Why you should care
It makes everyone want to sing when a bullied teen gets a chance to shine.
Every few years a big-throated, tortured-soul chanteuse comes along and takes the music industry by storm. There was Amy Winehouse, whose big mama’s voice had some in the industry calling her “the new Fiona Apple.” And then came Adele, whose lusty vocals had others describing her as “the new Amy Winehouse.”
This year the music oracles have their eyes fixed on Alexandra McDermott, a willowy recent high school graduate from outside of Portland, Oregon.
“She’s going to be huge,’’ Courtney Love tells OZY. “I am not ever wrong when it comes to spotting talent.”
Linda Perry, the former front woman of 4 Non Blondes turned music producer who famously mentored Pink, says of McDermott: “She’s not a pop starlet, but she will be huge like when Fiona Apple broke.”
Wishful thinking? Maybe not. McDermott, 18, graduated from high school in June. A week later she moved to Los Angeles and then immediately jetted to London where she spent a month writing music with top song writers who’ve worked with Adele, Florence and the Machine, and Duffy. Managed by Rob Hoffman of One Management, which handles models Claudia Schiffer and Iman as well a musicians like Love and A$AP, she has just been offered a record deal with Columbia Records.
Things got so ugly that she had to switch high schools. Then, on a lark, she and a friend performed at a high school talent show.
“It’s an incredible story,” says Hoffman. “The executives wanted to talk to her. She sang two songs and minutes after we left the office, we were at a traffic light, we got a call and had a deal. Of course she graciously accepted the offer.”
It still remains to be seen whether McDermott will become the new princess of angst as Perry and Love predict, but the angel-haired crooner and songwriter has the kind of backstory young fans and the media eat up.
While the rest of her suburban classmates were going to the mall or the prom, McDermott was in her bedroom reading Maya Angelou and writing about heartbreak and feeling invisible in a crowd. Raised in a house with a stereophile father who’d sit for hours in the dark listening to Pearl Jam, Otis Redding, and Jimmy Hendrix, she grew up ”listening to a lot of soul and grunge,” she says. Choosing Jack White and Etta James over the pop ditties the kids at school preferred only added to Alexandra’s “weirdness.” Thin, blond, and high cheeked-boned, she certainly had the looks to make her popular, but her artsiness set her apart.
“They didn’t like me because I wore Doc Martens and Converse. I kind of dress like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink,’’ she says. “Kids are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
She was pelted in the lunchroom and berated online, and things got so ugly that she had to switch high schools. Then, on a lark, she and a friend performed at a high school talent show in 2011. Singing Adele’s “Someone Like You,” the introverted McDermott’s powerful and haunting voice stunned the army of relatives and friends who’d come to cheer her on. After the performance, the audience went radio silent and then burst into applause — and tears.
But McDermott’s break came when she posted a video of her singing a soulful version of Angus and Julia Stone’s “Big Jet Plane” on YouTube. The video shows a natural beauty with cascading hair and pouty lips who suddenly turns to the camera and, with a badass expression, starts singing in a surprisingly torchy contralto.
"Big Jet Plane"
The video went viral, Love tweeted, “This girl is going to be big,” and a New York City talent agent started calling. By then, she was taking coaching lessons from a local jazz instructor and singing in coffee houses. Love continued to email her advice like “Don’t be a puppet” and even phoned the teen at home.
The video went viral, Love tweeted, “This girl is going to be big,” and a New York City talent agent started calling.
She’s already started to experience firsthand some of the personal travails that come from life on the road.
Speaking in a girlish voice that belies her bluesy vocals, McDermott recalls preparing for a visit to Perry’s studio when she learned her former boyfriend was cheating. “I got a text from some random girl who said she was dating him,” she says. The boyfriend started calling and texting, but she ignored him, choosing instead to channel the pain into lyrics like “It’s cruel to tell me how you feel and then expect me to deal with the sting you left behind.”
But if anyone’s being left behind, it’s not McDermott.
Cover Image: Jenny Mano Price