As Kieran Rhodes finished the first verse of Billy Joel’s “She’s Got a Way,” Simon Cowell put up his hands to stop the “America’s Got Talent” audition.
NBC’s cameras jumped to Rhodes’ mother, Mia Scirocco, biting her lower lip in worry.
“You just always want your children to be happy and succeed, and anything that happens that could possibly hurt them in the tiniest bit, your heart breaks. As a mom, that’s just what we do. I just went into Mom Mode,” Scirocco said by phone Wednesday. “I just prayed. However it unfolds, we’ve just got to roll with it.”
It wasn’t the first time Scirocco worried about her younger son, a 2020 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School graduate.
Last fall, Scirocco said Rhodes, now 20, was calling her multiple times a day from Boston, where he is enrolled at Berklee College of Music, to tell his mom that he was sad and didn’t feel like himself.
On his worst day, Rhodes cried for an hour in an alley. People on the street came up to him to ask if he was OK, he said in a video call with The Daily Gazette Wednesday.
Rhodes couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was wrong. Maybe it was being far from home. Maybe it was being at an elite music school and feeling like a fraud, since he’d only started taking music seriously in high school.
“It was all a huge storm of everything,” Rhodes said.
During his bout with depression, Rhodes wrote a song called “Disengage,” laying bare everything that was on his mind.
“Disengage,” the chorus goes. “Get out of range. We were made to change. Someone’s gotta help me, someone’s gotta help me, someone’s gotta help me disengage.”
So, when Cowell cut Rhodes off in the middle of Rhodes’ Billy Joel cover, part of him was almost glad.
“When he cut me off, I listened to him. I thought ‘I’m in this situation right now, and I have to deal with it,’” Rhodes said.
Cowell asked if Rhodes had any original music. The 20-year-old was poised, explaining that he had a song called “Disengage” born out of a recent period of depression.
“Actually, I was very relieved when he asked me to do an original song,” Rhodes said. “I really want to be recognized as a songwriter, as an artist. So I think deep down in my heart, I really wanted to play ‘Disengage,’ and I’m glad it worked out that way.”
Wearing bracelets, a gray T-shirt, skinny jeans and his reddish hair curled at the front, Rhodes turned back to the piano, closed his eyes, and started playing.
That’s when Scirocco started crying, remembering what it was like to be on the other end of the phone, desperately wanting to help her son.
“It still hurts me to hear that song, and I actually cry when I talk about this because he was so sad,” Scirocco said. “He was away at school, and I’m trying to help him — I helped him find [a professional] to talk to. But as a parent, you can’t always help, and it’s painful to watch your child go through any kind of pain.”
By playing “Disengage” on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” Rhodes had just shared some of his greatest vulnerabilities with the world.
The moment was a far cry from much of Rhodes’ childhood, when he thought being in the band was too nerdy.
“I was in the school band, but it was almost academic. It was like school to me, another class that I had to do,” Rhodes said. “I used to be super self-conscious about it. I used to think being in the band wouldn’t make me cool, and when you’re a freshman in high school you just want to be cool.”
Through middle school and even early into high school, Rhodes was all baseball all the time. He played fall ball and summer ball. He dreamed of going to college on a baseball scholarship. Yes, he played percussion in the school band, but it never really mattered to him. It was more a way to appease Scirocco, herself a professional musician who works as an adjunct instructor of Voice and Rock Music Styles at SUNY Schenectady.
But during high school, music clicked for Rhodes when he randomly sat down at his mother’s piano.
The first song he figured out how to play was “How to Save a Life,” by The Fray. He didn’t know how to read music, so he learned by ear and sight — and by watching a lot of YouTube videos. He practiced that song so incessantly, that Scirocco had to close the door to keep her sanity.
When Rhodes felt like he had the song perfected, he played it at Carney’s Tavern in Ballston Lake, where Rhodes and his older brother, Cameron, had a monthly show. Up until then, the gigs at the bar were fairly meaningless to Rhodes.
“It got old fast because as I started developing my musicianship, I discovered that I didn’t want to be a background drummer,” Rhodes said.
Once he was able to perform on his own, Rhodes knew exactly what he wanted out of music.
“One song turned into two songs, two songs turned into three songs, and three songs turned into me splitting the set with my brother,” he said.
Rhodes agreed to join BH-BL’s jazz band under the direction of Benjamin O’Shea, even though Rhodes never considered himself a “jazz cat.” He said being in the jazz band, with weekly evening rehearsals and out-of-town performances, helped him advance his skills.
O’Shea said Rhodes has always been genuine and hard-working, coming straight to rehearsals from baseball practice, still wearing his uniform.
“Regardless of what’s going on now, just the fact that someone appreciates that experience is very humbling for me,” O’Shea said.
At a school assembly, which was more or less a student talent show, Rhodes played an Elton John cover. That performance was the first time Principal Timothy Brunson became aware of Rhodes’ musical abilities. Up until then, Brunson knew Rhodes mostly as a baseball guy.
“Kieran kind of flew under the radar here until about his junior year,” Brunson said, describing him as polite and talented. “I’d like to think that we kind of cultivated that and gave him his first chance to perform and his first chance to play publicly.”
Rhodes said the performance at the student assembly gave him a glimpse into his future.
“That was my first sneak peak of what my life was going to be on a small scale,” Rhodes said.
That future led him to Berklee, where nearing the end of his troubling fall semester, he got a call from his friend. That friend was an older Berklee student aspiring to go into music management. The friend had adopted Rhodes as something of a client.
When Rhodes got the call, he was at the school cafeteria with a girl he had a crush on. But the friend said Rhodes needed to go immediately to a performance space a half-mile away. All the friend told Rhodes was that important people were on campus assessing students’ talent.
At first, Rhodes told his friend he was busy.
“I was frazzled. This is so last minute,” Rhodes said of the call. “Then I hung up the phone, and I was sitting there with the girl, and I was like, ‘What if this is it?’ That’s just what it is, like what if?”
Rhodes apologetically left his date and hurried across campus. He played “Disengage” for a panel of four people, who offered some career advice and words of encouragement. The whole experience ended up being fairly nondescript, and Rhodes had no idea who the people even were.
Two weeks later, he was called to Berklee’s career center, where one of those panelists was waiting for him on a Zoom call. That panelist said she was a producer for “America’s Got Talent,” and she wanted Rhodes to be on Season 17 of the show.
That’s how, in late April, Rhodes found himself auditioning in front of a live audience in California and a much more famous panel of four: Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum and Howie Mandel.
That April audition aired Tuesday night on NBC.
After Rhodes finished “Disengage,” the audience rose in ovation.
“I think we just witnessed something super special right now,” host Terry Crews told the camera.
“I could hear you play and sing forever,” Vergara said.
“I could feel the emotion,” Mandel said. “I could tell you are nervous, but you are a star, young man.”
The four judges gave Rhodes “yeses,” meaning he’s now in Burnt Hills awaiting his fate to learn if he made it through judges’ cuts and will be back for the live shows that begin August 9. Word is expected any day.
Rhodes is not the first Capital Region local to have success on reality TV. Glenville native and magician Steven Brundage was on “America’s Got Talent” in 2016, and Schenectady High School graduate Ezra Masse-Mahar appeared on the show in 2017 with the dance company Diavolo.
Sawyer Fredericks, who grew up on a Montgomery County farm and who currently lives in Troy, won Season 8 of “The Voice.”
“[Rhodes] said he was from Burnt Hills, and I was thinking that’s only 30 minutes away from where I’m living right now!”
Fredericks said Wednesday. Fredericks, a singer/songwriter, said it’s important that Rhodes stay true to himself during the ride he’s about to encounter.
“Take care of yourself in the sense that you are going to be thrust into this world, where you have so many people looking to you and giving you tons of information about their lives, and it’s going to be very, very overwhelming,” Fredericks said. “One of the things that Pharrell told me when I was on “The Voice” was to not read the comments. He meant don’t read the comments because you can start catering to your audience instead of to yourself. Keep it focused on your original work.”
During Tuesday’s show, Cowell said Rhodes’ feelings of not belonging resonated with his own experiences. Cowell, the famed producer and TV personality known for his blunt assessments, said when he was first making his way in the music business, he felt inadequate because he worked in the mailroom and didn’t have a college degree.
“It is still in my head now, and I think what you’re going through is not dissimilar,” Cowell told Rhodes. “It plays on your mind and you get depressed, but I didn’t have the talent you’ve got.”
Before granting Rhodes “over 3,000 yeses,” Cowell told the young musician from Burnt Hills: “I really do hope this audition can change your life.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.