By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
When Colbie Caillat was a little girl, her dad wanted the kid he called "Coco" to grow up to be a doctor. This doesn't seem like such a shocking revelation; fathers want their daughters to shoot the moon.
Ken Caillat, however, happened to be the producer of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, one of the bestselling albums ever. Perhaps being in close proximity to a drug-addled, bed-hopping Stevie Nicks persuaded Dad to keep Coco out of the biz?
"I told him I wanted to be a singer," says Colbie, calling from her house near Malibu, Calif., where she lives with two yappy new puppies and her boyfriend, Justin Young, the guitarist in her band. "My dad wanted me to go to college, become a doctor. He never pushed music on me."
But fate is fate, and when a 19-year-old Caillat cradled her first guitar, "it took off," no matter her father's worried nose-wrinkling. She was undeterred, even when she tried out for American Idol twice — and got rejected just as many times, the second when she sang a self-penned song called Bubbly, which would soon go on to be a No. 1 debut hit in 2007.
Does she now scoff at Idol's numbskullery? "No, I honestly blame it on myself," she says. "I'm not good at those kinds of shows, 'cause I get nervous in front of crowds and auditions." She laughs: "Plus I didn't really look that good back then."
Needless to say, she looks much better now, a 25-year-old Malibu Barbie with a brain and gobs of talent, a surfy gal with a self-described "Southern California, acoustic-y sunny vibe." Caillat, who plays the Taste of Pinellas at Vinoy Park on Sunday, represents a new breed of pop star, a vaguely earthy grass roots group inhabited by such peers as Jack Johnson, Brandi Carlile and Jason Mraz, with whom she recorded the Grammy-winning duet Lucky. Caillat has managed to stay current and grow a fan base not by salacious means but by old-fashioned ones: talent, class, perseverance and positivity.
Despite her home's proximity to Hollywood's fame machine — and despite her rabid success, including her first album, 2007's Coco, going double-platinum — Caillat has managed to stay grounded at a time when flamboyance is what gets you into tabloids.
"I'm not going out to clubs," she says. "I'm pretty much a homebody. I've had the same friends since fifth grade. My family raised me well, and we like each other, and we hang out. It's all a matter of who you are and who you associate with."
Such is her reputation for being a happy-happy good egg that in 2010 she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Unlike the smarm of L.A., the feel-good vibe in Oslo, Norway, was right up her alley: "Everyone was in line with the whole process of speaking your mind and doing good. Everyone was there for peace and being proud of each other." She followed that up by performing the national anthem on the White House balcony for the president and the first lady. "I started tearing up," she says. "I couldn't believe I was there."
If you ever wondered why Caillat was so Disney-princess happy all the time, now you know.
"Things just keep topping each other," she says.
Along with the Grammy for Lucky, Caillat took home music's highest honor for her songwriting help on Taylor Swift's 2008 album Fearless. "When I wrote with Taylor, I didn't know who she was at the time," she says. "She wanted to write with me. I helped her tweak (the single) Breathe, put it in the right order, helped her tweak the song. She's actually an effortless songwriter; it's amazing how fast she is."
Caillat works at a pretty good clip as well; the upcoming All of You, due out July 12, will be her third album in four years. First single I Do is another light, breezy, unfailingly catchy ditty. Like most of her cuts, it started with an empty house and a melody waiting to be snatched.
"When the house is empty, I feel I can sing at the top of my lungs and maybe something cool will come out." She just kind of lets it all hang out, organically, playfully. "I'll grab the guitar and start singing. The melody comes first, the lyrics next."
Unlike Coco and 2009 followup Breakthrough — which were produced by, lo and behold, Ken Caillat — All of You could be a more unvarnished Colbie: "I'm more open, more honest. With my early records, I might have sugar-coated everything, given it a general feel. This record, I wrote about some very personal stuff. I think people can relate to it easier."
So wait — is Colbie Caillat finally going dark? She laughs and says all is well in her peaceable kingdom: "Even if something starts off that way, I usually try to turn it around at the end."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.