We'll be kind, not cruel
No humiliation. No sob stories. Meet the judges on The Voice, the talent show where what counts is substance not style
22:31 GMT, 16 March 2012
What is it with hair Put four of the biggest names in the music business in one room, and you can imagine the conversation turning to many things – songwriting, royalties, Whitney Houston – but hair Seriously, it’s like being in Toni & Guy on a Saturday afternoon.
First up to the (metaphorical) dryer is Sir Tom Jones, looking rather splendid now he’s ditched the hair dye and let his curly mane go its natural silvery way. But he reveals that if the ‘experts’ had had their way, he would never have been unleashed onto the world without first encountering the straightening irons.
‘When I first came to London the hair was an issue,’ he explains. ‘It was the time of the Beatles, and I was told I had to look more boyish – which meant straight hair. They said, “Curly hair is out”.’
The Voice panel, from left: Danny O'Donoghue, Sir Tom Jones, Jessie J and Will.i.am. They are convinced the show will mark the start of a new, fairer era
Mercifully, he resisted, convinced that audiences didn’t care what his hair looked like. ‘I remember being in a pub in Bradford when It’s Not Unusual first came on the jukebox. These fellas were asking the barmaid, “Who is this Tom Jones” And I was right there in front of them. They were listening to my music without having a clue what I looked like. It was an important lesson for me.’
Maybe Jessie J – at 23, young enough to be Sir Tom’s granddaughter – should have had a chat with him when she was starting out in showbiz. Her hair – black bob, poker straight, fringe so sharp you could cut with it – is possibly as famous as her music, which is not, she insists, a good thing. ‘I feel my hair’s become more recognisable than my music in some places,’ she complains. ‘After a performance, I get people tweeting, “Why did you have your fringe off your face”, not, “We love your music”.’
She tells me she is planning to take radical action to test whether her fans care about her hair or not. Next month, she is shaving the whole lot off, for charity. ‘I’m doing it because I met some kids who had lost their hair when they had cancer, and I thought, “Why not”. I can’t wait to get rid of the-girl-with-the-bob. It’s too harsh. I think that image helped me make an impact, but it’s time for it to go. I want to see what people make of me – someone who’s supposedly all about image – without it. I don’t want to be a showhorse.’
Star finders: The judging team say they prefer to be called coaches because they want to be encouraging, not critical, of contestants
Next up is Danny O’Donoghue. For our
photoshoot, the lead singer of Irish band The Script has been at work
with the gel, creating a quiff Elvis himself would have been proud of.
‘Do you like it’ he asks, giving it a pat. ‘It makes me look even
taller, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m always after a bit more height
these days. When my girlfriend wears heels she’s 6ft 3in, so every
Even the achingly trendy Will.i.am –
rapper, architect of the Black Eyed Peas and manager of Cheryl Cole – is
banging on about hair today. But the hairs he’s talking about are the
little ones on the back of his neck. All four stars are in agreement:
their job will be done when they find a voice – or voices – that can
‘make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Every other aspect
of how someone presents themselves will be less important than that.
It’s the voice that has to blow us away,’ says Will.i.am.
'Simon Cowell is a record man, not a
singer. I have problems with people who have never got up on a stage to
sing, judging those who do'
The four of them – drawn from different musical genres and generations – are the new star-finders, making up the judging panel of a new BBC talent show, The Voice UK. The US version has already had great success, overtaking American Idol to become the nation’s most popular TV show. The Voice’s unique selling point is that the initial auditions are ‘blind’, i.e. the singers cannot be seen by the judges, forcing them to decide who goes through on voice alone rather than image. Simon Cowell would doubtless argue TV musical talent shows have always been, ultimately, about the voice, and offer up Susan Boyle and Paul Potts as evidence – but these four judges are convinced The Voice marks the start of a new, fairer era for such shows.
It’s striking that when I ask which of them is going to be the ‘new Simon Cowell’, there is almost a stampede to say ‘not me’. Tom Jones is particularly vociferous. ‘Simon Cowell is a record man, not a singer. I have problems with people who have never got up on a stage to sing, judging those who do. It’s like critics who criticise actors, never having been up on a stage in their lives. Who are they to say’
Sir Tom adds that he has been asked by Simon several times to appear on one of his judging panels, but has always declined. ‘I’ve never wanted to do one until I saw The Voice in America. I immediately thought, “this is different”. It’s a different feel.’
Jessie J is so keen not to be depicted as Ms Nasty that she’s refusing to call herself a judge. ‘I’m not judging; I’m coaching. It’s not about me saying, “You’re not good enough”, and being horrible about it. It’s about being tough but encouraging.’ True enough, after the ‘blind’ auditions, the celebrity singers will indeed take on a coaching role, trying to help their favourite contestants towards the ultimate goal of being proclaimed The Voice and winning a recording contract with Universal.
On song: Danny, Sir Tom, Will.i.am and Jessie J are used to performing to millions
There is another difference from the usual format. Since contestants will meet the judges only after being deemed to have some talent, we will be spared (or denied) the toe-curling early rounds of other shows when tone-deaf folk are ushered onto a stage, seemingly only to make us all laugh. ‘This show isn’t about that,’ says Will.i.am. ‘And it’s not about someone saying, “Oh wow, this girl is hot, let’s put her through”, or “This guy has a great back story”. It’s about the voice, and spotting talent you can help grow.’
Danny says that, for too long, something has been rotten in the state of TV talent shows. ‘I think the fear of being ridiculed has stopped a massive pool of talented people from wanting to enter such shows. They are afraid of being painted, or edited, in the wrong way – and rightly so. Hopefully, this show will offer something different.’
'Talent like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson only comes a few times in a generation. But it doesn't mean you shouldn't look'
At the London studios where The Voice is filmed there are queues snaking around the block. Gaggles of young (and not so young) wannabes, fake-tanned to the hilt, are shivering as they wait their turn. Sir Tom says he has been surprised by the standard. ‘There are better singers out there than 50 years ago,’ he says. ‘I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just about the different musical influences there are now, or things like YouTube. My only concern is that so many of these people who say they want careers in the music business have never performed before – and the first time they do so is in front of millions of people on TV. I was in my twenties when I first did TV, and well used to performing to live audiences. Even then it was terrifying.’
Sir Tom is an odd one to find on a panel like this. Surely he can’t need the money ‘I like new challenges,’ he says. ‘I’m out of my comfort zone.’ Is it important to him that the audience likes him ‘It’s important they respect what I have to say. I hope I make the right calls.’ He talks about his own musical journey, and it sounds a hard slog. But he believes you have to put in your time at the coalface if you’re to be truly great. So why sign up for a show like this, which is more about catapulting people into the limelight ‘The environment is totally different, and that’s the thing I’m not sure of, but it’s another day, so you just can’t say “it was better then”. The old clubs, the way I did it, don’t exist any more.’
It's all about The Voice: The team hope they'll find a star
He knows a thing or two about how image can make, or break, a career, though. ‘Image was always an issue with me, but it can backfire. That whole thing about women throwing lingerie at me, that was bad for me, because it alienated a whole section of my audience. People forget my audience was male in the early days. I’d sing in working men’s clubs on a Sunday night, to male-only audiences. I kind of enjoyed that, because there was no ulterior motive. You couldn’t rely on the way you looked, or the way you moved, especially in Wales. It was just the voice. I said at the time I came into the business in London that if some of the singers around then had had to come up my way, they’d have been laughed off the stage.’
You could argue it was female audiences – and their penchant for hurling knickers at him – that made Tom Jones a superstar. He is uncomfortable with that.
‘It gave people this idea that I’m a man who sings to women, and that’s not true. It only came about because women are louder than men, and while the men in the audience wouldn’t make a fuss, the women would.’ So he never had men throwing their knickers at him ‘Nah. They sometimes threw bottles, though.’
He is certainly the elder statesman of the line-up, and I ask Jessie J if it’s nerve-racking being in the presence of someone who has done it all, and then some ‘Absolutely,’ she says. ‘I keep having these panic attacks where I think, “I shouldn’t be here; someone will find me out.” I know my face is everywhere at the moment, but I’m well aware that in terms of career longevity and stuff, I’m only just starting out.’
And her route to fame and fortune couldn’t have been more different to Sir Tom’s. Only a few years ago she was still a student at the BRIT School (along with Adele), which offers pupils specialist training in the performing arts. The speed of her success is underlined when she says that some of the contestants auditioning for The Voice have turned out to be former classmates. ‘That was a bit weird for me – four or five years ago we were in school together.’
Between them, the judges have worked with just about everyone who is anyone in the music business. Sir Tom famously hob-nobbed with Elvis; Will.i.am has produced for Michael Jackson, U2 and Rihanna; and Danny, with The Script, has supported Paul McCartney and Take That.
Are the judges seriously hoping to find a new Whitney or Jacko among the wannabes Will.i.am gives a wry grin. ‘That would be like asking a comet to fall from the sky,’ he says. ‘That sort of talent only comes a few times in a generation. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look.’
The Voice starts on BBC1 on Saturday 24 March