A bubbly rise | AspenTimes.com

A bubbly rise

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly

Singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat makes her Aspen debut this week at Belly Up Aspen. (Andrew Southam)

Colbie Caillat flashes back to exactly a year ago. She was a computer novice, hitting up friends for help in posting her songs onto an Internet page. A singer who had taken up guitar and started writing songs two years earlier, Caillat had a small handful of tiny gigs, in clubs in Los Angeles and Ventura, under her belt. She was still employed at a sun-tanning salon, though she was contemplating her exit from that line of work.That existence has little resemblance to Caillats life just one trip around the sun later. On the day we spoke this past week, the 22-year-old was looking ahead to that nights concert a radio station-sponsored Jingle Ball in front of 10,000 people, in Columbus, Ohio. That was nothing compared to what awaited her two nights later, when she would play another multi-act show for a crowd thick with label executives, music producers and radio people at New York Citys Madison Square Garden. Looking further ahead, she saw only more of the same: Caillat, who has been on the road since June, was scheduled to continue touring well into 2008.The explosion of Caillats career cannot be chalked up to an extraordinary level of ambition. No, Im very easygoing. Passive and laid-back, she said. If it happens, it happens, but Im never going to pressure people to listen to my music. Id never stress over it. Nor can her rapid rise be attributed to any unfair advantages. Sure, her father is Ken Caillat yes, that Ken Caillat, who co-produced several Fleetwood Mac albums, including Tusk and Rumours at the height of the bands late-70s popularity. But the Caillat pre, if he ever did have pull in the music industry, probably doesnt any longer, having traded a production career for heading a company that transfers analog recordings to digital files.And nobody can accuse Caillat of being a mere product of the musical-industrial complex, a piece of merchandise forced on the public. At the time of her launch, she had no manager, no record deal, no publicity machine. (For interviews, Caillat still places her own phone calls, a slight indication that she has not yet succumbed to the pop machine.)There are two things primarily responsible for Caillats popularity. One is Bubbly, the insanely catchy song think a sunnier Norah Jones, strumming an acoustic guitar on a Southern California beach that has made Caillats debut album, Coco, a platinum seller. The other is MySpace, and Caillats experience with the networking website is proof positive that the recording business has been altered as drastically as has Caillats own life.Family tiesThanks to her fathers former occupation, Caillat grew up with music all around her. The atmosphere had the predictable effect, and she started piano lessons at 4.The primary influence, however, was not the Fleetwood Mac records made several years before Colbie was born or her fathers connection to music. At 11, Caillat heard Lauryn Hill, whose versatile voice was featured on two influential CDs of the time: the Fugees The Score and Hills own The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.Caillat says her father was instrumental in her desire to make music in a way. Every day, his work was music. He had a record label.But I wanted to be a singer on my own, she continued. When I heard Lauryn Hill, she was so soulful. It was because of how beautiful and effortless she sounded.When Caillat made it known that she wanted to make music, her parents offered a small helping hand: They said, if I wanted to have a career in music, Id have to learn to play an instrument and write my own songs, she said. But for her debut, at a school talent show, Caillat played someone elses song: Killing Me Softly, which had been written and recorded by Roberta Flack, and then reinterpreted, to great effect, by Hill for The Score.It would be several more years till the parental advice took hold. At 19, Caillat picked up the guitar and started writing original material. She remained on the slow track; two years later, she was still working on a demo CD, playing the occasional gig around her home in Ventura. And though she was in her studio every day, she was not really creating a strategy that would bring her to stardom.She also messed around with the MySpace page she opened early in 2006. I didnt even understand MySpace, she said. I didnt know how to use it. My friends had to show me how to put music up. Then I got addicted.MySpaces response to Caillat was even more extreme. In September 2006, she posted Bubbly, whose title reflects the mood the song engenders, on her page. In a matter of days, her daily hits went from a few hundred a day to 60,000. Within a few weeks, Caillat was fielding inquiries from several labels. This past January she went to New York to meet with the recording executives and came away with a deal with Universal Republic. In July came the release of Coco, titled from Caillats childhood nickname; Bubbly, which was featured on iTunes as a free Single of the Week, hit No. 5 on the U.S. charts, and Coco went platinum, signifying sales of a million CDs.Among Caillats labelmates is Jack Johnson. (Johnsons Sleep Through the Static is scheduled for release on Universal Republic in February.) I once asked Johnson, another relaxed, acoustic-guitar strummer who seemed to land on top of the charts almost inadvertently, what he thought people were responding to in his music. His answer was that, in a world loaded with hype, his music sounded like it wasnt trying so hard. Caillats sound has been compared to Johnsons mellow, acoustic, underproduced, and both feature some ukulele and the approach she describes is likewise similar. (Even the song title Bubbly recalls the name of one of Johnsons early hits, Bubble Toes.)Its very easygoing, laid-back, funny and optimistic, she said of her sound. It puts people in a good mood. It gets them through their breakups. When I wrote them, the songs were about my personal experiences, and people relate to them.A strong hint that certain people are relating to Bubbly is that they are not only listening to the song. On You Tube, numerous guitar-toting young women have posted their own versions of the song. Thats a really neat thing. Its so cool, said Caillat. I love to watch that.Caillat may not have been prepared for the storm that has hit. But she does seem well-equipped to handle it. A few days ago, while taping the TV special Christmas in Washington, she was hanging with President Bush, as well as singers Alan Jackson and Andrea Bocelli. (The concert, with Caillat performing Ill Be Home for Christmas, and in a duet with r&b singer Ne-Yo, Silent Night, was broadcast last week on TNT.) The past few months have been a whirl of tour buses and international flights.The early going was a hard adjustment. It was all new getting recognized all over, doing TV shows, being nervous, said Caillat, who makes her Aspen debut Thursday, Dec. 20, at Belly Up. But now anything, you can get used to.Its possible that the most difficult part lies ahead. When the first blast of touring is over, and Bubbly has faded from the radio, Caillat will have to face the trick of capturing the magic again. And next time she wont be a 21-year-old unknown, working in utter privacy, leaking her songs to MySpace viewers.Theres always that little bit of fright, said Caillat, that the second album is going to be more difficult than the first. The first one, it was like a hobby.Now, Ive only written three songs in the last eight months. Thats nothing compared to what I did the first time.stewart@aspentimes.com