Every once in a while, I’ll wistfully watch NBC’s “The Voice” and imagine what might have happened if my two auditions for the talent competition had been successful and I’d become one of those people whose life is changed with the spin of a red chair. And then I stand a few feet away from recent contestant Talia Smith, hear the impossibly gorgeous sounds coming out of her mouth, and understand.
You see, I am a singer. Smith, a staff sergeant stationed at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County who was on former One Direction member Niall Horan’s team this season, is a SINGER. She SAAAAANGS, as the aunties say.
Even though Smith made it only as far as the “battle rounds,” she’s an inspiration for following her passion while being her authentic self. “Go for [your dream],” Smith said. “It’ll shine through.”
She started performing at an early age, like I did, beginning with my first performance at 5 in the children’s choir concert at City Temple of Baltimore (Baptist), where I curtseyed because I assumed all the applause was for me. But while journalism became my first love, “singing was definitely No. 1” with Smith, who went to Five Towns College, an arts school in Dix Hills, New York.
That’s where she met an Army recruiter on campus — “I have no idea why they put a recruiter at a performing arts college,” she said — but she liked the idea of having career options, so she enlisted. But that wasn’t the end of her musicianship. She performed the national anthem at various events and did karaoke four nights a week “because I had to do something to keep my individuality. I was like, ‘This isn’t going away.‘”
Her husband, Master Sgt. Jonathan Smith, suggested that she apply for “The Voice” and, when she didn’t, he signed her up himself. “He’s a funny guy,” she said. But this was more than fun. Smith followed up and did a virtual audition, but because she was “caught up in work” she missed the deadline for the next submission. Hers was a talent that would not be denied, however, and she got a call from a show rep asking her to reapply. “I knew I had to get this done,” she said, and she got her new submission in “five minutes before the deadline.”
She got a call back the very next day.
My journey to “The Voice,” or not to “The Voice,” was a lot less exciting and successful. In 2013, desperate for something fun and positive in the wake of my father’s death months earlier, I set up an artist profile on the show’s official website, started singing lessons and bought a velvet blazer and a ticket to Atlanta, the nearest city where there were auditions. Unlike Smith, who got a response almost immediately, I was one of thousands of hopefuls who showed up freezing our butts off in a line that snaked around the building.
About six hours later, I found myself in a room among a group of 10 singers, mostly younger than me, in front of a producer who was not one of the celebrities on TV. I sang my song somewhat flawlessly and was one of three people the producer wanted to hear more from, including a cute young lady who looked like Rihanna if she was Gabrielle Union’s cousin and a dreadlocked Eddie Vedder clone. We all sang a second song; mine was Aerosmith’s “Cryin’.” The producer, who had a Grade A poker face, pointed to Faux Rihanna and Not Eddie and gave them a callback. And then he looked at me.
“It’s a maybe!”
I spent the rest of the day wandering Atlanta with my husband, his cousin and a friend trying to be chill but checking my phone every five minutes just to make sure it was working. What’s that Randy Travis lyric that goes, “Since my phone still ain’t ringing, I assume it still ain’t you”? It did not ring. It was not me. Sigh.
Disappointed, I did a Tiffany song in karaoke just to get some applause and went back to my very nice life as a journalist who writes about music rather than making it. I did one more in-person audition in Miami the next year and again got two songs in before getting a “no.” Not great. But not earthshaking, which told me all I needed to know — this wasn’t a dream that would break me if not realized. “No” isn’t fun, but this one was OK.
It wasn’t my journey, but it was Smith’s. After “a lot of Zoom meetings about what to expect,” she found herself in Los Angeles last fall singing the Tori Kelly version of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” to the backs of those four red chairs. Unbeknownst to her, Horan was the only judge with a spot left on his team, making her the very last contestant chosen for this season.
“He’s like a beaming light,” she said of her coach, whose luminescence temporarily made her forget her stage directions. “There was a light behind his head, and he looked like an angel, and I was like, ‘This is weird,’” she said, laughing.
I really believe that if you go for your dreams, as Smith said, you will have no regrets. I didn’t make it to the show and I’ll never be a professional singer, but I gave it a shot. Two months after my second failed audition, I brought home the baby who would become my son, and a year and a half later I was a widowed single mother. When I see someone like Smith, who was willing to change her life for this opportunity, I know there is nothing in my own life that I would give up to do a TV show, or tour the country, or spend nights away from my kid playing in bars. Also, I’m in my 50s now and fall asleep at 8:30. I don’t keep a showbiz schedule.
But Smith, who is way more talented than I am, has found a way to make that transition. After the birth of her first child this summer, she’s going to be a part of the Army Band, meaning “I can do music full time. To be paid to do this with all the benefits? It just makes sense.”
Smith, who maintains “a deep connection” with her fellow contestants, said in the short time she worked with Horan she learned “how important preparation is, and that you will never sound like anyone else. You have to find what is right for your voice. That’s make or break. If you don’t try, it won’t make a difference.”
I found the path right for my voice, even if it wasn’t “The Voice.” That’s a happy ending.