The Voice's Cody Belew Talks 'Jolene' Twist, Mad Max Jackets and How He's Like…Seinfeld?
Cody Belew may have blown a couple of minds when he performed Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” during Season 3 of The Voice — complete with outrageous leather jacket, bad-ass boots and end-of-song hip swivelrie — but in his mind, it was a perfect opportunity to “focus-group what America was willing to digest.”
And when he breezed into the next round, the 27-year-old Arkansas native took it as a direct message. “People said, ‘We’re ready. We understand exactly what it was you were doing, and we want more of that,’” says Belew. “There’s a reason why your David Bowie, your Prince, your Michael Jackson, your George Michael, your Freddie Mercury dominated when they were on the scene; people want to have fun. They like that it’s sexy, but there’s a sense of humor to it. They like things to be theatrical and visually mesmerizing.”
TVLine caught up with the Top 8 finisher to talk about his dreams of carrying on in the tradition of those outré artists, his vision for performances from “Jolene” to “One More Try,” and the sound he’s hoping to concoct when he gets into the studio and records his debut album.
TVLINE | As someone who’s watched every episode of The Voice since Season 1, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a contestant make as much of a musical U-turn as you did between your Battle Round cover of “Telephone” and your Knockout Round rendition of “Jolene.” Was that a conscious move to try to show a completely different side in terms of genre, vocal and mood?
“Telephone,” first of all, was Cee Lo’s way of really throwing down the gauntlet, to see exactly how much I could rise to the occasion. But yes, I went into this thing with a very strategic idea about what I was going to show — and at what point. I knew that after “Telephone,” people really needed to see me sing something, not just be a performer. We leaned more toward the White Stripes’ version than Dolly [Parton's original], and I was just really happy that the viewing audience got it, and appreciated it, and didn’t mind that I kept the words the way they were written, because that was a conscious decision I made.
TVLINE | Obviously, the song is a plea to the titular vixen, and you didn’t shy away from the line “I’m begging of you please, don’t take my man.” How did you approach the song in your mind?
I actually took a very, very poetic take on it. And of course it was maybe too much of a hot-button issue to have in my B-roll, but I took the perspective of, “Okay, what if Jolene was the idea of war in general, and that the man that she’s taking is a son, or a brother, or a cousin, or an uncle who wants to go, who loves the idea of going, but you don’t want him to go?” And so I really took it to that head space, and that’s the way that I wanted the orchestration to come across. The band went with me, turning the song into more of a plea and a cry, into the battle call that it was when the White Stripes did it. So that allowed me to see it in a way that wasn’t uncomfortable, and didn’t come across as jarring to people who might not be ready for that kind of gender-specific song.
TVLINE | Interesting. So you get to the live playoff rounds and cover George Michael’s “One More Try.” I felt like that was maybe your best vocal of the season. Had you covered it prior to The Voice?
No, and when I got the email that Cee Lo wanted me to do that song, right off the bat I was thinking, “Oh God, I’m already getting that lazy comparison to George Michael just because I have a beard and I have a lot of hair,” and I didn’t want to feed into that. But then I thought, “Okay, if I can take this one to church and strip away the ’80s synthesizers from it, this could actually be a good moment for me.” And it was the first time on the show that I felt both feet under me — as far as being the performer that I’ve always been, someone who charges the stage and commands the audience.
TVLINE | We saw you do that signature shimmy on certain notes, bringing in a little bit of playfulness to the stage. Is that something that you’re conscious of while you’re doing it, or is involuntary?
That is definitely me being the calculated, seasoned performer. I know where I can push it, and I know where I can get a rise out of people. Folks back home that are used to seeing me live; that was the moment where they were like, “Okay, that’s the Cody that we love up there.”
TVLINE | It’s interesting hearing you talk about your fans back home. How far had you gone with your music career prior to The Voice, and what walls had you run up against?
Well in my adolescent and college years, I was constantly told by musicians who I wanted to work with or who I wanted to form bands with that I didn’t have the right voice for whatever they were trying to do. That always stunned me, because I thought, “What the hell is the right voice?” I mean, you’re either going to sell the song or you’re not. But they never would even let me give it a shot.
Then, when I moved from college to Little Rock to give this thing a go, it [turned into] a four-year run, and it didn’t take long for people to start paying attention. By the time I left Arkansas for Nashville, it was sort of like when Seinfeld left network television. I left on top. I had done everything that I could possibly do in the Arkansas market. Anybody that was going to know who I was already knew. I was leaving on a high note. I had maxed out all the venues that I could possibly play, so my next natural step was to go to Nashville. But that’s where I quickly found out that I wasn’t the only one who had that sort of success back home, and that it wasn’t just going to be me shining brighter than everybody else.
TVLINE | What exactly happened?
I didn’t know the right people, I didn’t have the right ins. Nashville has become a songwriters’ town, and they don’t really care for the old-school kind of performer that I am. They want you to sit up there with a guitar, in these songwriters’ circles, and do that whole thing, work your way up the ranks of songwriters. I’m just, “Yeah, I can write a song, but I want to get up there and blow your mind with a performance!” And I wasn’t finding those opportunities. I’m such a worker bee. I’m not a starving artist. I like to have hot and cold water and food on the table. [Laughs] So I worked all the time, as far as a nine-to-five job, and I was finding it hard to find the balance there. Then I got the call to audition for The Voice, and it was just perfect, perfect timing because I was feeling discouraged about this whole thing.
TVLINE | Speaking of blowing people’s minds with a performance, let’s talk “Crazy in Love” — the outfit, the staging, the dancing. Was there any part of you that was worried about how far was too far? I want to hear the whole thought process behind it.
They had initially approached me that week with a song that, when I heard it, I said, “Absolutely not. That is a go-home song, and I’m not doing it.” It was the first time in my run on the show that I had to really put my foot down. So we were up till about 1:00 that morning going back and forth on songs. Everyone had big ideas. I really, really was hoping to do a big ballad. I felt like I hadn’t had that opportunity yet, and needed to show that I could really deliver these big notes the same as everyone else. But [people from the show] wanted me to follow Christina Aguilera’s advice; after I sang “The Best,” she’d said something like, “I’m really wanting to be reminded of that person that we fell in love with when you did ‘Telephone.’” So my response was, “Okay, well, if you want that, I’ll give you that, but I need to do it on my terms.”
I had done “Crazy in Love” for years in my sets back home, and I knew the response that it got from people. Let’s just be honest: If I can pull that off in Arkansas, I knew that it would do the same thing for me with the rest of America. By the time Cee Lo said, “All right, I’m going to let you run with it and just trust you on it,” I went into my band rehearsal only having 45 minutes. I had a very, very clear start, middle, and end, but I felt like if I even stalled or hesitated for a second, that they would give me a “No, that’s not going to work.” So I just went into it with the attitude, “This is what has to be.” I went into the wardrobe meeting with a picture of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and said, “This is the outfit I have to wear.” So we pulled that motorcycle jacket and I said, “Rip the sleeve off; hand me that leather belt, sew it onto this shoulder; hand me those chains, put them here.” And I think people were so scared of me in that whole process that nobody really stopped to question it; I was so intensely focused. And when we got into choreographing the song. I had originally requested an all-male dance troupe, but they had already booked the girls. I didn’t object to the start of the routine, but I knew we had to close the performance with my moves, because I’m not a seasoned dancer. It had to be something that played to my strengths. Even the microphone throw at the end, they didn’t want me to do that. They thought that I needed to sing at the end of the number. And I said, “No, I have to throw the microphone. It’s the whole point to have the ending.” It was all my vision, and what you saw was exactly the way that I wanted you to see it.
TVLINE | That week was when Blake Shelton said to you something like, “People back home in Arkansas are probably thinking, ‘Who’s that?’” Because when we’d first seen you audition with “Hard to Handle,” you were wearing a plaid shirt and jeans. And your response was, “No, people in Arkansas already know exactly who I am.”
People in Arkansas had been waiting to see that [type of perfomance] the whole season! I’ve always said I had a Macy’s Day parade float vision and a homecoming parade float budget. And so I finally had the opportunity to have every single aspect of my vision come to life. Every show I played back home, I was either standing on top of a piano or on top of a chair, because the room was so full I didn’t have anywhere to go. And so even down to my last performance [of "Somebody to Love"], where I was standing on top of the piano, that was just like the smoky little bars that I played back home. I’ve always been this person. I just didn’t have this big a stage to do it on.
Here’s the thing, though: As far as the evolution of me in the competition, and on the television show that is The Voice, that was intentional on my part. I was very plugged-in and aware that the audience needed to have a storyline to follow. If I just came right out of the gate with “Crazy in Love.” I would’ve come across like [fellow Team Cee Lo contestant] DOMO did. I’m not that person who is overly confident and cocky, but I’m very, very sure of myself when it comes to the performances that I’m capable of. So I wanted to layer those week by week. If I gave too much away at the beginning, where would I go from there? The only regret that I have is, I was planning a helluva show for the last few weeks [of Season 3]. But as far as the body of work that I did on the show, I’m very, very proud of it.
TVLINE | So as a last question for you, musically we saw you hit a lot of different genres in your time on the show. How will you approach your post-Voice career, knowing most record labels like their artists to stick to one specific sound?
My first album, God willing there will be one, will rely heavily on iconic beats. I want it to be danceable, but I don’t want to get into that techno that’s kind of taken over pop music. Think classic beat-focused music that people just want to turn up and sing along to, and then go see in concert. I eventually want to pay homage to my country roots. I’d love to do that playfully, maybe in the way that Madonna did when she sang “Don’t Tell Me,” and went through her cowgirl stage. But I hope that there will be a time that I can hit on all the genres that I love, because I think we’ve seen with artists like Adele that the genre specifics may not be such a big deal anymore. As long as it’s a banging-ass record, people will buy it.