Wolpert makes a soulful entrance on The Voice
Sporting signature ’50s frames and carrying a hauntingly clear and soulful voice, former Carnegie Mellon student James Wolpert glided into the top 12 of NBC’s reality television competition The Voice with his performance of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” last Tuesday.
Wolpert’s stripped-down version of the Mitchell hit left his mentor, Maroon 5 bandleader Adam Levine, wide-eyed and stunned. “You came back and did something incredibly bold. You had so much control, and it was so elegant. I could not be more proud of you,” Levine said.
Levine was not the only one floored by Wolpert’s performance. His “A Case of You” single subsequently lurched to No. 3 on the iTunes sales chart before settling comfortably around No. 4 on Tuesday night.
Tonight, Wolpert will perform in The Voice’s live show against the top 12 at 8 p.m. “Man, I just feel like this is exactly the position I want to be in right now, and there’s literally nothing more that I could ask for. This is the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me,” Wolpert said.
Surprisingly, Wolpert’s powerful voice and music style — which falls somewhere between classics Jack White and Queen — was not enough to gain him an acceptance from Carnegie Mellon’s vocal performance program back in 2009. “I auditioned for their voice program, but I didn’t get in, and I just wanted to go to the school so badly that I went for my second-best choice, which was art,” he said.
After two challenging years as an art major — “I was a terrible student, but I really enjoyed my classes” — the 22-year-old Lancaster, Pa., native dropped out of Carnegie Mellon and began working at the Apple Store in Shadyside.
“What kind of art did I specialize in? Hmm… Bad art,” Wolpert chuckled. “But I’ll never forget my time at CMU. It was an incredibly important, pivotal experience in my life. I also just had a lot of fun in the fine arts program.”
Wolpert said, “I dropped out because I felt called to a different path. I would love to finish up at some point
in my life though. You know, go back and get the ol’ college degree.”
The choice to leave college has certainly paid off, but Wolpert warns that it’s not the path for everybody. “I certainly hope I’m not encouraging anybody to drop out,” he said. “All of the lessons that I learned at CMU and the nuggets of wisdom I acquired during my two years there kind of nestled themselves into place as my life moved forward — and then it all came together and the dots all connected.”
Although it was tough to balance music and work during his two years as an Apple employee — “I was working full-time and I was making barely enough to pay rent” — Wolpert stuck around Pittsburgh and continued to perform with Carnegie Mellon’s a cappella group Soundbytes, while recording and writing on his own.
“Soundbytes shows were the majority of what I’ve been doing for the past seven months, besides The Voice. My solo performances kind of went by the wayside because I was having so much fun with Soundbytes; they’re some of the best friends I’ve ever met and I will cherish them for my entire life,” Wolpert said.
Sophie Wirt, a junior professional writing major and member of Soundbytes, said, “James was an integral part of Soundbytes, both musically and as a friend to everyone in the group. Though we’re all incredibly excited for him, I don’t think anyone’s surprised that his talent is taking him places.”
Wolpert, who had many solos during his time with Soundbytes, did not expect to experience stage fright before he went on the show, but a case of nerves kicked in right before his first appearance in front of The Voice’s 13 million viewers last month.
“For my blind audition, I almost collapsed before they opened the stage doors for me. It’s something that I had never experienced before because I always thought I was a comfortable performer on stage; it’s where I feel the most at home. But I think the sheer scale of it all is something that you just have to get used to,” he said.
The audience would have never been able to tell. Wolpert stormed the stage, nailing his rendition of music-inspiration Jack White’s “Love Interruption” with grit and verve. All four judges — Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton — spun their chairs around to fight over Wolpert before he eventually settled on Levine as his mentor.
Quickly, Wolpert developed a reputation as the top dog of Levine’s team. Zayda Rivera wrote in the New York Daily News, “I still strongly feel Levine’s squad is the most powerful with vocalists like James Wolpert…. It’s hard not to watch Wolpert, who Levine previously described as a ‘stockbroker who could sing.’ He’s passionate and fun.”
Wolpert feels strongly about promoting and supporting the other contestants through his Twitter and Facebook, even voting for his competitors through The Voice’s voting app.
“I consider myself honored to be counted among the [contestants] at all. It might be counterintuitive, but I think the key to success on the show, or music at all, is putting aside the things that people say — good or bad — and just investing yourself in the music,” he said. “I know that sounds pretty corny, but it’s the truth. I’ve found that that’s the most harmonious way to approach this whole thing.”
Interestingly, The Voice hasn’t been Wolpert’s first exposure to reality television. In 2008, he was featured in five episodes of the ABC television series High School Musical: Get In the Picture.
Wolpert’s other acting experience includes a lead role in Yulin Kuang’s (DC ’13) short film “The Perils of Growing Up Flat-Chested,” which won an award for Best Narrative Short at the San Diego Asian Film Festival last Saturday.
“I love acting. It’s really fun. In a university with such a prestigious acting school, I would never compare myself to anybody there or claim that I am going to make my big foray into acting anytime soon, but it’s definitely on the table because I have a great time doing it and people seem to enjoy it and it gives me another outlet,” he said. “I love having as many creative outlets as I possibly can.”
Fans at home love that Wolpert encompasses the very essence of the stereotypical Carnegie Mellon student — quietly passionate, slightly nerdy, and always humble.
“I just feel really proud of him. It’s a great feeling when a fellow Tartan is successful; I feel like we all share each other’s triumphs,” sophomore professional writing and creative writing double major Sarah Hodgson said. “Based on his style and his passion, he seems to pretty much embody CMU, which is why it’s so amazing that we get to have this talented, stylish, down-to-earth guy representing our school.”
“I was completely taken aback by the support,” Wolpert said. “I am humbled by the response and I know I wouldn’t be here without the support of my family, my friends and my beautiful girlfriend Nadia [Sheen], who also went to Carnegie Mellon.”
Wolpert says that currently, Sheen (MCS ’13) and other Carnegie Mellon alumni have formed a community out in Los Angeles. “CMU has this little satellite community out here in L.A.; we just hang out and get together pretty often,” Wolpert said.
Keeping in touch with Carnegie Mellon alumni and friends helps Wolpert feel connected to the Pittsburgh community that he still very much considers home. “I’m so nostalgic about my time at CMU; it’s hilarious. All this pain-pleasure memory is flooding back to me right now.”
“What I don’t miss though, was being trapped in Scobell my freshman year,” Wolpert laughed.
According to his Twitter feed, Wolpert’s favorite Pittsburgh eats include some classic Carnegie Mellon student go-tos: Union Grill, Steel Cactus, and Spice Island. “I love hanging out in Shadyside — there are great bars around there. I love hanging out at the Apple Store because I’m a nerd. I love going to the Strip on Market Days. My favorite restaurant to go to is Tamari,” he said in an interview with WPXI.
As for the fame and the buzz, Wolpert said, “It’s impossible not to read the stuff online, because this is kind of the first thing of this type that’s ever happened to me. It’s a whole new way of seeing yourself, I guess. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to read comments and articles about me online, but I succumb to it anyways.”
Wolpert said, “It’s been a roller coaster ride, I have to say. And that’s kind of the way I like it. I like bouncing back and forth between different places and different situations. I like all sorts of crazy situations, and that’s just me.”