The unbreakable Lindsey Pavao
How the reality TV star survived The Voice, angry fans and her own demons to forge a new path
Lindsey Pavao crumbled onto a couch in a Los Angeles hotel hobby. She was wearing a giant, off-white, marshmallow-like princess dress. And she stayed there, in that dress, sipping Manhattans, for three hours, thinking.
It was the night of May 1, 2012, and Pavao had just been kicked off NBC’s singing competition show The Voice, then the No. 1 show in America.
Under the bright lights on that huge stage, the Sacramento resident sobbed and thanked The Voice for making her dreams come true. She says it felt like getting fired on national television—more than sadness or regret, she felt panic.
As soon as Pavao stepped off camera, she was escorted into a trailer with a psychiatrist to make sure she could handle real life again. As a parting gift, the wardrobe staff gave her the over-the-top, Björk-style dress she was supposed to wear for the finale the next week. She now calls it her “loser dress.”
Still, Pavao had made it far, narrowly losing in the semifinals. For much of the season, fans downloaded her songs on iTunes more than any other contestant. She sang privately for Lionel Richie and, another week, on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Her national fan base grew from nothing to enormous.
Since then, she’s tried to relate meaning from the experience and all of its fallout. She struggled with depression, online harassment and the task of putting out a long-promised album to an impatient following. It’s taken nearly four years, but now she’s ready to come out of hiding with a debut record from her new duo, Trophii. Will it find an audience?
“It’s very alternative and it’s going to turn a lot of people off,” Pavao says. “I had to let go of that idea of creating an accessible record for people who liked me on The Voice. The truth is, people who watch The Voice might not like this record. And that’s cool.”Competition, fame and other conflicts and dramas
On February 6, 2012, 17.7 million people met Pavao.
The Sacramento resident’s audition on season two of The Voice won raves from both the celebrity judges on the show and music critics at home. Entertainment Weekly magazine immediately picked her out as a favorite to win the whole show. They praised her creative song choice—an indie transformation of Trey Songz’s “Say Aah”—and her half-shaved head.
Pop icon Christina Aguilera spun her chair around in approval after just 30 seconds, soon followed by soul singer CeeLo Green and country star Blake Shelton. They all wanted to coach her.
“I enjoyed every second of that,” Aguilera said on the show. “You have such a unique quality and tone to your voice.”
Cue screaming and applause.
Despite Pavao’s poised appearance and surging popularity, she didn’t feel like she belonged on the show. For most of her life, she felt lost and conflicted.
Pavao grew up in Manteca, Calif., a small orchard town. Her parents—a painter and a musician—raised her with art, and she gravitated toward music early on. At age 11, she picked up the violin, later ditching it for guitar, singing and songwriting.
Her mother, Deborah Pavao, describes her as a creative, bright and imaginative child, but still quite shy and quiet.
“I would have never imagined she’d want to play music for audiences,” Deborah says, remembering Lindsey’s early cafe gigs.
Of course, The Voice would come as a much greater shock than Pavao’s first coffee shop open-mic.
Pavao went to UC Davis in 2007 and dabbled in theater and improv comedy while working toward her psychology degree. But the experience wasn’t adding up, tuition costs were high and she felt directionless. Did she even want to go to college, or did she do it because that was the expectation?
After two years, she transferred to Sacramento State and got a bartending gig at Pinky’s Bar & Grill. Her boss there, overhearing Pavao singing to herself, convinced her to audition for this new reality television show—Pavao had never heard of The Voice, but she went to the open casting call in San Francisco in August 2011.
“I remember going there specifically with the goal of getting rejected,” Pavao says. “I kept going through the audition process, and no one said no, and that was a hard thing for me to understand.”
That day in San Francisco, she waited for seven hours to sing for The Voice’s casting director. Her rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” impressed, and soon, Los Angeles was calling. With just five classes left until graduation, Pavao dropped out of school and went to Hollywood. It’s still a strange thing for her to think back on, like a hypersurreal, blurry vision of adult summer camp.
“It was indescribable culture shock,” she says. “I didn’t know what was going on and I refused to acknowledge what was happening.”
Her challenges stemmed from longstanding self-esteem and identity issues. She couldn’t wrap her head around the competition and the fame that came with it. The idea of self-promotion seemed foreign and bizarre, though in retrospect, necessary to win. And behind the scenes, there was constant conflict and drama.
One week, Pavao sang Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Smoke inched across the floor of the stage while four dancers, wearing creepy masks and top hats, wiggled behind her. She was so excited to cover one of her favorite songs, and to arrange it with a dark, trip-hop vibe.
Judge Adam Levine wasn’t a huge fan, however, and criticized Pavao’s performance, saying he wanted to hear “more strength.” She immediately went from looking proud and ecstatic to dazed and deflated. Praise from Aguilera didn’t help.
“Honestly, I was like, ’Where can I buy her album right now?’ I could listen to you all day,” Aguilera said. “You stand alone in a category all of your own.”
As host Carson Daly went on to explain how the public could vote for Pavao, the camera remained fixated on her frowning face. That made a producer very angry. According to Pavao, he told her, “You’ll look grateful. You’ll look in the camera and you’ll fucking smile. You don’t have to be here.” It marked a turning point.
“It was like, my introvertedness, my eccentricities, my sensitivity is not welcome here,” Pavao says. “They wanted to exploit extreme joy when you win and extreme sadness when you’re down.”
She wasn’t alone in finding the climate difficult. Fellow contestant Lee Koch agrees that the structure of The Voice caused plenty of stress.
“They kind of hold you hostage,” he says. “The anxiety builds up—not because we’re dying to win the show. We want to carry on with our lives and we’re functioning in this weird, in-between space.”
Pavao was stuck in that zone for a year, but she eventually found her footing in Sacramento. She went on tour, found a day job and launched a Kickstarter campaign to help put out her first album, all within a few short months. Her new fervent fan base responded: 578 people pledged $28,039 in August of 2012. Sounds like good news, but in Pavao’s words, that was “the beginning of Pandora’s box.”
She fell into a deep depression. For about a year-and-a-half, the record wasn’t coming together as she’d hoped.
“I was pulling my hair out,” she says. “Why can’t I finish this album? Why don’t these songs sound right?”
It didn’t help that she got recognized on the street all the time. “Hey, you’re the shaved-head girl,” someone would say. “Are you famous yet?” Pavao drowned in those passing comments.
By summer of 2013, she was so fed up that she scheduled a record-release show. She decided that, even if she wasn’t happy with the album, she should just do it and move on. The clock was ticking, fans were demanding progress. But then, at the last minute, she changed her mind again and decided to keep her songs to herself.
“The reason I now realized I couldn’t finish that album is that I was taking on everyone else’s expectations,” she says. “They’re small and they’re harmless and they’re well-meaning, but sometimes we isolate ourselves through these expectations people have of us.”
Pavao’s friend and local musician James Cavern, who also briefly appeared on a different season of The Voice, agrees the public’s perception of her—and thus, expectation—wasn’t exactly accurate. Part of that is because most contestants on The Voice have already been working on their music careers for years.
“She’s playing to a small crowd and, the next minute, to a million. That’s crazy,” Cavern says. “People assume she’s a seasoned vet and they forget she’s new.”
Her Kickstarter supporters certainly assumed as much. They expected a finished album within a year. Or two. Or three. But it’s still not here, and there are more than 150 comments on her crowdfunding page from people wanting results. A recent example from February: “You’re a piece of garbage. Thanks for nothing you fraud.”
These comments didn’t help Pavao’s creativity. Instead, she became a social media hermit, digitally afraid. She didn’t update her Facebook fan page—with more than 30,000 followers—for several months.
“It’s jarring. It’s like someone coming into your room and making a fool of you,” she says, pausing to laugh. “Generally people who get harassed on the internet have a bit more success than I do.”
Still, she understands why her fans are upset. She acknowledges that more than three years is a long time to wait for an album. But she also points out that she doesn’t have a producer, manager or publicist, and she works two day jobs, including one as a yoga teacher.
“Adele took three years,” she says. “And she’s got an army of probably 50 people behind her.”
And, contrary to what many Kickstarter supporters think, Pavao says she spent every cent from the crowdfunding campaign on her first album. But she needed to do it on her own timeline.
“My life hit a point where I was either going to fall apart giving a shit about everything, or I needed to not give a shit about anything,” she says. “I think that’s part of being an artist. You just have to be kind of an asshole.”‘I remember looking in the mirror and seeing a clown’
Even in broad daylight, Pavao’s Midtown apartment is dark, thanks to the tiniest of windows. The living room’s brown carpet is covered in pedals, amps, speakers and cat toys. Four dead sunflowers droop out of a vase on the bookshelf.
A large whiteboard commands the second bedroom—the studio—as the literal writing on the wall: notes on Trophii’s debut record, Vitamins and Flowers.
It’s February. Robert Cheek just agreed to mix the album and he’s now sitting on the couch, listening to a few rough tracks for the first time. Richie Smith, Pavao’s musical and life partner, brought him on—he’s worked on albums for Band of Horses, Tera Melos, Chelsea Wolfe and Life in 24 Frames.
“How’s ’Imiote’ sounding?” Pavao asks.
“Two-dimensional and dry,” Smith says. “A little shiny for my taste.”
Pavao hits play. There’s a groovy bass line, Pavao’s ethereal vocals and—this is still a rough mix—some crashing frequencies. Cheek’s eyes are closed in concentration, his foot tapping the floor. Pavao’s small gray cat Demetrius—she calls him her “demonic cat”—hops onto her lap and claws a chunk of her hair into his mouth. She does not resist his chewing.
“Awesome,” Cheek says, as Pavao pauses the track. “This is exciting.”
Trophii’s dream-pop sound is a bit reminiscent of Beach House, but more sonically challenging, with unusual time signatures, lots of textures, rich vocal harmonies and propulsive rhythm underneath it all. You won’t find familiar pop song structures or conventions.
“This record is like our unbridled, neurotic minds,” Pavao says. “We just went apeshit.”
Pavao and Smith first met online, sort of. In the summer of 2013, they both participated in one of Cavern’s big, briefly annual Radiohead tribute shows. They signed up for “Paranoid Android,” began chatting online about music and, a few paragraphs later, Pavao popped the question: Would Smith be interested in co-writing the record Pavao was struggling to finish?
“I was very instinctual about it,” she says. “We just instantly had some sort of weird energetic connection.”
It began as a purely musical relationship. Smith invited Pavao to join one of his bands, Life in 24 Frames. But they became completely consumed by their own writing on the side. Smith, also playing in bands for Cavern and Joe Kye, dropped everything in the fall of 2014. They realized these songs, originally intended to be for Pavao’s first solo album, needed to be for a duo. Trophii was born.
Vitamins and Flowers won’t be Smith’s first record, but it means more to him than anything else he’s written or produced.
“This is a bit more precious to me,” he says. “It’s very personal.”
Perhaps that’s why it’s taken so much time. That, and some technical difficulties. Pavao’s hard drive crashed in March, delaying the album’s release until, hopefully, sometime in May.
But will Pavao’s fans from The Voice like it? She doesn’t know. Maybe. Maybe some of them.
Knowing Smith’s ambitious songwriting, Cavern is a little concerned.
“If there’s a lot going on, that’s hard to sing over,” Cavern says. “At the end of the day, her fans want to hear her voice.”
Pavao doesn’t care about that anymore, though. Sure, she hopes her fans like her work, but now, she’s making the music that feels right. She says Smith helped her learn to be more headstrong and less apologetic—something she had difficulty with on The Voice. Wardrobe, for example, was always a battle.
Today, she’s wearing a chunky sweater, snowflake-patterned tights, flat boots and no makeup. On The Voice, she usually wore tiny, skin-tight dresses, high heels and makeup as thick as paint.
“I remember looking in the mirror and seeing a clown,” she says.
One time, she told the wardrobe staff that she wanted to wear pants for a change—and no high heels. They said yes, but only if they could cinch her waist in return.
“It was always this fight for femininity: as thin as we can get you, as flattering as we can make you look,” Pavao says. “It was hard to breathe with a big piece of plastic around my stomach.”
Not to mention sing.
“There’s a place for humility and politeness, but not when it comes to what you want artistically,” she says. “Being able to draw that line is important. I didn’t back then.”
Still, other people with The Voice didn’t see the meek girl Pavao describes.
To fellow competitor Koch, Pavao was one of few authentic people on a show full of over-the-top personalities.
“She always had well-thought-out stuff to say, but she was funny too,” he says. “Very cerebral.”
Perhaps no one got to know Pavao as well as Romeo Johnson, the anonymous vocal coach for the first four seasons of The Voice. He used to tour as a backup singer with Michael Jackson and has big-name clients like Lady Gaga and Queen Latifah. He says he coached more than 100 singers for The Voice, but Pavao easily sticks out as one of his favorites.
“She’s very sensitive and very passionate. In my opinion, you can’t be a really great artist unless you’re sensitive and passionate,” he says, pausing. “Sometimes, it was to her detriment.”
Pavao says she’d go to Johnson every week and cry, too overwhelmed by the spectacle of the show. Johnson saw that, but he also saw a singer so emotionally moved by music—and with such a beautiful voice—that he would become emotionally moved as well.
“Everyone just had so much respect for her within the competition,” he says, praising her hardworking, humble and relaxed nature. “She had so much balance.”
There is something calming about Pavao’s presence, which probably comes from her five-year-long yoga practice. She wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. and practices for 80 minutes.
Before yoga, Pavao says she didn’t have a way to properly deal with anxiety. She’d curl into a stress ball in isolation. Now, she applies yoga’s lessons to the rest of her life. Detachment is huge. So is acceptance. And self-love. She says she’s water and Smith is fire, and that’s why they make such a great team. Their artistic energies work, and thus, they’ve created something that finally works for her.
“I just needed to find music I believed in, that had nothing to do with anyone’s expectation, had nothing to do with success or popularity or appeal,” Pavao says. “I just had to do something that felt pure.”A loss and a new calling
It’s The Voice semifinals, and Pavao launches into a cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” But this performance immediately feels different than her others on the show. There aren’t any backup dancers or flashy, colored lights. It’s just Pavao, strumming a guitar, with a dozen of her closest family members and friends sitting cross-legged in front of her, as if The Voice’s enormous stage was an intimate cafe.
The camera zooms in. Her makeup looks softer; her hair less massaged into place. Her relatively comfy-looking purple dress flows down to her bare feet.
Her performance is powerful, with her breathy tone and delicate falsetto shining through the indie folk ballad. And after the last note, she smiles—a massive, genuine smile that’s not for the camera or a producer or anyone else. She nailed it and she knows it. Finally, after years of feeling lost and directionless, she feels like she’s found her calling. Because, remarkably, she didn’t feel that way before.
“It took me fucking being on TV, going through this whole process, just to be like, ’I like singing and I want to do this,’” she says, laughing.
The greater irony? Pavao got kicked off the show the next day.
Looking back, Pavao says she didn’t care about winning. The Voice served as validation, and now she’s found the path she wants to be on. With the release of Vitamins and Flowers, she’ll finally feel free from her Kickstarter obligation and the expectations of her fans. She’s ready to move on.
“The Voice is about a voice. If you did enjoy my voice and you wanna hear what I have to say, it’s not Katy Perry covers,” she says. “I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not distancing myself from it. But you won’t see a big The Voice emblem behind my head.
“I enjoy the incongruent image, that I’ve done that and I am this.”