How James Wolpert found his voice: Strasburg singer talks past, upcoming concert and EP launch

This story was originally published on Feb. 11, 2014 on

James Wolpert at his home in Strasburg. JULIA HATMAKER |

James Wolpert has lived in the same house in Strasburg all his life.

From the outside, you can tell that is a house filled with stories, ghosts and memories of years long past. It is a touch rustic and still undergoing projects as staircases are added and walls are torn down. Despite that, it is filled with an aura of comfort and coziness.

It does not feel like a house – it’s a home.

It is a fitting home for Wolpert: a dreamer, a man still trying to find his own identity and his own path in the world. He is a charmer with an easy smile and a quick laugh. With his mismatched socks and a friendly handshake, you realize this TV star and singer will be a small town boy no matter where he goes.

After welcoming me inside, he took my coat, gave me a short tour and walked me through how to use iCalendar, which he had seen me struggle with before.

“Sorry, it’s the inner Apple employee” he apologized.

It has been a busy few months for the 23-year-old, whose calendar has only gotten fuller since he came in fifth on NBC’s “The Voice” in December.

“I’m obsessively working on stuff,” he said, gesturing to his makeshift workstation, a mess of wires and cords with a laptop and multiple speakers on a table by the front door. A microphone stands off to the side.

“I don’t get out much these days — there’s just too much to do! Too much on the docket.”

“I’m sure I’ll find time to do things that are recreational and not within this 50 foot vicinity of my house, but that’s not until after my show at least,” he said.

The show in question is actually two shows. Wolpert is performing at American Music Theatre on Feb. 15 and 16. The first show at the 1,600 capacity venue is already sold out, while the second is more than halfway there.

Wolpert will be performing some original songs as well as covers, all backed by a full band.

“I don’t want to reveal too much about it,” Wolpert said. “There’s nothing super huge happening, but I’d just like it to be a surprise.”

He did share that fellow “The Voice” contestant Cole Vosbury would be joining him on the stage, playing the guitar and singing along. “The Voice” contestants Caroline Pennell and Matt Schuler are going to be there for the Sunday show as well, but in the audience rather than on the stage.

As for the genre, Wolpert is going full-on pop rock.

“It’s going to be a rock show, so it’s going to be really high octane, but there’s going to be some intimate acoustic moments as well,” Wolpert said. “It’s going to be bombastic.”

“That’s my headline! ‘Bombastic James Wolpert,’” I exclaimed.

“Please don’t do that,” he laughed. “I don’t know where I pulled that out of my adjective grab bag.”

There was a momentary debate as to what exactly the word means.

“I think it means just spectacular and large,” he volunteered, turning to his laptop and announcing “I’m going to use this computer and fully understand the meaning of bombastic.”

“High-sounding with little meaning; inflated,” he read.

A beat passed.

“Wow,” he laughed. “I actually stole that adjective from Adam [Levine] on the show and I assumed he knew what it meant.

“The show’s not going to be bombastic,” he assured me with great eagerness. “It’s going to be big, but not bombastic.”

Also on that docket is his upcoming EP, which has decided to self-produce.

“It’s fun, I’m learning a lot,” he smiled. “I want to be literate in terms of sound engineering. I don’t want to move forward going into studios where I leave all of that up to the engineer — I’ve dabbled in that and it’s not been bad, but it hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to. I want to know how to exert creative control over what’s happening outside of the booth and I think that the best way to do it is to self-produce an album and stumble through it.”

The EP, titled “Forfeiture, Portraiture,” is slated to be released around the same time as his American Music Theatre show.

“Conceptively, it’s a self portrait,” he said. “It’s a sketch, a reading on where I am personally right now… it’s largely a critique on myself. It’s a very introspective album and I’m sure that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I like it.”

“I like to think it does something new that not many people are doing out there,” he went on. “Just in the way it sounds and the way it’s coming together: the instrumentation, the choices I make when I mix it down. I think it’s interesting. It interests me, at least.”

He admits, though, he will probably never be satisfied withe the EP. “I will obsess over this until it’s somewhat presentable, then I will release it and hopefully people will enjoy it.”

They will, hopefully, walk away with a better understanding of who, exactly, James Wolpert is.

“It is as true to life a self-portrait as it possible can be,” he said. “That’s an important part of music — that you have some personal investment in it. People like that stuff.”

People also, by and large, like Wolpert. In the corner of the room that he had designated his studio sat multiple poster boards filled with clippings documenting his time of “The Voice” dropped off at his home by fans.

He has no idea where some of it came from.

“There are a lot of things just kind of lying around here that are memorabilia from the show,” he said. “For example, there was a wreath on our door that said ‘Congratulations, James!’ and apparently somebody just came up to our door and hung it there and ran away.”

Also included in the mini “Voice” shrine: two cards from which Carson Daly read the names of the contestants who were saved and who was not.

But perhaps the strangest item displayed was a pack of diaper pins adorned with ducks. The pins are an inside joke amongst Lampeter-Strasburg High School drama students. During their senior year, they are each given a pin to wear during their final performance for good luck by L-S teacher Erik Welchans.

Wolpert actually wore a few pins himself while on “The Voice.”

“My mom sent me a few of them to give to other contestants,” he explained. “We were in the green room one day and [the pins] were lying on the table and Adam Levine came in. He was just to talking us, like ‘Hey guys, how you doing? Are you excited for the show?… Whose diaper pins are these?’ And I’m like, ‘They’re mine,’ and he was like ‘[pause] Dude, you wear diapers?’”

“I said sarcastically, ‘I totally wear diapers’ and he was like, ‘Really? You do?’ and I was like ‘I was kidding! I don’t! I don’t wear diapers, Adam Levine’,” he laughed. “[Levine] didn’t say anything after that, he just kind of moved on.”

Wolpert’s road to “The Voice” really began in high school, when his friends formed a band called Mr. Smith. Wolpert started out as the group’s third guitarist, before moving into the lead vocalist position after their old lead singer dropped out.

The group performed at the high school talent show, and it was there Wolpert was bit by the performing bug. Later, Mr. Smith would go on to win his high school’s Battle of the Bands two years in a row, playing what Wolpert calls “bro-y music” — Dave Matthews Band, Dispatch, etc. He maintains that Mr. Smith really wasn’t that good.

“I can’t stress to you how terrible we were,” he said. “We were so bad. I question how discerning were the ears that were judging us.”

The band “fizzled and died” after Wolpert was cast in ABC singing competition series “High School Musical: Get Into the Picture.” He was 17 at the time.

The show had teenagers singing for a spot on the third film of the “High School Musical” series. In each episode, they had to complete a singing challenge before performing in a big number, after which they would be told if they had been eliminated from the competition.

The show definitely doesn’t rank on “best memories ever” for Wolpert, who still cringes a little when talking about it — specifically about one week’s challenge to sing “A Whole New World” in a different style. Wolpert was told to perform it as a rap.

“It’s physically painful to think about that, because you had to do it in front of a live audience and they dressed me up and it was definitely out of my comfort zone,” he recalled. “When I tried to approach it with some levity, the judges nailed me for not taking it seriously.” He gave a hollow laugh.

“And that’s that. ‘High School Musical: Get Into the Picture’ was a weird thing.”

Wolpert ended up coming in fifth in the show, the same place he came in on “The Voice.”

“It’s weird,” he mused. “I’m always relegated to that fifth place.”

After “High School Musical” Wolpert vowed never to do a televised singing competition again. That changed when he dropped out of Carnegie Mellon University midway through his college career, a decision that was far from easy to make.

“I wasn’t succeeding there by any stretch of the imagination — in any way,” he said.

Searching for a direction to follow, he finally stumbled upon it after seeing a Train concert. It was at that moment that Wolpert rediscovered his original passion for performing and settled on making it his future career path.

His parents urged him to try out for “The Voice,” but he was resistant. It wasn’t until a visit from his cousin, Jonathan Groff (of “Frozen” and “Looking” fame), that he changed his mind.

Groff and his then-boyfriend Zachary Quinto stopped by the Apple store where Wolpert worked just to catch up. It was Quinto who urged Wolpert to join “The Voice.”

“He told me, ‘Dude, you should go out for ‘The Voice.’ I love that show. You’re super good. It’ll be great,’” Wolpert recalled. “I said ‘Thank you, Zachary Quinto, I will definitely give it a shot. I’ll go do it — I have nothing to lose.’”

He caught a red eye bus to New York and joined a giant casting call, where he was asked to sing a 20-30 second song. His choice? “Somebody to Love.” That song led to more auditions and eventually the blind audition where Wolpert landed himself a spot on Levine’s team.

“That song was always what I wanted to do, from the very beginning,” he said. “And that’s that. That’s how it all happened.”

After the show, he was on his own. He met with a couple of well connected people — some introduced to him by Groff. But nothing concrete has happened since.

“Everyone is waiting for me to drop my EP so they have samples to show people,” he said. “I think after the [AMT] show is over, some of those avenues are going to stop being hazy and come into clarity a little bit.”

But Wolpert isn’t worried about whether he will succeed or not. “I’ll figure it out. I’m very confident I’ll find a way,” he said. “When I want something, I’m very determined to make it happen.”

Published by juliahatmaker

Storyteller, journalist and explorer. On a mission to entertain and inform.

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