'Voice' star Braiden Sunshine hits the road

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Equipped with a brand-new RV, a batch of hooky original songs, a few million fans who cheered his run all the way to the semi-finals on the 2015 Season 9 "The Voice" talent competition, and an excellent band — actually, make that two excellent bands — Lyme native Braiden Sunshine is launching his first headlining national tour.

The junket started Friday in Ogunquit, Maine, makes a "bon voyage" stop tonight in Westerly at the Knickerbocker Music Center, then carries on for 30 shows in 58 days through the South, Midwest and West Coast before returning to Connecticut in late July.

Since his "Voice" appearances, Sunshine, now 17, has focused on learning the art of song craft and recording. He released the five-song "Braiden Sunshine" EP last year and is well along in the process of a full-length album. Also, with family and professional industry folks, he's outlined a career blueprint, which is a decidedly uncertain process in today's whirlwind music industry, where DIY innovation has replaced the dinosaur script of major labels.

In short, Sunshine is "going for it."

"I would say yes, at this point, that's what we're doing," Sunshine said by phone earlier this week. "We're really putting all our cards out for this. It's a big undertaking, and we know, for example, some of the gigs on this tour won't be the most profitable. That's not really the point, though, right now. We're trying to build on a fan base, and, just as importantly, we're doing it because it's fun. Music is what I want to do for a living, and it should be fun. So we're getting out of the gate and taking that big first step."

That the tour takes place in summer is very much a conscious strategy and explains why it's happening now rather than waiting until the work-in-progress album is completed.

"It comes down to timing," says Sunshine, who has been home schooled since "The Voice" so he could focus on music as a career. "It would be great if the album was finished, but it's summer, and summer is concert season. People want to get out and see shows, and that's when we want to play. We don't want to sit around on our butts at home. We thought about the album, but we've also been talking about a tour like this for a while now. Finally, we just said, 'Let's do this. Let's go for it.' The whole idea is that this could be an actual career, but we have to do it rather than sit around in the woods of Connecticut."

Plus, even though the new album isn't finished, fans who come to shows on the tour will be able to purchase a sampler containing material from the upcoming disc, and Sunshine is understandably excited, if a little anxious, to see how it goes over.

"I'm still self-conscious about what I do," he says. "Being onstage is vulnerable, and writing songs is vulnerable. I can get writer's block or a bit of stage fright over it all, although 'The Voice' obviously helped with the performance part. I think most of my fear is over what reaction to a song might be. On the other hand, I have to ask myself, 'If you're scared, why are you doing it?'" He laughs. "And the answer is, because I love it. So it can be a bit complicated."

In a way, music has been Sunshine's career since he was 9, when he started singing professionally in local bands Stone Creek, Madison Red and Silver Hammer, not to mention appearing in various school productions and ensembles. He landed on "The Voice" at 14 after his mother, Elizabeth Sunshine, tricked him into going to an audition by telling him they were going car shopping.

On "The Voice," as a member of the team coached by singer Gwen Stefani, Sunshine became a fan favorite as he advanced through the rounds of competition. Three of the songs he performed on the program went to #1 on the iTunes charts, and "Reality," the first single from his 2016 EP, made the Top 50. For purposes of the tour, Sunshine will play material from the EP, songs from the upcoming album, and several selections he did on "The Voice."

"People in Connecticut have heard a lot of the originals, and they're going over well," Sunshine says. "But we're happy to do songs from 'The Voice' because fans in other parts of the country know them. It's interesting, actually, because certain songs go over differently in different parts of the country. They can be completely different genres, but they resonate because of the show. I like doing all of them."

For selected tour dates, Sunshine will be perform with fellow "Voice" alums, including Season 9's Lyndsey Elm in Vallejo, Cal., and Season 7 veteran Matt McAndrew in Los Angeles.

As mentioned, Sunshine is using two different bands, in part because many of the musicians have varying obligations. For the East Coast dates, Sunshine will be accompanied by lead guitarist Tom Bora, bassist Grant Morrison, drummer Ben Gardener and keyboardist/vocalist Laura Spinetti.

Out West, the lineup shifts and utilizes members of his old bandmates in Maxwell, who have relocated to Colorado. Bora stays onboard along with bassist Duncan Maxwell, keyboardist Ian Maxwell and drummer Aidan Maxwell. Either way, there's a lot of shared connections. Bora and Spinetti have been friends of Sunshine's since childhood, and Gardner was a high school pal. Ian Maxwell met Gardener in music school.

"It takes a lot of chemistry to be in a band, and we're definitely getting there," Sunshine says of the East Coast rehearsals. "(Some of the musicians) are just getting out of college for the semester, so there wasn't much rehearsal time, and we've made the most of it. We'll go really hard for five hours and finally say, 'Hey, can we have some food now?' Seriously, though, there's a lot of banter and personality coming into it, and we're getting comfortable with each other. Which is really good, since we'll be sitting on a bus with each other for three weeks."

Traveling in Sunshine's newly-purchased RV means the players and driver/chaperone Elizabeth Sunshine have hop-scotched over the stereoypted "bands-in-vans" construct. This implies a certain amount of comfort.

"We've come up with an intricate system," Sunshine explains. "For clothing, everyone has a plastic bin under their bed. Then, in what I guess is called the regular living room, each person has one cabinet except for mom. She gets two because she's doing all the driving. Everything is separate and labeled, and we stayed up late a few nights trying to figure out how to make everything fit. It helps that we're our own roadies, so we'll have it all down to a science."

As part of the new industry paradigm, where creative thinking and using tools like social media are hugely important, Sunshine is working hard to maximize all possible options. One aspect is financial support. 

"This is a giant undertaking and, frankly, we've had huge support," Sunshine says. "It's amazing that so many friends, family members and sponsors have reached out because this wouldn't happen otherwise." In earnest appreciation, Sunshine lists those who've helped: Sennheiser, Guitar Center, Verizon, Dunkin' Donuts , All Pro Auto, Laysville Hardware, Chocolate Shell, Craig and Karen Silver and Christine and Sonny Whalen, and Jam2nite Productions — an admittedly rather remarkable cross-section of private citizenry, bigger corporations and local outfits.

Another huge factor is social media. "Honestly, it's so important, and the weird thing is that I'm pretty bad at it," Sunshine admits. "I'm working so hard to get better at it. I have to. Major labels have literally said to us, 'We like your songs and your presence, but you only have 30,000 followers on the platforms you're using.'" He laughs. "Apparently, 30,000 isn't enough, and they didn't give us a target number. They just said, 'If you want to do something, fix your socials.' I can be a musician all day long, but there are other things involved. We're so close but so far." He pauses, and his tone brightens. "Well, that's what we're going to fix."

If you go

Who: Braiden Sunshine with the Hilton Park Band

What: Lyme native and Season 9 semifinalist on "The Voice" embarks on his first national tour

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Knickerbocker Music Center, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly

How much: $10

For more information: (401) 315-5070, braidensunshine.com



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