For some of today’s biggest stars, The New Mickey Mouse Club was an apprenticeship in entertainment, producing musicians and actors alike, from Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears to Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell. But not every Mouseketeer embraced the opportunity with the same vigor. Take Tony Lucca for instance.

Lucca appeared on The New Mickey Mouse Club for five years and even leveraged that into a short-lived Aaron Spelling drama, Malibu Shores, but ultimately decided that being an actor wasn’t right for him.

“The whole acting thing for me was like being at a party that I was invited to and never asked to leave. But it just wasn’t my party,” says Lucca, who has spent the last 16 years building a career as an adult pop/singer-songwriter.

“I just remember being in an audition one day, sitting in the waiting room to read for the role, and there were six to seven other Tony Lucca dudes just sitting right there. On paper we were all the same guy, just waiting for some subjective outside approval. And I had an epiphany. I have to have more to offer than this. Something more unique. Something that is more me,” he says. “That was it. I went home, picked up the guitar again, and started writing songs.”

Lucca comes from an extended family of Detroit musicians. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a jazz pianist, and Lucca was singing and performing from a young age. At 21, he self-released his debut, So Satisfied, and then his second full-length, Strong Words Softly Spoken, a year later. He joined his old Mouse-mates Timberlake and J.C. Chasez as an opening act for ‘N Sync in Europe as they stormed to the top of the charts back home. Lucca was also dating Russell when she vaulted to fame thanks to the hit show Felicity.

“I’ve seen that launching pad up close and personal when I probably should’ve been standing a comfortable distance away. It really is an interesting thing to watch that happen to somebody,” he says. “I’m really grateful for that perspective.”

While his peers shot to stardom, Lucca plugged along. Between 2004 and 2011, he released six albums (including a disc of covers and another of B-sides) as well as four EPs. He had settled into a solid touring career as a smoky crooner mixing a little soul, a bit of Laurel Canyon country confessional, and folky strumming. Although he hadn’t tasted mainstream success, he’d built a loyal following.

When he auditioned for The Voice, Lucca knew he might be called to go even more pop than he had in the past, but he approached it as a challenge. He chose “Trouble” by Ray LaMontagne as his audition track from a list of over 160 songs, most of it your typical R&B and mainstream pop stuff. “I mean, I soundcheck with Ray LaMontagne’s ‘Jolene’ every time, so I’ve been a fan of his since day one. That’s my wheelhouse and to be able to represent the singer-songwriter guy, that was huge for me,” he says.

All four of The Voice‘s stars went for Lucca, and he chose Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as his coach. His run featured a strangely confrontational segment with a fellow Mouseketeer, Christina Aguilera. She accused him of being one-dimensional. “That woke me up to say, OK cool, now it’s time to step outside the box and show her and everyone what I’m capable of doing under that kind of spotlight,” says Lucca, who ultimately finished third in the contest.

Though he didn’t win, Lucca did sign with Adam Levine’s 222 Records. They collaborated on With the Whole World Watching EP, a six-song collection of the most polished pop Lucca’s ever written. “I was in a pretty big spotlight there and under the wing of one of the most celebrated pop stars of today,” he says. “I was really excited to make this record. It was a really great challenge. It was an extension of let’s try to find another great song to sing on The Voice, lets find something outside the comfort zone and knock it out. And I think we did.”

Unfortunately, Lucca’s deal with Levine’s label has run its course. But he has been an independent artist before, and he’s fine being one. “The single is holding steady on the Hot AC chart, and the doors that were opened just from having spent time with Adam are still wide open,” Lucca says.

Even more, there’s a pride that comes with not wilting under those hot Klieg lights in front of millions of viewers. “What’s been very fun to see manifest on the heels of The Voice is a newfound swagger, a newfound confidence and strength to my work,” he says. “I’m coming out with even better songs, better sound, better musicianship and players on stage with me. It just feels like maybe all the hype was warranted in some regard.”