I can hardly believe I’m making my third album already, but here I am in a Miami recording studio. It’s really fun this time around, because I feel like I have more “creative” input. Basically, that means the record company is letting me be more involved in picking the songs – and they’re all songs I’ve fallen in love with. I’m also writing songs for the first time. It just seems natural. I made my first album when I was only 14, and it was all so new to me. But now I’m 16, and while I know I still have a long ways to go, I really feel like I’ve gotten into the groove. What with touring, meeting so many people and getting exposed to all different types of music, I feel ready to do more of my own thing and branch out a bit.
Ever since I was 6, I knew I wanted to be a performer. I went to see the play Oklahoma!, and the girl on stage was having so much fun, and everyone in the audience was so entranced watching her. I had this little karaoke machine in my room and I would stand on my bed belting out songs like “Wind Beneath My Wings.” My parents thought it was just a phase, but after years of me begging them, they let me start singing lessons when I was 10.
So I began doing musical theater and singing our national anthem at sports events in my hometown, Orlando, Florida. That turned out to be huge for me. A couple of producers who had heard me sing at a game approached me, saying they wanted to work on songs with me. It was so random – like, right place, right time. Next thing I knew, I was making a demo, which led to my record deal.
I had no idea where it would all lead-I was just so glad to have the opportunity to sing. And when my first album took off, it was incredible, unbelievable: Millions of people were listening! As it turned out, both my albums, So Real and I Wanna Be With You, each went platinum, which means they each sold about one million copies. But the truth is, I couldn’t tell you exactly how many records I’ve sold (I think it’s around 2.5 million), since I don’t pay attention to chart numbers. I know my first single “Candy” was a “hit” – but to me that just means a lot of people liked it. I guess the more people you can reach with your music, the better – I try to remind myself that that’s the main goal.
I guess I know I’m reaching people by the way fans react to me. When I first went on tour – and I was lucky enough early on to open up for some incredible bands, like Backstreet Boys and N Sync – people would be clapping and dancing, singing along. That was so cool! And then I’d do an autograph signing and there’d be all these people waiting in line for hours. I’d be thinking, “For me?!?!”
Meeting my fans really drove home the point that so many of them a re a lot like me – teenage girls just starting to really find out what life’s all about. Because of that, I think (hope!) they’ll really relate to my new album. I am so passionate about these songs, and I think that comes through. This is a big step for me. Overall, I’d say it’s basically pop music- just not as young-sounding as the last album. Some tracks are a little more rock-oriented, with live instruments instead of synthesizers and preprogrammed music. I’m definitely taking some chances, thanks to some awesome producers like Emilio Estefan and up-and-comer James Renald. I mean, I’m doing this because I love it, so I want to keep myself happy as much as I want to entertain people. It just wouldn’t be fun if I did the same stuff over and over again.
When you hear the first single, “Pennies In My Pocket,” for the first time you’ll be like, “Wow! That’s really different!” It’s got a sort of Middle Eastern influence, very intricate and rich-sounding, but the melody is so infectious. Then there’s “Turn The Clock Around,” a real feel-good song – it gets you pumping and puts you in a good mood, like instant sunshine. It also has a rock influence, because it’s so guitar driven. When I was recording it, I could totally imagine singing it on stage with a live band. One of my favorite songs is called “Cry,” written by James Renald. The melody is so beautiful and we put violins and acoustic guitars on it, and even though it’s a love song, the lyrics aren’t mushy. There’s also a ballad called “From Loving You” by Diane Warren. The melody is kind of complex, so we wanted to do it in a really simple way, so it doesn’t sound like this big overproduced thing.
“When I Talk To You” is one of the songs I co-wrote, with Matthew Hager, my guitarist. It’s about friendship – how certain people really prove to be true friends. I wrote it on the road. We were sitting on the dressing room floor waiting to do sound check, and he was warming up, playing this lick. I just started singing over it and before we knew it we had the song finished.
Starting to write my own music is a sign of how much I’m maturing and gaining more confidence. That’s so important, because to me, confidence means being comfortable with yourself – and that’s true beauty. When you’re confident, you don’t need to wear super-sexy clothes or develop some kind of fake “look-at-me” image because how you feel about yourself shines through. If I’m going to get any attention for my looks, I want it to be because I’m unique and happy just being myself.
Other exciting things have been going on besides the new album. I work for MTV, and this spring, MTV’s Mandy starts up again. But it will be a little different from the show I did last year; it’ll be more like a talk show that will focus on music and entertainment. Plus, I’m hoping to continue guest-hosting TRL when I can, and also be involved in any of their special programming. I’m also in Garry Marshall’s new movie, The Princess Diaries, which comes out this summer. I play the mean, rude cheerleader who rules the school. The role was so not like me – so it was fun for me to find my inner “rrrrrr!” I’m also a spokesperson for Neutrogena, the skin care company – I’m in their commercials and print ads.
Still, singing and performing music is my main thing. Being on stage is the greatest natural high you could imagine. Even if you’ve had a bad day, you go onstage and it all changes. So I can hardly wait to tour for the new album, especially because I’ll have a live band backing me – it’ll be so exciting to have real musicians to work with, keeping everything fresh. I want every performance to be a little different – and a little better. That’s where the fans are so important. The people who come to see you make you give a better performance – you feed off their energy. Although I have to admit I still get nervous every time I go on stage. That’s actually a good feeling because I never want to be cocky, like, “Oh, I can go knock this out ’cause I’ve done it a thousand times already.”
Anyway, I’ve got to go back to the booth now. Everything is going great, and I’m having such an amazing time – I’m just so lucky to have a record label that believes in me enough to let me spread my wings. Wait till you hear it! Oh, but by the time you read this, my album will be done – and you can hear it right now. I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it as much I’m enjoying making it!