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Tween Dreams

Does Houston have the next Hannah Montana in its midst?

It's too soon to tell, but Gabby Gillespie, 12, might have what it takes. A born charmer and seventh-grader at Kinkaid, Gillespie has already been in the theater half her life, since her mom enrolled her in a community-theater production of Grease at age six.

Today, besides being active in Kinkaid's theater and band programs, Gillespie takes theater, voice and dance classes downtown at Theatre Under the Stars' youth academy, studying and training as late as 10 p.m. most nights of the week. It paid off when she won the role of Susan Waverly in TUTS's production of White Christmas last year.

In the audience at one White Christmas performance, at the behest of his old friend, Katy Taylor High School classmate and Gillespie's father/manager, Joe, was former Houston musician David Rice. Rice, who lived in Los Angeles for several years writing music for film, television, commercials and artists such as Mandy Moore [see "Racket: David Rice," October 9, 2007], was instantly struck by Gillespie's luminous charisma.

"Of course she's adorable, and the audience just instantly fell in love with her," Rice says by phone from L.A., still bleary from the premiere of Turk Pipkin's One Peace at a Time documentary (he did the score) the previous evening. "You could tell she was lighting up the stage — she just seemed like a natural."

Rice invited Gillespie out to his studio in Austin to record a few songs, and says she was equally at ease in the studio, as well as an active participant in the sessions: "In many cases, I was pleasantly surprised where she took the melody or the song."

The resulting EP, which is available on iTunes and Amazon.com while Gillespie's management shop it to labels, brims with preteen vitality and girl-next-door wholesomeness, but also edgier rock arrangements than Hannah Montana fans might be used to. More impressively, Gillespie keeps her powerful voice in check, even on the pair of ballads that would be all too easy to oversing.

Author Frank Portman chose her cover of Pilot's '70s soft-rock hit "Magic" ("...never believe it's not so") as part of a playlist to accompany his Andromeda Klein novel on an installment of influential music blog Largehearted Boy's "Book Notes" back in August, calling it "spunky." Gillespie is also currently the featured artist on tween and teen-girl empowerment Web site Fairy Godmother Academy.

"I think what Gabby has going for her that even sets her apart from Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus [is] that at least at this point she's yet to have been put through the machine, the makeup, the styling, all the sort of Disney-fying process," says Rice. "I really think that is a big part of what makes her appealing right now, at least to her age group."

Show business is notorious for eating the lunch of such would-be starlets, especially one so young. However, Rice says he thinks Gillespie's support team will be able to shield her from the more lurid aspects of that machine, and that she reminds him of another singer who emerged from the teen-pop wringer relatively unscathed.

"I haven't worked with Demi Lovato, and I don't know Miley Cyrus, but I have worked enough with Mandy Moore to see similarities in their sort of spirit and maturity," he says. "I think that's a career to be emulated, Mandy's — she managed to float above the fray of the teen-pop people. Her management has been immaculate, and she's been able to mature into a respected actress and is doing interesting music now.

"I think there's every reason to believe that Gabby can follow that kind of trajectory and stay out of some of those pitfalls."

Noise sat down with Gillespie and her dad one afternoon last week at the empty Artista restaurant upstairs in Hobby Center. We made her a little late for a dance class — she will be performing the role of Brigitta in TUTS's production of The Sound of Music in December — so we'd like to apologize.

As Gillespie, a four-foot-something bundle of energy who talks with her hands and didn't stop moving for a second, was getting ready to leave, we thought of one more question: She's a little young yet, but has she ever thought about auditioning for American Idol?

"I think I'll be famous before then," she said, twirling about in Artista's foyer. "I used to want to try out for American Idol, but I don't like it anymore."

Smart girl.

Noise: What do you like so far about studying theater?

Gabby Gillespie: I just like theater. I can't explain it. In my opinion, theater is just something special to me. It's like my life, basically. I work hard in it, and I try as hard as I can, and it's something that I'm good at and I love very much.

N: What would you like to see happen with this pop thing? How much have they told you about how the music business works?

GG: Well, they've told me a lot. I've learned a lot over the amount of time that I've done. Right now, I think we've made a package that's called an EPK, which is the video, and we've made an EP, which is a little CD with my video and my songs, and we sent it out to different record labels, and I'm just hoping that I get signed.

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