Water to Wine
Nakia finds his 'Voice'
Even in a massive crowd, Nakia stands out.
Dressed in a white button-down shirt and a royal-blue tie with matching Converse sneakers and Ray-Bans, the local singer strolls through the parking lot at Reliant Stadium in Houston with gregarious swagger. A flurry of cell phone cameras and shrieking fans follow his every move, as does a camera crew from a local news station.
In progress this mid-August morning is open casting for season two of The Voice, NBC's massively successful reality competition, hosted by Carson Daly and starring a coaching staff that includes Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine of Maroon 5. An estimated 4,000 hopefuls camped out in Houston alone for the chance to stretch a single verse and chorus into a one-way ticket to Hollywood.
Here, Nakia counts as a bona fide celebrity, the anti-American Idol: an openly gay DIY belter with a slight lisp. After years of toiling in Austin's clubs, the 36-year-old's performances helped bolster The Voice's prime-time ratings. His staggering directness and undeniable masculinity transcended sexual politics and television stereotypes.
The Austin pianist was championed by celebrity judge Cee Lo Green all the way to the semifinals, landing a coveted spot on the show's six-city national tour, which concluded last month at New York's Beacon Theatre. In the process, he earned critical praise from Rolling Stone and CNN, made promotional appearances on Access Hollywood and Today, and notched two singles on iTunes' Top 100 chart. But in Houston, success gets measured by a different yardstick.
"I wanted to meet these kids in line and help calm nerves, but then I started sitting in on the [auditions]," grimaces Nakia two days after the event. "It was painful to see so many of them turned away so quickly. I felt like I needed to warn them, 'This probably isn't going to be it for you.'
"That's tough love, but it's important to hear they're probably going to say no."
Nakia doesn't just wear his heart on his sleeve; it's tattooed on his arm. Outlining the symbol in black ink are lyrics from "The Biblical Sense of the Word" by Austin's Quiet Company: "We make our lives worth living when we love each other."
Easy to rally behind and eager to please, Nakia is a classic underdog, but that image offers a permanent reminder of vulnerability just beneath the surface. He puts so much out there in hopes of getting a fraction of it back.
"I had just got to a point in my life where nothing really seemed to work," he solemnly confessed in a SIMS Foundation public service video last year. "At that point, I decided that I didn't think it was going to be worth it anymore. So I took a razor blade, and I cut my wrist."
After the incident, June 2000, Nakia was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but that revelation didn't ameliorate his painful past. Born Nakia Reynoso, he spent his adolescence in a small Bible Belt town in the Appalachian foothills of Alabama grappling with his identity.
"One week I was a satanist because I wore a King Diamond shirt," recalls Nakia with a tinge of detachment, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. "The next week I was a faggot for admitting I loved one of my best friends.
"Then I was a wetback because my father's Mexican."
He sang in his mother's Southern Baptist church, but the theatricality of hair metal – Kiss, Warrant, Poison – and the romanticism of 1980s Brit-pop held greater sway, along with the regional legacy of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the 1970s headquarters for rhythm and soul and home to iconic recordings of everyone from Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Russell Gulley, bassist for Muscle Shoals recording act Jackson Highway, served as an early mentor.
Nakia slowly worked his way up in the industry, handling tour promotions for John Mayer's first tour through Birmingham, interning for producer Brendan O'Brien's Sony imprint 57 Records in Atlanta, and landing in marketing for Aware Records in Chicago. The struggling songwriter arrived in Austin for South by Southwest 2002, when he met his chat room associate and now-longtime partner, Rob Rankin.
"He picked me up in his Volkswagen on the corner of South Congress and Elizabeth Avenue," recounts Nakia, "and as he likes to say, he never dropped me off. It was love at first sight."
Having briefly studied musical theatre at Northeast Alabama Community College, he landed a role as Eddie in Zach Scott Theatre's production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and starred in Miles Zuniga's cabaret act, the Small Stars, as Vic Odin, a keyboard-thumping, old-school manager modeled after Peter Grant of Led Zeppelin fame.
"He played the role to the hilt," reports Fastball's Zuniga. "He never broke character. He'd show up at load-in in character and stay that way all night, collecting our money and speaking in a pretty convincing British accent. It was hilarious and surreal.
"I started to like Vic more than Nakia. That's how thoroughly he inhabited the role."
Soon Nakia was leading the Southern Cousins, a soul revue steeped in Muscle Shoals' swampy gospel blues, equal parts Bob Seger's "Night Moves" and the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar." As the title track to his 2009 full-length Water to Wine picked up momentum on local radio, Nakia invested in the local scene, serving as an advisory panel member for SIMS, blogging for the Chronicle's "The Gay Place," and founding the Austin Texas Musicians page on Facebook. Most notably, Alejandro Escovedo's Street Songs of Love featured his backing vocals, best heard on bonus track "Man From Japan."
Otherwise, his success never reached beyond city limits. At the close of the Street Songs sessions, Nakia found himself without a band and without his father, who passed away in 2009. He appeared at Lollapalooza last summer – not as a featured performer, but as a guest of MasterChef Graham Elliot, peddling truffle popcorn. He sighs.
"I had come to terms with the fact that I might spend the majority of my career just being a fixture in Austin."
Thirty-four seconds. That's precisely how long it took Cee Lo Green to swivel around in his chair during the opening, blind audition round of The Voice. Nakia's bluesy rendition of the Lady Killer's ubiquitous "Forget You" was as much a homage as it was a challenge, carried on the strength of his gruff baritone, river-deep and mountain-rough.
"I knew I needed that intro, just four bars, to get ears-perk recognition," reasons Nakia, who provided the aforementioned 34-second count. "I wanted a song that would get people moving. If you watch the clip, it's almost instantaneously that they're up on their feet. Even if no one turned around, it would've made for good television."
The strategy worked, as both Cee Lo and fellow panelist Blake Shelton vied for the right to mentor Nakia in front of nearly 12 million viewers. The resulting banter was used extensively in the promotional campaign leading up to the season premiere and helped jump-start Nakia's traction on Twitter, where his followers swelled from roughly 1,200 to 25,380 at last count, with shout-outs from William Shatner, Sir Elton John, and Rachael Ray.
Cee Lo endorsed Nakia as the extension of his "good taste," the two sharing a physical stature, style, and charismatic quirk ripe for YouTube. The Gnarls Barkley frontman pushed Nakia out of his comfort zone with the smooth R&B of Ne-Yo's "Closer," performed in the battle round as a duet with another local contestant, Tje Austin, followed by the Kings of Leon blockbuster "Sex on Fire" at the start of the live rounds. The latter performance proved a transformative made-for-TV moment.
Dressed in a custom suit and with slicked-back hair, Nakia took the stage in feverish attack mode – on the prowl, then down on his knees – staring at times directly into the camera as fire twirlers danced in the background. In less than two minutes, he seduced the audience with more youth and young Manhood than Caleb Followill could muster with a handle of scotch.
"He pointed at me and said, 'Your sex is on fire,'" reacted Shelton moments later, "and I felt the burn. I felt it. That is power."
"You did everything perfect," furthered Cee Lo. "Your attitude, your timing – it was impeccable, man. What an impressive job. Thank you so much."
Despite endorsement by his famed coach, Nakia was voted out in the semifinals two episodes later. There were other memorable moments – a group medley of George Michael's "Freedom" and a commanding revision of Adam Lambert's "Whataya Want From Me" – but by that point Nakia had already achieved a far more personal victory: not only the courageous determination to step into the spotlight but also an awareness that he'd earned it.
"What was really quite beautiful was to see him open up and be the performer that he's always wanted to be," offers Alejandro Escovedo. "When you have someone like Cee Lo coaching you and championing your talent, it gives you a lot of confidence to be on the stage, to expose that side of your personality. There was never anything he did where there was any second-guessing."
Nakia's initial break on The Voice didn't occur on network television. It happened last Christmas Eve at the Saxon Pub, with his new band, the Blues Grifters – guitarist Mac McNabb, bassist Chris Johnson, and drummer Kevin Lance – belting out a wrenching version of Otis Rush's "Double Trouble." A video clip of the performance first caught the attention of a casting agent and then producer Mark Burnett, leading to a private audition for The Voice.
"I can't stress this enough: The people of Austin – those that supported and believed in me long before the world knew who I was – created the artist you saw on The Voice," reflects Nakia at a Starbucks in North Austin during the last of three interviews. "Putting in time at countless benefits and in other people's bands, it taught me how to handle myself in a professional manner, how to perform in a studio, and to know what I wanted from an arrangement."
Nakia returned home from The Voice a bluesman reborn, an effect evident at recent outings for KGSR's Blues on the Green and Austin Bat Fest. Aside from a new album of blues covers with the Grifters, Nakia recently completed a songwriting session with Fitz & the Tantrums producer Chris Seefried and another with Motown hitmaker Lamont Dozier. He also keeps finding new ways to connect with his audience, personally responding to every mention on Twitter, posting direct messages through SoundCloud's Audio Tweets, and, most recently, hosting a Ustream video of his band rehearsals.
His tenure on The Voice isn't over either. He'll be featured in an hourlong special about the original final eight contestants that will air in the lead-up to the premiere of season two, and there's talk of a possible collaboration with Cee Lo Green, both in the studio and onstage at Austin City Limits Music Festival next week.
"Now more than ever, it's up to me to prove that I was worthy enough to be there, that I can do something even bigger now," concludes Nakia. "What I can offer them that other artists can't is an intimate glimpse into my process, my personal life. We showed the world that you don't have to look the part.
"You just have to have the voice."
Nakia's Blues Grifters hold down the 11pm slot at the Saxon Pub every Monday through the end of October. See the Chronicle's Music blog, Earache!, for Nakia's "Tour Journal."