It’s stupefying to believe that The Voice has been on for 10 years. NBC debuted its singing competition in spring 2011, and in May 2021 it crowned the show’s 20th winner. The series has changed tremendously over that decade—including winning multiple Emmy Awards, going through plenty of superstar coaches, and introducing America to hundreds of artists.
But back then, when Javier Colon was named the very first Voice champion and no one had ever seen those big red chairs before, the series was groundbreaking; it shook up the reality TV format. It also had a community of wonderful people much greater than the competition. To mark the 10th anniversary, I’m taking a look back at The Voice with some of my favorite artists from across the seasons, and also sharing some of my favorite memories from the five years I spent covering the show.
Check out this interview with The Voice season 5 semifinalist James Wolpert. You can also click below to view any of the previous retrospectives:
James Wolpert (season 5, 2013)
James Wolpert is one of my favorite people to have ever been on The Voice, and someone I’d consider to be among its most underrated. While he didn’t make it to the finals in one of the show’s most competitive seasons, I could always feel him come through in each of his performances. Especially doing cover songs, sometimes people can feel awkward, or just phone it in, but James always found a way to elevate the material and it was a joy to watch (and listen to).
He was also a wonderful person to work with. As you’ve no doubt picked up on over the course of this series, The Voice had a knack for finding great artists who were also great people, and James is one of those. I genuinely connected with him and felt comfortable with myself around him in a time when that wasn’t easy for me. I’m happy to still call him a friend, and glad to have re-connected with James for this retrospective, in which we discuss what he’s up to now and what his experiences were as a part of Team Adam.
Brittany Frederick: What happened to you after The Voice? Because we’re talking almost eight years at this point, and that’s a lot of life experience.
James Wolpert: When I got off the show, I was living in Los Angeles for a little while; I’d been living in L.A. for a little while before that, too. Maybe a month or two. Afterward, I moved back to my hometown of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It’s about an hour and a half west of Philadelphia. From there I decided to make a move to Nashville. I spent a couple of years there; I made a record there. Started a visual design business with an ex of mine.
After that, it was back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’ve been here ever since. Worked with my dad for a little while. He’s a carpenter — does historic restoration, mostly. I was his untalented apprentice. (laughs) Next, I got snatched up by an in-house design team for a digital bank. I’ve been working there for the past three years and just got laid off due to COVID.
BF: Are you still in touch with any of the other artists from your season? That seems to be a theme, that these relationships persisted well after the show itself ended.
JW: In the years directly after? Those people were still a big part of my life. Cole Vosbury…We were roommates when I lived in Nashville. For a while, we spent almost every day together. I guess it’s harder to keep in touch when you don’t live in the same city. Especially if you’re me or Cole who are, I cannot stress this enough, notoriously elusive people.
But I guess I hear from Jacquie [Lee] sometimes. I hear from Caroline [Pennell] sometimes. In fact, each of them called me over the past year just to talk; that was really nice. Let’s see, who else? Matt [Schuler] texts me occasionally (about doing shows together, actually!) I haven’t heard from Tessanne [Chin] in a long time. I haven’t heard from Will [Champlin] in a while. I would love to hear from any of them. I’m usually the culprit for losing touch.
BF: Now that you’re well removed from The Voice, what are the things that still resonate with you from that season? What do you remember most now that there’s been some distance from the craziness?
JW: Most importantly, the time I got to spend with people who are a part of it. Especially considering the integral role some of them played in my life years afterwards. Secondarily, I always come back to the moments before live show performances. In fact, I remember them vividly—being on the steps backstage with tech guys kind of buzzing back and forth. A person with a very elaborate headset standing at the top of the stairs mumbling into their microphone and miming a countdown to show time. I remember they make the soundstage completely silent as you walk out. [That] was kind of just seared into my memory.
The most impressive and incredible moments to me were the moments on commercial breaks during set changes, when the band is shuffling around—that band is amazing. Some of the most talented people I’ve had the pleasure to know—and hundreds of people are working in what I imagine was exact precision. Pushing set pieces, hoisting lights, literally hanging from rafters.
BF: Are there performances that you were particularly proud of, or that you’d say were more indicative of James Wolpert than other ones? Because this was a whole other part of your life, which some artists have said came out in the music.
JW: It’s been a while now and I was, in retrospect, a very confused youth (in 10 or so more years, I’m sure I’ll look back to now and think the same thing in proportion). My taste was all over the place. There were things that were really new to me back then, that I was really excited about, that I’m not so excited about now. However, there were a few that stuck around.
For example, I’ll always love The White Stripes. That was a part of my childhood growing up. A good friend of mine gave me my first White Stripes album for my birthday; I’ve loved the band ever since. The Joni Mitchell song I got to do [“A Case of You”] was really important. She’s a tremendous musician, poet and influence on me (and the world, writ large). Same goes for all of the mid-century folk artists that came up around her. Seminal stuff.
For me, the real bummer is how underexposed I was to things that I might have loved—and how I completely misunderstood some things that I adore now. When I was on the show, I hadn’t heard Jeff Buckley’s Grace yet. I (somehow) didn’t know who Nina Simone was. I thought The Animals were corny. I hadn’t yet developed a taste for Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. I hadn’t heard The Stooges or Subhumans or Bad Brains or The Dead Kennedys or Karen Dalton or The Meters or Sun Ra or The Cramps…and the list goes on ad nauseam. I kick myself sometimes for not putting in the effort to dig deeper (still do).
BF: Which brings me to an important topic I wanted to ask you about. Was there anything about you or your music that The Voice didn’t get to, or maybe it didn’t come out as much in the format we had? I’ve spoken to other artists that have said who they were on the show wasn’t always the complete picture.
JW: I’ll say this, with the premise that I would never disparage the show or anyone that worked on it. The Voice is a huge, hit show and everyone was doing their best to make it one. I think those instances of misrepresentation point to a deeper issue: there are consequences to making the art and discipline of musicianship into a gladiatorial contest. To me, the upside seems to be that you get to make a really great and entertaining show that reaches a lot of people.
The downside seems to be that you end up disseminating some pretty rigid ideas about what music is and how it works: this sounds ‘good’, this sounds ‘bad’, this moves on, this doesn’t, this gets saved, that goes home, this is why you should, this is why you shouldn’t. By whose standard? According to what metrics?
Speaking anecdotally, that sort of thinking has been both harmful and sticky. I still struggle to break free of it, sometimes. My point is that everyone has (and should have) their own angle on things. For me, at the heart of it all, playing music isn’t about gaining anything—it’s been a tough and gradual process to re-learn that.
The Voice airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. The season 20 finale airs this Tuesday, May 25, and the series will return for season 21 in spring 2022.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.