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.
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"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."
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.
N: Any response so far?
GG: I don't know. [To her dad] Any response?
Joe Gillespie: The response has been positive so far. David has some connections with Disney, and two of the songs were written by Disney staff writers, two of the more successful ones. We've had some interaction with them on that. Nothing solid-gold yet, but they're interested. They have a vested interest in the songs doing well, so that's been good. She's on iTunes and Amazon, and the sales have been good. She's got a good fan base, she's got a Facebook fan page that has thousands of fans on it, so that's been going good. She's been busy. It's just been hard for her because school started.
GG: Yeah, I'm so busy. Last week I did two performances. I did the Fox 26 News morning show on Thursday, and that Friday I had a Blue Willow Bookshop performance. And then I have to level off with school, which I have every single day except for the weekends, and then of course TUTS, which I have every single day after school. I'm super busy, but I like to be busy.
N: Who are some of your favorite singers?
GG: I like Demi Lovato, she's my favorite. And then Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus. I like her voice a lot.
N: Tell me more about what you like about them.
GG: For Demi Lovato, she has an amazing voice. It's one of my favorite voices. She's a Disney singer, but she's different than other Disney stars. She has a rock edge to her — she's a little bit more edgy than other Disney stars. And Taylor Swift is just so talented. She writes her own music, and she's just one of my really good role models. Miley Cyrus, she's not my favorite, but she does have some very good songs, and I really like some of them. And then Christina Aguilera. I really like Christina Aguilera. She has an amazing voice. She's always been one of my role models.
N: Do you ever imagine what it would be like to be in Miley Cyrus's or Taylor Swift's shoes?
GG [grins a mile wide]: It would be pretty sweet. I imagine it, I do, a lot. It seems like the best job anybody could ever have. If I had that job, I would just be happy all the time, because it's my favorite thing.
N: Have you tried writing your own songs yet at all?
GG: I've tried. I'm not very good so far. Not yet. But if I keep trying, eventually I think I'll be able to write some really good songs. I haven't written [any] songs that I've liked yet, but someday I will.
N: How do you spend your weekends?
GG [sighs]: TUTS, Austin, recording... and then, if it's not that, then I have free time, and I like to go hang out with my friends, go shopping, go swimming...
JG: Go see musicals.
GG [laughs]: Oh yeah. Go see musicals, play with my baby brother Cade, and play with my other family... yep! That's what I like to do.
N: All the time you spend in theater, and your classes, and the studio — do you find it hard to balance being a normal 12-year-old with this showbiz thing?
GG: Yeah. Pretty much. It's hard, but I get through it because it's what I want to do. I mean, I'm not going to say it's easy because it's definitely not easy. It's challenging, but I think challenges are fun and I like working hard at things and achieving goals and stuff.
N: What would you like to be doing in, say, five years?
GG: Well, of course I'd like to be signed or be on Broadway, or be on the Disney Channel. But if that doesn't happen, then just being the same way as I am right now — being busy and loving life and having fun. CHRIS GRAY
The Sound of Music runs December 8-20 at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887 or www.tuts.com. Search "Gabby Gillespie" on Facebook to find her fan page.
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