He fell short on ‘The Voice’ in 2014. Is he now ready for prime time on ‘American Idol’?

Of his time on “The Voice” (in 2014) and “American Idol” (this year), Joe Kirk says: “They’re experiences that I’ll remember for rest of my life. If I win every award in the world, if I get a number one spot on Billboard one day, I’ll always be thankful for the time that I had on these shows.”
Of his time on “The Voice” (in 2014) and “American Idol” (this year), Joe Kirk says: “They’re experiences that I’ll remember for rest of my life. If I win every award in the world, if I get a number one spot on Billboard one day, I’ll always be thankful for the time that I had on these shows.” ABC

If you happen to see Joe Kirk’s face on “American Idol” this week and you don’t recognize him, that’s because ABC never aired his initial successful audition, or the moment when the celebrity judging panel told the 22-year-old Monroe native, “You’re going to Hollywood!”

Meanwhile, if you happen to see Kirk’s face during “Idol’s” Hollywood rounds on Sunday or Monday night and you do recognize him, but maybe can’t quite put a finger on how or why...

Well, let us ask you this: Did you watch Season 7 of “The Voice”?

In the fall of 2014, when he was just 17, Kirk had a brief but emotional stint on the NBC singing show: He could hardly contain his glee during his blind audition, which saw him perform Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House” while Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton and Pharrell Williams turned their chairs; later, when he was sent home by a clearly conflicted Levine after the teen’s battle-round performance, Kirk burst into tears.

“I’m not gonna stop,” he vowed at the time, and 4-1/2 years later, he’s hoping his second shot at reality TV is more successful than his first.

Again, “American Idol” did not include his audition in the first several episodes of the new season — and it remains to be seen whether he’ll get airtime when the Hollywood rounds are broadcast this week — but here’s what we learned about Joe Kirk during a recent phone interview.

1. There might be a perfectly good explanation for why we didn’t get to see his successful audition for judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan: It just doesn’t sound like it would have made very good television. And Bryan might be to blame for that. It all went down very undramatically last October in Louisville, Ky., about 175 miles north of where Kirk lives in Nashville, Tenn. Kirk says that after he sang Adele’s “Turning Tables,” Perry and Richie “were sold ... and ready to vote, but Luke was like, ‘Can I hear just 30 seconds of something else? I zoned out a little bit. I’m so sorry, it was not you, it was me. But I just need 30 more seconds of something.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.‘ Then I sang ‘Youngblood’ (by 5 Seconds of Summer). ... I got through about a verse and a pre-chorus of “Youngblood” and then they stopped me and they said, ‘I think we’re ready to vote.’ Luckily, I got three yeses and a golden ticket and ... that was the best feeling. I was like, ‘I get to showcase my talent once more in front of not only the world, but in front of people who are doing it for a living, who can tell me how I can make this work, and how I can make this happen.”

2. He comes from a musical family. In fact, if his family hadn’t been musically inclined, he might still be living in North Carolina. Kirk was 11 years old when he and his older brothers Stephen and Justin were uprooted from Monroe and relocated to Myrtle Beach, where their mother Stephanie had been hired to sing at a resort. Within less than a year, the family moved again, this time to chase Stephen and Justin’s dreams of being successful musicians in Nashville. And later, when Joe was a senior at Mount Juliet Christian Academy in Tennessee, it was his turn: Stephanie, Stephen and Justin followed along as he made his run on “The Voice.” (Joe Kirk also moved to L.A. for about six months in 2017, but has otherwise called Nashville home for about a decade now.)

3. He almost fainted before his audition on “The Voice.” “I got super-nervous. There were cameras on me, and I was right backstage and they were about to open the door, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna pass out!’ Then they opened the door and I walked through ... and every nerve stayed behind those doors. I was able to just put on that professional face and get up there and do what I do. And when Adam turned and when Gwen turned — when they all turned, really — it was one of those moments where it was like, ‘I did it. I did it. I can actually do this.’”

As for his elimination just a few weeks later? “If you look up ‘Joe Kirk’ (on the internet), the first picture that pulls up is me sobbing, with Adam right beside me,” he says, laughing. “I look at that and I’m like, ‘Goodness, Joe, could you not of just held it off until the cameras walked away?’ ... But seriously, although I lost that battle, I felt like I won a lot more than I lost because I got the work ethic out of it. Of course I wanted to win. I was planning to win. But I knew that on the off chance that I didn’t, the one thing I wanted was to be able to keep going, and not let it defeat me.”

4. It was a gradual build after “The Voice,” but 2018 was a breakout year for Kirk. “I took three or four years and put performing on the back burner for a bit, and really just honed in on focusing on figuring out what I loved to do creatively.” Then last spring, he went on a national tour with former Nickelodeon star-turned-pop star Drake Bell and his brothers’ duo, called Tryon; and last summer, he dropped a five-song EP that marked his first commercially available music release since “The Voice” put his rendition of “Lego House” on iTunes after his 2014 audition.

5. He and his brothers remain very close — they live five minutes away from each other and Joe calls Stephen “his biggest mentor, his biggest hero” — but officially they keep their acts separate. “I decided to do the solo thing, ‘cause I’m way too independent,” he says, chuckling. “But we share the passion for the same type of music, so it’s really easy to jump on stage with them and play a show. We play as much as possible together.” By the way, in case you were wondering: Yes, Stephen and Justin named their duo for one of Charlotte’s most well-known streets. In a 2016 interview with All Access, they said “much of who we are musically comes from our life experiences and Charlotte will always be a special part of who we are. ... We will always be two kids from Charlotte. There is no Tryon without Charlotte. As cliché as it sounds, Charlotte really taught us about life, love, and how to dream big. We grew up in an area that wasn’t, and still isn’t, a music city so studios and great music creators are few and far between. That forced us to learn to play and write for ourselves. By the time we moved to Nashville we had a sound that was unique to us.”

6. There are videos of Joe Kirk covering pop songs scattered throughout the internet and on his official Facebook page, and more often than not, they’re ballads that were originally sung by women. He explains: “Although I love a lot of male artists and I respect all of their music, Adele and Lady Gaga and all of their melodies ... their vocal choices challenge me. They challenge me to a point where I at some time don’t believe that I can achieve a great vocal on this cover. I don’t think I can do it. And so it’s more of I’m pushing myself with every single one of those covers. ... And I sing a lot of ballads because it’s a lot harder to portray that type of emotion. It’s a lot more in-depth, it’s a lot more experience-driven, and I want to be able to capture that. I feel like that is gonna be what is hardest to sing for me, and any negative feedback that I get helps me grow. So they’re very challenging, but like I said, I’m always trying to challenge myself and grow and get better.”

Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.