The lights come up on 25-year-old Hannah Huston as she delivers the first few notes of Allen Stone’s “Unaware” through her soulful vibrato. The Voice soundstage gradually illuminates all but the four figures in front of her, seated with their backs turned. It’s the “Blind Audition” round of the NBC performance contest show, and the gravity of the situation hasn’t yet struck her.
Barely a minute later, after she nails the climactic final note with an impassioned rasp, three of the four — Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera and Pharrell Williams — whirl around in endorsement, eager to take Huston under their respective wings. Family and friends go nuts stageside as the Lincoln resident and preschool teacher introduces herself, seemingly starstruck. That’s when she realized what she had gotten herself into.
“It didn’t click until the coaches turned around at the end, what I had just done,” Huston tells HN via telephone between rehearsals at The Voice‘s Los Angeles facilities. “I was here for [a month] preparing for this minute and 30 seconds on a big stage with four incredible artists, who you can’t see. It’s just crazy.”
Indeed, the ride has been incredible ever since. After choosing Pharrell as her competition coach, Huston has survived the pageantry of head-to-head vocal battles and knockout-rounds in front of a national viewing audience of millions each week. Her run to the final nine contestants has drawn a fervent local audience, celebrating her in the classroom and gathering to cheer her on at weekly Railyard viewing parties.
But before the powerful audition that spurred her run, before the fateful casting email (which she says initially felt like a hoax), Huston was getting her feet wet in the local music pond. With her teaching career at the center, she wrote original music and moonlighted as a small club performer. It was her NPR Tiny Desk entry, a song co-written with friend and fellow musician Crystal Davy (of Lincoln’s Dear Herman), that got her noticed in the first place.
In advance of tonight’s “Top Nine” performances, the Grand Island-native hopped on the phone to discuss her first nationally televised performance, her zeal for local collaboration and why Pharrell is as cool as he seems, “times 10.” Huston performs on tonight’s episode, which airs on NBC at 7 p.m. CST.
* * *
Hear Nebraska: I was excited to talk to you because this run is pretty incredible, or feels incredible from here. I have to admit that I got goosebumps watching your blind audition performance. How does one prepare for such a moment? What was it actually like to experience that first performance?
Hannah Huston: So going into the blind audition, I didn’t really know what it would look like. It was … I don’t know. It was just an incredible experience. It was also something that didn’t click, until the coaches turned around at the end, what I had just done. I was in Los Angeles for a month working on that song (Allen Stone’s “Unaware”) and prepping for this moment and going through different interviews, because it’s not only a singing performance but it’s also a television show filled with people and storylines. So you’re kinda going through all these different things. I was here for quite some time preparing for this minute and 30 seconds on a big stage with four incredible artists, who you can’t see. It’s just crazy. I never thought I would do it. I really didn’t. I didn’t think I was ever gonna do this and then doors just kept opening and I was just going with it. It’s been a crazy ride for sure.
HN: How did you initially get picked up? Did they pluck you out of thin air or did you send in a tape?
HH: Totally, so there are a couple of ways that people, artists can audition for this show. One way is through open call, which I didn’t do. And then the other is these private auditions where you’re kinda sought out by a casting agency that teams with The Voice. In this time of my life I was teaching and I was writing music on the side, just doing some very small shows. Not often, sparse, really. And I wrote a song with a friend, her name is Crystal Davy. We wrote a song for NPRs tiny desk contest. It was a fun project. We wrote it about a painting by Andrew Wyatt. I submitted it to NPR and they picked it up and put it on their Tumblr. We were like one of the featured videos for one of the days.
That was submitted early January and I was teaching and doing my job and I get an email from this casting agency and the subject line is “Season 10 the voice private audition.” basically the email consisted of these details of coming to omaha to audition for the show.
HN: Was that like a drop your coffee cup moment, or how did you react?
HH: Honestly, Andrew, I really didn’t because I thought it was spam. I literally deleted it, not even kidding. And then she emails my work email, and I deleted it, or i didn’t read it; it might still be there. Finally, when she couldn’t get in touch with me, she emailed a friend that produced the video we made for the NPR contest and she was like can you please get me in touch with Hannah, she’s not responding to me. And then I finally responded and I was like “I’ll think about it.” (Laughs) And then finally decided okay what’s the hurt, I‘ll go. I prepared four songs and drove to Omaha, sang four songs and they kept me after for some interviews. And then yeah, I got asked to come to the blind [audition]. So that’s where it all originated.
HN: I’m interested in your musical background. I was watching with a friend the other night, who noticed your excellent breath support, for instance. What training did you have growing up, musically?
HH: I didn’t really do any vocal lessons. I did a small choir when I was in middle school for a couple of years. It was out of Hastings and I would drive up [from Grand Island] once a week to sing in a choral group. That’s about the extent of my formal music participation or training. I imitated singers [like] Celine Dion. I imitated all sorts of artists and just kind of tried to figure out how they would maneuver their voice to do a certain thing and then I would just mess around with it in my home, my car, my shower, things like that.
And then later, in high school, I did sports mostly and then picked up interest in another choral group. [It was called] Chamber Singers, and we would wear these long, tight fitting awkward long black dresses that were really formal. I did that for a year or two but it wasn’t anything to freak out about. I did it on the side. No musicals or anything. Just singing with people, not anything solo. Then I went to college and wanted to become a teacher. Singing was always a part of what I did throughout my days but it was never … I dunno, I just never got up to the mic. I just wanted to sing with other people and let it happen naturally.
HN: I was reading through your bio and you mention the importance to you of collaboration, telling a story with other people. It made me think of the video you made with (Lincoln musician) Zach Davy and (dancer) Addie Byers. Why is collaboration, especially with other musicians in your community, important?
HH: For me, it’s such an opportunity to let other people shine. I love the process of working with other people. I like how that song that we covered (Lianne La Havas’ “Gone”) started out as something but then turned into something so cool and so special. We were there from the beginning to the end, and what’s so special about it is the entire middle process of it all. You’re recreating something, obviously, but you’re kinda putting your own story on it, your own take on it.
I think for me, I thrive working with people, and that’s what made “Gone” so special and “I Alone Have Loved You” so special. It’s so crazy, but they’re my friends first and foremost, but secondly they’re like the most talented people. [Videographer] Nick [Goodwin] said it best, when art is amazing it’s because each person brings something magnificent to the table. They each have their own set of skills that are just so unique to them, and then we bring it to this project and it works. I loved that not only did I shine in that video, so did zach, so did Addie, so did [videographer] Wyn [Wiley] and Nick who got to produce this sick video. Their eye for these cool shots and the direction Wyn wanted to go in and Nick made it happen with his sweet camera work. That’s what fills my bucket.
And these people are all from Lincoln. Nebraska is filled with these crazy awesome people who create. And now we’re out in California on this grand scale. There’s just art being created in Lincoln that’s just so dope. It’s so fun to have that experience with these people. They’re special.
HN: Totally, and that leads me to this: watching almost anything on a national level, when people talk about Nebraska, they seem to condescend to it. Even Pharrell sometimes is like “you’re just a teacher from Nebraska.” Do you bristle at that at all? Not that it would make you angry, but do you ever wince at that?
HH: I think the intent when he says that, he wants it to be perceived as very positive. He means it as a complement. But my response is always like, just go there. Go there and you’ll see all these crazy awesome people. It’s not just me. I’m not this star or anything. There are people in Nebraska that are creating such cool art. I think we’re gonna give Nebraska some more credit.
HN: How has your hometown or home state inspired you?
HH: The one thing that resonates with me is that I’m here because of all of the people who impacted my life. The people you keep in contact the people who have stuck around for me, that means more than anything. They were there before I was “The Voice Season 10″ person. What inspires me is to do the same for those people. My dream can look pretty big because I’m on tv and I’m being interviewed and my face is everywhere, but that doesnt mean im more important. I think it’s important for me to make sure that i’m not the only one being encouraged but i’m taking the time to encourage my friends. It’s just the relationships that are extraordinary in your life. I think I can go through all this Voice stuff and have success but it’s nothing without these crazy cool people to share it with. They are the people who came to my teeny tiny shows when I started and they would listen to me siung and spurred me on to do things like this. My roots are super important to me.
HN: The Voice itself isn’t a music career, it’s a competition, but it’s definitely possible for it to be a gateway. Do you think your vision of what a music career is or could be has changed since being on the show?
HH: In a lot of ways, no. I remember sitting down and talking with my friends about the dream I had of being a musician and making that happen in my life. It’s kinda still the same. I still want to write music, I still want to work with people and I want to tour. I want to do shows. I just want to create and be apart of a music experience with people. I think the show has enabled more of a following, I’ve been able to cover some big songs, try different things with a big audience. There’s name recognition happening ,that’s something that’s really neat. The blueprint of my dream before coming on the show is intact … this is just a nice jump-start to making that dream happen.
HN: What is maybe one of the most bizarre, funny or interesting stories you can share since you’ve been in LA?
HH: There’s just so much. The first thing that comes to mind is all of my time with Pharrell. That guy has been nothing but encouraging, uplifting, just my hero. He’s been involved in every song performance. He has a vision. Off-camera, he was like,”Hannah, are your parents helping you? What are you doing?” And I was like, “What do you mean? Mentally? Emotionally?” He goes, “No, do you have an agent, what are you doing? And I was like, “No I don’t have an agent, I’m just teaching!” And then I talked about that for a little bit and I started to cry. He was like, “Are you crying?” I go “Yeah, my job is super important to me and this is also something I’ve wanted to have for so long.” He was just taking all this time off-camera to talk to me and I can’t even tell you. He’s just been amazing. He’s all about … he doesn’t care who wins. He’s like Hannah, it doesn’t matter, you’re just as much an artist as anybody who wins this show. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Pharrell Williams in-depth about music and if that guy believes in me this much, I think I’m okay for awhile.
HN: Is that guy as ridiculously cool as he seems?
HH: Yes. Times 10. He’s just the coolest. Two days ago, I walked into rehearsal and I was wearing something pink, and he was wearing a pink hat. And I was like “Oh my gosh we’re starting to dress like each other, it’s getting ridiculous.” I asked him where he gets his hats. And he was like I have a designer who makes her own line and blah blah blah you can’t get them anywhere. And then he goes, “Do you want one?” I was like, yeah. And he was like, alright I’ll get you one (LAUGHS). I am talking to Pharrell Williams about getting a beanie, that’s so cool!
I think what’s best about him is that he’s so in tune with helping people and giving back and letting people be unique. That, as a teacher, is like my main goal. We have this similar mindset that my job as a teacher is to help students be the best that they can be. It’s just been fun, he’s been a cool coach for me. All the other coaches are awesome but I dunno, it’s perfect for me. I’m cool with it all. I could go home next week and be totally fine.