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Exclusive interview: 'The Voice' alum Caroline Pennell talks CeeLo, the future

Examiner caught up with 'The Voice' 6 alum Caroline Pennell for an exclusive interview.
Examiner caught up with 'The Voice' 6 alum Caroline Pennell for an exclusive interview.
Photo courtesy of Caroline Pennell/Shervin Lainez, used with permission

New Jersey teen Caroline Pennell got her start in the music industry as a contestant on the fifth season of the smash hit reality show "The Voice." After selecting super star CeeLo Green as her celebrity mentor, Pennell showed off her soft, unique sound via a succession of solid performances including her spins on, among others, John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and Avicii's "Wake Me Up" before America sent her packing at the close of the season's top eight results show on Nov. 26, 2013.

Examiner caught up with the talented aspiring singer on April 16 for an exclusive interview. Pennell, who proved herself every bit as sweet, intelligent and easygoing as she appeared during her tenure on "The Voice," chatted freely on a variety of subjects, including her opinion of CeeLo's mentoring methods, her background, and what she's been up to since season five concluded.

Most people came to know about you and your fantastic vocal talent through "The Voice." But other than introducing us to you and your sound and your cheerful demeanor, the show didn't actually tell us much about your background. So, can you share a few details?

Pennell: It's so funny that you say that. [When] the producers and I were trying to figure out an appropriate story, I could not think of one thing because my life is so extraordinarily ordinary. I live in New Jersey, and I go to high school every single day, and on the weekends I sleep and watch TV. But I've loved singing since I was a little girl. My family is super musical. I have a huge extended family, so lots of brothers and sisters on both of my parents' sides and all of us... love to sing in the car, we love Broadway musicals. I kind of grew up on Broadway because we're so close to the city. We ended up going into the city a lot when I was a kid to see shows like "Wicked" and "Billy Elliott". I just grew up around music so it was hard for it to not impact my life, but I never really thought that it would be something that I would pursue professionally.

Really? It wasn't always your "thing"?

I had always loved music. I started writing songs and just performing for myself just so I could have something to say that I pursued in high school on my college application because I have three younger siblings. One sister does sports and another did drama and theater and the other was all into chess and reading... and I've always been kind of everywhere. I never really had a thing.

Take me back to the time right before your blind audition. Who were you secretly hoping would turn around for you?

Pennell: Honestly, I wasn't really sure. And it wasn't until after CeeLo and Blake turned around and then Adam and Christina didn't turn around that I thought 'oh, I wish Adam and Christina turned around' because I had this whole little attitude about it which was ridiculous. I definitely was hoping for [Maroon5 frontman and People's Sexiest Man Alive] Adam Levine. I'm a teenage girl. I'm not immune to that stuff [laughs], he's a sensation. But I was actually really hoping that CeeLo would turn around. I am super analytical in my mind and during the whole process, I [knew I needed] to put myself in the best position to appear as unique as I possibly can and I thought that from the get go, CeeLo would most likely do that for me.

What was the most surprising thing about working with CeeLo?

Pennell: I'd have to say his relaxed attitude. I've really never met anybody who gets so much done in so little time with like no work ethic at all. It's kind of funny and contradictory but it's not to say that he's lazy or anything like that but it is so interesting watching him work and watching him think. I've always seen how silly he can be and how interesting his phrasing is.... He's an odd guy. But watching him work one on one... I have no idea what he was thinking or saying half of the time but he always kind of knew what to say at the end of the day and knew exactly what I needed and I was just 'I didn't understand a single word that you just said yet everything you said makes sense.' So it was kind of interesting getting to experience that first hand because I admit I didn't really believe it when I'd heard it.

Your version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" still, to this day, will get stuck in my head. Which of your performances from the show was your favorite?

Pennell: It would probably have to be the top [10], and we sang this song "Say it, Just say It" and none of us knew the song at all and thought it was just the dumbest song ever. We were just mumbling and it was so much fun. At that point, I was so comfortable on stage that it felt like home, and the choreographers had me and James [Wolpert] and I think Jacquie [Lee] go down in front of the coaches' chairs and those are some of my best friends that I had made on the show at that point. And I was just dancing and being ridiculous in front of --and not just in front of them, but in their faces-- these superstars. It was so fun.

Are you still in touch with James and Jacquie and some of the others?

Pennell: Definitely, I'm in touch with all of them. Cole [Vosbury], James, Matt [Schuler], Jacquie and I have a group chat that we talk in every single day. It's hard to get rid of them.

Do you have any plans to collaborate with any of them musically?

Pennell: I do. Cole and I are thinking of writing something. We've reached out to each other a couple of times. James and I just played a show together. I'd love to do something with all of them. I think that we're definitely all open to that in the future.

What's new with you right now? What are some of your future plans?

Pennell: I think even if I did I know [my plan for the future], I wouldn't know entirely because things are just subject to change. My life has changed so much in just six months so I'm kind of banking on the fact that it will hopefully change more in the next six months. Right now, I'm almost done with school. I graduate in two months and I'm going to college -- Tulane University in New Orleans-- in the fall. I'm actually talking to some labels and some really exciting people and hopefully by the end of this summer, I'll have a definite plan where I can physically be at school but I can be writing and kind of gaining experience and something to write about. Hopefully I'll have someone to fund the process of writing and turning those experiences into songs. It's very exciting right now and I'm having a lot of fun.

I know you have an EP that came out in January ["The Race"]. I listened to all of the songs and they're really good. Are all five your own original songs?

Pennell: They are. I wrote them about three years ago.

Do you have a favorite one of the five?

Pennell: I love "Nobody's Home" but I mean... I like all of them. I think I'm really happy with the way the EP turned out. I'm really happy that I had them to use after the show, because I think it's a lot easier for fans to tangibly connect to me after I wasn't on TV every Monday. They're all super special to me just because they were the first songs I ever wrote.

Your cover artwork for the EP is really interesting. Who designed it?

Pennell: The photographer's name is Shervin Lainez. I knew him through a mutual friend and he does a bunch of album covers for artists that I love. I told him honestly, my music doesn't have any specific genre or label so I'm kind of a clean slate. It was fun.

So, your sound. You really don't sound a whole lot like anyone to me, which is a good thing because you sound like you. But you do sound a little like Norah Jones. Have you ever covered any of her songs?

Pennell: Yeah, I have. A lot of people say that. I love Norah Jones.

If you could record a duet with anyone at all, who would you choose?

Pennell: Ellie Goulding. I just love that she can go so high but sound like the most innocent little thing. It's just crazy.

How might you describe your sound to someone who'd never heard your voice?

Pennell: I usually say, 'if you close your eyes and listen to me speak, I sound like I'm 12 years old.' And they're like 'okay, I see it now.' And then I say 'okay, when I sing, it's pretty much the same thing.' I listen to myself speak every single day so it's such a hard question for me to answer. I think it's pretty soft, but there's a pep in my voice. I think I'm not good at singing very sad songs because my voice tends to have a light, bouncy tone to it. So I'd probably say kind of like a lighter, airier Norah Jones.

Who are some of your biggest musical influences?

Pennell: Ellie Goulding, and I love Regina Spektor and I love Lorde and I love Norah Jones and Ingrid Michaelson. I'm pretty open to all music and I listen to so much music that it's almost sickening. I also pull from a lot of smaller, unknown indie sounds that I don't really even know the names of because they're so small. When you have a good melody it doesn't really matter who it's by.

Onto the current season of "The Voice." I know you were a fan of Madilyn Paige from reading your tweets, but now that she's gone, who's your favorite from the top 12?

Pennell: I actually for the first time don't have a favorite. My favorite was Madilyn because I gravitate to her kind of sound and I could listen to her voice all day. But I do have to say I'm a big fan of Christina Grimmie. She has a huge following already and she's a big YouTube star. I learned to love singing partly by watching some of her videos on YouTube so it's kind of fun to see her up there and kind of in the same position I was. I got to meet all of the contestants during their battles right after because I did interviews with them for the social media team. They were all so, so nice.... It's a very talented bunch and I'm looking forward to watching the rest of the season.

I like to close out my interviews with some questions designed to let fans in on a few random details about you as a person. I'm just going to fire some questions at you. Ready?

What's your favorite dessert?

Pennell: Apple pie.

What's your favorite city?

Pennell: San Francisco.

What's the last song you downloaded?

Pennell: The movie soundtrack to "Divergent."

What's the best way to pass time on an airplane?

Pennell: Make lists of everything, anything.

On a scale of one to 10, with one being not remotely interested and 10 being the best thing ever, how would you feel about singing with the Muppets as a guest on "Sesame Street"?

Pennell: Oh! Probably like a six. It would be the coolest present in the entire world for all of my little cousins, but if I sing with them I might see the people behind the puppets and it would ruin it forever for me.

For more inside information on Pennell, follow her official Twitter account or visit her website. Her recent debut EP "The Race" is available for download via iTunes. The current season of "The Voice," starring celebrity mentors Blake Shelton, Adam Levine, Shakira and Usher, airs Mondays and Tuesdays on NBC.