Just six months ago, Ann Arbor native Laith Al-Saadi was one of four top finalists on NBC’s reality TV show The Voice. But he didn’t get there by singing top 40 pop songs, he got there belting out blues and rock n’ roll. Al-Saadi will play Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo on November 19th at 9 p.m. and the Franke Center for the Arts in Marshall on December 30 at 8 p.m.
Al-Saadi says friends had been encouraging him to go on The Voice, but he never thought he’d do it. But then he received a VIP audition slot from the show and he thought, why not?
Al-Saadi says he’s glad he went on the Voice, but he never actually wanted to win. He had already made a name for himself in Michigan. He’s also worked with famous artists like Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, Gregg Allman, and B.B. King.
“All I hoped for was that I was going to get a lot of good exposure with it and things worked out exactly like I wanted. I mean I got to make it to the finals so I got to have all of the performances that the winner had, but you know when all was said and done I was kind of left back to my own devices and my own career. And it’s kind of a beautiful thing to just be able to take that thing and run with it. I actually never thought I would win and I think it’s probably better that I didn’t because I’ve already been playing gigs around the country and around Michigan for quite a while. So what this did is really took me out of playing bars and put me into playing more theatres. You know be able to be more of an artist and play more of my own original music. And now if I play a cover it’s because I want to - not because I’m playing four hours at a bar and feel like I have to throw the audience a bone, you know. So, it’s a nice thing,” says Al-Saadi.
At first, Al-Saadi says he felt weird about being on a show that makes music into a competition. After all music is often subjective:
“I mean it is not a competition. It’s self-expression and I think that’s probably my biggest thing about not wanting to do a show like this is that there’s so many things about how it paints the art or how it paints the artist that I don’t really agree with. But at the same time The Voice isn’t defining anything about what art is. It’s a TV show, it’s a chance to see people do their thing and to be honest. Especially because they are not American Idol or the other shows out there where contestants can be portrayed in a pretty negative light or they use judges to kind of rip on them to make the audience happy. The Voice tends to portray everybody in a positive light and I think they want to see everybody that’s participated come out a little bit ahead.”
Al-Saadi stuck out from the other contestants on The Voice. He didn’t just sing, he could play guitar too. An Mlive article said that the fact he made it so far showed that there’s an audience that wants quote “real music made by real people.” Al-Saadi says he feels connected to songs that have that Midwest sound:
"I had the chance when I was 20 years old to play in the Johnny Trudell Orchestra, which was a big band and is still playing today. And Johnny’s 77 years old. He’s a trumpet player. But it was a big band led by Johnny Trudell who is a trumpet player for Motown. And I was 20 years old and I got to play in a band that was mostly people that had played on all the great Motown recordings before Motown had moved from Detroit to California."
Al-Saadi says Detroit especially has a unique sound because of all of the different people who moved up to Detroit to work in the auto industry.
"Those things are such a big part of who I am that it’s important to me to be able to contribute and to be a continuation of what that is. Because I am from Michigan, I’m born and raised here. The sounds of this area are what helped shape the music that I play. And I think if you have to move to L.A., Nashville, or New York it’s going to just homogenize those things that really help contribute to regional sounds.”
Al-Saadi often mentions his alma mater University of Michigan, but he also went to Western Michigan University - for his first two years of college. While he was there, he dual majored in voice and guitar. He also sang in Gold Company.
“You know the Gold Company program was a really interesting experience. I loved studying vocal jazz and I think Western and Steve Zegree had a great thing - may he rest in peace. And when I went to U of M I actually stopped my vocal major aspect. I think that Western had a really good jazz vocal program, but when I got here I realized I had to start over again basically. They wouldn’t let any of my credits transfer over at U of M and so I had to start with four years of applied study on my instruments. And I decided to switch from voice to bass because I had gotten a scholarship for playing bass at University of Michigan. So I ended up double majoring in upright bass and guitar.”
Al-Saadi says he’s been writing and will likely make an album down the road - but, for now, he’s riding the wave of success from The Voice.
“I hope I can continue to take this forward motion and build on it,” he says.
Laith Al-Saadi, singer/songwriter and former contestant on NBC’s The Voice, will play Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo November 19th at 9 p.m. and the Franke Center for the Arts in Marshall on December 30 at 8 p.m.