"At the end of the day, I knew I could sing and I knew it was the thing I could fall back on," Smith tells PEOPLE exclusively

By Melody Chiu
March 16, 2016 12:15 PM
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Michael Lewis

Moving America to tears each week with his powerful performances on The Voice, Jordan Smith appeared to sail through NBC’s hit singing competition.

But the singer – who grew up in Harlan, Kentucky and took home the crown last season – wasn’t always so secure in his own skin.

“It took me a long time to become confident,” he tells PEOPLE exclusively, adding that the biggest part of his insecurity stemmed from his high-pitched voice.

Says Smith: “All the time, I get called ma’am – on the phone, in the drive-through. Even now, people on the Internet are convinced I’m transgender. That weighs on you when you’re young and still trying to figure out who you are. It would have [gotten to me] a long time ago, but not anymore.”

For much more on Jordan Smith’s journey to self-acceptance and his plans for the future (including a wedding!), pick up the newest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

In high school, the budding star focused his energy on singing, and began to find his own identity. “It’s been a slow-growing process,” he says. “Just because people don’t bully you directly doesn’t mean they don’t cause you to feel like a lesser person. As I started to become better at music, I saw that my singing could move people and that’s when I started to gain confidence.”

Smith also sees music as an extension of his faith. “When I sing in church, it’s how I connect to God,” he says. “There’s no certain way you have to look or be. It’s just your voice and music from your heart.”

Now, the singer – whose debut album Something Beautiful is out March 18 (“I poured my heart into it,” says Smith) – is focused on the future, which includes a wedding to his fiancée Kristen Denny.

“Music saved me,” says Smith. “It opened up my world and made my life a lot more beautiful. At the end of the day, I knew it was the thing I could fall back on, and it kept me on the right path.”