In the Fall 2011 edition of Wood&Steel, we chatted with Javier Colon about his experience on NBC’s The Voice, his long road to fame, guitars, and being a dad. An excerpt from the story, “Raising Their Voices” is included below.
For the two talented musicians, it was a long shot, but the payoff would be a level of success both had long dreamed of. One was a bluesy, progressive Ani DiFranco-type songstress who found her footing near grunge music’s ground zero. The other was a soulful singer-songwriter who had flipped-flopped genres at a record label’s urging to try to hit it big.
Vicci Martinez and Javier Colon both arrived in Hollywood with Taylors in tow to compete on The Voice, a vocal talent show based on Holland’s top-rated The Voice of Holland. Hosted by former MTV VJ Carson Daly, the U.S. show paired hopeful stars with one of several popular recording artists turned “coaches”: vocalist Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green (Gnarls Barkley), Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, and country star Blake Shelton. Each coach blindly selected the contestants they wanted to mentor, based on their voices alone. The contestants were then free to choose from the interested coaches. The winner would score a recording contract with Universal Republic and a cash prize of $100,000, not to mention instant fans and fame. By the end of the show’s 12-episode run, it came down to fan votes. Martinez was named runner-up, while Colon was crowned the new “Voice.”
For Colon (814ce, NS62ce), a lefty guitarist with a degree in music education from Hartford, Connecticut’s Hartt School of Music, winning The Voice meant a new direction for his music — and his family. Back in 2003, Colon signed with Capitol Records and released two R&B albums under their management: his debut, Javier, followed in 2006 by Left of Center. After poor sales, withering label interest, and little creative control, Colon struck out on his own, releasing 2010’s The Truth-Acoustic EP, which featured a mix of soul, folk and original acoustic material. But his dreams of stardom were tempered by the realities of providing for his wife Maureen and their two little girls, Solana and Amaia. Then an e-mail arrived from a producer of The Voice.
“I knew I had to do something if I wanted to keep performing and singing as a career,” Colon shares. “As recently as two weeks before we got the e-mail, we had a showcase for Blue Note records, and unfortunately they passed on me. They said they had too much on their plate. It was devastating, as it had been about five years since I had another deal, and I really thought that was going to work out.”
With high hopes, Colon auditioned for The Voice, and his stirring performance of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” made a strong impression — every coach lobbied for Colon to join their teams. He says he went with Adam Levine because of his energy, and over the course of the season, Colon consistently wowed the live audience and at-home viewers with his renditions of songs like Coldplay’s “Fix You” and “Stitch by Stitch,” an original tune that was released as a single and peaked at #17 on Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart. His underlying goal, he says, was to let viewers know the “real me.”
“On a show like that, song choice is everything,” he says. “I wanted to make sure those [songs] represented who I really was. Starting out with ‘Time After Time,’ doing it the way I do, was a good representation of myself as an artist and the stuff that really moves me.”
Because the contest relied heavily on vocal development over guitar playing, Colon says the performances proved to be much different than he was used to.
“Musically, I’m a singer-songwriter at heart, and when I sit down to write a song, 99 percent of the time it’s with my guitar in my hands,” he explains. “My guitar is a huge part of who I am and what I do. When I write songs, I’m thinking about what it’s going to look like on stage. And nine times out of ten, I’m going to be playing the guitar or the piano.”
From an early age, Colon knew music would be his life’s pursuit. At just seven years old, he began taking guitar lessons at the insistence of his mother, but found very little consistency with it.
“I had a love-hate relationship with that because I wanted to play outside and hang out with friends,” he says. “My mom was like, ‘I’m not going to pay if you’re not going to practice.’ So I would take lessons for ten months to a year, and then I would stop, and then start again. I really started getting into it when I got into seventh grade and started writing songs.”
Colon’s vocal development and songwriting skills blossomed with the encouragement of his seventh grade music teacher, and, not surprisingly, in the quest to win a girl’s heart.
“In seventh grade, my music teacher made me sing for the eighth grade girls’ choir class, and that was scary,” he recalls. “Then I wrote a song, ‘Lost Without Your Love,’ for a girl [laughs]. It was super cheesy and bad, but fortunately I continued to write and got better at it.”
Over the next decade, Colon began to develop his playing style, and along the way joined the band EmcQ, a soul band dedicated to Stevie Wonder. He left when a successful audition landed him a coveted spot as the lead vocalist with the Derek Trucks Band in 2000. He toured with the band for two years before signing with Capitol.
As a guitar player, Colon is primarily a fingerpicker and incorporates lots of Travis-style picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs into his playing, with alternating bass to complement his voice. He remembers his first Taylor, an NS62ce that came from his days at Capitol Records.
“I absolutely love it,” he says. “I could never afford a Taylor back when I was younger, and being left-handed, I didn’t have the luxury of going into a store and trying out a bunch of guitars. I was so thrilled to get my hands on it; it’s still one of my favorites to play. Nylon-string is so different. I just love the sound of it, I love writing on it, and it’s just been an amazing, amazing guitar.”
Buoyed by his win on The Voice, Colon feels as though he’s charted an exciting new course for his career.
“It feels like I’ve stepped into someone else’s life, someone who had a much cooler life than I had,” he reflects.
As the winner of the show, Colon earned a recording contract and at press time was busy laying down tracks for his yet-to-be titled album, set for release on November 22, followed by a tour. Both the record and the shows, he says, will heavily feature his 814ce.
“I make sure my songs have the instrumentation that I need them to have to pull off a great live show, and since they start from an acoustic place, I like to break it down to where it’s me and my Taylor.”