The first time Kristen Merlin performed on stage, she was in the first grade, wore an “awful sailor top,” and sang a “Peter Pan” song. Suffice it to say she’s come a long way.
In the eight years since her first grown-up gig at JP Ryan’s Tavern in Abington, she has been on stage too many times to count. She won a national contest that resulted in her singing with Sugarland on stage in Las Vegas, and she performed with Bryan White at Boston’s Outside the Box Festival last summer. But no performance has been as important or nerve-racking as the one a few weeks ago, when the 29-year-old Hanson native sang on the NBC show “The Voice.” The opportunity had eluded her twice, going no further than a couple of callbacks in previous season tryouts, so she knew she had to sing her heart out. This night she had made the cut and was going to sing in the show’s blind audition, where the coaches choose the contestants based entirely on their singing ability.
“I stepped out on stage, and as soon as the first drum hit, I kind of blacked out,” Merlin said. “I remember feeling like I was jumping aimlessly around on stage. I was so nervous, I just went on auto pilot.”
Just 15 seconds after she began belting out Sugarland’s “Something More,’’ pop-rock singer and “Voice” coach Adam Levine hit his button and his chair swung around, revealing to him the singer behind the voice.
“I vaguely remember seeing Adam’s chair turn,” said Merlin, who dressed for the show in her preferred boyish attire: stylishly ripped jeans, a white shirt and black hooded vest, blond hair cropped super-short. “For some reason, I pointed at him (and he pointed back), and I’m in disbelief, thinking to myself: That means I’m on.”
Seconds later, Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira followed suit. By the end of Merlin’s performance, she had the two coaches standing, Levine fist-pumping, and Shakira dancing along. Not only had the country-pop artist made it through the blind auditions, she was advancing to the next round, known as the battle round. “Third time’s a charm,” said Merlin.
Now in its sixth season, “The Voice” features four well-known vocal artists as coaches: Levine, Shakira, R&B and hip-hop artist Usher, and country crooner Blake Shelton. The contestants begin singing to the backs of the coaches who are seated in high-back revolving chairs. If the coaches like what they hear, they press their buttons at any time during the contestant’s performance, and their chairs spin around to face the singer. Those coaches then lobby the contestant to join their teams of 12 singers each. As the show progresses, viewers call in to vote on who should continue.
In Merlin’s case, Levine and Shakira spent several minutes trying to persuade her that she should select them. Levine pretended to weep, saying he needed her talent on his team “so bad,” and acknowledging her professionalism as a singer. Shakira used her 20 million Twitter followers as lure for Merlin to choose her, and even offered to seek coaching assistance from Shelton’s country-singing wife, Miranda Lambert. “[Kristen] is very important to me,” Shakira told Levine.
Surprising even herself, Merlin chose Shakira. Going into it, Merlin was thinking she’d opt for Shelton, if he turned around. But even Shelton encouraged Merlin to choose Shakira, saying she was the right coach for her “fast vibrato,” which he said is why he didn’t turn his chair.
“I was really hoping for Blake to turn around for me,” said Merlin. “But I was not disappointed when I saw Adam and Shakira turned around! It was a gut feeling when it came time to decide. Shakira seemed very genuine.”
Another Massachusetts resident also survived the first round. Noah Lis, 22, from Palmer, was selected by Shelton after singing Billy Paul’s 1970s hit “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
Since Merlin’s debut on national TV, the local pub singer’s popularity has grown substantially. Overnight, her number of Facebook friends more than doubled, maxing out at 5,000. Her performances at South Shore bars and restaurants, where she typically draws an average following, have sold out, and management has had to turn people away. Most surprising to Merlin, she’s being recognized when she goes out anywhere.
“It’s surreal,” laughed Merlin, who lives with her girlfriend, Danielle Riley, in Pembroke. “I went to the mall and people are stopping me, asking to take pictures. I went to breakfast and when I walked in, everyone started cheering. I thought it was funny because I wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction, and I thought, yeah, I eat breakfast, too! Then it sunk in that I was on TV and all these people watched me.”
In spite of becoming an overnight celebrity, Merlin vows she won’t forget how she got here. “It’s super important to never forget where you came from,” said Merlin. “I have such an awesome fan base . . . with tons of fans who follow me. They range from newly 21 and even younger to a 92-year-old rocking out to my stuff. It’s pretty awesome to look out and see people from every walk of life. I never want to feel too big for them.”
Merlin demonstrated how true she is to her fans the weekend after “The Voice” aired. She promoted her show at Players Sports Bar and Grille in Rockland as usual, on social media. Three hours before she was scheduled to play, management sent about 150 fans into the cold because of capacity issues. Stephanie Roy of Rockland was one of those fans.
“I’m a single mom of two, and the only time I go out is to see Kristen,” said Roy, who’s been following her for about a year. “They cleared out the bar because we were packed in like sardines, and they sent everyone outside. We were waiting to be let back in when Kristen came outside and told us how crazy we were for waiting in the freezing cold. She brought a couple band members out with her and played a couple songs in the parking lot. There aren’t many people who would do that for their fans.”
Merlin felt it was the right thing to do. “It was awesome because the venue was filled to capacity. But I felt terrible because [my fans] came to see me, but they were sent out in the cold,” she said. “So I got my drummer and played acoustic for a couple of songs to about 50 people. It was fun . . . and crazy.”
A University of New Haven graduate and licensed EMT, Merlin said that although she once wondered whether she was chasing a pipe dream, she is living her dream right now. Being on “The Voice,” even if she doesn’t make it any further on the show, is a “great platform to jump off. The national TV recognition just may give me that one-up,” she said, to keep her dream going.
“For me the premise of ‘The Voice’ is ideal, to have my talent shine before seeing me,” she said. “I’ve always been independent and never shied away from being myself. [Some people may not like the] tomboy image, but I can’t ever let that affect me. Negativity is hard to rise above. I know I’m a good person.
“My image may play a factor in me not having been given the opportunity before. But I’m being true to myself. I’m not afraid of being gay. I hope I can be an inspiration to people and help them be comfortable with themselves.”
Merlin said her goal is to break out as her own artist and be able to perform her original music with a full band. But for now, not knowing when she’ll get called back to California for the show, she has work to do. “I have shows to play, and I have to get myself psyched up for the battle round. I’m praying I make it to ‘lives’ [a live broadcast round], because it’s an opportunity to see where you match up in the industry. I have to remember to focus and not get lost in all the hype.”