SAFETY HARBOR — Carmen Brandy's long, blond-tipped hair cloaks her guitar, but her heart is fully exposed as she sings about her 14-year-old universe and all its hauntings — aching hearts, teen angst, love, friendships and mean people.
Her song Predator is based on a bully who picked on her at the private Christian school she once attended.
With a voice that is young and sweet, but leaning toward edgy, Carmen shows a tender vulnerability that suits her and the stage of life she is passing through. Some songs are cheerfully buoyant, some wistful and eerie. Others are boldly defiant.
People have likened her to Taylor Swift, country music's reigning princess, who moved to Nashville at age 14 to jump-start her career.
And that's what Carmen plans to do.
This summer she will say goodbye to all her friends at Safety Harbor Middle School and her church, Calvary Baptist, as she and her family move to the rolling hills of Tennessee, where she plans to immerse herself in Nashville's country music scene just like her idols Johnny Cash ("he sings his life stories") and Dolly Parton ("her yodels are amazing").
She hopes one day to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, just as they were, but she says her main objective is to "make it in the music industry while keeping a moral standard.
"I want to express my faith in God because he's the reason for where I am today," she says.
When she was born, her parents named her Carmen, which means "song" or "poem." They were hoping she'd inherit her father's musicality.
"But honestly, we had no idea she'd be like this," explains her "mom-ager" Kari Brandy, 49. "She's blowing us away."
Two years ago, Carmen asked for a guitar. Her father, a guitarist himself, was only too happy to oblige. Carmen had taken piano lessons a few years earlier, but that gave way to ice skating lessons and horseback riding. Her parents just encouraged her to follow her dream, whatever it may be.
After receiving a Taylor six-string acoustic guitar, Carmen quickly mastered the four basic chords enabling her to play lots of her favorite songs like Sweet Home Alabama.
"Pretty soon after that, I stopped playing covers and started writing my own music," she says. Since then she has become a prolific songwriter, penning some 40 songs. "I wrote two more last night," she says.
Her first public performance was in January 2012 in the lobby of the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville, on a night when songwriters presented their original songs. She and her family had stopped in Nashville on their way back from Ohio and her mother talked the hotel management into giving her daughter a shot, even though they were fully booked.
Carmen received a lot of positive feedback that night, which only helped fuel her passion. She has played more than 70 gigs since, in places like Nashville's Bluebird Cafe and BB King's as well as Tampa Bay area festivals, fairs and other venues.
She doesn't get nervous when she plays "unless there are cute boys in the audience," she says.
In March, she was crowned Largo's Teen Idol. That competition has been a launching pad for other winners, including last year's champ, Nathalie Hernandez of Dunedin, who went on to compete in NBC's singing competition The Voice.
So far, Carmen has cut two EPs, extended play recordings featuring a few songs. One was produced in a studio in San Antonio, Texas, and the other at Sony studios in Nashville.
When the family moves to Tennessee, they will be pursuing two dreams.
Carmen's dad, Tony, 52, hopes to become an entertainment lawyer. He has been accepted into the Nashville School of Law. They plan to keep their business, Manna Meals, a catering business that purchases, packages and delivers snacks for the YMCA aftercare programs in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
And of course Kari will continue to be Carmen's mom-ager.
"We've wanted a change," Kari said. "It will be exciting. We will be living in Franklin, Tenn. Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, TobyMac, tons of stars live there."
In the meantime, Carmen says she'll keep chronicling her emotions in song. After all, it's a very cathartic experience for her.
"I honestly don't know where I'd be without my guitar and notebook," she said.
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]