Interview: O.C. native hopes for big break on TV show 'The Next'
The casting notice wasn't all that specific – TV series seeks musicians ready to take it to the next level – but to Angela Mukul it was all she needed to see.
The 23-year-old Orange County native had graduated from Cal State Fullerton a few months earlier and beat a quick path to Hollywood, chasing the dream of making it as a singer-songwriter, finding the reality of work as a waitress.
So Mukul sent in a few homemade videos and landed an in-person audition which seemed to go well. Certainly, she thought, this seemed miles better than the long-shot chaos of the cattle call auditions for "American Idol" she'd lined up for back in high school.
And after a few months of back and forth?
"Nothing!" Mukul says, remembering how disappointed she felt when the phone calls and emails from the casting agency stopped. "And I was so sad. I was going, 'I'm never trying out for a reality show again!"
But while Mukul might have thought she was done with TV singing competitions, the show wasn't done with her. And on Thursday, when "The Next" airs on the CW network at 9 p.m., Mukul arrives on a national stage with a chance to win a contract with Atlantic Records.
"I still can't believe it happened," she says. "It was like a dream."
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As a child, maybe three years old, Mukul learned to sing along with the Disney and Christian music sing-along albums she listened to at home. The fireplace hearth was her stage, her mother and grandma her audience.
At Calvary Chapel Academy in Yorba Linda, she sang in the elementary school choir and blossomed, her mother says, in the spotlight of school musicals, belting out her songs with confidence and poise. "We couldn't believe it was her, because she was normally so shy," says Tammy Nadel, her mom.
When she was 14 or 15, her blues-playing stepdad Jeff Nadel taught her a few guitar chords and her first song, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." She showed promise, so he signed her up for lessons and she quickly learned her way around an acoustic guitar.
At 15, she started playing live, her first gig at Java Joe's in Yorba Linda, where she played covers such as Jewel's "Who Will Save Your Soul?" Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones" and K.T. Tunstall's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree."
"Now I don't get nervous," Mukul says. "But then I was so scared to talk between songs. I was really shy so I'd pretty much just play my songs."
Getting out of the coffee-shop-and-restaurant circuit and into street performing cured her of that, she says. After learning enough songs to play for three or four hours at a stretch, she got permits to play at Irvine Spectrum, Anaheim Garden Walk and the Birch Street Promenade in Brea.
"It's different there because people aren't there to see you, so you have to get their attention," Mukul says. "It needs to be upbeat. What's popular on the radio, that's great. And then you can throw in an original between songs."
A three-hour set would usually earn her $100 or more, not bad money compared to the minimum wage jobs she worked at places such as Java Joe's and Golden Spoon frozen yogurt.
One of those restaurant gigs when she was about 16 also landed her a good contact in the music scene. Orange County-based keyboard player Jason Freese, currently part of Green Day's touring band, was playing with singer-songwriter Jewel a few years back when he and his wife went to dinner at Fitness Pizza in Yorba Linda and caught a then-16-year-old Mukul belting out one of Jewel's hits.
"He called up Jewel and said, 'There's this girl in here, she's singing your song and doing it great,'" Mukul says. And then introduced himself and eventually recorded a song with her and also used her for backing vocals on sessions he produced for bands such as Zebrahead and Death By Stereo.
"I got an email from him today," she says. "He's so excited (about 'The Next'). He said, 'I knew it! I'm proud!'"
* * *
At Cal State Fullerton, Mukul majored in business with a focus on entertainment management, and minored in music. She interned at Atlantic Records and Cartoon Network. And almost as soon as she graduated in 2011 moved to Los Angeles to stay with her father, Agustin Mukul, as she tried to break into the business.
"It was a little scary," she says of the decision to forgo the safety of a career job to work as a server at Buffalo Wild Wings in Hollywood and Sammy's Wood-Fired Pizza in Studio City, jobs she still holds today. "I thought, 'OK, if I don't get to do my music maybe I'll be on the business side.' But then I thought, 'No way, I want to be an artist.'"
So eventually she decided to contact the casting agency one last time and see if they might want to hear a few new songs she'd recorded. The response she got thrilled her: The show had been picked up by the CW Network and would she like to come in for another audition?
Things moved quickly then. There were papers to sign, songs to pick, rehearsals with the show band, and finally the green light: Be home on Monday, we'll come by with a camera crew to get some footage of you.
"I don't think it hit me until I was driving away, screaming," Mukul says.
As the camera crew filmed her singing in a home recording studio she finally learned who her professional mentor would be. (The gimmick on "The Next" is that four contestants in each of six different cities get paired up with professional mentors: Country singer and producer John Rich, Latin pop singer Gloria Estefan, hip-hop artist Nelly and pop star Joe Jonas.)
"There was a lady's voice saying, 'Let's do that again,' and I just sort of assumed it was one of the producers," Mukul says. "And then Gloria peeked her head through and I was so surprised."
Three days of filming ensued, with Estefan coaching Mukul on the song she would sing on the show, Lady Gaga's "You And I." One of the main things they worked on was how to give a strong performance without her guitar, something she'd seldom done.
"(Estefan) told me, 'You have a unique voice, and the things you do with it are unique,'" Mukul says. "I do these blues-soul runs, that's my distinctive thing, so she'd say, "OK, do that again, that's your sound.'"
But without the guitar, Mukul kept making movements that were distracting, Estefan thought, so she made her sing it over and over with her hands in her pockets.
"I would have never thought to do that but I felt immediately that I had a very strong connection to the song," Mukul says. "That was the main thing she helped me with, just being natural."
The episode was taped last month at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles and Mukul says she felt really good about her performances. The live audience there voted for the singer they liked best and if it's Mukul, she'll advance to the next round against the other city winners. If it's not, there's still a chance for her to advance through an online vote of the runners-up.
Her mother thought she nailed it, but then that's what moms do.
"She just belonged there," Tammy Nadal says. "She was just so beautiful and classy. I felt, 'OK, she's doing the right thing.'"
Mukul says she hopes she wins the whole thing, of course, but even if she doesn't she thinks "The Next" will help her advance her career and her dream.
"I think it will help me get a manager," she says. "I don't want to keep waiting tables and wasting time. So I'll have the ability to say, 'I was on this, I've got a fan base.'
"There are so many talented people in L.A. Now I feel I have a little leg up."
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