything crazy. I think she just stood up for herself, which is what she always does.

TVLINE | So what’s next for you?
I have a single coming out called “Roads.” It should be out very, very shortly, and it’s perfect timing and subject matter. It’s about the roads that we take in life to get where we’re trying to go and how it never matters if it’s a positive road or a negative road, that they always lead you back home.

TVLINE | Knowing you had a major-label deal in the past, is there anything that you learned from that experience that will inform your recording process in the future? Any “if I knew then what I know now” philosophies you’re putting into action?
I just think having a strong point of view and a strong identity as a singer and as an artist is so important. I wasn’t as focused before as I am now in terms of who I want to be. I was still splitting the fence a little bit, wanting to be half Josh Groban and half pop. That was just my youth coming into play. But knowing what I know, it prompted me to encourage a lot of younger people on The Voice, sort of as a big brother, to help them fine-tune their direction. Because it really matters to a label that you are really specific. And when I make my record, I want to be Chris Mann, through and through, and now more than ever, I know exactly who that is.

What did you think of Chris Mann’s Voice journey? Are you excited about his post-show career? Hit the comments with your thoughts, and for all my reality TV recaps, interviews, and galleries, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!