If The Voice had a ‘Class Clown’ award, it would have unquestionably gone to Team Cee Lo’s Justin Hopkins. He’ll talk to you seriously about music and poke fun of himself in the same sentence. I knew I liked Justin when our first conversation somehow got to be about whether or not his Voice publicity picture made him appear to be under the influence. He’s always having a good time, and when you’re around him, you’re going to have one, too. Not that it necessarily came across on national television.
“I was probably the most vanilla person on that show if you don’t know me,” he said. “I figured if I could get to the live rounds, I could do things like light my piano on fire” – which he has done, at The Bitter End in New York. He’s entirely straight-faced when he says it, too. He’s just crazy enough to do it again.
Aside from Justin’s sparkling personality, he was also one of the most underappreciated artists ever to have appeared on The Voice. One of the great disappointments of Season 2 was that Justin left the competition so early; folks justifiably hold up Anthony Evans as the example of an early departure, but they rarely speak of the battle between Justin and Tony Vincent, which was equally outstanding. (If you missed it or just want to relive it, you can hear it on YouTube.) After his exit from the show, “I did take a minute to kind of chew on everything and get over the bitterness of being evicted,” Justin quipped, before admitting “I was pretty pissed for a little bit.”
That’s not to say he regrets his experience on The Voice: he adds later on that he’d do it again. “The relationships I built were huge. Tony Lucca and I were good friends going into the show; we’ve become much, much better friends since. Tony Vincent, Naia, Angel, Jordis and all these people that I met, we’re like really, really close. I think that camaraderie was evident on the show. Having watched other shows, you don’t see that. We were all friends on the show, bottom line.”
As far as his relationship with his coach, “Cee Lo and I kept in pretty decent touch – not so much as pen pals but I just keep bumping into him at various things. Every time I see him we start to brainstorm a little bit more. I really admire the guy,” he says, adding that he thinks it’s a good idea that Cee Lo, along with Christina Aguilera, is taking a break from The Voice after season three to resume his musical career: “I don’t want to see him get stuck in the rut of being a pop icon on television.”
The intersection of music and television is something he knows a little bit about: before The Voice, he was briefly part of another reality competition series. “I was actually on America’s Got Talent and I walked away from it during Vegas week,” he says. Shortly after that, he ended up in the Dansk Melodi Grand Prix, Denmark’s precursor to the Eurovision Song Contest, which was also televised. It all adds up to enough time on television for Justin. “After doing The Voice, I don’t know if I could ever put myself through it again,” he admits. “The show would have to be something really, really amazing and I would have to know that I’m going to have a lot more creative control.”
For Justin, The Voice didn’t provide a huge boost to his career – but he wasn’t expecting it to. “It was kind of a nice little momentum change. For me, I didn’t think it was going to be a life-changing scenario,” he explains. “There’s this huge hype and then it just died off – it’s kind of like a slow build that’s been happening ever since the show and I think that’s just due to persistence and my unwillingness to not keep making music.”
Now, he’s making a lot of new music, starting with his live acoustic record, This Could Happen Anywhere. It’s everything that’s great about acoustic records, something so stripped down that it gives you a perfect opportunity to appreciate Justin’s interesting way with words and the grit in his voice. Recorded to tape, everything is so clear that you hear each syllable and each string on the guitar. With the winning combination of unique songwriting, pure vocals and just that sprinkle of Justin’s wit, It’s one of the best acoustic albums that I’ve ever heard.
If you haven’t checked out Justin’s original work, he calls this latest CD the place for you to start. “The reason I made that was essentially to give people a taste of where the songs come from, why I do this in the first place, how I was doing it before the show,” he says. “And we did it to tape so it has an old-school feel and sound to it. There’s tunes on there that nobody’s ever heard. I did more obscure stuff that people would have as much new music as possible.”
That’s only the beginning of his plans for the end of this year and into the next. “We’re getting ready to start a Kickstarter campaign in November,” he tells me. “Following that we’re going to go back in the studio and make a live record in the spirit of New Orleans jazz and funk – taking the songs and essentially performing them another way. I’ve never had a sound, I’ve never been known for a sound, I’ve been known as a singer, and that’s what we’re going to keep pursuing, is making whatever music we feel like.”
Call it making up for lost time: “I haven’t put out a record in like three years and I think that’s my biggest regret as a musician,” he reflects. “I think people are geared up for three albums in the next five months. I appreciate the support of everybody and I’m really excited about what’s coming up.”
Knowing Justin, that will be something genuine, heartfelt, just slightly badass…and titled after a random noun. One thing’s for certain: Justin Hopkins is a fantastic singer and songwriter who deserves more attention than he gets. Maybe he just has to light a few more pianos on fire to get it.