Perched behind her piano at center stage, Hilary McRae looks positively radiant... and for good reason. For one thing, she's opening for one of her heroes, the inimitable Todd Rundgren, at the Fillmore in Miami Beach. For another, tonight's show just happens to coincide with the release date of her debut album, Through These Walls, which has already amassed a flood of critical kudos.
Flanked by her backing band — bassist Fernando Perdomo and drummer Derek Cintron to her left, guitarist Jason Nagao and a three-piece horn section on her right — McRae seems to assume an American Idol kind of attitude. Blond, beautiful, and exuding an unaffected girl-next-door charm, she's basking in the light of her "big break" and clearly relishing every minute of it.
Considering that she's only 21, it's tempting to dismiss McRae as some sort of overnight sensation. And yet she's been playing piano since childhood and moving forward ever since. Inspired by her stint in a summer training program at Boston's renowned Berklee School of Music, she was only 15 when she cut her first set of demos at Spectrum Studios in Pompano Beach with engineer and eventual producer Zach Ziskin. That was the beginning of an auspicious trajectory, launched after two more years of study at Berklee, followed by tours of Central and South America as keyboardist and back-up vocalist for Latin superstar Christian Castro. Ultimately she signed with Hear Music, the Starbucks subsidiary that's home to such superstars as Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Carly Simon.
Hilary McRae performs on Friday, May 2, at 7:45 p.m. on the WaMu stage at SunFest, 525 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $29 for a one-day pass, $44 for a two-day pass, and $59 for all five days. Reserved seating from $8 to $150 depending on the performance. Call 800-SUNFEST (561-786-3378).
Surprisingly, then, the day after her Fillmore gig, McRae sounds somewhat subdued. It's nearly 7:30 p.m., but on the phone from her home in Boca Raton, she seems kind of groggy. "I'm not with it today," she apologizes. "I woke up feeling like I'm coming down with some kind of a cold."
No worries. With music so unerringly energetic, she can easily let her songs speak for her. A multi-instrumental wunderkind, she plays keyboards, drums, guitar, bass, and sax, which differentiates her from most other 21-year-old starlets in today's music market. McRae flexes her musical muscles all over Through These Walls, even while expressing unabashed reverence for female forebears like Carole King, Karen Carpenter, and Stevie Nicks. The album boasts a distinctly '70s sound, stoked by bursts of brass, animated rhythms, and a soulful sway that reflects her fondness for Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Fleetwood Mac.
"I have these influences ingrained in my head," McRae says. "I don't always approach it like, 'I want to do something like this or like this,' but because I listened to that music, that style just comes through. I don't really have an intention to do it that way, but when I'm teamed up with Fernando and Derek and Zach, they're so talented they can hear those influences coming through and then they bring it out through the music."
Still, for all their energy and exhilaration, the songs themselves are etched with heartbreak. Titles like "Consider Me Gone," "Why Can't Now," "Hostage," "Let's Stop," and "Like You Never Loved Me" betray a consistent theme about losing at love or giving your all and still coming up empty. It's a well-trodden but still striking subject coming from one so young.
"Yeah I guess," McRae concedes. "But I matured pretty quickly when I was younger, and I dated guys that were older than me, and I did all the wrong things. I was clingy... and I got my heart broken and I wondered if it was my fault. Then I figured there's a way I can come out on top here and turn it around and be OK without this person in my life. I can get on my own two feet by just looking at the positive things I do have. And that's something nobody can take away."
McRae's clearly referring to her musical talent, not to mention some valuable connections beginning with Ziskin himself.
"I first heard Hilary when she was 15, and I was blown away even then by her songwriting, her playing, and the sound of her voice," he recalls. "It sounded nothing like any of the other singers I had come across, and I knew that I had to work with her in whatever capacity I could. Even then, she was mature beyond her years. She exemplified the concept of an old soul in a young body."
Ziskin should know. One of South Florida's most prodigious players, producers, and songwriters with several high-profile projects to his credit, he was an ideal choice to help steer McRae's debut. He subsequently enlisted veteran arranger Charlie Calello, whose credits included sessions with Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, to write the horn charts. He then sealed the deal by playing the finished disc for his second cousin, veteran music manager Larry Berman. Berman was duly impressed and eagerly agreed to manage McRae.
Berman's first move was to invite his friend, former record label exec Larry Frazin, to hear the album. Equally enthusiastic, Frazin convinced Berman and McRae that they should partner in forming a new label, Stone Road Records, with McRae's album as its first release.
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Fortune again interceded when Frazin's friend Alan Mintz, the head honcho at Starbucks Music, dropped by his office on other business and Frazin opted to clue him in on his new discovery. Like the others, Mintz was mesmerized. He immediately offered McRae a contract with Hear Music and even agreed to release the album as-is, insisting only on remix and remastering, an unheard of proposition for an unknown artist. "They must have liked what they heard," McRae casually suggests. "They heard that genuineness, and they wanted to maybe keep that vibe because it was something special."
Even so, McRae admits she's startled by her instant acceptance. "I'm dumbfounded by it. When we were recording the album, we just figured that we'd pitch it to a record label and they would maybe take it as a demo, and maybe we'd record another record. We had no idea this would lead us to where we wanted to go. It's just really incredible."
With Berman's help, McRae and her band subsequently landed a series of high-profile gigs, including a tour through the Northeast, a week-long residency at the Living Room in New York, opening slots for Rundgren, Huey Lewis, and Earth Wind & Fire, and an upcoming headlining appearance at this year's SunFest.
Given her rapid upward ascent, inevitably there are those who attribute her success to luck and happenstance rather than talent and tenacity. However, McRae takes the naysayers in stride. "I'm sure that people are going to have their own opinions but I worked hard to do this," McRae insists. "I've been playing music for 15 years, and I worked as hard as anyone else. I've heard the harder you work, the luckier you get. That's been my motto, so I worked hard and I happened to get lucky. I feel really blessed about that. But this has been my passion for a long time. I'm doing it because I love it."