Two huge singles have propelled the singer to an audience beyond her TV fans.
Ariana Grande was a star before she released her single "The Way" last spring. The co-star of Nickelodeon's hit series "Victorious" had accrued 5.4 million Twitter followers and 2.6 million Facebook fans by the time the Mac Miller-assisted single hit iTunes on March 26. After that fan base helped the fluttering R&B track score a surprising No. 10 debut on the Billboard Hot 100, however, the 20-year-old singer's Nickelodeon success has morphed into mainstream stardom ahead of her debut album, "Yours Truly," due Sept. 3.
"I never realized until now how many more people I could reach with music," says Grande, who now boasts 8.3 million Twitter followers and 4.2 million Facebook fans. "I've been so lucky to be on television for such a long time and to make kids and their families so happy, but this is something different. I can't really go anywhere without being stopped for a photo anymore, but now, it's not just little kids."
Since joining the cast of "Victorious" in 2010, Grande has tried to follow Nickelodeon stars like Miranda Cosgrove, Big Time Rush and co-star Victoria Justice in fashioning a viable music career (Grande's 2011 single "Put Your Hearts Up" has sold 170,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan). While those artists have issued pop material that could be served to their pre-established fan bases, Grande's "Yours Truly" strives for a more mature R&B sound. The singer lists Whitney Houston, India.Arie and Destiny's Child among her biggest musical influences, and "The Way," which has sold 1.6 million downloads, has invited comparisons to Mariah Carey's oeuvre thanks to Harmony Samuels' feathery production and the sky-reaching melismas at its conclusion.
Another key difference between Grande and her fellow actors, who all have recording deals with Sony, is that the Florida native is the only Nick star signed to Republic Records. Sources say the singer requested a "carve out" deal when she joined "Victorious," allowing her to sign with whomever she pleased. And when Charlie Walk started as Republic's executive VP last January, Grande's musical career was fast-tracked.
"You look under the hood of your roster, and you see this girl who has one of the best voices most of us have heard in years," Walk says. "You hear that voice and you say, 'OK, now what?'"
Walk credits senior VP of A&R Wendy Goldstein for helping Grande recruit an impressive list of collaborators for her debut album: Samuels, the Rascals, Tony Dixon and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds led the production work, while the track list includes collaborations with Big Sean, Mika and the Wanted's Nathan Sykes, along with Miller. Following the March release of "The Way," Republic concurrently pushed the single to pop, rhythmic and R&B/hip-hop radio, while a "Spanglish" version has helped the track reach No. 5 on the Latin Pop Songs chart. With "The Way" blasting onto radio, Walk says his team recognized "a thirst for her music" and promptly set an early September release date for Grande's debut.
"Yours Truly" was being finished as Grande was gearing up to star in a new Nickelodeon show, the "Victorious" spinoff "Sam & Cat," which premiered in June. However, Walk says Republic didn't try to integrate "The Way" or any "Yours Truly" promotion with the network.
"She's clearly appealing to way above and beyond the core base that knew her as a Nickelodeon singer," he says. "If you really look at what's going on, many of the people falling in love with Ariana Grande have never seen her on television."
Instead, Republic allowed more music from "Yours Truly" to trickle out at opportune times. A follow-up single, "Baby I," was announced along with Grande's first headlining tour dates, and the song debuted at No. 21 on the Hot 100 upon its July 22 release. "Right Here," a collaboration with Big Sean, was released as an instant download when the Yours Truly pre-order launched in early August. "Almost Is Never Enough," Grande's duet with Sykes, debuted live on Aug. 10 during Grande's brief stint opening for Justin Bieber on his Believe tour, and it will also appear on the "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" film soundtrack upon its Aug. 20 release.
Grande's first headlining trek, dubbed the Listening Sessions tour, will play nine theaters and run through Aug. 31. "The next venues will be bigger, and eventually she'll be playing arenas," Walk says.
Grande says she's just happy to be playing live shows as herself while leaving her Nickelodeon alter ego, Cat Valentine, on the small screen. "I've been known for the past few years as a character," she says, "and I wanted 'Yours Truly' to be my way of letting people get to know me as Ariana."