Before his audition, Joe Maye knew his target.
Performing the Screamin' Jay Hawkins' song "I Put a Spell on You" on "The Voice" in March, the Randallstown native only wanted to lock eyes with Christina Aguilera, the NBC show's lone female coach at the time.
"I didn't want to sing 'I Put a Spell on You' to Pharrell. I needed Christina to turn around," Maye said last week, seated on a couch inside the Hippodrome Theatre, where he bartends.
Aguilera didn't just turn her chair in approval; she grabbed a microphone and joined Maye on stage for an impromptu, and unlikely, duet. The moment, which has been viewed more than 4.2 million times on YouTube, made Maye an overnight favorite.
He was eliminated by viewers a month later, but that hasn't stopped the 24-year-old singer-songwriter from trying to make the most of his exposure. As he prepares new material, Maye hopes to take advantage of the recent interest by turning his minor reality-TV fame into a sustained career.
"Especially at home, the opportunities have been coming," said Maye, who performs Sunday at Baltimore's African American Festival. "It's good to come back home and have so much love from my city."
Maye didn't always associate warm feelings with home. As a student at Randallstown High School who was most interested in singing and acting, Maye felt out of place. It became a feeling he could not shake, which made him reserved.
"It wasn't an arts scene. I didn't know where I fit in," Maye said. "It made me feel like, 'This isn't where I'm supposed to be.'"
A lone semester at the Community College of Baltimore County confirmed for Maye higher education was not his way out, so he took a job as a performing waiter on Spirit Cruises in the Inner Harbor. The job, which required him to expressively perform and sing for guests, pushed Maye out of his comfort zone and reignited his passion for singing.
The job also convinced Maye people actually liked how he performed.
"At first you think people are just being nice but I really started to push myself to do it," Maye said. "The more I put a little sway into my step, a little extra spin, a little extra singing to somebody — that was $20, $40 bucks extra."
Maye enjoyed the job, but soon realized he craved a spotlight beyond vacation entertainment.
He auditioned unsuccessfully for Seasons 8 and 9 of "The Voice." But on Maye's third try, he finally got through the televised "blind auditions" round — in which the famous coaches listen with their backs to contestants and choose an aspiring singer based solely on vocals.
Maye was coached by Aguilera first and then country singer Blake Shelton, but it was the former's advice that stuck with him most. Aguilera taught Maye to embrace his emotionally driven singing, and to not worry so much about hitting every note on the page.
"Being on 'The Voice,' there's so many different kinds of singers, and sometimes you'll compare yourself to them. I'll see so many other singers and they'll have perfect pitch. … I'm not that kind of singer," Maye said. "I just go in."
Back living in Randallstown, Maye now has the tall order of becoming a singer known for more than a reality singing competition. While people around him suggested he pursue R&B, Maye is writing soul-influenced pop-rock, like his new song "Who's That Girl." He calls the new song and video "my way of transitioning from the show to Joe Maye, the artist."
He'll follow "Girl" with another video for an original song in the coming months as a way to keep him fresh in the minds of fans. Maye hopes to independently release his first full-length album before the end of the year. He also has two pre-"Voice" EPs (2012's "Set Free" and 2014's "Her Song") that Maye hopes fans will discover in the meantime.
"I don't want to rush anything," Maye said. "I just really want people to connect with me as an artist first."
Maye aims to achieve this by touring. When a 25-date tour is suggested as a not-so-distant goal, he changes the number to 200.
On "The Voice," Maye got a small taste of the life he's dreamed of, and now he hopes to still make it happen, without a boost from a primetime TV slot.
"I'm never going to be satisfied," Maye said. "I love Baltimore, but I want to get out of the city. I feel like my music is very diverse. I feel like everyone all over can appreciate my sound."