Naomi Striemer was never supposed to become a singer. Reared in the tiny Canadian community of Malagash, Nova Scotia, population 774, by a former band manager (dad) and booking agent (mom) who later s

Naomi Striemer was never supposed to become a singer. Reared in the tiny Canadian community of Malagash, Nova Scotia, population 774, by a former band manager (dad) and booking agent (mom) who later shunned the business, the artist grew up under strict religious rule. Young Striemer was so sheltered that she knew nothing of radio or TV until she was 10.

At 7, Striemer was allowed to sing in her local church choir, where the director acknowledged her gifts: "She told me I had the power of Whitney and Mariah. I had no idea who they were."

Today, the 23-year-old singer/songwriter is being heralded as the next Celine Dion, thanks to the album "Images," released Dec. 19 in Canada and due Feb. 20 in the United States (with liner notes that this journalist wrote, free of charge). She is signed to indie label S Records, launched by hedge fund operator Steven Nowack with the sole intention of propelling the blonde beauty down the freeway of fame.

In early 2005, he happened to step into Chapters' flagship bookstore in Toronto where Striemer was performing -- and decided on the spot to make a career change. "I walked up to her, parents by her side, and said, 'What are you doing for the rest of your life? If you let me, I will make you one of the biggest stars in the world.' She was taken aback, and I'm sure her parents thought I was an unsavory character hitting on their daughter. But I was torn apart. She stunned me."

Hawking his initial signing on a grass-roots level -- and sans the avails of radio play -- Nowack generated Striemer's first North American press last September via a spotlight review in Billboard for debut single "Cars," featuring production by three-time Grammy Award winner Narada Michael Walden and a guitar solo from Carlos Santana. A page-one piece in Canada's national newspaper National Post followed, then features on the CTV national news, the CBC and "Entertainment Tonight."

In December, S Records offered "Cars" as a free download via simpatico.msn.ca, helping "Images" rank as the most downloaded album in Canada for the final two weeks of the year. That feat was repeated the week of Jan. 15, after the free download expired.

"Steven took such a different approach from the major labels; they usually give away a fringe track -- not the lead single and certainly not one with the cachet of Carlos Santana," says Sean Fernie, associate director of broadband music for simpatico.msn.ca.

It's all the culmination of a long and winding career path for Striemer, whose chance meeting with Nowack came after nearly a decade of almost-famous fortuity. Her journey began at 14 when a demo she sold in regional churches spurred interest from Christian label Sparrow Nashville. Striemer said no; she was more interested in the secular world. That led to a family move to Florida, which put her in the center of the pop explosion commandeered by Orlando-based Transcontinental Records, home to Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.

Founder Lou Pearlman wanted to place the singer in a girl group, but Striemer again turned down the offer. "I didn't have a good feeling about it," she says. "I guess I became the black sheep of the Orlando music scene."

At 18, she scored a deal with Epic after performing a cappella for then-president Polly Anthony. An album was recorded with A-list producers and writers, a video shoot was being lined up and the radio department was contemplating the launch single.

Then, two weeks before scheduled release, Anthony and a number of other key execs were pink-slipped -- leaving Striemer without an advocate. She was released from her contract, but the label refused to surrender the masters. Defeated, she returned to Canada, lamenting for two years before she felt ready to give it another go.

"Pain is good, because it forces you to explore what's inside. A lot of my voice didn't come out until the anger of the Sony situation," she says. "I began singing out of hurt instead of trying to be technically perfect."

She recorded a new album and with little money; each song merited no more than two takes. Striemer hit the road on a modest scale, performing at bookstores. And with a list of North American radio stations obtained from Epic, she sent out the record herself, which led to a modicum of radio airplay for the sweeping, Evanescence-akin "Fall Behind," fostering enough of a fan base to populate her live appearances.

Then came her alliance with Nowack, who contacted Walden, believing that the producer's track record was an ideal match for the emotive singer.

"Steven is very zealous, so I listened to what he had to say, not taking his pitch overly seriously until I met Naomi and heard her live," Walden says. "I was impressed with her beauty, but more so by her voice. You believe her. She has the chops, the range, the drive-and the humility-to offer a beautiful gift."

Walden agreed to record one song with Striemer, which "I loved. It was a beautiful experience for me," he says, "so we agreed to do more." That led to producing all 17 tracks on "Images" (four were also co-produced with Mario Winans, whom Striemer worked with before aligning with Walden).

The overall imprint of the disc is lush, mature pop, with a regal tapestry of all live instruments at Walden's insistence. Striemer's exalting, albeit intimate vocals, distinctive phrasing and visual lyrics are indeed a mighty reminder of her heroes (Celine, Mariah and Whitney) but her vocal stamp is wholly her own, Physically, she possesses the "it" qualities of a star: magnetism, grace, empathy and innate beauty.

Walden offers, "If anything, her sound is more alternative or gothic rock with the power of a Celine Dion." Striemer adds of her collaboration with Walden, "We talked for weeks before we went into the studio. It was obvious that our souls were speaking the same language. It finally felt like the road I was always destined to be on."

Highlights of the album include the haunting piano-driven title track, which opens with the lyric, "I found out today my love has found another/And all the things I did to make you happy won't make you happy anymore," as Striemer pleads amid urgent percussion, "If I could fight my way back to you/It would only throw me further away."

"Fall Behind" is Striemer's intense take on her lost contract at Epic. She sings, "What's happening/I feel the world slipping apart before my eyes," amid an inflamed backdrop of electric guitars and a howling vocal of defiance.

Shimmering power ballad and first single "Cars" uses the lyrical allegory of counting passing vehicles as she waits for her AWOL man -- an allusion to universal diligence in the search for love: "In life, we wait for that one person that is meant for us," Striemer explains. "They may be with someone else now, but you hold out hope that they exist, so you put on a brave face and wait."

Santana's high-caliber contribution to the single came about when Nowack, Walden and Striemer were having dinner at Bay Area eatery Marin Joe's during the recording of the project in April 2005. Santana happened to be dining there as well and was invited to join them at the table. Nowack again ran into the maestro at Clive Davis' Grammy party the next year and once more at the same restaurant months later, finally summoning the courage to ask if he would listen to "Cars" and consider adding guitar to the track.

"These were three serendipitous meetings and I spent hours on the phone convincing him to play on a new artist's album, something he had never done," Nowack says. "He gave us a velocity we would have never had."

A man highly versed in the spirituality of song, Santana says, "My recording experience was like being present at a baptism, giving birth to new light. Like many great artists and great songs, Naomi and 'Cars' inspires in people the force of compassion and hope."

Nowack has secured independent distribution deals so far with Barnes & Noble, Borders Books & Music, Virgin Music and Target for the album's U.S. release. "I'm ready to get out there and work harder than ever in my life," Striemer says. "Honestly, it's a beautiful new beginning."