The Voice UK: Ben Kelly interview – ‘My talents would never have been respected on The X Factor’

by Gerard McGarry

Unreality TV were lucky enough to catch up with latest reality TV phenomenon Ben Kelly this afternoon and we had a lovely chat with the Derry lad about his experience on The Voice so far, as well as what happened when he tried out for rival TV show The X Factor.

The 22 year old Northern Irish singer exploded onto our screens on Saturday night, when he was seen wowing all four of the celebrity coaches with his spirited rendition of Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ on the brand new BBC talent series.

Although, Tom Jones and Danny O’Donogue were desperate to land Ben for their team, Kelly opted to go with the youngest of the bunch Jessie J, and later explained that he had decided he would join the ‘Domino’ hitmaker’s group before he even took to the stage.

However, before even trying out for The Voice, Ben had been making quite a splash on Youtube, ever since he moved to London in 2008 at the tender age of 18 to begin studying at University College London.

Read our full interview below, to find out what led Kelly to the new TV show and what lies ahead for viewers, when the series moves into it’s Battle Round stage.

What made you decide to move from Northern Ireland to London?

I came here to study at university. I came to London because I wanted to play gigs, play clubs, make contacts and be able to seize these opportunities whenever they came up. The Voice is just one of many many things that I attempted to get involved with because I’m very eager to get my music out there. I suppose the whole YouTube thing I’ve got going on, I could have done that at home in Derry, but being in London allows me to cash in on that a bit more.

What did you do to cash in on the YouTube success – did you use that as a springboard for gigs?

Yeah, a lot of people would call me up or contact me online and say I really like it, will you come and play this gig or I’d get some jobs from it. And just meeting some people who’ve helped me produce some tracks or mix demos. They all tend to be based in London, so yeah, it’s really paid off.

I went to London in 2008, made the big jump.

And had you done anything musically in Northern Ireland?

Back in Derry, I was in old choirs and did a lot of theatre and panto and feis and all that kind of thing. I’ve done it all over the years. So, I feel very much a part of the musical communities in Derry. Obviously, it feels great because what I’m bringing to the table on a national scale are skills that I was taught in a small town by people who taught me piano in their front rooms, or taught me to sing in a classroom. Things like that. So it is very much a home-grown thing.

It’s nice to see local talent on these shows now. When you went on stage, we weren’t expecting to hear a voice like that. It sounded like it was straight off the record. Is Elton John a big influence for you?

That’s very nice of you to say! I suppose when you say it’s of record quality, that’s because I’m such a perfectionist that I want make sure every note comes out right. I won’t do something unless I know it’s going to sound record quality. Unfortunately, that manifested itself in quite a few contrived hand movements that some people picked up on! But that’s how you do it right – I’m drawing the note with my hand. It did go a little bit wobbly by the end, but they’d all turned around by that point, so I’m not going sweat too much about that.

But Elton John, yes. He’s probably more of an influence than I think he is, because when I actually sit down and consider what I want to be as an artist today, it probably would translate very much to what Elton was doing 30 and 40 years ago. I want to be a piano player. I want to write pop songs. I want to play stadiums. And I want to cross the boundaries that he crossed where he was in the pop charts, and he made rock music and he’s got such a soulful voice. And he won over all of America, not just New York and LA, but middle America adores Elton John and that’s no easy feat when you’re a flamboyant character. Well, I am too. I see a lot of myself in Elton, but I wouldn’t want to be completely constricted to the piano. You’ll see that other side of me in the battle rounds.

Is that where you’re coming from musically, then? Piano players like Elton John and Billy Joel…

I would say not. As a teenager, when I first started playing piano and getting into music, it was Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Prince. They’re the people who’ve stayed with me that whole time. People say to me “How did you learn to sing?”, and you know it was years of sitting in my bedroom listening to Stevie Wonder and doing the ad-libs with him. And doing the ad-libs with Prince, doing the falsetto with Michael Jackson. I literally learned from those guys. That’s the only way I can describe it. And that became my style. My mum used to say that I was singing more like a black person every day.

I learned music through R&B and soul music, then in my later teens I started getting into more Michael Jackson and Madonna and David Bowie and people who were able to bring their talents to great, great performances. It kind of evolved from that. And then when I sit down to play piano, people automatically tick the Elton John box, even though it’s come from a much more roundabout way.

You’re a songwriter as well, Ben. Saturday night’s performance aside, how would you describe your original tunes?

It’s been described as a combination of Stevie Wonder and Scissor Sisters. And I’m very happy with that. In my head I want it to be like the Lady Gaga records – I want it to be that absolutely accessible pop with that edge of your own personality.

We know that The Voice invites some singers from the industry to audition for the show. Was that the case with you?

No, I was one of the 25,000 who just rocked up to an open call. Everyone was given the chance to sing a full song, and everyone was treated very respectfully. Everyone’s voice was allowed to be heard. I knew that I had to shine in those first rounds if I was to get a little bit more air time, a bit more attention from the producers as the time went on. There’s definitely a lot to get through, and I didn’t think I was going to walk it by any means – the talent was so, so high that I felt I’d won when I was told I was through to the blind auditions.

I’ve heard that you thought the blind audition itself was quite nerve-wracking…

I know I was quoted as saying it was horrible, but that was a mis-quote that went a bit wrong! It wasn’t horrible, it was scary. But the great thing for me was that the audience just perked up as soon as I started to play and I performed to the audience and that rapport was what the judges turned around and tuned in to. It wasn’t like I was singing for them – they were watching my performance. In actual fact, it was enjoyable, so enjoyable that I’d literally do it again, repeatedly.

The way I perform – and I was told this by a great friend of mine who was an opera singer – he says you don’t perform out to a crowd, you bring them in. I was performing to make sure that everyone in the audience was drawn in to me, and that those chairs would be drawn to me. You can’t give yourself out to everyone because people see it and it’s not appealing. If you show that you can perform well and that you’re confident in your own performance, people will be drawn in. Will.I.Am said to me that he found me magnetic to watch. That was a tick of the box for me – I was happy with what I was doing and it was up to them what they wanted to do.

I mean, if I’d got to the end of that performance and they hadn’t turned around, it would still have been a good performance.

There’s been so much debate about The Voice versus The X Factor. You’ve obviously worked the circuit in London quite a bit, so is it fair to assume you’ve auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor in the past?

I did audition for X Factor once, but I didn’t get past the first round.

Are you glad you’ve ended up on The Voice now?

[Thinks for a minute] I think, yeah. I think everything happens for a reason, and I think that my talents would never have been respected the way that they have been on The Voice. Not because there’s anything wrong with The X Factor, but they aren’t as keen to let people play their own instruments and they aren’t as keen to let people wear their own clothes and then there are all the stories. And that’s fine, but let’s face it, the amount of people who watch X Factor means it ticks a box for this country. But that’s not the way that my talent was meant to be displayed.

It must have been reassuring that the first episode got such a good audience share. First episode and you’ve got 9 million people watching you.

It was great. I wasn’t really sure what was the best time to be on, but being on the first episode means I’ve got a good head start and people know who I am.

Battle round

Jessie gives me something that is completely different to what she thinks I am as an artist. But in actual fact, I can rise to any challenge she can give me.

Is she pushing you to stretch your boundaries?

It’s not just me, she pushes everyone. No-one sits comfortably with their song.

Can I ask you about Jessie as a mentor – how do you find her? How does she work?

Jessie’s very much – with me – she’s impressed with my vocals, but she’s not one to give praise, so she would much rather work on the things that she feels you’re lacking in. For me, mostly she wanted to teach me about the industry. It’s not so much about the vocals, but about what she thinks I need to know in my career.

Guest mentors

I was really excited about my mentor. Jessie went by the sidelines when I found out who my mentor was.

The only thing I’d like to say is that I’m so honoured to get the chance to be on The Voice, but even more excited about the prospects for my future career now.

Do people approach you with offers of work after seeing you on the show?

Yeah. As soon as I came back to London on Monday morning, I hadn’t even left the train station and three people had screamed my name across at me, and I’ve been signing autographs and having photos in the street. It’s been wild, more so than I expected.

And what’s going on with you day-to-day – are your days taken up with preparations for the show?

I’m just leading a normal life. As normal as it ever was. I work as a performer, so I play piano here and there. I work at clubs and then the rest of the time I spend songwriting and working with producers and things like that. All that’s still going on. I’ve been writing songs this morning.

The Voice continues this Saturday night, with it’s next blind audition show and in mid April, Battle Rounds will commence in which Ben will be pitted against one of his own pals from Team Jessie.

The next stage of the show has already been filmed, but Ben wasn’t giving much away. Do you think he has what it takes to make the live rounds? Leave your comments below….

Gerard McGarry is a jet-setting, world-renowned Reality TV critic. In real life, Gerard works with web and social media strategy. His personal blog is at or follow him on Twitter @gerrybot