When I first met Rachael Lampa, she was 14. She had recently performed at the Gospel Music Association’s “Seminar in the Rockies” in Estes Park, Colo., and afterward she ignited one of the most intense bidding wars in Christian music history. Major labels courted Lampa and her parents with great fervor for months to urge them to sign on the dotted line of a lucrative, multi-album record contract. Executives were touting her as “the next Céline Dion”; and, while such hyperbole is not so unusual in the music biz, this time the claims were being made by executives who believed it. Apparently, this young girl, just five feet tall on a good day, was what they call “the real deal.”

So having known all of this, I was surprised to discover Lampa was the virtual antithesis of all the overly eager, aspiring artists in Nashville. For starters, she was so shy that her eyes spent more time directed at her shoes than anywhere else. Her mom, Marianne, did most of the talking that day. But Rachael did what, at least at that point, she did best: She sang. She grabbed a lollipop — no lie — and, using it as a prop “microphone,” she sang for the industry types present. I’ll never forget that moment: The realization that we had just seen a rare talent seemed to hit all of us in the room.

The other thing I remember from that day is that, as “uncoached” and unrehearsed as she was, Rachael seemed very certain of her calling. She may have been introverted, but she was not shy about her belief that God, Himself, had given her a gift and that she was supposed to use that gift to reach the world. In fact, she wasn’t sure she was even supposed to sign a Christian record deal at all because she felt it might limit her chances to reach the people who most needed to hear the message she had to deliver.

Rachael, of course, signed with Word Records soon after our first meeting. Her contract included the rare “notation” that she was free to sign a separate pop deal, which would allow her to record Christian albums for Word and full-fledged pop albums for the world at large. But then she released "Live for You," her Word debut album, amid a media whirlwind that included appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and Barbara Walter’s “The View” as well as coverage in Teen People, Seventeen and many other mainstream outlets. The project met with record-breaking (at the time) sales its first week, and it suddenly seemed that Rachael would not need a pop deal, after all, to reach the masses.

Fast-forward a few years. An awful lot had changed in Rachael’s landscape. Her management company had been sold, and her record company had also been sold — not once but twice, in part resulting in the departure of at least 10 executives who had been influential in her early career. Her music had morphed from more adult contemporary sounds to the urban/R&B flavor of sophomore effort "Kaleidoscope" and "Blur," a 2002 remix project that even found Rachael collaborating with rappers.

For a time Rachael more or less disappeared. But, after two tumultuous years of often painful growth, she’s back. Rachael is an engaging young woman of 19 now, with a new self-titled album, a blossoming artistic identity, a nose piercing, a new hometown, a new family dynamic and a confidence that comes after weathering a few storms.

But how bad could these “storms” be when she’s only 19? Evidently, bad enough. For starters, over the past two to three years there have been a rash of suicides and attempted suicides in her small hometown of Louisville, Colo., population approximately 20,000. “There have been eight people — not people I knew closely. But it’s almost a trend right now. It’s affected so many people close to me, and I’ve seen how it affects families and schools. It just hit my heart really hard. I had to write about it because it was on my mind all the time.”

It was on Rachael’s mind so much, in fact, that she began talking about this from stage as it was unfolding in Louisville. “God just puts different things on my heart so strongly that I just kind of have to go with it. There are times I’ve built almost an entire concert around it. I’ve had tons of kids come up to me and tell me either that they were in that situation or that their friends were in that situation. It was scary at first.”

But the most significant struggle in the past year has been the divorce of her parents. Rachael admits she is “still not sure” how to talk about it and several times cites deep concerns about saying something that might cause hurt to her family. Yet, she also admits that the situation presents her with an opportunity.

“When all of it started happening, my mom told me that God would never waste my pain. That stuck with me for so long. [It also became a song; see “The Art” on her new record.] I think about how this is my chance to not put it to waste, to talk about it. I’m still kind of wondering how much to let go, but I would say that it is affecting me in every way; it’s all I think about. It’s not like I went through it and then wrote about it on the record, and now everything is all better. It’s very therapeutic to write about it, but it’s definitely still very sensitive. I think God put me in this situation and kept me this sensitive for a reason. It’s definitely something that I’m not alone in.”

She hesitates, choosing her words carefully. “I think one of the biggest problems with how people deal with things is that they hide it away and just try to ignore it, and I totally did that; and it just tore me apart. I went to counseling and just tried to figure out how to deal with it without being a big emotional mess, without holding everything back but, at the same time, without having outbursts all the time. But I just prayed that God would take full control over it and that He would take things off of my shoulders. And, as simple as that sounds, it worked. I am such an advocate for prayer; it works.”

She pauses and then continues quietly. “As far as how the divorce affected my music, I think almost every song on the record was affected by it. Sometimes it just hit so close to home, that I would think, “I can’t believe I’m even doing this.” But I did my part, as far as being honest and real about it. I’m not 100 percent OK with my feelings yet; I’m still just a 19-year-old mess,” she says with a wry grin. “I don’t have any answers for it, any explanations for it. I just know that if you call on Him, if you trust in Him, He’ll take it where He needs to take it. And I’m just trying to follow along right now.”

Sensing that it’s time to change the subject, I ask Rachael if she ever regrets starting her career so young. She answers quickly. “I don’t regret it; but, for a majority of people, I don’t recommend it [laughs]. It took me a good year or so after the first record and after doing some shows to realize that this is not about me! And so I had to figure out what it was about. I started to talk to people [that I thought could help me]. Rebecca [St. James] was a big help to me, just encouraging me to always be real, to not ever act like I had everything figured out but just to communicate honestly. I could have gotten lost so easily, but I didn’t. If you surround yourself with the right people, and they are truly looking out for what is best for you, which may not always be what you want, then I think you can do it.”

For Rachael, part of surrounding herself with the right people involved moving to Nashville. She says, “I moved here right after I graduated from high school last year, and it was just a good time in my life to go. I’m having a blast; I have great friends here. One of the deciding factors [about moving here] was I had friends that would pray for me. I never had that in Colorado; I just didn’t really have Christian friends. I had a few people I would hang out with occasionally from youth group; but, in my immediate circle of friends, there weren’t really Christians. I just really felt like I would be able to grow here, and [in Colorado] I just kind of felt like I was stuck. I definitely miss my family like crazy; but I get to see them once in a while. And when I travel, sometimes I get to make stop-offs in Colorado.”

Rachael says she has been amazed at her mom’s ability to let her go and says she’s been her biggest inspiration. “She’s such a strong person. Her answer for everything is prayer. She so just wants me to learn and grow and experience things. And while she’s making sure I’m not staying out too late and I’m taking my vitamins, she is so good at letting me find God in my own ways and find people around me who will encourage that.”

Introducing … Rachael Lampa

For her third, full-length studio release, Rachael Lampa certainly brought in a big gun to head up production — the one and only Tommy Sims (CeCe Winans, Bruce Springsteen). According to Lampa and her management during a recent visit to the CCM offices, Sims was only scheduled to produce a limited number of tracks on the self-titled album. However, once he started working, he asked to produce the whole thing. Needless to say, he didn’t have to ask twice.

As to the musical direction of the new album, Lampa says, “It’s kind of a funk/pop/rock thing. Some of it is real straight-up funk, some a little ‘R&B-ish,’ some rock. There’s one that’s a little ‘ska-ish.’ It’s a mixture of a lot of things.” Lampa credits her growth to Brent Bourgeois, her first (former) A&R rep. “I don’t know if he even knows,” she reveals, “but he showed me a whole new way of looking at music.” A nod for this growth also goes to Sims and her second (former) A&R rep, Chris “Rodge” Rodriguez, who she says “challenged” and “humbled” her.

And while Lampa clearly relishes the musical growth, it’s the lyrical themes that she is most passionate about. And, for the first time, she wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. “It’s a collection of what I’ve learned in the past year about life and how my faith has affected it and how God has come into play with it.

"Certain songs are about victories that I’ve had, things that are worth celebrating; and some are about questions I still have, struggles I have. I think it’s important for me to communicate that it is just a snapshot of my life. It’s not the end; it’s not my final answer on everything. It’s just where I’m at right now. Ultimately, God has woven His way through every song and every situation that these songs come from; and I wanted that to show, and I feel like it does.”

So what about her future? Does Lampa still intend to get a mainstream record deal and “cross over” to pop music as she had considered years ago? She responds, “Right now, all I want to do is make a record that I believe in, lyrically and musically; and that truly reflects me and my faith and where God is working. We made this record for the Christian market, if that’s what you want to say; but I feel like, when we say those things, we only limit ourselves. It’s not like I want to go be a pop star, but I would love to just put no limits on it. I just want it to speak to people the way that God speaks to me.”
— M.T.

© 2004 CCM Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.  Click here to subscribe.