Justin Hopkins, the Redondo Beach resident now competing for a recording contract on The Voice, says there is a major difference between the NBC reality show that airs Mondays at 8 p.m. and Fox’s American Idol.
"Idol is looking to find new singing talent," Hopkins, 31, said. "The Voice is about finding established artists … giving them a platform. Most people on the show have had proven professional success."
With his reddish beard, spiked hair and bawdy laugh, Hopkins, who sizzles with stage presence, is a perfect example of the latter.
Performing professionally since his undergraduate days at the University of Oregon, he is an all-around musician who not only sings bluesy rock and writes his own songs, he also plays piano, bass, drums and a wicked guitar.
One of 48 contestants currently on The Voice, Hopkins has reached the battle rounds as a member of Team Cee Lo (Green). The four judges, including pop star Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5's Adam Levine and country-western star Blake Shelton, are each responsible for advising and nurturing 12 singers until the field is narrowed down to a single winner.
Guest mentors—including Kelly Clarkson and Lionel Richie, among others—assist judges in furthering the talent.
In the battle rounds, which begin Monday night, each singer is paired with a teammate for a duet. Judges will decide which of the two moves on to the next phase—a live show in which the contestants go head to head and the television audience has a say in who stays.
When Hopkins, an Oregon native, moved to the South Bay in 2004, he brought with him two members of his band, Justin Hopkins and the Guilt. After picking up a third member, they spent the next eight years touring the U.S. and Europe, and playing clubs ranging from The Roxy to House of Blues.
Hopkins has released three albums, one of which, Here Goes Nothing (2007), produced a hit single in Sweden, and he has collaborated with the likes of Carol Bayer Sager and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, one of the guest mentors he'll work with on the show.
Ironically, Hopkins' lengthy resume also includes playing guitar in the house band for NBC's Last Call with Carson Daly from 2007-2008. Daly, who Hopkins called "an amazing cheerleader," is now the host of The Voice, now in its second season and one of the highest rated shows on television.
Over the last year or so, Hopkins has been tending to business as a relatively new husband and father, supporting his family with a day job in solar energy sales and performing locally at places like in Hermosa Beach, where we met for an interview one recent afternoon.
It was because of his absence from the broader music scene that The Voice talent scout Kevin Carvel, a man well-known in the music industry, tried to recruit Hopkins for the show.
The singer was reluctant. "I wasn't sure that I wanted to get my hopes up about getting back into music (full time)," said Hopkins, who had resigned himself to a lesser role in the business. "My love for music is so strong, it's best left unfed."
Given three months to think about it, he almost didn’t attend the first audition. "I didn't want to go through the rigors of a reality show," he said. "Then I got there, and the room was filled with some of the best talent in Los Angeles."
Thinking he might be passed over, he never told his friends. Several callbacks later, however, he was singing his heart out before the cameras.
Talent at a young age
It all started for Hopkins back in Oregon at age 5. "My first solo was the 'Littlest Xmas Tree in the Forest' and I wore a big cardboard tree," he said, his full-throated laugh filling the cafe.
He was playing piano by ear at 6 or 7, mainly jingles he heard on television. "Portland is full of furniture stores," said Hopkins, who lived in nearby Tigard, Ore., with his parents and younger sister, Kelsie. "I'd go home and play the local furniture store song."
Justin's mom, Jana Hopkins, an interior designer, saw to it her son got piano lessons.
He credits his father, Dave Hopkins, a real estate agent, for bequeathing him his musical genes. "My dad has a musical soul," Hopkins said. "He's always had so much responsibility in his life he's never been able to focus on music. But he’s very naturally gifted at playing the guitar."
Hopkins Sr., who chuckled over the phone when he heard the "musical soul" reference, said he and his wife were thrilled to see "Justin's lifelong dream come true."
Fresh from Oregon to watch the battle rounds, Dave Hopkins said his son has "always been completely about music since he was very young. Justin quickly learned to play the guitar, and we had some great sessions playing together and singing together, so that’s how it started."
Like his father, Hopkins, an avid golfer and surfer, was an athlete in school. "I preferred sports over music," he said. Still, he played music and his studies suffered. "I taught myself guitar after my parents took away my keyboard in high school because my grades were so bad."
A straight-A student until the seventh grade, he was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at age 14. A doctor told him, "You have the short-term memory of a goldfish," Hopkins said with the tumbling laugh and expansive gestures that contribute to what Dave Hopkins calls his son's "It Factor."
But it wasn't until his second year at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego that Hopkins came to his own conclusion about his inability to focus on his studies.
"I knew that it was the creative side of me overpowering the logical, mathematical side," he said. Just as he had abandoned drugs like Ritalin that were supposed to suppress his ADHD, Hopkins knew he was unable "to thrive" in his current academic environment.
"So I transferred up to the University of Oregon, where I met a lot of friends I’d grown up with," he said. "And that’s where I really flourished as a musician."
Moving south, Hopkins intended to spread his musical wings with Justin Hopkins and the Guilt. But with the band members all in their early 20s and "hell bent on having a good time," they experienced limited success, he said. "Partly it was because we had things we just didn't capitalize on."
A string of bad luck didn’t help, such as when a single that reached No. 12 on the charts in Sweden took months to reach iTunes "due to some logistical things within the label."
"The music industry is what it is, and it takes a lot of components to be successful," Hopkins said. "It's a lot like running your own business, and you relinquish some of your control to other (people), as far as distribution of your records and certain other things."
At what he calls "a high point" in his career, Hopkins was about to leave to perform at series of music festivals in Germany when he met his sister's roommate, Kristin Walker, a Ford model and actress (Entourage, Middle Men).
"I thought, 'Wow! Who is this woman?' She is so headstrong, absolutely irreverent and at the same time perfectly eloquent," he said. "She's everything I loved about myself and what I wanted in somebody else."
They married after a year, and Nicollet "Nico" Paige Hopkins, now 2 1/2 years old was the result. Nico’s middle name, Paige, comes from Kristin's sister who has cerebral palsy and is a paraplegic—a woman Hopkins calls "awesome … an inspiration."
When it came to caring for his family, Hopkins didn't want to subject them to the highs and lows he had dealt with for years in the music industry. "I wanted to give them a sure thing, promise there would be food on the table and a roof over their heads," he explained.
He took the solar sales job and stopped touring.
And then The Voice called.
'You have to pinch yourself over and over'
Auditions lasted a month and a half, further winnowing down the 50,000 or so that had begun the process nationwide.
The celebrity judges don't appear on the scene until the blind auditions, Hopkins said. Seated in revolving chairs, their backs to the talent, the four hear the contestants perform but don't see them.
If a coach likes an artist's voice, he/she pushes a button to select the individual for his/her team; the chair swivels, and the artist is seen for the first time.
Hopkins, who had endured a root canal with scant anesthetic the day before the blinds ("To avoid swelling," he said), sang "Babylon," a jazzy, soulful version of a David Gray song. "I wanted to do it [solo] with a grand piano. But I was concerned about not utilizing that amazing band."
He knew many of the musicians, including Justin Derrico. "Justin played guitar on my first album," said Hopkins, who, in an effort to save money at the time, paid Derrico with $400's worth of gift cards he'd received for Christmas. "Now he's making $20,000, $30,000 playing for Pink."
In a blog posted on the show's website, Hopkins called the moment he was chosen by Cee Lo, one of his idols, one of the high points in his life.
"I really didn't see anyone turning around, not until I was completely done," he wrote. "One of those moments in your life you have to pinch yourself over and over. I would liken it to marrying my wife, my daughter being born."
Hip-hop star/producer Cee Lo Green, the judge Hopkins most wanted to work with, had turned his chair around. "I would have enjoyed Blake's Twitter support, Adam's modern approach, Christina’s powerhouse (vocalizing), but there is nobody on that panel with more experience then the LO," Hopkins said.
He basked in Green's words: "You actually have a very unique voice. I want to help polish and refine what it is that you have naturally."
During the Blind Audition phase, the contestants were housed in suites at the Century Plaza Hotel, which also welcomed family and friends. The Voice not only "strives to make you a better artist, (it) makes you feel like an artist," Hopkins said. "They treat us amazingly well."
Hopkins described the judges as "all very close. When you sit down with them you can feel it. On TV it looks a little contrived because of editing."
Still, despite the "amazing rapport amongst all of them, they get really catty (with each other) at times," he said. "Some moments (are) just downright serious."
Hopkins' following on The Voice has grown, most of it measured in tweets. After "an initial blast," he said, it snowballed "slowly, which is comparable to my career. It's always been very organic and word of mouth."
As far as his goals for the show: "I want to let the light in on my career," said Hopkins, who has already been contacted by an outside music producer to make a video of one of his songs. "I live a very surf culture life. We live by the beach. I’m a positive person. My goal is to write music and songs that encourage people."
Watch The Voice on Mondays at 8 p.m. on NBC.