By Courtney Rae Kasper
Carrie Manolakos knew the minute she stepped on stage at Greenwich Village’s Le Poisson Rouge last April, it was the biggest moment in her career. It was the launch of her debut album, Echo, and marked the first time she had ever presented herself to the audience as just Carrie rather than as the Broadway actress playing some character. But the blue-eyed brunette songbird never expected that the song she chose to end the show with would make her an Internet sensation overnight.
A video of the live performance of her haunting cabaret rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” went viral, thanks to a flattering Gawker post that praised her “upsettingly good” cover. Manolakos, whose powerhouse vocals could match divas like Beyonce and Adele, immediately became the blogosphere’s buzz of the month.
“It happened so quickly. I’ve never experienced anything like that ever,” said Manolakos, a 2002 graduate of Manlius Pebble Hill. “By Monday, if I put my phone down for a minute, I would have 40 emails. It was insane. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. At the time there wasn’t a team or PR person, it was just me at my email address, and it spread all on its own. It made me so excited again about the industry.”
Since then, that four-minute-and-54-second YouTube clip has been viewed more than one million times, caught the Twitter attention of celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Josh Groban and landed her a spot on Elle Magazine’s “30 Under 30: Essential Names to Know.”
But just as any good musical’s book goes, this leading lady’s shining second-act finale didn’t come easy.
While acting as the Elphaba standby during the second national tour of the smash musical Wicked in 2009, Manolakos began to struggle with her identity as an artist. The experience of being on the road for 13 months, spending most of her nights waiting in the wings only to go on if the lead actress fell ill, proved to be far different from her former gig starring every night as Sophie Sheridan in Mamma Mia!
“I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself,” she said. “I associated myself as Carrie the singer and it was going hand in hand with being a performer, but I was going six weeks at a time without performing which had never happened in my life before. It was like I lost a part of my identity. I loved doing the show; it was a huge challenge, but it was a lot of sitting around backstage in a dark theater listening to the show going on and also not being connected to my friends, home or family.”
Ironically, much like Elphie, the misunderstood green-skinned character who literally rises above the weight of the world that had been holding her down during the song “Defying Gravity,” Manolakos decided to take matters into her own hands and trust her instincts, regardless of the outcome. She picked up a guitar, learned to play and spent her tour downtime writing music. As she publicly blogged about this experience on her website in March, “… I saw my first glimpse of freedom. This time I will sing my way and say what I want to say. There are no rules …”
A year later, she officially wiped off the emerald stage makeup, returned to Manhattan and booked her first solo shows. Within seven months, she released Echo, a collection of seven original tracks that reflect the emotional hardship of always “packing my bags and catching my planes” to discovering her musical freedom as a solo musician.
And letting the public hear the real Carrie has been widely accepted: she sold out back-to-back concerts at notable venues throughout The Big Apple, went on a mini tour this summer, was named in the top 100 on iTunes pop chart and later this year, she’s set to both star in and compose the soundtrack for an independent film.
“I feel that I just now found my voice. As soon as I stopped playing by the rules or sounding how I thought I should sound, my voice found itself,” she said. “It’s always been important to study technique and have a range and the ability to sing any genre, but it is essentially one voice and what I’ve found is that as an instrument you can make it sound however you want it to sound, but then taking all of that away I was really just singing to sing. It’s been so liberating because I went back to those influences I had as a kid and in college that are not theatrical like Whitney Houston, Jeff Buckley and Eva Cassidy, and sing from such an emotional place. I always knew that was in me, but I had so many different channels that it was coming out of that weren’t authentically me. It was really thrilling to be able to find that sound. I’ve been trying to be someone else for so long it was an opportunity to invent myself. I feel like I have something now that is totally mine.”
While Manolakos may have closed the curtain on putting her stage career first for now, she said she would return if the right project came along. Her future is unlimited, and she couldn’t be happier. As the lyrics to her song “The Best One” reveal, Manolakos is finally home and she’s not leaving anytime soon.