There’s a mystery in Maple Valley, the town southeast of Seattle that’s gaining a reputation for some very big voices.
When she appears in the live performance rounds of NBC’s “The Voice” on Monday night, Zan Fiskum will be continuing a growing tradition.
She passed the baton to wunderkind Benicio Bryant, the 15-year-old who parlayed a short partnership with Carlile into a long run on “America’s Got Talent” last year, and more recently, a big-time record contract (more on that in a minute).
And now Fiskum has used a Carlile song (we’ll get to that, too) to blow away the competition in the knockout round of “The Voice.”
What’s in the water out there, you might ask? No one’s really sure.
“It’s kind of perplexing to think about,” Fiskum said. “It’s not necessarily the most inspiring town. It’s small and it’s country in a way. It’s a good question. I really don’t know.”
Bryant is also perplexed: “I know people who have done some really cool stuff from Maple Valley. I know that it’s really like artsy here, which is really cool. I don’t know.”
To everyone’s knowledge, there is no smoking-gun connection between the three. They don’t share a musical tutor, a church choir or any of the connections you might expect.
All three have ties to Tahoma High School. Carlile and Fiskum both graduated from the school after tenures that Principal Terry Duty remembers like they were just yesterday.
“I can remember Brandi when she was in high school and, you know, she’d skip classes,” Duty said. “She would just sit outside of the choir room with a guitar and just play. And I was like, ‘Hey, you got to go to class.’ And one time I was in another room and we had a big talent show and she was singing, ‘Hallelujah.’ And it’s like, who the world is that, to the point where you’ve got to walk down the hall to find out. It was like a lunchtime talent show. And the place was silent listening to her.”
But the school itself doesn’t fully solve the mystery. Bryant hasn’t actually attended a class there yet. He’s zoned for the school but has been home schooling due to his appearances on “AGT” and now the coronavirus pandemic.
You could say he really got his start there in a way, though. A bit of a shy kid, Bryant had never really sung in public beyond the occasional birthday party or family gathering, keeping his ambitions on the down-low even to his friends. But when Carlile agreed to do a fundraiser for Tahoma High School’s arts foundation, she put a call out for youth singers.
When one kid pulled out at the last minute, Duty recruited then eighth grader Bryant to fill in. He had one job: to sing the second verse of Carlile’s “The Joke.”
“Even in the sound check she like kind of steps back and goes, ‘Oh, my God, this kid is for real,’ ” Duty said.
The rest is history for Bryant. Carlile took him on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” he got noticed by the “AGT” producers and eventually ended up among the finalists on that show. Most importantly, he got to perform in front of “AGT” judge and record producer Simon Cowell.
Cowell recently signed him to his Syco Music record label.
“And then shortly after that they called back and they’re like, ‘Arista Records is going to jump on,’ and they said they’re going to do a joint deal,” Bryant said. “And I was like super excited about that. I was like, ‘No way, this is crazy.’ I’ve just been really suffering, though. Normally I would be down in L.A., like with producers and writers and working on songs, but I’ve just been doing the Zoom calls.”
Fiskum can feel his pain. She, too, should also be in Los Angeles in the midst of the most amazing time of her professional life, only to have it irrevocably changed by the pandemic with its travel restrictions and social-distancing requirements. She’ll perform via live remote from home on Monday rather than travel to L.A. for this week’s episode. There are 17 competitors left with fan voters and judges playing a role in the decision of which eight of the competitors (plus a wild-card entry) will move on to next week’s show. (The results show for this round airs Tuesday, May 5, on NBC.)
The 22-year-old was forced to cancel live performances last month in Seattle and Portland timed to the airing of her previously pretaped appearances on “The Voice.” Now she’s adjusting on the fly in preparation for her first live performance on the show. While there’s no question her experience is going to be different than that of previous competitors, she’s adapting.
“I think life in general right now is sort of (discombobulated),” Fiskum said. “Pretty much everything I’m doing is kind of being reworked and rewired. I feel like with what we’re doing, I’ve adapted really well in a way that’s really comfortable for me. And maybe also in a way that’s helped to shine certain skill sets that I didn’t get to before.”
Like Bryant (who sang “The Joke” on the audition round of “America’s Got Talent”), Fiskum used a Carlile song to great effect at a key moment. Her version of “The Story” was a showstopper last month, and pushed her into contention for a victory as Season 18 of the NBC singing competition show plays out.
The song, which she discovered in middle school, already had special meaning to her. Now she won’t forget it for as long as she lives.
“(The performance) was kind of like the time where I was really impacted with my coaching from John,” Fiskum said of her coach, singer-pianist John Legend. “’The Story’ was such a big song. He really helped me kind of like have more confidence in approaching it. I sang it for him and the first thing he recognized, he was like, ‘This is a really difficult song to sing and you’re doing a really good job.’ I think I was just insecure and that sort of validation was encouraging.”
While Fiskum, Bryant and Carlile don’t share physical connections, Duty believes there is a fairly easy metaphysical connection to make.
“The common denominator is all three of those kids just have a ton of passion and drive,” Duty said. “It’s just the internal passion for music. It doesn’t matter where they’re playing, who they’re playing for, you know? It can be on a street corner. “
Carlile still lives in Maple Valley and Duty hopes the others will make a connection and give back in the way she has, fostering even more successful singers, musicians and artists in the years to come.
“I’m super proud to be from Maple Valley,” Bryant said. “I’m proud just because of how the community, how everybody has just been so supportive.”
The first live performance round of “The Voice” airs 8 p.m. Monday, May 4, on NBC. The results show to see who advances airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 5.