Rewind an hour: It’s five minutes before dadu online sets foot onstage, and I’m in the green room cutting her nails. At 9:42 P.M., she’d noticed her casino online acrylic faux-diamond talons were too long to strum a guitar and, alone, she lacked the compressive pressure to break the sturdy, glittering layer. With her band already setting up downstairs, I was volunteered. If this seems a little more intimate than a reporter should be with a subject, it’s because Rachel and I went to college together. Finally, at 9:49 P.M., with plastic nail carcasses littering the floor, Rachel glances at our ragged handiwork, nods, and returns to our previous conversation: “So, who else from school do you keep in touch with?”
What you may not know is that Rachel has worked very hard for all this—and for a very long time in pop years. At 34, she has spent the past 12 years clawing her way onto the radio, writing hundreds of songs, and playing for whoever would listen. Sure, “Fight Song” fits squarely within the pop subgenre of songs about overcoming obstacles, which also includes anthems of perseverance such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” (the chorus: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”) and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” (“Makes me that much stronger…So thanks for making me a fighter”). But whereas American Idol catapulted Clarkson into megafame when she was just 20 years old, and Aguilera had her first number-one song at age 18 with “Genie in a Bottle,” Rachel spent an additional pop lifetime slogging away before scoring her hit. To her, the lyrics were deeply personal, and that infused “Fight Song” with an exceptionally resonant authenticity. In a business that constantly trumpets overnight success, Rachel is proof that hard work isn’t out of style, that grinding it out can still pay off.
During her freshman year at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, an arty private high school in Cambridge, Rachel tried out for various choruses but never made the cut. “I was crushed,” she said. “Here was this thing I thought I was good at, and I can’t even make the group.” She ended up in musical theater, but always as part of the ensemble.
She was determined to keep music in her life past high school, but her confidence was low, and she had no clue what to do next. “I had absolutely no faith in my ability to pursue music,” she says. “For one, I had no example of it growing up. No musical role model. No artist friends. And honestly, I didn’t think I was good enough to go to school for it. Everyone else at high school was applying to these small liberal arts schools, so I did, too. And that’s how I ended up at Trinity with you.”
Now when I hear her sing, she blows me away, but back then, she didn’t quite have the pipes of a pop powerhouse. Thanks to her Elizabeth Banks resemblance, dentist-ad smile, and affinity for crop tops, though, Rachel, at 18, at least looked like a pop star. She dated older frat guys, briefly joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, studied abroad in Trinidad and Tobago, and, senior year, started a band with the son of our political science professor. They sounded pretty good, but we all assumed that this was just a college hobby and that after graduation Rachel would fall back on her political science degree and become a consultant like everybody else.
The next five years, in Gladwellian parlance, were Rachel’s 10,000 hours. She wrote and wrote some more, practiced the piano and guitar, and gigged whenever and wherever she could, going so far as to create a fake-name e-mail address so she could pretend to be her own agent. By 2009, she’d improved enough to sign with Freddy Wexler, a 23-year-old songwriter who’d just started a music management company, The Brain Music. Wexler—who has since written songs for Lil Wayne and Selena Gomez—listened to her songs and told her they sounded like Regina Spektor rip-offs. But he liked her spunk. Determined to get her to break the mold, he sent her to Stockholm to write with a trio of Swedish producers who’d worked with ‘NSYNC and Cyndi Lauper. With their help, Rachel created “1,000 Ships,” an unapologetic piece of piano pop that became her first Billboard-charting hit. She had just turned 30.
Once we reach the Trinity campus, our big plans evaporate. Our freshman dorm has been replaced by fancy townhouses. Our college local, The Tap, doesn’t open until nighttime. Neither of us actually wants to eat at The Cave, our campus grill. But Rachel’s star power is beginning to cause ripples. When we hit the coffee shop in the library, a petite Welsh barista asks to take a picture with her. Several minutes later, as we walk through Trinity’s main quad, I look up to see girls leaning out dorm windows snapping pictures with their phones. A pack descends in yoga pants and slippers to tell Rachel they are current Trinitones and ask for more pictures. In the campus bookstore, two girls loudly debate whether it’s actually Rachel, eventually agreeing it has to be, based on the quality of her leather jacket. So this is what fame is like. Rachel, who pursued this land of recognition for nearly 15 years, is incredibly self-possessed about it. “When a dream comes true, initially you experience bliss, like a honeymoon of sorts,” she says. “But eventually the buzz wears off, and you’re still you. You bring your same anxieties and fears to your new life. If you’re me, you make new impossible goals and put insane pressure on yourself and work your ass off to make them happen. It’s true what every spiritual self-help book says: Achievement does not truly make you happy. Inner peace does. And that’s my goal now, to find out how to chill the fuck out and love myself a bit more.”
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