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One year ago Lowell Oakley took the stage and delivered a blistering duet version of Ain’t No Sunshine in Durham Academy’s Kenan Auditorium in front of an audience of hundreds of adoring DA fans. The self-described #CavCrooner earned that faithful following by stepping into the spotlight and delivering a string of show-stopping performances during his senior year including Feeling Good, Me and Mrs. Jones and Hallelujah. On Monday night, Oakley — a veteran of XIV Hours, In the Pocket and Upper School musicals and a 2014 Triangle Rising Star finalist — took center stage in front of his biggest audience ever to deliver what he called “the performance of my life” on the season 8 premiere of NBC’s vocal competition show The Voice.
Oakley charmed the likes of Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine and superstar producer/performer Pharrell Williams with his version of the jazz standard Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. His smooth rendition earned Oakley comparisons to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett in front of an estimated television audience of nearly 14 million viewers.
There are five stages of the competition. Oakley performed in the first round of Blind Auditions for this year’s celebrity coaching roster of Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Pharrell Williams. Oakley was the first to join Pharrell Williams’ team, and he advances to the show’s Battle Rounds in March. If he advances again, Oakley will have an audience of millions on a weekly basis, as he competes for the grand prize of a recording contract.
Monday’s premiere of The Voice was actually taped months ago. So Oakley, a freshman and business and music major at Elon University, started his college career sitting on a pretty big secret – he had been among 45,000 contestants who auditioned for the show last summer. Oakley got to revel in the big reveal and watch his performance in Durham at a viewing party that included former DA teachers, family and friends.
As a contestant, Oakley’s schedule is extremely busy, but he carved out some time for an interview with his alma mater.
News & Notes: How hard was it to keep this secret?
Lowell Oakley: At first, it was really hard because you’re getting through the stages and different checkpoints of being on the show and you’re like, 'Oh my god!' I made sure the only people I told were my mom and dad. As close as I am with my family, and we’re super close, it was hard not to tell all of them about the successes I was having, but now it’s out and we made it, so I can feel confident.
N&N: When did you decide to audition for the show in the first place?
LO: I noticed in late February (2014) that The Voice posted an open call audition in Washington, D.C., so I put it on my calendar. Initially I had said I’m not going. The audition was the weekend right after my last final exam at DA. But my best friend from DA actually drove me up to D.C. in his car and we made a weekend out of it – he did the touristy thing while I auditioned. I only packed one change of clothes and I didn’t initially tell my parents I was going to the open call. I got the callback, which I wasn’t expecting, and my friend had to go home, so I had to call my mom so she could drive a suit up. She kind of freaked out when I called her from D.C. I did well at the callback, and a month later they called and said we want you, let’s do this.
N&N: How did you pick the song you performed?
LO: I do like the whole crooner image and I like to adhere to that Sinatra-Rat Pack vibe. A lot of his songs are about “that girl” and I tried to channel that because I felt like I could relate to it. My girlfriend and I broke up and it affected me, and I also like the playfulness of the song. I wanted to switch it up and do something The Voice hadn’t seen before. It was hard because this performance was all about just the voice [the celebrity coaches have their backs to the performers in the Blind Auditions round], and trying to convey all of that feeling in just a sound was a challenge.
N&N: What was it like to have your family out there with you for the Blind Auditions taping?
LO: It was such a blessing to have them there. It’s very hard to articulate how tight-knit we are. My parents taught me how to be very independent even though we’re really close. But to be honest, it put on a lot more pressure on me — I would have hated for them to come all that way and then not turn a (celebrity coach’s) chair. But you can’t think about that; you can’t think about anything really. Part of the initial process is to just let go, sing your song, understand the message you’re delivering and be yourself. I was very thankful for them to be there.
N&N: What was it like when you walked out on stage?
LO: It’s crazy, especially with the Blind Audition; it’s incredibly intimidating because it’s completely quiet and it feels like an eternity when you’re standing on the stage, ready to go, waiting for those first notes of the song. I’d be lying if I said my heart wasn’t pounding. I knew if I could hit that first high note of the song I’d be fine. Adam turned around pretty quickly and then I just started performing because you know you’ve made a team. Then that growl came out and I wasn’t planning that at all! I hadn’t rehearsed that, and that was one of the things that perked Pharrell’s ears and then, thank god, he turned around! It was so surreal and there was so much adrenaline pumping it was unreal. I’m so thankful!
N&N: What made you choose Team Pharrell?
LO: Pharrell’s look — his eyes. The whole time I was listening to what Adam was saying, Pharrell was leaning over his chair and staring at me with this ‘I want to work with you’ look, and it just pierced me. I couldn’t move, it was so powerful. Initially he was kind of analyzing me and figuring out how I work. Now he knows exactly what to say to me to keep me successful in this competition. Hopefully in the Battle Rounds he’ll see I’m a teachable student and I can do what needs to be done.
N&N: How do you think DA prepared you for the experience?
I learned different things from different teachers. Hard work and discipline from Mr. Spatola, organization and planning from Mr. Biersach, learning to let go and be myself from Mr. Meyer. I think DA taught me to balance taking studies seriously with having fun and just being yourself. And that fitting in is overrated. I think Mr. Meyer said ‘just do you.' My teachers taught me that friends will come, those who believe in you will stick with you, and that has been true. The people who have given me that love haven’t changed — whether it’s friends, teachers, whoever it is from the DA community — those are the same people who showed me love from the day I stepped on to campus. I’m very thankful for DA and the opportunities I’ve had.
You can catch Oakley’s next performance on The Voice during the Battle Rounds airing March 16, 17, 23 and 24. Until then, keep up with Lowell on social media: