Then came the record deal. And another challenge: As a minor, Starner was required to go before a judge and confirm her willingness to take on adult professional responsibilities. "I could tell he didn't like the idea," she recalls. "He was asking me if I'd miss basketball games or cheerleading. I'm like, 'It's OK.' "
As word spread around her small Poconos town that Starner's singer-songwriter debut, From in the Shadows, would be released last Tuesday, the high school freshman faced an even tougher hurdle: her so-called friends.
"I've had people from school calling me up going, 'Hi, are you famous yet?' " says the precocious blonde, whose braces came off just in time for publicity photos. "Then it's, 'No? OK, I hear my mom calling. Gotta go.' At first I was, 'You liked me when I sat next to you in math.' But you find out who your friends really are this way."
Now 15, Starner understands her friends' curiosity. The acts they worship - Hanson, 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears - were all fast out of the gate, propelled by their photogenic good looks and smoothly harmonized, upbeat pop.
Starner understands the demographic - she is the demographic - but she has no desire to follow the teen-pop formula: "What I resent is that I'm expected to be like Britney Spears. Why can't I be like Steven Tyler?"
Starner sees herself as overdue counterprogramming, a pinch of salt to offset the sugar. Like Fiona Apple and a handful of other young artists, she has the skills to translate the turmoil of her age into tuneful, universal themes. Hear her sing, her reserved alto miles from bubblegum's stylized chirp, and you would swear she's been performing for years.
"Kids are as diverse as adults," Starner says, groaning about how, despite the fact that her moody, introspective songs are miles away from "MMMBop," she's routinely categorized as a young pop confection. "But in the media and in music, kids are either perfect little angels or they're dealing with crack or something. . . . There are a lot of kids that are in the middle, going through stuff, and what they're dealing with is closer to reality."
It doesn't take long to find out that Starner - whose bedroom is filled with pictures of Aerosmith and the Black Crowes and Styrofoam wigstands she's transformed into likenesses of Freddie Mercury and Stevie Nicks - is sick of the Britney comparisons. "I'd rather be lumped with Blondie and Stevie Nicks, because these other girls don't even write their own songs."
Starner's songs aren't just in the pretty-good-for-a-kid category. They're thoughtful, mature compositions. They're understated and melodic, with lyrics that conjure scenes in cinematic detail. They follow twisting harmonic paths as they muse on rejection and betrayal: Not even the most overt ends quite where you'd expect. The influences are varied - a touch of Tori mysticism, a bit of Alanis anger. Some, such as "Masquerade," involve unusual tempo changes; others exude the crooning cool of a woman who's lived her share of heartbreak.
Starner has a back-story for every tune. "I have to have a connection to the idea of the song. I went to Lilith, and it seemed like all of the women singers were singing about the same affair with the same guy."
"Masquerade," for example, has none of the usual boy-girl dance. It's about "someone who will do stupid things and make huge mistakes and go about their business as though everything's fine."
"A lot of what's in her songs is old soul material," says Craig Street, who produced From in the Shadows. "She's telling stories all of us understand, and that's the mark of a mature songwriter. She's figured out something that's usually the hardest thing: how to write about things in a universal way."
Street, who has produced critically acclaimed albums by Cassandra Wilson, k.d. lang and others, came into the project with no idea Starner was so young. "I heard the lyrical content, and the structure of the songs, and I probably assumed this artist was in her late 20s," he recalls. It wasn't until McEwen, the Warners executive who signed Starner, was setting up a meeting that he got the whole story.
"He says, 'There's something I should tell you,' and then he sort of mumbles something. I tell him I didn't catch it. He mumbles again. 'She's 13.' . . . My first reaction was I didn't want to do it, but I finally realized that the job was to capture her songs, and doing that makes age irrelevant."
"The thing is, she's such an individual," McEwen says. "That's what will come out as people hear the record, so that's what we're going to emphasize. Not her age."
Starner says she doesn't think much about being a kid in a cutthroat business. Her desire has remained the same: to write songs, sing them, and have fun.
"The whole key for me is the doing. If I write a song, I do it in 5 minutes or 15 minutes, or it doesn't happen. I'm not one of those people who spend time worrying about every line."
Though she set her sights on a dance career when she was a toddler ("I watched a ballet on TV, and made up my mind I was going to do that"), she drifted into music around age 9. The next year, she received three hours of time in a local recording studio as a Christmas present. After she sang some of her favorite songs by others, she casually mentioned she'd written a few of her own.
"The engineers were like, 'OK, go ahead,' and you could tell they were bracing themselves," Starner recalls. "But then they heard [the songs], and they were like, 'She's really good.' "
That led to another session, at which she recorded four originals, including "Fall" and "Northwind Woman," that ended up on her debut. When it was done, Starner's mother sent the tape to a family friend who worked in the finance department at Warner Bros. He passed the tape to McEwen, an industry heavyweight who signed Wilco, Son Volt and Steve Earle, among others.
"When we sent the tape," Starner's mother, Kathy, recalls, "nobody had a conscious goal. It was just to get feedback and see what happened. Then each time the phone rang, it seemed like another positive thing came along."
One was the collaboration with Street. In addition to liking some of the same music, Starner and the producer discovered they are temperamentally similar: Both like to work quickly, and they finished the bulk of Shadows in three weeks. Street set up shop in a studio in Upstate New York and invited a small group of musicians who, he said, "wouldn't be hung up about working with a 14-year-old girl."
Street's goal was to make Starner feel at home: "I wanted it to be a good experience for her, so that no matter what else happened, she'd always know that she did her best and the decisions were hers. . . . And I wanted it to be low-budget, so it would be easy to recoup [the cost of the recording, which is charged to her advance].
"The shock in the whole thing for all of us [veterans] was that here was this person who'd never sung with a rhythm section before, coming in and doing her vocals on the first or second take. She took in everything, was very open, and you could almost hear her get better. After we finished, all of us said this was the way making a recording should be."
Starner's life changed to accommodate her new career. Last year, she went to public school half-days and devoted the rest of the day to music and dance lessons. This year, she's following a home-school program her mother, who quit her job in retailing, describes as more rigorous than the public school curriculum.
Starner stays in touch with her old gang, though: Her best friend, Jordan, who's still in regular school, says people ask about her friend all the time. "They want to know if she's changed. I'm like, no, she's exactly the same."
Since she finished the record, Starner has been getting a different kind of education - in the not-so-gentle arts of marketing and promotion that are vital to every artist launch. She's been assigned to Liz Rosenberg, an elite Warners publicist whose high-profile artists include Madonna and Cher. Her publicity campaign began months ago, with introductory "one-to-watch" pieces in magazines and a cover story in the music-industry trade magazine Billboard.
To bring her to the attention of alternative-music programmers, Starner appeared at radio conventions and has done the usual interviews. And the WB prime-time blockbuster Dawson's Creek used her "Don't Let Them" in promo spots, and may include several more songs in the show itself.
Among the label's other launch events: a mini-concert by Starner at the Warners Olyphant, Pa., pressing plant, where the CD was manufactured. The performance marked the first time the assembly line, which can crank out 700,000 discs a day, had been shut down for an artist.
This month, she'll take off on a mini-tour of the Far East and Australia, in preparation for a full-blown U.S. tour that's still being planned.
It seems a lot to take in. But Shelby's mother and stepfather, an English professor at East Stroudsburg University, are confident she can handle it. "There's lots we don't know about how she'll do with traveling and everything, staying healthy," says her mother, who will be her daughter's companion on the road. "But in terms of the business, she's always been a little adult. She's very comfortable in those situations."
Still, there's no question Starner is a kid. "I called Liz [Rosenberg] yesterday to tell her I was pretty sure I was with the only Warner Brothers artist who spent most of the day making a snowman with her friends and her little sister," her mother said, chuckling.
For her part, Starner says she's in no rush. "If it doesn't work out, atNCER} least I had a great time in the studio, and I learned a lot." She points to a collage of fat men on her bedroom wall; a huge headline is clipped from a magazine: "Bigger is not always better."
"That's not just to remind me not to eat," Starner says as she and Jordan giggle. "That's my thing for life. I don't need the star treatment. I'd rather get better than be huge."