School Of Pop

From all over Texas they come—teens and tweens with talent and ambition—to Septien Entertainment’s Studios in Addison, where a young, unpolished Jessica Simpson was first discovered. And the next big star could be.

IT’S THE LAST WEEK OF APRIL, a few days before the Septien Entertainment Group’s 2006 Master Artist Showcase, and the master artists are definitely getting tense. Emily Holt, a twelve-year-old pop singer with blue eyes normally seen in Siberian huskies, walks into the Septien studios in the North Dallas suburb of Addison and announces that she’s changing her name to Emi Holt because she thinks the judges at the showcase will find her real first name “like, really boring.” Reed-thin Kimberly Kottwitz, a twelve-year-old who specializes in Broadway show tunes, walks in and declares that she’s worried she’s not going to get over her cold in time to perform. “Someone told me that I should take steroids,” she says. “Or, you know, something like that.”

Deidre Thornell, a fourteen-year-old country music singer with bountiful Reba McEntire—like red hair arrives to make sure her pitch is perfect on a song she’ll be performing called “Good Girl.” “If I miss those notes in the chorus, I will have a complete breakdown,” she says to no one in particular, just as Carley Smith, a sixteen-year-old Debbie Harry look-alike who sings pop-rock herself, shows up with her blond hair perfectly disheveled and her blue eyes haloed by luminous blue eye shadow. She is distressed. She missed her previous week’s singing lesson because her car wasn’t working. “I feel really irresponsible right now,” she says. “Well, on the other hand, that’s what artists are supposed to be. Isn’t that right?”

Then, into the studio comes Annie Dingwall, an impossibly long-legged fifteen-year-old pop singer. Her task for the day is to work on “Survive,” a song she’s written about a young woman haunted by the end of a relationship.

How do I surviiiiive? ” Annie wails, standing in a little glass-walled recording booth, her mouth pressed against the microphone.

Linda Septien, the founder and chief executive of the Septien Entertainment Group, leans back in her chair on the other side of the glass wall.

“Annie,” she says, “you still need to give the line more emotion. A lot of emotion. Tell me, what’s your song really about?”

“It’s about a guy and a girl, and the guy was cheating on her, and the girl still wants him even though she knows she shouldn’t stay with him, but she still wants him.”

“Wow,” Septien says. “Where did you get that idea? From something that happened to you?”

“Well, actually, from a movie. I haven’t exactly been through a breakup yet.” Annie pauses and sheepishly adds, “I haven’t even been on a real date.”

Soon, Annie is out of the recording booth, only to be replaced by some of the other master artists: Jason Moody, a college freshman who plans to perform a soulful Paul Simon—ish ballad at the showcase about a girl obsessed with herself; Hunter Pecunia, an easygoing eleven-year-old from Highland Village who sings and acts (she’s a regular on Barney & Friends, which is filmed in the Dallas area); and Maddie Smith (no relation to Carley), a ten-year-old rock singer from McKinney who throws around her strawberry-blond hair just like Janis Joplin once did. Maddie tells Septien that she plans to play her own full-size electric guitar during her performance at the showcase, where she’s going to sing a song she’s written about girls playing spin the bottle.

“I bet your guitar weighs twenty pounds,” Septien says to her 64-pound student. “Are you sure you can hold it through the whole song?”

“I’ve got to,” Maddie replies, giving her teacher a determined stare. “It’s the showcase. Everyone will be there. I’ve got to show them what I can do.”

EVERY SPRING, THE MASTER ARTIST SHOWCASE receives absolutely no attention in the daily papers or on local TV stations. Most people in Dallas have no idea it exists. For that matter, they’ve never heard of the Septien Entertainment Group. Why should they have? The entire company occupies just 3,700 square feet of storefront retail space in a quiet Addison neighborhood made up of apartments and other small businesses, including a nail salon and a day care center for dogs. There is no sign out front that explains what Septien does. Because the front plate-glass windows are tinted black, it’s impossible to see what’s happening inside.

But among top record executives, music producers, and talent scouts in Los Angeles and New York, the Septien Entertainment Group is known, in the words of one veteran of the business, as a “star factory.” It’s the place where Jessica Simpson and her sister, Ashlee, learned to sing when they were still the unknown adolescent daughters of a Baptist youth minister in Richardson. The pop singer Ryan Cabrera trained at Septien, as did American Idol semifinalist Kristin Holt, American Idol finalist Celena Rae, and Jolie Holliday, a pretty young country music singer who recently signed a development deal with a producer who’s worked on two Dixie Chicks albums.

At the moment, there are at least a dozen other Septien singers who are not well-known but have development deals of their own with other producers, managers, or record labels. Brittany “Jer-Z” Holmes, a teenager from Frisco who learned to sing R&B at the Septien studios, is in Orlando, working to get signed by a label. Shannan Blystone, a sultry nineteen-year-old from Plano who sings Alanis Morissette—like tunes, has just signed with an L.A. producer and is now traveling the country, playing in small concert venues with a band specially put together for her. Four Septien grads have just moved to L.A. to begin their careers at the request of other producers.  

And there are definitely more to come. Every year, in spare practice rooms, more than two hundred children and teenagers take lessons two or three times a week to learn “commercial voice style,” “instrumental performance,” “songwriting,” “stage presentation,” “dance movements for songs,” or “the use of the microphone to enhance the voice.” They spend more hours in a recording studio, where they record one song after another, all of them professionally

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