The Voice's Caroline Pennell on Tackling Bieber, Rocking 'Royals,' Accepting Cee Lo's Laid-Back Coaching: 'Everyone Else Was Standing Up'
Don’t send out a search party for the nervous teenage girl who started giggling when Cee Lo and Blake Shelton turned around during The Voice‘s Season 5 Blind Auditions. Caroline Pennell says that person is gone forever.
“It’s crazy, the transition from being on that stage and having it seem like such an incredible, unreal thing to having it feel normal,” says Pennell, explaining her inner transformation over the last few months — a transformation that carried her all the way to a Top 8 finish. “That’s my normal now, and it’ll always be normal, and having that newfound confidence is so valuable.”
Pennell says that her experience performing on The Voice — and watching the EP she self-released before entering the competition make it to the iTunes Top 40 — has further motivated her to try to make a go of it in the music biz — not that she’s in a mad rush to map out her exact plan for chart domination.
“Right now, I just want to think about my room and my bed. College will always be there, and I’m fortunate enough that when the time is right, when I feel ready, I can go,” she says. “But I’ve found myself through this whole process; I have a better idea of where I want to head, and I’m just looking forward to assembling a team that has the same vision.”
TVLine caught up with Pennell to talk about the highs and lows of her Voice experience, Cee Lo’s relatively muted on-air feedback and her flawless duet with current Top 5 contestant Tessanne Chin.
TVLINE | What made you choose Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen” for your Blind Audition? And how important was it for you to put your own spin on it?
I love Ellie Goulding, and that’s what I sang the first time I met the show’s casting director. And yeah, I felt like it was important to make every song your own. If I’ve learned anything from being on this show, I just try and sing songs in the way that’s easiest for me to sing them. [Laughs] If that means carrying out a new melody or phrasing — if that makes it unique and different — then that’s the best of both worlds. So, I’m very lucky in that way, that by accommodating my own needs and maybe my laziness, that kind of helped me. [Laughs]
TVLINE | You really identified yourself as a major contender in the Battle Rounds duet with Anthony Paul on Justin Bieber’s “As Long as You Love Me.” Did you have any initial hesitation when Cee Lo gave you that track?
I definitely had a fear, just because there’s always a stigma that comes with pop stars like [Justin] with such a large following. There are so many people who love their songs, and so many people who don’t. But there was an advantage in that it was current, and people like to hear current music, especially a different version of something they know all the words to.
TVLINE | You gave the song an ethereal quality, brought the lyrics to life in a way that made me feel I was hearing it for the first time, but you didn’t abandon the R&B groove, either. It wasn’t like you turned it into Enya.
As artists, all we can do is try to make the song mean something, because if it doesn’t, it’s just noises. [Laughs] When anything is slowed down, it sounds different, especially the contrast of a male singer to a female singer. It definitely worked out in my favor in that scenario, and it’s actually a beautiful song. A lot of the songs on the radio that are backed by that heavy pop beat have good content. It all means something.
TVLINE | For Top 20 Week, Cee Lo gave you The White Striples’ “We’re Going To Be Friends.” Was that a song you were already familiar with?
I love the White Stripes, and I actually knew that song, so I was very happy with it. I felt like it was a good pick for Week One, because sailing into the live round, you want to stay familiar. You don’t want to jump into a whole new genre; it was very sweet.
TVLINE | You followed up with Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” which is more uptempo but kind of has the same light and airy vibe. Did you and Cee Lo ever discuss going a different direction — like a song about heartbreak or maybe something angrier or edgier — to avoid complaints that it was too much of the same thing?
I didn’t really feel that way because it was an uptempo choice. I was a little worried afterwards. We never know what America wants. They don’t even know what they want! [Laughs] The reaction is always different. It doesn’t matter what you do. There are going to be people who have their opinions and love to share them in every format possible. Yeah, I was a little worried, because some people wanted me to revert back to my old ways, but that being a TV show, you have to push yourself; it’s good TV.
TVLINE | I always hoped you’d cover another poppy or R&B song — like a Justin Bieber-type situation — and turn it into a Caroline track. Did you and Cee Lo ever consider that?
We talked about so many things. Later on in the competition, the last two weeks, it was all about the song, and it was just a matter of debate, and then it became a matter of time. For every song we wanted to do, we didn’t have five minutes to really talk about it, but that’s just the way it was. It makes you feel a little bit better because I know in real life, you have more than a week to prove yourself.
TVLINE | Let’s say you had made the Top 6 and had total creative control: What would you have sung?
It probably would have been “Human” by Christina Perri: It just came out and it’s so good. I heard it and I was like, “Oh my God, I need to sing this!” I wanted to sing it [for Top 8], but it literally came out four days before. So either that or “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson.
TVLINE | Tell me about “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” because that was your choice. I liked what you did with it, and it surprised me when Cee Lo gave you somewhat negative feedback, telling you he thought the band overpowered you in places. I didn’t think that was the case at all. Did his critique take you by surprise? And were you surprised when you wound up in the Bottom 3 after that performance?
Yeah, I was surprised to be in the Bottom 3, just because up to that point, I hadn’t been given a reason to feel like I had anything to worry about. I hope that doesn’t sound bad! After that, I realized that it could have been anybody, and I learned to understand that it has to be somebody. We can’t all just stay there forever, and live at the Marriott forever. [Laughs]
[The song] was a collective choice. I know it’s hard because everything has to be a story [for TV], but it was a collective choice. If there was more time, maybe things would have gone differently. I just tried to move on after that week and tried to put myself on equal ground with everyone else, because it’s hard to be in that mentality of the Bottom 3; it is not a very good feeling. And yeah, I was surprised at Cee Lo’s comment, but then again, I get it. It’s TV, and we can’t be nice to everyone. I talked to him about it, and said, “I need you to stand up, because everyone else is standing up.”
TVLINE | You needed him to stand up physically?
Yeah, literally and metaphorically, I guess. But I get where he was coming from. He wasn’t too keen on the song choice, and it’s hard because when something is collective, there’s a storyline that kind of sticks, but it is what it is.
TVLINE | It’s funny because Blake is literally on his feet no matter what his contestants do. Cee Lo is much more laid back than that. I sometimes wonder, though, if Blake’s enthusiasm in itself translates into votes.
There’s so many contributing factors. Over the weeks, we learned together what makes America happy.
TVLINE | How difficult was song choice in your last week on the show, when you wound up with “Dog Days Are Over”?
I love the song, and it wasn’t vocally straining. It was just mentally straining, not the song itself, just the whole concept of worrying about going home, and having to be this new bigger, better, bolder singer. You have to move and grow according to America’s wants and suggestions and comments and opinions, which can be kind of hard. [Laughs] But I was very, very happy with it. I had so much fun. That’s the most important thing.
TVLINE | I thought one of your other highlights of the season was your Top 10 results-night duet with Tessanne on “Royals.” Do you guys get a lot of time to work on the group stuff, or is it basically like, “Here’s a song, get it together in your spare time”?
Yeah, it’s pretty much in your spare time, get it done, and also you have no spare time, so good luck! Group songs you might get Saturday, it could be Sunday. We were just excited to sing together, but [at the time] I was still in shock mode of being in the Bottom 3. I wasn’t really sure what was happening, so that was a nice distraction. I got to have fun and sing with Tessanne. Hopefully that contributed toward being saved that week.
TVLINE | Looking back at your whole Voice journey, is there any one moment or performance you wish you could re-do?
You know what? I don’t think so, because I have so many good memories from this show. Maybe if I could go back, when we got to watch Ellie Goulding rehearse, I would have ran after her, and been like, “Oh my God, I love you!” That’s probably it. I’ll always wish I could have stayed a little longer, but I think it was my week to go, and everybody left there needs to be there, and they deserve to be there. All I can do is cheer really loud from home.