When multiple Grammy-winner Ed Sheeran joined The Voice this week as the Knockout Rounds’ Season 21 Mega-Mentor, the contestants were understandably shocked and awed, particularly young singers like Team Kelly’s 13-year-old Hailey Mia and the Cunningham Sisters’ Marie (age 14) and Macie (15). They were also — again, understandably —intimidated to be in the presence of the superstar singer-songwriter. But Ed instantly put the girls at ease by insisting, “I couldn’t even sing in tune till I was about 16! I’m going to show you something, because no one ever believes me.”
With that, the now 30-year-old British troubadour whipped out his phone during Tuesday’s Knockouts rehearsals and cued up an incriminating vintage clip of him performing “Addicted” (a song that ended up on his self-released 2005 EP The Orange Room), warning Hailey and the Cunninghams: “Here’s me at 14, not being able to sing in tune. It’s really bad!” And oof — he wasn’t kidding. On another famous talent competition, Simon Cowell probably would have told Ed he sounded like a pitchy cat in a blender, and Randy Jackson surely would have said, “It’s a no from me, dawg.”
Idol alumnus-turned-Voice coach Kelly Clarkson and her young charges cackled as they listened to the awkward adolescent Ed hit more bum notes than Peter “Time to Change” Brady, but there were some important points to be gleaned from this embarrassing footage. “Kids always go, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be born with natural talent,’ and I’m like, ‘No, you don’t!’’ Ed chucklingly noted. “What a lesson, too — humility is amazing!” an amused Kelly added.
As it turned out, the Cunningham Sisters (spoiler alert) lost their Knockout against Hailey, but considering that Ed once tried out at age 16 for the U.K. television musical drama Britannia Jack and didn’t land the role, he’s proof that no one unsuccessful audition or performance can entirely derail a burgeoning career. “I’m telling you, you can achieve anything in this world,” he told the sisters Tuesday. “My point is, I learned and learned and I got experience, and I now have a career. And you guys are way further ahead than I was.”
Along with the Cunningham Sisters’ face-off against Hailey, there were two other Knockout Rounds that aired Tuesday, on what was The Voice’s landmark 500th episode. I was surprised that the Cunninghams weren’t stolen, but one of the night’s other performances (spoiler alert) did in fact culminate in a very deserved Steal. Read on…
TEAM LEGEND: Brittanybree vs. Samuel Harness
John Legend paired these two singers with “nice textured voices” and “rasp, tone, and character,” although in every other way they were totally different. Brittanybree — a gospel diva with no pre-Voice experience performing secular music — took on Daniel Caesar featuring H.E.R.’s “Best Part,” and John and Ed had to coach her to not always sing “to the rafters,” advising her to be more tender and vulnerable and smooth out her runs. Brittany took this direction well, entering the ring with what Kelly called her “game face” and delivering a sexy but classy, nuanced rendition. It was a vibe. Ariana said the performance had her on the “edge of my seat,” and Kelly exclaimed, “Oh my God, I felt that!”
However, Samuel’s gritty cover of Lewis Capaldi’s “Bruises,” a song choice inspired by his own complex and bittersweet adoption backstory, went even deeper. Ed and John noted the “natural pain” in his voice (which John advised Samuel to “deploy selectively”), and his connection to the song was obvious (as was his connection to Ed, one of his musical heroes). Onstage, Kelly noted that Samuel had picked the “more competitive song” and had “felt every word,” and Blake Shelton declared, “Samuel just had a moment.”
John was torn, especially since he related so much to Brittanybree’s church background. But he ultimately had to go with the singer who gave the more “palpable” performance, Samuel. It was quite a shocker to realize that a former frontrunner like Brittany wouldn’t be headed to the Live Playoffs (Samuel himself seemed stunned by John’s verdict). If only there were Saves in play during the Knockouts, I am sure John wouldn’t have let Brittanybree go this soon.
WINNER: Samuel Harness
TEAM KELLY: The Cunningham Sisters vs. Hailey Mia
Hailey warbled “Arcade” by Duncan Lawrence — acknowledging that at only 13, she hasn’t experienced the heartbreak depicted on the passionate ballad, but she wanted to challenge herself with a mature song and prove she is an “old soul.” She sang it with grace and poise beyond her years, for sure, but I don’t think she quite rose to the challenge emotionally. Still, Ariana Grande called this number “so, so stunning” and raved, “I am astounded by what I just watched.”
The Cunningham Sisters, who got their start doing worship songs, stuck with the familiar and went with Hillsong United’s “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” At first I questioned this song choice, but once Ed advised them to strip back the grandiose arrangement so as to not bury their voices, and to show more chemistry by singing directly to each other, everything clicked. Blake told them, “You have a light about you,” and Kelly said, “I love that you both have incredibly different tones, but they blend so magically together.”
Both acts showed great potential for their age — John called these prodigies “babies,” and Blake gushed, “This is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen” — but Kelly surprisingly chose Hailey (a contestant she’d actually stolen during the Battle Rounds), who she said “really came alive” onstage. I think Macie and Marie were the more unique act and could have carved out their own lane; I’m shocked that that lane did not lead to the Lives.
WINNER: Hailey Mia
TEAM ARIANA: David Vogel vs. Ryleigh Plank
Two “free spirits” with very different artistic viewpoints, Ryleigh vamped it up on the floor-filler “Midnight Sky” by Miley Cyrus (another free spirit who, like Ryleigh, is “unapologetically herself”), while David did a raw acoustic take on Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me,” a song choice inspired by his own “tough breakup.”
I wondered if an uptempo disco banger was the best song choice for Ryleigh, an emotional balladeer who first auditioned with Demi Lovato’s cry-for-help mental health anthem “Anyone”; I especially thought such a seemingly lightweight pop tune would put her at a disadvantage against David’s more vulnerable performance. But she was a totally convincing “pop star, rock star, disco diva,” as Ariana put it, exploring and pushing her vast vocal range like never before and oozing what John called “charisma and individuality.” Said Kelly, “You’re a whole package. There’s something so cool about you.”
David was also a revelation, a natural rock star (even his hairography, when he paused mid-guitar strum to swoop his Chris Cornell-like curls to one side, was kind of magical), and Ed was geeking out on his open guitar tuning and unique “stadium anthem” rendition. Ariana called this “special and intimate,” saying the performance was so poignant that “it feels like I shouldn’t be watching. … You really let us in, in a way that was so disarming.”
Ariana agonized over this tough and even semi-joked, “Is it too late to quit?” But in the end she chose Ryleigh, who she described as “one in a billion,” “the real deal,” and a woman who has “the vocals of all the greats of every genre put in a blender.” I was relieved, because Ryleigh is my favorite this season – but I was also relieved when John swooped in to steal David, who I think could be an intriguing contender in the Lives. “David adds something different to my team,” proclaimed John. “I think Team Legend just got a bit stronger.”
WINNER: Ryleigh Plank / STOLEN: David Vogel moves to Team Legend
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