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April 30, 2010 Four Records signs Sydney Rhame....

‘Already an artist’ at age 11
By Rosalind Bentley

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Sydney Rhame is 11 1/2 years old, not 11, as she’s quick to point out.

To kids her age, the distinction is important because it puts them that much closer to the coveted title of teen.

For Sydney, the “and-a-half” is especially critical. See, Sydney plans to have a record deal by the time she’s 12.

With the help and blessing of her parents, Julie and Rhett, Sydney is doing all she can to meet the self-imposed deadline. She has two voice coaches, including Jan Smith, who counts R&B megastar Usher and his protégé, teen-pop throb Justin Bieber, as clients. There are weekly guitar lessons and twice weekly hip-hop dance classes — not because Sydney wants to sing hip-hop, but because the moves could help her in a pop career.

She has played Music Row in Nashville and coffee houses in Atlanta. At 10, she cut a demo, using Rodney Mills, the engineer for .38 Special and the Doobie Brothers. And by her own guess, she has written hundreds of songs but thinks only 20 are radio ready.

There have always been child stars. But in a more sophisticated media age — when young franchise players like Miley Cyrus are relentlessly promoted and YouTube performances launch careers (see Bieber) — child-celebrity status seems more attainable. And the fact that it does seem so attainable can’t help but rub off on kids like Sydney. She seems to almost take it as a given.

In some ways, she’s like the kid who practices three-pointers with the single-minded, yet far-fetched goal of becoming an NBA star. But Sydney’s coaches and mentors said she’s not exactly chasing a pipe dream. For someone her age, they said, her talent is arresting.

To look at her— tall and lanky, auburn-haired and pretty — it’s hard to believe she’s in the sixth grade. She’s a likable kid, soft-spoken around adults, rambunctious with her little sister at home in Decatur. But to hear Sydney belt out an original tune in her throaty voice that’s about to graduate from soprano to alto, it’s evident that this child has realized she has power. Her folk-rock style winks at Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge. Tales of shy boys, daydreams and best friends populate her lyrics.

“Sometimes my friends are bummed out when I can’t hang out with them and stuff because I have to practice or I have a gig,” Sydney said. “But I’m doing it for fun. It’s what I love to do.

“Everyday I ask my mom, ‘What have you done for my career today?’ ”

Hard work and talent, however, don’t guarantee a pop career. For that, lightning must strike. Sydney has a child’s faith that it will. But she’ll need a woman’s strength if it does.

Honing an artist

Jan Smith was trying to, as she put it, get Sydney’s brain to line up with her ear and throat. Smith was playing the 12-note chromatic scale on an electric piano in her spacious Atlanta studio. That scale is essentially do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, including the half notes in between.

“OK, go a half note up,” Smith said, striking random keys.

Sydney hesitated. “Ahh?”

“No, you went a whole note down,” Smith said. “Let’s do it again. Go down a half note.”


“No, you went up.”

Half up, half down it went until Sydney completed the scale, if not with full confidence, with much less doubt.

It isn’t that Sydney can’t read music, but Smith won’t be satisfied until the girl has mastered the fundamentals. Smith has seen plenty of singers with extraordinary voices who couldn’t read music if their lives depended on it. That’s fine for one-hit wonders or one-dimensional performers, but those people never fully own their music.

Usually Smith takes on national acts and emerging artists signed to development deals. She almost never works with a child as young as Sydney. Late last year, a mutual acquaintance urged Sydney’s parents to try anyway. So they tracked Smith down last December and gave her Sydney’s demo.

What did Smith hear that made her break her client rule?

“She’s already an artist,” Smith said. “She’s already writing her own music, her own lyrics, playing guitar, expressing her own heart and not just parroting what she’s heard on the radio like a lot of people walking in here. That’s an artist, not an American Idol contestant. And I want to spend my time honing those people who are real artists.”

Setting her sights

Sydney’s first official “performance” came after Thanksgiving dinner when she was in the first grade.

“I’ve got mommy ears, but I thought she sounded better than the typical kid,” said Julie, senior communications director for DeKalb County Schools, Decatur City School Board member and a former film producer.

Guitar lessons soon followed. If there was a school play, Sydney was in it. When a summer camp to teach girls how to play rock music opened last year, Julie, 47, and Rhett signed Sydney up.

So in her fifth-grade year, when Sydney presented her parents with a list of things she would need to do to become a recording artist — make good grades, write every day, practice guitar and don’t eat junk food — Julie and Rhett didn’t balk. Mom took on the role of quasi-manager, negotiating mic time for her daughter at neighborhood coffee houses and festivals.

Dad became the roadie, shuttling Sydney to rehearsals. Any Facebook, MySpace or YouTube posts go through him. When he talks about watching her perform, he tears up.

Yet there is a fine line between being a supportive mom and dad and becoming relentless stage parents. Rhett, an independent computer service technician, and Julie said they haven’t crossed it. They point out that Sydney must do household chores, maintain good grades and walk the family dogs. There are sleepovers with friends and no cellphone.

Sydney is the driver on this, not them, her parents said.

But show business is brutal, dangerous and fickle. Why go full tilt now with a child? For every Taylor Swift there is a Tiffany.

“A lot of people say it’s not a matter of if she’s successful, it’s a matter of when,” Rhett Rhame, 46, said. “It’s not like I’m going, ‘I need a meal ticket, baby,’ and I’m not trying to live some dream I didn’t fulfill through her. I never wanted a music career. The biggest thing to me is taking care of her and I tell her, ‘If you want to do it, I’ll get you there.’ ”

Local spoken-word performer Kodac Harrison stepped in as an ad hoc mentor to the Rhames after hearing Sydney perform at a drama camp. Watching her, Harrison said, he thought, “Hey, this 20-year-old has a big voice.” Then he found out how old she was. Suddenly, pretty good talent seemed amazing.

A few weeks later, Sydney, her mother and Harrison went into the studio. Sydney emerged with a four-track, acoustic demo complete. The song titles are stamped on the right side of the CD, along with Sydney’s birth date. On the left is a picture of the girl — sun-kissed hair, fresh-scrubbed face, half smiling as if she were sitting for her school portrait. The message is clear: If stressing that such big voice is coming from such a young girl will give Sydney an edge, so be it.

“If I were to wait until I was 15 or 16 ...” Sydney said, frowning at the thought of it. “I think my age right now draws people and they want to listen.”

No time to wait

Last summer, the family went to Nashville. Sydney had been invited to perform at a Father of the Year banquet honoring Rod Essig, longtime agent to LeAnn Rimes. In a dark teal dress her mother wore at her own wedding rehearsal dinner, Sydney sang her songs before a banquet crowd of 400. Before the weekend was over, her parents had managed to get her to perform on three stages on Nashville’s famed Music Row.

“The woman working the door at one of them didn’t want to let her in because she was 10, but we talked her into it,” Julie said. “After Sydney sang, the woman said, ‘There’s no way she’s just 10!’ ”

Charlie Monk, known as the Mayor of Music Row, is a longtime country music executive. He has seen his share of kids succeed. He’s seen others get chewed up. The very thing that draws people in now is the mature voice coming from a child. But as Sydney gets older, will the novelty wear off or will her voice and ability ripen, revealing a more compelling artist?

“This scares the hell out of me,” Monk said. “The minute they’re thrown into the industry, they’re no longer a child. But you can’t give up either, because the day you give up, lightning will strike the next day and you’ve missed it.”

As for Sydney, she sees herself playing arenas by 16. Not succeeding hasn’t crossed her mind. What if she doesn’t get that record deal by 12 or even 20?

“It’s gonna work,” she said. Her voice was strong and clear as if she was singing one of her ballads.

Music for life

Jan Smith also knows what Sydney will be up against. Which is why after the chromatic scale, she put Sydney through a song-writing exercise using one of the girl’s compositions called “Extra Vacation.” In her element, strumming her guitar, Sydney sang to her audience of one as though it were 1,000. Her final note had barely vanished when Smith asked, “What was your hook in this song?”

“Have an extra vacation,” Sydney replied.

“And I got that,” Smith said. “Boy did I get it. It was repeated so many times I didn’t want to hear it anymore.”

The freckled 11 1/2-year-old face dropped.

“It doesn’t mean the song is bad, it just means you’re young and need to learn more about song-writing structure,” Smith said, her voice kind but firm.

Sydney explained that it’s a song about wanting to spend more time with her mother, who “works so much. I was trying to say it in code.”

“If you’re going to be obscure and make people get it, you’re going to have to work harder than this,” Smith said. Sydney nodded and cradled the guitar.

In the end, what’s less important, Smith said, is whether Sydney winds up filling arenas. What’s more important is that she refine her talent and grow as an artist.

“Fifteen years from now, music may not be her primary job, but she’ll find another way to get a hamburger if that’s the case,” Smith said. “But Syd will always do music. It’s her first language.”

That night, Sydney went home and rewrote “Extra Vacation” from top to bottom, trying to conjure up lightning.

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