Melinda Rodriguez wants to make “real, old-school jazz” cool again. The 23-year-old Miami native is getting her chance to show the world what she’s made of on this season of The Voice.
Music was always part of Rodriguez’s life from the beginning. “I’m Puerto Rican, so I grew up listening to salsa and all that stuff,” she says. “It’s like breathing to me. That’s where it all starts — with that music. You listen to it in your house, cleaning on Sunday with your mom — that stuff is like your bloodline.”
Rodriguez has a classical music background. She grew up singing in choirs and madrigal groups. But she discovered jazz in high school while trying to impress a boy. “I would write down the people he would mention, and then go home and listen to them and find out who they were so that I didn’t sound like an idiot when I would try to talk to him,” she says. The two began going to the Fish House together Wednesday nights to listen to live jazz, and Rodriguez began gaining more interest in the music, from its history to theory to chord progressions.
Soon classic jazz became her main focus. She graduated from Florida International University with a degree in music education and is pursuing a master’s in jazz vocal performance at the University of Illinois. She also teaches at the university, runs its jazz vocal ensembles, and performs often — both in Illinois and when she’s back home in Miami.
The first time Rodriguez auditioned for The Voice, she was 18. But after she switched her focus to jazz, she was doubtful that the genre would be appealing enough for the TV show. It was her brother, Chris, who encouraged her to audition again. The two are best friends, and music is something they’ve always enjoyed together. “He knows every single song ever recorded in the history of the world,” Rodriguez laughs. “Music has just always been something that we shared.” She calls Chris her biggest fan: “He’s always been supportive of my dream, no matter what.”
Chris is battling chronic myocarditis and waiting for a second heart transplant. During an emergency involving his health, Rodriguez was home in Miami when an open call for The Voice was happening at the same time. “[Chris] said, ‘You should go and try out.' And I was like, ‘You’re crazy, I’m not leaving right now,’” Rodriguez remembers. “And he was like, ‘I think you should do it. You never know. I just have a good feeling about it.’” She went to the audition, where around 40,000 people were vying for a spot on the show. It turned out her brother was right.
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At Rodriguez’s blind audition, which aired October 1, she sang “What a Wonderful World” in the style of Eva Cassidy. “That song, to me, is really a message of hope,” she said in her intro on the episode. Her passion and expressiveness, as well as her clear knowledge of classic jazz technique, shone through, and judges Gwen Stefani and Kelly Clarkson both wanted to coach her on the show.
Clarkson noted the similarities to Eva Cassidy’s voice — the melancholic tone and the way Rodriguez shifted into a slightly minor sound at some points — and said Cassidy is one of her favorite vocalists. “Not many singers that we’re going to hear today could even do what you just did,” Clarkson told Rodriguez. The judge, who launched her own music career on American Idol, said she would love to try pairing that classic sound with some more contemporary songs. “In that moment, I just really trusted Kelly,” Rodriguez says of choosing to join Team Kelly Clarkson on the show. “I really felt like she was being honest with me and listened to what I was doing and had something to say about it.”
Rodriguez’s journey continues Monday and Tuesday nights on NBC. Looking forward, she dreams of moving to New York, making it in the jazz scene there, and releasing a solo album. But first — regardless of what happens on The Voice — she plans to earn her master’s degree.
For now, though, she’s still processing the ongoing experience of being on the show. “It’s just been unreal,” she says. “I really wish I had more words to describe it, because it’s something I never thought I’d do. I’m just lucky to be doing it.”