This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 30, 2002
Debison, Aselin (Profile)
SHE'S JUST 12 years old, so sweet she could make your teeth ache, and cute enough to have her image plastered on young people's bedroom walls. Have I mentioned she can sing a little, too? Yes, Aselin Debison - the anti-Britney, the pride of Glace Bay, N.S., and possibly the Next Big Thing in Canadian music - is a recording exec's dream package. Which is precisely why the folks at Sony Music would be so appalled to see her freshly scrubbed face distorted into a feral mask straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Aselin has her seven-year-old brother, Blake, pinned face down on the kitchen floor for a session of mock torture. She's fed up with pain-in-the-butt siblings who say unflattering things about her to visiting journalists. Blake moans theatrically as big sister bends his legs back at the knee, in a move pilfered from pro wrestler Chris Jericho called the Walls of Jericho. "Jeez, Aselin, that doesn't hurt," shouts Blake. "C'mon, do the headlock one."
It could really be any family in this close-knit, tapped-out Cape Breton mining town: the kids goofing around in the kitchen after supper, the dog skidding across the linoleum, the father, Donnie, a landscaper and volunteer fireman, sipping tea at the kitchen table, the mother, Joan, a former hairdresser, out running errands. "I'm just like any normal kid my age," insists Aselin. "I like to play basketball, hang out with my friends, go on the computer." Except of course, this Grade 7 student at St. Michael's Junior High - whose new CD, Sweet is the Melody, hits stores this week - has a five-album deal under the Sony International label. She's the subject of a one-hour joint PBS-CBC television special airing later this fall. And on Oct. 10 she'll even sing for Queen Elizabeth at a Toronto gala.
It's all pretty heady stuff for a kid who still keeps Disney figurines on her bedroom bureau. In fact, she carries the dreams of her entire hard-luck town of 19,000 on those slight shoulders. "Aselin is a sign of hope for the future in a community that has seen some bad times," says Glace Bay MLA David Wilson. In a way, her story starts with one of those bad times - a 1999 rally by thousands in her hometown to protest the plight of unemployed coal miners. Aselin, then a nine-year-old who'd been performing at local talent shows and hockey games for several years, moved the crowd to tears with her version of The Island, Cape Breton's unofficial anthem. Captured on TV news, the performance brought her national attention - and, eventually, the interest of Sony.
In February the label, which introduced young Welsh singing sensation Charlotte Church to the world stage, signed her to its new Sony Odyssey line. "We're launching a voice and a personality that are distinctly different from anyone else out there," says Sony Music Canada president Denise Donlon. So nobody has any intention of trying to change Aselin into yet another belly button-baring, underage pop temptress. Her parents are determined to shelter her from the downside of show-biz life: Joan, 39, accompanies Aselin on the road and helps tutor her to make up for lost school time. So far the only concession her folks have made to their daughter's fame is an unlisted phone number. Her earnings go into an education fund and a savings account Aselin draws on for the usual 12-year-old stuff - outings to movies and fast-food joints with friends. "She's just a little kid with a gift," says Donnie, 44. "That doesn't mean her values have to change."
Given her age, her music probably will. Her new release is a blend of pop, folk and country with more than a hint of Celtic flavour. The selections include classic showstoppers, local favourites like The Island and one tune she co-wrote with her mentor, Cape Breton singer-songwriter Bruce Guthro. Everything is meant to showcase her unaffected, bell-clear soprano. "There's an honesty to her," says Guthro, "a purity the world could use a lot more of." Starting this week, the world will get its chance.
See also CELTIC MUSIC.
Maclean's September 30, 2002