Annabel Fay's unique voice has her on the edge of music fame and it owes nothing to her fabulously wealthy family.
Followers of gossip, you can officially cross Annabel Fay off your list. The 19-year-old daughter of fabulously rich and somewhat controversial, merchant banker Sir Michael Fay is certainly not the unnamed, young multimillion-dollar Auckland heiress in court on drug charges.
Yet Fay has something in common with her troubled contemporary - she is also to be on show in the public arena. On Monday she will release her first, eponymously named CD. It's a compilation of catchy, commercial songs, which include her single, Lovin' You Baby, a reggae-ish number released at the end of last year which spent 16 weeks in the NZ Top 40 (peaking at number 10), and the recently released Strong.
Fay - who in person is a more edgy, dark-haired Avril Lavigne type than the Norah Jones-style image on her CD cover suggests - has a lot riding on the album. Not least because of her supporters' conviction she has the singing and songwriting ability to crack the big time.
Guitarist and executive producer Gray Bartlett says he's played the album to significant people in the music industry around the world. "There's no question Annabel has a fantastically personal sound and a wonderful unique vibrato and timbre to her voice, and that's the key."
In today's world of declining CD sales, Fay is also the first artist in two years signed up by Tracy Magan, of independent New Zealand label Siren Records.
But most of all, it's important this album succeed because, as Fay says, music has always been the singular passion in her life. It's a joy, a compulsion and an overarching ambition, and she just wants it to keep going.
"I started performing when I was really little, joining school choirs and taking up instruments," she says. "I remember when I was 6 they had a Mary Poppins show at my school. They told me I was too young to audition but I keep sticking my nose in and wouldn't go away, so eventually they gave me the part of the bird woman. I got to walk on stage and sing a little song. But I was really jealous of Mary Poppins."
During her teenage years, which were spent being educated in Europe and America, she learned the flute, saxophone and piano. But most of all she became an expert at hassling her family and friends to gather around and listen to her sing.
It was when Fay was performing "a cliched Christmas carol" at a small friends and family get-together in Auckland in 2005 that she got her first music break. She was back home on holiday from America during her last year of boarding school in Virginia.
The future seemed clear - she had already been accepted into that country's largest private arts school, Columbia College in Chicago, for a degree in vocal performance, and was preparing to spend years in serious tuition - when she was offered a major shortcut.
Bartlett, who was at the Fay family bash, heard Annabel sing and was immediately taken with her voice. "Her pitch was absolutely perfect, which was a signal to me. There was also something about the timbre of her voice that I thought would be very commercial in a Joss Stone-y kind of way, in a cross-over pop market," he says. He insists it was a spontaneous meeting - there were no behind-the-scene pleas from Sir Michael and his wife, Sarah, to indulge their determined daughter.
Bartlett asked Fay to record a demo tape with his long-time sound recordist, Mike McCarthy, whose first reaction confirmed Bartlett's instinct. After recording three songs, McCarthy was on the phone to Bartlett, telling him: I think you've got something special here."
Demo tape in hand, Bartlett went to his friend Siren Records' Tracy Magan, who listened to the tape over a weekend. "I thought 'holy moley' this girl's got something really special," Magan says. "Only two or three times in my entire life, over 15 years listening to hundreds of demos, have I been struck like that."
By Monday she had decided she wanted to sign Fay. "She's got a really soulful, distinctive tone," says Magan. "There are a lot of people in the world who can sing, and sing well. But they don't have that uniqueness. She's got a very special voice."
Despite being the daughter of immense privilege, Fay doesn't appear to have any sense of entitlement; her family's wealth seems to have rubbed off on her lightly. She's not unaware of her good fortune; she simply has it in context. When Magan called her at boarding school to offer a record deal, Fay thought she was kidding.
"I didn't know how it worked. What she was saying didn't sink in. It seemed so surreal I immediately thought that something was going to fall through."
Still, for Fay it was a fait accompli. Why go to music school in the US, when someone is offering you the real thing in New Zealand?
Bartlett and Magan were soon joined by internationally respected producer Brady Blade, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, Emilylou Harris and Jewel. For six weeks last year, he and Fay recorded at The Lab in Mt Eden. Magan describes them as "grungy, grotty, smelly-boy studios with the greatest gear". Fay, who had never been inside a recording studio, was oblivious. "I didn't realise it was terrible. I kept saying things 'like this is nice.'"
After recording finished, Blade invited Fay to Nashville for post-production. It was there she met his musician mates, including Steve Cropper, of Stax fame, and singer/songwriter and producer Buddy Miller; introductions about which Fay was hugely excited, confessing that when she visited Miller's house with all its trophies and awards she was "like a kid at the museum".
Bartlett says he just can't take Fays sounds off his stereo. He's certain she has the x-factor. "She's got the money notes right, which are the way you use your voice to get across an emotional catch. They are very difficult to sing and record, and on songs like Winners and Strong she does them to perfection. You can also tell the winging notes where she drifts on, and the slightly off notes which she does deliberately. You just can't do those by learning it, you have to actually understand the story and the colour of the song." All this from a woman who, prior to meeting Bartlett, hadn't had any voice tuition.
He likens her singing and songwriting talent (she co-wrote the majority of the songs on the album) to the brothers Tim and Neil Finn. "I get about 400 artists every year wanting to make a track up and unfortunately a lot of the stuff out there are copies of someone else; the sound is copying someone else, the voice is copying someone else, the style is copying someone else. But this is Annabel Fay and she's the one who really put all the stuff together."
Siren Records quickly formed a band and Fay now gigs regularly at Ponsonby bar, Crib. She sang at the annual Starship Ball this month and has been asked to sing at the upcoming coronation for Maori King Tuheitia. She says she suffers from terrible pre-performance nerves, not because she doubts her talent but simply because she wants it all to hurry up and get going.
So what was life like, growing up with that symbol of 80s success, Michael Fay, as a father? Annabel started school at St Cuthbert's College, in Epsom, but she and brother James and sister Jessica were raised mostly in Geneva. At 12 she went to a co-educational boarding school in Canton de Vaud, a mountainous farming area about three hours from home, returning to be with her family for the weekend every three weeks.
"My parents wanted me to learn independence," she says, describing a fairly normal existence and avoiding any reference to wealthy pastimes. "My mother made sure I was not ever quick to judge anyone or any situation. I had to be honest even when I was really little, and they instilled in me that lying was not OK on any level. They also taught me humility and to appreciate everything around me and not to take anything for granted."
She describes a close-knit family who wholeheartedly support her creative endeavours. "My parents are quite clingy, they still treat me like a little girl. They call me at least three times a day, separately," she says. Her mother has also been known to take her CD into restaurants and request they play it over the sound system.
The family though, is flummoxed about from whom she inherited her vocal genes. "My dad and my sister are tone deaf," she says. They can't even hear how out of tune they are. My sister will butcher songs on the radio but at least she knows it. Dad doesn't."
They remain an international family. Fay's parents live in Sydney yet maintain a compound on Mercury Island in the Coromandel; James, 23, is working at Deutsche Bank in London and Jessica, 22, works for a non-government organisation in Washington DC.
There have been no hiccups in Annabel Fay's entrance into the music scene yet - but for the way her PR people have tried to market her. Even though Fay is relaxed about her provenance, they have gone to great lengths to downplay it - perhaps sensitive to the suspicion that rich kids get unearned breaks in life, or mindful of the negative publicity over Sir Michaels recent dealings with the New Zealand Securities Commission in which he and former partner David Richwhite agreed to pay $20 million to settle insider-trading proceedings.
Background publicity information supplied to Canvas claimed Annabel Fay lived as a fully-fledged member of the hoi polloi. Her PR agent said in an email Fay earned her own living and was so passionate about being a professional musician and "not taking advantage of her family's assets" she caught the bus to work, shopped in Glassons, "and sometimes goes to friends for meals because she doesn't have the money to buy her own food."
Its a pity they didn't tell Fay, who blithely told Canvas during our interview she gets a weekly allowance from her parents, drives a car owned by her mother - and although she isn't able to work due to her music commitments - recently moved into a Ponsonby apartment by herself. "I've had a privileged but not excessive upbringing," she says. "I'm not naive; it's not something that I take for granted." She confesses she often asks her parents for extra money, but I don't get a 'yes' very often."
Never mind. According to Bartlett, Fay might be able to genuinely forgo parental handouts and earn accolades and big money herself one day soon. He's sure that if she gets heard by enough people, she'll make it into the big league. "She's got the goods and the personality. She'll be big as she wants to be."
- Annabel Fay's debut album is released on Monday (August 20th)