W ith her new album “Anything Is Possible,” Debbie Gibson tries to avoid the commercial graveyard that’s full of teen stars who couldn’t make the transition to credible adult performers.
Gibson’s goal with the new album, which has one “youthful” half devoted to up-tempo songs and one “adult” half of ballads, is to attract older fans while holding on to her earlier--and younger--ones.
Gibson, now 20, was just 16 when “Out of the Blue,” her 1987 debut album on Atlantic Records, sold 3 million copies and spun off four Top 5 singles. Fans were captivated by her perky, effervescent persona, her convincing vocals and her melodic, hook-laden songs. The second album, 1989’s “Electric Youth,” was didn’t match that, but sold a respectable 2 million copies and won the respect of critics.
Still, the progress of the new album will be watched closely in the industry. So far, the outlook is guarded; after three weeks, it is No. 41 on the Billboard charts.
Don’t let that angelic, girl-next-door image fool you. Gibson, who started playing piano at 4, is an assertive young lady who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. By the time the classically trained singer was in her mid-teens she was a seasoned pro, working in TV commercials and the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. When other young teens were hanging out at malls, Gibson was honing her pop singing, producing and composing talents.
Often lost in stories about her is that Gibson writes and produces most of her material, which teen artists--particularly females--hardly ever do.
In a pair of interviews, the lanky, talkative young singer, who still lives at home on Long Island, N.Y. with her family, discussed the tough transition from teen-pop star, her image and the joys and hassles of being a young female writer-producer.
Question: Some detractors are predicting that your career will nose-dive with this album because your young fans have moved on to new idols. Is this new album aimed at the younger fans, or older fans you hope to attract?
Answer: It deals more in reality and in general it’s more mature. It’s a transition album. I’m going from two albums that were totally optimistic and looked at life in a very simple, basic way to an album that’s more real and doesn’t look at life so much in a one-dimensional, kid’s way. This album is still mainly love songs and inspirational, positive-message kind of songs. The album is more mature because I’m more mature.
Q: How does a relatively inexperienced teen-age girl get to be a record producer?
A: I started doing my own demos when I was 13 or 14. I learned from people because it was something that seemed vital to getting my music across. If the production is wrong, you can ruin a good song. I wanted to be in a position to present my songs the best way possible. That means me producing them. I got my record deal based on my own demos and my own productions. The record company was willing to take a chance on me as a producer.
A lot of women are scared off by the thought of producing. But I felt challenged rather than scared. To be a producer you have to be aggressive, decisive and in control. Women can be that way too. It helps to be well-trained in music. I have a classical background, so I know music. I’ve been learning a lot about the technical side of producing all along. Each time I’ve recorded an album I’ve handled a bigger share of the producing. On past albums I listen to songs I didn’t produce and think how I could have produced them better. I listen to the first album and hear my voice sounding so thin and Munchkin-like. I want to do all the producing--with some input here and there. Then I’d probably have fewer regrets.
Q: Is it tough to function as a producer when you have to deal with musicians who are generally older and male?
A: When I was first starting as a producer, I often felt like I had to prove myself to these musicians--but not anymore. I use the same people a lot and they know me. Some of these guys probably started out thinking I was this silly teen-ager who didn’t know anything. But I know music and I know what I want and I can explain what I want. People are sometimes skeptical at first about me until they realize I’m no bimbo and I know music. Because I’m young and a female, it’s a little tougher getting respect at first. But being successful makes a difference. Most people respect you right away because you’ve proved you can do it.
Q: Is there a dark side underneath your wholesome, squeaky-clean image?
A: Well, if that means am I secretly a pervert or a racist or rotten person in some way, then I’d say there’s no dark side. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. I don’t even like to take aspirin when I get a headache. I may say a curse word once in a great while but that’s all. But there’s a side of me that’s mine, that only I know, that people might be surprised if they knew. It’s not weird or nasty or anything like that. I wouldn’t call it a dark side--just another side. I hate the fact that some people have a sarcastic attitude toward me because of my clean image. They assume I’m not cool or hip or that I don’t have an edge. I don’t like being put down for having this positive image. But that doesn’t make me want to change it.
Q: Is there some aspect of your image you don’t like?
A: Yes. What I really hate is that some people see me as this brainless puppet who’s controlled by other people. They see I’m young and I’m female, so how could I possibly make any decisions about my career or music or whatever? It’s ridiculous. I’m pretty much in control of my career. In fact, one problem I have is delegating authority. Sometimes I drive myself crazy trying to do it all, getting involved in decisions about every aspect of my career--even things I don’t have to do.
Q: Would you say that you’re a control freak?
A: I wouldn’t, but some other people might. I love being in control--what can I tell you? I like having the power to do things my own way. Who doesn’t? I can be overpowering in certain situations. I always need to get the last word in and I need to get my opinion heard. I’m the loudest person when I have to be. I’m overbearing when I have to be but I prefer being nice. I love having things turn out the way I want them too. When you’re in control it’s easier for things to turn out your way.
Q: When you were younger you had a reputation in the industry for being difficult to work with. Were you?
A: To some extent, probably. But I wasn’t that bad. But I wasn’t very open-minded. I was a cocky, narrow-minded, little 16-year-old. There was nothing I had to learn that I couldn’t teach myself. I imagine some people thought I was obnoxious. As I grew older, I opened up. It’s a natural thing, I guess. My world was small. But as I got to be well-known and got exposed to the world and all there is to learn, I realized how much I didn’t know--a whole lot. I finally realized I had something to learn from people who have a lot more experience than I do.
Q: Did you indulge in standard teen-age activities or were you too busy?
A: Yes, I did all that teen-age stuff. I even went to my junior prom, even though I was in the middle of a tour at the time. People like to think you’re normal even though you have no time to be normal. I squeezed all that stuff in--forced it sometimes. I didn’t want to reach 30 and have mental problems about missing out on my youth.
Q: Do you ever long to be a carefree, frivolous teen-ager again?
A: I’m not sure I long to be a giddy teen-ager, but sometimes I act like one. I’m probably older than 20 most of the time because I have to be mature, because this is a business--a serious business. But sometimes I do act like I’m 15. I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ll be tongue-tied, saying things like “Like you know” or “Um, you know, like. . . . " There’s a certain amount of pressure on me to be grown up. There’s something fun about being a silly teen-ager, but I can’t afford to act that way too often.
Q: Are you comfortable living in the fast lane or do you sometimes wish you were back in the slow lane?
A: These years have whizzed by at a crazy speed. Sometimes I’d like to stop it and say slow down. But I’m a professional and I just deal with it. I love what I’m doing. This is what I’ve been working for since I was 5. It’s funny about being in this whirlwind. Sometimes you don’t know you’re caught up in it until you look back and add up the time that’s passed. I hope my whole life doesn’t go by like a blur. I’d have some regrets if that happened.