It was songwriter night in the Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville, the place where seasoned veterans go to showcase the next hit they've written for Macy Gray or Britney Spears or Garth Brooks. It was the last place you would expect to see 16-year-old alt-rocker Katy Hudson. But there she was, sitting in a circle with three middle-aged songwriters, stealing the show.
"Through this skin you see my heart," she was singing. "Through this mask you see my face."
It was "Search Me," a tune Hudson had written at age 15. The crowd exploded in applause, and the next songwriter in the circle, a man who has made a comfortable living penning tunes, was a little bit intimidated. "That just makes me [mad]," he said. "How old are you again? That's not fair." Hudson sang song after song, and the crowd grew more and more enthusiastic.
She had won them over.
A few weeks later, she was opening for Earthsuit and Phil Joel at a small southern California venue. Earthsuit's Adam LaClave was a little bit skeptical of the little girl with the acoustic guitar. "But then she started singing," he said. "And, you know, she's just really vocally talented."
She had won him over.
It's something Hudson is making a habit, turning heads, impressing skeptics with a voice somewhere between Fiona Apple and Jonatha Brooke and smart songs with catchy hooks and healthy doses of self-examination.
And it doesn't hurt that she's so playful. On the tour with Earthsuit and Joel, Hudson entertained the other bands by stopping every policeman in every town, curtsying, maybe playing with his gun. While telling a story to friends in a Nashville restaurant, she became so animated that she accidentally knocked over a set of chairs.
It's the same energy of unpredictability that Hudson likes to apply to her songs. "It's not plastic, cookie-cutter pop," she says.
If the stage doesn't intimidate Hudson, it might be because of a nomadic upbringing with a family that moved every few years, planting churches and doing evangelistic outreaches from Florida to Oklahoma to Santa Barbara, Calif.
It toughened her and made her look outside her circle of friends for security and look toward Christ and her family. "I think at the time it affected me emotionally because I had to leave friends so often that I thought I would never make more friends like the ones I left behind," she says. "But looking back, I got to make a lot of friends, see a lot places and take a little bit of everywhere with me."
Hudson hopes other people her age will be influenced by her experiences as she shares vulnerably from the stage. She feels a responsibility to live a life of integrity, to be a role model. "I think anyone who says his or her music doesn't influence is ignorant, because it does," Hudson says. "Most of our lives revolve around music. Fashion styles, television, movies and advertising-they all reflect that. My heart says whatever it feels through my music. If you want to know me, listen to my songs."
The girl reflected in the songs is one part sincere believer, one part spitfire, a child becoming a woman who is holding tightly to God in a confusing world. In "Piercing," she writes, In a world where my emotions seem to rule my every move ... help me see the reality that all I ever need is You.
Hudson admits that "Piercing" is an aggressive song. "I hate how people are so blinded by the so-called necessities of life," she says. "When truly, nothing on this Earth will ever satisfy you. Everyone is so blinded with what they want, but they don't know what they really need."
For all her confidence, Hudson admits to an occasional struggle with fear, and she sometimes shares about it with audiences. At a recent appearance, she asked a group of kids if they still had nightlights and they responded with a cheer. It was as if opening up made it a little easier for everyone else to admit the same struggle.
"Yeah, I've grown up really fast, but I always want to be a child."
She wrote about her experience in "My Own Monster," expressing a heartfelt plea for God "to help me, to hold me." "I remembered all that and wanted to write about how I find my refuge underneath His wings," Hudson says. "You can't open up to fear-it'll eat you up."
Her lyrics often reflect an easy comfort with the uneasy reality of being a kid in a grownup world. Take, for example, the chorus of "Growing Pains": I'm still growing, still stretchin', still breaking in these shoes/ Looking for a way to make a mark of my own/ I'm just a spring chick, wet behind the ears ... no need to fear these growing pains I'm going through.
Other songs, such as "Spit," reflect a hopeful approach to the hypocrisy that can seep into the Christian world. Hudson attended a Christian school for several years (she now home schools over the Internet), and she was troubled by much of what she saw. "I was wondering how people would change and shape up if Christ was here attending my school," she says. "I was like, If Jesus came back as a simple high school kid, how would you act in front of Him? I want people to understand that it hurts Christ when they ignore Him and live their lives. The pain is like crucifying Him again and again."
Hudson hopes her lyrics are giving a voice to people her own age who might not feel like they have one. "Sometimes older people can easily stereotype this generation because of what it has been told," she says. "Basically, the lies that say we aren't any good, or all we will do is drugs and get into a bunch of trouble. It's not true. I haven't ever seen an age limit on who God can use."
At the same time, Hudson wants to guard her innocence. "You're faced with a lot of choices on the road," Hudson says. "Yeah, I've grown up really fast, but I always want to be a child."
Since her parents know a lot about ministry but little about the music business, the Hudsons have turned to Jennifer Knapp to be Katy's manager and mentor. The two had met a few years earlier at an in-store appearance in California where Hudson had opened. Knapp says Hudson "turned my head."
Knapp, who had been managed by Alabaster Arts president Steven Thomas since 1998, became a partner in her management company in 1999. But Knapp and Thomas have been particular about who their management clients will be-which is why Hudson is the first. "We have waited two years to find the right artist," says Thomas. "Katy has the right combination of talent and heart. We hesitated to sign a teenager, but Katy pulled us in by our heartstrings from the very beginning. We believe that she has staying power, primarily because she's a strong songwriter and she connects well with a live audience."
For Knapp, managing other artists was both a way to expand her career and to also give back. "I'm excited to looking beyond having a public persona. I believe that I'm required to respond to the challenges of leadership within our community, not only on stage but behind the scenes. Working with Katy Hudson is a step in that direction."
Hudson's parents were aggressive in pursuing a relationship because they saw a worthy role model in Knapp, who was hesitant at first about taking on such a young artist. "Katy is a really volatile subject for me personally," Knapp says. "There are like a ton of sub-18-year-old artists out there. Frankly, I think Katy is talented. She is a wonderful personality. She has a great voice. She has a bright future. But Steve Thomas and I had a really hard time, going, I don't know if I want to get into this. I don't agree, for lack of a better term, with pimping an artist to sell records."
But Knapp was taking a personal interest in Hudson, and she wanted to help her avoid the mistakes that many young musicians make. "We've had a hard time deciding whether to be involved with an artist like Katy," she explains. "Katy already had a record made and a marketing plan before we got in there. So [we're involved] hopefully to have an opportunity to impact her personally and her ministry.
"The issue is whether we are going to invest in it now and take the ridicule of having signed a young artist or allow her to take some other avenue without someone who cares for her. It sounds egotistical to think we will be able to do that but I will consider ourselves failures if we don't do that for her."
Knapp and Thomas have made a commitment to Hudson's parents to help her take it slow. "We're not set up to make money," Knapp says. "We said, Okay, you are going to finish school. We want her parents to call the shots. We're not really trying to take over the world with her. I think that's a couple of years off-I'd like her to be able to vote first!"
With Hudson's delicate mix of confident woman and vulnerable child, her powerful voice, magnetic stage presence and compelling songs are starting to attract attention, including profiles in both Christian and secular media. But she's not letting the attention go to her head. "My ultimate goal is to show people that they aren't alone," Hudson says. "If they feel they've been let down by parents, teachers, spouses or friends, there is a 'best friend' who will never let them down."