Today is a day that Tegan Marie won’t forget anytime soon. The 14-year old Michigan native releases her first Warner Brothers single, “Keep It Lit,” and will also make her debut performance at the historic Ryman Auditorium stage for an appearance at the Grand Ole Opy — having made her debut on the WSM Radio show in August at the Grand Ole Opry House. To kick off the day, Billboard is premiering the video for the single, which you can view below. It’s a day she hoped would happen for a while.
“It’s been so long,” she exclaims to Billboard. “We have had the song written for a long time, but I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. I’m very nervous about it, but I hope that my fans will really enjoy it.” Of her stop at the “Mother Church of Country Music” tonight (Jan. 19), she knows of the historic step she is taking. “The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman,” she says. “I am so excited to be performing there. I’ve never performed there (at the Ryman) before, but it’s something that any artist dreams about and longs for. It’s gonna be ‘lit,’ to say the least,” she says, a sly reference to her new single.
The singer’s career is a partnership between Warner Brothers Records and Sweety High, a Gen Z girls’ online media company that has helped her achieve her career aspirations. The company’s CCO and founder, Veronica Zelle, says they have had their eyes on Tegan Marie for quite a while.
“One morning, I had just gotten to the office, and one of our employees said ‘Oh, my gosh, Veronica, you have to see this girl.’ I have produced videos for a lot of artists over the years, for artists such as Madonna and Justin Timberlake – I saw her, and I said ‘Oh, my God. She is a superstar’ – and she was only seven years old at the time.”
Though young in age, Zelle knew there was something there. She had seen it a few times before. “I felt like I had enough experience working with Justin when he was fourteen years old, or Britney when she was fifteen to see that energy. So, I wrapped my arms around her, and we nurtured her, and tried to get her ready. All throughout the process, we would give her little tests – how would she be as a performer and how would people react to her?”
Once they began to showcase her talents, the company saw immediate results. “A few years passed by, and we started doing some videos for her, and they started going viral.” The online traffic was overwhelming, but Zelle recognizes that happens quite a bit. There was something very apparent when watching the performance clips. “She’s so widlly talented, but she also has that life force inside of her that you can’t stop – once you let the genie out of the bottle. She’s sharing her love, her gifts, and people are responding.”
Sweety High’s CEO Frank Simonetti – who manages Tegan Marie with Zelle – says that he understands that there all kinds of viral success stories out there, but what truly impressed him was her show-business acumen, akin to that of Taylor Swift or Garth Brooks – even before she was ten years old.
“We see talent all day long, but we were coming from the point of view that you’re only as good as what you can make. The takeaway from the videos is that there was a lot of moxie – for an eight-year-old. But, a lot of kids on YouTube have that. Obviously, that’s not enough. Every year, she would send Veronica a Christmas ornament, and a picture of herself framed, and that just stuck in our minds that she had the wherewithal to stay in touch with us. Most kids don’t have that.”
Sweety High has worked with all of the major labels before, but hadn’t yet tapped into the country market, and it was suggested that Zelle call Warner Brothers’ Scott Hendricks in Nashville.
“I began calling him and emailing him incessantly. He was putting me on the docket for a couple months into the future. I thought ‘Are you kidding?’ Let’s go now. I sent him the link to her seventeen-million viewed video and he said ‘Let’s meet with her next week.’ I thought ‘Now, you’re talking.’”
When asked about her first musical memories, Swift played a critical role in her artistic process. “I remember going to a Taylor Swift concert. It was the finale, and she was floating above the crowd in the rain effects. I looked up at my dad and said ‘This is what I really want to do.’ That was my first memory of wanting to do music. I haven’t stopped wanting to do it since that moment. I haven’t put down my microphone since.” She has yet to perform with the Reputation singer, but she has shared the stage with one of her influences – Kelsea Ballerini, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. “It was the first time I went to LA. A week before I met her, she had shared one of my videos, so it was a full circle moment,” she says.
She co-wrote “Keep It Lit” with Nelly Joy, Jason Reeves and Rune Westberg, and expresses that collaborative efforts with writers like them and Nathan Chapman have only made her stronger as a composer. “I really believe that I have grown so much as a writer by writing with people like that. That’s one of my passions, and I enjoy getting to express myself in that way.” She is also grateful to have Hendricks’ guidance in the studio.
“He is so amazing,” she says of her producer, who has steered the musical ships of artists such as Brooks & Dunn and label-mate Blake Shelton. “To have him be a part of my career is something that I don’t take for granted. He has had so many number one singles. He’s been so fun to work with. He even helped me pick out a microphone. I think we went through close to thirty something in about an hour and a half to find the right one. I have learned so much from him.”
When asked about her inspiration for the song, she says that it mirrors her outlook on life. “I wanted to write a song that all of my friends and family, and everyone in my generation could relate to. That’s what the song is about – about having fun with the people that I love, sharing the love and the kindness with people, so they can find their litness, and keep the love going. I can’t wait for people to hear it,” she says, hoping that her music will have an appeal to everyone, regardless of age. “Country music relates to everyone. It tells a story. I feel that the more music I get out there, the more that people will relate to it.”
For the video, Tegan Marie says, “We got this amazing old school bus, which helps me throughout my journey. In the bus, I go and pick up all of my friends and family around the country, and they are all with me, helping to get me from one place to another.”
With a performance resume that includes Stagecoach and Good Morning America, the singer recently performed the National Anthem for the Detroit Lions. She has an upcoming Jan. 31 appearance on Today – the same day that she will perform the first ticketed show at The Studio at Opry City Stage in the Big Apple. She said that the bigger the crowds, the better.
“I get more nervous in front of ten people than a crowd of three thousand. I was doing these showcases for about just a few people in Nashville, and I was so nervous.” She says she hopes that “Keep It Lit” will lead to many more such performances and crowd interactions: “I want to go out on tour and meet as many of the fans as I can. They are the reason that I am getting to do this in the first place. I’m just ready for the journey!”