“We tried not to overthink it,” says the man who would eventually become the Season 3 runner-up. “We just tried to be faithful to my artistry and to the people who were supporting me through the show. I didn’t want to have them all excited about classic rock of the ’70s and ’80s, and then suddenly change it up so much that I disappointed them.”
TVLine caught up with McDermott to talk about his ups and downs in the music business, his approach to a number of song arrangements during the season, and a special honor he got from no less a legend than Paul McCartney.
TVLINE | The show touched just a bit on how your former band Driveblind was signed to a major label back in 2006. How hard is it to get so close to mainstream success and then just fall short?
Coming from Scotland, the fact that we actually got signed to an American major was nothing short of a miracle, we thought. Then, Yahoo had us in the “Top 10 records that you hadn’t heard in 2006,” which was kind of a backhanded compliment, but that was predominantly because the record company wouldn’t really step up their support. We had a lot of critical acclaim, but in the end, it was actually us that asked to get off the label because we felt that we were producing great music and, frankly, they weren’t keeping up their end of the deal. Although it was not the best ending, we did have a great run. We did a lot of coast-to-coast touring in the U.S., which for us was a life-changing experience. But we were pretty burned out. We toured hard, our relationship with the record company had soured, the guys were getting a bit itchy about going back home. I was married and had a child on the way, who was born while I was on tour. The reality was to call a halt to things. I think we all look back on that with frustration.
TVLINE | Did you have doubts at that point about continuing to try to make a living through music?
I found myself in New Orleans and was very much contemplating giving up music altogether. I was just paying the bills by playing Bourbon Street, singing covers in the clubs. But again, the irony was not lost on me that if it hadn’t been for that experience in New Orleans, I don’t think I would have been remotely prepared for The Voice. It was there that I really tackled performing other people’s music and learning that kind of art form.
TVLINE | That’s interesting.
My roots were very much in the British groups — The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Queen — and I hadn’t sung a wide variety of American classic rock. In New Orleans, I got experience doing that, and I also ended up singing blues, which was new for me. I was still questioning whether I should give up music when an old tour manager got in touch and actually had me very, very nearly singing for The Yardbids. But the timing was wrong. I didn’t have my Green Card, so I couldn’t leave the country. Again, that was frustrating, but it was also a nice reminder that opportunities were there. That refocused me. Then I formed Lotus Crush with two guys from Candlebox who I knew from touring. I was doing that record last year in places like South By Southwest, and I would have been doing it again this year had the tour not fallen through. The same week that fell through, a producer called me and asked if I’d be interested in being on The Voice. I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I took the opportunity.
TVLINE | Did you have any hesitation about going the reality singing competition route?
I know from experience how hard you have to work to reach people — even when you’re on a big record label. It’s not a pot of gold. It’s really just an invitation for hard work. So when The Voice came along, yes, I did have reservations and a lot of preconceptions about going on a television show. But I’m pleased to say they were blown out of the water very rapidly.
TVLINE | How did you settle on “Baba O’Reilly” for your Blind Audition? And did you go into that performance with an idea of which coach’s team you wanted to join?
I hadn’t watched much of the show previously. In fact, I’d probably watched less of the show than any [contestant this season]. My wife’s a big country music fanatic, though, and what I had seen when she’d watched was that Blake was a very likeable guy, very genuine and bighearted — and he was no stranger to success. So I went in with the intention that if more than one chair turned, and if Blake was one of them, then I’d choose Blake. The choice of The Who song, that was no question for me at all. The Who is a band that heavily influenced Driveblind and certainly heavily influenced my music career. I thought it was the perfect foot to put forward.
TVLINE | My favorite performance of yours this season came in the Knockout Rounds, with “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Tell me about picking that song and why that one had a particular magic about it.
Driveblind was on tour with Candlebox, and their singer Kevin Martin came into the dressing room one day and said, “I really think you guys could do a great version of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed.’” It was very, very shortly after that Candlebox performed it, and I’d get up on stage and sing it with him. We had such fun watching them perform it, and me participating in performing it, that we put it in our own set. It took off from there. So I became very well-versed in the song and when the opportunity arose to play it on the show, I was all about it because I had my heart and soul in that song, and it was a link to the past with Driveblind.
TVLINE | In the live rounds of Season 3, with the exception of your performance of Blake Shelton’s “Over,” you covered only songs from the mid-’80s or earlier. Was that strategic, or did it happen by accident?
Yeah, there was a strategy to it. Blake had some choices that were more rooted in the ’80s, and my love of classic rock is probably more rooted in the ’70s. But I knew from my experience in New Orleans just how popular this music was with people, how much it resonated with them, and how much I resonated with it. That element of rock and roll, it’s missing right now, and I liked the idea of tapping into music that influenced me. Blake felt the same way. There was some discussion later on about maybe switching it up and doing something new, but I didn’t think that was right. My own musical taste is very much in contemporary British rock-and-roll bands and American indie bands, but I didn’t think that performing Kings of Leon or something like that would do me any favors or was any more true to me than performing something that influenced me like The Who or The Beatles. I was very happy to stay on that road. And what I didn’t want to do was a bad impersonation of a band that’s already out there.
TVLINE | For the Live Playoffs, you tackled Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.'” Steve Perry’s vocal on the original is so iconic that I wonder if you had any reservations about attempting it.
I was acutely aware, again from singing on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, that that song does two things: One, it grabs people’s attention the moment the first two bars are played. The second thing it does is it has everyone anticipating the big notes. So it’s a gamble, but if you can pull it off, it really knocks people dead.
TVLINE | You chose “I Want to Know What Love Is” as your defining moment in the competition, and repeated it in the finale. What was it about that song that made you decide to strip it down and give it an intimate arrangement?
There was an element of good fortune about that track. I have to be honest, Blake was pushing for me to do Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration.” I wasn’t quite as comfortable with that idea. And at the last minute, I was sitting with Melanie Martinez and her dad, we had our laptops on YouTube, and he happened to bring up Foreigner. The minute I heard the melody, it resonated. It was gut feeling after that. Straight away, I got in touch with Blake and said “I think this is the one.” His reaction was instant. He said, “I want that track. Yes, that’s the one to do.” We felt like we’d done the whole the hammer-blow rock and roll, and it was time to take a softer approach. It turned out to be the right choice.
TVLINE | Your Foreigner cover came during Top 6 week, and it really seemed like such a tight race at that point. Were you thinking to yourself that maybe you had a chance to win the whole thing? Would you have been content if you’d finished sixth?
Because of my time in Driveblind, I definitely know the school of hard knocks in music. At that point in the season, I had a few things left in the locker that I could use, but I knew the competition was tough. I was saying to myself, “I don’t know if America is really going to embrace a foreigner and take him to heart. I don’t know if they really want to hear more of what I’m doing.” Genuinely, I didn’t think at that point that I would be going on to the Finals. But I was going to keep swinging and singing until people asked me to stop. When we moved to the next round, Top 4, that’s when I started to think, “Maybe I’ve got a chance here.”
TVLINE | In the Semifinals, when you covered The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” was there a struggle to balance putting your own twist on it without doing so much to a classic melody that you muddied it up?
That was a no-brainer that song. We actually had Broken Wings in place for the Semifinals, and at the last minute the show threw a Hail Mary; they said [“Let It Be”] will never get cleared, it never has been cleared, but we’ll put it out there. Then I got the call the next day saying, “Everybody’s buzzing because it took personal clearance from the artist. And he cleared it.” And when Paul McCartney personally clears you to sing “Let It Be,” you don’t say “No, thank you.” That brought with it an entirely different set of pressures, not because the vocal stretches you or because it’s an exceptionally difficult song, but it’s all about giving it heart and soul, and it’s also so beloved, that you don’t really want to take that song apart. I mean who would have the arrogance to say they could improve on The Beatles? I was just trying to be very careful and very true to it, trying just to resonate with the message of the song and be very honest about it.
TVLINE | Did you ever push to do one of your own original tracks on the show?
It did cross my mind, and there were a lot of people that got in touch saying they’d love to hear a Driveblind track or a Lotus Crush track. But I felt like you have to live in the real world. I’d been doing songs like “Let It Be” and “Don’t Stop Believin,” songs that people are very affectionate toward. And ultimately, Cassadee was doing so tremendously well on iTunes; you have to live in that same realm or pay the price. So, it was never really an option. If iTunes wasn’t king in this situation, then maybe I could’ve done an original.
TVLINE | Speaking of iTunes, you cracked the Top 10 a number of times in the last month or so. How do you take that momentum with you into 2013? What’s your plan?
I think that’s the 64 million dollar question. I feel like I’ve got one advantage, which is my background has very much been as a musician making music. It’s kicked me out there in the world. I’ve been through the experience of a record deal and I’ve seen the ups and downs. I’m no stranger to toiling if necessary and getting out there and working hard. I feel like with a good team around me, I can try to bridge that gap and get to as many people as I possibly can. How exactly we’re going to do that, I’m excited to see. I don’t have the answer yet because there’s quite a few things being discussed. Contemporary rock in some shape or form has to be where I live. At the same time, I do want to lean on my roots, which are bands that I listened to growing up, a lot of classic-rock bands. That doesn’t mean I want to be retro or be a tribute act in any way. I’d like to be progressive — but it certainly has to lean on my music roots.
Were you a fan of Terry during his Voice run? Are you eager to hear his post-Voice output? Sound off in the comments! And for all my reality TV recaps, news and interviews — including Q&As with Nicholas David and Trevin Hunte — follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!