Area crooners battle for vocal supremacy on TV's 'The Voice'

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comOctober 11, 2013 

It sent Tacoma’s Vicci Martinez to stardom, and now “The Voice” could do the same for two more local singers.

With the blind auditions over, the hit NBC-TV singing competition show switches to its four-episode battle rounds beginning Monday. Two of the 48 contestants, Stephanie Anne Johnson of Tacoma and Emily Randolph of Eatonville, will appear either on Monday, Tuesday, Oct. 21 or Oct. 22.

Each singer will be paired in a duet with a fellow team member. Johnson is on pop superstar Christina Aguilera’s team, and Randolph is on country crooner Blake Shelton’s team. CeeLo Green and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine are the other coaches. One singer from each pairing will be eliminated by their coach, with the winner advancing to the knockout rounds. However, if Randolph and Johnson are eliminated, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out. Another coach can employ a “save” on the eliminated contestant.

Before the battle rounds, the coaches and another celebrity singer work with the contestants to improve their skills.

In its fifth season, “The Voice” remains a ratings juggernaut. It was the most watched show during Monday’s primetime viewing period.

Martinez finished third in the show’s first season, gained a large fan base and later released an album, “Vicci,” and the hit single “Come Along” with Green.

Unlike “American Idol,” singers on “The Voice” audition for celebrity coaches sight unseen. If a coach likes what they hear, they push a big red button that swings their chair around to face the contestant. Within seconds of finishing their song, the singers then choose whom they want as their mentor through the long process of hopefully becoming “The Voice.”

HUMBLE TACOMA START LEADS TO TELEVISION FAME

Stephanie Anne Johnson is a true Northwesterner – the kind who sits outside in cold, windy weather and says, “What a beautiful day.”

But then every day is looking pretty good for Johnson, 29. The Stadium High School and Pacific Lutheran University graduate had two of the biggest names in music fight over her on “The Voice” last week.

It probably was the most important performance of her life, yet she wasn’t paying attention to whether she had “turned chairs” in “Voice” parlance. She just wanted to get over the last-minute nerves she had developed.

“No matter what happens, singing is my happy place,” she told herself. “So I went there.”

She had 90 seconds to sing KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” And then it was over.

“I opened my eyes, and there were chairs,” Johnson recalls. Facing her were CeeLo Green and Christina Aguilera.

And then she got nervous all over again.

“CeeLo and Christina — these monsters in their field,” Johnson says. “And the two of them want to work with me. I was totally freaked out.”

The two coaches wooed and praised her. Green said her singing had “conviction.”

“CeeLo gave me one of the best compliments of my life,” Johnson says. “But I went with Christina because her voice is unbelievable, ridiculous.”

Green whipped off his sunglasses and glared at her. Presumably he did so in jest.

Backstage, Johnson says, Aguilera came up to her and said, “ ‘I think we can learn a lot from each other.’ I was so honored and humbled.”

In preparation for the battle rounds, British singer Ed Sheeran assisted Aguilera with her team.

It hasn’t been a straight road to the stage for Johnson. She first performed in public at Grounds for Coffee (where Tully’s is now at Ninth and Broadway in Tacoma) at age 14. She was an open mic performer at Shakabrah Java on Sixth Avenue for years.

After finishing at Stadium High School in 2002, Johnson studied at PLU and eventually ended up working at daycares. She considered giving up music as a career, but her mother and grandmother urged her to stick with it. In 2009, she was offered a job as a lounge singer with Holland America Line cruise ships.

“It was like a fairy tale,” she says. But now, after spending half of every year at sea, she’s ready for a land-based career.

Although she’s accomplished on the guitar, Johnson considers it a songwriting instrument. “To me, the two most important elements are the melody and the rhythm. The melody will come to me, and the rhythm is like a heartbeat.”

Johnson has put out three albums. Her latest, “Hollatchagurl,” contains all original songs she wrote. She uses words such as “organic” to describe her music.

“Whatever music I do will always have an element of soul,” she says. “But I also feel strongly about using instruments instead of tracks. I want to make music that you can make if you have three friends and a garage.”

Johnson developed a blues repertoire after giving in to requests from cruise ship passengers. She credits Tacoma musician Steve Stefanowicz as a mentor.

“Being a musician means having a lot of information,” Johnson says. “Know the genre, know yourself and know the audience. You have to be aware of what the instrument can do. And playing it is the best part.”

Though Johnson went to Stadium with first-season “Voice” star Vicci Martinez, the two didn’t socialize, Johnson says. But Martinez inspired her to try out on “The Voice” without even speaking to her.

“If that girl can be on TV, so can I,” Johnson recalls thinking. “She was an inspiration to me. She made me think about things I am capable of.”

Martinez and Johnson share a drummer, Darin Watkins. He put them in touch with each other, and they now text regularly.

Johnson lives in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood with her grandmother, Freddie Mae Barnett, and two housemates. Her mother, Stella, and stepfather, Don Patterson, live in University Place. Her father, Don Johnson, lives in Tacoma.

Johnson appeared on “The Voice” with Barnett, 79, who became an overnight TV star in her own right. Barnett, who ran the mess hall at McChord Air Force Base for 35 years, has a Facebook page. “She’s been talking to anyone who will listen,” Johnson says.

Johnson has nothing but praise for “The Voice.”

“They really care about you as a contestant,” she says. “They stress positivity. They really want us to go on and do great things.”

Though she has come a long way from open mic nights, Johnson says she still has moments of doubt — but not about her career path.

“Win, lose or draw, I will always be singing and making music,” she says. “I’m never going to quit. I have big dreams. I want to sell out the Gorge.”

SMALL-TOWN TEEN MAKES SPLASH ON BIG STAGE

Like a lot of 15-year-olds, Emily Randolph gets up every morning, feeds her horses and heads to school. The Eatonville High School junior does her homework, goes to football games and, every now and then, sings on the country’s top-rated TV singing competition show.

Randolph will appear again on “The Voice” sometime in the next two weeks during the show’s battle rounds. She turned the chairs of celebrity coaches CeeLo Green and Blake Shelton last week during the show’s blind auditions.

“You spend days and days just being super nervous about your audition,” Randolph recalls. “So by the time I was finally going out, I was past the point of being nervous, and I was super calm. I totally forgot that I was trying to get these four chairs to turn around.”

Randolph launched into Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” On the second line of the song, Shelton hit his button.

“It didn’t faze me at all,” Randolph says. “I didn’t even look at him when he turned around. I just kept on singing, and then CeeLo turned around shortly after. And then a little after that, it all hit me, and my heart started racing, and I got nervous halfway through my song.”

Randolph says Green and Shelton started to argue with each other while trying to convince her that each was the best coaching choice for her.

“I do remember Blake telling me he loved the tone of my voice, and he said I had perfect pitch,” Randolph says. “CeeLo and I had a bonding moment over our red leather jackets, but I ultimately had to pick Blake. I just had to go with (what) my heart was telling me in the end.”

Randolph says the decision to choose Shelton as her coach was spur of the moment. Going in, she wanted Green or Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine.

“I would never have thought I would pick Blake,” Randolph says. “Everything you think before goes completely out the window when you actually have to make the decision. It’s hard to think. You have to rely on what your gut is telling you.”

Randolph auditioned in Seattle earlier in the year for the show’s talent seekers after sending a video of herself.

Randolph calls the support in her small Pierce County town “crazy.” Last weekend was her high school’s homecoming football game.

“I had so many people coming up to me,” she says. “It’s hard to believe.”

She says her family and friends — and life on a 13-acre farm — are keeping her humble. She lives with her mother, stepfather and two younger sisters next door to her grandfather.

On “The Voice,” Randolph’s performance was described as “country-inspired.”

“I was not intentionally doing that at all,” she says.

Randolph started singing country, but now leans toward blues rock.

“(Country is) always going to be part of me,” she says. “I’m ready to move on and try other things, but I’m always going to have country roots.”

It was Randolph’s grandmother who urged her to perform publicly for the first time at age 7.

“I was always going around singing, and I just loved performing,” Randolph recalls. Her grandmother suggested the then-named Puyallup Fair.

“I sang one song at the state fair, and I fell in love.”

Randolph was especially close to her grandmother, who died earlier this year.

“She was my greatest inspiration in my music,” Randolph says. “She made it to all my performances up until the very end, when she just couldn’t get out of bed any longer. She always said my performing was what kept her going. We had a really strong bond.”

Randolph won the title of “South Hill Mall Idol” at age 8. In 2009, at age 11, she rewrote the lyrics to John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” and sang it while perched on the official town float in Eatonville’s centennial parade.

At 13, she recorded her debut EP, “Here We Go Again.”

The battle rounds on “The Voice” have already been recorded, but like the other contestants, Randolph is sworn to secrecy on the outcome. In preparation, she was coached not only by Shelton, but also by music icon Cher.

Since appearing on “The Voice,” Randolph has performed on KING 5’s “New Day Northwest” and at the Enumclaw Music and Arts Festival last weekend.

Until Randolph’s next appearance, she’ll keep feeding her horses and plugging away on her homework. “Everything else — I feel like I’m living a dream.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com Craig Sailor, craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com

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