Guadalajara, Mexico. — It's not the first place mainstream American record scouts might look for the next English-language female folk-pop star. After all, the other big names in the genre lately have all come from chilly, English-speaking lands--Paula Cole from Massachusetts, Fiona Apple from New York, Sarah McLachlan from Canada, Jewel from Alaska.
But sunny Guadalajara is where singer-songwriter Elan Sara DeFan, 16, was born and raised. And more than a couple of important people in the mainstream U.S. pop world already say that if anyone is positioned to take a place among those artists, it is she.
Elan--who goes by her first name and sings only in English--has already been offered recording contracts by several Mexican labels, including Warner Mexico. But she has turned the offers down because, she says, "They wanted me to have a sexy image and dance, like a Mexican Britney Spears. That's not my thing."
At a time when squeaky-clean adolescents appear to rule the roost in pop, most aspiring young singers would probably jump at the chance to be the new Spears (file under: Aguilera, Christina and Simpson, Jessica).
But Elan, a deep-voiced bard more Bonnie Raitt than Britney, says she would rather die. In fact, in a meeting at Warner Mexico she burst into tears when the excited executive explained his plan for her.
"I don't need to be made into an artist," says Elan, who began playing piano at age 3 and holds several international and national karate titles. "I believe I have the good fortune to have been born one."
On an artist of lesser talents, such an attitude might be hubris. But on Elan, it speaks to an unusual self-determination that was nurtured by her financially and intellectually rich family. She has no need to work for money, she says, and probably never will.
Furthermore, she has been treated as an "equal human being with the right to ethical self-determination" all her life, according to her father, meaning it would be completely unnatural for Elan to sell herself out, especially for money.
U.S. Record Labels Expressing Interest
"I am what I am, and I don't want to change that," Elan says. "I want to do something the way that I was born, the way that I have always been. I have to be what I am, and I don't want to change that just because somebody wants to see me in a different way. I give my music to people because I write about them. And if they want to hear it, fine. And if not, that's fine too."
It's a daring move for anyone to make in a business increasingly run by rote and formula, but in Elan's case, it seems to be paying off. Little more than two weeks after her two-song demo package went to more than two dozen executives at top U.S. labels for the first time, several executives have expressed interest in signing her, says her brother and manager Jan Carlo DeFan, 21.
Though most labels have a policy of not speaking publicly about an artist they're in negotiations with, Interscope Records has been open about its interest. The label's A&R director, Gerardo Mejia, said this week that bringing Elan on board is his second-highest priority after Enrique Iglesias' new album. Mejia plans to schedule a showcase performance for Elan at Interscope in early December so the company's executives can hear her sing live.
"I really like her," Mejia said. "She's really talented. I see her as sort of like a Latin Jewel. . . . She's very mature for her age. I don't want to jinx it, but if we don't sign her--you know, she's not going to have any trouble getting a deal."
Most unsolicited demo packages are siphoned off to a bottomless A&R slush pile. This did not happen with Elan's demo, because it was hand-addressed to label executives by Grammy-winning producer K.C. Porter, whose credits include writing and producing tracks for the latest Ricky Martin and Santana albums. Porter co-produced Elan's demo along with J.B. Eckl, a former member of the band War.
A musical prodigy, Elan wrote her first song at 6. Her rich voice is woven with the folky threads connecting Joni Mitchell to Wynonna Judd. She writes and sings only in English, which she speaks flawlessly thanks to her Boston-born dad. Her songs balance folk and pop and draw on her love of artists from John Lennon to Sheryl Crow.
Elan's parents are wealthy intellectuals who schooled Elan and her older brother entirely at home. Together, the family has traveled to more than 300 international cities so the children could learn different languages and cultures.
Family friends include many prominent artists, and Elan says some of her fondest memories in Guadalajara are of bohemian parties thrown by her family for local musicians and artists. According to Elan's parents, these parties generally ended with Elan at the piano.