Student musician’s journey to Cyclone Voice stardom

Sophomore student Andersen Coates performs Traveller, a song that he wrote himself. Cyclone Voice, a singing competition that focuses on the vocal talents of Iowa State students, took place April 11 at the Memorial Union. The event was hosted by 12-year-old country music star, Mason Ramsey.

Trevor Babcock

This year’s Cyclone Voice winner originally didn’t plan to enter. Last year he shocked himself by advancing to the finals.

“I’m by no means billed as a singer or anything,” said Andersen Coates, a 19-year-old sophomore in architecture. 

Of the 15 Cyclone Voice contestants, he was the only contestant to perform an original song. He knew there would be plenty of slow, emotional songs and wanted to bring something different to the table.

Coates selected “Traveler,” a high energy, bluesy, country song that complimented his hearty voice and flashy guitar playing. The first-place performance stood out because of his display of the complete image of an artist. He demonstrated technical, creative and confident ability. Coates uses music for more than displaying talent. He uses it as an outlet for expression and to make sense of today’s world.

Coates considers his voice to be the last piece to his artistic puzzle. Playing guitar and writing songs comes naturally, and he gravitated to blues rock for its roots in guitar. Coates said he doubts he’ll ever release a song without the instrument. He describes his style as organic, raw Americana lightly coated with a sheen of contemporary pop-rock production. His sound is not a meticulous creation, but rather a reflection of the self.

“That type of music is different compared to everything else that’s out there right now,” Coates said. “It’s kind of who I am, rather than being a super polished pop singer. It comes down to authenticity.”

Now, Coates’ rule of thumb is that if the gig is not paid or an excellent exposure opportunity, he will not take it. As a hobby, music is easily at the top of the list for Coates.

“It’s something I can put a lot of hours and hours and hours into and it doesn’t feel like work,” Coates said.

He can’t help but dream of making it big. However, Coates is still all-in when it comes to architecture. Coates views it as another creative outlet, which is why he chose the major. Math and science didn’t attract Coates. He needed to do something that fostered his creativity.

”I think my mind operates less in like a systematic fashion and in more of a fluid way,” Coates said. “It’s a little harder to pinpoint, but when I start writing something I feel passionate about I can just write pages and pages and it doesn’t feel like anything. It just feels natural.” 

Singing came after writing for Coates. He still feels more comfortable with a pen or a guitar to this day, but when he began to write songs he didn’t know who else could sing them if not him.

”At the end of the day, the most important part of a song is its writing,” Coates said. “There’s really no amount of production that can make a song inherently good. You can make it catchy, you can make it polished, but in my opinion if you can’t strip a song down to a piano or a guitar or a voice it kind of feels cheap to me.” 

Coates finds inspiration from personal experience and his analysis of the world.

“Today’s world is really tricky to navigate,” Coates said. “It’s really tricky to make sense of it. It feels like there’s a lot going on that can’t be controlled and it is just impossible to wrap one’s mind around.” 

Coming of age in the current state of political divide and lack of selflessness in the world left Coates feeling confused. He decided that he needed to proactively fight for what he believes in. He wrote “Electrified,” a song about hate and lack of selflessness. His song, “Bleed The Same,” was written about a friend who was being treated unfairly by those around them. The song was his way of reaching out through music.

“At the end of the day, we all bleed the same,” the chorus reads.

Coates’ image of an artist began taking shape in his earliest memories at three years old. Coates would tour around the Midwest with his dad’s band, Just William. He also remembers hearing their charting single “Rosalie” on the radio.

“He was around music pretty much since the time he was born,” said Jim Coates, his father. Jim Coates remembers his son watching him play a New Year’s Eve show from a car seat shortly after his birth.

Andersen remembers hopping in the van on weekend runs from his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Rochester, Minnesota, to spend the day hanging with the guys. Coates recounted watching his dad open for Eddie Money in front of a crowd of 26,000.

“It felt really natural when my dad eventually bought me my first guitar a few years later,” Andersen Coates said. “I guess I never really made a conscious decision to do it, it was just right off the bat.” 

At six-years-old, his dad started teaching him to play guitar. Music first started to click with Coates when his dad would play him blues records from guitar icons such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Brian Setzer.

”That was when I first started feeling a passion,” Andersen Coates said. Like wow, I really like this. I just remember a big smile on my face whenever my dad would play anything like that.”

Having been a guitar teacher, Jim Coates noticed his son practiced more than other students. Rarely did any material take Andersen Coates more than a week to learn. Andersen Coates always had a knack for being on stage too, performing with plastic toy guitars on the hearth of the family fireplace.

Six years after his dad started teaching him, Andersen Coates was teaching himself. Throughout elementary and middle school he’d practice two to three hours a day. 

His first performance at age 11 was at his grandfather’s funeral. His grandfather died unexpectedly, prompting the Coates family to drive nine and a half hours to South Dakota to visit him in the hospital. Staying the week, Coates circled up with family and local musicians at a music store to play folk songs.

“It was such an awesome sense of community,” said Andersen.

Later in the week, Jim Coates grabbed a guitar off the walls of the store and asked Andersen Coates to perform at the funeral.

“I don’t remember anything with nerves,” Andersen Coates said. “The last of my concerns was playing or messing up or anything. I was definitely old enough for the full emotional burden of the funeral to settle on me.”

Growing up in a Christian home, Andersen began to perform in church at age 13. His first performance outside of a church setting came at age 15 at an open mic night at the Groundswell in Cedar Rapids. In front of an audience of mostly family, he performed a 20-minute set with his high school buddy. Later, they were invited to play at the venue’s grand re-opening. Andersen Coates returns every so often to open for national artists.

His most meaningful performance finished with a guitar battle with his dad at last year’s Iowa State Fair. It was their first time playing together outside of church. Jim Coates remembers it as the last time he played a song better than his son.

“Since then he’s continued to sharpen his skills,” Jim Coates said. “I’m not sure I can hold my own against him anymore.”