Curious Fact No. 1: Of all the songs the Twin Cities’ own Jesse Larson has sung on NBC’s “The Voice” this season, he had performed only one of them in public before. Just one.
Curious Fact No. 2: Three of the tunes he’s sung on the popular TV talent show he’d never even heard before he was introduced to them at rehearsal.
Didn’t matter. Larson, a 35-year-old guitar maker from Brooklyn Park, has made it to the finals on “The Voice” this week. He’ll compete with three others on Monday and Tuesday.
“I don’t have a go-to song,” Larson confessed with a hearty chuckle on Saturday. “I don’t know what I’m going to sing. Being that I haven’t sang a ton, I don’t have a huge catalog. All but two songs on the show were new to me. I had to figure them out from the ground floor melody-wise, phrasing, all that stuff. ”
That’s because Larson never seriously thought about singing. He’s a serious guitar player. His wife urged him to audition for “The Voice” and he decided to give it a shot.
Now the burly, bearded, bespectacled dude who’s never had a voice lesson or sung in a choir is trying to find his singing voice. And he’s going about it in a rather novel way.
“I think I learned how to sing based on how I play guitar, melody-wise,” explained the self-taught guitarist/singer. “I realized singing was a much more honest or pure form of self-expression than guitar. It takes a lot less concentration. You’re using words; it’s easier to convey emotion. On guitar, it takes years and years and years of practice and comfort in the craft in order to convey emotions.
“I’m sure people who have proper [vocal] technique listen to me and wonder, ‘What is he doing?’ I sing and play what I feel.”
Larson has sung before. Just not too much. In the funk band MPLS, he sings a few tunes per gig while others are the featured vocalists.
“You can say he’s grown as a guitar player and you can say he’s grown as a performer, but the singing part’s always been there, it’s always been phenomenal,” said MPLS drummer/leader Brandon Commodore. “He’s very, very modest. He gets a bit shy.”
Adds Ashley Commodore, one of MPLS’ featured singers: “He’s always been a singer to me. He’s our secret weapon. He’s a very powerful, soulful, honest, raw singer. He goes a lot on emotion and lets it all out.”
Veteran Minneapolis guitarist/drummer Jellybean Johnson of the Time understands Larson’s point of view.
“He has a sideman mentality. He just wants to be a guitarist, but when he opens his mouth [to sing] … ‘Really!’ ” said Johnson with an expression of wow on his face.
For his blind audition on “The Voice,” Larson sang “Jealous Guy” by Donny Hathaway, which he’d performed before.
Adam Levine of Maroon 5 was the only one of the four coaches on “The Voice” to show interest in having Larson on his team.
Curious Fact No. 3: Larson has become the first finalist in 12 seasons on “The Voice” who had only one coach “turn the chair around” to express a desire to work with him.
It’s one of several surprising turns in Larson’s life in the past few years.
A graduate of Anoka High School, Larson played guitar in various little-known bands while managing an auto-parts shop for 15 years. Brandon Commodore discovered Larson gigging in the lesser-known Devine Collection and recruited him for MPLS in 2013.
The following year, MPLS was invited to play at Paisley Park for one of Prince’s late-night parties.
Prince liked what he heard and asked Larson back to jam. Actually, it turned out to be an audition for a band to back Judith Hill, a former contestant on “The Voice” whose album Prince was putting out.
It was no ordinary audition. Nothing’s ever ordinary with Prince. Larson was handed one of Prince’s guitars to play. The strap was too long and Larson had to quickly figure out how to get his sound out of this unexpected new instrument.
Larson got the gig.
“Jesse’s a world-class guitar player,” said Johnson, a drummer who taught himself to play guitar and helped create the Minneapolis Sound. “Prince knew. He told Jesse to quit his job. Prince knows who’s funky and who’s not.”
After rehearsing for several weeks, Hill’s band played a handful of late-night shows at Paisley and two out-of-town gigs opening for Prince. That was the plan: Going on tour with Prince as an opening act.
But the Purple One changed his mind and decided to go solo with his Piano and Microphone Tour. So Larson tried out for “The Voice” and pursued another side career — making guitars.
After working for a luthier in Duluth, Larson began making guitars in his garage in Brooklyn Park.
Curious Fact No. 4: Between his audition for “The Voice” in February and his next appearance on the show, Larson made himself the electric guitar he’s been playing on TV.
“I built that guitar in 250 hours in two months or so,” he said both matter-of-factly and proudly.
A Princely work ethic
Larson didn’t reach out to Nicholas David, the St. Paul singer who made the finals of “The Voice” in 2012.
He did try to talk to Hill about “The Voice” before his blind audition, but “we ended up talking about other things. You’ve got to find your own way. You can’t explain how crazy it is.”
He remembers what he learned from being in Prince’s world for a year or two.
“If you think you’re working hard, you’re not working as hard as Prince is. And he taught me to believe in myself. I wouldn’t be in this competition today if it wasn’t for him believing in me and seeing something in me. I don’t think if he hadn’t hired me that I would have ever left my job and went to music full time. I left all my stability — my 401(k), my insurance — to chase the dream.”
He’s finding himself working 14 to 18 hours a day for “The Voice,” everything from photo shoots to rehearsals.
Last week, Larson was the last contestant to make it into the finals. He and two others offered one tune and then viewers voted on which contestant would be “saved” for the finals.
“I was planning on packing my bags and coming home,” Larson said he was thinking at that moment. “Not that I’m a negative thinker. The other two had both done an amazing job. ‘OK, I’m just going home’ — I was planning on that in my head. When they called my name, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t expect it at all. I prepare for the worst and hope for the best so I can keep going. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m very happy to be here.”
Now Larson takes to heart what his coach Levine says.
“Adam has really pushed me far outside of my comfort zone. In a good way. I’m going out there as far as being the entertainer. I’ve never been that guy.
“Adam wants to make sure that I come across in the most honest, passionate and heartfelt way. He’ll give me a couple pointers on what I should and shouldn’t do. For the most part, he trusts my heart and vision of music. He gets me to be in the right frame of mind to trust myself in the moment. Because I’m not the most confident guy. I’m an introverted, quiet guy. It’s tough for me to get behind myself a lot of times.”
Or to figure out what songs to sing.