Sometime soon, maybe next year, next month, next week in the starmaking offices of Sony Music, the little girl's story will tilt toward legend, her life turned into a slick publicity tease:
When she was 2, Caroline Kudelko could sing on pitch, keeping up with songs on her father's car stereo. This included — and flacks will gush about this — a certain hit by Mr. Neil Diamond. "After she listened to a song one or two times, she could sing everything on key," says her father, Paul Kudelko. "I couldn't even do that."
When she was 8, Caroline started playing guitar, writing songs. Her first composition, scribbled in green crayon, was called Questions, about her first crush. "Caroline was reflecting in such a deep way with lyrics like 'Don't break my soul' over a little something at school," says her mother, Marie Kudelko.
When Caroline was 10, she released her debut album, Free to Be Me, filled with self-penned ditties with big hooks and follow-your-dream lyrics. Mom and Dad made sure her music got onto iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Napster and Amazon. She was doing in-store shows at Best Buy, concerts in Clearwater. She jammed with Pat Benatar, Sheryl Crow. She had a MySpace page and a marketing plan; she'd soon be "tweeting" on Twitter.
She also had a new stage handle: Suite Caroline, a pet name her father gave her. (The kid put her own musical stamp on it, changing the written version from sweet to suite.)
When she was 11, the sixth-grader at Saint Paul's School in Clearwater took a few trips to Nashville with her mom: playing open-mike nights and, thanks to wildfire word-of-mouth, meeting with label execs from Warner Bros., Curb, Disney. On her fifth visit, Caroline recorded songs with the man who had just produced Miley "Hannah Montana" Cyrus. As mother and daughter were about to fly back home, the cell phone rang. It was Sony BMG Nashville: Cancel your flight. Get back here now.
"My fear for Caroline is she's very tender-hearted," says Marie. "She's honest and good. I don't want her to get her feelings hurt."
Suite Caroline Kudelko is still 11 years old. But not for long.
• • •
Paul Kudelko is sweating, tinkering. His daughter is about to play a crowded Friday night gig at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill at Clearwater Beach, and he wants it to go smoothly. "I'm a roadie now," Kudelko, 41, jokes as grownups with cocktails, and kids with sodas, mingle around him. Dad surveys the amps, guitars, gadgets spread across the stage. "I'm never critical of her. It's just, I know how great she can sound. So I'm critical of the little things: feedback in the microphone, is there enough reverb. I didn't even know what that stuff meant a year ago."
Paul surveys his daughter's onstage kingdom. "I've spent a minifortune trying to control the variables," he says. He's talking about the acoustics of her live gigs, but in a grander sense, "control" and "variables" are big issues for the Kudelkos.
Paul and Marie are not your typical stage parents. They are funny and warm and charming. They are not sweating money, as their spacious Belleair manse attests. And they are not chasing fame. At the same time, they are successful and driven; they are not used to failure. Paul, an interventional cardiologist at Morton Plant Hospital, is from a long line of doctors. He is constantly in motion, go-go-go. Marie is a stay-at-home mom now, but in a previous life, she was a TV anchor in Jacksonville and Sarasota. Marie is calm, sarcastic, steely. Ellie, Caroline's 9-year-old sister, is already racking up gymnastics awards, and you get the feeling that the family will focus on her athletic career with equal fervor when it's time.
For now, though, Caroline is key. And though her parents are "not sure how far this will all go" and "just want her to be happy," they have arranged for a merchandise stand selling Suite Caroline shirts, Suite Caroline buttons, Suite Caroline backstage passes to the Frenchy's crowd. Working the stand is Shawn Bray, 41, a Largo entertainment promoter. "We just did some business," says Bray, leaning in with a Hollywood hush. "That scarf Caroline is wearing tonight? The blue scarf? It's going to be a new marketing item."
Caroline's show is supposed to start at 6. But the star is nowhere to be found. Marie wrinkles her nose: "I better go get Caroline from the beach." It seems the next Miley Cyrus is playing in the sand with her pals.
• • •
Wearing a wide toothy smile, the lanky brunet with big brown eyes finally shows up, sauntering into the bar as if she's about to eat a basket of fries, not perform for hundreds of people. She casually steps onstage, cradling her Martin acoustic guitar, an instrument she has named "Paula."
"My Dad's name is Paul, then I just added an 'a,' because I wanted her to be a girl," says Caroline. In swirly black Sharpie, two stars have autographed Paula: boyfriend-bashing country spitfire Miranda Lambert and bestselling 18-year-old phenom Taylor Swift, who footnoted her loopy autograph with, "I love Suite Caroline." "I like the position Taylor is in," says Caroline.
With a new haircut (something to make her look a little older … like maybe 12) Caroline tunes her guitar, takes a breath and looks into the audience. Her smile flashes as bright as the Budweiser sign directly behind her. Her smile is rather polished, if not entirely natural. At the end of her show, she will greet a swarm of young autograph seekers. She will use that same smile.
"This first one I'm going to do," she says, "has kind of become my theme song." It is her namesake, Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline. When she sings, she looks not unlike one of the Peanuts gang, perhaps Linus crooning Christmastime Is Here. Her head tilts, her eyes squint closed, her mouth forms an oohing O. She's years away from a cool rock face, and yet she is uninhibited.
Of all Caroline's talents, guitar playing might be her best. Thanks to long fingers, she has mastered a baroque style of finger-picking, which helps her write intricate chord changes, which helps her write songs that sound well beyond her preteen years. Her voice is high and passionate, but she hits her notes, something that can't always be said of Ms. Cyrus. She practices every day, giving great credit to Paula for her success. "Now I have calluses," Caroline says later, showing off her hands, "and I'm in love with them."
Tonight Caroline will mostly concentrate on her own work, sharp acoustic pop based on enjoying life (LOL), the death of a relative (Boomerang) and classroom bullies (Dragon Eyes). The lyrics to the last one go: "She's as vicious as a poisonous snake / And she controls all the friends that she takes." Caroline won't give the name of her arch-enemy, but that's just as well. In a few weeks, she'll say that Ms. Dragon Eyes is now a friend.
As his daughter runs through her hourlong set, Paul Kudelko grimaces and winces. In the end, the evaluation is usually a good one. After she plays a cover of Swift's Love Story, Paul shouts over the din: "Taylor Swift doesn't do it that well live!" Marie Kudelko rolls her eyes. Mom is composed, taking it all in on video with her phone, and yet, the whirlwind events of the last year have caught her off-guard, too: "I used to cry every time she got up there. I'm getting a little more comfortable now."
When Caroline gets around to Questions, the one written for her first crush, she takes a sip of water and indulges in a little storytelling: "This was the very first song I wrote, and I wrote it at age 8. That was" — she stops to think, the math harder than it should be — "three years ago."
• • •
In early March, Nashville producer Fred Mollin contacted the Kudelkos about working with Caroline. The man who recently produced the Miley Cyrus hit Ready, Set, Don't Go, Mollin had heard about her through a friend. Along with the High School Musical franchise and shaggy-boy trio the Jonas Brothers, Cyrus, whose alter-ego is rock star Hannah Montana, is a prime player in Disney's billion-dollar domination of the tween marketplace, the most powerful pop-culture movement of the 21st century. Cyrus' Hannah Montana: The Movie — about a young girl who's not sure she wants to be a pop star — opened Friday. The movie's soundtrack debuted at No. 1. The movie itself should hit the top spot as well.
Mollin heard a few of Caroline's demos, heard some of the buzz, but he wanted to see for himself. So he put together a crack band of Nashville session players to help record a possible new tween star, a possible new Hannah Montana. The girl's parents paid for the band and the studio time; Mollin worked for a reduced rate.
"There's something very special about Caroline," says Mollin. "She's writing songs for her age group from her age group, but they're the kind of songs that adults at Disney are writing for her age group. She's the first person I've worked with who is that young and a great songwriter."
Mollin says there's no comparison between Cyrus and Suite Caroline. "Miley is an actress first. She's like a young Lucille Ball." But he is ready to compare Caroline and Taylor Swift. Swift's hits are hot with kids and parents, self-penned smashes White Horse, Our Song and Love Story.
"The thing about Caroline," says Mollin, "is that her focus is really about songwriting. She's so proficient at such a young age. I think Taylor Swift is another example of that. Taylor is a great songwriter. But Caroline is almost at a place where Taylor is — but she's only 11."
Mollin isn't the only power broker in Nashville who's impressed. Barbara Cloyd is the longtime host of one of the most famous open-mike nights on Music Row. Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley have all tried out new material at the Bluebird Cafe. As a result, every up-and-comer wants to get a spot on the Bluebird's open-mike list. "We always have more people than we have time for," Cloyd says. "But I have it in my discretion to give people a shot."
When Suite Caroline came to the Bluebird cradling Paula the guitar, Cloyd was suspicious. She had seen gimmicks before; she had dealt with disillusioned stage parents. "So many kids who have this dream, they see the big stars of today, and they imitate what they see," says Cloyd. "But what I got from Caroline is that she's an artist expressing herself. She's telling you the experiences of being Suite Caroline."
Cloyd, a songwriter with a few hits of her own, even co-wrote a number with Caroline, the prophetic Dream Big. "There's such a huge youth music movement right now: the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift. It's a good time for Caroline to do this. At the same time, there are 1,000 talented girls out there with the same dream. But if the right people hear her music, in a year her life could change dramatically."
• • •
Every Wednesday is steak night at the Kudelko house, which sits high and mighty on the Intracoastal Waterway. Steak night is a stab at domestic normalcy — how was your day, what did you learn, pass the A1 sauce, etc. After dinner, Caroline will play for her family. Sister Ellie knows all the words to the songs, and will often sing along — and then get shushed if she croons too loud.
Sometimes, Caroline will escape to their boat dock. "The acoustics are great down there," she says. "Thank god nobody boos," her dad teases.
Marie and Paul have written plenty of checks toward Caroline's musical future, from buying her equipment to flying her to California's National Association of Music Merchants convention, where Caroline played on the Martin Guitar stage, where Eric Clapton and John Mayer have played.
And yet Caroline's parents say they will pull the plug if their daughter is no longer enjoying herself. "She's had times when she wants to slow down," says Paul. "That's fine. So we take a month off. She needs to be like any other kid. If she wants to stop, she'll always have that. But the people in Nashville like the direction she's going."
And therein lies the dilemma for the Kudelkos. She has the gifts of a musician much older, but she's still 11. At the same time, when you're this close, when everyone loves you, how do you pull back? "As a parent, there's only so much you can do to protect them," says Marie. "As it goes along, you lose more and more control of that."
Last week, Marie and Caroline returned to Nashville. They met with Sony again. They also met with Big Machine Records, Swift's label, which reached out to the Kudelkos after a rave by label star Jimmy Wayne. It's becoming more and more possible steak night will be uprooted and Caroline will not be with her friends but on tour.
"That's a pipe dream scenario. But we have talked about it," says Paul Kudelko. "Caroline loves school, loves to learn. And there's a teacher at her school, a teacher Caroline loves. And I'd pay her to come on the road with us. But that's just a pipe dream for now."
• • •
I first met Caroline outside Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa. It was right before a Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert show. She and her dad had a copy of Free to Be Me that they wanted me to hear. I took the CD and jokingly asked the young girl to sign it. Caroline pulled out a Sharpie and, with a serious face, asked, "Who should I make it out to?"
I remind Caroline of that story as we're sitting in her bedroom, which is fun and fluffy and besieged by snapshots of her and her friends. With her parents in and out of her bedroom, giving her space but also checking up on her, I ask her if this whole thing just feels weird.
"I kind of see Caroline and Suite Caroline as two different people," she says. "I'm Caroline with my friends, but I'm Suite Caroline onstage."
One of her best songs is called Never Been Done Before. The lyrics include such lines as I wanna do what's never been done before and I'm writing my own history and This is my destiny. It will be on her self-produced new album, scheduled for release in May. She says the idea for Never Been Done Before came to her on a playground, "when I was playing princess." You see, there was the wall, and it was really tall, and no one had ever climbed it and . . . well, it sounds kind of fishy. In fact, it sounds as if Suite Caroline and Caroline are trying to share the same space.
But a few minutes later, the girl insists she won't be crushed if she doesn't become the next Taylor Swift. And I believe her. After all, she has a backup plan, one that's miles away from the looming life of Suite Caroline: "I'd like to be a professional volleyball player."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467.