By Daniel Kohn
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Yes, Colbie Caillat's dad is Ken Caillat, co-producer of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. But, as she is just 22, her memories of Fleetwood Mac are hardly seminal—musical or otherwise. When Dad was chronicling the bed-hopping and chord-swapping of Lindsey, Stevie, Mick and the McVies, Colbie wasn't even a gleam in her father's eye. "I didn't know any of the [personal] stuff about the band until five years ago," she confesses. Her memories of the Mac are homier, like the one summer she went with the family on John McVie's yacht. "We'd only been on the water for 20 minutes, and I got sick and puked all down the side of the boat."
Funnier still is the fact that even though the songstress owes her success to computers and the Internet—her likable crush anthem "Bubbly" was No. 1 on iTunes last summer—she isn't much of a tech geek. "I just got my Mac three weeks ago," she admits. In fact, Caillat's extremely catchy singer/songwriter pop (think a young Norah Jones' estro-sophisto meets Jack Johnson's stoner folk) is actually the product of traditional studio recording, thanks to her collaborator Mikal Blue.
See, post-Fleetwood Mac, Caillat's dad cornered the market on 5.1 Surround Sound for DVDs, but he also had his own label, working with acts such as Dishwalla. Blue, a U.K. native, came to the States for a label deal, then settled in nearby Thousand Oaks to set up his own studio. "We were the only people he knew in the area," Colbie says. Blue did what was necessary to pay the rent, including making raging techno tracks for fashion shows, which gave Colbie her first shot at life on the mic—albeit singing diva vocals at 150 BPMs. "It wasn't music I'd ever listen to, but they were pretty good songs," she says. "I'd never release them or anything."
She was more drawn to the singer/songwriter, midtempo stuff herself. Caillat played piano as a kid, but famously didn't pick up the guitar until just three years ago. "I took one guitar lesson, the guy showed me four chords, and I went back home and started playing the four chords and singing a song," she says. Blue started recording her early song sketches, including "Bubbly," an ode to the tingle of those first pangs of an oncoming crush, and the rest is becoming history. Since then, she has released a Christmas album and Coco, her debut for Universal Republic, which culls her wistful, vaguely bumpin', late-afternoon folk-funk gems into an iPod shuffle of hormonal, summer-vacation wonder.
Her sound is cheery without being too cheerful, owing to some clever genre-splicing in her singing and song stylings. Caillat grew up around the classic rock of her parents, was turned on to Bob Marley's drop-heavy riddims by her big sister's CDs, and became a hip-hop head along with the other kids in high school, all of which make it into her songs. Especially the hip-hop timing.
"I like having pretty, flowing melodies," she begins. "When I try to sing to a hip-hop beat, I start doing these kind of behind-the-beat melodies. It's kind of like rapping to scat behind the beat." Her own tastes in rap skew to the poppy: Sean Kingston, Common, Mos Def, Timbaland, even Akon. "I like rappers who can sing and rap," she says.
She admits she's still in that puppy-love phase of songwriting where nothing is too labored. "I don't talk about things to people when I write a song; it just comes out," Caillat says. She learned the hard way not to labor too much when it came time to tidy up Coco's demos for the LP.
"Everything on [my] MySpace was recorded in a day, or just a few hours of work," she admits. "For the album, I tried to go back and rerecord the songs, but everybody said the emotion was more immediate on the original versions."
Her songs might be immediate, but getting used to being a pop star has taken more time. "It's been really overwhelming," she says with a sigh. "I'd just wake up and cry. 'I just wanted to write songs! What happened?' Now, it's a job: I get up, I do radio interviews, I do soundcheck with my band, we play the show." [Sounds unbearably grueling. —ed.]
So is she over it by now? "I'll never get over it. I still get stage fright," she says. "Every night, it takes me the first two songs to start feeling comfortable onstage." Bubbly, even.