Chelsea Lee: Aspiring pop star bides time waiting for Atlantic to release album

The 3- and 4-year-old children are having trouble with the board game Trouble. The dice are just sitting there in a plastic bubble.

“You have to do it like this,” their day-care teacher says as she deftly pushes on the plastic to make the dice flip. The children look at her as if she’s a miracle worker.

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During the day, Chelsea Lee helps one of her charges navigate a giggly game of hopscotch. She feeds another a helping of grapes. She keeps a wary eye on the entire gaggle as they sit on the floor and watch a rather sophisticated presentation on African handiwork for the day-care center’s International Week.

Occasionally, of course, someone will vomit. But for the most part, working at a day-care center is a low-key way to spend a couple of days a week while preparing to open for Rosanne Cash at the Birchmere — or waiting for a major record label to release your first album.

Lee is that rare local talent perched on the brink of bigger things, with a cadre of fans who have watched her develop from a teenage phenom to a young woman with promise and ambition. Her gift is a voice that defies description, although “wise beyond her years” — even when she was 14 — has been commonly appended to it. She has been compared by music insiders to singer-songwriters such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Colbie Caillat, Sheryl Crow and Patty Griffin.

Lee has dutifully connected all the industry dots, working her way up from informal gigs at Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle in Bethesda to Vienna’s Jammin’ Java to regional music festivals and New York City clubs. She has a vibrant online presence and two CD samplers, and one of her songs gained her national exposure when it appeared on MTV’s “The City.”

She has done all of that with the backing of her parents, Scott and Jennifer Lee of McLean, and her manager, Daniel Brindley, whose workmanlike navigation of the often-treacherous music-industry waters seems to be paying off. Two years ago, at 18, she signed a multi-disc deal with Atlantic Records.

But an album recorded for the label during 2010’s “Snowmageddon” remains under wraps. It has been mixed and mastered and remixed and remastered in studios on both coasts, but Atlantic still does not have it on its release schedule. Meanwhile, Lee has commuted to New York City for showcases for Atlantic executives and is now in a phase of “artistic development,” with weekly performances with a new guitarist at Rockwood Music Hall in SoHo. She has also taken an improv class to improve her stage presence.

The sold-out appearance at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Brindley says, is Lee’s biggest showcase yet and will reveal the results of the months of polishing. It’s hoped the show will increase momentum toward an eventual release of the untitled album.

After all, Chelsea Lee isn’t getting any younger. On Saturday, she turned 20.

The voice

Scott and Jennifer Lee, who own a real estate settlement company, raised Chelsea and her 15-year-old brother, Owen, in McLean, where they exposed them to music of all kinds.

“I didn’t grow up with little kids bands,” Chelsea says.

“We ran the gamut,” says Scott, 50, was bass player while at Radford University in the ’80s. “Sinatra, Tony Bennett, U2, B-52s, you name it.”

And Chelsea began tuning in early.

“Her kindergarten teacher mentioned that she was always singing while she was doing her work without realizing she was singing,” says Jennifer, 46, who played cello in high school and dabbles on piano. “She said it was a bit of a distraction to the other kids.”

When Chelsea was 13 and had a couple of summer musical performances under her belt, Scott took her to see Mary Ann Redmond, a voice teacher and winner of several Washington Area Music Association awards as a recording artist.

After the first session, Redmond recalls, “I walked up to Scott and said, ‘I don’t know what you guys want to do with this, and I’ve never said this to anybody before, but this girl’s got the goods. She can make it.’ ”

At 14, Chelsea started performing with Redmond at local clubs, including Jammin’ Java, where she caught the ear of Brindley, the co-owner.

“There’s just this mature, soulful thing that comes through,” says Brindley, who was so taken with Chelsea’s voice that he talked her parents into letting him work with her. (He handles her booking, music contacts and studio details. Scott does much of the marketing).

As her focus on music sharpened, she gave up other activities, such as soccer. And she didn’t display much interest in boys at Langley High in McLean.

“She didn’t have a boyfriend in high school,” Jennifer says. (These days Chelsea dates the guitar player in the band the Walking Sticks, Spencer Ernst.)

School, Chelsea agrees, was just the place to go between music lessons and gigs, and she wasn’t focused on academics.

“But I had a bunch of friends at school,” she says. “I wasn’t the loner who sat in the corner.”

Chelsea’s local fan base snowballed. She opened at the Birchmere for Marc Cohn. She put out an EP, a sampler of her songs, and began uploading material on YouTube. When a New York-based Australian band called the Kin saw her cover of their song “New Day” on YouTube, they asked her to open for them at Rockwood Music Hall, a small, well-regarded club on the Lower East Side.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, 2007, and the next part was the stuff of rock-and-roll fantasy.

The sell

Ken Rockwood says he sees “thousands of acts” a year at his SoHo club and rarely sends word about any of them to a major record label. But when he heard Chelsea Lee, “she was amazing,” he says. “Amazingly young, and such a beautifully mature voice for such a young girl.”

Rockwood called Leslie Dweck at the A&R division at Atlantic Records, home to Lupe Fiasco, James Blunt and Jason Mraz, and sent her Lee’s EP.

Impressed, Dweck followed up with an invitation to Lee to play a private show at the Rockwood, then a daytime showcase at the Atlantic offices in Manhattan. Among the fewer than 10 people in the small room was Atlantic chief executive Craig Kallman and A&R Vice President Pete Ganbarg.

Brindley could barely stand to watch.

“It felt like a firing squad,” he says. “I could never have done that at any age.”

Recalls Rockwood: “As I was watching, I was thinking, ‘She’s killing this.’ It’s funny, because someone who is older might have understood their future was in the balance, but I don’t think that was in her head at all, and thank God it wasn’t.”

Atlantic sent Lee to London to write songs with Martin Terefe, the Grammy-winning producer of several contemporary top-10 hits, including by Train and Mraz. And it arranged for the album to be recorded in Charlottesville by Chris Keup, a singer-songwriter originally from Alexandria who had worked with Mraz, Parachute and Missy Higgins.

The music “runs the gamut from Colbie Caillat pop to more rootsy Sheryl Crow,” Keup says. “My favorite stuff is the slower stuff, which reminds me of Patty Griffin.”

That’s quite a range of styles and ages: Caillat is 26. Crow is 49. Griffin is 47.

Lee herself seems to have difficulty saying exactly what kind of music she writes.

“Pop,” she concludes. “Acoustic pop. But it’s not really that anymore.”

Even Dweck, her A&R rep, searches for words.

“She’s a young artist channeling a very old soul,” she says.

The wait

Lee might play well on the “hot adult contemporary” market, her rep thinks.

“Hot adult contemporary stations are very popular,” says Dave Hughes, who covers area broadcasting at his Web site, at dcrtv.com. “They tend to be light rock-ish and geared primarily for females. There are a lot of top-rated hot-AC stations. Here in D.C. both Mix 107.3 and WASH are usually top-10 stations.”

But from his vantage point in Los Angeles, producer Val Garay thinks Lee will need more than a hot-AC classification and a soulful voice. What she will need, he says, is a song.

Garay has sold 125 million albums as a producer for James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John and Kim Carnes.

“If you look at the successful acts right now, they all have a song” as opposed to a reputation, he says.

As for making sure a hit happens, he says, the issue will be, “How quickly does the label get bored?”

Garay says a long delay in an album’s release can signal that a recording company “is reassessing their position. Because when they release a hard version of a CD and promote it, it’s very expensive on their end.”

But Ganbarg, the Atlantic A&R exec, says to relax, that the label is just being “respectful” of Lee’s personal development.

“Every project is different,” he says. “We signed Chelsea because we fell in love with her music and her talent and the overall person that she is. But she was so young when we signed her it takes a lot of time to evolve into who she really is as an artist, and that’s what’s been happening.”

Ganbarg says Atlantic is “formulating a plan now, and a lot of it has to do with the live performances that she’s been spending the last couple of months getting together,” such as the Birchmere show. “We cannot let something go wide until it’s ready, until the artist is ready.”

For now, Lee, who just finished her first year at Northern Virginia Community College, is philosophical.

“I definitely thought it would be more of a faster process,” she says. “But it’s going, and hopefully something will happen soon.

“I’m just trying to get them to go a little faster, so I can work on new music.”

Chelsea Lee

will be appearing in a sold-out performance with Rosanne Cash on Saturday at the Birchmere Music Hall, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-549-7500. birchmere.com.

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