Delaware singer takes on national TV competition

Newark, Delaware, resident Kelsea Johnson is a contestant on NBC's singing competition

Newark, Delaware, resident Kelsea Johnson is a contestant on NBC's singing competition "The Voice." (Zoë Read/WHYY)

As she prepared to step onto the biggest stage of her life, 22-year-old Kelsea Johnson  knew she had to put her nerves aside.

The Newark, Delaware, resident had performed in banquet halls and some sports facilities — but she was about to sing for some of the most successful musicians in the world.

“It was insane. Backstage, I was freaking out, like, ‘Alicia Keys is out there, all these A-list celebrities are out there, and I’m about to sing for them,’ ” she said.

“And then, for some reason, as soon as I was about to go on, this overwhelming sense of calmness took over me. So I was like, ‘You know what, I’m here, it’s gotta happen, so I’m just going to go out there and do what I was put on this Earth to do.’ ”

Not long into the first verse of Meghan Trainor’s emotional “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” Johnson landed a spot on NBC’s singing competition show “The Voice.”

“The Voice” begins with blind auditions, where singers from across the country perform for judges who sit with their backs turned.

If the judges like what they hear, they turn their chair, indicating they want the contestant on their team. If more than one judge turns a chair, the contestant must choose which judge they want to be their coach.

The contestants receive mentoring as they go through several rounds of competition — and if they’re lucky, they perform live for the general public’s vote.

‘What music should be about’

“I just love the idea of the blind auditions. If you’re staring face to face with these four celebrities — I would have cracked. It would have been a horrible wreck. But getting their backs at first is so much easier,” Johnson said.

“Then you know this person isn’t just going after me because I have a cool look, or this person’s not picking me because they don’t like my look. It’s just strictly based on your voice. And that’s what music should be about.”

This season, Keys, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine are judges and coaches. The U.S. version of the show also has featured Shakira, CeeLo Green, Pharrell Williams, Usher, Jennifer Hudson, Miley Cyrus, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera.

During Johnson’s audition, which aired March 1, Levine, Clarkson and Keys turned their chairs.

Going into the audition, she knew she would pick Keys if she had the opportunity.

“I grew up listening to her music, and I love what she stands for. She’s a feminist, the natural beauty thing, she stands for really good messages. And she is an awesome person,” Johnson said. “I never got the vibe she was stuck up. The side she shows America isn’t fake. She’s really this kind person.

“I love the fact she seemed really determined, she was like, ‘Look, if we’re doing this, we’re going to win.’ She really cares about how we sound, and you can tell she’s really into it.”

During the interview portion of the show, Keys said Johnson is the “whole package.”

Johnson is the second Delawarean to appear on “The Voice,” following Nadjah Nicole, who competed in 2015. Johnson said she’s received an outpouring of support for putting Delaware on the map.

“Delaware is such a small state, and people overlook it so easily, so I’m trying to make sure what I do represents my entire state,” she said.

Newark, Delaware’s Kelsea Johnson performs on NBC’s “The Voice.” (Kelsea Johnson/Instagram)

Johnson has been singing her entire life. Her grandfather, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, encouraged her  and supported her dreams. He knew she was going to audition for “The Voice,” but passed away prior to the audition.


Awakening the room

Johnson remembers singing for friends and family at birthday parties as a young child. But her first significant performance was during an eighth-grade talent show.

Many contestants have regular gigs at bars; others are backup singers for famous musicians; and some had record deals that fell through.

But Johnson, who has never gigged, only had experience performing at weddings and sporting events. She said she never received vocal coaching until she got on “The Voice.”

“Looking back now on how I was treating my voice before, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, how did I even have a voice?’ Because I wasn’t doing proper techniques, I wasn’t warming up before I sang,” she said.

Her father, Willard Johnson Jr., said he’s very proud of how far his daughter has come.

“It’s something I knew she had in her all along. I’ve always tried to support her in anything she wanted to do,” he said. “It’s the rasp of her voice, it’s very different, and you don’t hear it a lot. It awakens the room.”

Johnson originally auditioned for the show through “The Voice” Snapchat. Her video was aired, but none of the judges chose her. After graduating from Stony Brook University in Long Island, a producer called Johnson and asked her to audition on “the blinds.”

“I wanted to audition because I feel like this is probably the best first step in music anyone could take. I’m making connections with A-list celebrities. This show is nationwide, people can see me,” she said. “And if I win, that’s a record deal, that’s a cash prize.”

The learning experience has been invaluable, she said.

“I’ve learned so much about myself, about the kind of artist I want to be, about my voice. Just learning from Alicia Keys, who is like the Holy Grail, she’s done it before,” she said. “You can learn so much from these people that are already so successful in the career I want to get into.”

Johnson said she’d like to grow into a neo soul artist, and her biggest inspiration is Lauryn Hill.

“The main thing I love about her is she’s so raw, and she could mess up, completely crack on a note, but she gives you such a raw performance, it’s coming from her heart, it doesn’t matter at that point,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if she didn’t sing the right note the entire song because she’s giving so much more than that, she puts her all into her music.”

Johnson said she hopes competing on “The Voice” is just the beginning of her career.

“Well, besides the fact I’d love to win this show — other than that, I want to put out original music, that’s the main thing I want to do,” she said. “I want to put out neo soul music, I want music I’m proud of.”

After one more week of  blind auditions, the battle round — where two singers from the same team face off — will begin March 19.

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