Up until a few months ago, Lyme resident Braiden Sunshine was your average classic rock-loving teenager.
Now, as a contestant on Season 9 of the NBC reality talent show "The Voice," the baby-faced Braiden, 15, a freshman at the Lyme/Old Lyme High School, hobnobs with the likes of Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Selena Gomez.
Braiden passed his blind audition in Episode 1. He advanced in battle in Episode 9. On Monday, Oct. 26, he competes again: not bad for someone who never planned to audition in the first place.
Growing up, the Sunshines watched "American Idol," "back when Simon Cowell was on," he says, and eventually discovered "The Voice." "It's a whole different dynamic, how they run the show."
By the time he was 9, Braiden was fronting rock bands: Silver Hammer, then Madison Red, and now Stone Creek. His bandmates keep leaving for college.
Braiden's mother, Elizabeth, though Braiden should audition for "The Voice." He convinced her it would be a waste of time. One day she offered to drive him to a car show in New Jersey — or so he thought.
"I was like, 'Where are the cars, Mom? She said, 'This is an audition for 'The Voice.' I'm glad she did it. I mean, look at where it got me."
For his blind audition, Braiden sang "The Mountains Win Again," an acoustic ballad-rocker by Blues Traveler. At the very last second, Stefani and Williams, two of the four judges, pressed their "I Want You" buttons and spun around in their chairs.
"What ran through my head was 'the chairs are broken. Something's wrong with the chairs,'" Braiden says. "It was that close… There are a lot of feelings that we can describe with words, but that particular feeling isn't one."
Back home, Braiden watched the blind audition episode on Sept. 21 at the Lyme Youth Service Bureau, with friends and family. He was sworn to secrecy.
"Everybody was asking [if I passed], and I usually try to tell people stuff in general. I had to learn how to dodge around the question."
The room fell silent during his performance, "a room full of high school students nonetheless," Braiden says. "I thought they'd be going off." The tension increased, then exploded. "They honestly thought I didn't make it."
For his battle round Oct. 19, Braiden sang "No One Is To Blame," by Howard Jones, with teammate Lyndsey Elm. The disconnect between harmony and competition was hard to ignore, but he blocked it out.
"Music isn't supposed to tear people apart," Braiden says. "It's supposed to bring people together... We were going to make the best duet we could make, and the after-part is just what happens."
Stefani, the team leader, chose Braiden. The victory surprised him: "You can see it. I almost fall back on stage. I was stunned."
As for Elm, "I still talk to her all the time," Braiden says. "I felt really bad, because she's a sister to me, and to have to send someone like that home... The battles are definitely the toughest part of the show... You create a bond with these people, and to have to see them go is completely devastating."
Next up are the knockout rounds, when the artists perform individually and coaches decide whether they stay or go. The top 20 then go on to the live playoff rounds, when the audience votes on their fate.
"Voice" winners receive $100,000 and a record deal with Universal Music Group. Connecticut contestants, it seems, do well on the show; Javier Colon, the Season 1 winner, was a Stratford resident and a graduate of the Hartt School at the University of Hartford.
For now, Braiden's tutor helps him to stay current on schoolwork. He hopes "The Voice" will launch his music career, and he's aware that he needs to act quickly.
"I want to write some songs and keep them in my back pocket," Braiden says, "so once this is all over, I have something to put out, to use some of the momentum that this show has given me. I'd like to keep the interest up by putting out material. Hopefully people will keep listening to it, and I can do this for a living."
There will be a view party for Braiden Sunshine's Oct. 26 performance in the auditorium at Lyme-Old Lyme High School from 8 to 10 p.m.