Moments before his big blind audition on The Voice, Domenic Haynes felt a "nostalgic" and "adrenaline-filled" sensation that reminded him of running track in high school.
"It's the same feeling that I had right before my races, when I would walk up to the line and get down and set right before the gun went off," the 18-year-old singer said by phone Wednesday. "It gave me peace knowing that every time I would run my races and feel that way, I would do really well. So it was this super-homey, comfortable thing that I felt in the moment just prior."
Turns out his spidey sense was dead on. From the moment Haynes sang on NBC on Feb. 26, he was a sensation. Judge Adam Levine said he "might be my favorite singer in all 16 seasons of the show," thrusting the Alonso High School alum into the spotlight of a lifetime.
"It's been crazy, man," Haynes said. "All the support has been beautiful. Everybody that's been reaching out and showing how the audition has touched them in some kind of way, it was just awesome. I can't really put words to it."
While Haynes has been working toward a career in music for several years — at 16, he participated in the Grammy Museum's Music Revolution Project at Ruth Eckerd Hall — he didn't expect it to happen like this. Aside from the occasional open mic, he never really booked local gigs. In fact, he might be pursuing track and field in college right now, had a freshman-year injury not sidelined his career and steered his focus toward music.
"This is one of the first times I've committed to anything besides track and field, and everything came relatively quickly," he said. "All of the recognition and everything, it's not what I was expecting. I wasn't even expecting to get through."
Haynes was 8 when his family moved to Tampa from Northern California. His mother, a record-setting track star at the University of Southern California, and father, who played professional football in Europe, were real estate agents, and moved to Florida when the market bubble burst a decade ago.
At Bay Crest Elementary, Davidsen Middle to Alonso, Haynes was into track and skateboarding, but also developed eclectic tastes in music, from Amy Winehouse to Anderson Paak to the Australian soul outfit Hiatus Kaiyote. But his favorite genre is jazz, "Coltrane and Chet Baker and all of them."
After graduating high school last year, Haynes spent a few months in Europe, singing in the odd bar or club. He also auditioned for The Voice during a trip to Atlanta, where he happened to be meeting with a potential collaborator. After auditioning with George Ezra's Budapest, producers asked him back the next day. He crashed another night at an aunt's house before returning to Tampa via overnight Greyhound.
When he got the call for the blind audition round in Los Angeles last fall, he was nervous, but figured whatever happened would help him grow as an artist. He sang Leon Bridges's River in a soulful rasp, barely opening his eyes as he tried to live and feel the lyrics.
The judges were floored. Levine spun his chair about four seconds in. John Legend quickly followed, only to have his bid blocked by Levine. Blake Shelton spun around, too, and Kelly Clarkson called him a "natural-born storyteller," comparing him to Ray LaMontagne.
"You're my favorite singer I've heard," Legend told him. "Your tone is so interesting and beautiful. You made such excellent choices with every note you sang. It had so much subtlety and nuance. And the fact that you're 18, I'm amazed."
"I felt something in my bones when I heard you sing that I am lucky to feel ever in my life," Levine said.
"You have the ability to separate yourself from anybody else on this show," Shelton said.
Sure enough, as soon as the episode aired, Haynes was singled out by name in headlines around the world, with some crowning him the Season 16 front-runner. Haynes and his brother were visiting their grandmother in Panama at the time, but watched on YouTube and followed on Twitter and Instagram.
Haynes won't be back on The Voice until April for the battle rounds, which the show is currently filming. For now, he's back in Tampa, living his normal life. While he isn't planning to attend Shelton's concert on Friday at Amalie Arena ("I'm not the biggest country guy"), he is excited about the Gasparilla Music Festival on Saturday and Sunday. He's even entertained thoughts of asking if he can get up and sing.
And he's still glowing from the judges' comments that put him on the map.
"In my head, I was thinking, It's reality TV, it's going to be one of those reality-TV things where they just say things to say things," he said. "But it was this genuine connection from one artist to another artist about what they had thought, not only about that performance, but their thoughts on me as an aspiring artist. That, to me, was a beautiful thing."
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.