In July 2022, “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice” contestant Nolan Neal was found dead at 41 years of age. The rock singer whose performances touched millions of viewers across the globe, had been suffering from substance abuse issues for most his career, and reportedly succumbed to his addiction.
Who was Nolan Neal?
Nolan Neal was born on 6 October 1981, in Nashville, Tennessee. He grew up as only child, in a family of devout Baptist Christians. He inherited his artistic ability from both of his parents – his mother was a painter and a singer, while his father played the drums in a rock band, and was also a US Army veteran,.
During his teenage years, Nolan accompanied his father to his band’s shows which sparked his interest in playing music himself. Nolan soon joined a local band, and eventually began performing his own songs. In 2006, he signed a deal with Virgin Records, which he had hoped would kickstart his career, but unfortunately his substance abuse issues got in the way of his career success. He was set to record his debut album, but since he would arrive to the studio under influence and unable to sing, Nolan was soon dropped by his label, which prompted him to seek help for his drug addiction. After returning from rehab, he began working as a demo artist to make ends meet.
In 2012, he launched his own production company called N&N Productions, which provided songs for advertisements, TV shows and movies. Despite his lifelong passion for music, Nolan didn’t gain widespread recognition until his first TV appearance.
In 2016, he made his TV debut on the 10th season of the popular singing contest “The Voice”. His blind audition, for which he prepared a rock cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, wooed the judging panel, and earned him a spot on Adam Levine’s team. Nolan advanced to the knockout round, during which he was eliminated
He tried his luck again in 2020, this time auditioning for “America’s Got Talent”, performing his original song “Lost” – the first piece of music he wrote after returning from rehab. During his debut “AGT” appearance, Nolan shared a touching story about his life. ‘When I was 26 everything was happening the way it was supposed to happen, but one day my dad called me and told me he was going to take his life. (…) The next day I woke up to the news that he had done it.’, Nolan said. This event deeply hurt him, as Nolan looked up to his father all his life, and the traumatic experience further pushed him down the path of addiction.
Nolan’s story and song captivated the audience and the judging panel alike, and he advanced to the competition quarter-finals, performing his emotional song “Send Me a Butterfly”. Although he failed to gain the judges’ votes for the semi-finals, the video of his first “AGT” performance quickly went viral on YouTube, gaining over three million views in a short period of time. This success allowed Nolan to finally commit more of his time to music, and he went on to perform all across the US in the following two years.
Cause of death
Nolan’s rising career was cut short by his untimely passing. According to “TMZ”, his roommate and cousin, Dylan Seal, discovered his lifeless body in their Nashville apartment on the morning of 18 July 2022; the cause of his death hasn’t officially been disclosed. Police officers who investigated the scene had found a guitar pick with powder residue near Nolan’s bed, citing drug overdose as a possible cause of death.
Nolan left behind his wife Stephanie Neal and two children, daughter Caylin and son Cadence. ‘My dad didn’t get his redemption story, but he would’ve wanted everyone around him to have theirs. Write the song. Record the music. Dream the dream. But don’t let your struggles hold you back and take it all away. I’m thankful we have his music to remember him by, but I’m sad I’ll never get to hear another new song.’, Caylin wrote in a touching Facebook post.
Following Nolan’s passing, the family received an outpouring of love and support from his fans and friends alike, who posted a number of loving messages to the late musician’s social media accounts. Nolan’s family received over $25,000 in donations through a GoFundMe campaign, which Caylin set up to cover the funeral expenses. ‘As I’m sure you all have heard, my Dad passed away suddenly. He did not have any life insurance or any money whatsoever.’, she wrote. ‘The expenses that come from this are extensive as we are trying to prepare for his funeral and fly in his son & loved ones. If you want to help in anyway, you can donate here. Anything is appreciated and I am so grateful for the community rallying behind us.’
Nolan’s talent had a huge impact on the “AGT” main judge, Simon Cowell, who offered his condolences to the late singer’s family and friends, and shared his thought about his tragic passing. ‘Unfortunately, it happens too much over the years,’ Cowell said in his interview with “People” magazine. ‘I was thinking about this the other day. People [who] passed too soon. Every time it happens, because you’ve gotten to know them, it’s horrible.’
Nolan was one of four former “AGT” contestants who had passed away in late 2021 – early 2022.
A few months earlier, in February 2022, “ATG” lost another beloved contestant. Jane Kristen Marczewski aka Nightbirdie, a fellow singer-songwriter who auditioned for the show in 2021 lost her battle with cancer at only 31 years of age.
Born and raised in Ohio, Nightbirdie had been songwriting since the age of six. She started uploading her music online during her college years, and soon started doing live performances. In 2012, she released her first extended play (EP), entitled “Lines”, on which she sang and played the guitar. In the following year, she released her second album, “Ocean & Sky”, which she funded through a Kickstarter campaign.
Her music was a unique blend of pop and folk, which later evolved into electro-pop. Nightbirdie adopted her stage name based on a recurring dream she had of a bird singing outside her window at night. ‘Woke up in the night three times, dreaming of birds singing in the dark. The third time, I went to the window and they were there singing morning songs at 3am. I wanted to be one of them singing as if it was morning, though I couldn’t see it yet’, she revealed in a 2019 interview.
Prior to her appearance on “AGT” in 2021, Nightbirdie had already made a big name for herself locally, frequently performing in bars. For her TV debut, she sang her original song “It’s OK”, which she wrote about her life with a cancer diagnosis. Her performance and dedication earned her a standing ovation from the judges and the studio audience, and she had even received a Golden Buzzer from Simon Cowell. The song quickly went viral, reaching #1 spot on iTunes and peaking at #3 on the Billboard ‘Emerging Artists’ chart. With over 47 million views, “It’s OK” is one of the most watched “AGT” performances off all time on YouTube.
While it seemed that Nightbirdie was a lock-in for the season 16 finale, she had to withdraw from the competition prior to quarter-finals due to her worsening health. Cowell supported her decision, stating that she didn’t need more stress during such a tough time. He later said that he believed she could have gone all the way, even potentially winning the competition, if it had been possible.
Nightbirde passed away Sunday while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, which had metastasized to her lungs, spine and liver.
— King Melvin (@melvinnasasira) February 21, 2022
Nightbirdie was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, and was declared cancer-free a year later. Unfortunately, the cancer reoccurred in 2019, and she was given only six months to live, but her cancer seemingly disappeared several months later. Prior to appearing on “AGT”, she was told her cancer had come back again, and given a 2% survival diagnosis.
Jane passed away on 19 February 2022, surrounded by family in her San Clemente residence. Her family posthumously created The Nightbirdie Memorial Fund, which is dedicated to raising funds for cancer research, and patients who are unable to afford the treatment.
Two months prior, Skilyr Hicks, a season eight contestant, tragically passed away at only 23 years of age. A talented young musician, Skilyr started playing the guitar when she was 11, and made her appearance on “AGT” in 2013. Even though she was only 14 at the time, she had already written over 20 original songs, and had performed frequently. On the show, she shared the tragic story of her father’s death, saying that he was a big inspiration to her, and inspired her to make music.
For her audition performance, Skilyr sang her original song “Brand New Day”, dedicated to her late father. ‘It’s a message that came too late for my dad, but I know if he could see me now, he’d be really proud of me’, she said to the judges. Her performance earned her an approval from the panel, while the video went viral on social media, however, she didn’t advance to the quarter-finals.
Despite this, Skilyr was determined to continue pursuing her music career, and soon after the show aired, released her debut full-length album entitled “Brand New Day”. She also continued uploading covers of popular songs onto her YouTube channel, with the most viewed being a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” and Christina Aguilera’s “Say Something”.
Sadly, behind all the commercial success, Skilyr had been living a troubled life. In 2015, she went missing after school, which put her entire hometown of North Augusta on high alert. Luckily, she was found the same day. In the following year, Skilyr had many run-ins with the law – in 2017, she was jailed for assaulting her family members while under the influence of alcohol, and in the following year, was arrested for underage drinking – she was 20 at the time.
This showed up in my memories…two years ago today. I love you Skilyr and I miss you, yet I’m holding on to God’s promise of forever 🙏❤️
Another incident happened again in May 2021, when she went missing for the second time. At the time, the young artist struggled with mental health issues, which led the police to suspect possible suicide, but Skilyr was found alive five days later. On 5 December the same year, she disappeared again, and was found passed away at her friend’s house the following morning. According to the police report, she was discovered inside a bathroom, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, and was pronounced dead at the scene. The cause of her death hasn’t been officially revealed, but it’s suspected that she suffered an overdose.
Jay Jay Phillips
On Thanksgiving week of 2021, a three-time returning “AGT” star, Jay Jay Phillips passed away from a COVID-19 infection.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Jay Jay had been a keyboardist in a local band called Metal Mafia since 2009. He was known among fans of the show for his unique acts and signature look: long black hair, animal print clothes, and a comically large keyboard hanging from his neck. Jay Jay made his debut in season four of the show, playing an original solo piece he composed for the keyboard. Jay Jay, who was a college student at the time, showcased his love of rock music in a rather unconventional way, but sadly didn’t earn the judges’ approval, despite the ovations from the audience. He tired out his luck again in season eight, making it though auditions with a 3-1 vote, but didn’t advance further.
Four years later, Jay Jay came back with a keyboard cover of “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. He dedicated the performance to his ex-girlfriend, Amber, and talked about wanting to move away from his job at a fiber-glass factory. Although Heidi Klum buzzed his act, saying that she expected him to sing, the rest of the judging panel loved his quirky performance.
On 3 December 2022, “TMZ” reported that the musician had died at his home due to COVID-19 complications. Apparently, he had been sick for several days, but refused to go to hospital, believing that he just needed to take some rest. He was discovered dead on 25 November. ‘It is with great sadness we inform you all of the loss of our bandmate/brother/and friend @jayjayrocks. It still doesn’t feel real and we would give anything to change it. Please respect the family, as well as our wishes as we take our time to grieve and process this detrimental loss’ his band mates wrote on Instagram. ‘We miss you brother, every second of every minute, of every day. Thank you for teaching us all to laugh a little more. Rock in Paradise’.