Long before newcomer Callista Clark signed deals with Scooter Braun’s SB Projects and Big Machine Label Group, she already knew the power of a great song and a great performance.
At 13, she posted a video of herself performing a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1971 hit “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” The song went viral, gaining the attention of Braun and his business partner Allison Kaye, leading to Clark’s deals with SB Projects and Big Machine Label Group.
In February, the now-17-year-old singer-songwriter released the five-track EP Real to Me, produced by Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift, Lady A). She co-wrote every track, drawing inspiration from her own life experiences over the past few years. She wrote the project’s title track when she was 15, after being told that her feelings of hurt and disappointment following a romantic breakup weren’t valid due to her age.
“Too old to cry and too young to drive/ Smart enough to know better, too dumb not to try… but the way that I feel is real to me,” she sings, infusing youthful experiences with a beyond-her-years wisdom. Meanwhile, on “Change My Mind,” she spells out exactly what it will take for her to let an ex-lover back into her life after being wronged.
The young Georgia native wears her heart on her sleeve, and douses her current single, “It’s Cause I Am,” in soulful swagger. “I can’t help that I’m one of a kind/ I’m more than meets the eye,” she sings on this hook-heavy track, which Clark penned alongside Cameron Jaymes and Laura Veltz. The song has peaked at No. 25 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart so far.
“I wrote ‘It’s Cause I Am’ as a way to let out some of the negative energy I had at the time,” Clark tells Billboard. “I felt like because I was a young girl in Nashville, some people didn’t take me and my dreams seriously. Being a teenager is hard, because you have people looking down on you when you try to say what you’re feeling, or tell someone about where you’re at in your life. This song was my way of saying I am strong, I am confident, I have my own stories, and this is what I do.”
Clark, who is Billboard‘s September Country Rookie of the Month, spoke with Billboard about getting her start with that viral video, signing with Big Machine Label Group, and putting together her debut EP.
You are from Georgia and you grew up in a musical family. How did that influence your love of playing music?
I’ve been singing since I could talk. The first place I ever sang at was my very small church in Georgia that my family leads worship at. Growing up I listened to Gospel music, ’80s and ’90s country, Motown and rock. All of these genres have impacted my sound and the music that I write and perform.
What do you recall about writing and performing your first original song?
I have been doing gigs since I was eight years old, but I only did cover songs until I was 13 because I was too scared to play original songs in front of people. I thought, “I’m just a kid. No one will want to hear what I’m feeling or thinking about.” The first song that I ever wrote started out as a poem for a school poetry contest. I ended up winning, and my mom read it and said that I should turn it into a song. So we did, and it was called “Wildfire.”
You started posting videos of yourself covering songs when you were 11. What were some of your favorites and what was that like getting such immediate feedback from viewers?
I’ve had several cover videos get into the millions of views, and I feel like the ones that get the most views are the sometimes the ones that I prepare for the least. It’s the ones where I’m wearing my pajamas, no makeup, and my hair is going every direction. The immediate feedback can be overwhelming at times, but it’s amazing to be able to reach people who are literally all over the world.
You are with Big Machine Label Group. How did that signing come about?
When I was 13, I posted the video of me singing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and my now-manager Scooter Braun and his partner Allison Kaye saw it. They emailed me, and I got to meet them the next week. Scooter introduced me to Scott Borchetta and the awesome Big Machine team, and I’ve been working with them ever since.
On your EP Real to Me, you write with some of the top writers in Nashville. What was that process like working with them and refining who you are as an artist on this project?
Prior to this, the only person I had ever written with was my mom. I was 14, in Nashville, writing with some of the best songwriters, and I didn’t even really know what a co-write was. At first I felt like I didn’t have anything important to say — because I was young, I didn’t drive, I didn’t drink, and I didn’t know what to write about. Then I just decided to write about that feeling, and I got my song “Real to Me.” I was figuring out who I was as a person and as an artist, and I decided to be honest and lean into whatever I was feeling at the time.
In addition to “It’s ‘Cause I Am,” what other songs from this project are you most excited for fans to hear?
The title track of this collection, “Real to Me,” is really special to me. It’s about being a teenager, not having everything figured out just yet, and living in those moments. I feel like it’s the most relatable time of our lives, because we’re either going through that right now or we have been through that before.
What was the first concert you saw?
The first concert I ever went to was a Jennifer Nettles concert. She is an amazing singer and performer!
Who was the first artist who made you want to pursue music as a career and why?
Since Jennifer was the first concert I ever went to, she was the artist that made me realize this is what I want to do. I remember being so in awe of everything I saw. I watched every musician and how they played their instruments. I watched Jennifer own the stage and blow away every person in the audience. She’s been one of my biggest influences since then, and I actually got to sing a song with her when I was 12. That was a huge dream come true for me.
What is the last song you listened to?
The last song I listened to was “Prison” by Devin Dawson. I saw him perform it live recently, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Your stories are significant. The way you feel is real. What you’re thinking about is relatable. Don’t be hesitant to share that side of you with others. Be yourself.