Ryan Berg. Photo by aetphotos.

Back in September, the first promos for the 19th season of The Voice focused on one sharp-dressed contestant in the popular television singing competition. Lake Highlands High graduate Ryan Berg was shown bantering with judges and receiving an offer to sing on Team Gwen Stefani. Tonight, with blind auditions completed and all teams filled, battle rounds begin on NBC. Berg says he and his new musical friends are ready.

Berg grew up performing in school musicals, singing with the pop show choir Espree and wowing crowds at student talent showcases like Varsity Revue and Senior Show. He’d been honing his craft at intimate venues across the Southwest before the pandemic shuttered bars and halted live performances.

This second phase of the show will feature pairs of team members performing together, and coaches Stefani, Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson and John Legend selecting just one to advance to the next round. When chairs turned during blind auditions, Stefani used a “block” to keep Legend from signing Berg. Legend, or any coach, could use a “steal” to take him back.

When I spoke to Berg, he couldn’t say whether his particular battle would air tonight or over the next few Mondays and Tuesdays. He did say learning from talented artists from all over America with affinities for other music genres was educational – and enjoyable – for the 27-year-old.

“One of my favorite parts of the show is meeting people and making connections,” said Berg. “We all have similar aspirations going into it, and our goal is to be the best person and performer we can possibly be. We don’t know each other’s backgrounds, but discovering that about each other is part of the fun.”

Berg said artists aren’t naïve. They understand that every friendship they make, every partnership they forge on the show, could be with a person who doesn’t return. They know what they signed up for – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy when a performer they’ve learned to love packs their suitcase and rolls away.

“It is a concern – investing in people you meet,” said Berg. “Unfortunately, that is part of the process. People start leaving. During the blind audition phase, I made friends with people who didn’t get their chair turned. That was painful.”

Also painful, he said, can be comments found on the internet now that he’s introducing himself to a national audience. Alone on their laptops, strangers can be brutal in their assessments. For now, Berg is choosing not to read them.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what’s been written about me,” he shared. “I’m staying away from social media and keeping myself safe from all that.”

Every singer on The Voice shares their backstory during the first round, and Berg’s testimonial was more personal than most. He grew up in a conservative household and was introduced to music at a young age by his father, a drummer. He enjoyed singing in the church and knew early that music was his calling. His tight-knit household was rocked, though, when his mom came out as lesbian when Berg was 18. In the 9 years since, both parents have happily remarried. Berg feels lucky to have three moms and one dad cheering him on as his musical journey continues.

“What happens behind closed doors is nobody’s business,” Ryan said bluntly. “My mom’s love for me has stayed constant, and my parents still love each other. Dad stayed like a rock through everything. He built me to be who I am today with constant love.”

Berg admitted he was disappointed by the way some handled changes in his family, and that inspired his song choice during the blind audition.

“Growing up, I was heavily influenced by John Mayer – I still am,” explained Berg. “Now I’ve seen the real meaning of ‘Waiting On the World to Change.’ It’s political. It’s a ‘power to the people’ song. This is the time to bring that message. People need to hear it.”

Moving forward, Coach Gwen will control his song choice, and that’s fine with Berg. During his years writing songs and performing solo and with his band, The Velvet Ears, in venues like The Rustic, Barley House, Double Wide and The Goat, he’s learned to appreciate his audience’s role in music-making.

“In terms of my profession, what’s most important is creating solid bonds with my fan base. You can be a solid singer, but you have to be able to give back musically – to connect with the people. I think Gwen can help me do that. Music is a universal language, and I want to connect with people I don’t necessarily know.”

During blind auditions, Berg was smooth and relaxed while singing but admitted it was mildly awkward as Stefani and Legend fought over him and laughed about “blocking” and other coaching strategies. Stefani promised she’d use her experience as a Grammy-winning rock star to help Berg develop the kind of stage presence he’ll need to command larger crowds.

“When I walked out onto that stage facing the backs of those four chairs, confidence was my biggest issue,” said Berg. “Self-doubt was at my center point. That’s why Gwen is perfect for me. She can be a life coach as well as a voice coach. My comfort zone is when I’m singing. Even in Dallas, I’m most uncomfortable when I’m talking on the microphone. That’s almost haunting to me. When I’m singing, I’m confident. I’m authentic. It feels organic. I’m prepared. This is what I’ve worked on for the past ten years.”

Berg persevered during early stages of the pandemic, posting songs online occasionally and supporting other artists hit hard when venues closed, but he was desperate to get back to performing for an audience. He believes the stars have aligned to bring him to this moment in the national spotlight.

“A year or two ago, I wouldn’t have made it to The Voice,” he said. “I’ve been doing 300 shows a year all across Texas and throughout Oklahoma and Louisiana. Success is all about practice – being on stage and believing you are good enough. That’s an issue I’ve had to get over.”

Berg said competition is particularly tough this season, with ambitious and talented artists on every team. So far, he’s found them generous – willing to share advice and cheer for each other. That’s why he thinks he may pick up as much backstage as he does in front of the camera.

“I have a lot to learn from the other contestants. At the end of the day, we’re from different walks of life, but we’ve all had valuable experiences that led us here. This show is special. We all use music differently. The Voice has expanded the way I think about life.”

You can watch The Voice Monday and Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. on NBC 5.