Photos by Will Marks
You might remember James Wolpert as the fresh-faced singer on Season 5 of The Voice, who looked like Buddy Holly and who floored the judges with his rendition of “Love Interruption.” You might remember how the talented Strasburg native competed on Adam Levine’s team and placed in the top five after several unforgettable performances. Yes, you might remember James Wolpert… but, you probably wouldn’t recognize him.
Sitting across from me in the Chestnut Hill Café, Wolpert looks more like a character out of a Springsteen song than a pop idol. He is sporting a scruffy beard and the layer of sweat and dust that one earns through outdoor labor. “Every musician’s gotta have a side hustle,” he remarks, explaining that he’d spent the morning working with his dad at a construction site. After all, he didn’t walk away from The Voice with a record deal, an agent, or much of anything beyond the experience and 15 minutes of fame.
“I was hoping The Voice would be a springboard,” he tells me, “so that I could pull myself up to a place where I could make music. Things are rarely what you expect, though.” There is no bitterness in his words, just candid reflection. “The show was big, and overwhelming, and fast. It was a giant machine and I felt like a tin little hat that it was wearing.”
Reality shows like The Voice promise a shortcut to stardom, to success, but the actual reality is that most contestants are left behind when the show is over. A few of Wolpert’s fellow runner-ups found agents or deals after the show, but they were short-lived and short of the recognition he feels they deserved. Performing on The Voice doesn’t really teach them how to flourish in the music industry.
“I think what I was trying to find was what it meant to work in a community of musicians to make and produce music,” says Wolpert, “and what I got was how to make and produce a TV show about music. And that’s okay. It is a great show, and I’m glad I did it.”
A New Record
After his TV appearance, James moved to Nashville with a strengthened resolve to pursue his music career. The Voice may not have supplied him with industry resources, but it gave him a foot in the door, so to speak. That, combined with his DIY attitude, created a wealth of opportunities to pursue. With a Top 10 iTunes single (his Voice cover of “A Case of You”) already under his belt, recording an album seemed like the logical next step.
Wolpert turned to Kickstarter to fund the project, counting on the fans who made him a finalist to help make the album happen, and whetting their appetites with a three-song EP called Forfeiture, Portraiture. Together, they raised over $25,000 in support, enough to finish the record which was already well underway. His band (once known as Daphne Kay) collaborated with Grammy-winner Vance Powell— known for his work with Jack White, Jars of Clay, and Chris Stapleton—who engineered the album.
“I got to work with some fantastic, unbelievable musicians, in unbelievable spaces, with unbelievable gear, just surrounded by people I’m in absolute awe of,” Wolpert says of the process.
The Kickstarter was a success, the studio sessions were a blast, and everything seemed to be coming along beautifully (if somewhat delayed), a Kickstarter inevitability, however behind the scenes Wolpert was trying to wear too many hats. “I kind of fumbled around making an outrageous number of mistakes and enduring a number of failures,” he tells me. By trying to fill the roles of musician, producer, promoter, and more, he’d spread himself thin, and without the experience of releasing an album before, he had to learn a lot along the way. The Entire City quietly debuted in January 2015, and while fans and backers rejoiced in it, Wolpert is the first to admit that he didn’t know how to market it, so it only reached a limited audience. Those who seek it out are in for a treat, though; The Entire City is a raw tightrope walk between rock and blues, sometimes reminiscent of The White Stripes, sometimes of Led Zeppelin, and an excellent showcase for Wolpert’s songwriting skills.
These days, Wolpert has temporarily stepped back from recording and touring his own songs to broaden his focus, to study the industry, and to empower other musicians in any way he can. He started a design firm and ran it for a time, and is currently collaborating on a music publication collective called Noise Dive with a small team led by Ben Roth. They’re working out of a small studio/music space called The Kaleidoscope, which has been an invaluable resource to local bands in Lancaster. Wolpert is thrilled to be able to encourage and equip artists who share his passion for music.
“I’ll be making music forever and ever and ever,” he says. “Music is the single most important thing in the universe.”