Three months ago, few people outside of the little town of Harlan, Kentucky had ever heard of Jordan Smith.
Last week, Smith’s life changed forever when he was crowned the winner of NBC’s “The Voice” season nine. And as he sat down for an interview with XFINITY at Rockefeller Center, the 21-year-old Lee University music business major got a small taste of how big that change might be when he was informed of high-profile additions to his quickly filling calendar, including a gig singing the National Anthem (accompanied by the Boston Pops) at the NHL Winter Classic on NBC.
From the moment Smith belted out the first notes of Sia’s “Chandelier” during his blind audition in September, Smith has been the undeniable frontrunner in the competition. His pairing with fan favorite coach and Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine solidified Jordan as the one to beat.
Despite the viral buzz – his blind audition has nearly 23 million views on YouTube – the always humble Smith told me he was never truly certain he would win the competition.
"There would be times throughout the whole show where I would feel confident and I would feel a little safe," Smith explained, adding that he would feel most secure after a strong performance. "And then I would get backstage and I would hear all the other performances and I would just be like, 'This is incredible.' Every single week, all the contestants kept upping their game and raising the bar."
He continued: "In my mind, they were all just so great, I didn't understand how America was gonna pick between anyone. For me, I was surprised every week when I kept moving forward."
Just one week before the season nine finale, Smith did the unthinkable when his semifinals cover of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” shot to number one on the iTunes song chart, effectively ending Adele’s five-week reign at the top with her smash hit “Hello.” He continued the trend following the finale by dethroning himself and Adele with a new number one, his cover of the religious holiday classic “Mary, Did You Know?” And now that the competition is over, he is still making history by becoming the first artist to ever hold the top two songs (“Mary, Did You Know?” and “Hallelujah”) on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs chart.
So what's next for Jordan Smith? What might his debut album sound like? And can he become the first worldwide superstar produced by "The Voice"? Check out my in-depth interview with the newest champion below:
David Onda: What did it mean to you to celebrate the winning “The Voice,” with the confetti streaming down and everyone cheering, while singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”?
Jordan Smith: That ended up being pretty special. That was Adam’s idea, he chose that song, and he was so sure about it. He knew this was the song for me. I took a little convincing. I wasn’t exactly positive in the beginning that this was the right choice for this week, but once I really thought about the song – of course, I love the song. “The Sound of Music” is one of my absolute favorites. Julie Andrews is my celebrity crush. I thought about the words, I thought about this time in my life and I decided it was really perfect. I decided to just put my heart into it and trust Adam in the call that he was making like I had done in weeks previous. It turned out to be such an amazing moment for me as I was singing it. I was like, “Wow, this is so true.” And not even from the point of, “Oh, I’ve arrived here at the end of the show and I’ve overcome so much,” but more of the now I’m standing at the foot of another mountain of going on after the show and I have so much more to learn and do and so much more work. It was more of an encouraging moment for me now standing on this cliff of a new journey beginning after the show ends. It turned out to be a pretty special moment for me.
Onda: Did you get time with Adam after the finale ended, and what did he say to you?
Smith: Yeah, we had some time to talk afterwards and he was just very, very proud. Throughout the whole thing, we’ve grown kinda close and he’s been very supportive and very proud each week. He gets excited off of our successes – sometimes more than his own. Whenever he sees that we’re getting followings, or if we do well on iTunes, that excites him so much for us. And that just shows how great of a coach he is and how great of a person he is. He was very excited for me and very proud and, of course, he was very happy to beat Blake [Shelton] this year. [laughs] That’s the big thing. He was so happy to win over Blake, especially because he had two artists in the finale. We had time to talk and he just talked to me about the journey on the show and thanked me, and I think we learned from each other during the show. From what he’s expressed to me, I think maybe he learned some lessons as well, which is a really cool thing. He just encouraged me about the future, too, and what to look for and ways that I can move forward from here and be successful.
Onda: Do you foresee this connection lasting into the future? Can you call Adam Levine any time for advice?
Smith: Yeah, yeah! I definitely see us still being connected in the future. I’ve actually already been texting with him and talking to him since the show. It’s a connection that goes beyond television and beyond what you see on camera. He really is invested in his artists and the people who are on his team. He’s had so much success, and he wants to share that with us and help us grow and learn. He had that success at a very young age. He started recording when he was in high school and he’s been in a band for a very, very long time. And, so, he wants to share his wisdom and knowledge of this industry, and I’m gonna take him up on that offer. I think he’s a good person to have in my corner moving forward from here.
Onda: Looking back at that very first blind audition, it was unique from the viewer's point of view in that we didn't get to see who you were until that first coaches' chair turned around. And it really drove home the point that, perhaps, people wouldn't expect you to have such an amazing voice. How did you feel about that?
Smith: In a meeting before blind auditions, they made us aware that there was the potential for that to happen with some people’s auditions. They were trying something where some auditions wouldn’t be seen maybe until a chair turned or until the very end of the audition, and they made us aware that was very possible. We were pre-recording a lot of interviews and things like that, and they were letting us know that there was potential that those wouldn’t be used in that situation. And, from the beginning, I was like, “That’s gonna be me. I totally know it. I’m gonna be the mystery person.” Everyone in my whole life has been like, “You’re so unexpected. You don’t look anything like you sound. You look at you and you expect this big, deep voice.” And so I just called it from the very beginning, and all my friends were like, “You were so right!” It was an honor, really, to be able to audition at all. And to have this thing that’s kind of the epitome of the show – it’s a completely blind audition and it just displays what the show is all about. It really is about the voice. It’s not about what you look like or who you are or who you know or what you have, it’s just about your talent and your gift and your heart. It’s been proven to me over and over, constantly and consistently throughout the show, but that moment when I saw that on television really proved to me that it was about the right thing. And it confirmed in me that I made the right choice by choosing this show. Having a voice that I felt was different, while it seems like a small thing, growing up that was something that I had to learn to deal with. I would constantly get called “ma’am” on the phone and at the drive-through. It’s not a big deal now, but growing up as a young man, that was a little bit of a hurdle I had to overcome. So, it was really special to come to this place of self-acceptance and realize that that thing that made me different, that I didn’t necessarily like about myself, was what makes me special. And then to stand on stage and have four superstars turn their chairs to see me standing there… it was really special.
Onda: Do you still give Adam a hard time for being the last coach to turn his chair?
Smith: [laughs] There’s a little more to our conversations there in the audition than you get to see. They have to cut it down for time’s sake, but we talked a little more after I sang, and he explained that he was just in that moment and he was enjoying seeing the room’s reactions and the other coaches’ reactions. I don’t give him too hard of a time because he so well defended himself for turning around last, but I do poke fun at him sometimes.
Onda: It seemed almost like you came to this competition fully formed. You are so talented and seem so poised and polished - what kind of advice did Adam give you throughout the competition?
Smith: Well, thank you. There’s so much! I’m far from perfect. I’ve been in school for music for three years now. I’ve been studying classical voice and I’ve been taking music classes, studying music theory and I’ve been in choir for most of my life, so I’ve had a lot of experience with singing. This was a completely new situation for me. I had to learn things differently and really put myself out there. At the time, I was a good singer. I felt like I was a pretty good singer, but that was it. I wasn’t a performer, I wasn’t an entertainer and I wasn’t considering myself truly an artist yet. I would just say, “I’m a singer, I’m a vocalist.” Through the process, I’ve learned so much about myself as an artist and what I want in my own music. Adam has been such a big part of that. He’s sneaky. I’m telling you, he’s sneaky. He put me on this path and I slowly saw this person emerging that was more confident on stage, that was more self-aware, that wasn’t worried about what was happening. He taught me that the best performers are the people who are just themselves on stage. That’s what he is. He doesn’t jump around and dance and do synchronized things like that. He just stands with a microphone most of the time and gets away with it, which is totally unfair. [laughs] And he taught me about having a gut feeling and going with it. There were a couple times this season where we were talking about a certain song, and we thought it was the thing that we were gonna do, and I got into rehearsal and sing through a couple things and it just wasn’t right. And then we had to change it. You have a gut feeling when something’s not right, and he’s really taught me to trust that as an artist and as a musician. Sometimes we just have that thing inside of us that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong. For me, a big part of it is my faith, and I always make decisions prayerfully. And even though it seems silly to pray about a song choice on a show like this, it’s a big deal. I feel like song selection is one of the biggest parts of this process, and the most important thing that keeps you going from week to week. And so I try to make decisions prayerfully, and for me, that was part of that feeling inside. He really drove that home with me, to always listen to that. If there’s something that you feel should be a different way to speak your mind. He’s been very vocal about that.
Onda: And it paid off with “Mary, Did You Know?” That was your choice, right?
Smith: Yeah, it totally paid off! I’ve kind of used his lesson to me against him a little bit. [laughs] That’s one of the situations where it happened, which he was totally fine with and totally cool with. We were planning on doing something else and I knew this was one of my last chances to perform on that stage in the show and I wanted it to be special to me. And this song is so special to my heart. I think it’s a beautiful song, it’s always been one of my favorites and I wanted the chance to do it on the show, because I knew how strongly I felt about it and I knew that would translate in the song. It turned out to be one of my favorite performances, and it’s done well on iTunes, but the most important thing to me was that I loved singing it and that I was really able to share my heart in it.
Onda: Pharrell Williams has said that people are just ready for you to make a record. I know you've just won the competition, but in a perfect world where you get exactly what you want, what does that record sound like?
Smith: Well, I’m not exactly entirely sure yet. I know content-wise, I want to make a record that provokes thought and emotion, and I want to make a record that really inspires feelings in people. I think music is such a strong connection between people. It’s a spiritual connection. It’s a deep connection that you share with someone else. I want to use that to make a record that inspires people. I think it’s gonna be a pop record. Vocally, I’m built for pop music, and I love pop music. I think that’s where I’m gonna end up genre-wise, but I don’t want to define myself by genre. I want to define myself by what I believe and what I want in my music. I’m looking to make an album that’s different. I don’t want it to sound like everything else that’s out there right now. I love tight band arrangements, I love funky music, but I also love strings. Sometimes you just hear music that just moves you, and it’s just instrumental music, and I’m all about that. I kind of want to combine those things. I want to combine the power of music as its own language with our language and hopefully make something really special.
Onda: What inspires you? What inspires your writing?
Smith: When I do write, I’m inspired by things that are happening in my life and then the things that are happening to people around me. And a lot of what I write has to do with my faith, honestly. That’s where I draw a lot of my inspiration, just because it’s such a fundamental part of who I am. But I’m also in love, so I love to write about love. And I’ve had heartbreak, so I love to write about heartbreak. One of the biggest inspirations in my life is my grandfather. He has Parkinson’s disease, he’s had it before I was even born, and so he’s just been a strong person. My entire life, I’ve seen him be strong and continue going and live life in the fullest capacity he can, and that inspires me too. It inspired me to do things like this, to take chances, and to live fully in his place since he can’t.
Onda: Speaking of family, I loved seeing your parents on the show. They seem so real and down to Earth and so the opposite of "Hollywood."
Smith: We’re from a small town in Kentucky, so for them, it’s been total culture shock. It has been for me, too, but I’ve done a little more traveling in my life than they have. They’re so excited and happy. It’s really cool, too, because they really have sacrificed a lot my entire life to open doors for me and to provide opportunities for me. My dad has worked two jobs for as long as I can remember, and my mom has always worked. They’re both nurses. They shared music with me when I was a kid. My dad plays piano and sings and my mom sings and plays as well, so they shared music with me and were the first people to really push me out there. And then they did everything they could to make opportunities happen for me, so this is a really cool payoff for them, and I’m glad that they get to come out and have a chance to be a part of it. Even though they aren’t “Hollywood,” which is completely true, it’s been cool to see them in this environment and see them so happy about it.
Onda: Have people started to notice you on the street? What's the reaction been?
Smith: It is strange, the amount of people who notice me or know who I am. The thing I get the most is, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like that guy from ‘The Voice’?” It’s crazy to have attention like that and to run into people who know who I am. And I wanna feel connected to all those people, because they’re watching the show, they’re supporting, they’re the reason that I’m here. I always try to connect with people. It’s really surreal to see people on the street who know who you are or ask for your autograph. It still hasn’t registered why me writing something on a piece of paper is worth something now, you know what I mean? [laughs]
Onda: "The Voice" has yet to produce a worldwide superstar the way other singing competitions have. Adam has said he thinks you could be the winner that becomes the next big thing. Does that put a little pressure on you?
Smith: Yeah, it is a little bit of pressure. I think success is measured in different ways, first of all. While there may not be lots of “Voice” winners who are superstars who have international acclaim and the fame that I personally think they deserve – while they don’t have all those things, this show is more about putting out well-rounded artists. And I can see, after being a part of the process, just how prepared some of these people that are leaving the show are to have a career in music. They may not be superstars and they may not be flying in private jets and singing at the Super Bowl, but they’re making a living in what they wanna do. They’re masters of their craft, they’re making a living in the industry, they’re making a difference. And I really admire that. As far as being that person that does reach that status, that is a lot of pressure there. I want to break that mold and I wanna open this door so future contestants can have a chance at that too, because I feel that so many of them are gonna be so talented, just like the ones we’ve seen and deserve it just as much. Yeah, it’s pressure, but I think I’m just gonna try and relieve that pressure for myself and just make music because I love to make music. That’s what I’ve done so far and it’s been successful. I’ve just made music that I really love and come from my heart and that’s why it has sold. I’m just gonna keep doing that and hopefully the trend that we’ve seen so far will continue. But if not, like I said, I’m coming out of this process a much better artist than when I went in. I’m much better educated, I’m much more aware of who I am and what I want and I know that there is a place for me in the industry, whether it’s at the top of it or whether it’s somewhere in the middle or at the bottom.
Onda: We’ve touched on it a couple times during the interview, but in your opinion as someone on the inside of the show, what do you think sets “The Voice” apart from other singing competitions?
I can't necessarily compare it, but I can tell you what's really special about this show to me. First of all, they take it seriously. They take the music seriously. There's no joke auditions, there's no trying to make people look funny or anything like that. There's been a statement that's reassured me throughout my entire time on the show from the beginning, and that is: "We're never gonna let you look bad." They're all about representing you in the best light possible because they, like I said, trying to give the most people they can a shot at success in the industry. I've learned so much being on the show. I work with a vocal coach ever week, I work with staging people, and they're constantly encouraging me and teaching me lessons - not just telling me what to do for that particular song, but they're telling me things I'm gonna remember years from now. They're all kind. They're all there for the right reason. They're all there because they're invested in this process. Those coaches - I'm sure, yes, they get paid lots of money to be on the show - but it's more than that to them. I can see that. I can see how invested they are in the artists and how much they believe in this process of equipping people. I think that's what's really special about it.
It’s not just about building someone up into the final two to get superstar status. This season, this is why they changed the format. Instead of losing two people each week, we only lost one person. They brought back four artists, so we had the top 24, which gave four more people another shot to sing in front of America and have a performance living out there, another song on iTunes, another chance at gaining more followers. They’re doing everything they can to help people build a following. They promote us on Twitter. With the “instant save,” for one example, Korin Bukowski, when she was on the bottom in the “instant save,” she walked away the next morning with 30,000 more [Twitter] followers than she had than she had the night before the “instant save.” And it’s crafted for that exact reason, so everyone can build as much of a following as possible, so that when they leave the show, they have a strong foundation for moving their careers forward. And I really respect that and appreciate that about the show. It’s a really special environment and, like I said, they’re so kind. They want you to do your best. They don’t cut people down, they don’t do anything like that. They’re all very supportive and very invested in what the show’s about.
Want to relive Jordan Smith’s journey on “The Voice”? Click here to watch every season nine episode on line with XFINITY TV Go.
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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.