Mercury Carter recalled staring at the email last year from the Montreux Jazz Festival asking if he was available to perform at the prestigious music celebration in Switzerland.
"It said they discovered my music online and liked it very much. I thought it was a scam," said Carter, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, whose ethereal voice floats through 3.5 octaves, a respectful range for a male and even more impressive for a 25-year-old who has been singing for just two years.
Carter ignored the email for three days.
"Finally, I called. It was reee-aal," he said, his voice still filled with disbelief. "They wanted to fly me to Montreux."
He performed in July 2018 at the Hotel Fairmont Le Montreux Palace on the shores of Lake Geneva, overlooking the Alps. He took the stage wearing his choice vintage designer threads, and, for an hour, sang originals and classic tunes, including a trio of songs by Imogen Heap, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan.
While he often leans toward jazz in his repertoire, he likes to sing "everything" and rejects putting his music in a genre.
"I say I'm a soul singer, but not the way people think. I mean from the soul,” Carter said. “I sing to make you remember what it means to have a soul."
He sat in Amelie's, a popular Charlotte French bakery with eclectic decor. He's "Kevin Carter" today, his massive curly afro tamed under a polka dot scarf, dressed in casual black because he's been helping his mother with some gardening,
But on stage he's "Mercury," the name he gave himself in 2015 before putting out his first EP, "Mercury Sings," produced in his closet using an iPhone and iPad.
"Mercury was the messenger of God, which is what I'd like to consider my voice," he said.
When Carter performed recently at Charlotte's Mint Museum, the crowd of some 250 people was made up of art patrons clutching a Charlotte Observer article about him, former classmates from his arts magnet school, fans who had heard him on YouTube or at Prince tribute shows, and curious music lovers.
He changed three times for the two-hour show, always sparkling, waving his arms through the air in a vintage Versace gold-flaired angel-sleeve shirt, his feet dancing in custom-made boots with fringes encrusted in Swarovski crystals.
He wowed the audience with his interpretation of songs by female artists, often recorded before he was born: "San Francisco River" by Flora Purim; "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" by Sarah Vaughan; and "The Girl From Ipanema" by Ella Fitzgerald. He handled the songs like a seasoned vocalist, playing with phrasing, scatting, sending light high notes soaring and then masterfully dipping to a clear full bottom. Occasionally, he turned to his band and said, "Groove y'all, groove" or "Band, go off." Then, to the upright-bass player, "David, play pretty."
It was Carter's first time headlining a show before a hometown audience. But it wasn't his first time being featured as an artist at the Mint.
Before deciding to sing, Carter excelled in fashion design and developed quite a following. His creations were exhibited alongside Chanel, Dior and Halston at the Mint Museum while he was still in high school. But he made a jolting change.
"Fashion didn't quench my creative thirst," Carter said. He was bone tired from being "hunched over a sewing machine — maybe if I could have only designed."
His parents, always supportive, were stunned by the abrupt career change.
"To be honest, it wasn't an easy transition for me," said his father, Kevin S. Carter, a hair stylist and producer of hair shows."We put a lot of effort, labor, time and money into his occupation as a fashion designer. He liked unique fabrics, and I helped him find them. I was trying to find the next big show and get him on it. Now I'm glad we took a step back."
To develop his new art, Mercury turned to voice coach Tiffaney Moore Borgelin.
"He wanted to get to the fullness of his voice. We're working on his medium and lower range," Borgelin said. "He is a prodigy, an old soul. He has the aptitude and ability to go further but has the humility of a person who wants to learn more."
So far, Carter has kept his day job, verifying insurance at a medical center. When he started singing he made a list of dreams. Performing at Montreux and the Mint Museum were on his list. Next, he wants to record an album with a full orchestra. That, he figures, might help with the next dream: win a Grammy by age 30.