[Spoiler alert: This story contains the identity of the second place finisher on Wednesday night’s (May 20) The Masked Singer finale.]
It was down to the wire between Turtle and The Night Angel on Wednesday night’s season three finale of The Masked Singer. Both were pure vocalists with the pipes to win over the judges who proved their range and stagecraft over the course of Fox’s smash anonymous singing competition.
With his cumbersome shell and lithe stage moves, Turtle slow-walked past rapper Lil Wayne (Robot), two legendary singers (Miss Monster Chaka Khan and Mouse Dionne Warwick), a reality star politician (Bear Sarah Palin) and a metal belter and country star (Banana Poison‘s Bret Michaels and Astronaut Hunter Hayes). He also sneaked away from third place finisher, Frog, better known as rapper Bow Wow.
He did it with a combination of towering pop hits new and old, including Nick Jonas’ “Jealous,” Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” and Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” and his quarterfinals deal-sealer, an emotional, tear-jerking cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Who was that masked man? Not New Kids on the Block’s Joey McIntyre, Nick Lachey or Backstreet Boys’ Brian Littrell, nor Adam Lambert, Zac Efron or Chris Evans. All decent guesses, but wrong. When the end came, it was none other than pop singer Jesse McCartney, who proved his pipes had not rusted despite not releasing a full studio album since 2014’s In Technicolor.
Billboard caught up with McCartney, 33, before his elimination to talk about how bad he wanted to win, why wearing a mask was no refuge at all and how as hard as he tried he just couldn’t hide his signature thumb action on stage.
Night Angel told me earlier today that she was scared of your vocal prowess from day one. How does that kind of praise from the winner of season three make you feel?
Aww, that’s very gracious of her, but she killed it on the show and won over everybody. She did a fantastic job. I’m in it for songwriting and some of the songs she woe were some of the first songs I ever bought at a record store. So I’m equally as impressed with her and I thought it was very brave of her too get up there every single night. As somebody who is for the first time really showing everybody what she can do vocally she did and to take home the trophy was really incredible. And Frog too, to me week in and week out was the most consistent and such a showman. He won the audience over every single night because the energy was palpable in the studio.
I talked to Hunter Hayes a few weeks ago and he was in a similar spot as you, a bit off the music scene for a while. Did you do the show to re-reintroduce yourself to people?
Certainly I knew the exposure element of the show and how it could align with the fact that I am releasing new music. But, yes, it was a way for me to show what I’m capable of to people who were maybe on the fence or didn’t even know who I was. And maybe develop a new fan base and bring in new fans. A lot of people have reached out over the past few months… this one guy on a military base said he was watching and said, “I didn’t know any of your music, my sister was a big fan, but I wanted you to know you’re doing such a great job. I’m a big fan now.” I had people from all over who you wouldn’t think of as a Jesse McCartney fan and I’ve now got them hooked. It’s nice to tear down some perception too. I think a lot of people think young teenybopper without any chops and I always wanted to go up there every week and show them that singing is something I take very seriously.
But to be clear, I assume when someone like that guy on the base reaches out, because of the show’s legendarily strict non-disclosures, you’re like, “Thanks, but I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
[Laughs] Well, of course, yeah, I don’t respond to any of them. My own mother was emailing me saying, “I know what’s going on. I know you can’t speak of it, but I just want you to know you’re doing a great job.” It’s incredible how many people I had to lie to over the past three months and how painful it was for me. Especially your family and friends because they’re, “C’mon, we’re not gonna tell anybody.” And I’m thinking to myself, “An NDA is a very real thing.”
Did you watch the show? What was it that made you think it might be a good way to bring things back around?
I didn’t really watch the show religiously. The only reason I did watch it was because a friend of mine, T-Pain, won it the first season and we have the same music agent. I checked it out because I love T-Pain’s work, we’ve worked together before and I knew he was an incredible singer… I was curious to watch him prove to everybody what I already knew… I got an early taste of what the show was like and thought, “Wow, what a bizarre show.” And then two season later my agent called and said they want you to do it and thinking back to the T-Pain performances and thinking, “I could totally do this and probably tear down a lot of perceptions people have of me.”
One thing a number of contestants, including Night Angel, have told me is that they loved the anonymity of the mask because it allowed them to relieve some of their anxiety about singing on stage. Was that your experience? What appealed to you about wearing the mask?
Nothing at all actually. To be completely honest with you being on stage is my favorite place to be. I had no anxiety. The anxiety for me was having the mask on and being able to sing. That to me is the biggest anxiety I had throughout the whole competition: having this enormously cumbersome mask on and having to dance and sing in it week in and week out. I just wanted to rip the thing off and sing.
The costume was great, but you mentioned in one package that the backpack weighed 40 pounds. Did that make it hard to be yourself on stage?
Between the leather jacket and that turtle shell, which we were constantly tweaking on the first few episodes because it limited my range, what I could do with my neck. I had 20 percent less tilt range on my neck, so when you go to take a huge breath you kind of cock your head back and I wasn’t able to do it, so it was affecting my breathing. By the third of fourth episode we nailed it, but that is part of the game, part of the show: what can you do with all of this on? Before the show I started training, running 5Ks or 10Ks every day. I was really, really taking it seriously and working with two vocal coaches every day. I took it very seriously.
Like you were training for a marathon.
Totally. And it was the longest marathon I’ve ever run.
Have you run any marathons?
We now know you hated wearing it, but was there anything in particular about the Turtle that appealed to you initially?
To be honest there were a few they sent me that just looked like they would be very difficult to move around in. After watching T-Pain in his Monster outfit and Chaka Khan in Miss Monster and some of those costumes that made it hard to move around I knew a couple of the cards I’d be holding is that I’d be able to dance and move around on stage. And I don’t think I would have been able to do that with some of the outfits they were proposing. One thing that appealed to me was that the Turtle’s outfit had pants, from the waist down it was just regular looking leather pants and boots. That mixed with the metaphor of growing up in this industry as a child you develop a thick skin, a thick shell if you will, that lined up with the narrative of the entire season.
You got so close to winning, was there a point at which you thought you have a chance to take it all like your friend T-Pain?
I think when we got down to the final four. I really liked Kitty. I thought she was the most technically inclined. I thought her technical vocal ability to me was the most refined. But as far as showmanship I was really worried about Frog. And there was something about Rhino, even though I could tell by watching that I didn’t think he was a professional singer, he had this really beautiful, simple tone that was very agreeable. Every time you heard him it was so nice on the ears. And people love country music, which he was doing a lot of. And we haven’t had a country winner yet. I was thinking it could be any of those. Once Kitty was eliminated and once it was me, Rhino, Frog and Night Angel that’s when I started smelling blood. “Okay, I think I can do this.” And when you get that far you just want to win. I’d be lying if I said wasn’t a little disappointed at the end. But you get over it really quickly because ultimately you were able to make it to the finale. You put down a performance every single week and I’m overall happy with the body of work. It’s something that I’m looking forward to showing to little kid Turtles one day.
Some people have a performance tell: the way they dance, move their feet, hold their hands. Did you try to change up your voice or the way you move to fool people who might recognize your tells?
Yes and no. I knew I didn’t want to change my voice because I knew it was my voice that was going to move me along in the competition. There were so many things that come across your desk when you’re brainstorming what to do every week: “You should do a rap song!” I knew I would not go out there and start rapping. If I did that I would almost certainly get eliminated. I realized if I wanted to win I had to stay within my wheelhouse, but also push the envelope a little bit every week and give them sometime new. The way I move on stage it is hard to untrain 20-plus years of performing. Eventually you’re going to give up a move that one of your fans is going to know is you. The way I hold my arms or my hands… I have these thumbs that have a mind of their own, they just stuck out every time I perform. People were like, “Dude, those are your thumbs!” Particularly my own mother said that. There are just certain things you can’t untrain your body to do no matter how hard you try.
Your cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You” in the quarterfinals seemed to really draw the judges in. Did it make you realize that might get you to the final?
It’s a very emotional song and a lot of people’s favorite song. I knew that pulling at people’s heartstrings was a very good way to guarantee myself a spot. Maybe that’s too strategic an answer, but it’s true. The music director on the show told me that hardly ever did they see anyone go home on a big, emotional ballad as long as it was done well. “Fix You” was actually my fianceé’s idea, she said “I love that song, people love that song, it means so many different things to so many different people, you should do it.” I listened to it and there are no tricks. You’re just completely out there on your own, with the simplest melody over a piano. If you mess up you hear everything. It’s the most vulnerable you can be as a vocalist. I knew I could go out there and lay it down, there’s no run, no tricks, just a simple melody line with incredible lyrics. I think we brought that one home and it sort of sealed the deal that week. Definitely one of my favorite performances as well.
Was there anything you did on the show that surprised even you?
Yeah. I think I realized that I could sing songs that I wouldn’t sing otherwise. Like, “Fix You,” Whitney Houston or Seal. It definitely pulled me outside my comfort zone some weeks. I wanted to win, but I don’t know that I thought that I would get that far… To me it proved that I am in the right industry, that I’ve chosen the right career and I’m doing what I was born to do, which is to be up on stage and singe. I have to say, it will be fun not singing with 40 extra pounds on back going forward.
Your mom knew, but did anyone else in your life figure out it was you?
My brother, my father, the family I’ve grown up with for 32 years have known all along and my dearest friends. It’s so terrible because at the same time you want to say, “You’ve got to tune in, it’s gonna be a great week!” But you can’t. You kind of know that they all figured it out but they were all very cool. My family were so cool, they said, “we know you can’t say anything but we’re rooting fo ryou.” My fiancé and I were freaking out every week because someone would bring it up and we had to keep a poker face. So for the past three months we’ve just been on guard if someone asked us when we weren’t expecting it.
A lot of the guesses were in the wheelhouse: Joey Mac, Nick Lachey, Brian Litrrell, Adam Lambert, but also Zac Efron and Chris Evans. Did any of them throw you off?
A lot of them made sense. I’m not really familiar with some of their singing voices, like Chris Evans, who I love as an actor. I’m unfamiliar with his vocals…
I don’t know that he sings. I think that was just a goofy answer.
Some where a bit out there. I think I got Jaden Smith? I don’t know if they actually aired that guess, but I was like, “Really? Jaden Smith? You really think I sound like Jaden Smith?” But there were some great guesses. Gavin DeGraw was a great guess. He’s a good buddy of mine.
Talk about coming back with your new single “Friends,” which is a fun track about all the things we kind of can’t do just yet because of coronavirus, like hanging out with your pals. What inspired it?
When I wrote the song I had no idea we would be facing a worldwide pandemic, but now it seems like it’s making people nostalgic. When I’m looking at the reactions online, people are like, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to go out to a bar or go to the beach with my friends!” It’s making people miss their friends, so it’s actually a perfect time. We were between this and a couple other songs as the next single and it just felt like a good pick-me-up for people who were feeling a bit low or just needed a boost in their morale. I know that’s what I do when I need my spirits turned around: my friends are my family as much as my family. You rarely in pop hear songs about hanging out with your best friends. You hear about romantic relationships and heartbreak and love, but this seemed like a fun twist about being romantic about your friends and how much you need them in your life. I think it comes at a perfect time.
Is this the part of a plan to come back with an album? You haven’t released one since 2014.
I released my first single about a month ago, “Yours.” That song is probably the best representation of the album. “Friends” is probably the most light-hearted and fun one, so why not do more of a summer bop? The majority of the record is more introspective and reflective and what it’s been like for me growing up in this industry over the past 20 years and how it’s affected me and my relationship with my family and my friends. It also talks about my romantic relationship with my fiancé, my partner of the last eight years. We still don’t know when the album will be released, it’s all contingent on this COVID thing, but we will be releasing it at some point this year. I just don’t know when. I the meantime we’ll keep trickling out singles.