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More than kids' stuff

Forget teen pop. The music industry looks for its next quality artists in the adult work of the 'too-young-to-drive' set.

October 05, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

As a songwriter, Stacy Eisley got off to a good start by being born in Texas. After all, that approach had worked well for Scott Joplin, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Don Henley and plenty of others. But unlike, say, Kris Kristofferson -- a Texan who was a Rhodes scholar, a military pilot and a janitor before finally getting down to writing "Me and Bobby McGee" -- Eisley is a bit short on life experience.

"I was 8 when I wrote the first one, I just picked it out on a guitar in my room," said the native of Tyler, Texas. "I'm 14 now." Eisley writes songs for the band that bears her last name, and the heft of its work is evident in the songwriting company it keeps: The band just finished a tour as the opening act for Coldplay, with gigs at the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden. On part of the tour, it was joined by a second opening act, Ron Sexsmith, the acclaimed veteran troubadour.

The Eisley siblings were considered cute novelties when they began their career performing in their parents' coffeehouse in a strip mall, but now they are part of a growing group of precocious songwriters that the record industry is taking seriously.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Singer's name -- In an Oct. 5 Calendar story on youthful pop artists, singer-songwriter Stacy DuPree was incorrectly referred to as Stacy Eisley. The name of her group is Eisley.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 26, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Singer's name -- In an Oct. 5 Calendar story on youthful pop artists, singer-songwriter Stacy DuPree and her siblings Weston and Sherri DuPree were incorrectly referred to as having the last name Eisley. The name of their group is Eisley.

Youth acts are hardly new to the music scene, of course. They were with us long before even Little Stevie Wonder hit the scene in the 1960s, but for years the majority who got record deals were singing material written by adults. Many were talented vocal performers, and many were examples of market-calculated packaging, but few came into the studio with dog-eared notebooks (or now, laptop computers) filled with their lyrics.

The youth surge is apparent at Warner Bros. Records, where label Chairman Tom Whalley says three-fourths of the artists signed in the last two years have been too young to vote. Warner labels signed not only Eisley but also Jonathan Rice, a Scottish teen who cites Flannery O' Connor and Nick Drake as compass points for songs he began writing at 14, and Bonnie McKee, a fiery 18-year-old Seattle singer-songwriter with a sheaf of material she penned at 14.

Before them, Whalley was a key figure at Interscope Records during its signing of Grammy-nominated Vanessa Carlton (now 23 but 17 when she was working the New York club circuit), who surged to popularity in 2002 along with peers Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne.

Warners is handling these youngsters in a manner that suggests that they can become career artists. In other words, they are being treated like budding Joni Mitchells instead of just-add-water Britney Spears knockoffs. Their debut albums have been methodically assembled, and there has been no mad rush to get their music on the radio

"It wasn't like we were saying let's go find young singer-songwriters or even just young talent," Whalley said. "This wasn't a search for look-alikes for Avril Lavigne. These were artists, stand-alone acts. This is what we were finding, this is what was walking in the door. And we were finding it everywhere."

It was a bit of a shock to Whalley, one of the music industry's respected thinkers and a veteran who, in the 1970s and 1980s, saw older "youths" making music.

"Years ago, it seemed that the sort of maturation age, the age where you felt ... they should be signed and they were writing songs that meant something, was in their mid-20s," Whalley said. "To be in your early 20s, you were young. Anything that was really young -- 13, 15, 17 -- was viewed as pop novelty acts, one-offs that came and went." More recently, though, "These were people writing songs with lyrics that were mature at a different age than what happened in years previous. There was definitely an age drop in my mind."

And the reason? Whalley offered a timely comparison to the sports world, in which LeBron James went from high school to NBA first-round pick and 13-year-old golfer Michelle Wie of Hawaii qualified for a men's PGA tournament.

"She's hitting the ball 300 yards and playing against grown men," Whalley said. "You see parallels here. You're seeing it in every area of youth, whether it's education or sports or entertainment. The age level is dropping and dropping. Perhaps you could say this existed and just now media is showing it, but it doesn't seem that way to me. It seems there's something more to it."


TheRE'S no question that the influx of junior songwriters speaks to the focus (and target audience) of the music industry these days. The rise of MTV and then Nickelodeon and Radio Disney as increasingly kid-specific tastemakers sharpened the industry's attentiveness to young consumers. And the rise of froth pop in recent years ('N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears when she was singing "E-Mail My Heart" and "Soda Pop," etc.) further honed those attentions-- but eventually left a void to be filled when the appetite for bubble gum waned.

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