Cedarville University grad Brian Johnson (’12) has made it to the third round – the Knockouts – on NBC’s eighth season of “The Voice,” but there’s more to him than his music.
“Brian almost always had a heart about as big as Cedarville,” said James Phipps, Johnson’s academic advisor and a senior professor of communications at Cedarville. “He just is a people-type person, and he had a heart for people.”
But though his heart’s big, Johnson’s head never swelled as his musical abilities grew, Phipps said.
“The nice thing about Brian is that his head never got too big,” Phipps said. “He was not puffed up about his abilities, and yet I think everybody around him knew he had talents.”
When Johnson came to Cedarville, he chose to study worship ministry under Roger O’Neel, because the musical organizations he got involved with at Cedarville helped him realize he wanted to do music for a living.
“I kind of made a decision that music was something I wanted to do, and worship was one of the ways I wanted to do that,” Johnson said.
He said his performances at Cedarville marked the first time his singing was met by good reactions from audience members, as he had been bullied throughout middle and high school.
“Cedarville was really the place where I got to, you know, step into music,” he said. “In high school and middle school I really shied away from a lot of music, because I got bullied as a kid and didn’t have a ton of opportunities to really experiment with music just because I was so self-conscious. So as soon as I got to Cedarville, it was like the switch flipped, and I just did everything possible freshman year. Anyone that would let me on stage, I would just try to do as much as possible.”
And so, Johnson sang at local churches, in chapel, with the jazz band, at interruptions in The Hive, and as a member of the Jubilate and OneVoice choirs.
But Johnson said once his dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he changed his major to communication because he wanted something that made more sense in the business world so he could have the resources to care for his dad.
Despite the switch in major, Johnson continued to be heavily involved at the university, both in music and employment.
He worked regularly for Cedarville’s Phonathon, took shifts in The Hive, was a personal assistant to an admissions counselor and volunteered several hours a week as a university tour guide under Sarah Allen, the associate director of guest services at Cedarville.
“He just wanted to give back,” Allen said. “Just the fact that he was willing to spend five or 10 hours a week volunteering for the university (as a tour guide) and just to help people make their college decision, I think that says a lot about the character of him.”
Johnson said his time at Cedarville taught him to be committed to his faith.
“I think Cedarville has really prepared me to sort of walk into the world – in a secular world – and really just understand what it means to hold firm to what you believe,” Johnson said.
And he’s put that lesson into practice during his time on “The Voice.”
“My faith and my walk with Christ is one of the biggest things that I’ve talked about on the show – I haven’t necessarily gotten the chance to talk about it just yet – but behind the scenes, in front of a lot of the other artists, coaches, and producers and everything, they all know that, you know, what I stand for and what I believe in,” Johnson said. “I haven’t necessarily gotten the chance to speak on the national platform yet, but I think that when people get a chance to see me and when people hear my story, it’s really difficult to not think of God when they hear my story and just see all the things that I’ve been able to overcome through my experiences with Christ.”
Johnson said there are a lot of Christians on the show, and because transportation has been limited during their hotel stays, “Voice” contestants had church in the hotel.
“We were in a hotel for weeks at a time, and we weren’t really allowed to go to many places,” Johnson said. “We would just meet in a hotel room, and there’d be like 20 of us in a hotel room leading worship on Sundays and having church.”
Johnson, who leads worship weekly at Journey Community Church in addition to his job at Bravo Wellness in Cleveland, said his love for singing comes from God.
“God’s given me this passion and this desire to sing, and leading worship is such a good way to express that passion, especially with the unique opportunity to be able to stand on stage and lead people in worship,” Johnson said. “And people recognize it’s more about what I’m singing about rather than my voice. Leading worship is such a unique opportunity, because God’s given me the talent – this passion – and I get to share that with my church, in chapel, or on a national platform.”
This season was the fourth time Johnson has auditioned for “The Voice.” He said he has gone to the open auditions and gotten a few callbacks, but this is the first time he has appeared on the broadcast performances.
“I kept going back to ‘The Voice’ because I believe in the format so much,” Johnson said. “For me, as someone that’s a bigger guy and someone that struggles with their image, ‘The Voice’ had such a cool intro to the show. It’s a show about a blind audition where the coaches aren’t necessarily looking at how you are on stage yet, they’re not looking about your image, they’re not looking at how you look on stage, they’re solely listening to your voice. And that was such a cool concept for me, because I didn’t have to worry about how I looked, and I didn’t have to worry about people saying ‘no’ to me just based off of my looks. It was solely based on how I sung. And it took a few times to get there, but I feel like I’m more of an artist now.”
Johnson said his ultimate goal is to release music and make a living off of it.
“It’s always been my dream to do music on the stage and have people enjoy the music I’m making as much as I enjoy it,” Johnson said. “I would love for the world to see what I’ve been passionate about for so long, and it’s just exciting to be able to do that right now. ‘The Voice’ gives you such a cool opportunity to be able to release music on a weekly basis.”
His singles from the competition’s first two rounds are available for purchase on iTunes and have claimed spots high up on various music charts.
“To see people actually respond to stuff that I do, it’s just so awesome,” Johnson said.
Phipps said he’s proud of Johnson’s success thus far.
“I’m just real proud of Brian for overcoming a lot of difficulties along the way and doing well and being a really good representative of his faith,” Phipps said. “In some ways (on ‘The Voice’) he’s fulfilling, I guess, what we always knew he could do but he’s doing it in an excellent manner.”
And despite Johnson’s success at present on “The Voice” – joining Blake Shelton’s team and winning the battle round against Team Blake-mate Joshua Davis, Johnson’s roommate during the competition – Allen said Johnson has remained humble.
“Just when you see somebody who has worked hard and is faithful and loved people and stayed humble, to get that kind of a platform,” Allen said. “I just think it speaks that he wants to make much of God, and God’s given him that opportunity. I’m just proud of him, and I don’t think it will change him at all, like, I’m not worried about that at all.”
Phipps, a “Voice” viewer for all eight seasons, said the competition this year may be the toughest ever, but he’s hopeful that Johnson will make it to the end.
“I don’t recall a season where all of the teams were as strong as they are right now,” Phipps said. “So he’s in the battle with probably the strongest teams ever, and that’s tough because it means good people don’t make it to the end.”
Johnson said his experience on “The Voice” has taught him that he wants his first priority to be continuing his music, as he’s pushed it aside for various reasons – such as paying college debts, making rent payments and caring for his dad – the last few years.
“‘The Voice’ so far has really opened my eyes as to the fact that this is what I want for a living, and music has to be the thing that is my main priority,” he said. “If this is my dream, I only have one life to live exactly the way that God prepared it for me, and I’ve got to be able to take those chances and believe that God is opening those doors for a reason. Life is too short to not take those chances.”
Watch for Brian Johnson on this week’s Knockout Round 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on NBC. Follow him on social media @BWJohnsonMusic or keep up-to-date with Cedars as we live-tweet his performances.
Anna Dembowski is a junior journalism major and managing editor/arts & entertainment editor for Cedars. She likes nearly anything that is the color purple and enjoys spelling the word “agathokakological.”