“I never looked at this experience like it was a competition,” says the Minnesota soul man. “I trust in the Spirit and play from my heart. When we live in our minds, there’s division: Race, religion, creed, political beliefs and all that. But I truly feel when you live from your heart, it’s like a truth that connects us all, and we’re able to breathe a deeper breath where everybody is.”
Nicholas’ freedom to “never really worry about what people will think about anything” might make for an odd juxtaposition with fans’ obsession over the iTunes sales and telephone voting that result in the show’s weekly eliminations, but it worked out pretty well in the end. Nicholas made it all the way to the season finale, and ended up finishing third behind Cassadee Pope and Terry McDermott.
TVLine caught up with him to talk about his approach to song rearrangement, his penchant for covering tunes from the ’60s and ’70s, and the creative differences he had with mentor Cee Lo Green during the Season 3 semifinals.
TVLINE | We know from the show that you were a working musician with your band The Feelin’ before you auditioned for The Voice. Did you have any hesitation about making the leap from that world and into a reality singing competition?
With The Feelin, I literally wouldn’t do any covers. I pride myself in always trying to focus on personal music and being an individual instead of copying others. I always just kind of looked at [reality singing] shows like they were cool and they help to get your music out there, but it never seemed like something that I would do. I always thought I was more of an acquired taste. But what was neat was that once I realized I had this opportunity, my reservations and speculations about pop music in general started to fade away. I was like, “Whoa!” I listen to classical music and jazz and whatnot, but a buddy of mine who plays in the band Paper Bird, he’s like, “Dude, you’ve got to check out Fleet Foxes or Mumford and Sons and Head and the Heart and Emma Ward and all these other bands. I just started to have a musical renaissance. Even with pop music, I was like “I might not agree with the content of this but I like the melody or I like the rhythmic placement of the vocals or some of the chords that they used in it.” It kind of just broke down all the walls of division. I just came to the conclusion that music is music, all music.
TVLINE | I loved your performance in the Battle Rounds against Todd Kessler, when you guys sang “She’s Gone.” That said, you strike me as the kind of person who, on a visceral level, probably does not think of music as a competitive sport. Was that a weird experience for you?
Yeah. It was interesting, I became very, very close with Todd, and we were like, “Dude, we’re not battling each other. Let’s just sing together. Let’s just do a duet.” I think that came across, and even in some social-media boards, some people even said “that’s a duet!” But it was hard, even throughout the show. I’ve always said to people I’ve never looked at it like a competition. I looked at it like an experience to be experienced, an opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to get your music out there and to play and sing with such a colorful cast of characters and a world-class band in front of the coaches and the mentors. It’s truly just such a blessing.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about “Lean On Me,” because that was obviously a breakout moment for you. What was it like to have Bill Withers respond so positively that he wanted to come and meet you the following week?
I really loved it that I was finally able to play the piano and show not just my vocal ability but my musicianship — to the point where it moved the creator of the song. That, again, was probably one of the top moments of my experience on the show. I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life. When he came into the room, my knees were shaking a little bit and then my ears and heart were just wide open to just receive his wisdom and his information. He’s like an elder of the tribe, so to speak.
TVLINE | Looking back over the course of the season, if you had had an opportunity to redo a performance, what would it be?
I’d like another go at “Over the Rainbow,” because I was very emotional during that one. I saw a silhouette of my aunt and uncle and my mom and dad and my gal in the audience, and I got really choked up before I started to play that. Not that it wasn’t strong, but I was fighting back tears just because it was really emotional. I’m so grateful for every adventure on that show, like every twist and turn. It led me to where I am now and it was truly the experience of a lifetime. A few hours after I got home [to Minnesota], I was walking in the snow, and watching my shoes, and thinking, “Just a couple hours ago, I was on stage looking at those shoes and looking up and seeing Smokey Robinson. Now these shoes are walking in my house.” It’s like “Thank you, God, for this adventure.”
TVLINE | That has to be surreal. To follow up on “Over the Rainbow,” that’s a song everyone knows. How do you approach reinventing it?
Well, when I was thinking about doing that song, I had a few other ones I was debating over as well. I believe we’re always in a dialogue with Spirit, which is why I look and listen for signs. The phone rang and it was my mom, and “Over the Rainbow” is her favorite song, and I was like, “Okay, I hear you.” So I was laying down getting ready to go to bed, not really knowing how to approach it, and then I heard a piano line in my head and my heart was singing it and I was like, “Oh my gosh!” I got right up and got a key to the rehearsal room, which is where I started playing that line, and everything else unfolded from there. To answer your question, I feel like I just remain open and I listen. Sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn’t, but thankfully it came that night, because that was the night before we were getting together with the band to rehearse. The idea was to play some of those jazzier chords, to take the beautiful chords that were already there and just spice them up a little bit. Then with that, I kind of heard the rhythm — [sings] someday I wish upon a star — with a driving, pounding rhythm. That was pretty cool.
TVLINE | For Top 4 Week, after you did “You Are So Beautiful,” Cee Lo alluded on air to some disagreement that you guys had had, but didn’t get specific. What creative differences did you have that week, and how did you work through them?
I originally wanted to take a joyful approach to “You Are So Beautiful.” With the band, we had worked up a D’Angelo-type sounding groove and some jazzier chords over it. But CeeLo was suggesting that we strip it down. I’d never really had a really vulnerable moment on the show. He felt that that would beam out to a wider audience as opposed to the jazzy route, which would be more like an acquired taste. Since he’s my coach and we have a love and respect for each other, I listened to him. I was like, “All right, man. You obviously know what you’re talking about. You’ve had a lot of commercial success, so let’s give it a shot.” And it paid off.
TVLINE | With the exception of “Put Your Records On,” pretty much all the songs you covered in Season 3 were from the ’60s or ’70s. Was there a reason you didn’t gravitate to anything more current?
Even towards the end of the show, I was listening to my heart, I’d listen to my breath. And something that I was finding out is that the songs that I was doing, it was resonating among many generations, from grandparents to people in their 20s and 30s to even the younger ones. I thought it was cool to be able to bring some of those songs that have a message of depth, of content, of musicianship back into the public eye. I don’t think they really went away. They went to jazz clubs and places where people had to seek them out, as opposed to just turning on a TV and seeing ’em. That was part of my mission and my job here. As we got closer to the finale, there’d be suggestions to do some current songs, but the older ones would just end up trumping them. For the finale, I was going to try to do the Matisyahu song “One Day.” But then we were thinking we needed to do something different, something bigger. That’s kind of where “Great Balls of Fire” mashed up with “Fire.” We’d had the idea of a burning piano the previous week, but it didn’t fit with the song. I heard the melody in my head, thought we could blow up some stuff in the back, and that’s what we did.
TVLINE | When you ended the season with “Play That Funky Music,” it was fun and quirky, but it didn’t strike me as the kind of “winning” performance that gets people to pick up their phones and vote. Were you thinking about strategy at all in that finale?
I felt like everything was going up from “Stand By Me” onward, and then it plateaued at “You Are So Beautiful,” which was so emotionally naked and raw. Where can you go from there? I felt like I needed to end with high energy and just have fun. I wanted to keep just evolving and doing different things and showing different sides of me while I had the opportunity to.
TVLINE | So you weren’t thinking about a strategic way to get votes so much as you were focusing on your own musical journey.
Like I told you before, man, I never looked at this like a competition. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to grow and to do things that I probably would have never been able to do. Like having all those dancers, having a lit-up piano, fire blasting in the background. And with “Play That Funky Music,” having people dancing in tubes and aerialists and a mini Cee Lo. It also gave the band a little break. They’re learning song after song after song — ballad after ballad — and they’re slowing it down. All those people are accomplished players and world-class musicians, and being able to get a little funky and let loose, it filled all of our spirits. We were working so hard. It was kind of nice to just let loose and kick it.