When Colbie Caillat sings on her new album about being fearless, you figure she's speaking in relative terms. After all, this 24-year-old artist from Malibu has ascended to the ranks of pop's top-selling stars thanks to a series of hit singles that virtually define the absence of creative risk: "Bubbly," "Realize," "The Little Things" -- each arrives on a gentle wave of acoustic guitar and laid-back vocals, with safe-as-milk lyrics that wouldn't upset a nun.
Yet on a bright, warm morning last month, Caillat is sitting inside a small airplane flying over Lake Elsinore, preparing excitedly to jump out of it with only a parachute (and a sky-diving instructor) on her back. Her sister Morgan is on the plane, too, as is the singer's lifelong best friend.
Has Caillat always been an extreme-sports type? "Not really," Morgan says, shouting to be heard above the engine's deafening roar. "I mean, we'd do high jumps into the water in Hawaii when we were kids. But that's about it."
At the appropriate altitude, Caillat is first out of the plane, leaping with zero hesitation and a hearty scream. She's safely on the ground again 10 minutes later, exhibiting an impressive calm regarding her first outdoor adventure at 6,000 feet.
"Dude, that wasn't scary at all," she says. "I was falling from the sky and just noticing that I didn't even have butterflies in my stomach. It was actually really relaxing. I wanna do it again -- with stunts!"
It turns out there's more to Colbie Caillat than first meets the eye.
That goes for her music, as well: Last week, Caillat released "Breakthrough," the follow-up to her double-platinum 2007 debut, "Coco"; it debuted at the top of the Billboard chart with 106,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Though the new album hews closely to the vanilla-bean vibe of her first, it also reveals a quietly maturing songwriter, one capable of capturing the everyday vicissitudes of romance in language that feels talky and true to life.
"Colbie has a way of communicating emotions in a unique way," says Kara DioGuardi, the professional tunesmith-turned-"American Idol" judge. DioGuardi co-wrote three tracks on "Breakthrough" during a 2008 trip to Kauai with Caillat and several other songwriters, including Mikal Blue and Jason Reeves, both of whom contributed heavily to "Coco."
"But I can't really talk about Colbie's songwriting without talking about her voice," DioGuardi continues. "There's a melancholy spirit that runs through her vocals -- this sort of thick, beautiful, caramel quality. When she's singing something like 'Bubbly,' it's a really powerful juxtaposition."
Indeed, onstage in early August at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe, Caillat performed a sultry version of the Pussycat Dolls' "Don't Cha" that hinted at a deep soul lurking beneath the surfer-girl surface. She plans to play "Don't Cha" on her upcoming North American tour, which kicks off Sept. 17 at the House of Blues in Anaheim.
"I think the new record shows a whole lot of growth," says Caillat's father, Ken, who produced much of "Breakthrough." (Before his daughter became famous, Ken Caillat was best known for his studio work with Fleetwood Mac.) "In fact, I was actually concerned that it might be too much for the original fans of Colbie's first album. With these songs, a couple of them got really amped up, and we ended up kind of un-amping them."
Ken Caillat produced original versions of the album's dozen tracks, but the singer rerecorded several songs with additional producers, including John Shanks, who's worked with the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Miley Cyrus.
"I thought that was kind of strange at first," Ken Caillat admits. "But I guess the record company wanted the comfort factor of knowing that they didn't just go with me. I tried to think about it as a father: This ought to make the record better for my daughter Colbie."
"We had complete trust in each other," says Caillat of working with her dad. "If I wanted to strip a song down more, he'd let me do that. And then if he wanted to add violin or cello and I was hesitant about it, I'd trust him to try it, and if I liked it we'd keep it. He knows they're my songs, but I know that he knows what he's talking about."
Did any father-daughter conflicts arise?
"Only once," Caillat says with a laugh. "I was talking with a musician when I was supposed to be in the vocal booth recording. And he comes out and he's like, 'Colbie Marie Caillat, get your butt in the vocal booth and start singing!' I was like, 'Um, that's, like, really embarrassing.' "