It may seem like Matt McAndrew, the young singer/songwriter from Philadelphia, has vaulted to overnight stardom on NBC's The Voice. But in fact, it has been an arduous 13-month campaign, most of it conducted surreptitiously.
TV's top singing competition asks the contestants not to reveal they are on the show until the season starts. That meant McAndrew, 24, was traveling so frequently to Los Angeles for tapings that he had to quit his day jobs: on the crew at Trader Joe's on Market Street and as an instructor at Bach to Rock, the music school in Wayne.
He just couldn't tell anyone why.
"It's so exciting. I'm hanging out with Adam Levine and Stevie Nicks and I can't talk about it," McAndrew says. "I really got a little depressed and more antisocial than I really am. I was avoiding people so they couldn't ask me what I'm doing."
Once viewers got a load of Matt's blind audition on The Voice, singing Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years," everything changed and he became an early favorite in the finals.
"Christina tweeted me after the show," McAndrew says. "She's from Philly. That was really thrilling."
Don't think TV exposure helps? This is a guy who had been gigging around town for a few years to scant crowds at venues like the Tin Angel, Dobbs, and Dawson Street Pub.
When he came back last month for a showcase at World Cafe Live, the joint was packed. "I had played the World Cafe before that and only sold two tickets," he says. "And I worked really hard to sell those two."
Matt's singing talent is also a secret he kept from the world for a long time.
"He started playing the guitar when he was about 12 and we were shocked at how good he was because he didn't have any training," says McAndrew's mother, Brenda, who raised him in Barnegat Light, N.J., on Long Beach Island. "But we had no idea he could sing. We never heard him."
It was only when he performed at Southern Regional High School's holiday show in Manahawkin, belting out a couple of seasonal spoof songs he had written, that people realized the kid had pipes.
His gifts fully emerged once he enrolled at the University of the Arts on South Broad Street.
Kevin Hanson, a founding member of the Philly band Huffamoose (which is putting on a reunion concert at Ardmore Music Hall on Sunday), declares that McAndrew "blew me away" when he signed up for guitar lessons at the university.
"I was giving him assignments to write a song a week and he'd come back with one or two each time that were really great," Hanson says. "He's a genuine guy, really funny and incredibly smart."
Pressed by a friend to audition for The Voice, McAndrew went into the experience with carefully managed expectations.
"I had just turned 23 and in my mind I was over the hill," he says. "What I really wanted was to make the first round of callbacks in Los Angeles. I just wanted to go to L.A. for free for a week."
The final 12 contestants will be winnowed down to a winner over five weeks (beginning last night); finale is Dec. 14 and 15.
Needless to say, it's a little more glamorous than the life of a struggling musician in Philadelphia.
"I was working six days a week and in between gigging," he says. "I'd be out, playing around town, trying to keep the dream alive. I'd get home at 2 a.m. and then go to work at Trader Joe's at 5 a.m."
Presumably, it prepared McAndrew for The Voice's schedule, which becomes more of a grind as the field narrows.
"Get a new song, learn it, record that song for iTunes, do staging, choreography, wardrobe, vocal lessons, press commitments," he inventories. "The process that had been taking a month is compressed to four days. And now as we go along, you can be doing two or three songs a week."
Fortunately, when it comes to pressure, he's Matty Ice. "I don't get nervous anymore," he says. "Maybe I'm too logical. If I get nervous, it won't help me, so I refuse to."
With the goal line in sight, McAndrew does seem remarkably relaxed. And focused.
"The first tattoo I got," says the abundantly inked singer, "was an empty square on my wrist. I swore if I ever got signed to a record label I would put a check mark in it. That's why I'm out here. It's still empty."
8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on NBC10EndText