The Colbie Caillat Interview, On The Brink Of Stardom – August 2007

You’d think she’d be sick of being asked about them. After all, her dad produced Rumours, Tusk and Mirage – three albums that sold more than 40 million copies between them. He was there when Stevie and Lindsey were interchanging vicious argument for sublime harmony. He was the one who mortified the band by tipping mock bags of cocaine on the studio floor before reassuring them it was only talcum powder.

But Fleetwood Mac remain right up there for music’s reluctant next big thing, Colbie Caillat. Gypsy is one of her all time favourite songs, Mick Fleetwood is a de-facto uncle and she is tremendously proud of her producer-father Ken Caillat. So why did female-pop’s first social media-made star turn down the presence of the ‘Mac on her debut album? How did she get to be the number one unsigned artist on for four straight months? What does she make of those Jack Johnson comparisons?

“It’s a good thing I’m not scared of flying,” says a tired Caillat, still looking every bit the beautiful California girl the publicity photos suggest, despite having “been on a plane every single day the past month.” She’s casually dressed in jeans and a sleeveless top, taller than you’d expect, golden-blonde locks, tanned (naturally so, despite her pre-music-career job in a tanning salon) and the owner of Colgate-perfect teeth with a smile to match. Though not currently worn, she’s also the owner of the sort of jacket Southern Californians rarely find the need for, bought day one here in New Zealand.

Caillat has left the warmth of the endless Malibu summer for the excitement of mid-winter Auckland. “Everybody said it would be freezing!” she says before reassuring me she still thinks New Zealand is beautiful and not quite as cold as she’d been warned. It’s drizzling outside the hotel window and if for a second I think she’s being false in her praise she tells me about the wonders of Piha: “It’s beautiful! It looks kinda’ like beaches in San Diego in that it was really spread out. It reminds me a lot of Hawaii too and I’d love to come back and see it during your summer.”

A pat on the back for the record company who managed to squeeze in a Piha trip in what is just a two day visit, where the countless media interviews can bleed into one and the showcase performance can be hard to distinguish from the one you just did in the country before and the one you’re about to do in the country ahead. But Caillat hides her weariness well. You sense the newness to this suddenly being famous gig is yet to lose its sheen.

The sheen may be all gone in a year or two though, when she’s still being asked about being the female Jack Johnson. Is it a fair comparison? Like Johnson, Caillat knows the beaches of California and Hawaii inside out. She may not be the surfer he is, but with guitar in hand, an ear for melody and a similarly laid back vibe to counteract the sun-kissed good looks, it’s not hard to see why people liken the two. “I love Jack Johnson but I don’t think I’m the female version of him,” she says, pointing out she’s a mix of a lot of different people and styles, “so long as they’re all good!”

One listen to the album proves that “the female Jack Johnson!” hype is more about the desire to categorize pop singers into pre-determined genres and even careers than it is to actually describe what she does. Case in point: Never mind the fact the Bee Gees had dozens of non-dance hits prior to and post the disco-era, they still lazily get called a “70s disco band.” Caillat superficially fits the Johnson bill, but her album Coco owes more to the likes of Sheryl Crow, Lauryn Hill, Nelly Furtado and yes, Fleetwood Mac.

There is no memory for Caillat of the first time she met her father Ken’s musical comrades Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. They were just there, a part of the Caillat extended family. Of Fleetwood Mac she says, “They’re all really nice people,” before smiling and adding that Mick is her favourite: “I love Mick!” Even a cocaine-fuelled Mick Fleetwood was still able to present himself as the lovable rich English gent every child would want for an uncle, but the cocaine-free model is the only one Caillat has known and by her account, he is the sweetest, kindest, funniest rock superstar any child could wish their dad to be chummy with.

“Oh my God! That’s really funny,” laughs Caillat as I tell the story of her father’s cocaine / talcum powder practical joke. It’s a story she’s never heard despite its status as one of the better of the many great tales from the making of the Rumours album and I wonder whether Ken has shielded his daughter from the darker side of the Fleetwood Mac legacy. “Well, no,” she responds, offering a laugh as she explains Ken knows she knows they all did “whatever” back then. “All his musician friends would tell me stories! But that was then.”

And what of now? Caillat reveals herself an oddly wholesome, refreshingly natural variation of the famous California girl, the antithesis of all that can be unfortunate about her celebrity-obsessed home state. Parents Ken and Di (long since clean of drugs) are still happily married, beloved sister Morgan is “everything I’ve grown up wanting to be” and is even married to Caillat’s pleasantly low-key manager Nathan Stockmeirs. Mellow nights fire-side on the beach with friends are favoured over drunken Lohan-esque escapades. It’s more than likely had she lived in the 70s she would’ve been an ill-fit with the brilliantly debauched band she calls her favourite, Fleetwood Mac.

Aware she’s already getting plenty of mileage out of her current link to one of music history’s biggest acts, why did Caillat not go the whole distance and accept her father’s offer to have Fleetwood drum and Buckingham play guitar on Coco? “They’re obviously amazing but I didn’t want it to be the album: ‘Oh, she knew people…’ I just didn’t want that,” she says. Happy enough for the publicity machine to make use of what they’ve got, Caillat will be thrilled if her gentle songs are popular because people like them, not just because they like the back story.

Be that as it may, that back story is growing by the week and even with all those linkages to Fleetwood Mac put to one side. Prior to signing a presumably lucrative deal with Universal Republic, Caillat was the flagship artist of the new technological age: the number one unsigned musician on for four consecutive months. In no time she had more than 100,000 “friends” on her Myspace page and has now clocked up close to 15 million listens of her songs online. With Internet records broken, the finally released Coco managed an impressive top 5 debut on the US Billboard album chart. The single Bubbly has hit top 20s the world over (including our own) and the juggernaut of the first Internet-made rather than just Internet-assisted pop star is now well into top gear.

It all began when Caillat, encouraged by her father not just to be a singer, but a songwriter, started putting her songs online on her newly created Myspace page late in 2006. “I had a few friends added to my page and they added my songs to their pages and their friends would hear it and add it and it just spread on its own like that.” It sounds deceptively easy, a fact not lost on Caillat who is almost apologetic in describing her ascent in what is still just a matter of months: Staff member in tanning salon (quit December 2006), recording of album (January, February 2007), signing record deal with Universal Republic (March), unprecedented Internet success (February onwards), top 5 album debut (July), interview in regal chair on 10th floor of opulent hotel on other side of the world (present).

Having bid farewell both to her and the regal furniture for the morning, our next meeting is that night at her Auckland showcase. It’s still drizzling outside and very much a winter’s night, but inside at a new bar on the edge of the CBD called Squid Row, the place has been decked out specifically for Caillat as if it’s a surf shop. The media-types and Myspace fans packing out the venue kid themselves for 30 minutes they’re at a beach bar in Malibu as she performs half a dozen songs from Coco. She then leaves the stage to press the flesh, smile for the cameras and confide in me The Office is her number one TV show and Dumb and Dumber is her favourite film: “It’s just the best movie ever!” She laughs, unperturbed it may fall fractionally short of Citizen Kane and The Godfather.

The overriding question for the uninitiated to the Colbie Caillat phenomenon is undoubtedly “why?” Why the big deal, why all the fuss? Bubbly, her first single is hardly groundbreaking stuff, though nor is it intended to be. Set over a summery guitar-picked melody, the song is about “those feelings of butterflies a person gives you where they always just make you smile and anything they do you just adore,” she says, admitting the song is pretty simple and not her favourite on the album. It was the online “friends” who pushed for the release of Bubbly, Caillat preferring others of her songs, notably the sublime broken-hearted lament Battle and the self-doubting One Fine Wire. Regardless, the song has clearly struck a note, though not with everyone.

There are those who having heard Bubbly are prematurely dismissing Caillat as bubblegum, just as there are some who believe her success is less about musical talent and due more to being easy on the eye and having a music-biz father. What shouldn’t be overlooked happens to be an overused word: charisma. It’s what performers need just as much as their voice and their musical chops, possibly more. As enticing as the whole Colbie Caillat package is, it’s not as if she is the first offspring from rock’s golden age to attempt a music career. Nor is she the first one with the added bonus of good looks, a unique voice and a down-to-earth reputation. But she is the first one with membership to all those clubs to storm the Internet in such a way and that wouldn’t have happened unless there was a degree of indefinable charisma at work.

Any night of the week you can sit in a bar and hear singer / songwriters pouring their hearts out with nothing but the aid of their guitars. As good as they may be, most of us need the sound of our own chatter as accompaniment. That wintry night at Squid Row, the crowd of diehard fans and skeptics alike was dead quiet as Caillat sang. Currently charging $9.47 for tickets to her shows, there’s many a $100 act that’d kill for audiences as spellbound as hers. “I don’t want to think too much ahead because I don’t want to get my hopes up,” she tells me cautiously after the set.” It’s a comment rare from someone with everything going for her that Caillat has. With brashness and abundance of ego being prerequisites for most pop-stars, Caillat’s lack of may not be an insubstantial part of her appeal.

Having read dozens of reviews for Coco, it certainly wasn’t for glamour or prestige I found myself reading a critique in the Willamette Week, an agreeable little online publication from Oregon. However esteemed this stumbled-upon weekly is, their critic summed up Caillat better than most. Describing her music as soul-tinged folk, they weren’t necessarily in love with Coco’s “sweet pop ballads”, but found Caillat’s honesty refreshing, with songs sounding like “they’re being sung by a nice girl who just really likes to sing.” The lyrics to Caillat’s favourite Fleetwood Mac song tell us that “lightning strikes maybe once, maybe twice.” For the Caillats, it sure is looking like twice.

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