Priscilla Renea isn't the first artist to parlay YouTube fame into a music career, but she might be the savviest. Even though the 21-year-old Vero Beach, Florida, native is wrapping up work on her major label debut, Jukebox (due December 1), and has already scored a hit single with her Katy Perry-esque love-gone-wrong anthem "Dollhouse," even she can't believe how far she's come in such a short time.
"I got the majority of my fanbase from YouTube, because I was on there for a year and a half before anyone saw me from a label," said Renea, currently a featured artist on MTV's Discover & Download.
It all began in December 2006, around the time "Dreamgirls" came out and Justin Timberlake participated in the "My Grammy Moment" promotion on music's biggest night. Renea entered the Grammy contest but didn't win, though she took the video she made of herself singing JT's "Cry Me a River" and the "Dreamgirls" showstopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" to YouTube and learned about the power of the video-sharing site overnight.
"I had a small group of fans at first and I started to notice that it was growing at a rapid pace. And then I did [MTV's] 'Say What Karaoke,' singing Cassie's 'Me and You,' and MTV played it every Sunday for four weeks. And that's when it took off and I had, like, 2 million views," she said, noting that she was an 18-year-old college student at the time. "I was going to a community college in my neighborhood because my mom didn't let me move to New York for college like I wanted to."
In one of those stories that's almost too good to believe, she said her most popular video became a clip of her singing the dictionary over Fergie's "Glamorous." In another sign of her entrepreneurial spirit, Renea said she sent an e-mail to an editor at YouTube, whom she'd met before, and suggested she check out this hot singer Priscilla Renea singing the dictionary over a Fergie song. "The next morning I woke up and it was on the front page of YouTube, and then the MTV show aired the next day." A week later she got a call from a producer in Atlanta who asked her to come to the musical hub of the South to see if she had what it takes.
Happy to give up her job at a CVS distribution center, the then 19-year-old Renea moved to ATL, shacked up in a house with a bunch of other budding producers, managers, DJs, and artists, and regularly stayed up until six in the morning working on music. "It was like a frat house for music," she said. "But after I got signed, I broke off as everyone else was becoming more successful."
With a label deal in place, in March Renea released an EP of her YouTube greatest hits called Hello My Apple and began work on her debut, which is being produced by Benny Blanco (Britney Spears, 3OH!3) and Lil' Ronnie (R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige). She ended up writing or co-writing every song on the album and said, for now, she doesn't mind the constant Perry comparisons "Dollhouse" has garnered.
"It's just because of the way that track sounds," she said of the bouncy electro female-empowerment pop tune with the candy-colored video that has garnered nearly half a million YouTube views to date. "I don't mind being compared to people who are successful. I think it was done around the time 'I Kissed A Girl' came out and we didn't intend for it to be me — we shopped it to different artists — but the head of radio at Capitol said it was the perfect single for me and I understand why. People are quick to pigeonhole me because they hear a song that sounds like Katy, but we've got ballads, some Christina Aguilera-sounding songs, some where I'm rapping like Lauryn Hill and some that are more whimsical like Lily Allen."
Renea won't know for a few months if her dream ride to major label fame will turn into a fairytale, but she knows that she won't be going back to that CVS gig. "If this doesn't work out, I'm going to be doing something in music," she promised. "I won't quit, that's not for me."