The hugely successful vocal competition The Voice is back on NBC for its ninth season, with the strongest vocalists from across the country competing to be coached by megastar musicians Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams. As the contestants move through the stages of competition, from Blind Auditions to Battle Rounds to the Knockouts to the Live Playoffs, and then finally to the Live Performance shows, the coaches will dedicate themselves to developing their team of artists, giving them advice and sharing the secrets of their success, along with help from their celebrity advisers.
Monsters & Critics was invited to participate in roundtable interviews with Levine, Shelton, Stefani and Williams, to see how being a part of this show has affected and inspired them and to hear about what’s most surprised them from working with the contestants. Even though the coaches are at the top of their careers in the music industry, the one thing that they have in common with all of the singers that come onto the show is a love and passion for music.
After Christina Aguilera returned to show last season, Stefani is back again and very happy to be there. “It was so sad when it was over. It went really fast, and it was so fun. It was not at all what I expected. I got so much out of it, and I was inspired. I said, ‘I hope they ask me back!’ I was waiting and waiting. So, when it happened, it was last minute and it’s been a whirlwind. Coming back has been great. It’s so different this time because I know everyone so well, I’m so comfortable and I know what I’m doing. Also, my team is just amazing. Emotionally, the different stories that they have and what I’m getting out of it, I’m learning that we have these parallel stories going on and it’s really cool. It’s just a really fun thing to do.”
Even though there were other singing competition shows before this one, Levine said that The Voice is different because of how closely the coaches and advisors work with the talent. “I don’t think there are too many mentor-based shows. Even American Idol was different because the dynamic was different between the judges and the contestants. We’re coaching them and trying to make them succeed and do well, on a very intimate basis. We’re helping them with the vocals and with who they are. I’ve had fun doing it. Every season is very different, and some seasons are better than others, but they’re all very fun and informative for me because I always learn from it.”
Because the live studio audience and the viewers at home all get to actually see the contestants during their blind auditions, the only ones that really have no idea what they look like are the coaches who are putting the teams together. Shelton said, “The audience gets to see who’s up there, and that can’t help but sway your thinking. All the coaches get is the voice, when we’re trying to select people for our team or get people on our team. The only way you could probably relate to what we’re doing is if you didn’t stand in front of the TV, or you shut your eyes and just listened, at home. It’s two completely different things. You hear with your eyes, too, when you watch. I think it changes what you hear.”
Added Williams, “It’s a test on the senses. All we have is the sound of their voice and what’s emanating through whatever it is that they’re singing. Sometimes you can just hear that struggle and it makes you push the button. Whether it’s a 7-foot person or a person that’s 2’2,” you’re always surprised. You think it’s a woman and it’s a dude, or you think it’s a dude and it’s an older woman. You just never know.”
And stressing just how wrong he always is when he thinks he knows what the person with the voice will look like, Williams said, “I never get it right. Every time, I’m like, ‘It’s going to be Snow White. It’s going to be Diana Ross. It’s going to be Shirley Temple.’ And then, it’s Chewbacca.”
Shelton added, “I’m the worst. I should probably be cooler about it sometimes, but when I turn around and I think it’s going to be a girl and it’s a guy, I’m like, ‘What?! How do you do that?!’”
Because they’ve been on the show the longest, there is a bit of a good-natured rivalry between Levine (who has had two of the winners) and Shelton (who has had four of the winners).
But as much as Levine would like to beat Shelton, he also said that he’s happy for whichever team the winner is on, as long as the right person wins. “Winning The Voice, for the coaches, is fun. I’d love Gwen to win. I think that would be awesome. Pharrell won last year, and that was awesome. If we’re being super honest, we don’t really care [which coach] wins. Although it’s awesome and fun and I’m super competitive and I love to win, I would much rather just believe that the person who did win was the right person. That’s the truth. But within that, of course, I would rather it be someone on my team who’s the right person to win. Beyond that, I will enjoy beating Blake at many other things that I get satisfaction from.”
All of the coaches on the show have big personalities, which they use to their advantage when trying to lure contestants to their team. As the only girl among the guys, Stefani is more than okay with that. “That’s the story of my life! How did that happen? It’s just so weird because I was not a tomboy. I was totally into Barbies and I had my girlfriends, growing up. And then, all of a sudden, I was in a band with all guys and it just stayed like that. I got the Harajuku girls for five minutes, but I had to pay them. No. It’s really comfortable. They’re so funny. They all are such great characters. It’s been really fun. I don’t really think about it like I’m the only girl. It’s just normal. And I love being a girl on the show because I get to wear fun things and change it up. I just have to work a little harder than they do, to be honest. I’m always the first person here. I have to be here two hours before everybody else to make it happen.”
She also said that she doesn’t know if it’s her own paranoia or not, but she felt she had to work a bit harder during the Blind Auditions because of the fact that she’s the only girl among the coaches. “This season, there were a lot of young girls in the blind auditions and we’re fighting to get people onto our team, and I felt like I wasn’t getting picked because I’m the only girl. It’s because girls, at that age, are so dumb sometimes. I know because I was there. I was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to pick Pharrell because you want to make out with him, but I know exactly what to do. I am you and I did it already, so I can tell you.’ It was weird because I have not had that feeling in a long time, of not feeling like I had an equal playing field because of my gender.”
Levine added, “There are other factors, too. Blake and I have been doing this for a zillion years. There are other things that contribute to that.”
Once they get through the Blind Auditions and their teams are set, the coaches get help from their celebrity advisers to prepare their artists for the Battle Rounds, where they pit two of their own team members against each other to sing the same song together in front of a studio audience. After the vocal battle, the coach must choose which of his or her singers will advance to the next round of competition, while the losing artist is available to be stolen by another coach. (Each coach has two steals available during the Battle Rounds.)
This season, John Fogerty will be advising Adam Levine’s team, Brad Paisley will be advising Blake Shelton’s team, Selena Gomez will be advising Gwen Stefani’s team, and Missy Elliott will be advising Pharrell Williams’ team.
On why he wanted Missy Elliott for Team Pharrell, Williams (who was coy about a future collaboration between the two but alluded to the possibility) said, “Missy is a brilliant black woman, not only in music, but just in creativity, period. The kind of creative license that she exercises, on a daily basis, is unmeasured, unmatched and unprecedented. Her being a fellow Virginian, it just makes me super proud to have her be a part of this show. It means so much to me, and I’m grateful to the producers and all the powers-that-be that understand and saw it the same way that I did.”
Shelton thought it made sense to turn to fellow country artist Brad Paisley for Team Blake because his team is usually comprised of more than its fair share in the genre. “I toured with Brad Paisley in 2011, and that was the first year that I did The Voice. I was going through a lot, at that point, because I didn’t know much about TV and my career was on the upswing. That was where Brad had been for awhile, so he was a good guy for me to lean on and talk to throughout that part of my life. He was always there. He’s always been a good guy to be around and he’s funny, so I knew he would be a good mentor for my team. I’ve always got a bunch of country artists on there, so they were all excited to meet him. Sometimes the coolest thing about bringing in a mentor is that moment where somebody walks in the room and is like, ‘Oh, my god, it’s [Brad Paisley]!’ It’s so cool to feel like you had a part in that.”
When asked about what he’s most impressed by, as he sees the artists progress throughout the season, Williams said, “I’m mostly impressed by a unique voice and a vibe that goes along with it. You can have a great voice, and we’ll say, ‘Yeah, you have a great voice.’ But what makes you want to see a person again is when they have a really strong vibe, and it’s a unique one. When a person has a vibe, you can’t necessarily put your finger on it, but it’s there and you always go back to it because it’s the only place you can get it.”
The coaches believe that although the best voice prevails, the full package of who the artist is also plays a role in determining the ultimate winner. Stefani said, “I feel like it’s not just the voice, but it’s also the story, the personality, the inside of people and how hard they work. Those things definitely play a role. At the end of the day, all of our favorite artists are the artists that are flawed and don’t necessarily have the greatest voices, but we love what they have to say.”
Added Levine, “Look at Blake Shelton!”
The Voice Season 9 premieres on NBC on September 21st.