Teenage country singer Tegan Marie recently walked into a co-writing session in Los Angeles and greeted her fellow songwriters, all of whom were about two decades older. She said hello, and then something along the lines of, “Let’s keep it lit!”
“ ‘Lit’ is a very big term for our generation,” Tegan Marie, 15, explained recently in a phone interview. “It’s like, ‘Let’s have fun!’ ”
While such slang may need to be explained to adults, the hit songwriters (Jason Reeves, Nelly Joy, Rune Westberg) knew a catchy phrase when they heard one. And that’s how “Keep It Lit” became Tegan Marie’s debut single on Warner Music Nashville this year, a few months after she became the youngest female singer signed to a major country record label since Tanya Tucker signed with CBS Records in 1972.
Not only is she being positioned as a breakout star, but her team hopes to tap into an underserved and lucrative market: Generation Z listeners who love country music, but can’t relate to the hit booze and party-centric songs.
“Tegan has a chance to bring a whole new audience to this genre,” said Veronica Zelle, Tegan Marie’s manager and co-founder of Sweety High, a media company for young girls. “If I was a gatekeeper to that, I would say, ‘Let that one in. She’s the real deal, and she really loves this genre.’ ”
Tegan Marie, a Flint, Michigan, native, is a member of Gen Z, or anyone born around 1995 through the mid-2000s. (Researchers can’t agree on the exact years.) Forbes recently declared Gen Z is “on track to become the largest generation of consumers in just a few short years,” representing “up to $143 billion in spending power.” It also means that Tegan Marie – born in 2003 – has been well-versed in the Internet since she learned to talk.
At age 7, Tegan Marie’s parents helped her sign up for Sweety High’s social networking site, exclusively for teen and tween girls with their parents’ permission, where she could post videos of herself singing cover songs. Her powerhouse voice caught the attention of Zelle, a music video producer and Sweety High’s chief creative officer.
“I said, ‘That is a little superstar’ … she has this life force when she’s in front of you, it’s undeniable,” said Zelle, who has worked on music videos with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
Zelle stayed in touch with Tegan Marie’s parents, and when she was 12, asked if they would be interested in bringing her to Los Angeles for a meeting. During the trip, Tegan Marie met one of her favorite singers, Nashville star Kelsea Ballerini. When Ballerini asked if she liked country music, Tegan Marie cracked everyone up when she responded, “I am country.”
Zelle and Sweety High co-founder Frank Simonetti became her managers. Things took off from there, as Zelle eventually connected with Scott Hendricks, a superstar producer (Blake Shelton, Brooks & Dunn, Dan + Shay) and Warner Music Nashville’s executive vice president of A&R. After he heard Tegan Marie sing in person, Zelle said that Hendricks’s reply was, “That’s a country voice, she’s a star, I’m on board.”
Tegan Marie signed with Warner last August, about two months before her 14th birthday, and started work on her debut album. She cultivated a close relationship with Radio Disney, which has grown a country audience, and she kept posting cover songs. In summer 2016, her rendition of Florida Georgia Line’s ballad “H.O.L.Y.” was viewed 18 million times on Facebook and 2 million times on YouTube.
“I still don’t know how and why it went so viral,” Tegan Marie said. “It’s really crazy.”
She splits her time between Nashville and Michigan, and is completing classes for school online. (When asked what she learned on her summer tour this past year, she responded, “Time management.”) She has started collaborating with other songwriters, including Nathan Chapman, who co-produced Taylor Swift’s first five albums. He and Tegan Marie co-wrote her newest song, an empowerment anthem called “I Know How to Make a Boy Cry.”
“I really wanted to write a song about girl power and sticking up for yourself, and just taking the high road in life,” she said. “It’s not really about making boys cry – it’s about being the bigger person.”
Of course, working with Chapman will only ramp up comparisons to Swift, a star who proved to Nashville the importance of focusing on teen audiences.
“Honestly, it’s a privilege to be compared to Taylor Swift. I don’t really ever get tired of it,” she said. However, she added, even though Swift is one of her idols, “I just feel like I want to be Tegan Marie.”
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