Exclusive Interview—She’s come a long way from her Hebron, N.D., hometown—population 900, more or less—but Gwen Sebastion’s journey is far from over. One of nine remaining members of Team Blake on NBC’s breakout hit The Voice, which airs tonight at 8 eastern, the charismatic Nashville resident is planning to make the most of her time in the national spotlight, no matter the outcome. She recently sat down with Nashville.com to share her thoughts on the importance of taking risks, how she managed to hold it together during her blind audition for the TV show, her dream of playing the Opry, faith and much, much more. To learn more about Gwen, and to get a free download of her tune “Barefoot Girl,” go to gwensebastian.com. Here’s some of what she had to say during our wide-ranging interview with the likable performer.
Nash: Before we start, I have to remind you that I believe I was the first person ever to write about you in a major country music publication . . .
Gwen: I’m pretty sure you were! (chuckles)
Nash: And that being the case . . . I’m going to need an autograph . . .
Gwen: Yeah! You’ve got it with you!
Nash: And also, as you become a superstar—and I remind you, you’d be nothing without me—as you’re recording in the studio and you get a request for me to come in and spend the afternoon watching you make your album, you won’t say, “David who?” You’ll say, “Oh yeah, the guy who made me. We have time for him.”
Gwen: The guy who made me! I love it. Yeah! Of course! (laughs) I feel honored that you brought this! (she begins to autograph the magazine from December, 2009). There you go. “To the man who made my career.”
Nash: Perfect. Now on to more important things. How are folks in your native North Dakota dealing with all the excitement from your being on The Voice. You’re one of, what—about 3,000 grandchildren?
Gwen: (laughs) 4,000! That’s about right.
Nash: In a town with about 900 or so residents?
Gwen: Kinda sorta.
Nash: Are they just going bananas?
Gwen: Yes. They are. First of all, my phone blew up after my blind audition. It went pretty crazy. But it’s been awesome. I even got a letter that was sent to my parents from Sen. John Hoeven to say the state of North Dakota is behind me, something like that.
Nash: Have they proclaimed a Gwen Sebastian Day yet?
Gwen: No! I hope they don’t. That’s way too much pressure! It’s been pretty cool though.
Nash: I know you moved from there to Nashville, which was kind of a risky thing to do. And then auditioning for the show was another risky thing to do. Have you always been a risk taker, someone who doesn’t want to sit back in 40 years and think, “I wonder what if?”
Gwen: I think I have always had that. And being from where I grew up—when you grow up where there’s technically nothing to do, you have to try to find a way to make your own fun. So I always had that thought, that I wanted to move to Nashville and I wanted to do music. Now, there was also the thought in me for a while that I had to have a backup plan, going to nursing school and things like that. But the feeling of wanting to try something—the free spirit thing, if you will—it’s always been there. And I’m really thankful that I did take some chances. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.
Nash: Was your first performance on The Voice the most stressful thing you’ve ever done professionally . . . and maybe in your entire life?
Gwen: Yes. There’s no doubt in my mind! I’ve never felt more nervous, but yet I’ve never felt so thankful at the same time. It was a really odd feeling that I still can’t explain, being up there. I’m used to having a band there and getting on stage and having music going and things going on around me. With this, it was 20 seconds of silence. Walking up there, you just have to stand there. And you see the backs of these chairs holding some of the greatest artists of our generation. I’m thinking, (laughs) “What is happening!” It was extremely nerve-wracking, but I can’t believe I made it through. I knew that I could do it, but I didn’t know how well it would go. I knew I’d make it through and pretty much stay on key (chuckles). But I didn’t know if I’d have a little shakiness going on in my voice or any control issues.
Nash: I was at an industry event not long ago when a guy had to get up and introduce someone who was being honored. And the guy was reading some credits and telling all about the honoree . . . and as he spoke, his voice got shakier and shakier. And I felt so sorry for him. Because we’ve probably all been there at one time or another. It’s terrible. When something like that happens . . . and you’re singing in front of the world, how do you get control of your voice? Is there a technique, breathing or something?
Gwen: Right. Usually, for me, if it does happen while I’m singing, it’s hard to get the control back. What I do beforehand is just a lot of really deep breathing, which I think even public speakers do—just take tons of deep breaths.
Nash: So you didn’t have to picture Cee Lo naked or anything to get rid of the nerves?
Gwen: (Laughs) You know, if I would’ve pictured anybody naked, it would’ve been Adam! I would’ve pictured Adam naked if that would’ve been my problem. What did happen to me though, when Blake turned, there was a huge, huge breath coming up through me . . . the relief. Then as I felt it, I was thinking “Oh, god, don’t choke.” At that point, I wanted to even do better, to justify him turning his chair around.
Nash: Does Blake have any tunes he’s done that are the kind of songs you’d like to do?
Gwen: Absolutely. “Home” . . . definitely. I sang a little snippet of that song before even getting to the blind audition. I love that song, and I thought it would be an incredible thing to do a duet with him. My other favorite of Blake Shelton’s is “Ole Red.” That’s one of the most brilliant songs.
Nash: Do you think you’re already a better artist because of the time you’ve spent on the show?
Gwen: Absolutely. I already know for a fact. Being able to be part of a television show is a completely different experience than I’ve ever had before in my life. It’s one of those I never thought I’d have. And, unfortunately, sometimes as an artist we need validation. And that’s what the three coaches turning around gave me. It gave me a sense of, “Okay, maybe I’m doing the right thing, here.” It made me feel like I really wanted to be better, to prove to them that I deserve to be making music and I love it and, yeah, I deserve to be on the show.
Nash: I know that not too long ago you were at a sort of crossroads, having to decide whether it was time to settle down and start having babies or to keep on chasing your dreams in music. I assume you’ve already passed the point where we know what’s going to be happening in the foreseeable future?
Gwen: (laughs) Yeah, I do know. I’ve realized I’m doing the right thing. And thank goodness I am. I wouldn’t be a good mom if I wasn’t happy.
Nash: Can you talk a little about the man in your life?
Gwen: Yes, he’s my boyfriend and my drummer and my producer, my driver and my booking agent! His name is Louie. And he happened to be on the show as well, seeing me at the blind audition, along with my parents. And I still have time, and my goal would be to still have children and still do music. Just right now, my focus has to be on music.
Nash: Are you somebody who believes in fate or destiny or a higher power; that things happen the way they’re meant to? Obviously, you make decisions, so an element of control is certainly in your hands. But do you believe in things like doors opening because they’re meant to and that sort of thing?
Gwen: Yes. Absolutely. But I believe that they open partly because of what you do to make them open, if that makes sense. I think not only hard work, but being a good person is all part of it. I think fate is going to come around and give back eventually. Hopefully, that’s really what it’s all about, that I’ve done well in my life, not just in my career. That I’ve been a good person and hopefully more doors open because of that.
Nash: I know you played a little piano in church. Was it piano and organ?
Gwen: I did, yes, both.
Nash: Has faith been an important part of your life, or was it more musical than spiritual? Or more a combination of the two?
Gwen: I think it’s a combination. I’ve always felt that. I grew up in a really stable household, really wonderful parents and family. Even my extended family, we’re all really close. So that has a lot to do with it. But I think we are that way because of our faith.
Nash: Are you keeping big secrets as far as the show goes, things you know have already happened that the rest of us don’t know?
Gwen: The show’s not totally done yet, but I’m still keeping big secrets. April is when it goes live. So we still don’t know who the winner is.
Nash: What’s the waiting period like from now until then?
Gwen: Well, I can tell you this: we all did our blind audition back in October. And that wait, from October to the Super Bowl, was a really long period of time to keep a secret. At first it was harder, then it got a little easier as I realized the excitement lies in not knowing. So, for my family and friends, not knowing was kind of fun. But it was really hard not telling people. Still, even now, it’s hard to not talk about things. First of all, it’s accomplishments you’re achieving that normally you could talk about and say, “Hey! Guess what!” But you can’t yet.
Nash: Do you kind of feel like, with the millions of people who’ve already seen you who either never would have or who would have taken years and years to do it, you’ve already won in that respect?
Gwen: Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. The Voice is that platform. Nowadays, television is a huge part of being able to share music. As you said, it’s being able to reach millions instead of hundreds or a couple thousand at a show each time. I give a lot of credit to The Voice for that. And I really noticed the impact right after my blind audition. Right before then, I had 800 or 900 Twitter followers. Then it was 5,000 within an hour after the show. And that’s a huge thing, because it’s all about reaching as many people as you can.
Nash: So does that mean you also now have to clean up your act? Okay, (joking) no more getting thrown in jail on weekends, no more DUIs, the fun stops now?
Gwen: No! Bad press is good press! (huge laugh)
Nash: There’s probably a fine line between performers wanting everyone to know who they are and then getting to a point that, “Wow, everybody wants a piece of me.” Are you prepared for that?
Gwen: I think so. I’m okay with that. It didn’t seek me. Music has always been a part of me. I’m not doing it for fame. I just realize that can come with it. And part of fame is the ability to be able to use that to give back or have a platform. That’s an incredible thing to be able to use.
Nash: Do you already have causes in mind that are near and dear to you?
Gwen: I would love to be able to help kids in some way, whether it’s feeding the hungry or stopping child abuse or what have you. Absolutely. I’d love to start my own foundation. Not quite sure yet what it would be or what it would be called.
Nash: How about Lunchbox Kids?
Gwen: David! I’ve got to credit you for that now, too! I love that! I’m serious; I might have to do that. Like to fill backpacks for school, for kids who can’t afford . . . okay, there it is. That’s great.
Nash: So do they (members of her band) still call you that?
Gwen: Yeah, they do. I still live up to the name very well. Eat, eat, eat is my motto. (laughs)
Nash: Other than the outcome of the show, what are some big things you’d like to have happen this year?
Gwen: I’d love to be on tour and open up for someone, maybe even Blake. And I’d love to have a new single out on radio. That’s what I came here for, and country radio has been really good to me so far.
Nash: Is there anything on your bucket list that seems like a realistic possibility now, because of the TV show, that might not have seemed that way before? Playing the Opry or anything else that comes to mind?
Gwen: You saying that right there, playing the Opry. That’d be great, incredible. And that would be a check mark off the bucket list.
Nash: Let me ask you one more thing, then I’ll get out of your hair. Having been through the process of The Voice as far as you have, is there any advice you’d give to next year’s competitors on the show? Sort of, “Okay, here’s something I wish I had known.”
Gwen: Sure. I think, just in music in general—not just in auditioning for The Voice—I think it’s really important that you stay true to who you are, and to know who you are before you go into an audition. You have to let yourself come through it. I think that’s the most important part about it. That’s what the coaches hear. They’re not listening for all the notes, they’re looking for something special, and “special” is what you bring to the table that nobody else can. Going in thinking to yourself “who do they want me to be?” is the worst thing to do. Just do what you do.
Nash: That’s enough. Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate it.
Gwen: Thanks, David! This was great!