Christina Perri Paves 'Way' for Spring Breakthrough Debut
In some ways, Christina Perri has one of the oldest stories in the book. Started playing music as a kid, dropped out of art school to travel and find herself, moved out to Los Angeles with a guitar and a dream, got her heart broken, wrote songs about it. It's a trope as old as the Sunset Strip is long.
But the 24-year-old's tale also possesses some decidedly modern qualities. Perri wasn't discovered when she handed her demo to a producer or when a label president saw her busking, but when a friend forwarded a YouTube clip of her performing in her bedroom to a manager. A few weeks later, another friend passed along her song "Jar of Hearts" to a choreographer on a reality TV show. The track was an instant hit when it appeared on "So You Think You Can Dance" on June 30. When another pop star with a homophonic surname (Katy Perry) pulled out of the show a few weeks later, Perri was tapped to play and her star rose even higher.
There was only one problem -- "Jar of Hearts," which has sold more than 400,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, was all Perri had. And while the EP "The Ocean Way Sessions" debuted two weeks ago at No. 1 on the Heatseekers Albums chart with 4,000 copies sold, and Perri is all over VH1 as the channel's current "You Oughta Know" artist, fans who want to buy a full-length record from her will have to wait until spring, at least.
Watch: Billboard.com's Christina Perri Interview, "Jar of Hearts" Performance
In the meantime, Perri's managers, Tom Gates and Ryan Chisholm, both at Bill Silva Management, and her label, Atlantic, have to keep her in the spotlight while ensuring she also has time in the recording studio. It's a difficult balance that has felled many an emerging talent-the cut-out bins are filled with artists that never broke back through when their initial fire cooled.
Beyond her skills as a singer/songwriter, Perri's personality might be what will carry her through. Cheerful and bubbly, with an intelligence that lights up after a few minutes of conversation, Perri lacks the manufactured gloss of many pop stars. The daughter of hairdressers, she grew up in Philadelphia and spent time on the road with older brother Nick, who played guitar with Shinedown and Silvertide. She tried college and spent time in Italy, then moved to Los Angeles on her 21st birthday. After a stint producing music videos with her now-ex husband, Perri says she hit a breaking point in the fall of 2009.
"I left everything and moved into my own place," she says. "I made the decision to dedicate my life to music and focus on developing myself as a songwriter."
Shortly after that, Perri started posting videos of her songs to YouTube, one of which found its way to the inbox of Tom Gates. After spending nine years at Nettwerk, Gates had returned from an extended vacation and was looking for new clients. He says he was "blown away" when he saw the video. At the time Perri was unsigned, and the two, along with Chisholm, had just started working together when "Jar of Hearts" hit "So You Think You Can Dance."
At first listen, "Jar of Hearts" might not seem like a natural fit for a dance contest. The song, a rock-edged piano ballad about a failed relationship, sounds more like Evanescence unplugged than Lady Gaga. But Perri says the song's timeless "I Will Survive" message has resonated with listeners.
According to the show's celebrity talent producer, Steven Schillaci, choreographer Stacey Tookey hit up her friend Keltie Colleen for music, and Colleen passed along a demo by her friend Perri. On June 30, two dancers performed a routine to the song while Perri sat and watched in the audience.
Gates and Chisholm, meanwhile, scrambled to ensure the song was available on iTunes before the show aired, and they sat glued to their computers as they watched it climb that chart.
"When the show aired on the East Coast, it broke the top 100," Chisholm says, "and it just went higher and higher as the show aired in each time zone. We were in contact with iTunes, and by the time the show was on in the Pacific time zone, it was on the front page of the store."
Perri attracted immediate attention, both from other TV bookers (she appeared on CBS' "Early Show" on July 10) and from labels. Chisholm says Perri impressed him by being "totally prepared" for all the major-label wining and dining. "She holds herself well, and she's very poised," he says. "It all happened very fast-from initial interest to a deal took about two weeks."
Chisholm says they went with Atlantic because the label is "aggressive," adding, "We knew they could deliver and move quickly."
Atlantic senior VP of marketing Dane Venable says the label's first priority was to start working "Jar of Hearts" to radio again. "It was out, but it had dipped from the initial peak," he says. "We wanted to spend more time with it."
The song spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in July and August, peaking at No. 34 the week of July 31; it dropped off before returning the week of Nov. 13 at No. 96, rising 20 spots to No. 76 the next week and then to No. 75 the week after that. "Jar of Hearts" also hit No. 13 on the Hot Digital Songs chart and crowned the Heatseekers Songs tally the week of July 24. It has been building at adult top 40 radio since September and is No. 18 this week on the format chart.
Venable says he believes "Jar of Hearts" has staying power because of Perri's ability to connect with listeners. "There is a realness about her," he adds.
For her part, Perri makes it a priority to nurture that connection with her fans. "She'll set aside time every night and answer their e-mails and really put time and thought into her responses," Gates says. "Everything she communicates is all her; we're never tweeting for her."
Gates adds that for Perri's fans, particularly her young female fan base, she presents a refreshing change from the overstylized pop stars they're used to. "She is someone who can act as a mentor to young girls," he says. "She's not airbrushed and she's open about her flaws. She's doing something new and original, and I think she could start a landslide."
One place that Perri has already made major inroads is VH1, which pegged her as a "You Oughta Know" artist for October and November. VH1 executive VP of talent and music programming Rick Krim says he first noticed her when "Jar of Hearts" came out of nowhere. "I was so excited, because she's right in our wheelhouse musically, and she's a real artist," he says. "As soon as she signed to Atlantic, we started talking to them, and we were thrilled when they delivered a great video."
Or, more accurately, Perri delivered a great video. "When we were flying back from all those meetings, she was all keyed up and I just wanted to sleep," Gates says. "I told her she should spend the flight writing a treatment for the video if she needed something to do, and when I woke up at LAX, she had done it."
The "You Oughta Know" campaign will feature the "Jar of Hearts" video in heavy rotation for an eight-week period, as well as a series of five "personality-driven" promos. The online component of the franchise features a session called "Live at VH1," which Perri recently recorded in the network's offices.
The live session is good practice for Perri, who has had almost no experience playing in front of an audience. One of her first shows was an opening spot for Jason Mraz, and she will play a series of radio shows around the holidays. Venable adds that label plans call for Perri to tour for much of 2011.
Videos from "The Ocean Way Sessions" are premiering on five different sites, including Hot Topic's website. Venable says Perri recently played for the store's managers convention and got a huge round of applause. Other outlets debuting the video include AOL, MTV, VH1 and one that Venable says is a surprise.
Courting everyone from the pop charts to Hot Topic might seem like a risky move, but Venable says that reaching out to a diverse audience doesn't dilute Perri's personality.
"She has a unique physical appearance and she's an amazing songwriter," he says. "As we go forward, I am totally confident all sorts of opportunities will present themselves."