Singer-actress Kate Voegele has a lot going on. But right now, she's happiest about her cheeseburger. This month, the 22-year-old is barnstorming two countries in preparation for the imminent release of her major-label debut, A Fine Mess. Its first single just premiered on One Tree Hill, the TV show that's featuring her for a second season. Today, the rising star is spending a busy working day in her hometown — where, to her delight, the Cleveland suburb of Westlake has added a Five Guys Burgers and Fries. And that is worth talking about.
"Cleveland is just awesome," says Voegele, holding an inappropriately named Little Cheeseburger that's far bigger than her mouth. "I always will be a Cleveland girl. When I meet fans, I think it helps people relate to me. I'm a kid from a Midwest city on a wild ride."
Voegele, who describes herself as "five-foot-three on a good day," doesn't look like she eats many cheeseburgers. Whispy black hair drapes over her form-fitting leather jacket. Rail-thin but healthy, she's poured into form-fitting ebony jeans. Eight silver rings -- one on each finger -- make circles in the air as she speaks, waving her hands. She exudes the buoyant charm and relaxed presence that have made her popular with collaborators and fans.
She arrived at the nearby Starbucks already holding a coffee from another Starbucks. It's that kind of morning. It's that kind of week. It's that kind of year. Today, she's been up since 5 a.m., doing local press like the Q-104 FM morning show, leading up to a sold-out show. It's hectic, but easier than yesterday. Before a concert, she criss-crossed Toronto, shooting a video for the new single "99 Times" and posing for the cover of LouLou, a Canuck fashion magazine.
Four years and a quarter-million records ago, Voegele was another teen hanging around this suburban strip mall. Her rise from a guitar-toting underclassman to pop singer with a record deal and TV show is the kind of steady-and-rapid success story you don't see much of these days.
Tonight, Voegele's show is at House of Blues, in the Cambridge Room, a snug little sub-club beside the bigger music hall. She's been playing there since she was in high school. This sold-out gig might mark her graduation to the big room.
Voegele grew up in a house where her father loaded the stereo with singer-songwriters like Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton. As her tastes developed, she discovered alt-country artists like Wilco, Ryan Adams and — her favorite — Patty Griffin. Her dad taught her to play guitar, sing and write songs. She took to it.
Throughout her teens, Voegele's parents shepherded her to clubs, drove her to interviews and produced her demos. By the time she was 16, she not only had a publicist and a professional manager (whose clients included John Mellencamp), but needed them to help promote an EP and appearances through the Midwest. She graduated in 2005 from Bay High School in Bay Village with a 4.0 GPA, a modest local following and fans across the country.
"She was an artist that everyone was instantly drawn to," says Mike Farley, her publicist at the time. "Anybody that saw her live was amazed that voice was coming out of that little girl."
A lot of people saw her. In 2004, she won over crowds at South by Southwest, the country's premier music festival. That summer, she played the Farm Aid stadium festival, and was invited back the next year.
"I was thrilled," recalls Voegele. "It was the first time I felt I was on the other side of the audience-stage line. [My name was] on the T-shirt with Dave Matthews. I was backstage, talking to Dave Matthews about random stuff. [Wilco's] Jeff Tweedy told me I did a great job. It was a landmark in my career where I was like, 'OK, I have to make this happen somehow. This is what I want to do, no matter how long it takes me.'"
It wouldn't take long.
If Voegele had been planning the career trajectory she's had, she might have moved to New York or L.A. after finishing high school. Instead, she relocated to Oxford, Ohio, where she enrolled at Miami University
"I wanted a semblance of normal life," says Voegele between bites of french fries. "[Education] is important to me. I know it sounds cliché, but I'm fascinated by learning new things."
She studied visual art, traveled to gigs on weekends and kept her grades up. She wrote much of her first album, Don't Look Away, in her dorm room.
By then, labels were sniffing around like so many frat guys. The fledgling MySpace Records seemed the best. It was an outgrowth of the music-oriented social-networking site, one of the most popular places on the Internet.
MySpace offered a multi-album deal with an additional upside: The label partnered with Interscope, one of the few remaining major labels. According to the deal, if she sold more than 75,000 copies, she would be "upstreamed" and moved to the big label. It was a real challenge: In this decade, the best-selling locally based band is the Black Keys. Entering this year, their latest album had sold 139,000 copies. Chimaira and Mushroomhead's sales hover around 100,000 after decade-long careers on the road internationally.
"There was something different from MySpace than every other label," says Voegele. "They just got it. Other labels, they said I was too nice. I knew I could upstream to Interscope, but I had no idea [whether it would happen]. I just thought, Let's work as hard as we can, so they have to upstream us."
Another media giant helped push Voegele onto the music-business A-team. As she prepped her first album, the CW Network was looking for a singer to appear in a multi-episode arc of the drama One Tree Hill. Voegele's new manager helped make her one of 15 lucky prospects who received an invitation to the casting call for the role of Mia Catalano, a young performer.
"In many ways, television is the new radio, so we were inundated with excellent candidates," says One Tree Hill creator/executive producer Mark Schwahn. "Grammy winners. Critical favorites."
She nailed a scene, and she was in.
"I knew she was the perfect fit before we hired her," says Schwahn. "But once she started working, she simply validated those instincts with her effort and the progress she was making day by day as an actor. She's so much better than anyone has a right to be."
Voegele sang her songs on the show, and the fans agreed with Schwahn. The songs are all Kate, but Mia isn't.
"Mia is 18," explains Voegele. "So she's younger-spirited, probably younger than I was at [that age]. She's spunky, she's sassy, she's a wiseguy, she's in everybody's business. She's got a journey ahead of her. So I think it's the perfect balance between someone totally not like myself and me."
Schwahn not only invited Voegle back for more appearances on this year's season, but wove her music into the fabric of the show. When he needed a song for the next season, he commissioned Voegele's "Manhattan From the Sky." And suddenly, her new album was underway.
Kate, for the Record(s)
After the song "Only Fooling Myself" appeared on One Tree Hill, it soared to No. 4 on the iTunes singles chart in January 2008, and the album landed at No. 5. Don't Look Away cracked the 75,000 target, kept going and ultimately moved 240,000 copies, making her by far the best-selling locally spawned artist of the decade. (More on sales by local artists here.)
In March 2008, Entertainment Weekly selected her as one of its Top 10 female artists to watch, part of what the magazine dubbed "a new golden age of the female singer-songwriter." EW declared that the record "offers a little something for everyone."
Its follow-up, A Fine Mess, has even more. For "Manhattan," the record company connected her with producer Mike Elizondo, who has worked with Maroon 5 and female artists from the arty vanguard to pop stars, including Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and Pink. It didn't take Voegele long to impress him. She worked hard and wrote well. He signed on for the whole album.
Elizondo says she's a top-tier talent who's "extremely intelligent. She really gets it. She isn't caught up in her own ego, in terms of acting and the success she's had there. She's really down-to-earth, and that's where you'll see the longevity factor with her career."
A Fine Mess backs up that argument. It's a substantial pop record that could cross over in at least three different directions. The piano-driven leadoff single "99 Times" is a can't-miss rock earworm. (Dancing With the Stars' Derek Hough appears in the video, which should help her reach anyone who missed it on the TV show or radio.)
"Manhattan" sounds like the guitar-oriented songs from the first record, but bigger. The album branches out from there. The piano romp "Angel" could find a home with fans who like Tori Amos or Carrie Underwood. From steel guitar to foot-stomp choruses, songs like "Playing With My Heart" and "Talkin' Smooth" wouldn't sound out of place on country radio. A Fine Mess closes with delicate piano and string ballads. Voegele sings about seeing America, making new friends and collapsing under the spell of a crush.
"I just wanted to tell the story of myself over the last two years," says Voegele. "It's all so inspiring. The record kind of wrote itself. That's what it's about. Everyone's life is a mess, but it's a fine mess. There are ups and downs, stuff comes out of nowhere. Crazy stuff happens whether you're a single mom or a musician. You have to roll with it."
Voegele left Cleveland for college as a bare-armed singer-songwriter. She's returned as a TV fashionista with glamour shots in short skirts. Kate concedes she's being marketed, but says the company is selling something real.
"There's a song [on A Fine Mess], 'Angel,' that's about that," says Voegele. "People are like, 'Are you trying to sell records [by dressing like that]?' Like, no, I'm 22. I'm a fashion addict. I'm not about to wear anything you'll see in Playboy. It's just showing people who I am."
Kate's Ready to Go
That night, soundcheck is pushed back an hour, then chopped down to two songs. A platinum-selling control freak might have gone nucular, but Voegele took her own advice and rolled with it. She spent the extra time eating dinner with her dad and talking to Fox 8 reporters.
Voegele's tour bus has been her home for the past year. She shuttles between L.A. (for music) and North Carolina (for TV tapings). Her touring band is the guys she's been playing with for years, most of them Clevelanders. (Elizondo recruited ace session players to record the album.) Dad let go of the reins long ago, but she's still in good hands. "I always wanted big brothers growing up — now I have four of them," she says, referring to her bandmates.
Eventually, the band does get to sound check, shortly before doors open. The top-dollar sound system gives Voegele's voice some extra echo, but the most impressive sounds are pure Kate, a giant voice straight from the diaphragm.
Fans are already forming a line out front. The TV show sparks sales, no doubt. But in her experience, the all-ages crowds don't come expecting Mia from One Tree Hill.
"I think they come to hear Kate Voegele songs," says Voegele. "Which is awesome, because it's about that. But, of course, fans love that — that I can be their window into that world [and tell them] what it's like to work on a TV set, [about] the rest of the cast. I'm just a kid from the suburbs, like most of my fans."