How this Young Richmond Artist Got His Start
By Joan Tupponce
As Evan McKeel waited to take the stage for his blind audition on NBC’s The Voice, he began jumping up and down, trying to burn off his excess energy. He threw some playful air punches and grounded himself. This is the moment he had been working toward, waiting for all of his life. “I couldn’t get out there fast enough,” says the Richmond native. “My blood was pumping and my pulse was up. I was ready to go.”
The camera followed him as he walked onto the stage and burst into a rendition of Mutemath’s upbeat “Typical,” drawing the audience in immediately. Three quarters of the way into his audition, Evan realized none of the celebrity coaches’ chairs had turned, but he didn’t let it shake his confidence. “I wasn’t so much in the moment that I couldn’t see what was going on,” he says. “I knew I was at the all-or-nothing portion of the song with no chairs.”
Then it happened, coach Blake Shelton hit his button. Seconds later Pharrell Williams and Adam Levine turned as well. Then Gwen Stefani. It was what every performer wants: a four-chair turn. When Evan saw Blake smile, he felt some relief. “That took whatever tension I had out of me,” he says. “I was able to relax the last thirty to forty seconds. Maybe I was holding back, and maybe I started singing better at that point.”
Evan has worked diligently to get to this juncture in his career. Today, he’s back in town waiting for the next step in the show – there will be knockout rounds that need to be won before the live rounds when (fingers crossed!) RVA viewers can vote for Evan. He slips into Perk! off of Buford Road and slides over to the corner of a window booth – the same spot at the intimate coffee shop where he writes music. The tee he’s wearing is much more casual than the black leather jacket he sported over a sleeveless denim jacket and striped shirt for his blind audition on The Voice. The textured combination provided his slender frame with more bulk for the camera, not to mention the trendiness of the layering.
The 20-year-old (he’ll turn twenty-one next month) can’t remember a time when he wasn’t singing. He started performing at West End Assembly of God (WEAG) around the age of six when he was old enough to be in the children’s choir. He sang his first solo, “Seek Ye First,” during the adult service when he was seven. “It was no biggie,” he says of the performance. “I was excited about it.”
Seven was the age when he first started appearing in the church’s classic, Glorious Christmas Nights (GCN) productions. The theme of his first show was nursery rhymes. “I was one of the kids in the shoe,” he says.
Singing was in Evan’s DNA, says Bob Laughlin, the church’s pastor of music and fine arts ministry. “The first time I heard Evan sing, he had perfect pitch. Here was this little, scrawny, energetic, cute kid that could sing like a songbird. That is what triggered my initial surprise: how well he could sing in tune before he was seven.”
Being in the productions over the years has taught Evan a lot about improvising when something goes awry. He remembers the time he played Elvis in a GCN production. Evan struck an Elvis pose and stood in the spotlight waiting for the music so he could begin lip-synching the words. There was only one problem: The track didn’t start for a minute. “I stayed frozen and waited for the song to start,” Evan says.
Being able to react in the moment is a skill that served Evan well on The Voice. After he finished “Typical,” Pharrell asked him to name his favorite Stevie Wonder song, and Evan replied, “Overjoyed.” Pharrell then asked if he would sing a few bars from the song, a request that hasn’t really been made before on the show. Evan didn’t blink. As soon as the music started he began singing. When he finished, Gwen walked up to the stage to show him that his performance had brought a tear to her eye.
“Evan will try anything and that is what is so special about him,” Laughlin says. “He’s never lacked for confidence. He’s fearless. He has a special talent and presence on stage.”
Evan and his two sisters, Shannon Pierce (his twin) and 26-year-old Ashlyn Bolton, were homeschooled through high school. “That taught me to nurture my creativity,” he says. “I found out that a lot of what you want to learn, you can learn through self study.”
Rick McKeel, Evan’s father, recalls a time when Evan was young and asked his dad to teach him how to play a song on the guitar. Evan now plays bass guitar, guitar, and piano. “I wanted to teach him the chords and make sure he had them down. He wanted to play a song,” Rick says, adding that Evan lost interest in the guitar for a while. One day a few years later, “he comes into the den with a guitar and asked if I could teach him how to play a song by the Christian rock band Needtobreathe. I taught him like five chords and that song. The rest he took and ran with it. He hasn’t put the guitar down since.”
Growing up, Evan was a cheerful child. “He was always happy, curious, friendly, and hilarious,” says his mom, Christy. “He could always defuse me, which probably got him out of a lot of trouble.”
Everyone was a friend in Evan’s mind. “I remember telling him you have to stay with mama cause there are bad people. He said ‘I don’t see any bad people,’” Christy says.
By the age of sixteen, Evan, a huge sports fan who played basketball and tennis, knew he wanted to treat his music as a business. He pursued opportunities to perform solo. He played at a variety of locations around Richmond that include the Manakin Farmers Market, Café Caturra, The Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe, and Sedona Taphouse. He performs for residents at Windsor Senior Living on Grove Avenue as well.
He also recently played in the band Visual Audio with friends, including Thomas Kelly.
“We played half a dozen local gigs around town,” says Kelly. “As a singer, Evan is very creative. He can pick out a harmony in a second. He has an ear for hearing notes in his head. He has lots of soul. He feels what he sings.”
Growing up, Evan and his twin, Shannon, were always teasing each other. “We had a lot of non-spoken teasing,” Shannon says. “We would look at each other in a certain way and laugh. It’s a twin thing, a secret language.”
She describes her brother as always being outgoing and rambunctious. “I was the shy twin,” she says. “I was always in his shadow, but it was fun to watch him.”
She wasn’t surprised that he wanted to pursue music as a career. “He’s always been doing this. He would come home from a concert and pick up songs he heard for the first time and that got my attention,” she says. “It was never a realization that he became this. He always was this.”
Jamal Jones realized Evan’s talent when Evan was a worship leader for the youth group at WEAG. The two have known each other since they were children. “I think God has given him something special,” he says.
Often when he and Evan hang out, Evan will come up with a spontaneous song about something that’s happening at the moment. “It’s one of the funniest things,” Jones says. “We were at church and we just made up a song about dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets after we had service and dinner.”
Even though he sang a rock song for his audition, Evan has always been interested in country music. “But I found other genres that fit my singing voice and writing style more closely.”
Growing up he was influenced by the music of Carole King, Fleetwood Mac, Boston, Michael McDonald, and The Doobie Brothers. “I see myself as a genre experimentalist. I like country, soul, Motown, and rock. I listen to hip-hop, folk and bluegrass,” he says. “When I was twelve or thirteen, I started listening to singer/songwriters like Gavin DeGraw, John Mayer, Kings of Leon, Switchfoot, and Mutemath.”
Singer/songwriter Beck was a huge influence, he adds. “Every album he’s made has been a different genre. A lot of great artists have done that.”
Watching American Idol was a family affair at the McKeel household and Evan did consider auditioning for the show and would have done it if the opportunity came up. But it never did. The Voice approached him in March 2014 after finding his videos online and checking out his work. He went to Washington, D.C., for a private audition for Season 8. “The date coincided with my sister’s wedding, so I pulled back,” he says. “They called me again this year, and with both sisters married, I was safe to do the blind audition.”
His sister Shannon believes he made the right decision in going with The Voice. “The dynamics on the show suit him,” she says.
Being on The Voice: Season 9 is an “adventure” for the entire family, his mom says. “He’s so determined,” she says of Evan. “When he puts his mind to something, he pursues it with every fiber of his being. No matter the outcome, he is going to give this his all.”
The couple anxiously watched backstage with Christy’s sister, Connie Ballard, and her husband Jan Berger, as Evan made his choice of coaches. “I went into it thinking Blake’s team. I love his personality and he gives creative leeway,” Evan says. But then he heard Gwen and Pharrell talking about their interest in helping him shape his music. “They showed me they were serious about what I did and why I was there,” he says.
After Gwen approached him on stage, he had decided he was going to pick Gwen. “That was the pause I had, and then they went to a commercial break,” he says. “I thought about it, and Pharrell gets me so well. He knows the type of artist I want to be. I think we are cut from the same mold. I couldn’t say no to him. I don’t regret my choice. You have to go where you think you can maximize your time.”
Evan understands the pressure that he’s under at the moment and finds comfort in his faith. “This whole process is a lot to go through as a person,” he says. “It can be so much, but it’s manageable and peaceful because I have the Holy Spirit with me at all times. I lay it at his feet and know he’s taking care of it for me.”
Evan and Pharrell team member Riley Biederer sang Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” in the battle segment of the show. Though Evan was chosen to advance to the next round, he was visibly disappointed for his friend, Riley, who a minute later was scooped up by Gwen. Meeting new people, performing for millions, and everything else about the experience has been extremely valuable. Evan’s enjoying every moment.
He knows how important the show is when it comes to getting into the music industry. “It’s a platform,” he says, noting that Pharrell (who is also a Virginia native) referred to it as a diving board in the swimming pool that is the music industry. “You are getting your jump. I want the music industry to see what I can do as an artist. I want to go as far as I can and soak up the relationships. I’ve made great relationships with contestants and the staff on the show,” says Evan. “I don’t want to miss the wonderful things in the moment. I want to soak it all up.”
photos: Paul Drinkwater/NBC, Shannon Pierce
Glorious Christmas Nights Inspires Families Every Year
Don’t be surprised if you see a live camel, a horse, or even flying angels inside the sanctuary at West End Assembly of God during the holidays. After all, it is the season for the church’s annual Glorious Christmas Nights production. The Broadway-style musical has been a fixture at the church for thirty years.
“It was one of two major productions [the largest was at Easter] we did every year,” said Bob Laughlin, the church’s pastor of music and fine arts ministry who initiated the productions when he came to WEAG. “Glorious Christmas Nights overtook our Easter production as far as its reach out into the community. It got bigger and bigger over the years.”
Each original production uses approximately 800 volunteers, everyone from ushers to performers, like Evan McKeel – Richmond’s current standout on NBC’s The Voice. The creative team that develops the story includes writers and musicians; Kathy Craddock writes the scripts and Ron Klipt crafts the musical score for each.
This year’s show, Sincerely Yours, has Santa Claus depressed because his letters have been confiscated. The only ones he has are from self-absorbed kids who have forgotten the real meaning of Christmas. “It all focuses on the purpose and meaning of Christmas through Christ in Bethlehem,” Laughlin said. “It’s a really fun, creative, high-energy show.”
The show runs from December 2 through 13, 2015. Tickets are available at weag.org/gcn.