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It doesn’t feel accurate to call Sawyer Fredericks a kid. The winner of the eighth season of NBC’s The Voice is just sixteen years old — the youngest winner in the show’s history — yet his folk songs convey an emotional wisdom far beyond his years. On the heels of the November release of his self-titled, four-song EP, Fredericks performs at the Bowery Ballroom on December 16 in the opening slot before Good Old War. And although three songs on his album approach a shiny pop production (the consequence, perhaps, of debuting on a major label), he plans to keep things simple at the Bowery.
“That’s just going to be me,” he says. “Me and my guitar.”
Truthfully, he doesn’t need anything more than that to affect an audience. His voice swells from soft to booming as though his chest had a built-in amplifier, a skill developed from singing to the cows on his family’s farm near the Adirondacks and from busking at farmers’ markets. In a music industry bedazzled with flash and artifice, Sawyer Fredericks is refreshingly real.
He’s also a bit bashful when he’s not onstage — and says he was even more so prior to The Voice. “I was a very shy person,” he explains, “and I wasn’t very social, especially since I’ve been home-schooled and I never really went to school.” He’s sitting on the porch at the farm for this call. “It’s definitely a little awkward, having people come up to me and ask for a picture, saying, ‘Hey, you’re that Voice winner!’ It’s nice. I mean, I enjoy their support, and I appreciate [that] they’re supporting my music.” He says the TV show gave him the opportunity to discover his own social personality as well as interact with fellow artists. “That was my first real time being around other musicians, which was so exciting for me just because I’ve never been around that many people that could sing, like, in tune.” He laughs.
Fredericks comes across as innocent, somehow unpolluted by the world, which is what makes the seriousness of his original songs so arresting. He began writing after he learned a few chords on the guitar, at age eleven, and some of the grave lyrics he came up with worried his mother. “She was a little shocked at one of the songs that I wrote that was called ‘Out My Window,’ ” he shares, “which was basically a suicidal song, and she was very concerned, and I had to explain to her that it was really just me coming up with a story and putting myself into it. I was trying to explain to her that it wasn’t me in the story.” The song appears on his 2013 independent album of the same name, recorded when Fredericks was fourteen, before his voice had deepened. (“On the Out My Window album, my voice sounds like an angel voice,” he chuckles.) The collection of tunes — about love and longing and profound sadness — sounds eerily mature coming from an adolescent, especially one who, to date, says he’s never been in love.
This begs the question: Where is all this coming from? “I kind of just use my imagination,” says Fredericks, “and I’ll be able to put myself into a scenario and figure out how it would feel.” He references his idol, as he often does in interviews, as an influence. “I always want to write music that will make someone feel something, just because my favorite artist is Ray LaMontagne. He puts tons of emotion into his songs, and his lyrics are very raw and emotional. So I really enjoy that kind of music, and I want to be able to write that kind of music.” (LaMontagne was flattered enough by the admiration the young songwriter expressed for him on The Voice to give Fredericks a song, “Please,” that became the final iTunes hit that helped him win the show.)
As a performer, Fredericks succeeds in delivering emotion by the bucketful, particularly in stripped-down sets with his acoustic guitar. When he played the Mercury Lounge in September, the captivation of the hushed crowd was palpable during “What I’ve Done,” an eight-minute ballad (another one about suicide) showcasing his abilities as a storyteller. On The Voice, his coach Pharrell Williams called him an “old soul,” and regardless of what one believes about such things, Fredericks does seem to channel the spirit of a bygone era, making something as tired as a guy and his guitar sound fresh.
Even his look harks back to another time, with a black bowler hat over his long, blond hair present for every performance. On the origin of the hat and why he started wearing it, he says, “I don’t really remember why it was. I remember just seeing some movies of people wearing bowler hats, and I liked it. I did an open mic, and this lady gave me some money after, and I went to an antiques store, and actually the first hat I got wasn’t a bowler; it was a derby. It was on the mannequin at the antiques store, and I’m like, ‘There it is! I’ll get that one!’ ” The derby, he says, is now “kind of falling apart,” and eventually he switched to the bowler because “I just liked it, and I liked wearing it, and then I just started wearing it for my performances, and I never really stopped.” Like everything about this fellow, the hat already seems iconic.
Sawyer Fredericks plays the Bowery Ballroom December 16. For ticket information, click here.