What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — and that’s something Garrett Gardner knows without any help from Kelly Clarkson’s soaring radio hit. The 17-year-old New Jersey native got rejected during The Voice‘s Season 3 Blind Auditions, but that just spurred him to worker harder at honing his craft.
“I spent a lot of time practicing with my friends in my basement. I did a lot of cafe and bar gigs — less than ideal settings — to get used to playing live in loud situations,” Gardner explains of the months that followed his Season 3 setback. “And I did a lot of songwriting as well, just to try to figure out who I was as an artist.”
One thing Gardner solidified was his love of reinventing songs in eclectic and unexpected ways. “I did a version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song — it’s not online right now — but I mixed it with Eminem and Stevie Wonder,” Gardner says. “It’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard, but if I played that on the show would I have gotten picked during the Blinds? Probably not!”
TVLine caught up with Gardner to dish his Season 4 trajectory, his special connection with coach Shakira, and his renditions of huge hits by everyone from The White Stripes to John Lennon to Backstreet Boys.
TVLINE | Your audition this year was a reggae-esque arrangement of “Seven Nation Army.” How did you come up with that particular twist on the song?
Well, [the producers] sent me the cut version — which had the length of the cover that I was going to be doing for the Blind Auditions — and so I took my guitar and played the original, then changed the key a little bit to fit my voice better. Then I started doing the natural rhythm that I was feeling for the song, so it evolved from jamming by myself with my acoustic guitar. After that, I went to the band and gave them a few ideas and they’re so incredible that they instantly knew what I was talking about. Within 10 minutes, they had that arrangement completely down. Those guys are the best of the best. They’re incredible. I know the drummer Nate went to Berklee College of Music, which is where I plan on going eventually.
TVLINE | Were you aware at the time that Melanie Martinez had done an unusual twist on “Seven Nation Army” during Season 3 of The Voice? And did that make you nervous at all?
Not a lot of people know, but me and Melanie did the [Season 3] Blind Auditions together and got very close. I actually said, “Good luck,” and gave her a hug right before she did her version of “Toxic.” And I found out that she was going to be doing “Seven Nation Army” [in the Season 3 live rounds] right around the same time we were doing song choices for Season 4 Blind Auditions. There was some overlap between taping the start of our season and the end of last season, actually, because Shakira was going to have her baby. I knew what kind of artist [Melanie] was, and she knew what kind of artist I am, and we both love to put our own twists on the music. She also did “Too Close” by Alex Clare, which is another song that I did. A lot of people started to think that I was trying to copy her, but it was more that we both have very similar taste in music, and we knew that our versions were going to be so different that it wouldn’t really matter in the end.
TVLINE | Did you have any inkling before you auditioned that you might wind up on Team Shakira?
It was very surprising. I had no idea that she was such a fan of rock music until I met her. She’s really into classic rock, modern rock, heavy metal, all this different stuff. You could tell especially because she turned around on the most gritty note of my performance. And just to know that she’s also a multi-instrumentalist like myself: That’s something else we connected on.
TVLINE | How grueling was your Knockout Round against Tawnya Reynolds? Her performance seemed too good to be eliminated.
When I found out I was going up against Tawnya, the first thing I thought was, “Well, at least if I lose, I am losing to somebody that I respect and I’m losing to somebody that I know really deserves this.” It was pretty nerve-racking knowing at that point there was no chance for a Steal, and kind of heartbreaking even though I knew that I was moving forward. It was a very close one, but I thought she had it. I thought she did the best performance I had ever seen her do on that song [“Hell on Heels”].
TVLINE | How did you feel when Shakira assigned you John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the first live show? Is it daunting to cover something so iconic?
In 2010, I did a thing for John Lennon’s birthday, playing with his original band The Quarrymen — [which eventually morphed into] The Beatles — and Yoko Ono was there, too, and I actually played “Imagine” at that event. So when Shakira said, “I want to give you ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon,” my immediate thought was, “Oh my God this is a great song. I’m so excited to do this.” Then immediately after that, I kept thinking, “Oh my God, if I screw this one up …you just can’t mess up a John Lennon song.” I knew I had to make it my own, but at the same time if you change too much of a John Lennon song, people are not going to like you. It was just a lot of pressure, because of the song and because of the artist.
TVLINE | Your last week on the show, Shakira gave you Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” I know that some fans thought the song choice sank you before you’d started, but I’m always a fan of any move that gets contestants away from karaoke. What’s your take on that debate?
Shakira has a good sense of humor, so when I first got the song, I thought she was joking. Later, I got what she meant — flipping a song to make it completely different. We weighed the risk with the benefit, and just because I didn’t get voted into the next round doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t pay off. Shakira has watched my YouTube channel, and knows that as an artist, I love to make things my own. Sure, I would have loved to make the Top 10, but I made a statement as an artist and that sometimes is more important.
TVLINE | What’s one thing on your YouTube channel that folks should watch?
I have a video that I did in my studio. It’s “Seven Nation Army,” similar to The Voice version, but instead of having The Voice band play it, my brother filmed me playing every instrument [see video embedded below]. It’s one shot, and he edited it. So, it’s like a live take of me playing the drums, and right next to me there’s me playing the guitar, and right next to that there’s me playing bass, and then it cuts in between shots of me playing every instrument in the band, which is what I’m going to do when I make my album. There’s also an an original called “The Valley” that I did on Fox’s morning show, and hopefully that is going to be going online soon, too.