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Riding a New Wave of Mellow Music

August 22, 2008

By Elysa Gardner USA TODAY

C

olbie Caillat has a confession: She does not consider herself a neurotic person.

Some might assume that any post-adolescent singer/songwriter with introspective leanings would harbor an at least occasionally tortured soul. But Caillat, 23, a blonde with a sweet, sunny smile, would beg to differ — as would anyone who checked out her breakthrough hit, Bubbly, or most of the other tunes on her debut album, 2007′s Coco.

“The songs are optimistic and bright,” Caillat says in her dressing room before a recent concert. “I grew up in Southern California and Hawaii. The lifestyle was laid back, and I listened to mellow, positive music, like Bob Marley and Jack Johnson. So I think that’s all inside me. I’m happy, and that gets expressed in my music.”

Caillat and Johnson, 33, himself a native of Hawaii who went to college in California, are among the most prominent members of a new wave of troubadours luring fans of all ages into a peaceful, easy feeling.

The So-Cal scene of the ’70s, when artists such as the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt enjoyed some of their biggest hits, is one reference point. So is the Lilith Fair era of the ’90s, when folk-based, mainly female artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Jewel and Paula Cole thrived at radio.

But more recent trends — from pre-millennial bubblegum pop to the production-driven hip-hop and rock of later years — favor flashier fare. The success of key exceptions such as John Mayer and Norah Jones may have helped launch other artists favored by the adult-alternative format. Still, guys and gals who sing softly and carry a guitar (or sit at a piano) have been considered long shots for commercial airplay.

That matters less as fans reach beyond radio in their search for new music. The advent of new media and marketing opportunities has provided these musicians with additional forums, from websites to TV shows to ad campaigns, that accommodate their gently infectious sound.

Though Caillat’s father, Ken, produced Fleetwood Mac, Caillat’s rise in the music industry was facilitated most directly by MySpace. She put some of her songs up about two years ago, and “after about six months, I had thousands of friends and fans, all adding my music to their pages,” she says. “Because of that, I got a record deal.”

Los Angeles-based Marie Digby, 25, recorded an album for Hollywood Records in 2006, but in the following months “heard nothing about a release date or tour or music video, and I started to get a little nervous.” Taking a friend’s advice, she posted a few homemade videos on YouTube, including a cover of Rihanna’s Umbrella that promptly became an online smash. The label took notice: Her album, Unfold, was released last April.

Television also has been a boon to many of these acts. After Umbrella’s online triumph, Digby “got an e-mail from someone saying he was the music supervisor for The Hills. I thought, ‘Yeah, right,’ but what do you know — he put five of my songs in the show.”

Another L.A. singer, Meiko, 26, whose self-titled independent album climbed the iTunes chart after tracks were heard on Grey’s Anatomy, has signed with MySpace Records/DGC, which will release a remixed version of the set in September. “It seems like these TV shows don’t even want the big names,” she says. “The aspect of discovery is more important, so they’re willing to take a chance on small-potato artists.”

Brett Dennen, 28, whose next album, Hope for the Hopeless, arrives Oct. 21, is opening for Mayer this summer, along with Caillat. He says his “big break, aside from John Mayer taking me under his wing, was getting songs on Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs and American Idol. People heard me there when they didn’t hear me on radio. That was my radio.”

Advertisers, too, have given some of these artists “some of their initial and biggest exposure,” says Blender editor in chief Joe Levy. Hilton Hotels is using Dennen’s Blessed in its commercials, just as Old Navy showcased 28-year-old Ingrid Michaelson’s The Way I Am last year; her music was subsequently played on Grey’s and One Tree Hill.

Similar success stories include Sara Bareilles, 28, whose Love Song surged on the pop charts after being featured in a Rhapsody ad last year, and French-Israeli singer Yael Naim, 29, who nabbed a top 10 hit in the USA after Apple used her single New Soul in its MacBook Air campaign.

Before releasing his new album, Three Flights From Alto Nido, Greg Laswell promoted and sold his EP, How the Day Sounds, at Whole Foods as part of the market’s new Artist Discovery Series.

“People who shop there tend to believe that anything Whole Foods thinks is cool is cool,” says Laswell, 30, whose songs also have been featured on Grey’s, Smallville and other shows. “They wanted to share good music, and I lucked out.”

Such collaborations may have once raised concerns about the corrupting influence of commerce on art, but no longer, says Levy. “We’re well past the moment when audiences, young or old, are turned off by seeing music attached to television commercials, let alone television shows.”

Moreover, the same virtues that attract advertisers make this music appealing to a multi-generational audience. “It’s easy to listen to in the car, on the way to school or soccer practice or the mall,” Levy says.

While opening concerts for Johnson, Donavon Frankenreiter, 35, “would tell him, ‘This is the first time I’ve taken my son or daughter to a concert and we’ve both loved the artist.’” Bareilles is pleased that at her shows “you can see teenagers and their parents, and the parents aren’t being dragged kicking and screaming.”

Neither are the kids, says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis: “It’s easy to generalize and say that young audiences like more abrasive things, but they’re more diverse in their tastes.”

And they’re surely loath to hear music pigeonholed. “Labels are meaningless to a young person who’s falling in love with these songs,” says Dennis Elsas, a veteran radio personality now at New York’s WFUV-FM, which champions singer/songwriters. “Fans in their teens and 20s wouldn’t identify a song they loved as ‘mellow rock’ or ‘soft rock.’ It’s just not something they would be inclined to say.”

Johnson is mostly amused by such terms. “People can call my music whatever they’d like,” he shrugs. “It’s not a bad thing to be called mellow.” Apparently, he and many of his peers aren’t as saddled as previous post-punk artists with the notion that strife and angst need be prime sources of creative inspiration.

“I have my painful moments like everyone else, but that’s not the stuff I choose to share,” says Jason Mraz, 31, whose latest album, We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things., includes a duet with Caillat, Lucky. “When we’re happy, artists can be afraid to acknowledge what it is that makes us that way, or people will say it’s cheesy. But I love that challenge. For me, music is meant for healing and inspiring.”

Frankenreiter’s Pass It Around, new this week, is described in a press release as “filled with soulful melodies, uplifting grooves and some lessons for life.” Laswell’s Alto Nido has been promoted just as unabashedly as “a grand, therapeutic soundscape gained from renewal and letting go of loss.”

Certainly, these artists convey their fair share of sadness, irony and even indignation. Dennen has said that his album’s first single, Make You Crazy, is “about all the injustice in the world.” While on tour, Caillat has written songs “about missing home which are more melancholy and bluesy.”

If they’re also accessible and pretty, DeCurtis points out, those are “not by definition dirty words.”

“It’s easy to satirize this music, but there will always be an audience for what essentially amounts to melodies and voices that are soothing.”

Contributing: Korina Lopez

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