Hannah Huston almost missed her chance. One morning an email hit her inbox, the subject line read: "The Voice: Season 10." Spam. Somehow it had slipped through her filter. Click. Delete. Take a sip of coffee, move on with the day.
A week later another one shows up. Click. Delete.
Clearly not getting anywhere, the scouts tried a different route. Nick Goodwin, who produced the video they discovered Huston in, was the next target. He also didn’t take it seriously but checked with Huston first.
"Luckily I said, ‘no just forward it to me.’" she said. Then she finally read it. This was legitimate, but she was hesitant. Seeking advice, she turned to Crystal Davy, a longtime friend and collaborator, and Philip Zach, a musician and producer with more than a decade of experience in the music industry. Is this something to even consider? She expected them to confirm her hesitation and to encourage her to find another way.
"I think this is something you should definitely do," Zach said. "This is too big; it ’s just too big to ignore. Because even if you don’t go all the way to the end of it, it’s going to give you so much experience and it’s going to introduce you to so many interesting people who you’re going to be inspired by. You’re going to learn how to do things better, you’re going to get feedback from all these industry professionals, there’s just no reason not to do it."
"Hannah’s not naive," Davy said. "She understands that there are ways that you can get into the industry that can pigeonhole you or that make you into a specific kind of artist. If you want to have options, if you want to brand yourself the way you want to, you have to be pretty smart about it. Part of it was just the wisdom of that kind of decision."
This most certainly was not the way Huston had expected to break into the music industry. A year into her teaching career as a preschool teacher at Lincoln’s Arnold Elementary School, she never really expected to pursue it full-time.
"Honestly, that never seemed on the table for me," she said. "I’ll be teaching and in the off-time, I’ll write an album. Or I’ll be creative on the side. It was never legitimate for me to leave work."
"It was very ‘when I have time, when I have energy, when I’m done teaching’ then I can work on this thing that I love more than anything else. So, then this kind of launched it into craziness.
"I never thought I would be a musician. I still even have a hard time calling myself that."
So, she went. First to a preliminary audition in Omaha last July. Expecting just to sing the four songs she had prepared, instead, she was there for hours. Along with hearing her sing, producers of the show also interviewed her, asked her lots of questions and promised her nothing. They would be in touch.
Not long after, she got another email: "Thumbs up!" In August, she was off to the City of Angels for another audition. It fell during the first week of school in what would have been her second year of teaching. With her Principal's blessing, she was off to L.A. This audition would decide whether or not she would get a chance to audition before the celebrity coaches.
But she couldn’t tell anyone where she was.
"I had a job that required me to be there at 7 AM until 3:45," she said. "So, when you’re gone from that it’s blatantly obvious that you’re not there."
"Not even my closest co-workers knew where I was," she said. "Which was really sucky. They all thought I was sick or something."
"My brain was in two different worlds this summer. I could go music, or I could go full on teaching."
"I struggled with that because, the things that were going through my brain I couldn’t really talk about."
The audition in August went well. Exceedingly so. She would have to go back, this time for a month in October before the coaches, in front of a live audience and millions of people all over the country watching on television.
Remarkably, she had found her way onto the show. How the show found her was just as remarkable.
In late 2014 Huston and Davy, along with Goodwin and another good friend Wyn Wiley decided to enter the Tiny Desk Contest where musicians from all across the country would produce their own music videos and compete for a prize.
However, Davy, a gifted songwriter with a powerful voice of her own, was eight months pregnant with her third child, a boy, Solomon Joe. Despite her condition, Davy’s curiosity was piqued. But the baby was due in a month, and the contest deadline was only a few weeks later. For as beautiful as giving birth is, it is a traumatic event, and life is tilted on its head for a while, and Davy needed time to recover. Was it even possible? They were going to try.
They enlisted the help of several other friends, talented musicians in their own right, and were up for an adventure. In the month before Solomon was born Davy and Huston sat around Davy’s piano, played with a few ideas and hammered out the framework of a song. Hannah recorded it on her phone, and they sent it to Zach. He was in. Solomon was born. The deadline loomed.
Goodwin, a video producer and Wiley, a photographer, had worked with Huston a year before on their another video project featuring Huston. They would shoot and direct this video, too. They had one day open in their schedules from the first of the year until the deadline. They all made it work and met up at Zach’s studio. With four other friends tagging along, Garrett on the upright bass, Renee, and Kent as background vocals and Paul on the trumpet, joining Zach’s glockenspiel, Davy on the piano and Huston’s voice, they crammed into Zach’s small studio space and made music. It was good. Very good.
"That Tiny Desk (Contest) was so fun," Zach said. "I think it’s probably given her a lot of traction. I’m super glad we did that, because not only did it give us all a really interesting community experience, but it also gave her a product that she can actually be proud of, and she can show to people, and it represents who she is and what she does."
"In my mind was really something to get her name and her voice out there," Davy said. I just knew that somehow that that video would be a connection between where she was at the time and where she was hoping to be."
They didn’t win, but they came close. They all went on with their lives with a rich memory to share. Huston continued teaching preschoolers. She would sing occasional shows, picking up a gig here and there around town, filling them to the brim with loyal friends and family. She even made a cameo appearance with the band Penny and Sparrow. She also sang often at her church, Grace Chapel. But the dream was bigger. She wanted to write songs of her own. Maybe enough to record an album of her own someday. That’s how you work your way up in the music industry, right? Pay your dues, build a fanbase, you know, the old fashioned way. Which brings us back to those initial emails.
They were real. That Tiny Desk Competition somehow found it’s way in front of a talent scouting agency. They were impressed. Impressed enough that a couple deleted emails weren’t going to stand in the way.
February 29th was a festive evening: 80 people crammed into the living room. 80 people who Hannah’s life has touched. 80 people who love her like she’s their best friend, because that’s what Hannah does.
"The mood in that room was really celebrative," Davy said.
"She is just a really beloved person. I think what it speaks to is that Hannah is a person who has always celebrated the people in her life. There is such an open-hearted, kind of generous celebration of her in response to that. She is someone that inspires whatever the opposite of jealousy is."
Wiley agreed: "Great people attract great people. She’s a person you want to root for. She is a person that deserves it.
"You have friends from so many different walks of life," he added. "You have friends from back home, you have family from back home, you have church community, you have not church community, you have people of all ages. In typical Hannah fashion, she doesn’t want to make herself the star of the evening. She would never do this for herself, so, of course, friends are going to do it for her."
She didn’t make herself the star of the evening. She was more interested, surrounded by her friends at home, in watching her new friends on the show.
As incredible as the experience was for Huston, it was a collision of two worlds: she was surrounded by family and friends who knew her and loved her well, gathered to watch a new group of friends on television she had come to love and cherish.
"My people, at least, Grace Chapel people, are the people that I cling to, and I feel like it’s a mutual thing. I feel really grateful," she said. "It just showed me why I love my people as much as I do. I would take a bullet for any of them. They are the same to me."
"I just wish I could have invited all (the other contestants) to the party to watch us watch them."
Huston’s audition didn’t air that night; it aired a week later. The watch parties were smaller but no less celebratory. She, however, was with family in Colorado. As much fun as it would have been to be on the premiere and watch it surrounded by so many friends, this was for the best.
"(It) was probably better because, just having that moment to have that moment to soak it in, and really soak it in and not have 80 people watch you watch you."
"There was some peace and quiet that was needed. When you’re on the show, you need to be very present on social media, so while your show is airing, you need to keep up with the twitter feed, which is nuts."
Her audition was pitch perfect, an accurate characterization of her charm and personality that has drawn so many to her, but it was not without drama.
It had already been a long day. Up early, sitting through hours of wardrobe, makeup and hair preparation. Conducting interviews with Carson Daly and seeing her family - only there for her audition - for the first time in weeks, she was exhausted, and she hadn’t even sung a note yet.
By the time it was her turn to go before the judges - with only a brief warm up period - struggling to keep her nerves in check, she said a little prayer to calm herself and reminded herself to take a deep breath and not fall down. And oh, she didn’t. She did exactly the opposite, rising brilliantly to the occasion.
As she hit every note of Allen Stone’s "Unaware" with precision and power, the judges remained unconvinced, their chairs unturned. Slightly puzzled by the lack of response from the judges, she pressed on.
@thehannahhuston You killed it! Thanks for singing my song, hope you make it to the top!— Allen Stone (@allen_stone) March 8, 2016
"I’m thinking, I’m not singing terrible. I know that I’m so nervous up here, but it’s not going poorly, it’s not going pitchy, it’s not going bad. So, I was like ‘Really? Whatever.’"
As the end of the song approached, Huston had one last opportunity, one final note.
"It is ok if they turnaround," she remembers thinking."It is ok if they don’t. I’m just thankful for this whole entire experience."
She closed her eyes, bent over a little, more like a lean for more force, actually, and gave it everything she had left.
"You say that you caaaaaaaaaare" she belted.
As her eyes opened, she saw three white lines of light racing at her. Three coaches had turned. Blake Shelton first, Christina Aguilera and Pharrell right behind. Relief. Joy. Excitement. All in one brief moment. She had made it!
"I can’t remember the last note. I can’t remember it…, I couldn’t really believe there were people in those chairs."
In turning three chairs, Huston was left with a choice. She definitely had a preference going in as to who she would choose, but when the moment came, it wasn’t that simple.
The turned coaches made their pitches: Pharrell appealed to being a part of her story and tapping into her personality and charm. Aguilera went with the sassiness and opportunity before Huston as her pitch. Shelton, after hitting a roadblock by mentioning a country festival in Lincoln that Huston was oblivious to (something she says she’s heard more about since the show than anything else) may have been her biggest cheerleader. Clearly pleading with the other coaches to turn during her audition, he couldn’t let her not be a part of the competition.
How do you make a decision like that?
"I was really humbled in that moment because I understand that I have a preference," she said, "but you have three people that want to work with you, and you need to be in that moment and have an open mind."
"Blake really threw in a curveball for me because I really did not think he was going to turn around for me."
She ultimately chose Pharrell. "(He) said some things about the heart of music and being a part of my story. He just had the most convincing words for me."
Her friends (and plenty of strangers, too) flooded social media with posts of joy, anxiety, and pride.
"As soon as you hit the screen, people are finding you," she said. "I’ve never had that many notifications, or adds, or messages or texts. It was crazy."
Huston has lived in two worlds these past few months. One where she is going on this grand adventure that only a few people can relate to. Those that have lived that experience with her have grown close.
"No one will know that part of my life more than they will," she said, "or understand more of the feelings or the thoughts that we had or the moments. No one will know them as much as those people. So, it’s really special because of them."
That comes as no surprise to Wiley.
"Hannah’s made instant friends with them," he said. I think the people on the show, she really jives with, and I think she’s found some great people to have a home away from home with, and great people to go on this journey with."
Davy agrees, "she raves about the people that she’s meeting."
"One reason that she’s super grateful for this experience," Davy continued, "is that she’s interacting with some really quality, kind, gracious individuals."
"It’s a crazy, unimaginable world to step into, right?" Wiley said. "It’s completely new people, it’s living in a new city for a while, it’s saying goodbye to your career and job and a lot of people you see on the daily to pursue a passion. It’s really a lonely journey, a little big. It’s something that takes a lot of courage.
"There are good people behind the show, too. And I think that Hannah wouldn’t be there if she didn’t feel that way, too."
"I think that was the coolest part of it," Huston said. "I think it would have been nothing without the people. I mean the show doesn’t exist without the people. They’re just so talented. They’re writers, they’re singers, they’re musicians who travel or they’re doing what I do."
Davy thinks that as the show progresses, Huston’s life-giving spirit will come across in the competition and people, especially in Nebraska, where everyone is ready to support their own, will be quick to jump on board.
"My sense is that as this journey progresses that this State is going to be super stoked about her. I think that people are going to go nuts, in a really fun way.
"When those sorts of things happen, there’s this other good that’s happening. It’s community being built around a common joy. There’s power in that beyond just what’s happening in Hannah’s life.
"I told her that: One of the cool things that I’m seeing and what I’m excited about watching, is all of the relationships and the things that God’s going to do in the context of people gathering in one another's homes to watch The Voice.
How far Huston makes it on The Voice remains to be seen. Winning the competition is a lofty ambition, but that’s not how she’s looking at it.
"I don’t think about it in those terms often," she said. "All the people out there are my dear friends. It’s a little different because it’s portrayed one way, but it feels a different way.
"I think, honestly, what I’m doing is I’m making myself better. I think that encourages everybody, all the artists out there to become better."
But does she can think she can win? Well meaning people, perhaps with a little naivety, come up to her and tell her she can.
"I already feel like I have," she said. "I feel like I’ve already gotten out of it what I needed. I got the friendships, I got the relationships, I got to work with Pharrell, I got to do these big things that I never could have done had I continued teaching and stayed here in Nebraska, which would have still been beautiful and lovely. This just was completely God’s will in my life that I go and do this and by His grace, survived.
"There’s always going to be things that are really hard about it, but even the hard stuff, I felt I was growing so much, and I was really refining, and it was really good for me. And I just realized there was a reason God has given me this opportunity. I don’t know what he did, but I feel equipped to do it. There’s still things I’m obviously getting way better at, but it was encouraging to know that I wasn’t this fish out of water."
"I’ve always believed that Hannah has the kind of voice that she could do whatever she wants to do with it," Davy said.
Zach agrees, "I know that she has the best head on her shoulders ever, and she has a voice that deserves to be heard.
"Anytime you can spread joy with a talent, or anytime you can share happiness with your talent, you should pursue it, and you should pursue it with the people that are good to you. And I think that The Voice has been so good to her."
Whether Huston wins or not, the opportunity and exposure she gains by participating is invaluable and will likely open doors whose thresholds she could have never imagined darkening otherwise.
"My journey will end with this," she said, and it then starts another one. I’ll take it one day at a time. When the show and I part ways, it will just be what it is and making a thoughtful, wise decision moving forward. I think in a lot of ways it has changed because I feel the momentum shift: go down music, go down that path you never thought you would and explore it. Be wise, but explore it."
"Ultimately," she said, "I want to create music, I want to be creative, I want to be playing music with people, I want to sing songs that mean things, I want to make art that’s dignified and beautiful and tells a story. I want music to literally move you."