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He got David Archuleta through ‘American Idol.’ Now he’s helping this Utah singer in the ‘AGT’ finals

From the moment a 13-year-old Kenadi Dodds stepped into his studio, singing a fiery song she wrote about taking the world by storm, Dean Kaelin has known the young singer is capable of a whole lot.

SHARE He got David Archuleta through ‘American Idol.’ Now he’s helping this Utah singer in the ‘AGT’ finals
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Kenadi Dodds is pictured during the audition round of “AGT.” The 15-year-old country singer is one of 10 acts in the show’s finale, which airs tonight.

Justin Lubin/NBC

SALT LAKE CITY — Kenadi Dodds showed up on Dean Kaelin’s doorstep with a guitar and a power in her voice that belied her age. 

After stepping inside Kaelin’s small studio, a repurposed 1940s home on 45th South in Holladay, the 13-year-old belted out “Wildfire” — a song she wrote about a young artist who wishes to take the world by storm.  

That was two years ago. Kaelin, a longtime voice coach who has so many students that his wife has to help him out with names, thought he’d be done giving lessons by then. But the talent keeps coming. And he knew with a little coaching, Kenadi could get far. 

“It’s harder to get out of than I thought,” Kaelin said with a laugh. “I just was so taken by her energy, by her big voice, by her musicianship. At the age of 13, to be writing those good of songs. Just to have that poise and drive.” 

So Kaelin took her in. The teenager is the only person in her immediate family who doesn’t have retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disease that ultimately can cause people to be blind. Relying on a network of extended family, neighbors and friends, Kenadi started visiting Kaelin’s studio every other week — about a 90-minute drive each way from her North Logan home. 

In that little studio, Kenadi’s voice grew. She began recording and putting music online to develop a bigger following. And she’s put a lot of effort and energy into her lessons over the last two years. 

“Obviously you need a big break, but you need to be ready for that big break when it comes,” Kaelin said.

Well, the moment’s here. After “America’s Got Talent” rejected Kenadi twice, the budding country artist sang her way to the show’s finale. On Tuesday night, she was one of 10 remaining acts competing for the $1 million prize and a headlining show in Las Vegas. On Wednesday night, she finds out if she won.

Kenadi Dodds is pictured during the quarterfinal round of “AGT.” The 15-year-old singer is one of 10 acts in this season’s finale.

Kenadi Dodds is pictured during the quarterfinal round of “AGT.” The 15-year-old singer is one of 10 acts in this season’s finale, which airs Tuesday night.

Chris Haston, NBC

For Kaelin, this means his lessons with Kenadi ramped up. But they’re more sporadic. The teenager would FaceTime Kaelin a few times a day, in between “AGT” rehearsals, to warm up her voice, figure out the best key to perform a song in and to work on musical arrangements. 

This isn’t new to Kaelin, though.

He did this 12 years ago, when his longtime student David Archuleta made a big run on “American Idol.” Backstage, Archuleta would call Kaelin just minutes before performing on “Idol.” 

In some ways, Kenadi reminds Kaelin of Archuleta. When she talks, her demeanor is sweet and somewhat timid. But she does a complete 180 when she sings. 

“David Archuleta was honestly that shy — it wasn’t an act. He was that shy, but all of a sudden, as soon as he started singing, it wasn’t about him anymore. It was about the song and his connection to the song,” Kaelin said. “Kenadi’s a lot that way as well. Once she plays that first chord and her mouth opens, it’s all about the song and all about the emotion. All of the other stuff goes away.

“She’s not all caught up in this glamor of show business and stardom,” Kaelin continued. “She just wants to do her music.” 


Kaelin is quick to express his distaste for reality competitions like “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “AGT.” 

He’s had several students on these shows. He knows firsthand that it can be a real fight for the contestants to perform the songs they want. He’s seen how these shows don’t always have the contestants’ best interest in mind, instead looking for a good storyline or dramatizing situations for the sake of better ratings. He’s aware that it isn’t always about talent. 

“I’ve had some students over the years that were just amazing voices, but they don’t have stories,” Kaelin said. “They’re not as interesting to the TV shows that are trying to do some sort of a plot, build some sort of tension and all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of a struggle for them.” 

But time and time again, Kaelin will put all of the concerns aside and encourage his students to try out for these shows. And he does it for one sole reason: the exposure. 

“There’s so much music out there and there’s so many people on the internet, it’s like, how does anybody find anybody? It’s amazing to me that anybody gets found,” he said. “But what better way do you have to get exposure than to get on one of these shows and have millions of people see you? And so for that reason and that reason alone, it’s beneficial to do these shows just so that you can get a little energy going, a little momentum going.” 

And that’s what he told Kenadi. 

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Kenadi Dodds is pictured during her audition for “AGT.” The 15-year-old country singer is one of 10 acts in the show’s finale, which airs Tuesday night.

Justin Lubin, NBC

At 15, the young songwriter exudes a surprising confidence when she sings — “She really has a good sense of who she is and what she wants to do,” Kaelin said.

Simon Cowell, one of the “AGT” judges, noticed that right away, too, telling the teenager during her audition: “I love artists, particularly people your age, who know what kind of lane they want to go down. You know where you want to go, and I think we can help you get there.”

Confidence is a good thing. But it can make being at the whims of TV producers and show ratings all the more difficult. It can make the battle to sing the songs you want more trying. 

“I told Kenadi, ‘You just gotta try to be true to yourself as much as possible and show who you are and fight for that,’” Kaelin said. “But the real goal of this is to kind of go on and have a career after this. 

“Hopefully this will be a good launch for her to be able to build the rest of her career.” 


Preparing for the finals, Kaelin had to remind Kenadi to rest her voice. The teenager would practice a lot in her hotel room, where she’s surrounded by a keyboard, microphone and guitar. 

Out in Los Angeles, on the set of “AGT,” she’s also surrounded by wildfire smoke that can take a toll on her voice. That’s why she and Kaelin would FaceTime often to make sure her voice was still in shape. 

Going into the finale, there was a lot to stress about: Will the judges like the performance? What will the audience think? How will she look on TV? 

But to Kaelin’s admiration, Kenadi always tuned out the noise and focused.

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Kenadi Dodds is pictured during the semifinal round of “AGT.” The 15-year-old country singer is one of 10 acts in the show’s finale, which airs Tuesday night.

Chris Haston, NBC

“She is amazingly mature for her young age,” he said. “Most singers, particularly young singers, view singing a song like taking a test — ‘If I get all the words right, if I get all the notes right and I’m in tune, then I pass the test.’ But the important part is what you do with the song.

“You’re not just memorizing something and spitting it out. You’re creating a moment,” he continued. “And Kenadi really does that. She’s got her whole heart into the song.”

 ‘AGT’ has been a great opportunity that she’s been ready for. The big thing now is just to be able to build on this and keep the energy going. — Dean Kaelin, Kenadi’s voice coach

Kaelin doesn’t get nervous seeing his students on national television. His wife, however, is a different story — Kaelin said her blood pressure went “way up” when Archuleta was on “Idol.” Instead, he watches intently, hoping they can express themselves the way he knows they can. 

Because from the moment a 13-year-old Kenadi stepped into his studio, singing a fiery song about taking the world by storm, Kaelin has known she’s capable of a whole lot. 

“She’s a really, really wonderful representative of Utah and our values and the talent that we have here, and ‘AGT’ has been a great opportunity that she’s been ready for,” he said. “The big thing now is just to be able to build on this and keep the energy going.”