A Joyful Noise
These days, Rachael Lampa's schedule is not typical of that of most fifteen-year-old kids from Monarch High School in Louisville, Colorado. Of course, when a battery of people have you pegged as the next big thing -- not just for Colorado, but for the country and possibly beyond -- your dance card tends to fill up pretty quickly. Take, for example, this week's agenda: On August 1, Live for You, Lampa's debut record on Word records, hit the streets, an event the 4'10'' vocalist marked with a performance on the Tonight Show. On August 3 she'll perform on the View, and she's been selected as the featured artist for CNN's entertainment segments, spots that run all week. Over the next few days, she will also make appearances on Good Morning America, 48 Hours, and numerous other major network shows. That's what happens when you've inked the richest record deal for a newcomer in Christian pop-music history and you're being courted by major pop labels for a second deal.
But as large as these achievements are, they pale when compared to the size of what's made Lampa one of the hottest new teen talents: her voice. Lampa combines the dizzying range of British opera wunderkid Charlotte Church with the pop savvy and sass of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey -- and every other diva who'll be hitting the rehearsal room after hearing this former point guard for Monarch High's girls' basketball team. Lampa's voice is an unforgettable instrument of astounding control and dynamics; her talents have literally left audiences and A&R men in tears. It has a similar effect on record, even after repeated listenings. But don't expect this cool, confident kid to take credit for her singing skills. "It's Him singing through me," Lampa says of her gifts. "It's not really me singing at all."
That's some arrangement, she admits with a giggle, but it's also one that she's been developing all her life. According to Marianne Lampa, Rachael's mother, Rachael was singing before she could speak, stringing infant sounds into melodies before ever talking. At four she was composing her own tunes; by five she was belting out difficult pop hits in note-for-note fashion. "When she started doing 'The Greatest Love of All' completely on pitch," Lampa recalls, "we thought that was indicative of what her gifts were." Under the tutelage of her mother (a part-time singer and full-time nurse), Rachael went on to win national and international talent contests over the next few years and appeared at a number of high-profile engagements. The gigs included everything from appearances at CU football games, to a shot at singing the national anthem at Rockies games (in 1995, at the ripe old age of ten), to a performance on the Jenny Jones show.
Lampa has also performed at Elitch Gardens and various church-sponsored youth events around the state, as well as at her St. Louis Church in Louisville. Her appearance on a compilation to benefit Columbine victims reached the ears of Danny Meeker, the producer of last year's "Praise in the Rockies," an event for Christian musicians held each year in Estes Park. Meeker was bowled over by Lampa's voice and at the last minute placed her on the bill for last August's event, behind Amy Grant. Her performance struck the talent reps as powerfully as a faith healer strikes an ailing cripple. "She started singing, and everybody's jaws just dropped," recalls Brent Bougeois, Word's vice president of A&R, who was at the event.
"I thought it was just another local show. I never thought that anything would come out of it," Rachael recalls. "But it turned out bigger than I thought. That's when the bidding war started." In the end, Word won the war, beating out Sparrow Records (EMI's Christian division) and others for Lampa's services. In the past year, Bougeois and Word have had their new star on a high- dollar fast-track to reach the public. Last fall she dueted with Aaron Neville for a Word compilation and was then whisked into production for her debut solo release. Bougeois placed his new star and her mother in a Nashville mansion, where Rachael consorted with an all-star team of Christian pop writers; she discussed her feelings on both personal matters and her spiritual life so that the writers might create music that she could sink her teeth and religious beliefs into. Five weeks later, the songs were ready for Lampa to demo. (Lampa had to record her own demos, her mother points out, because the songsmiths were unable to find a singer with her daughter's range.) The novel songwriting approach paid off. "They listened to me and came up with songs that I can really relate to," Lampa says. "It feels like I wrote the songs."
One spin of Live for You reveals a kid with a voice years beyond her age, in a big-budget setting of eleven smartly crafted pop songs. And while the disc has plenty of the perky, danceable fodder teens are craving these days, it's miles beyond the current crop of teen-dream music. Live is a pop opus that includes righteous radio-bound gems, hip-swiveling teen ravers and shimmering adult showstoppers. Throughout them all, Lampa's voice crackles with heart-stopping soul and power, matched with a restraint today's pop divas have long since forgotten.
"We went out of our way to make a singer's record," says Bougeois, who co-produced the CD with Brown Bannister. "Because she's such a good singer, it almost gives you no choice but to give her material that some would construe as a little bit older than her audience. But this wasn't an attempt to capitalize on this young-girl thing. We're trying to position her as the voice of the next generation." That might sound like company-man talk, but Live bears it out. "Day of Freedom" is a snaky little celebration of a Christian's big day, while "Live for You" is a grooving, Latin-flavored thing that calls to mind Christina Aguilera revealing her faith instead of her flesh. Recorded in Abbey Road Studios, "Always Be My Home" is a breathy drama, a whisper-to-a-soar of "Titanic" proportions, complete with backing from the London Symphony Orchestra. "God Loves You" is irresistible ear candy keen enough for grownups, and "Shaken" is a perfect bootie-shaking soundtrack. But Lampa's not referring to body parts in motion in the song -- she's referring to the walls of Jericho tumbling down upon the unforgiven.
"Blessed" is the sort of pop gospel that Whitney Houston once delivered, and like the rest of the disc, it reveals Lampa's head-spinning skills. Starting with a smoky, adultish croon, she leans into the song's verses as the tune builds. By the second chorus, her voice is sailing skyward, and when she finishes the bridge, she pauses for a moment of hiccuped, scale-climbing pyrotechnics that are downright staggering. But before she wails too far into showboating terrain, she swoons through a quick power falsetto, dips to a hush and launches one more vocal triple lutz before finishing the song in a delicate pinpoint landing. Rachael Lampa is God's first-chair backup singer, with a voice that could have split the Red Sea had Moses been off his game.
"I've heard younger singers do the licks," Bougeois says, "but almost inevitably, they don't own songs. It's an exercise. With Rachael, she inhabits songs, and you can only say that about a few singers," he adds, before dropping the name of one such legend: "Streisand." Bougeois says that he and Bannister also encouraged their protegé to avoid the cliches that her older peers readily embrace. "If you 'Mariah' the whole thing, you get Mariah," Bougeois says, referencing one of Lampa's idols. "And that's hard to listen to.
"Like any other tasty thing," he says of Lampa's high points, "it's so much more tasty when it's not overdone."
Bougeois knows a thing or two about popular music. In the late '80s, he enjoyed international success with his group, Bougeois Tag, and a tune of his, "I Don't Mind at All." Following that band's end, he launched a solo career, then became a Christian and started penning songs for Michael W. Smith and others. Two years ago he signed on with Word. Bougeois wrote several of the songs on Live, and he makes it clear that the muted themes of the disc are not an attempt at spiritual subterfuge. "I'm a musician at heart who happens to be a Christian," he says, "and I don't approach record-making by who is going to get saved by it. And I'm not smart enough to be thinking about how I'm going to subvert someone's beliefs with a record."
"I'm just making pop records that have certain moral tones in them, " he says, laughing. "That's one of the reasons this kind of music has gotten better. Some of us are interested in bringing this industry up to pop standards so that you can't tell you're listening to a Christian-music station before you hear any words." Besides, he notes, "hitting people over the head with the Bible is not our style, and it doesn't make good poetry."
The hipper, more up-to-date holy tunes also help religious acts reach a new audience. "My friends," Lampa says, "they never really listened to Christian music, and I hardly did either before I started singing it. Now we listen to it all the time, and we love it. And a lot of the times, you don't even know it's Christian music until you really listen to the words. You don't have to listen to negative stuff to have fun and dance to the music." Young artists like herself, she says, "are finding our callings earlier in life and [being] called to do ministry through our music." So God digs a phat groove and modern touches? "I think God appreciates anything that will help spread his Word," Lampa says. "That other music wasn't reaching younger kids."
Lampa's contract with Word is structured flexibly, meaning that she is free to pursue the secular, pop-centric deals that are now being tendered before her and her family. Marianne Lampa won't reveal who the players are or how much money is at stake for her daughter's taking. "This is not about money," she says, "and that's not what Rachael is about." Bou-geois says that based on early responses to Live, a pop deal may not be necessary. (The album's title track is now in the top five of virtually every Christian-music chart.) Mainstream press and pop stations are expressing an interest in the recording and seem unhindered by Lampa's faith and focus. "I just did a photo shoot for Teen People magazine," Lampa notes, "and when they interview me, I just tell them like it is. Sometimes they seem kind of weird about it, and that tells me they'll probably leave that out of the article."
Bougeois says Lampa's voice has crossed the boundaries of secular and non-secular and should be reaching folks no matter what their faith. "She deserves to be seen as a great singer, not a great Christian singer," he says. "She's already entered into world-class divadom. And I'm somewhat of a homer, but if she keeps her focus and her discipline, I think she has the potential to be in that handful of great singers of our generation. I think she's the next big thing."
Lampa won't make such predictions; she's just happy to be enjoying the dream of the bigtime. Sure, she'll be missing classes at Monarch this year to further her blockbuster potential, but she expects to maintain her good grades despite the jet lag and time out of class. Last year at this time, she notes, "I was just hanging out at the pool with my friends. Now it's a lot different, being away from school and all of my friends. But the record company has been really good about flying me back for special events and things at school and making sure that I have a regular life."
In the meantime, the world's older divas should be watching their backs. Whitney Houston? It's time to lay off the smoke and tone up those pipes. Celine? Keep singing while you're rocking the cradle. Mariah, your reign as in jeopardy, because God's little barn-burner is here to run you out of the castle.
Not that Lampa's worried about her career meeting a less worldly fate. "I do want to reach out to the pop world," she says, "but if that crowd doesn't like me, that's fine. Because my ultimate goal is to get to heaven, and that's all I really care about."
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