First, Buchanan was often carrying a guitar on a show that focuses primarily on vocalists (it’s called The Voice, after all). He returned frequently to the heartland rock canon – Bruce Springsteen (Stevie Van Zandt called Buchanan’s cover of “The Rising” “very impressive”), John Mellencamp – and twice paid tribute to the biggest singer-songwriter of the moment, Ed Sheeran. But after summoning somber authority week after week, Buchanan let loose in the final round with a cover of the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin,'” where he tore around the stage with reckless abandon.
In addition, Buchanan was the first Voice contestant to be subject to new rules of the 14th season: Blake Shelton used the “block” feature to prevent Adam Levine from becoming Buchanan’s coach – a smart move, because Buchanan admitted that he watched Levine’s performance of “I Love L.A.” with Randy Newman “about 80 times a week.” Shelton did his best to convince Buchanan to join his team, but the young singer instead picked Alicia Keys, who shrewdly coached him to the final two.
Rolling Stone spoke with Buchanan about not liking the sound of his own voice, working with Keys and why he loves Bruce Springsteen.
Why did you pick Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble” to audition with?
I love that song, and I thought it was a good audition song. It doesn’t have that many words, so I couldn’t forget ’em, ’cause I sometimes forget my words. I thought it was a good showcase of who I am, what I want to do and what I can do.
So many of your performances on the show were guitar-centric.
I don’t think I can sing. Really, I don’t. I don’t like the sound of my own voice, and I’ve been playing guitar for much longer than I’ve been singing – I’ve been playing my guitar for over half my life, for 10 years. I’m kind of connected to it. So just the whole experience of being on a singing show and not thinking you’re that good at singing in general is a very weird, trippy experience. I can’t believe it happened.
You were surprised that people were interested in your singing?
Surprise is an understatement. I was shocked. Really? Are you guys sure? You’re not just messing with you, are you? I think of myself as a guitar player first and then a songwriter second. Maybe I’m a songwriter first one day. I never saw myself as a singer.
One of your more surprising song choices was in the Save round when you sang the Calum Scott version of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”
That’s a cool song. I liked that song a lot and I liked Calum Scott’s version. I got sent that a few years ago when he did it on Britain’s Got Talent. People were like, you should sing this. They sent us a lot of stuff to pick for Instant Save on The Voice and that was on the list. It’s a cool, modern song … So I threw it on my list, and we kept rehearsing it week after week and then I finally needed it. I think that was a big turning point for me. That song got me trending on Twitter; I had almost 550,000 tweets in that Instant Save window when I sang that. That song is going to be special to me for a long time.
One the opposite end of the spectrum, what about your cover of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” – you were dancing all over the stage.
It looked like I can actually dance when I did that song, and I can’t dance. If I tried to recreate anything I did in that song, I’d probably make a fool of myself. I don’t know how I did it. I keep watching it back like, wouldn’t it be cool if you knew how to do that and could do it on a nightly basis so people would be like, oh, he can kind of dance! I was just flailing until it looked like it made sense. It was my last song that votes counted on. My real last song was with Ryan Adams, which was an amazing experience. But that song [“Good Lovin'”] was a blast. I swear to God, I’m not exaggerating, my calves still hurt so bad from that song, ’cause I guess I’m really out of shape.
What lessons did you take away from working with Alicia Keys?
A big thing I learned from her – I said it Tuesday night as well – is that your authenticity should never be rivaled by compromise. When she was starting out, the kind of stuff she was doing wasn’t necessarily the kind of stuff that was playing on the radio. But she did what she wanted to do, and she blew up because of it. That’s what I want to do as well.
You got into the Top Ten on iTunes after the show four weeks in a row; this week you had two songs in the Top 10. Does that feel like a vindication of your approach?
The song that I wrote, “Where You Come From,” I wrote it in 10 minutes, which have quickly become the best 10 minutes of my life. That was Number One on iTunes for over 24 hours, which blows my mind. I wrote it – I can’t really comprehend that. But that got Alicia and I very excited.
You spoke about that song on the show, but what was influencing you when you wrote it?
I was in chemistry class. The night before I read this book Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and it was the first book I ever read in one sitting. Usually I read books over the span of three or four days. I read this in one sitting. It really stuck with me. There’s this passage in this book that says, “where you come from is gone, and where you’re at means nothing if you can’t get away from it.” It’s a long passage; I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was like, I want to write a song about the way this book makes me feel. About a guy who’s kind of at the end of his rope – at the end of his life really. It’s a transitional song. It’s really a heavy song.
I’m actually surprised that it did so well, because it’s definitely not single material. It’s always been my favorite song that I’ve written, but I figured it would just be tacked on to an album somewhere, a deep cut that people liked. My favorite artist is Bruce Springsteen, and all my favorite stuff that he’s ever done is the deep cuts that when you hear it live you’re like, yes, I feel so lucky. I always thought this song would be more like that. The fact that it went Number One on iTunes is still blowing my mind.
What in particular do you like about Springsteen?
I personally think he is the greatest songwriter of all time. His songs feel like – if I’m walking down the streets of where I’m from, I feel like everybody I pass lives the life of some Bruce song somewhere. The songs feel like the community around me. The songs also feel like a reason to get out of the community around me and go do something with yourself.
I would never have started playing guitar if it wasn’t for Bruce. Or writing songs, or singing. I get a casting email from this show that said they saw a video of mine on YouTube and wanted to know if I wanted to audition. I never would have done that had I not heard an interview the day before where Bruce said, “If you’re going to make it in the music business today, you gotta be desperate enough to take every shot that comes your way.” I always thought I was gonna die in like, a bar band somewhere 40 years down the road. Just playing the same bars every weekend, that’s what I thought I was gonna be doing for the rest of my life. Then I heard that, got the email – I literally would not have tried out had I not heard that. I owe [Bruce] a lot.
You tweeted that you’re going to his Broadway show?
Yeah, I’m going. I’ve had a ticket since December. I’m like 20 days out. I feel so good. I’ve been waiting so long.
Is this going to be your first time seeing him?
This’ll be my fourth. But my first time seeing him solo acoustic. The first time I saw him, it was in 2009. Second time was in 2014. Last time was in Virginia Beach in 2016, where he held my hand! He will never remember this, but he did hold my hand during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” It was like the greatest day in my life.
Have you and Alicia talked about your next steps as an artist?
We’re having a phone call today. In the coming days we’re getting recording dates finalized for the middle to the end of June. Sometime after June 19th – I got tickets to Paul Simon’s farewell tour on June 19th. After that, man, I’m wide open. We’ll go record for a couple days. Whether it’s an EP or a record, it’ll be out by early July.
Are you planning to stick close to the sound of your original song?
It’s definitely gonna be an extension of that. But with some more upbeat, happy songs in there. They’re not all gonna be about dying and sad stuff. I promise.