The past few months have been a whirlwind for "The X Factor"semi-finalist and Detroit native Jeff Gutt who has spent most of his life chasing his dream toward a successful music career. The 37-year-old single dad has endured many ups and downs on his musical journey, including being cut from “The X Factor” last season before the live shows.
Through it all, Jeff’s sheer love of music and passion for performing has driven him to keep pushing forward. He returned to this year’s competition with a fresh perspective and received huge accolades from Simon Cowell following his spectacular delivery of Radiohead’s “Creep” during his audition. Simon dubbed him “the one who got away last year.” And now, heading into next week’s semi-finals, he’s fiercely focused and totally determined to do everything he can to prove he’s here in the music industry to stay.
With music legend Kelly Rowland as his mentor, Jeff Gutt has virtually taken the competition by storm. Week after week, he continues to raise the bar for the other contenders and himself by delivering scintillating off-the-charts performances of iconic songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Feeling Good,” “Without You” and his heartfelt tribute to his brother, with “Daniel.” Though he’s definitely a rocker at heart, Jeff has proven his musical versatility and natural ability to stamp his own signature sound across a variety of genres.
Per America’s vote, Jeff will perform Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” in this week’s upcoming semi-finals and his loyal and growing fan base can’t wait to hear him reprise the song that gained so much attention last season.
Jeff very graciously took time out of his incredibly busy schedule on Dec. 7 to talk about his musical journey on the long and winding road that has led him to “The X Factor” semi-finals in the following Examiner Exclusive Q & A during which he sends out a special message to his local fans.
E: How old were you when you started playing music and writing songs?
JG: I was six years old when I started playing the guitar. My dad taught me a few chords when I was out at his house because my parents were divorced when I was three. Then I went to my mom’s and I came back to his house the next following weekend and he taught me three chords and I had my first song. So, that was how it all started.
E: Who would you say your biggest musical influences are?
JG: I would definitely say John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain from Nirvana; some people that kind of really did what they wanted to do and it wasn't popular at the time and then it ended up being what everyone gravitated toward. For me that’s like, they did what they wanted to do and it happened to be what everyone wanted to hear, even if the industry or other people were telling them “you should do this or you should do that” because that’s what’s popular. They did what they wanted and they were rebellious in that way and it worked for them. So I have much respect for them.
E: I’m sure all of America is in love with your son. How is he doing in all of this? Is he super excited?
JG: He’s thrilled. He’s having fun. He’s just being a kid. He wears a lot more hats nowadays because he gets recognized a lot. He’s great. I've gotten a lot of flak from people saying I’m using my son for votes. But, he’s as much a part of me as music is so I’m proud of him and proud to be his dad. I don’t think I’m using him for votes. At the end of the day it’s me up there singing that gets the votes.
E: Would you say you’re really close with your family?
JG: I lived in L.A. for nine years so I didn't really get to see them as much. The last couple years that I've been back in Michigan I've been spending a lot of time with them, just trying to reconnect with them. We were always close when I was growing up and then I spent some time away. But, everything happens for a reason. It’s made me who I am today. I wouldn't change anything.
E: It’s got to be an overwhelming ride that you’re on right now coming from a place like Detroit doing local gigs and now you’re out there in such a high pressure environment. How has it been handling all of that?
JG: It’s gotten better actually. Now that there’s not so many contestants around it’s not as stressful. There’s just like a few of us left. It’s a lot more peaceful and quiet around the building. I’m more at peace now. It’s kind of, whatever happens, happens. I’m so blessed to have gotten as far as I have and I’m just happy with what I've accomplished so far. So, I’m definitely going to be trying to win. But, it’s out of my hands. It’s up to America. So, I’m just gonna try to control the things I can and not worry about the rest.
E: You take all of the feedback you get with such grace. When you put so much of yourself into a performance like that and at the end you have to stand there and hear that feedback, what’s that like?
JG: To me, it doesn't matter as much what they say to me as much as it might to some of the other contestants because I've found if I follow my heart and stay true to myself, the people at home will know what’s right and what’ s wrong and they don’t really need the judges to tell them that. Like with the “Daniel” thing, with the negative comments that Demi [Lovato] made. It’s like they’re all coming to bat for me and for my brother and for just people in the service in general. That’s something, maybe because she’s young, she doesn't understand that. I don’t know why she said the things she said. It doesn't really matter to me at the end of the day. I’d like for it all to be positive and it can’t always be positive. Sometimes it’s the negative things that help because it gets people rallying to your defense. If they just said good things all the time, who knows how different it would be.
E: What does it mean to you at this point to hear the positive, because you've gotten so much well-deserved positive feedback? What does it mean after all these years to finally find yourself in a place where someone is recognizing that?
JG: It’s amazing. I went from playing 20,000 people in a show when I was signed, I had a deal back in 2000 and then I went from that to playing in front of 10 people in a little bar in my hometown and that was very humbling. It made me realize what’s important. Is it the recognition or is it enough to do it and have those ten people really enjoy it? For me, it became about the music again. Positive comments are really good, but words are just words and I think the power of music can far exceed what can ever be said by anyone.
E: How did getting signed in 2000 come about?
JG: I was playing in a club in Detroit and my buddy owned the club and he knew this guy in a band that was signed and they were opening up for Kiss. They were playing at DTE and they came into the club. They had a couple days off before the show. The guitar player he was freaking out like Dude, this A & R guy has this band. They’re like really young guys. They were like 13, 14, and 15 and I was 24 at the time. I ended up going to the Kiss show and singing for the A & R guy backstage. They got me on a plane and I went out and auditioned for the band and got the gig. The next nine years was off and on with them. I spent so much time with it because I thought that was my opportunity. I did what they wanted me to do and I was just really unhappy at the end of it. Unhappy with myself for not sticking to my guns on things. This is actually an opportunity for me and having gone through that, I know what not to do now. I learned a lot from that and I wouldn't change it because it helped me prioritize what’s really important to me moving forward with music.
E: Do you write a lot of songs?
JG: I write a lot. There’s a record I made out on iTunes in 2009 after I got out of that. Me and some of my friends from Michigan put together a CD. It’s on iTunes under Jeff Gutt. It was under Band With No Name but they changed it to Jeff Gutt. The album is called “Humanity.” It was kind of an angry record though. It was after I got done with everything and that’s why we called it Band With No Name, because we didn't put any of our names in it. It wasn't about taking the credit. It was more about getting those emotions out and getting past that.
E: It’s really inspirational that you are a single dad, in your 30s and it’s taken you this long, but it looks like you are finally on the cusp of having your dream come true. What kind of advice or words of encouragement would you give to other (aspiring) musicians out there?
JG: I've gotten thousands of “nos” in my musical journey and it only takes one “yes” to have success. You have to do it for yourself and you have to do it for the love of it. You have to have thick skin. You have to be a positive thinking person and use the negativity as motivation instead of letting it get you down. Otherwise, you’ll never make it or just be extremely depressed the rest of your life. And, there’s a chance you might never make it but there’s something in the poetic tragedy of being the best that never was. That’s something that’s beautiful in itself. The recognition, the money, the fame, doesn't make you a musician. It’s you that makes you a musician. I would say stick with it and never give up if that’s what you really want to do. But, you have to do it for the right reasons.
E: Who would be your dream person to collaborate or perform with?
JG: There’s so many and a lot of them are dead. But, I would love to play with Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi. He’s not touring right now. He’s taking some time off and I’m hoping if I make it to the finale, you sing with a guest celebrity and hoping to get Richie Sambora to come and we can do “Dead or Alive” and we can both play guitar. It’d just be like a dream come true for me. There’s so many good bands out right now. There’s too many to mention.
E: Did you go to the Jingle Ball Concert? What was that like?
JG: It was fun to have a night where we got to relax and kick back and enjoy watching other people do what we’re trying to do. There were a lot of great artists out there. I really liked Macklemore. We got to see him. [He was] probably my favorite of the night.
E: What is your favorite performance you've done on the show so far?
JG: “Bohemian Rhapsody” was huge because it was like a moment for me to go out and let down some walls that I've built around myself performing-wise. Just to go out there and let go and not have to think about things and really give a performance where you’re not thinking and let go. That’s the first time I've done that ever. That was really, personally, like a hurdle for me. But, I definitely loved playing with the Big Band because that was so powerful with the music being there and the band. I’m used to playing with a band with my rock stuff. I’m used to having that room filled with sound as opposed to just having a track. So, it would be between those two. I don’t know if I could really choose. But, I am doing “Hallelujah” this week so that answer could change.”
E: Can you talk about Kelly [Rowland] and how has she been as a mentor? What have you learned from her?
JG: Kelly is awesome. I always say I have the best mentor. When she first walked in the room and there’s the four of us, she really went out of her way to make sure we were comfortable in her presence. When there’s this big star like that coming in to tell you what to do, it can be really uncomfortable at first. But she really went out of her way to make sure we were comfortable. She really cares about her contestants as people, not just as contestants on the show. She’s just a really real person and everything she says is spot on. She has so much experience and knowledge. I just try to soak up as much as I can in the time I have with her.
E: What is your impression of Simon? He comes across as kind of abrasive at times, but other times you kind of see he does have a heart in there.
JG: Simon’s actually a really good guy. I haven’t really had much one-on-one time with him which kind of baffles me about his statement about my boring personality. Because everyone that knows me knows I’m not boring. That’s just more for, I’m not in his category. He has to find negativity somehow so he can pump up his groups so he can get them as far as he can. That’s his job as a mentor to do that.
E: Who is your biggest inspiration in all of this?
JG: My dad definitely did a lot for me when I was younger. He used to drive out of his way after working long hours, to my mom’s house to pick me up to take me to my guitar lesson right by his house and drive me all the way back to my mom’s house and then go home and to work the next day. He made a lot of sacrifices and just showing his support for me playing music. I think he was probably the first person that believed in me and he has ever since. I want to make sure that his dream comes true as well as mine.
E: What do you like to do in your down time besides music?
JG: I’m a huge sports fanatic so I’m usually watching sports and relaxing in my down time.
E: Are you rooting for the Wings and the Lions?
JG: I root for all the Michigan teams, all the Detroit teams. I root for Michigan and Michigan State but they tend to knock each other off if the other one is doing well every year. I've just grown up in it and I love the fall and football starting and all those things. I love everything in Michigan because of the seasons and all that.
E: You have so many supporters out there and so many people that are pumped up. Is there a message that you’d like to send out to your local fan base?
JG: It’s hard to gauge that from where I am, being that we’re working 16 hour days usually just so we can give these performances on Wednesday. I just wanna say thank you to all of them and that I appreciate every single one of them. I can’t always get to all their messages, but I would love to. That’s one thing that really frustrates me is I can’t get back to all of them. But I’m proud to be from there and I understand that they’re really hard working people. That helps me to work hard too because I know that if they were in my shoes they would be working just as hard, if not harder and that’s what keeps me going sometimes.
Watch Jeff Gutt perform live in “The X Factor” Semi-finals on Wednesday December 11, 2013 at 8 pm ET in Flint on WSMH FOX66.