Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The miracle of Maria Aragon
Since becoming an overnight YouTube sensation, Winnipeg's most-famous Filipina has been signed by a Toronto-based record label, wrote and recorded her first song and is working on an album with a chart-topping American producer
The global hoopla over Maria Aragon has subsided to an uneasy hush. The 11-year-old Filipina's homemade video Born This Way -- YouTube's eighth most viewed in the world last year -- has stalled short of 52 million views. Talk show guest appearances and high-profile public sightings have dwindled.
That has raised the usual questions about whether her 15 minutes of fame has run out before she even reaches teenhood.
But that silence surrounding Maria is really the lull before the media storm that will launch her career next week.
"I'm really excited for when it gets all over the news and people get to hear what I've been working on," says Maria Aragon, during a recent interview. "I want to get my secret out."
Without any fanfare, Maria was signed by an independent Toronto-based record label, penned her first song, You Are Enough, and is working on her first North American album with an American producer who has had a hand in 60 chart-topping hits.
It all happened due to chance meeting with her new manager, Steven Nowack, in Toronto last November. Serendipity has been a constant in Maria's unlikely emergence into the public eye. Blogger Perez Hilton discovered her homemade video of Born This Way in February 2011, sent it to pop diva Lady Gaga, who directed millions of followers to Maria's video. Within days she was feted on TV's Ellen and soon after, she was playing a duet with Lady Gaga on stage at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
The miracle of Maria is that the world found her at all, as opportunity does not travel down Elgin Street in Winnipeg very often. The last time a stretch limo stopped in front of the newish Aragon house in a working-class neighbourhood that has seen better days, the occupants had to step over a discarded Mickey bottle on the boulevard.
Her soft-spoken father, Veni Aragon, who brought his devoutly Catholic family to Winnipeg in 1997 (Maria is the only one of his four children born in Canada) believes there is an unseen hand at work guiding his youngest daughter, whose middle name is Lourdes, the site in France where the Virgin Mary appeared to a 14-year-old peasant girl in 1858.
"If you see Maria, she is an ordinary girl," says Veni, who nurtured her love of singing at an early age. "If you are talking to her, something is guiding her. She has an angel beside her.
"Everyone who talks to her is amazed at how she answers the questions. I believe she is going to be a superstar."
What proud dad doesn't think their little girl is something special? But others who should know echo Veni's sentiments.
The Free Press has been following Maria's preparations as she sets her sites on pop music stardom.
* * *
STEVEN Nowack was taking his five-year-old son to music lessons in Toronto last Nov. 19 when he received a call from his wife who was across town in The Gap Kids where "that girl with Lady Gaga" was about to perform.
Nowack, a former hedge-fund owner turned independent record label CEO, vaguely knew who his wife was talking about -- some 10 year-old from Winnipeg who had become a YouTube sensation after pop diva Lady Gaga had discovered her version of Born This Way.
"My reaction was, 'Who cares?,'" recalls Nowack. "My assumption she was already signed because she was all over the news. But I was curious."
The head of S Records drove over to the The Gap, where 150-200 people watched Maria Aragon sing I Love Candy, which she had performed in a TV commercial for the clothing outlet, as well as her signature cover of Born This Way, which had almost 50 million YouTube views. The fast-talking 49-year-old entrepreneur was very impressed, especially with her uncommon poise, and afterwards talked to Maria and her leery older sisters Rojuane, 23, and Linger Ann, 22, who served as Maria's manager.
Nowack, who was wondering whether this cute little girl could change the direction of his life, again. In 2005, while working as a money manager, he had discovered a golden-throated 23-year-old singer -- Naomi Streimer, a former Manitoban -- in a Toronto bookstore, and promised to make her a superstar. But it never happened.
Seizing the moment, Nowack invited the trio over to his Rosedale home that afternoon, where he had the 11-year-old Maria sing a cappella so he could get a true fix on her talent. The home-schooled Grade 6 youngster was not flustered by the impromptu tryout, and ripped into I Will Always Love You, the Whitney Houston smash, followed by Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror.
"I thought, 'Do I have the opportunity of a lifetime?,'" Nowack recalls. "'Is this young girl another MJ (Michael Jackson) in the making?'
"My style, typically, is that if she was 19 or 25, I'm going to sign you. Let's go. But I had to be delicate, and I wasn't going to negotiate with her sister or with an 11 year-old girl."
Nowack, an intense and driven man, immediately telephoned his American creative partner, Narada Michael Walden -- the Grammy-winning producer of hits by Houston, Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin -- about his discovery. Walden was already aware of Aragon through her appearance on ABC's Good Morning America in Feb., 2011, and urged him to sign this "true talent."
Nowack contacted her parents, Veni and Menchie Aragon, in Winnipeg the next day and flew in to meet them the following Thursday. Maria, her parents, sisters and 16-year-old brother Jezette sat down in the living room of the Aragon's Elgin Avenue home to hear Nowack's proposal.
"At first, I don't trust him because I don't know if he will take advantage of Maria," says Veni, who assembles tractors at MacDON Industries.
"The family stared me down," says Nowack of the sit-down. "Six pairs of eyes beamed through me. Her mother did not crack a smile. She just stared at me for a solid five hours. She did not take her eyes off me.
"It was one of the roughest meetings I've ever had in my life."
He made his pitch, outlining what he thought was wrong with the music business that had yet to sign Maria. While they all chowed down on pizza and salad, he told them he could help get her more favourable business deals and had deep enough pockets to make her a global name.
Nowack sent the Aragons a contract in early December and, after getting no response, called to learn Veni wasn't happy with the terms of the proposal, which was five years in length. Nowack, who is legendary for not taking no for an answer, flew to Winnipeg on Dec. 27 intent on inking a deal.
This meeting was much more emotional as the family grappled with what to do about Maria. Veni was especially feeling the pressure. He wanted to make his daughter's dream come true, but wasn't sure this was the way to make it happen. When he was close to backing out, Maria cried, saying, "Papa, this is my dream."
"I told Steven that I really care about my family," Veni said. "I told him to swear that in my absence you will be the father of Maria."
"Veni told me he didn't care about the money but I would have to agree to be her father (in his absence)," says Nowack. "He said to me, 'I don't want her to ever cry because of you.'"
The contract was then signed, and they all went to The Keg to celebrate.
The first order of business was to get her into the studio.
So, on Feb. 23 this year, Maria and her family headed to San Francisco, to Walden's Tarpan Studios. He is a much sought-after session drummer -- who backed guitar wizard Jeff Beck when he played Winnipeg last October, and is regarded as the greatest producer for female vocalists in history.
Walking into the place festooned with gold and platinum records was something Maria will never forget.
"When he opened the door, everything was running through my brain and I was crying," says Maria. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime to get to do something like this. When I walked in I felt like the luckiest person in the world. People who have recorded there are the people I look up to."
Walden had delayed their studio session because of the sudden death of pop diva Whitney Houston on Feb.12. Walden had been close to Houston -- not only for producing Grammy-winning The Bodyguard movie soundtrack. In her honour, he penned the Whitney-esque tune When I Dance With You for Maria while helping her pen her first song, You Are Enough.
On a gloomy April 18, Nowack flew to Winnipeg with the final mixes of You Are Enough and When I Dance With You and picked up the entire Aragon family in a black stretch limo so they could all hear her first songs together. As the car cruised around Assiniboine Park, Menchie slapped her thigh to the beat of You Are Enough while Venie grinned and gave it the thumbs up.
(See the moment for yourself by clicking on the accompanying video below.)
"She's going to create a real commotion in the music industry," says Walden, 60, who plans to return to the studio with Aragon this summer to a complete an album's worth of tunes. "You think back to Michael Jackson being 11. I think she has a lot of the same qualities. She has this youthful spirit, but you almost feel there is a 30-year-old inside there.
"Only God knows who's going to be the next big thing. The trick is exposure."
Aragon performed at the annual Google's Zeitgeist convention in London last month, and recently performed in Dundas Square in Toronto in support of Sick Kids Hospital's Herbie Fund. Nowack threw out the possibilities of a Today show appearance in July and guesting on Saturday Night Live this fall.
"These opportunities don't come along all the time," says Maria Aragon. "I'm trying to grab it while it's there."
Nowack' has beg plans to re-invent the music business next week with the debut of welovefreemusic.com, a multimillion-dollar website that can be accessed all over the world. The plan is to introduce a new artist each month and give away one song a week. Aragon will have July to herself. Not only is it gratis, but there will be no advertisements or requirement for personal information.
"I believe 80 per cent of the people who read this article are going to hit the website," he says. "I believe 500 or 600 million people will become aware of Maria within six weeks. I anticipate 20 to 30 per cent of those people will download her music. That would be 150 million single downloads.
"Even if we had 100 million or 50 million, it will be the single most successful song in history. I will be able to say that You Are Enough by Maria Aragon is the single most successful downloaded song in the history of the music business."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 G1
Updated on Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 7:49 AM CDT: Adds photo, embeds video
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