Jackie Evancho On Speaking Out Through Music

Apr 2, 2017

Jackie Evancho first commanded attention as a 10-year-old, when she was the runner-up on America's Got Talent. The young singer won over the judges and the country with her performances of classical arias and a voice that seemed to belong to someone far beyond her years.

Now 16, Evancho has released seven albums — including the new half-classical, half-pop album Two Hearts, which features some of her own original music. She has writing credits on four of the songs on Two Hearts, and she says they're "a little bit more honest."

"It is nerve-wracking for me to be singing these songs, more so than my classical stuff," Evancho tells NPR's Michel Martin. "I'm a shy person, and so for me to get out there and voice my opinion through music — it's different for me."

In January, Evancho waded into the realm of politics when she sang the national anthem at President Trump's inauguration, at which many other artists would not agree to perform. She says she had to think carefully about the decision, but she's ultimately glad she did it.

"It was never about politics for me," she says. "It's about the president coming to me and asking for me to perform at this historical event — that will be in history for as long as I can remember. So of course I want to be a part of that. It's a huge honor."

But Evancho also says she thinks the Trump administration's rescinding of federal protections for transgender students is "a dangerous decision." Her sister Juliet is transgender, and Evancho has tweeted at President Trump to ask that he meet with the two of them to discuss transgender rights.

"She's had things thrown at her, things shouted at her," Evancho says of her sister. "There's so much going against her ... The last thing that [Juliet] and people like her need to worry about is which bathroom they can use."

Hear more of Evancho's conversation with Michel Martin at the audio link.

Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, let's visit with a young singer whose voice has always seemed to belong to someone far beyond her years. And she's now taken on a political profile of someone beyond her years. We're talking about Jackie Evancho. She first commanded attention as a 10 year old when she was the runner-up on "America's Got Talent." She wowed the audience with this aria.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S GOT TALENT")

JACKIE EVANCHO: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: Since then, she's released six albums, and she's also weighted reluctantly apparently into the political realm singing at President Trump's inauguration when many other performers would not, but also standing up for transgender rights. Her sister is transgender.

And Jackie's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C., to talk about her latest album - her seventh - "Two Hearts" in which she has original music of her own, as well as her advocacy. And, Jackie Evancho, thank you so much for joining us.

EVANCHO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming.

EVANCHO: Thank you.

MARTIN: I remember your saying - because I remember that performance. You only started singing when you were 8 years old.

EVANCHO: Right.

MARTIN: Did that big voice come out from the beginning?

EVANCHO: With comfort, it came a bit more, but I'd always kind of sung like that. But after I got my tonsils removed because...

MARTIN: Well, yeah, of course.

EVANCHO: ...They were extremely large.

MARTIN: Yes. But if that were the only thing, then we'd all sing like that, and we don't. Well, now that you're 16 - you started out when you were so little. I mean, you were 10 years old. You were in fifth grade.

EVANCHO: Right.

MARTIN: And now you're 16?

EVANCHO: Yes.

MARTIN: So presumably now you're taking some responsibility for more of your own choices. I would imagine.

EVANCHO: Exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: So tell me about the decision to sing at President Trump's inauguration. Was that a team decision or was that a Jackie decision or how did that come about?

EVANCHO: It was solely a me decision. And when I was first offered it, I had to think, of course, because I knew that there was a lot that could go wrong. But then I had to remember it's not about politics, and it was never about politics for me. It's about the president coming to me and asking for me to perform at this historical event that will be in history for as long as I can remember. So, of course, I want to be a part of that. It's a huge honor.

MARTIN: When all is said and done, are you still glad that you did it?

EVANCHO: Yes.

MARTIN: But you've also been actively tweeting the president since performing asking him to meet with you and your sister to talk about transgender rights. Has he responded to you at all?

EVANCHO: No, other than - I think Sean Spicer saying that he would be open to a meeting, I haven't had anything come at me yet. And, well, we're working on it, though, actually.

MARTIN: Do you think that he will? Are you hopeful?

EVANCHO: I am hopeful, and I think he will. I'm a hopeful person, so I just have that feeling that eventually it will happen.

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's talk about your latest album "Two Hearts." It's your seventh. It was released on Friday. Congratulations on that.

EVANCHO: Thank you.

MARTIN: I understand that, well, it's actually an album in two parts. The first half is the classical arias. Let me just play from the first half. This is kind of the style for which you are well known and - all right. I'm just going to be honest. I picked it because it's one of my favorites, and I'll try not to cry.

EVANCHO: (Laughter) OK.

MARTIN: Here it is. It's "How Great Thou Art."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW GREAT THOU ART")

EVANCHO: (Singing) Oh, Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made.

MARTIN: Does this song have any personal meaning to you?

EVANCHO: It does. My great grandmother who passed away - I think two years ago maybe more, but it feels like just yesterday - she wanted me to sing this at her funeral. But I was too upset to sing, and so I guess this is kind of my tribute to her to make up for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW GREAT THOU ART")

EVANCHO: (Singing) Then sings my soul, my savior, God, to thee. How great thou art.

MARTIN: So in the second half, you write some more pop songs, and you take your first stab at writing music. Let's pick something that you wrote.

EVANCHO: I wrote the first four on the album so "Sane."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANE")

EVANCHO: (Singing) I'm insane. No, I'm not. I'm just in pain. It's not me. This world is crazy, and I got to get out. I've got to get out.

MARTIN: How is that performing your own original work? I mean, is it frightening in a way?

EVANCHO: It is.

MARTIN: You're revealing a lot more I would think.

EVANCHO: Right. Right. Especially with these songs because they're darker topics, and they're a little bit more honest. But it is nerve-racking for me to be singing these songs more so than my classical stuff just because I'm a shy person. And so for me to get out there and voice my opinion through music, it's different for me. And I'm shy, and I really hope that people don't hate on me too much. But I am proud of myself for putting it out there.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting. We're talking to you at an interesting moment that, as we said, on the one hand the Trump administration has repealed certain protections for transgender students that were put in place by the Obama administration. On the other hand, just almost on the same day that your album dropped interestingly enough, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed a bill which, you know, repeals HB2, the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina. But a lot of people still don't agree with it. So I wonder how do you feel that conversation is going?

EVANCHO: Well, personally, I feel like repealing the whole act to protect transgenders and their rights and stuff - I feel like it maybe was a step back just because having it in the hands of the states can be a very dangerous thing because then it becomes more opinion-based, and it's more of a civil right. And there should be at least some federal law that protects, that ensures that my sister and transgenders are protected in that situation because it's important.

MARTIN: So if you do have the chance to sit down with President Trump, do you have any idea of what you would say?

EVANCHO: I mean, I would talk to him about why it's kind of a dangerous decision and maybe just hopefully come up with some sort of law that will ensure the protection and the health and the safety of my sister and transgenders.

MARTIN: Could you describe some of the circumstances that cause you and her to believe that this is important?

EVANCHO: Well, personal experience in my school, she's had things thrown at her, things shouted at her. I can't imagine what it's like all around the world, let alone some small school. And, I mean, there's so much going against her. There's hate crimes that are horrific. The last thing that her and people like her need to worry about is which bathroom they can use.

MARTIN: That's Jackie Evancho. She's a classical and pop singer. She performed at President Trump's inauguration earlier this year. Her latest album - her seventh - "Two Hearts" was just released last week, and she was nice enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C., on a really rainy wet day. So thank you so much for braving the weather and a bad hair day to come over here and see us. So thanks so much for seeing me.

EVANCHO: Of course. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.