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Chartbreaker: How GAYLE Spelled Out Her Success With Breakup Smash ‘abcdefu’

The 17-year-old rising pop star's breakout hit is climbing multiple charts thanks to her mood-inspired alternate versions.

In 2018, Arthouse Music Publishing CEO Kara DioGuardi pulled GAYLE’s name out of a hat during a songwriting pop-up event in Nashville and heard the rising star sing for the first time. “She had this presence and poise that I’ve never seen from a 14-year-old,” DioGuardi remembers. “I was struck by everything. [And when] the event ended, she imprinted on me.”

Nearly a decade before GAYLE would scale the Billboard charts with her breakthrough hit “abcdefu,” the Plano, Texas native attended her first concert — an Aretha Franklin show, when she was just nine years old — that cemented her own desire for a similar future. “Having the passion for singing and performing was rooted in Aretha Franklin’s [music],” GAYLE tells Billboard, also citing Nina Simone and Julia Michaels as her earliest musical influences. A year later, she opted for homeschooling to focus on music, and at the same time, started taking trips to Nashville to network — ultimately leading to her run-in with DioGuardi, who by the end of 2018 signed GAYLE to a record and publishing deal with Arthouse.

GAYLE photographed Dec. 10, 2021 in Brooklyn. Grace Rivera

GAYLE built a modest following with a handful of independently-released singles over the next few years, including “Dumbass” and “Orange Peel,” but it was her angsty indie-pop track “Z” that put her on an international radar. The visual was uploaded by a Korean YouTube account in May 2020, translated with subtitles, and racked up more than 700,000 views. “I was 15, so I was like ‘This is awesome!’” GAYLE recalls, her voice excitedly jumping up an octave.

The traction led to attention from Warner Music’s Korean team, and subsequently, Atlantic Records stateside — which was already helping DioGuardi with distribution for GAYLE. In January 2021, Atlantic president, A&R, Pete Ganbarg (who first met DioGuardi 20 years prior and doubles as the president of ATCO Records) signed GAYLE to a record deal with the label that signed Aretha Franklin nearly 60 years ago.

“I really love the development of Atlantic,” GAYLE says. “When they sign an artist, they’re not like, ‘Let’s release music right now.’ They look at somebody’s potential and are like, ‘We want to nurture and build this, and once you’re ready, let’s start putting out music.’”

GAYLE photographed Dec. 10, 2021 in Brooklyn. Grace Rivera

By the summer, GAYLE felt ready. She started teasing a debut single on TikTok that summer titled “abcdefu” that unapologetically gives the middle finger to an ex. “We knew she had come up with a song that had a real, relatable concept, so we wanted to make sure that people first heard it organically,” Ganbarg says. “[From there], it started to react.”

In August, the swaggering pop-punk breakup track officially released, collecting 88,000 streams in the U.S. in its first week, according to Ganbarg — though it initially put up more eye-popping numbers globally, with Ganbarg saying it first took off in South Korea and China, followed by Taiwan and Malaysia and finally Europe and the U.S.

The following month, in September, GAYLE released three additional versions of “abcdefu,” including renditions named after a different vibe (“angrier” and “chill”) as well as its original demo. The maneuver extended the song’s staying power among listeners — a familiar move employed by chart-topping artists such as Taylor Swift (“All Too Well”) and BTS (“Butter”). “The strategy behind releasing multiple versions of the song came from GAYLE herself,” Ganbarg says. “It’s amazing to see such a young artist who really understands her audience and what they want, sometimes way before we do.”

“Every version brought something different,” adds GAYLE. “I came to Atlantic wanting to do [multiple releases]. They didn’t question it. That’s something I’ve really enjoyed about working with Atlantic: They don’t tell me what to do. I’m too much of a control freak, I’m too stubborn. They’re like, ‘Tell us what you want to do, and we’ll help you do it.’”

By December, GAYLE scored her first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 when “abcdefu” debuted at No. 51, simultaneously topping Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart. In the week of Dec. 16, the track collected 78.5 million on-demand streams in the U.S. and 312 million on-demand streams globally, according to MRC Data. The hit has since reached No. 15 on the Hot 100, as well as a No. 2 peak on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart dated Jan. 1.

“I feel an overwhelming amount of gratitude for people [relating to] the story of when I was really hurt and angry, [but] didn’t even know I was allowed to be angry,” she says. “[I’m] trying to give people a safe space to be angry and process their own emotions — I want to create a more accepting culture and more allowance for your feelings.”

Fueled by her exponential year-end rise, GAYLE is now focused on the year ahead: she’ll perform on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Jan. 5, and is working on finishing her next releases, including the cheeky upcoming track “ur just horny” along with an EP set to arrive in the spring. As DioGuardi says: “If you think that she’s just ‘abcdefu,’ you’re going to be very surprised. She’s much bigger than just one song.”

gayle Kara DioGuardi
GAYLE, left, and Kara DioGuardi photographed Dec. 10, 2021 in Brooklyn. Grace Rivera

A version of this story will appear in the Jan. 15, 2022, issue of Billboard.