"They ranged in style from full-on costume with flowers and sombreros to just jeans and a t-shirt."
New York-based acoustic singer/songwriter Sarah J is remembering the eclectic crowd of fellow contestants at her recent audition for NBC's "The Voice." Ahead of tonight's (May 8) second-season finale of the music reality competition series, she's retracing the earliest steps that the show's hopefuls must take before they can ever await a career-turning turn of the chair by coaches Christina Aguilera, CeeLo Green, Adam Levine or Blake Shelton.
"There was a girl next to me who just turned 18 that day. And, there was a woman in her 40s who had never thought about singing as a career. There were definitely a few people in my group who were not seasoned performers. They were very nervous, although the judge was super-cool and let them start over.
"One girl, she had a great voice, but her nerves completely got in the way. In that aspect, I think I did have an advantage with my background in performing with a rock band (Ophir Drive) for so long," Sarah J said of the group that she formed in college. She self-released the solo album Happier last fall that ranges from gentle piano pop ("Hold On") to Lilith Fair-era inspired guitar-based rock ("Write Me Off").
Was a resume of playing countless clubs coast-to-coast, from New York's famed CBGB's to Los Angeles' Whisky a Go Go, enough to send the smoky-voiced Sarah J onto your TV next season?
Let's find out. She recently sat down with Billboard at Faust-Harrison Pianos in White Plains, N.Y., to recount the road from start (aka, filling out a simple form) to finish (i.e., a season finale showdown and, perhaps ultimately, a ranking on a Billboard chart).
How did you begin the process of auditioning for "The Voice"?
You had to sign up online. They'd give you a number and then you had to confirm it a week beforehand. On the day of the audition, you had to go wait in line (in the cold …) to find out your timeslot.
Describe the crowd once you got to the audition.
A lot of people. And, definitely more girls than guys. The crowd at the Javits Center, where I auditioned… people went all the way from the main entrance outside, down the block, to the block around the corner. And that was just when I got there at 6:30 in the morning. I don't know how many people got there after! That was the second day of auditions there, and just the first round.
After what must have felt like a long wait, you got called inside?
We go in, finally, down to the basement. They take you into a hallway - where you wait more.
Finally, the audition, which was... weird. Usually auditions are individual. Here, they took a group of 10 people into the audition room and one-by-one you had to get up and sing a capella, a verse and chorus, for the judge-slash-producer. So, that was kind of odd, singing for everybody. It made it kind of awkward; what if you're singing the same song as the person next to you?
Do you get to choose what song you can sing?
You do, and it can be from any genre. There were people in my room auditioning with everything from jazz standards - I think somebody sang "Paper Moon" - to contemporary soul, you know, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston. Then, somebody sang an Evanescence song.
I did a Leonard Cohen song, "Hallelujah."
Despite that great vocal above, I guess we have to reveal that, unfortunately, you didn't get a callback to appear on "The Voice" next season. What do you think producers seek in a contestant?
I think they were looking for … more flash and … "zazz." But, I think that "Hallelujah" was my most goose-bumpy song possible. And, I picked the most emotional verse from it.
While Carson Daly may have to wait a bit longer before ushering you onto the "The Voice" stage, how do you look back on your audition?
I feel, for me, because performing live regularly is something that I'm already doing, if I got on a reality show, it would certainly be a shortcut to what I'm already pursuing. As you know, the music industry is changing and record companies aren't just going to hand out a million dollars … unless you get on a reality TV show! I'd like a million dollars to redo my record. But, if I don't get that, I'm still going to go out and gig. ( Editor's note: New York-area readers can catch Sarah J at the Bitter End on Bleecker St. on May 15 beginning at 7 p.m.)
When I was 18, I auditioned for "American Idol" and I was devastated that it didn't work out. I was like, "Oh, that was my one shot …" Now that I'm older, I realize that it's not. I'm living my dreams every day. And that, to me, is worth more than a reality TV contract.
"I'm performing in front of people every night and that's what I want. As long as people are listening, I'm good."