Get to Know Tamara Jade ’12

November 9, 2020

Oli Bentley '21

Black woman singer on stage dressed in pink outfit.
Photo credit: Courtesy NBC Universal

The Voice sensation will meet Oberlin students November 11 as part of the Alumni CONnections Series.

Season 19 of NBC’s hit show The Voice began with a rare “four-chair turn” earned by contestant Tamara Jade, a 2012 double-degree graduate of Oberlin. A former voice student of Marlene Rosen, Jade has gone on to perform as a backup singer and dancer for Lizzo—including a performance at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards—and released her debut album in October 2019, followed in summer 2020 by the single “Better.” She drew considerable praise from all four Voice coaches—including Kelly Clarkson, who exclaimed, “You are’re gonna be in the finale!”—before selecting John Legend as her mentor.

We caught up with Jade in advance of her November 11 chat with Oberlin students, the first installment in the conservatory’s Alumni CONnections Series.

Register for her noon Zoom session. The series is available exclusively to OCID holders.

How did your Oberlin studies with Marlene Rosen affect your life as an artist after graduating?

I graduated from Oberlin in 2012 as a double-degree sociology and voice major. Marlene Rosen is like family to me. What I loved about her was that she never tried to change me or have me do something I didn’t want to do. I also started to really get into jazz when I was at Oberlin, working with people like Sullivan Fortner ’08, Mike King ’12, and Aaron Janik ’13. Mike has been a huge friend and help—we’ve done gigs together, and he’s family at this point as well. Aaron played on my debut album, and we have continued to collaborate together. The Oberlin community is very much strong and prevalent in my career. 

How do you use your training in classical music as a pop and R&B performer?

My roots are in Black music. I started singing in churches and performing more R&B music before studying classical music at Oberlin. Sometimes I have to back off of my training a little bit to appeal to whatever emotional choices happen in that moment. It’s a nice song and dance. I got a lot of tools from classical music. Studying classical music has made me able to look at other types of music and really take it apart. 

How did your audition for The Voice compare to past performances and auditions?

It took me a while to learn that an audition is a performance. I want to leave an audition and think to myself ‘I felt good about what I just did,’ because I do end up booking the ones that I feel great about. 

Under normal circumstances, there would have been a live audience giving you back that energy. You could see the audience at this audition, but you couldn’t hear them, so it’s not the same. This required you to almost put yourself in a place where you are the one watching at home. How would you want to see, hear, or feel somebody? Then you get on stage and do that. You kind of have to imagine that whole process instead of having people there cheering you on, responding to you. It’s definitely different and challenging, but I would say it’s not really any different than singing to a recital hall full of people who are silent and staring at you, just consuming the music until the end, when they applaud.

For me, that was a huge transition from the church world, or even the R&B world, where you’d sing a nice little line and people would respond to you. Coming into classical music, that’s not really proper etiquette, so, for me, the audition was kind of like that. It was like imagining you’re back in the recital hall—where you can hear a pin drop—and everybody in the room is directing energy toward you. It was challenging, but appropriately challenging. And nothing that Oberlin and all of my experiences hadn’t prepared me for!

How did you pick “Cuz I Love You” as your song?

Last year, I actually performed at the MTV Video Music Awards show with Lizzo. When song selection came up and I saw that song was a possibility, I was like yeah! We did "Good as Hell" and "Truth Hurts" as a mashup on the VMAs, but I wanted to do something different. We never actually performed "Cuz I Love You," but I had learned it. 

How have your experiences over the last few years led you to where you are today?

I have tried and done a lot of things. Now I know what I like and what I can live without, within the realm of music. I decided to really go hard towards the artist journey—which means I had to pull back on the “working-musician life” and the gigging that I had been doing before. The VMAs show was kind of the spark for that, because in music TV, the check is much higher than gigging around town!

After that, I was on the Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles’ Live and Love Tour in October 2019. He is an amazing funk and jazz-fusion musician. After doing that tour, I was invited back at the top of this year and was touring all year. It afforded me the opportunity to create my music, record my music, promote my music, perform my music, and still make a living and survive as a working musician while building my artistry.

When the pandemic hit, I had just gotten back from Tokyo. We had done a two-night residency at the Blue Note there. It was kind of the perfect time to fully go into my artistry. When the opportunity to be on The Voice came up, I was actually supposed to be on tour in Europe, opening for Lenny Kravitz. That would have been in competition with the audition. I would have had to make a decision about which of those to choose. It would seem that God made that decision for me...or, at least, He made the decision very clear. It seemed like all roads pointed to me doing this, which told me it was time for me to really step out on my own and push my own artistry. It’s the perfect timing. I put my first EP out last year and had been making my own strides and building a following very organically, but this was the perfect platform, exposure, and push to really get me out there.

What are you looking forward to as our first Alumni CONnections guest?

I want to know what questions the students have! And what would be helpful for them from the Oberlin alumni network, as far as navigating the next level and where to go from here.

I remember nearing the end of my education at Oberlin and wondering What am I supposed to do now? I look forward to being a resource, and being able to give insight and motivation on navigating this, and having honest conversations. I feel like it’s time to really be honest about the way the industry is and what they can expect—or not expect—and what it means to be the architect of your own career. I look forward to being able to really dive into that. 

I am doing what I love to do—what I’ve always loved to do. I get to inspire people and motivate people. Being able to do that as an adult is actually very rare. I hope to be able to inspire people on how to figure that out. It is a very intuitive, introspective journey, but that’s why we have the gift of creativity, music, and art. We know how to turn around and make something beautiful. I hope, more than anything, that people seek to be happy when they look at me.

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