Sixteen years ago, at the height of “Bennifer” mania, a young actress named Raquel Castro received what seemed like the showbiz break of a lifetime, when she was cast as Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s precocious daughter, Gertie Trinké, in the rom-com Jersey Girl. But, much like J.Lo and Affleck’s whirlwind tabloid romance, everything went downhill soon after. And when Castro’s acting career didn’t take off as she’d hoped, she struggled mentally and emotionally — until music saved her.
“After I did Jersey Girl, I had nothing to work on, and I went through a really bad depression. When I started songwriting, honesty, it felt like this is what I’m supposed to do. … It’s just, like, the only thing that makes me feel whole,” Castro explained through tears Monday, when she competed on Songland and pitched her original composition, “Wrong Places,” to two-time Grammy winner H.E.R.
This wasn’t Castro’s first appearance on an NBC talent show. Way back on the very first season of The Voice, when she was 16, she reinvented herself as a pop singer and made it onto Christina Aguilera’s team. But while Aguilera and Castro seemed to bond over their similar former-child-star backstories, Castro was ultimately eliminated during top16 live rounds. Castro has only worked sporadically in the nine years since (though she did land a recurring role on Empire Season 2 in 2015), so it was understandable that there was a lot riding on this Songland moment for her.
“I’ve waited years and years and years to be standing here right now,” said Castro, now age 25. “Being here on Songland gives me that confidence that I think I’ve been needing for a very, very long time.”
Well, it seemed like this “Wrong Places” singer-songwriter was finally in the right place at the right time. Her twinkling, plaintive ballad (doo-woppy and girl-group-y in a Nicole Atkins sort of way) — which Castro confessed she’d penned while in a “very vulnerable mental state” and “feeling broken” — impressed H.E.R. and judges Ester Dean, Shane McAnally, and Ryan Tedder so much, it seemed they barely wanted to change a note. There have been past Songland episodes when contestants’ submissions have undergone such radical workshopping that they were rendered near-unrecognizable, but in this case, the episode’s usual round-two workshop session almost didn’t even seem necessary. A satisfied H.E.R. told Castro, “You hit everything on the mark,” and Dean raved, “It’s a bunch of checkmarks here. I didn’t hear nothing [wrong], honey.”
But the workshop round proceeded with Tedder, who was assigned to be Castro’s mentor. The OneRepublic frontman said her song was “insane” (in a good way), but he thought it could benefit from a few minor chord substitutions and lyrical variations. (Castro did rely on the word “love” a little too much.) The acoustic arrangement they came up with was lovely — it reminded me of some of Amy Winehouse’s jazzy unplugged radio performances from the mid-2000s, like this one), but for the final version that Castro performed back in the judges’ deliberation room, Tedder punched up the production, big-time. The end result was pretty and lush, very Lily Allen/Natasha Bedingfield, yet Castro’s melody remained intact. It sounded like a hit. Surely if Castro had performed this on The Voice Season 1, she would have made it farther than the Voice top 16.
H.E.R. thought “Wrong Places” was the right choice, and so, Castro won this episode. The Jersey Girl is all grown up now. “This truly feels like a new chapter in my life, and I’m just so excited to see what [H.E.R.] does with a song that I wrote from my heart, literally like I was writing in my diary,” a delighted Castro gushed.
I must say, while “Wrong Places” sounded like a winner from the start, this had to be the stiffest Songland competition to date. I am surprised H.E.R. didn’t actually pull a will.i.am and choose all three songs. On any other episode, powerhouse Jocelyn Alice’s brassy and audacious unrequited-love missive ”How Could You Not Know?” — which H.E.R. compared to Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” — would have had a shot, especially if another artist had been the celebrity guest. (For instance, I think Alicia Keys or John Legend could have done a great job with Alice’s track.)
But Axel Mansoor’s sexy and sultry “Scary” was my favorite entry of the night. It was so Miguel, so 24K Bruno Mars… but really, Mansoor ought to just record it and have a smash hit with it himself, because he possesses a glass-shattering falsetto that rivals that of any A-list pop showman. “It’s such a vibe. You are a mood,” H.E.R. said of Mansoor’s joyous performance. Tedder actually said, “I need another song to get that one out of my head,” and McAnally added, “I’m going to need to hear five songs to get that out of my head!” (Well, I suppose Castro’s “Wrong Places” is a good way for Ryan and Shane to start that post-“Scary” ear-deworming process, so to speak, because her winning tune is also catchy as hell.)
Listen to H.E.R.’s official “Wrong Places” recording below. Next week, Songland will help country Martina McBride in her search for her next big hit.
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