America didn't like Kat Robichaud, or at least not enough to help her win a reality show. Seven months ago, after the Raleigh singer and former bandleader scraped through near-elimination twice to advance to the closing rounds of NBC's singing competition The Voice, Robichaud finally came up short on votes and second chances. She left Los Angeles and returned to Raleigh. She's since seen life through the funhouse mirror of the almost-famous.
Earlier this year, for instance, she learned that The Voice had already found a new Kat—this time, a tattooed singer from North Dakota named Kat Perkins. The similarities haunted Robichaud: They both have long, black hair, and they both arrived on reality television after their rock bands broke up. They're spunky and appreciate flashy clothes. They saw their votes soar with '80s hits and slump with ballads. Perkins fans rep #TeamKat, while Robichaud flaunted the #KatPack.
Could the fleeting nature of reality TV and the planned obsolescence of its contestants be any more clear?
"What I don't want to happen for the rest of my life is to be billed as 'Kat Robichaud from The Voice,'" Robichaud admits. "Not that I'm not proud of it—I just don't want that to be the pinnacle of my success."
But that's the gamble: One year, you're the focal point of a national popularity contest; the next, you're an unlinked Wikipedia entry.
Since November, Robichaud, 30, has worked to make sure that isn't the case. She's assembled management and publicity teams, used Kickstarter to raise $42,583, written an album and used the money to make it. And on May 31, she'll celebrate the completion of that album with her first local concert appearance since leaving The Voice—and, for a while, perhaps the last, as she'll soon follow her husband to San Francisco, away from the fanbase that helped push her toward victory.
She doesn't know if the mercurial popularity afforded by a reality television show—especially one that has never produced a major pop star—can translate into a real music career, especially if she doesn't try. The hurdles seem higher for survivors of The Voice, which hasn't proven to be a vehicle for career sustainability. Season winners have gone on to relatively low profiles and modest record sales. Javier Colon, who took the title the first season, has barely sold 50,000 copies of his debut album. At least Cassadee Pope, winner of the fourth season, had a platinum single and broke into the top 10 of the Billboard 200. The show hasn't produced stars like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, American Idol alumnae who have advanced beyond the reality-show circuit.
"It's very fleeting," she says. "I'm just praying that this album is going to allow me to continue to play music. I just want to keep playing music."
Two days ago, on Twitter, I saw someone named Kat Robichaud chatting with someone about how she was a fan," wrote alt-rock lightning rod Amanda Palmer on her blog last November. Palmer first gained attention as one-half of The Dresden Dolls, a wild and weird cabaret punk piano band, known for their vulnerable theatricality.
"I Googled her and saw her performance on The Voice," continued Palmer, "and thought she was fucking fantastic."
Robichaud was an old fan of Palmer's, so she was star-struck by the social media encounter. But she reached out, anyway; aside from The Voice itself, the ensuing relationship proved to be perhaps the biggest sparkplug for her career.
Robichaud is slight of stature, but her personality is oversized and scrappy. She keeps her locks straight and favors glam accents—angular eyeliner and tight, patterned pants—and modern jewelry. She loves Dr. Who and rattles off Queen, David Bowie and ELO as influences.
Palmer seemed to recognize a kindred spirit: While Robichaud was competing, Palmer posted two interviews with the singer on her website and rallied her husband, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, and his fanbase for her. When Robichaud lost, Palmer invited her to perform at a sold-out "Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer" show at New York's Town Hall. When Robichaud returned to Los Angeles for The Voice finale, Palmer convinced her to guest at two more shows. Robichaud asked Palmer about her next move.
"I said, 'It's not weird that I want your career, is it?' She was like, 'No, no, it's fine,'" remembers Robichaud. "She walked me through everything."
In 2012, Palmer raised $1,192,793 through Kickstarter. She encouraged Robichaud to avoid the potential confinement of a record label and do the same. She hired a manager in Los Angeles, J.J. Italiano, and launched her crowdfunding effort. Robichaud's campaign sought to raise $20,000 toward recording her debut album; in only three days, she broke that threshold, eventually doubling that goal. Many of the contributors, she notes, came from Gaiman's website.
Of course, $40,000 won't last long, especially for a musician trying to turn a shooting-star appearance on a reality show into a full-scale promotional campaign and career.
Robichaud is familiar with musical aspirations that clash with the odds. Her parents pushed tennis instead of piano lessons. Though she sang in church and at school, a classmate with a country accent overshadowed her.
"I got a couple solos," she says, "but no one was as good as her."
Back home in Morehead City after her freshman year at N.C. State, however, she met Kitty West, a folk singer and co-founder of one of North Carolina's first folk-rock bands. West wanted to sing with her.
"She was really the first person who paid any attention to me," says Robichaud. "I did not have American Idol parents. They did not say, 'Oh god, you are just fabulous. Go seize the world.' They were like, 'Go to college.'"
Back in Raleigh, she stuck with graphic design while waiting tables at Sushi Blues, singing only when her restaurant boss let her sit in with the restaurant's jazz-band coterie. Finally, she decided to find a gig of her own—Sugar, a cover outfit in need of a singer.
"There are three different avenues to make it in Raleigh," explains George Hage, a longtime friend and collaborator of Robichaud. "There are the bands that play Slim's and those kind of clubs, the bigger bands that are playing Lincoln Theatre and then bands that are doing cover gigs. Kat did them all."
During the next seven years, Sugar became an in-demand, high-energy cover band. They played weddings, corporate events and late-night restaurants. They changed their name to The Design, started adding originals and eventually graduated to spaces as large as the Lincoln Theatre. The steady stream of shows turned Robichaud from a reluctant jazz chanteuse into a road-tested frontwoman, as likely to hug the audience as stage dive.
But it wasn't the most inspiring or honest work. Robichaud remembers a tune called "Scream," in which she promised listeners "a good time" with "lower[ed] inhibitions." The gimmick was an homage to Wild Wing Café, a would-be commercial that, most of all, proved The Design's eagerness to please. They were, in essence, aiming to sell out. "You're gonna get it all," Robichaud wailed. "Let me hear you scream!"
"With The Design, I was willing to be miserable to play out and do that," says Robichaud. "Then I realized, it doesn't have to be this way. You should love what you do. I had to ask myself, 'What steps can I take to make that happen?'"
The Design broke up in October 2013, less than a year after releasing their second album. A month later, she had her first call with the casting directors of The Voice, which led to a January audition in Atlanta. Just before two more crucial auditions in Los Angeles with the show's executive producers, her father passed away. Again, she persevered.
On The Voice, four singers—Christina Aguilera, CeeLo Green, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton—sit with their backs turned to the stage during "blind auditions." If they like a performer, they turn around and battle for the contestant to join their team. Robichaud choose soulman CeeLo Green. The judges latched onto her ferocity, nicknaming her "Raspy McRasperson." She was the first contestant to stage dive in the show's history.
"At Kat's concert's," Shelton joked, "they're going to have to handcuff her."
Still, she and Green never found their footing. She spent every week at the bottom of the rankings, despite her obsessive social media presence, any sympathy vote from her father's recent death and the support of Palmer and Gaiman.
Nine weeks into the season, just a few rounds shy of the title, she sang the Pat Benatar anthem "We Belong" on live national television.
It was an appropriately dramatic choice: A few days later, she was back in Raleigh.
Today, Robichaud sits outside of Manifold Studios in rural Chatham County, still working to let go of lingering regret and focus on the opportunity and the album in front of her.
"I don't know what's going to come from it; I just know that it's me," says Robichaud. "This is the first time that I really, really get to be myself and write the kind of music that I really want to write."
Ian Schreier is the chief engineer at Manifold. He's been nominated for a Grammy and produced some marquee records. He agreed to work with Robichaud and help shape her songs for a month before bringing in anyone else to make the album. They handpicked a few past collaborators to form a rock band. They brought in horn players, backup singers and Avett Brother cellist Joe Kwon.
"This record is Kat," says Schreier. "It's a combination of her theatrical side, her very energetic rock side and a very emotional, deep dark side. It's going to be a little tough to categorize."
Sara Hauber, a local fan, pledged more than $500 on Kickstarter to secure an in-studio hang with Robichaud at Manifold. For her, knowing that this album reflects Robichaud's determination and personality is enough. During the visit, Robichaud told her she didn't want to let her down.
"I just kept thinking there's no way you can. You showed us who you were," Hauber says. "Everybody who contributed knows what we're going to get, and that's what we want."
That's nice, but Robichaud isn't sure the world needs or even wants a theatrical, glam rock'n'roll record, but she sees this as an opportunity to invest in her vision of herself. There is no screaming about a Wild Wings Café and no covers she doesn't want to do. There are, instead, arena-sized guitars, moody pianos and vocals that push from desperate vulnerability to kiss-my-ass rock.
"There's not anybody saying, 'This needs to be this,' or 'We need a song drunk people can rally around,'" she says. "This is the first time that I really, really get to be myself and write the kind of music that I really want to write."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Voice lessons."