"Someone like Emma Mae doesn't come along very often." The speaker is Karen Staley, a premier Nashville songwriter whose songs have been cut by Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes and Reba McEntire, among many others. She first learned about Emma Mae Jacob through a friend who heard her sing at a showcase. The friend told her that Emma Mae was just 16 but that she was doing an extraordinary version of one of Staley's more challenging songs, titled "With You." The following week, a skeptical Staley met with Emma Mae's manager and listened to a live recording of the performance. "It brought tears to my eyes," says Staley. "Not just anyone can sing it because of the vast range, but Emma Mae wears it out. I was touched that someone so young could convey the sentiment so well."
She, like so many others in Emma Mae's life, had become a believer. It happened to producer Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, Big & Rich), who heard her performing in her native California and urged her to come to Nashville. It happened to her attorney, who set her up with manager Paula Kay Hornick. And it happened to Hornick, who listened to Emma Mae sing and eventually moved to Nashville to guide Emma Mae's career. Other top songwriters including Bob DiPiero, Tia Sellers and Mark Selby have provided songs for her debut CD, a rarity for someone so young recording her first project.
Still, it's not surprising to Biff Watson, who produced the record. "Emma Mae is a powerful singer with a wide range," he says. "She is able to express feelings beyond her age with tremendous vocal character. She has an uncanny ability to interpret emotion." The tracks Watson produced provide a colorful and exhilarating music bed for Emma Mae's vocals. They embrace each other with equal power. "Every now and then all of the elements come together in a way that's beyond our individual control in the studio," notes Watson. "It's creative magic. It's what occurred with Emma Mae's project."
Her debut album, BREAKING ALL THE RULES, introduces country fans to a young woman who is a real force of nature. Its first single, "What If We Fly," showcases her range and power as well as her skill at capturing the essence of a song, connecting with listeners and taking them somewhere, in much the same way a fine artist takes us into the moment depicted on canvas or a great writer makes us feel that we're living the story right along with its characters as we read the book. The song tells a story of new love but also provides the prefect metaphor for Emma Mae's own journey toward success. "I really love the song" she says, "because it talks about taking a chance, and that's what I'm doing right nowgoing after my dreams."
Through the years she developed a powerful yet subtle voice and the ability to wring emotion out of every line of a song. Her flourishing skills as a songwriter are now on display in BREAKING ALL THE RULES ("Angry Girl," "Untrue," "It's Just The Rain," and "The Guitar Song"). The rest--her passion for music and life, her charismatic stage presence, and her clear sense of purposeare quickly evident to those who've come to know her in person.
The CD is as positive and uplifting as Emma Mae herself, from the inspiration of "Say A Prayer" to the sheer fun of "Still Have My Halo." It gives the world its first look at a young woman who has been immersed in music since the days when she and her mother sang "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" while she was still in her high chair in Costa Mesa, California. She recalls listening to her mother's Aretha Franklin records, and then hearing Patsy Cline, who set off a lifelong love of country music.
Somewhere amid the elementary school chorus, holiday programs and karaoke CDs at home, Emma Mae's parents figured out that she had a real gift. She took vocal lessons from the legendary Seth Riggsshe once ran into Ray Charles at a lessonand earned a spot as first soprano in the Pacific Symphony Children's Choir.
"I had just heard Georgia On My Mind' on the car radio the week before I met Ray Charles," she notes. "I had even commented to my parents that it is such an incredible song. Because I knew very little about Mr. Charles, they went on to tell me about him and the songs he had recorded during his career. So, it was truly an amazing moment when I walked into my vocal coach's office for my weekly lesson and heard him say to me, I would like to introduce you to Ray Charles. Ray, this is Emma Mae.' I was floored and humbled as I shook this icon's hand. It was a very sweet moment that I will carry with me for the rest of my life."
She began performing at nearby county fairs, and then, at the age of 11, attended an L.A. audition for "Showtime At The Apollo," turning her affinity for gospel music into a win and a trip to New York for the nationally broadcast TV show. She won over a skeptical crowd with Aretha's "You're All I Need To Get By" and earned a standing ovation. "It was one of my most memorable moments," she says. "Really cool. That was pretty much when I thought, I really want to do this. I really want to be a singer.'"
Her love of gospel and R&B competed with her love of country, but the latter emerged as her clear favorite especially after a night at a karaoke café where someone urged her to sing Patsy Cline. Afterward, she says, "People kept telling me, You're a natural country singer.' I suppose it must have been my love for country music showing through. Country tells a story, and it can make you laugh or cry. It's pretty much like a show in a three-minute song."
In the meantime, she and her family had moved to Colfax, California, to help her grandfather recover from surgery. He was about to sell a local theater he owned unless she and her parents would take it over. They agreed, and Emma Mae's 13th birthday present was half ownership of the Colfax Theater. It would be the site of the performance that led Worley to urge that she give Nashville a shot. His reaction caused Hornick to sell her home in Santa Barbara for the move to Nashville "It was enough affirmation for me to say, Let's go. Let's not look back,'" she says.
Her only recording experience in California had been karaoke tracks in tiny studios, and so her first Nashville recording session, "was a little nerve-wracking," she says, "but once we started, it was awesome."
Emma Mae's native talent and the dedication that led to her constant growth as a singer were evident to many who watched her. Worley called Hornick to say, "There's a song I really love and I really believe in, that I think could be a hit. It's powerful, and not just anyone can sing it. I think Emma Mae could nail it." It was "What If We Fly," which helped give the record its first single and an emotional cornerstone. Another music executive, Kirk Boyer, passed along the Staley song, "With You," to Hornick, suggesting that it might be suited to Emma Mae's style and helping her get a copy of the song for her client. It too became a strong and important part of Emma Mae's CD.
Though she is that rare 16 year-old with the poise and talent to attract some of the cream of Nashville's music community, she is also very much an ordinary teenager. Her passions include the creations of fashion designer Betsey Johnson ("I'll go to her store every chance I get") and animé, the Japanese animation genre. In fact, animators are currently developing an animé series that follows Emma Mae's own adventures.
Nothing, though, holds the thrill of entertaining. "I love being on stage," she says. "I love to look back and see my band having a really good time, or to look out and see people enjoying themselves. It's pretty awesome."
It is also inspiring. The believers around her see evidence of her potential with every performance. "I honestly think Emma Mae has what it takes to be the next megastar," says Staley, "in the mold of someone like Reba who sings, acts, does Broadway, has her own clothing lines, and is a mogul. The thinking I see in Emma that will take her that far is that she has no fear of flying."
For Emma Mae herself, "no fear of flying" is nothing more than a teenager's love of life. Her voice and presence are as lovely and compelling as a butterfly, dazzling, vibrant, and brilliantly colored, and her joy is as infectious as her music. "My job is to sing as well as I can and to make people happy," she says, "and who could ask for more than that? And, day to day, I don't sweat the small stuff, I pay attention to the big stuff, and I always reflect and remain grateful for all the good stuff." Listen for yourself as Emma Mae Jacob steps to the edge, breaks all the rules, and spreads her wings and flies.