Backwash

A tip of the hat to Aubrey Collins, a country starlet in the making.

Aubrey Collins is feeling a little tired when I call her on a Friday morning, and it's easy to understand why. Yesterday she woke up with a sore throat and a sniffle -- nothing serious, but the kind of thing that can throw your day when your life revolves around singing and playing music. Later she met with her guitar instructor before venturing down to Pueblo, where she set up, performed for a large crowd, then turned around and came back to the Denver home she shares with her parents.

At fourteen, Collins is part of an age group that needs its sleep. Given the chance, most teenagers would snooze until noon, or later, every day of their adolescent lives. But Collins doesn't get that chance very often. Make that never. Home-schooled since she was eleven, she spends at least part of every day working on her career: Guitar lessons, voice training, songwriting sessions, photo shoots and meetings with choreographers -- not to mention live performances -- leave little room for downtime.

"Other people my age, they definitely think I'm very weird," Collins says. "They're just like, 'Why are you dedicated to your music? Don't you want to go shopping? Don't you want to go to the movies?' I definitely was not too popular when I was in school. I wasn't exactly the normal one, because I always had my dreams and wanted to fulfill them.

"There are some nights when I'll come home and just sit and calm down and say, 'I want to be lazy today,'" she adds. "So I will. I'll talk on the phone or talk on the Internet and go places with my friends. That happens about once every four or five months."

With the release of her debut CD, Back to Me, Collins hopes to be even busier. Recorded at Nashville's Dog Den studio over a six-month period, the album is designed as a showpiece for the prodigious young performer, who wrote half of its songs and plays guitar on each track. Backed by a host of musicians, including members of Brad Paisley's and Kenny Chesney's studio bands, Collins fills the recording with her warm, sassy and wide-ranging voice. Vocally, she sounds like a fully grown woman rather than a girl not yet old enough to apply for a learner's permit. Lovelorn ballads, imbued with the somber wail of a pedal-steel guitar, identify Back to Me as a country-flavored affair. The up-tempo "Anywhere She Dreams," which Collins describes as an autobiographical coming-of-age tale, has all the crescendos, catchy choruses and hummable refrains of a TNT hit. Now managed by her mother, Susan, Collins hopes the effort helps her achieve her singular goal: The girl wants to get signed, like, now.

"We're just getting it out to as many people, as many labels as we can," she says with a mixture of seasoned professionalism and girlishness. "It's all about having them know who I am and what I'm doing. It's about having them think that I'm ready for 'the contract.' That would just be thecoolest thing."

Totally. For Collins, a veteran of the national talent-competition circuit since the age of four -- when she delivered an auspicious reading of Amy Grant's "Baby, Baby" -- stardom is something that feels more like a birthright than merely a career aspiration. By the time she was thirteen, she had snaked fifteen medals in the highly competitive World Championships of Performing Arts and caught the attention of a local talent scout who nurtures aspiring starlets through Denver's Academy of the Arts. Collins has sung the national anthem for Nuggets fans (if such a group exists) and appeared in songwriters' round-circle jams in Music City, a place she's come to regard as a kind of creative haven.

"I love it there so much," she says. "It just feels like home. It's a comfort zone. To go there and be with the musicians there, it's just something I've lived for. We just click. People there have the same dreams and aspirations. They understand why I have given up so many normal things in life in order to pursue this thing."

True, not everyone in Nashville is likely to regard an artist like Collins as a welcome addition to Music Row. After all, she writes the kind of songs that could make a country purist cringe. If the success of the O Brother, Where Are Thou?soundtrack hinted at a return to a rootsier time, artists like Collins suggest that the future of mainstream country will be studded with beatific young starlets with Faith Hill-ian voices and catchy, pop-centric sensibilities. The difference, though, is that Collins can sing, play and, best of all, write her own material. She's heartier and huskier than LeAnn, less obvious and glam than Shania, and just plain better than Hill in every conceivable way. She could easily become the countrified answer to Michelle Branch and Nelly Furtado, other young artists who've offered a songwriterly counterpart to the prefab karaoke of Britney Spears and the many pelvic-bone-baring pop plebes who bounced up in her wake. Just don't mention the B-word in her presence.

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