Even before he unexpectedly ended up in Los Angeles this past summer to audition for NBC’s “The Voice,” country-ish rocker Chris Kroeze said he would often get asked if and when he planned on moving to Nashville.
“And the answer honestly is always no,” said Kroeze, who makes his push into the still highly rated TV singing competition’s top 10 on Monday night with his hometown of Barron, Wis., cheering him on.
“Where I’m at in Wisconsin,” he continued, “I’m close enough to the Twin Cities to go play there, where there aren’t a lot of rock-and-country type acts like me. Whereas if I go to Nashville, there are hundreds of acts like me.”
Plus, the 27-year-old singer proudly noted, “There’s a lot of support for one another in a small town like Barron.”
That statement has been put to the test in a far more dire way in recent weeks.
About 90 miles from Minneapolis in northwestern Wisconsin, Barron is also the town where 13-year-old Jayme Closs was abducted and her parents killed in October. Jayme is still missing, and the case has been on Kroeze’s and every Barron resident’s mind the whole time he’s been singing his heart out on “The Voice” — two concurrent national news stories in one small town, and they couldn’t be more different in tone.
“I hope what I’m doing out here at least raises some spirits in a little way and has brought some positive news to the community, because the news has otherwise been very bad,” said Kroeze, calling from Los Angeles early last Thursday morning as he started preparations for this week’s performances.
The husband and father of two has stood out from the pack in Season 15 of the show with his lion’s-mane look, his hickory-thick voice and especially his bluesy guitar skills.
He made it onto country star Blake Shelton’s team in the blind-auditions phase by impressively picking out Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” on acoustic guitar. Since then he has won the audience’s and judges’/coaches’ favor with his soulful versions of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (which he dedicated to Barron and the Closs family) and the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’ ” (with which he breezed through last week’s voting round).
The TV show clearly isn’t Kroeze’s first rodeo. His singing career has found him repeatedly flying to the Middle East to perform on U.S. military bases — sometimes with Season 6 “Voice” finalist Kat Perkins from the Twin Cities — while also bouncing around bars, fairs and wedding halls throughout the Upper Midwest before he got “The Voice” call. Here’s an edited version of our chat with him.
Q: In general, what has this whirlwind experience been like for you?
A: It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been very busy, but I’ve been playing music full-time for the better part of a decade, so I’m used to being busy. It’s just a different kind of busy. We have to balance early morning interviews and sometimes do a recording session at 4 a.m., just because of scheduling around everybody on the show. There are a lot more people involved than I’m used to working with, but there’s also a nice feeling that we’re all in this together.
Personally, it’s taxing being away from my family, but this is such a great investment in my future.
Q: How nerve-racking is it facing the judges and TV audience every Monday?
A: This past Monday’s show was superfun, because we’d been rehearsing the song and — with the ridiculously good band they have for us out here — I knew it’d go well. It’s so much fun playing with this band.
Mondays, there’s a lot of adrenaline involved. It’s live TV, and then your phone kind of blows up, and then the internet. Everything is just so jacked up. Tuesdays are a little more relaxed, because you’ve already done what you had to do for the week. You walk out onstage Tuesday, and everything is out of your control by that point, so it’s different nerves, hoping you got enough votes.
Q: What have you learned from your coach Blake, and is he as big a ham behind the scenes?
A: He’s superfun. What you see of him on TV really is his personality off-camera, too. He’s the same guy. Maybe the one big thing I’ve learned from him is more about being an entertainer. I’ve been playing music my whole life, but I’m very new to truly entertaining. He’s telling me to interact with the crowd more and let loose and have fun onstage.
Q: The Doobie Brothers song seemed kind of perfect for you. Were you holding on to that for the right moment?
A: No, but I did kind of purposefully hold off on playing songs with more lead guitar for later in the show. It was fan-pick week this week, so a bunch of people said they wanted that song. [The show producers] asked me if I could play it, and I had kind of forgotten it, but then I said, “Oh, yeah, I could definitely do it!”
Q: What’s it been like for you doing your thing on the show in L.A. while your town has also been in the news for this horrific Closs case?
A: I was still home in October when that all happened. The show didn’t go live until November, so everything prior to it was pretaped over the summer.
As a community member, it was just terrifying. We really never locked our doors at night, and then suddenly every night we’re locking our doors. It’s just a tiny little town, so stuff like that doesn’t happen. It’s been awful there, but it did bring the community together, and the support from everybody in and around the town for the family has been very strong.
Q: That aside, what was your childhood in Barron like?
A: I grew up a few miles out of town, where my parents still live. I’ve been talking to people out here [in L.A.] and realize it was a pretty unique upbringing. I thought everybody knew everybody who attended their high school, like I did. And the lifestyle was just different. My parents would go to work, and my brother and I would hop on our bikes and head to the baseball field or pool. We had a lot more freedom than a lot of kids.
Q: How did you get so turned on to becoming a musician in Barron?
A: We’d go camping a lot, at Beaver Dam and some other places, and my dad would always bring his guitar along and play, sitting around the fire. That sparked my interest. My parents then bought me a guitar for my sixth birthday. They thought I’d play with it for a few weeks and get bored. But I became obsessed with it. My dad had a drawer full of old ’70s and ’80s tapes, mostly country stuff, and I would try to play along to the tapes.
Q: How much of an advantage do you think it is for you having so much experience playing bars and halls around Wisconsin and Minnesota prior to the show?
A: The biggest thing that’s helping me is I’m used to kind of carrying a lot more workload when I’m onstage, but the band is so amazing out here I can just focus on singing. And all the weddings I’ve done have helped, too, because a lot of times for those, you have to learn some special songs that the people want to hear. I’m very used to having to learn a new song or two every week.
Q: How fun — or weird — has it been for your kids watching you on TV?
A: It’s really cool. I mean, I’d rather be there to take them swimming or whatever, but we’ll get back to a more normal rhythm. My son, Finley, is almost 2, and he just likes watching me on a screen, whether it’s a little YouTube thing or a big international TV audience. Bella is 9 and supersmart for her age, so she fully understands what’s going on. She came out here for the blind audition, so she was pumped to get to say hi to Adam Levine.
Q: Not many finalists have leveraged their success on “The Voice” into a highly successful career afterward. What’s your plan for after the show?
A: “The Voice” is a huge and exciting opportunity, but it’s certainly not the be-all, end-all. It’s giving me a ton of exposure I couldn’t get anywhere else. It’s really a big commercial, but if you don’t have a good product to sell, that commercial is not really for anything.
I have a ton of great music I’ve recorded that’s ready to be released, and a band already put together that’s just slamming. So we’re going to start booking festivals and releasing music right out of the gate, and doing as much as we can as fast as we can. The limelight window is supersmall, because in two months they’re going to do another season of “The Voice.”
Q: What kind of hint can you give us about your plans for [this week’s] shows?
A: I think about the only thing I’m allowed to tell you is: It’s going to be very high energy.