'American Idol' and 'The Voice' led him on, then passed. What happens next?

Preston Gunderson

Preston Gunderson Photo provided by the artist

This isn’t exactly the music career Preston Gunderson envisioned for himself.

The harried troubadour’s gig in Stillwater the night before—one of 160 he plays every year—had been canceled, which the 28-year-old Virginia, Minnesota, native only learned about after he arrived at the club, so he headed back to his apartment and ended up rescuing some drunk friends in Uptown in the middle of the night.

Gunderson is happy to be playing, teaching, recording, and connecting. But eight years ago, he dreamed of his songs reaching millions via the talent show machines The Voice and American Idol, which he semi-successfully auditioned for and signed his life away to for a while. That all ended after his last audition, when a judge told him something that’s stuck in his craw ever since.

“I’d already been through [the audition ringer], but they were like, ‘Come back and do it again,’ and I did—in Chicago this time,” he says, sitting in a Minneapolis coffee shop. “Spent my own money to go down there, because I believed they wanted me to be a part of it. I made it through the first initial things, and the woman was like, ‘Hey, we’re not going to use you this year.’ I remember those words just sticking in my brain: ‘Use’ me. I just felt like… I don’t know. It ruffled my feathers and it made me feel kind of like a little pawn.

“Don’t get me wrong, I get that it’s a wonderful opportunity in many ways. It can also be a thing that handcuffs you a little bit, too. The whole experience will make you question your abilities, your writing, maybe even why you’re doing it, if no one’s listening, or make you wonder if you’re ever going to write that song that finally fulfills you. I don’t know if there’s an answer for that.”

It all started for Gunderson on the Iron Range, where he fell in love with performing and music via his mother, a musician who performed on USO tours and taught piano in and around Virginia. He started writing songs at six, made his first record in seventh grade, his second in high school and, while attending St. Scholastica in Duluth and studying in Ireland, wrote and recorded two more releases, which charted on the iTunes pop charts.

“When I did The Voice, back when I was 21, I was a casting finalist,” he says. “I remember initially telling myself, ‘I’m not going to do those shows. It’s not the right path.’ I was in college with my buddies, and we were having some beers and they were just like, ‘Do it!’ This was when the show was really starting to gain momentum, and I signed up, and they were like, ‘We want to have you audition.’ They were doing the auditions in Minneapolis, and it wasn’t like the cattle call where there’s hundreds and hundreds of people, it was a private audition for the producers. I had to do three of them, and the next thing you know they’re, ‘Hey, we’re going to send you to Hollywood, where do you want to be picked up?’ I said, ‘Hibbing.’ They said, ‘Oh… We’ll pick you up in Minneapolis.’

“I was still pretty green, even though I’d been playing in Duluth quite a bit. You go into this with a big heart, and you have all these expectations, or not even expectations, but these dreams, and I made it there and people were getting weeded out and cut down and just eventually I didn’t get on a team. I didn’t make that cut, and it was like… I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, maybe I’m just not good enough.’”

Though he laughs about it now, Gunderson’s dreams were dashed, as The Voice contestants of the moment went on to fleeting TV and touring fame, and careers.

“As a 21-year-old kid, I’ll tell you, it was pretty heartbreaking,” he says. “Because when you’re younger, you don’t know if you’re ever going to have another opportunity like that. Is this the shot? They always say that in your life, you can have a moment that will define you. And here I was, 21 years old, and my moment was crumbling. Coming back to everyday life on the Range in northern Minnesota was the toughest part, because one moment you’re out in Hollywood, thinking, ‘This is it!’ And a few weeks later, you’re back in your hometown. At the time I was teaching choir in northern Minnesota, and living with my parents, so that was really defeating and heartbreaking, but I had a great group of people who really supported me.”

The experience left Gunderson more wised-up about show biz, music, music criticism, competition, and happiness itself. To this day he’s proud he made it as far as he did on the merry-go-round, but he’s also honed a healthy wariness of outsiders’ opinions about his music.

“The question I kept asking myself is, ‘Who am I not good enough for?,’” he says. “And it kept digging at me, and I’d ask myself, ‘Am I happy with doing what I’m doing, [or] is it becoming something that I just beat myself up for all the time, and I’m unsatisfied and have this constant animosity towards myself?’ I know what a good song is, and I want to make a record that fulfills that. I’m never satisfied with anything.

“I also think that’s what makes a great artist. A couple years after that I just decided I’m not going to do that again and to focus on me. I moved to the Cities and started doing music full-time to pay rent. I was cutting my teeth in rooms playing to four people who didn’t really care or listen, but every once in a while someone would say, ‘Wow, that was really good.’ And that was something that kept me going for a while.

“Then I was approached by a producer who used to work for The Voice who had switched over to American Idol, and he had said he loved me and that he hoped it had worked out on the last show and he asked me to come try out for American Idol, and I did and I was on TV for a short burst. Once again, they were kind about it. They were like, ‘That was really good. You can tell that you’re a musician, and that you work on your craft, but you’re not quite what we’re looking for.’ I did a Ray LaMontagne song, and they were like, ‘The whole time you were doing it, I was like, this is Ray LaMontagne, this isn’t Preston Gunderson.’”

When he moved to Minneapolis, Gunderson knew exactly no one in the music business, but he found a couple of mentors and friends in Diverse Emerging Music Organization (DEMO) founder/First Avenue poobah Steve McClellan and fellow Virginia-born singer/songwriter Paul Metsa. Both men, wisened to the wicked ways of show biz and songcraft, took the kid under their wings and offered encouragement and friendship.

Earlier this month, Gunderson took a break from his job as a touring musician and teacher with the empathy-in-education outfit Youth Frontiers, and released his latest self-made EP, Wake Up. He and he alone owns the rights to the music on that EP, but that wasn’t the case when he signed on to be a “character” on The Voice and American Idol.

“It was about 80 pages of legal jargon,” he says. “I was really intimidated by it, so we went to our family lawyer. He’s not an entertainment lawyer or anything, but he read the whole thing and by the end I just sat there and I said, ‘It kind of sounds like they have control over me.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s about right.’ I think it was because you’re put on a stage in front of six million people, a platform, TV, they would get to control a lot of the money that would come in from streaming and CD sales. There was a percentage I’d make, but it was small.

“That’s one of those things where they’d say, ‘Big risk, big reward’ kind of thing. If you win, you’re not that worried about it, because you’re going to have shows booked for you in front of audiences that are excited to hear you, you’re going to be on the road doing the thing. But when you don’t win, it can also handcuff you. My contract was voided, because I didn’t air, I wasn’t under that, which was good. If you weren’t a ‘character’—you’re a ‘character’ in the contract, because you’re on a television show—the contract’s void. So I’ve been able to play under my own name, and record under my own name without [legal trouble]. It’s tough. I thought it was worth it, because I wanted to connect any way I could, so I thought it was worth it, to be able to reach that audience.”

A former high school basketball player for a Virginia Blue Devils team that went on a 22-game win streak his senior year, Gunderson sometimes likens his “Preston vs. the Machine” moment to being cut from a sports team, which is probably why he approaches his current career with a decided go-hard hustle.

“I play over 160 shows a year, and the grind makes you humble, and it makes you realize there’s a lot of people trying to do the same thing you are,” he says. “When I think about my dream of traveling and playing music, this wasn’t exactly what I had thought. But each week I get to go into schools and perform original music that is around a story that’s centered around our [New Frontiers] message, which is character and values and hopefully it will inspire them to treat one another better. We work with fourth graders up to seniors in high school, and our core principles are kindness, courage, respect and wisdom, and we ask kids to take another look at how they view themselves—which has been therapeutic for me, too.”

In the end, the question hangs: Whose opinions are more valid—the talent-show judges or the fans who happen upon Gunderson in a coffee shop or bar?

“Initially, I think I was motivated by it and I wanted to show them, ‘You’re going to regret this,’” he says. “But then I started thinking about it, and I’m like, ‘They’re not that worried about it.’ That’s my story that I’m trying to help build myself up on. For me, it’s fuel. I want to prove to people that I can write a great song, but at the same time, I’ve learned to take it in stride and with grace and just do what I do and understand that not everyone is going to like what I do.

“Everyone is going to have different tastes and is going to hear a song differently, from their own experience, which is beautiful. One thing I learned is from Dave Grohl, who said, ‘It’s amazing when 80,000 people are in a stadium, singing your words. But what’s more amazing than that is that 80,000 people are singing the exact same words for 80,000 different reasons.’ ”