Reagan James gained national exposure singing on "The Voice" as a teenager four years ago, but that was hardly her first time onstage. She grew up performing, and no stage was too small.
The Burleson native recently relocated to L.A., but she still records at Wavelight Studios in Fort Worth with guitarist and producer Aaron Anthony. Her recent single, “Better Than This,” has been streamed nearly 500,000 times on Spotify. Now 19, she has over a decade of experience in the music industry.
Her mother and stepfather were musicians in cover bands. James started making music at 8, and a year later she was cutting her teeth with live shows at bars and restaurants. She remembers grueling three-hour cover sets, and once she even opened a show for Lisa Marie Presley.
James recorded an album of singer-songwriter material at 14, but says she has done her best to remove it from the internet.
“It was very stripped down,” James says. “And I really didn’t have a good voice up until a couple years ago.”
Still, she admits that it was a decent debut album for a 14-year-old. A casting director for "The Voice" saw a video of James singing online and was impressed enough to invite her to a couple private auditions.
“I never would have pursued that,” she says. “But when I got the opportunity it seemed to make sense.”
James was quickly selected to compete and filmed the show in L.A., on and off, for about a year. She wanted to be on Pharrell Williams’ team, but ended up choosing between Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton. She wasn’t a fan of either artist, but liked country singer Shelton's personality.
“At the time, I was probably the weakest vocalist on that show,” she says. “I was so young, I’d never had any training, and had very bad breath control.”
But she did very well, making it to the top 10.
"The bad [thing] is everyone still talks about it all the time,” James says.
Although "The Voice" isn’t her favorite subject, she acknowledges that it was an important time in her life.
“I was thrown into that environment and absorbed so much information,” she continues. “They couldn’t decide if I was pop, R&B, or indie. At that age I didn’t know. But I was constantly fighting with them. They wanted me to be this little girl. They tried to make me wear tennis shoes onstage.”
She did not want to be thought of as a child. But after almost a year of singing all kinds of different songs on television, James figured out that she wanted to improve enough to sing R&B and jazz.
“When I came out, I felt like I had been in the industry for years,” she says. “I learned what it’s like to be in the spotlight for a minute. And I learned that my favorite part of the whole process is performing.”
Her year in the spotlight was the best and worst of times. It was a lot for a 15-year-old to process.
“I was extremely stressed and wasn’t taking very good care of myself,” she says. “I wasn’t sleeping very well and lost a ton of weight.”
The stress came from more than being on a television show.
“I was also going through extreme family trauma,” she says. “We had some very bad things going on in our family.”
She was initially happy to go back to school, but everything had changed.
“I couldn’t focus,” she says. “I was sitting with kids who didn’t have any type of passion.”
And she was also famous.
“Everyone just stared at me,” she says. “I felt like an artifact at a museum. I didn’t like it at all.”
It took years to move on after "The Voice."
“I had an identity crisis as a child,” she says. “I dyed my hair white and started dressing like a homeless person. I was trying to be anything but what I was on TV. I looked and acted terrible. I guess it was teen angst.”
James ended up being homeschooled, finishing at 17. She moved out on her own that same year. She focused on R&B and started feeling, once again, very much like an adult.
“I’m stronger than I thought I was,” James says. “I worked constantly on my music and just being myself. It’s working out. People seem to like me even more now.”
James says she financially supports herself in L.A. She is now focusing on writing songs and learning how to play bass. But on her 19th birthday, she finally decided to embrace being young.
“It was a very empowering moment,” she says. “I needed to chill out. I was trying to live an adult life and hide how young I was even before 'The Voice. ' . . . But I am allowed to be young and have fun.”