The Rise of Bria Kelly
Behind The Scenes Of The Smithfield Singers Wild Top 10 Run On NBC’s The Voice
BRIA KELLY had prepared for this moment, but she was only 17 and scared to death. In a few minutes, she would step onto stage to sing 90 seconds worth of music to four titans of the music industry—Usher, the No. 1 Hot 100 artist of the 2000s decade; Blake Shelton, the Country Music Award’s reigning vocalist of the year for four consecutive years; Shakira, whose “Hips Don’t Lie” was the number one song in 55 countries; and Adam Levine, front man for Maroon 5, whose latest album, Overexposed, set the record for No. 1 songs (six in total) in the Top 40 chart’s 20-year history.
A senior at Smithfield High, Bria had sung throughout Coastal Virginia at festivals and bars and private clubs. She was used to enthusiastic crowds that energized her with their reactions. But here, on NBC’s hit show The Voice, the audience would be invisible, set back in a darkened studio. Her performance would be taped and then played on television months later or maybe not at all. More intimidating yet was the fact that these four judges would be sitting with their backs turned to her. If any of them liked what they heard, they could press a buzzer and their chair would spin around. This meant they wanted to act as her mentor throughout the rest of the singing competition. But they had to be selective. Each only had space on their team for 12 contestants. By season’s end that initial field of 48 would be whittled down to a single winner signing a record contract and taking home a prize of $100,000. Bria’s fear was that no one would hit their buzzer and she would be singing to a silent room.
She needn’t have worried.
Her voice split the darkness like a lightning bolt. She was practically screaming into the mic, but her tone stayed crisp as fresh linen. Before she finished belting out the first, sustained note of James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues,” two judges—Blake and Adam—smacked their buzzers. Not that Bria noticed. “My eyes were closed,” she says now, “so I didn’t see them turn around. As soon as I hit the first note I was completely into the song, and I wasn’t thinking whether or not I was going to turn a chair. I was just trying to sing the song to the best of my ability.”
As Bria continued, her voice displayed a gritty timbre that often takes artists decades to achieve. A third chair spun and there sat Shakira, astonishment splashed across her face as she took in this sprig of a girl dressed in black leather, golden hair spilling down her back. Beside Shakira, Blake whooped and clapped his hands. Adam jumped to his feet and pumped his fist in the air.
“It was nuts,” Bria says. “I opened my eyes finally once Shakira turned around. I was just thinking if I can only get that last chair to turn it would be amazing.”
It wasn’t that Usher was holding out. He was paying attention, brow furrowed, elbow resting on his knee. Finally the studious expression broke, replaced with pure joy. He hit his buzzer, and relief washed over Bria’s face. She had just achieved the singing competition equivalent of a World Series grand slam. Bria remained composed until the final chord and then shook her head and mouthed the word, “Wow.”
The judges were equally amazed. They gave her a standing ovation atop their spinning platforms. At their feet were the lighted words, “I WANT YOU.” Adam stood with arms raised over his head in celebration while Blake and Shakira threw out compliments. But it was Usher who summed up what everyone was thinking. He held his arms out in Bria’s direction and bowed his head. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we have just heard The Voice.”
Now came the interesting part. It was Bria’s turn to decide. The judges now had to sell themselves, each trying to win Bria’s favor and convince her to join their team. The judges talked over one another, squabbling like schoolchildren on a playground.
Bria had planned to pick Adam if he hit his buzzer, but Usher had something up his sleeve. A gold-plated something. “There is one thing that I have that I want you to have as well,” he said, reaching into his lectern to remove a Grammy award. “Would you like one of these?”
“I would love one of those!”
He sauntered over to Bria and handed her the heavy, gramophone-shaped trophy. He could afford to be magnanimous. He had eight of them.
Offstage, Bria’s parents, Bob and Jan Kelly, were watching everything unfold on monitors. “When he gave her his Grammy,” Bob says, “I was just thinking the whole time: Don’t drop it.”
The Grammy ploy worked. When it came time to choose, Bria pointed at her new mentor and said, “I pick Usher.”
AT THE AGE OF 7, Bria sang in public for the first time in the chorus of her second grade production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“Even then,” says Smithfield resident Kim Norman, “there was this real powerhouse voice coming out of this tiny person.”
Bria was content to blend into the background, but in third grade her chorus teacher urged her to sing a solo. The audience loved her. And she loved them. This, she decided, is the career path she wanted to follow.
Once Bria turned 12, she turned to vocal coach Mark Bzdick to refine her rough edges, to develop breath control and musicianship. “She had one of those very rare things with a student who had a much bigger voice than she was ready to handle yet,” says Bzdick. “At that age, it’s very important that you don’t start to manipulate a voice, that you let it grow naturally. … I reined her in so that she had good vocal health. … If there were any kind of tension or stress on the voice, I would point that out to her. She had the natural talent, and she was a very hard worker, a really good student. I couldn’t be prouder of her right now.”
Her parents aided with the technical and logistical aspects of performing. Bob, a retired mechanical engineer, educated himself on all the hardware a band could need so he could “run sound” anytime his daughter performed. He and Jan also served as Bria’s booking agents, scouring the region for venues.
“I kept telling folks there aren’t a whole bunch of opportunities for 12-year-old kids to perform,” he says. “Of course, there are always bars—”
At this, Jan interjects with a laugh, “And she’s done them!”
“—but that’s just not the right place for a kid.”
The bars she did play at tended to be on the Southside, and gigs would typically run past midnight. With taking down the gear and travel through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, she often wouldn’t get home until 2 or 3 in the morning. Stressful demands for a child still in middle school.
“One night at [Virginia Beach’s] 15th Street Raw Bar and Grill,” Bria recalls, “I was so tired I just sat down on Tyler’s base drum, and I just sat there like this.” She lowers her head and sweeps her hair across her face, pantomiming holding a microphone to her mouth behind the blonde shield.
Usually though, Bria would sing the National Anthem at the beginning of sporting events. Her first gig ever was for the Norfolk Admirals when she was 11 years old. New to the booking game, Bob emailed a recording of Bria to the team’s website and waited to see what would happen.
“Someone literally got ahold of me within a day and said, ‘Can she come in this weekend? We’d love to have her.’”
Since then, Bria has sung the National Anthem for scores of teams, including the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Orioles. She posted her performances online, along with acoustic versions of her singing covers and a few of her own songs, which led to other opportunities. She performed as the occasional opening act for bands and pop stars playing in Hampton Roads, such as Taylor Swift and Rascal Flats. Being a teenager from a small town in Southeastern Virginia, it seemed she had hit the big time. But things were about to get a whole lot bigger.
FOR YEARS, NBC’s America’s Got Talent drew their pool of contestants from those willing to travel to one of four major cities to audition. Then they realized this was too limiting. They opened up the competition and allowed individuals to post 90-second videos to YouTube and let viewers vote for their favorites. The top-12 vote getters would then be brought to the AGT stage to perform on national TV.
This was 2012, and Bria was 16. She had the raw talent. Her skills had been honed by years of instruction. And her stage presence was that of someone who had put in countless hours on the road. She was ready.
Bria uploaded a video, and within days she became an internet darling. She was invited to perform in the live shows broadcast from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark. When her turn came, she strutted the length of the horseshoe-shaped stage in a glittering silver top, playing to the three judges at its center, the surrounding crowd of 2,800 and millions of others watching on TV. Her song that night was “Gunpowder and Lead” by Miranda Lambert, a rowdy country song that fit her style at the time and showcased her big voice.
As Bria finished, host Nick Cannon stepped in from the wings and slapped her five, saying “Awesome.” The three judges were similarly impressed. Sharon Osbourne commented on her strong voice, and Howard Stern implored viewers to pick up the phone and vote for her. But it was Howie Mandel’s comment that had the most lasting impression. “In my opinion,” he said, “so far tonight, you, young lady, are the standout.” America agreed, and she was voted through to the semi-finals.
There she performed a country version of Pink’s “Perfect” while wearing a sequined cocktail dress. This time she stood at the microphone while a kaleidoscope of color bloomed on the screen behind her and strings of spotlights on both sides sliced their beams through the darkened auditorium.
Only six acts could advance to the finals, and the judges were much more critical with the performances. “No doubt about it,” said Sharon Osbourne, “you were born with great pipes, as we say in show biz … but that song is so great, it needs so much emotion in it. I just wish that I had seen more of that from you.”
America was also unconvinced, and Bria did not advance. Days later, she was back in Smithfield performing at the farmer’s market. “That was one thing we all thought was kind of admirable,” says Norman. “One day she’s in [Jersey] and the next Smithfield. She does these big venues, but if she’s obligated herself to one of these little, local things, then she shows up and does it. She’s gotten big but doesn’t act like she’s too good for us.”
REMEMBER WHEN you were a high school senior? Imagine being that age and having a handful of national celebrities lavish you with praise, knowing that their fawning remarks will be broadcast on primetime television. Wonderful isn’t it? There’s one catch though: you can’t tell anyone about it.
That was Bria’s situation in the fall of 2013 when she returned home after a taping for The Voice. Sworn to secrecy, she waited for producers to call with news of when her audition would air. Finally they announced she would appear on Feb. 24, 2014 on the season’s first episode. The results were still classified, but she could let people know when to turn on the TV.
In the weeks leading up to the first episode, NBC used excerpts from Bria’s segment in promotional teasers for the show. Her friends could barely contain themselves, and they threw an impromptu viewing party on the big night. Bria’s performance was saved for the end of the show, the clean-up hitter of the night. When the screen filled with Bria’s face, pandemonium broke out in the room. “It was just crazy,” Bria says. “Everyone was yelling at the TV and cheering. Some of them were crying because they knew how hard I’d worked.”
The video of Bria’s audition went viral, racking up more than 1.6 million views on YouTube. “[The audition] is still such a blur,” Bria says. “I don’t really remember it, and I have to look back at the video to remember. It was so amazing, so surreal and absolutely insane that that happened.”
What came next would be more intense yet—one-on-one coaching sessions with her mentor, Usher. He suggested she exercise patience in some of her songs and demonstrated how lingering on an emotional lyric can infuse it with soul. But more important than mechanics was his insight on life as a singer. “Usher taught me to let my guard down and to open myself up to people and show my flaws,” Bria says. “I have learned to become more vulnerable and let people in, to show people that I’m not just this tough badass.”
Although Usher was her official coach, Bria interacted and chatted with the other celebrity coaches as well. “Everything is normally a blur when I talk to them,” she says. “I’m just like, ‘Oh, I’m just chatting with Shakira.’ It just seems so surreal. But they’re such sweet people all of them, and there couldn’t be a better panel of coaches.”
The working schedule in L.A. was a bit of a surprise, but Bria was one of the few performers prepared for the long hours. “Sleep is not something you get a lot of,” she says. We do reality, hair and makeup, camera blocking, stage rehearsals, vocal lessons, all sorts of stuff. And it’s all packed into a week. One day I was working from 8 a.m. until 1 a.m.”
After the blind auditions, pairs of singers were put on stage to face off against each other in “Battle Rounds.” The singers did a joint performance, weaving strands of the same song together, one stepping back while the other sang her portion and then vice versa, back and forth, back and forth.
In the first Battle Round, Bria and her opponent sang Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” with Bria being named the winner. The song in her second Battle Round was “I’ll Stand by You” by the Pretenders, with the similar outcome of Bria winning.
These rounds were hyped as cage matches. Even the stage was altered to fit this theme with lighted ropes circling the stage to make it look like a boxing ring. After each vocal battle, the singers’ coach would pick a winner and host Carson Daly would lift the victor’s hand in the air.
Although NBC was doing its best to follow the reality TV formula of “controversy plus confrontation equals ratings,” the contestants themselves weren’t buying into it. Bria had formed lasting friendships with several of the other singers, most notably with Christina Grimmie and Tess Boyer. “Our fans call us the Three Musketeers,” Bria says. “They’re my sisters, and I just love them to death.”
But that wasn’t the story playing out in the news. Bria recalls one article where a reporter mused whether there was about to be a catfight between Bria and Christina. Bria laughs as she recalls where she was when she read that. “I’m sitting there in bed eating donuts with Christina and I [do this].” She wrinkles her nose and turns her hand into a claw and swats it once through the air. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s all [the fighting] I’m going to do.’”
The Three Musketeers made it through the Battle Rounds into the Top 20. But only 12 could go on to the live shows. Standing in their way was one more pre-taped round called the Playoffs in which each artist would do a solo performance for his or her coach.
When Bria stepped on stage for her Playoff performance, she wore a white jacket and a new guitar slung over her shoulders. “My dad recently bought me this guitar,” she said in a pre-taped package. “When I’m taking it up on stage, it’s like taking a little piece of family.” She would later autograph and auction off her previous guitar for $1,725, donating the profit from that sale to Smithfield Music.
Tonight, though, it was her new guitar and the song “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones, a song that showcased Bria’s full range. The opening strains were soft and trembling, but she swiftly climbed into the upper register and burst into roaring heights that left at least one of the judges flabbergasted.
“I don’t know how you do what you do,” said Shakira. “How do you reach those high notes? Then your voice breaks and it’s so raspy and sultry. That sound is just so unique.”
But it wasn’t Shakira’s decision whether Bria would stay or go. Usher clearly felt the same way though. When his five mentees lined up before him, he had to pick three to keep and two to send home. Bria was the first he tabbed to move on to the live shows, where viewer voting would decide who moved on.
In the first live show, Bria stepped away from classic R&B to try something a little more modern: Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” But she changed it up to give it her own identity.
“She has this ability,” says Bzdick, “to take whatever song she wants to sing and make it her own. That really has to do with knowing chords and music structure and all that sort of thing. Her musicianship shows in the way that she bends tones and does all those turns with her voice.”
The only glitch to her performance had nothing to do with singing. The performances are very much like a high-powered concert with flashing lights and theatrics. Bria began atop a set of stairs while flames danced on two-story high screens that surrounded her. When the song started to amp up, she tossed her guitar pick out toward the crowd and strode down the steps to a waiting microphone stand. A second guitar pick was taped to the stand and Bria struggled for several moments trying to rip it free.
“The producers have the final say in everything you see on the show,” Jan says. “A lot of people go, ‘Well, why did the coach do that?’ Or ‘Why did the contestant do that?’ Well, probably because the producer told them to.”
No one seemed to have noticed the gaffe and Bria was voted through to the Top 10. There, however, things did not go so well. She again sang a popular song, Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You,” but seemed uncomfortable during her performance. The judges commented on this and Bria agreed. But most importantly, the viewers agreed.
Tears were streaming down Bria’s face during her exit interview, but it was her friends she was thinking about more than herself. “Saying goodbye to Christina was probably the hardest thing I’ve done throughout the entire competition,” she says, “including singing and everything.”
Yes, Bria was going home, but she was leaving with valuable insight to aid her burgeoning music career. “This last song I sang wasn’t really me, and I got kicked off,” she says. “So the biggest thing that I can say is be true to who you are.”
THE SUMMER DAY was hot and thunderstorms predicted, but nothing would keep Bria Kelly’s fans from turning out in the hundreds. They waved signs and wore shirts with personalized messages. They lined up along Smithfield’s Main Street where a motorcade would soon carry a waving Bria through town. A man in a red convertible pulled up to find out where Bria would be singing later today. “Man,” he said, “that girl is good! I voted for her every time. The night she lost, though, I fell asleep.” He hung his head as if this unforgivable lapse had been the deciding factor in Bria’s ouster.
Here’s the thing: when someone hails from a small town and achieves pronounced success, everyone feels a sense of ownership. And everyone shares in the celebration.
“When Bria came back,” says Jan, “they had balloons all over the neighborhood and banners saying, Thank you for making Smithfield great. Someone said, ‘It’s not just about hams anymore. We have something else to be proud of.’”
“I never thought that I would be the one to do that in this town,” Bria says. “I never suspected that I would be the person that people would be waving at and everything. Their support means so much. It’s so cool and amazing.”
The motorcade deposited Bria at Smithfield Foods Headquarters, where fans sprawled across every available inch of grassy lawn and dignitaries waited at the top of the front steps to laud her exploits. When Bria arrived, they also showered her with gifts—everything from a banner signed by classmates to the key to the city. But it was a gift from Smithfield Foods that made her leap from her chair: a year’s supply of peanuts, ham and bacon.
“Bacon’s one of my favorite things,” she says with a huge smile.
When the proclamations and presents were done, Bria stepped up to the mic herself. She thanked everyone for their support, and then she did what she does best—she sang. Four of the five songs were acoustic versions of what she had performed on The Voice, and the fifth was a mournful, bluesy rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine When He’s Gone.”
When the songs were over and black clouds filled the horizon, no one thought about leaving. They lined up to get Bria’s autograph on a publicity photo of her or on a CD that featured six of her original songs. But they also asked her to sign their shirts, phones, footwear, and even various body parts. “One guy wanted me to sign his forehead,” Bria says. “That was the most interesting one.”
Most of the fans said hello or mentioned how proud they were of Bria, but a few were tongue-tied and merely smiled as Bria signed her name to whatever they proffered. Someone pointed out that their nerves were similar to what Bria felt when talking with The Voice judges.
“I’m just so happy that I can be a role model for people,” she says. “All I want is to be able to inspire people and show them that they can do what I do as well.
THE FIRST MONTH back was pretty rough. Bria had stacks of schoolwork to plow through and skipped tests to make up so she could graduate with her class (which she did). Her nights stretched long with cram sessions, and she found herself dozing off in class. One thing that eased her transition was the relaxed acceptance of classmates.
“No one really freaked out over her,” says her good friend Joey Smith. “We go out sometimes and people will be like, ‘There’s that girl, Bria Kelly.’ But at school things haven’t really changed.”
Smith is such a good friend of Bria’s, their arms bear matching tattoos of a specific sound wave. “If someone were to copy that and play it back [on a digital player],” he says, “they’d hear the two of us saying our names.” Smith was the friend who appeared on TV during Bria’s blind audition. When the camera would cut away from Bria’s performance, it would show him and Bria’s parents cheering like crazy and jumping for joy. That appearance, plus numerous pictures of him and Bria posted to her Twitter account (@BriaKelly), have given Smith a bit of his own following. Fame by association.
Sifting through fan mail in their kitchen, Bria passes him a letter marked “Please give this to Joey.” A dozen-or-so bracelets bunch together on her arm.
“And some came here for Christina, too,” Jan says. “It’s really funny. Christina doesn’t have a PO Box or a mailing address, so people are mailing stuff here and asking us to forward it to her.”
The whirlwind of reality TV has finished spinning Bria in circles, and now she is piecing her life back together and making plans for the future. She graduated but has no immediate plans for college. Her plans involve what to do with all the trinkets and fan mail she’s received. About the few concerts she’s lined up since returning home. And her immediate plans involve heading to the tattoo parlor with Joey to get a fifth tattoo.
When she does pause to consider the future, she thinks about maybe moving out to L.A. Usher is still her mentor, and she sometimes ponders that question he asked her so many months ago: Would you like one of these?
Yes. She would love one of those.
Bria’s six-song CD, Brighter Side, is available for purchase by sending a check or money order for $7 made out to: Bria Kelly, PO Box 313, Smithfield, Va., 23430.