Todd Kessler is a Chicago-based indie folk-pop performer. His pure, slightly country, voice has a soulful quality that delights his fans as a solo act or with his band Todd Kessler and the New Folk. Todd recently appeared on NBC’s The Voice, chosen for Cee Lo’s team, and although he was eliminated in last week’s battle round, Todd’s appearance on The Voice can only help his burgeoning music career. His band, Todd Kessler and the New Folk released a new album, Sea Fever on CD Baby in July.
I’ve known Todd for several years, so when I asked him if he would share his thoughts about his experiences on The Voice, he agreed to sit down for an interview.
Great talking to you Todd. So, how are things going?
Doing really well. Yeah, can’t complain. It’s been kind of a whirlwind recently. But all good things, so I’m doing well.
So tell me how you got involved in The Voice.
So after the first season wrapped I got two calls from two separate friends saying they watched this new show called The Voice, and that they really think I should try out. I didn’t watch the show. Was not even really aware of the show, but caught a couple of reruns and thought, hey, you know, this is actually kind of cool. So I went ahead and tried out for season two. You know, I never wanted to try out for American Idol because I don’t, I just didn’t like the format and it didn’t feel like organic and it didn’t feel like something I wanted to be a part of. But then I saw this show and my initial reaction was this is definitely different. So I went ahead and just signed up for the open call audition for season two. I ended up making it through a couple of call-backs, but then didn’t make the show. But then I started watching weekly, and fell in love with the show even more. So I went ahead and tried out again for season three. Again, I went through the open call auditions at McCormick Place [in Chicago]. I waited in line for like four or five hours. Made it through the first audition. Made it through the second audition. Got the call to go to LA for the final call-back. And then the rest is history.
You’ve always struck me as kind of a singer/songwriter, folk kind of a guy—an acoustic music kind of a guy. And that was really an interesting take you do on the Rod Stewart song “Maggie May” on one of your The Voice appearances. You know, it was like you expect the kind of gravely voice ala Rod Stewart, but your voice is quite different—clear and country-ish voice. So, why tackle an iconic rock song like “Maggie May?”
Well, I wanted to, I definitely wanted to challenge myself. And doing “Maggie May” was kind of a double challenge because, for one, it’s a classic song. So as soon as the coaches hear those first few notes, they’re going to already have a preconceived notion of what they’re expecting, and what they want to hear. So in that regard it’s a challenge because you want to be different from the original, because it’s not a karaoke show, and also because the original is so unique and Rod Stewart’s voice is just so recognizable. My voice is just very clean. That was going to be just another challenge and just a way to make it completely my own.
So you want to make an impression on the coaches. You want to show them that you can tackle the classic songs and do that kind of thing, but still make it unique to you.
Tell me about the process. Once you got the call and you went to LA, when did all that happen?
So the blind auditions were in June. I was in LA for most of the month of June. And then the battle rounds were a few weeks later, like the second half of July, first week of August.
So you had to actually sit on the results for August, and not tell anyone. I can’t imagine keeping such a big secret! How hard was that to do?
It was definitely difficult. I wanted to share all my experiences with everyone around me. Because I was gone for so much of the summer and everyone was like, “Where were you? What were you doing?” I had to cancel gigs, and I had to be like really cryptic. My go-to line was, “I’m working on a special project in LA. That’s all I have to say.” And it was hard. It was kind of fun at the same time. It’s kind of fun to have a secret like that because you know once it’s out it’s going to be all good things. It was kind of difficult though this summer because not only was I keeping that in, my wife and I were just pregnant and weren’t able to talk about it yet. So it was just like all those things happened together and then it all kind of came out at once.
Well, Mazel Tov on that. When is she due?
She is due in February.
Wow. That’s a great time to have a baby. My kids were both born in March, so kind of the same.
Yeah, you get to hang out inside for the rest of the winter.
Yes, you do. You don’t have to be outside doing stuff. So what was the entire experience on The Voice like? How different from your normal performance mode. I think when you perform you’re often a solo act—just you an your guitar…
I also have a band, Todd Kessler and the New Folk. We released an album this summer called Sea Fever. So it’s kind of a mix. I play more often solo, just because we’re not touring yet, so it’s easier to play more gigs as a solo artist when you’re just in the Chicagoland area for right now. But the band, we do play fairly regularly. We’ve been playing together since…some of us since 2007, and then as this group since about 2009.
What kind of music, what genre would you classify yours?
I call our music alternative-folk-pop.
I want to get back to your experience on The Voice. So you went through the blind auditions. What happened during that round? How does that exactly work, and what was that like?
So for the blind auditions you basically, you get up on that stage. You walk out on stage. The crowd is completely silent. There’s no music. You just walk out on stage. You get your mark. The band starts. And you just start your song. And you have a 90-second cut of the song and where the coaches’ chairs are all turned around. So they can’t see you. They can only hear you. They don’t know your name and they don’t know where you’re from. They don’t know what song you’re going to sing. It just starts. And how the show works is if one of them presses their button it means they want you on their team. So if they press their button and they turn around, you’re automatically on their team. However, if more than one of them turn around you get to choose which one, or you get to choose whose team you want to be on. It wasn’t an issue for me because just Cee Lo turned around. So I didn’t have to choose, which I’m kind of thankful for. Because I don’t know what I would have done, and to be honest, I’m extremely happy that I ended up on Cee Lo’s team.
Cool. So what did that feel like, you know, standing up there for the first time?
You know, I was there for like two and a half weeks preparing. So the prep time was very anxiety-ridden. You’re working so hard for one thing—all that time for 90 seconds on that stage. And it all kind of culminated right before I went on stage, you know, kind of adrenaline took over and this calm came over me and I was just ready to do my thing and just do it and show them what I was made of, if you will. There were definitely still some nerves, but it was controlled. You know, I’ve been on the stage as a performer where I kind of reel in. And then I decided before I went on stage that I wasn’t going to sing to the coaches. And I obviously was, but I was going to focus on the audience and just kind of treat it like a regular performance, because that’s how I was going to shine. And actually, I was kind of like looking over at stage right while Cee Lo turned around, so I didn’t even see him turn around. It wasn’t until I like looked back towards the center that I saw him looking at me. This was about halfway through the song. And from there it was like, okay, I’m good.
So what was your audition song?
It was “Maggie May.”
So you got up there and you did your thing. So how did that feel when you got chosen by Cee Lo?
It was—I think one of the strongest emotions I was feeling was vindication. You know, thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of people try out initially for the show. And to be one of 64 that make a team, it’s just, wow, okay, something—I’m not kidding myself. I do actually have something that’s worth people hearing. And as someone who has been doing this independently for so long, you know, to get the validation from such a huge star in music, who is legitimately one of the biggest celebrities in music right now, and who’s just kind of like a genius all around, that feels good.
Right. Yes. I can absolutely relate to that. So you went through the auditions and now you’re on Cee Lo’s team; then what happened?
So then what happens is I’m back for round two. And round two is the battle round. And you get paired up with someone else on your team. And you find out you’re going to be battling that person. I was paired up with Nicholas David, who is from Minnesota. He’s 31. And right off the bat we just clicked. We had great chemistry personally and musically. We connected very much on a spiritual level actual, and our friendship just really kind of took off from there. So we decided we weren’t really battling each other. We were just performing with each other.
So basically what happens is you get paired up. You get your song and then you’re kind of like thrown into it. We had never heard the song that we got. We, of course, were both aware of Hall and Oates, but we had never heard “She’s Gone.” So we get an email at 11:00 p.m. one night that says, “Okay, Nicholas and Todd, you’re singing “She’s Gone.” The next morning we’re in rehearsal with Cee Lo and our mentor, Rob Thomas singing the song for the first time – on camera. So that was a little nerve-wracking. We had both kind of had no idea what we were doing. And then we had been throughout the process, then you have rehearsal with Cee Lo and the band. Then you have rehearsal on the stage, and then we have some vocal coaching together, so by the time it all happened we were both extremely comfortable with the song and excited to perform it.
You were both seemed really into the song. You both seemed like you were really in the moment, which is so critical for really selling the song to your audience.
Yeah, yeah, we decided to just have fun together. And I don’t know if you watched the full episode and the footage before our audition. You know, we both kind of talk about how we became great friends. And it was almost like Rob Thomas and Cee Lo had to remind us that we were competing against each other because we’re both not that kind of person really. We’re just not that way. We’re much more, you know, let’s do it together kind of people. We’re both kind of hippies in that way.
I get that. I get that. And that really came across in the performance—that connection, not the hippie thing. I mean, it was like not—neither one of you was trying to one up the other or upstage the other in any way.
And we knew that wasn’t an issue, because some of these battles it’s almost like, you know, you can’t tell who’s singing because they’re so similar, which is, okay, we get it. That’s why they’re battling each other. You know, whoever’s coach, they only need one of those people on their team. But with Nick and I it was a little different because our voices are so different. But what worked in our advantage so well was that we sound really good together. We complement each other extremely well, so we just, we knew that, we got that from the get-go and we kind of just ran with it and decided to use it to our advantage. We knew Cee Lo’s choice wasn’t going to be who’s a better singer. It was going to be more who does he want moving forward on his team if he has to choose between the two of us. We knew it was going to come down to just kind of that little sliver of taste, one over the other. Yeah. And Cee Lo tends to lean towards the quirky. And Nick has got that on me in spades.
Speaking of quirky, maybe you should have left those long dreadlocks intact!
You know, some people—I’ve heard that a lot. Some people are like, oh, you know, maybe if you didn’t cut your dreads you still would have been on the team. And you know what?
You know I’m just teasing you, Todd.
Oh, yeah, of course, of course. I’m making the point that a lot of people were serious when they said that to me. But I had planned to cut my hair before I auditioned so it was a non-issue. Have you seen the video of me cutting my hair? Because if you go to my YouTube page, it’s the featured video. I made a music video out of shaving my head. And I used a song from my new record. You probably heard my song “Hallelujah.”
So I want to ask you, so what’s now? So what’s the impact of having been on The Voice? It’s got to be huge for you.
It’s been huge. You know, I don’t know where this is all going to end. I don’t know that. But I know that this has definitely been a new beginning. I’m actively seeking representation and management and booking and things like that. And this has definitely opened doors already. It’s a door opener. It’s a conversation starter. When your video from The Voice has 200,000 views on Facebook that’s not a small thing. That’s kind of a big deal. So, or on You Tube rather. So, yeah, things are moving along. From the transition from reality show to real life is a slower, you know, things kind of transcribe a little bit more slowly than people think because it’s on TV so things must happen fast, fast, fast. But it’s happening. You know, the snowball is growing a little bit.
And this has only got to be really, really good stuff for your career at this point.
Yeah, yeah. When those [four judges] say those things that they said to me on national television, that’s not going to hurt. And I don’t know if you saw the comments part after the audition, but they said some really nice things to me. And none of them had anything bad to say. It was more just like, “Damn, that performance was amazing. Todd, you sound incredible, but I’ve never heard anything sound like Nicholas.” You know, like that’s not a bad critique to get.
No, no. It’s not. When you are one of two—and as you said before, it’s a matter of like a very subjective decision that’s made in the moment.
Yeah. And I kind of say it was like winning silver at the Olympics.
I have to ask you though, like when you get a song like that, and I don’t know if that Hall and Oates song is in your usual wheelhouse, but how difficult is it when you’re given, in a show like that, a song you don’t know or don’t especially like…how do you make it work – if that’s ever happened?
Well, you know, well, what happened was, you know, when Cee Lo chose me for his team at the blind auditions he said he heard, one of the things he said was he heard a lot of soul in my voice. And that’s something I never heard and I’ve never explored that side of my voice. So when we got to that first rehearsal with Cee Lo and Rob, you know, they both kind of said the same thing. That one of the reasons Nick and I were paired together was because we both have this blue-eyed soul thing. And that was their words.
Yeah. I definitely heard that.
And that is Hall and Oates in a nutshell. You know, this blue-eyed soul, pop, that’s just infectious. So hearing the song for the first time was kind of like, whoa, what am I going to do here? How is this me? But after kind of getting into the groove and hearing what Cee Lo and Rob had to say and how to take what I normally do but mix it with what they hear in me, it was just such a huge learning experience. And it was really exciting to kind of—it’s very easy to stay in your comfort zone. But one of the reasons I went on the show was to step out of my comfort zone, and this song really helped me do that. And it’s kind of just opened my eyes to this whole—all these other kinds of songs and kinds of music that I maybe never would have considered before. But I’m having, you know, it was a lot of fun and I’m having a lot of fun kind of exploring that side of my voice now.
And who knows? I mean, some of those ideas of how to find that nugget within a different genre, you could find other genres.
And that’s a real gift to take forward in your career. This has been a lot of fun talking to you.
Todd and I will continue the conversation when he appears on my Let’s Talk TV radio show December 5, live in the studio. He’s bringing his guitar and will perform some tracks from his new CD.