The Voice's Kimberly Nichole Talks 'What's Up,' 'House of the Rising Sun' and Industry Ageism

Kimberly Nichole The Voice

The Voice‘s Kimberly Nichole would like to remind America that “Black Girls Rock” isn’t just an awards show, it’s a musical reality.

“Throughout my career, it’s been frustrating to me that when I say, ‘I sing rock music,’ people are always surprised,” says Season 8’s sixth-place finisher. “People don’t know the history of rock music, how it evolved from the African-American spirituals, from the sharecroppers singing songs, to the blues, and then to rock music.”

What’s more, adds Kimberly, “music is universal, and anybody can sing any style anyhow.”

TVLine caught up with Kimberly to reflect on her most memorable performances, her somewhat unexpected elimination and her post-show plans.

TVLINE | Before you auditioned for The Voice, I know you were performing in New York and had some regular gigs there. Was it a struggle making a living that way?
I was performing random gigs with my band in New York, but my consistent job was at a club called The Box; it’s like a burlesque Moulin Rouge, very risqué, and I was the MC for two or three years. That did not involve me singing my original songs, but I very much got my chops sharpened being there five nights a week, and it gave me consistent money to do what I love to do.

TVLINE | You made an immediate impression during the Blind Auditions with “Nutbush City Limits.”  Had you sung it before? And was it a challenge coming up with the perfect audition song?
I didn’t choose that song; the producers chose that for me, but they knew my style. I was talking to Clyde, one of the music supervisors, and he was like “We’ve always had ‘Nutbush’ in the music bank, but nobody’s come along who it was right for until you.” I felt like The Voice was really setting me up to evolve into where I went; it started at Tina Turner, and I progressed and progressed in this arc all the way to “Dirty Diana.”

TVLINE | You’re in your early 30s — which, ridiculously enough, is considered “too old to make it” by a lot of folks in the music business. Did you have any trepidation about that going in?
I was super nervous. My age was always something hanging over my head, and I remember talking to one of my mentors like, “People are going to hold my age against me, they’re going to think, ‘She’s old.'” I had to learn to accept I’m not 21. And then I started realizing my voice, and my talent, and my gift was bigger than my age. People can feel something in you that’s special — no one really cares how old you are — and the stigma of age is created by some idiot who put a limit on audiences, on what they will accept. But I feel like, overall, audiences just want to feel something. They don’t care how old you are: If you look cool, you sing, you give your heart, they don’t care that you’re 30. They don’t care if you 25, they don’t care if you’re 40. I don’t even think people remember my age anymore.  They’re like, “Oh, she’s cool, she does backbends, she sings her butt off.”

TVLINE | Right. I sometimes wonder if this nonsense about “too old to make it” is a construct created by record labels who would rather work with people that don’t have a fully formed vision or an opinion. It can be easier to control a kid.
You just said that. Michael, you just said some real s–t right there. Yes! That’s what it is. [Laughs]

TVLINE | In the Battle Rounds, you wound up losing to Lowell Oakley on “Hound Dog” — but got stolen from Team Pharrell by Christina Aguilera. Was it strange to turn a duet into a competitive sport?
This is where I love that [Season 3 finalist] Amanda Brown and [Season 4 finalist] Sasha Allen were my friends — and the voices in my ear throughout the process. They were like, “You cannot look at it as a competition. You have to look at it like you’re singing a duet on any other day.” So, I went into the Battle thinking, “Okay. It’s like Big Momma Thornton singing with Elvis Presley. Make it a great duet, and even if someone loses, whether it’s you or Lowell, you’re going to be stolen. Make it that good.” Still, changing your mind frame from being just a performer to being in a competitive environment, it was very emotionally, psychologically, weird.

TVLINE | What went through your mind in the seconds between getting eliminated, then having Christina hit that button?
Like I said, I approached it as a duet, but then when I lost, I’m like, “S–t!” I didn’t even grasp Christina stealing me for a minute, it was a delayed reaction. But hindsight is 20/20, and Team Christina is exactly where I needed to be. I would never have been able to do Linda Perry’s “What’s Up” without Christina sending out a personal email for Linda to approve it. And I learned so much from Christina vocally — and even spiritually and emotionally — and as a woman, how you deal with certain things in the industry.

The Voice - Season 8TVLINE | Let’s talk about “What’s Up.” That’s the performance where you became a serious front-runner, with that one glory note that was like an eagle taking flight off the side of a cliff. Did you kind of know it was going to be a moment before you took that stage?
On The Voice, we work with the vocal teachers to make a map of how we’re going to sing things, but I’ve performed “What’s Up” so many times with my band. So, I really wanted to challenge myself and try to recreate how I presented it to people — so that even my friends, when they saw it on the show, they were like, “Girl. You’ve never sang ‘What’s Up’ like that before.” I remember telling Christina, “America hasn’t gravitated to me.” It was like I hadn’t become a favorite of anyone, so I was, really, fearful of my stake in the show. There was an energy I felt when I was performing that song, I just really connect with it, and I think the lyrics are relevant even today. I just really wanted to go out there and surrender to the moment and the song, and just sing it from my heart and not even be caught up in the other B.S. of whatever the competition is.

TVLINE | Your tears began to flow halfway through the song — was that because your grandmother was in the audience?
There were numerous reasons why tears started falling. It was audience and their energy, it was seeing Christina’s response and the judge’s response, and I’m singing a song I love to sing. It was just being able to look out in the distance and see my mother and my great grandmother, who’s just turned 92, being there and being proud, and me doing something I love. It was an accumulation of things. I’m a true artist, so I’m very emotional. I cried a lot during this show. I’m a crybaby, okay? [Laughs]

TVLINE | You followed “What’s Up” the next week with “House of the Rising Sun.” You had that amazing light turquoise dress, the strut where you leaned back into it, and the vocals that were so gritty and intense, with such an incredible build. Walk me through how that all came together.
Christina told Paul Mirkovich, the music director, “We have to recreate what the music composition is. It can’t sound like The Animals’ original.” Paul wanted it to be very psychedelic burlesque, like my style. He made it futuristic, and the outfit was really inspired by LaBelle — the space-age rock divas back in the day. They were opening for The Who and the Rolling Stones, so that outfit was in the energy of LaBelle. Christina’s creative director did the graphics, and they were just so epic. And even vocally, I mapped it out, but on stage, I really surrendered to the moment and just let loose, went for it, and wailed. I looked at my dress rehearsal videos of that song, I was not walking like that. It was like a different power when it was show time. Everything fell into place, the styling of the clothes, the core graphics, the music, the vocals. That was my favorite performance, hands down, on The Voice.

TVLINE | I think you said on Twitter that was a Michael Costello dress, the guy from Project Runway?
Yes. Love him. I wore a lot of his clothes during the show.

TVLINE | Your other big moment on the show was “Creep,” dropping to the ground, with that total emotional collapse and that haunted music-box arrangement. You went on Twitter and noted that it had been inspired by Postmodern Jukebox and Haley Reinhart’s cover, but there was still some controversy on social media about the similarities. I thought theirs had a little more New Orleans jazz, while yours was a little more theatrical…
I mean, child, that was controversy over nothing. People were talking about how I was a thief. I was like, “What?”

Anyway, I wanted to do “Dirty Diana” that week. Christina was like, “No. You need a vulnerable moment.” Then she showed me  Haley Reinhart’s version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” The dropping to the ground was all planned — Christina’s creative director Jerry was like, “You need to drop to the ground. You need to collapse into your vulnerability,” and it was such an emotional performance for me. All of it was very true. It spoke to who I was and how I feel about myself, how I feel about being the black girl that does rock, the black girl with these weird tutus, and how a lot of people don’t get it. It was really me really surrendering to who I am in the moment, and accepting, “You are different, Kim, you are a creep, you are a weirdo. It’s a good thing though.”

TVLINE | And it blew up on iTunes, too. You actually had several instances where you went Top 10 on the iTunes singles chart. How validating was that?
You know what. I didn’t really start paying attention to this s–t until after “House of the Rising Sun.” I was oblivious to it, but then I remember we were in the van going to makeup and hair, and Brian Johnson was like, “Kim you’re No. 2 on iTunes.” After that, I started paying attention to it, and I almost feel like it defeated me by worrying about it. “Creep,” I remember I was sitting at No. 12, I’m like, “Get me into the Top 10 so I can get the [iTunes votes] multiplier!” All the way to “Dirty Diana” I was obsessed with getting this multiplier and I was like, “Why can’t I go back to when it was ‘House of the Rising Sun’? Where I really didn’t care and the energy I was putting out was just the art and the singing? Now I’m getting caught up in the B.S. of the industry and the numbers, and I’m defeating myself.” It started messing with my head.

TVLINE | Your last week on the show, I felt like “Free Fallin’” was not your strongest work. What happened? And how did you feel about it?
Honestly, Michael, I will say I was underwhelmed by my performance of it even during rehearsals. So, no, it was not my favorite performance, but it was a moment for me to love my mother. That performance was dedicated to her, and at the end, I really wanted to go Gospel, hollering on it, because my mother’s from the Southern Baptist church. That’s all that matters.

TVLINE | Did that feeling that it was not your best put added pressure on you for your second performance that night, “Dirty Diana”?  The only thing I didn’t love was that you kind of got obscured. “Where’s Kimberly Nichole and why can’t I see her?”
She’s engulfed in f—ing smoke! [Laughs]

150504_2863702_Kimberly_Nichole___Dirty_Diana__anvver_2TVLINE | Exactly! Did you know that there was going to be that much smoke?
I knew it, but I loved it. “Dirty Diana” is another song I perform with my band. I always holler through it and act crazy and get…I do way more raunchy stuff than I did on [The Voice] stage. I just thought, “You know what. If I’m going out on ‘Dirty Diana,’ that’s fine. Because where do I go after all of that smoke, and four guitars, and laying on the ground?” I wanted to do “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” after that, the next week, but would that be as big as Dirty Diana? No, it wouldn’t. There’d be no way. I loved the dress — it was a Michael Costello dress again — I loved the boots. To me it was my rock-star moment.

TVLINE | That said, it’s a little bit of a racy song. You did the crotch grab and that screaming, crazy note on “make me a star.” Do you think maybe America wasn’t ready for that? I was surprised that it didn’t do better on iTunes…
You know, I don’t know. I have all these conspiracy theories that don’t even need to be talked about. But I have a degree in economics, I’ve studied statistics and trends, and for me to have a certain pace throughout the show and then suddenly just plummet, I was like, “Something is odd.” People are usually consistent when they like you. But I don’t have to get into the conspiracy stuff I have in mind, because it doesn’t matter. I believe in the universe and in the master plan. I think it was all about fate and my timing on the show, and my time was up. I just have to kind of surrender to that.

TVLINE | Either way, your results-night performance for the Twitter save — “Seven Nation Army” — was fantastic. How did you choose it and approach it? 
For the last five or six years, it used to the opening number to my shows with my band. I wanted to change [my sing-off performance] to “Don’t Let the Sun Come Down On Me,” by Elton John, because I wanted like an emotional moment to save me, but they wouldn’t let me change it. But then I remember Christina and Pharrell giving me a pep talk. Pharrell was like, “if you go out, how do you want to go out?” I was like, “with a bang,” and he said, “exactly.” So I went out there I said, “Girl, sing your face off, and whatever happens happens.” Plus, I knew Jack White was watching the show that night, too, because [fellow finalist] Joshua Davis’ best friend is Jack White’s bass player, so they had a whole dinner night watching the show. Jack is on the top of my list [of dream collaborators] along with Slash and Gary Clark Jr.

TVLINE | And you came back to New York City after your elimination and got to perform with Slash from Guns N’ Roses, so that’s not a bad consolation prize. 
The producers sat down with me a few days before the Top 6 show, and they were like, “So Kimberly, your homecoming is going to be in New York, you’re going to do something at The Box, but you’re also going to perform with Slash. He’s going to call you to have a conversation about what you guys should perform.” Later on that day, Slash starts texting me, and I’m freaking out. It’s like, “Hey Kimberly, sickening vocals. I never watch The Voice, but you are amazing. I love your style.” I’m like, “What the f–k? Slash is saying he wants to perform with me?” We were going to do Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.”

But after my elimination, me and Pharrell were talking backstage and I was like, “I’m mad because I’m not going to perform with Slash.” And Pharrell’s planting seeds like, “You utilize that relationship. Cultivate that relationship with Slash. He clearly likes you, so don’t let that drop.” So right after, we’re going to do media interviews, and it’s just not good energy. But I start texting Slash, like, “Hey, I’m eliminated. I know this may be inappropriate, but I still want to perform with you guys.” He texts me back later on that night, and he’s like, “We were at our show. Kimberly I’m so sorry, we love you. How didn’t you make it into the top five? We still want to have you. We think you’re the s–t, and you’re performing with us anyway.” After he and I performed, and we talked, he was like, “It was meant to be, so don’t worry about the fate of that show — just keep doing you.” It was amazing to perform with him. It was a dream come true.

TVLINE | And you’ve proven now that you can sell music, too. Does that give you a different level of confidence now going into a post-Voice world?
Before I even got on this show, I always felt like whoever was controlling the music industry was underestimating the consumer. The consumer wants good music, and they don’t care who it’s by, whether you’re 30, 40 or 20. They want something they can feel in a moment, and if what you do resonates with them, with their souls, they’re going to buy your music. That’s why this type of platform — reality TV shows —  you have to go for it. The music industry is just not going to easily let you in, not doing what I do, because they don’t get it. Whoever controls the industry now is stupid. It’s not the ’60s or ’70s with Aretha and Janis, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. You have to go out and prove it yourself. Only then it’s like, “Oh. People like it. We can sell it now.” [Laughs] That’s what I’m trying to do.