From the moment Tessanne Chin grabbed the mic and sang her heart out to Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" on season five of The Voice, the singer sent shivers down spines and made millions of Americans (and Jamaicans) jump off their couches and stare in awe at the TV screen.
Chin may have gained international fame (and envy) working with Adam Levine and taking home a bronze mic that season, but the Jamaican reggae singer of English, Chinese, and Cherokee descent was an established artist in Jamrock way before she charmed the judges and blew away audiences with her killer pipes.
"Music was always a part of my life," Chin told Crossfade last week from her hotel room in LA. "It's very much a part of my DNA."
Born into a family of musicians, Chin practically learned to sing before she could even talk. The singer grew up following her parents around rehearsals and watching them perform. Since then, it's been a love affair with music.
Now, The Voice champ is recording her debut album with Universal Music Group and getting ready for her solo gig at the 9 Mile Music Festival this Saturday at the Dade County Fairgrounds.
Coincidentally enough, we caught up with Chin on Bob Marley's birthday, and spoke to her about being coached by the Sexiest Man Alive, growing up in Jamaica, learning when it's time to move on, and paying homage to the reggae revolutionary.
Crossfade: Congrats on The Voice. How was it like having Adam Levine as a mentor?
Tessanne Chin: Oh Lord, you know it's so funny because before everything started, I knew I wanted to have Adam as my coach. I've always loved his music ... Moving forward, I knew he would be the perfect coach to [help me] transition from a reggae singer, honoring that part, but moving on to see whatever was available for me. A lot of the time, they [viewers] think it's just smoky mirrors, but I can say he [Adam] really pushed into it and took it very seriously. He gave it his all.
Was it hard to focus having the Sexiest Man Alive around you all the time?
[Laughs] No, because he's so mischievous! He is so hyper, but wonderful. It's so funny when it comes to music, he's so excited and passionate. When it's not music, it's all chaos. As corny as it may sound, I already met the Sexiest Man Alive [she said alluding to her husband]. People would always joke around and ask me, 'What does it feel like when you hold him? What does he smell like?' I was like, 'I don't know! I'm just there to learn.' Your mind is in a completely differently place. You're too busy being nervous all the time.
Were you star struck when you first started?
You know what, when they all first turned around, there was definitely an element of shock. They're the biggest names in music. It was literally an out of body experience. It's what you dream of happening and hope to God will happen, but when it does happen, you're like, 'Oh my God, did this happen?' The hardest part, you can't tell anybody what happened, so I had to hold the secret for about two months before the show aired.
It's an experience I would treasure for the rest of my life, and put me in contact with some very special people as well. It's not about the songs and the outfits, it's the people you go through this whole thing with. It's a very odd situation to be in. You want to win, but you want the others to succeed as well.
What's the biggest lesson you learned from him?
Quite a few, but the one that stands out is to always connect to the song because that's how the song will connect to the audience. I also learned to create moments. That's the one [lesson] I'll take with me forever. It's not just a song, you have to create a moment, create something that's memorable. One of the best bits of advice was to not think about winning or loosing as a competition, just go out there and sing.
I never expected to win. I'd hoped, but at this point, you get to love the people you're competing against. I love Jacquie and Will. It was hard to say I wanna win because you respect the people to your left and right. I didn't know what to expect. That's completely honest.
You come from a pretty diverse background. You were born in Jamaica and are of Chinese and Cherokee descent. You also lived in England for some time. How was it like growing up surrounded by all these different cultures?
What's funny, the most predominate one [culture] is English because my grandmother is British, and having an English mom, I kinda adopted the traditions. But we were all brought up Jamaican and have these different ethnicities and cultures. Jamaica is actually a melting pot. There's so many different cultures from Lebanese to Cuban to Indian, in that way, I never felt different. Nobody treated me different, never in a derogatory fashion.
We came upon some resistance, but it wasn't a race issue, it was a class thing. In a way, my sister [who happens to be a well known singer in the island], she broke down those barriers. Her music is for everybody. That's the way I see it. If anything, I felt different when I went to England. That's where I kind of saw that I was different.
Your parents had their own band, The Carnations, your older sister is a singer, I guess you can say music was part of your upbringing?
I'm the baby of the family. I have five older sisters. One is in the beauty industry, my brother is into computer graphics, but all of us all are musical.
My earliest memories, my parents had a band when they were younger and by the time I was born, they used perform at different gigs. I grew up going to those gigs. Music was always a part of my life. The first time I touched the mic was at one of the rehearsals. That's when I knew I wanted to sing. Music chooses you. It's something you can't decide not to do, it's who you are. Even if I was a mommy or a banker, I would still be a musician. It's very much a part of my DNA.
I actually love your voice, I mean you went from singing Whitney Houston to Gwen Stefani to the Beatles, and made it work. Not many people can do that. How would you describe your musical style?
We're in LA working on an album now, and it's probably gonna fall under pop, but anything I do is gonna have an edge to it and a reggae swag, but not every song is gonna be reggae. I know it's my blood. I don't have to prove it to anybody. I'm looking forward to experimenting more.
After you moved back to Jamaica, you joined Mile High, but after working with the band for a few years, you decided to go solo. What made you wanna take the leap?
Um, I always wanted to be an act within myself. I grew from those years in Mile High, not just as a singer, but as a writer, and it helped me come out of my shell. I'm so shy with sharing music, and they gave me space to do that. But after some time, I began to realize it wasn't for me. It was very painful and sad, but I had to leave. My mommy always taught me to follow my gut, and my gut was telling me it was time to go. It wasn't bringing me that joy. When that happens, you have to change what you're doing in terms of how you're doing it. Anytime it starts to feel like that joy is corrupted, it's time to reevaluate and step back.
You went on to work with Shaggy and Third World. How was that experience?
Shaggy puts on this charity event [Shaggy & Friends] every year or two for the children's hospital in Jamaica, [Bustamante Hospital for Children], the only English speaking one in the Caribbean. He does this huge show where a bunch of artists perform for free. He did a theme song for it, and every artist involved in the show was to come out in this track. That was the first time I worked with him.
What sealed the deal, the song for Haiti, "Rise Again" which we recorded after the devastating earthquake that happened a few years back. I think that's when he said, 'Okay, she has something here.' He's been very supportive and always giving advice. He was the one who came to me about The Voice because he knew I wanted to have an international career, and at home I hit a brick wall and thought, 'Where do I go from here?' and had nothing to loose.
I was afraid at first, that I would've gotten backlash from my people, that people in America wouldn't accept me, but at the same time, to have something you never had, you have to do something you've never done.
You'll be sharing the stage with Lauryn Hill and the Marley's at the 9 Mile Music Fest next week. I'm sure you must be looking forward to that.
Hell yeah! I'm a big fan of Ms. Lauryn Hill and a super fan of Damian.
What are you most excited about?
Being a spectator. I am very happy to perform but I'm a fan of music first, so getting to see all those amazing artists in one stage is gonna be like, 'Ah!' I will not be going home early that night!
The fest falls almost a week after Bob Marley's birthday, so not only are you gonna be performing with these artists, you'll also be celebrating his legacy. Being from Jamaica, that must be a dream come true, honoring a legend.
You know what, I wrote something on Instagram today [Bob Marley's birthday] and it's how I feel he paved the way for all of us in terms of Jamaican artists, and to this day, I feel like he's still alive in his music.
You feel like he's a distant family member. In all of our birthday parties, weddings, celebrations, Bob is always there in music. It's a very strange thing because we feel like we know him, that we're part of his family. To be able to honor him through song, it's amazing. He has such an amazing reach. Our grandchildren and their kids are gonna know Bob Marley. We think of him as a prophet. His words have life and are still relevant today. He was so before his time, no joke.
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Nine Mile Music Festival 2014. With Stephen, Damian, and Julian Marley, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Tessanne Chin, and others. Saturday, February 15. Miami-Dade County Fairgrounds, 10901 SW 24th St., Miami. The fest begins at 12:30 p.m., and tickets cost $57.83 to $179. Visit 9milemusicfestival.com.