Seattle songwriter Gabriel Wolfchild is making the most of his brief moment in The Voice spotlight.
Seattle songwriter Gabriel Wolfchild is making the most of his brief moment in The Voice spotlight. Priya Alahan

“The whole thing with The Voice,” says Seattle songwriter Gabriel Wolfchild, a former contestant on NBC’s popular reality TV singing competition, “is that a lot of people see it as this golden ticket. Like it’s going to do all the work for you. It’s definitely not that by any means—but it can create a pathway to real allies.”

Wolfchild is among a handful of local musicians who’ve competed on the show. In 2015, his strong-yet-feathery vocals got him through the Season 8 blind auditions, during which the panel of famous artists/judges—currently, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, Jennifer Hudson and Miley Cyrus—choose their favorites while seated with backs turned to the performers. The show prides itself on the premise that the contestants are evaluated and chosen purely based on their vocal talents.

After “the blinds,” Wolfchild, led by then-coach Christina Aguilera—who he said he didn’t “click” with—appeared in the battle rounds, but eventually left the show after just a few performances. “The show is a moment,” he says, “when you can shine really bright and shoot your flare gun into the world and can be really visible. That happened for me. Now, it’s about catching the ball and running with it.”

As a result of his appearance, Wolfchild met some of his current band mates (he plays in the well-regarded Gabriel Wolfchild & The Northern Light), as well his producer and manager. “The show helped me find people,” he said. “It’s like gasoline. It’ll freaking make your flame huge for a minute.”

Season 5 participant and luminous-voiced Tacoma resident Stephanie Anne Johnson said if she could do it all over again, she wouldn’t. Johnson, who made it all the way to the first live show, explained that when she thinks back on her time on The Voice, it’s devoid of glamour. Rather, she said, “it’s just another audition.” Furthermore, Johnson thinks the show takes advantage of the “raw talent” it brings on board. “The show basically takes people who don’t know any better and they parade us around,”she said. “And we parade ourselves around. And it’s a toss-up to see what’s sellable.”

During her season, Johnson experienced several highs and lows—first picked by then-coach Aguilera, then let go and snatched up by Cee-Lo Green, then let go yet again but taken back one last time by Aguilera. In the live rounds, Johnson lost for good. “If I’m really honest,” she said, “I can’t tell you what was going through my head because of the amount of stress. When you are in a soundstage and the floor lights up like a Michael Jackson video and every piece of available skin you have has been painted because they’re filming in HD—the stress is unbelievable.”

While she said she doesn’t like to live with regrets (“They don’t serve anything,” she notes), Johnson doesn’t tell many folks she was on the show, which, at various times in its tenure, has been the most-watched series on TV. Instead, she remains focused on the tedium of being a professional musician who now books house concerts, club gigs, and cruise ship performances. “The number-one rule of this music business,” she concluded, “is that good things come to those who hustle. Work and work some more.”

Powerful songwriter Vicci Martinez, also a Tacoma resident and former high school classmate of Johnson, made it to the Season 1 finals. Martinez earned some fame and eventually a record contract for standing out in the inaugural season. “I think it is the dopest opportunity anyone could have,” she said, “because it’s a fucking opportunity. The Voice is a big talent show and some people stay on longer. At the end of the day, I’m choosing to be on TV because I want people to know about me.”

Martinez, who also had Cee Lo Green as a coach, likens the experience to an elevator ride. “It motivated me, kicked me in the butt,” she explained. “I have this platform now to build from. It’s all going to be an upward climb anyway and The Voice was like taking the elevator. But shit, there might be a couple people running really fast up and be ahead of you anyway.” While Martinez remains one of the more famous contestants from the show’s history, her career remains a grind. But would she do it again? “Yeah,” she laughed. “I need money. I’d totally do it. You feel like an artist and you’re a union member.”

In an era when virtually no one knows how to make money from music (at least compared to a few decades ago), The Voice, which introduces independent musicians to millions of people across the country, is attempting to create, sustain and manage a brand. Some believe the show is exploitive, some think it’s exactly what it needs to be, and others look at is as a total blessing. In the end, at least, it’s another job opportunity. “I think the only thing that I don’t say enough is how grateful I am for the opportunity,” admitted Martinez. “If you’re a musician, just believe in yourself. Don’t give up. And don’t be an asshole.”