Waterford native and resident Tony Lucca is making his mark on the national stage as a contestant on the hit singing competition “The Voice” on NBC. Lucca, 36, recently advanced past the Battle Round portion of the show after getting all four of the show’s coaches to request him to join their teams during the blind auditions. He ended up selecting Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine and is now heading on to the show’s live quarter-finals. It’s the latest turn in a show business career that first saw Lucca leave metro Detroit for Orlando, Fla. and “The Mickey Mouse Club” on the Disney Channel, where he performed alongside “The Voice” coach Christina Aguilera, as well as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. A move out to Los Angeles and a brief acting career followed, including a stint on the short-lived NBC series “Malibu Shores,” before Lucca started focusing full-time on music. What resulted was a string of albums, including his most recent release, “Under The Influence,” as well as having his music featured in movies and TV shows and performing with the likes of N’Sync, Marc Anthony and Sara Bareilles. Now back in Waterford, where he lives with his wife, 9-year-old stepson and 2.5-year-old daughter, Lucca spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly just before the Battle Round about his experiences so far, his hopes for the future and what to look forward to on “The Voice.”
Congratulations, first of all, on making it through the blind auditions of “The Voice.” I’m sure many people are wondering, what was it like for you to stand on that stage, playing your song while hoping one of the judges’ chairs would turn around? In the end, what made you decide to choose Adam Levine as your coach over the other judges, including your former colleague, Christina Aguilera? How would you rate him as a coach so far?
TL: I have not, nor will I probably ever, be as nervous as I was for that particular performance. I was as prepared as possible for it, but just the whole premise of that construct, to stand out there and my sole purpose is to get someone to turn their chair around, it’s pretty nerve wracking. But, definitely once someone was able to turn around, it was the best 90 seconds of my life.
My relationship with (Christina) aside, as far as coaches go, I knew going into it that if I had my choice, I’d love to work with Adam. He just seemed like, in terms of the role of coach, the one who kind of offers up the most straight-to-the-point constructive criticism. I feel like I understand him best of the four of them, and I think maybe because we’re very similar in a lot of ways, we have a lot in common in terms of our early years of struggling and playing a lot of the same venues and being a white guy with soul. It seemed like an obvious choice, as well. He pushed his button first, he pushed someone else’s button and quite simply, he was the only one who really said, “I really hope you pick me.”
So far, (working with Levine is) everything I kind of hoped it would be. He’s very to the point and no-nonsense. He’s very present when he’s working with his team, and I like that. You don’t have any aura or pretense. It’s for real.
Next up for the contestants is the Battle Round. How do you feel about competing head-to-head against another singer in that kind of format and how do you think you’ll fare?
TL: It’s another sort of unnatural setup, second only to maybe the blind audition itself. But artists, at least from my experience, have always been supportive of one another and really always try to let each other shine. But this is more like the old-school jazz world, where they would have cutting sessions, where two saxophone players would go into a club and tear each other apart musically until one walks away the winner and this is kind of what this became.
I think I stand to do alright. Team Adam is extremely stacked. There’s some really great talent and it’s an honor to get to share the stage with pretty much anyone in the contest. It’s really an incredible group of people.
What you’ll see is that the coaches themselves are totally conflicted with who to choose because it’s so good and strong.
What was it like for you growing up in Waterford and how did you get your start in music? What artists were you influenced by growing up and what inspires most of your songwriting?
TL: I come from a really big music-making family. My grandpa was pretty well known piano-player organist back in the radio heyday in Detroit. He was good friends with Soupy Sales and Danny Thomas. He was Uncle Jimmy on “The Auntie Dee Show,” which had a pretty big listenership.
He also had 12 kids, of which my mom was No. 10 and they all sing and play something, so there’s really kind of, by osmosis, a good handful of my cousins that all kind of got a bit of it. Fortunately I was one of them. I was sort of one of the torch bearers of the family bloodstream, and it’s been really cool.
Going to Clarkston, Clarkston is predominantly a sports town and lot of great athletes kind of come out of there. So of course I was playing a lot of sports before the Mickey Mouse Club happened, but then once I left for that, it was kind of the end of my time in Clarkston. Basically at that time, (when) I was 15, I was a non-entity in those parts.
As a kid, my first jaw-dropping (musical moment) I think was Led Zeppelin and listening to old Led Zeppelin records, letting my imagination run wild. As I got older, I went through several different phases there in the 1980s and 1990s, everything from pop mainstream to R&B and pop-rock, but now I’ve definitely put some time into listening to the classics, the great singer-songwriters of our time in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s a large influence these days. After sort of looking through different genres to try to stylistically find my own voice, I finally settled on the American singer-songwriter genre and that’s kind of where I pull my influences from now.
As far as overall inspiration, I’d have to say the main thing that kind of drives my inspiration is travel, like constantly moving around and touring. It just helps refresh my perspective a lot so I don’t ever really get burrowed too deep into any one groove. I’m able to sort of continue to try and see things from other people’s perspectives and see the relevance in things from a more universal perspective.
You soon found yourself on the Mickey Mouse Club, with not only Christina, but also Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. How would you sum up your experience on the show and was it everything you had hoped it would be at that age? Did you ever have any celebrity encounters at that time that left you starstruck?
TL: Yeah, I had no idea what I was getting into at that age of 15 with the Mickey Mouse Club. It was a whole new world, really, and I didn’t know what to compare it to. I had no idea what being on a TV show was like, what child labor laws were, I didn’t know any of that stuff.
But, as far as my personal experience, it was amazing. It was an education that you couldn’t put a price tag (on). It was unreal. We got a lot of hands-on training. I learned how to operate cameras, I learned how to push faders in the studio, I learned choreography. I got vocal training and I got to work with some of the most talented people in the world.
At the time, everything is relative. It was just kind of like high school. Those are my fellow students and cast mates. We didn’t realize how wildly talented we were as a group. We were having fun, working hard.
In hindsight, it’s really abstract. It’s really bizarre to think, “Holy cow, I was amongst a handful of people that would go on to reshape the face of popular music,” to put it plainly. That’s kind of what happened and it’s really remarkable to look back on. But, at the time it was just like going to Fame High School. We just didn’t realize how famous everyone was going to become.
We had a lot of guests on the show. A lot of our favorite artists at the time were on our show as musical guests, so I don’t want to say that you get used to it, but it definitely went from being completely starstruck to realizing like, “Wow, these are some of our contemporaries. We’re on a show and they’re guests on our show and it’s all kind of cool.”
I remember I was a big fan of Brian McKnight back in high school and I was kind of responsible for sharing his music to the cast and kind of turned everybody else on to him, as well. Eventually we got him on the show as a guest and everybody was just super excited to have him on the show, and we all asked if we could sit in on his sound-check and listen to him sing. It just blew all of our minds wide-open and that was kind of unforgettable at the time, for sure.
You then took a chance and moved out to Los Angeles at age 18. We understand you tried your hand at acting at first, but when did you decide that music is what you wanted to concentrate on? So many people dream of going out to L.A. when they’re young and “making it.” Tell us about how you first navigated the show business waters there and some of the struggles you encountered as you started to climb the ladder?
TL: I had about a year and a half, two years of a fairly successful acting career in L.A. Working is one thing, but working on getting work is another thing, and the auditioning actor thing is not for the weak at heart because that is a grueling grind and I felt like I really wasn’t cut out for it.
I felt like I was at the mercy of too much subjective decision making, and I think one day I was at an audition and I was sitting in a lobby with a handful of other guys that on paper, we were all kind of the same guy — Caucasian, I think we were all auditioning for quarterback of some TV show and we all kind of looked the same, same build, same everything. I really didn’t feel like an individual. I didn’t feel like what I was contributing creatively was as personal as I wanted it to be.
And so I just thought, “I’m going to step away from this and go back to what brought me here in the first place,” and that was music, especially writing songs. I realized that if I was going to give it a fair shake, I was going to have to dive head-first into the music and really give it 110 percent, and that didn’t leave any room for running around auditioning for things. It was kind of a clean break, I guess. It was around 1997 when that happened.
I can’t lie, I have a really unique story in that coming off the Mouse Club. I had a lot of momentum, a lot of connections and a bit of a buzz going into it. Not many people, when they go out to L.A., have something like that and, to be honest, I might not have gone out to L.A. if I hadn’t had that. I wasn’t (as) compelled to go out to Hollywood to be a star as I was interested in continuing to work.
While I was on Mouse Club, I started paying visits to friends in L.A. that I had known through the Mouse Club family and got introduced to some great people — a really great manager and a really great agent — and so all those things were pretty much in place for me when I decided to move out there. So it didn’t take long before I got out there and started working again. I got commercials, a couple of indie movies, I landed a role on a prime-time series on NBC and so, like I said, I was kind of the exception going into it.
There’s a lot of pitfalls and shady folks out there. There’s a lot of lessons learned the hard way, but you don’t forget those lessons. In the 16 or so years that I spent out there, I certainly saw a lot of people come and go. I think the biggest thing about it is a lot of people go out there to be an actor or a musician or something, and what you realize is that if you don’t come out there an artist, if you don’t come out there already an actor, just living there isn’t going to make you an actor.
If you’re an artist through and through and you come out there, the right opportunities will inevitably open up for you. But if you go out there looking for the opportunities that are going to make you something that you’re not already, then they’re going to sort of chew you up and spit you out, I think.
In addition to your albums, you’ve taken so many routes in your career from opening for N’Sync to playing in Carson Daly’s house band to having your music played in numerous TV shows. Just how difficult is it to make it in the music industry and what fuels you to keep going? What would you say has been your most fulfilling musical experience thus far in your career?
TL: I think it’s all about keeping as many irons in the fire as you can these days, because you never know where that next little opportunity is going to come from.
It used to be a little more straightforward 15, 20 years ago, where you just really try to develop a following and that you get a buzz, you get introduced to the right industry people. You invite them out to your shows, they like you, they sign you to a million-dollar record deal and then the rest of history.
Now, there’s just so much. In the last 15 years that I’ve been doing it, the industry itself has changed dramatically and you just kind of always have to keep your ear to the pulse as to where the next opportunity might lie and be as prepared as you can be for it.
For me, it’s been always sort of sharpening my blade and, if that meant being ready to jump at the chance to go sit in for the house band on a late-night TV show, then I need to have that skill-set. If it means going to a business dinner or going out for drinks to meet some people in the publishing and licensing world and having demos or my catalog ready to be handed out at any given time, then that’s the thing I have to be ready to do at any given moment.
It becomes less of a chore and a task and more of a second-nature “Hey, this is what I do” after a while and so, of course, when you go ahead and put it all down on paper and see how it adds up as far as a resume or a bio, it starts to look pretty impressive after a lot of years. You’re like, “Wow, I guess I have kind of accomplished quite a bit and this really is what I do, and success begets success I guess.”
I guess I’d have to say that getting all four coaches to turn around during my blind audition (on “The Voice”) was pretty fulfilling. That ushered in a tremendous sense of validation and really allowed me to feel as though that hasn’t all been in vain, that all the work, all the time and sweat and all the miles and all the support, love and encouragement and prayer that I’ve received over the years is not in vain, that I really did belong on that stage at that moment.
Yeah, I’d have to say that was probably the most fulfilling 90 seconds.
Finally, when will you be back in the Waterford area so that your hometown fans can possibly see you perform live?
TL: We just had a show (on Feb. 23). A friend of mine put together a nice big show over at Overtyme Bar and Grill on Dixie (Highway) and they opened up a new room there called The Lakeside Lounge and we sold it out. We basically sold 250 tickets and we filmed and recorded the whole thing and it was a night.
Right now, I’m sort of in a bit of a holding pattern with regards “The Voice.” I need to see how things pan out and what that means for the not-so-distant future. I’m sure later in the spring, or maybe this summer, we’ll line up some area shows and try to get some folks out.
It’s good (living in Waterford). Being home has a tremendous grounding effect and it’s always great to be back to the basics. It has a very humbling effect on my head space and where I’m at as an artist, especially the older I get, the more I realize the value of family and friends that I have there, it’s good.
I can’t lie and say that I’m going to be here for good. I think I have too much of a nomadic nature. We’ll see what pans out in the coming months, but it’s great for now, it really is.