A new fundraising single called United We Stand is being released by Winnipeg YouTube sensation Maria Aragon to benefit the victims of typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged her parents' homeland in the Philippines in August.
The four-minute single will be available on iTunes for $1.29, the proceeds of which will go to help the almost two million people displaced by the strongest storm ever recorded in the southeast Asian island country.
"It's important to me to do it because I'm Filipino and I'm really proud of that," says the 13-year-old Aragon, best known for recording a homemade video of herself in 2011 singing Lady Gaga's Born This Way, which amassed nearly 57 million views.
"I was scared for my family over there. The Philippines have been so supportive of everything I've ever done, I just have to give back."
Much of her mother Menchie's family lost their homes and had to take refuge in the residence of Maria's 77-year-old grandmother, who now fears another typhoon whenever it begins to rain.
"I heard lots of people gave lots of money to help, but according to my wife's family they haven't received any help yet," says Maria's father Veni. "Maria was sad when she heard about her grandmother. She has been inspired by this song."
United We Stand is an all-Manitoba project featuring Aragon, backed by the all-Filipino Highlights Choir as well as the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir. Private Ear Recording on Gertie Street donated the studio time where two sessions took place this month. The song was penned by Naomi Striemer, a 31-year-old, American-born contemporary Christian music performer who lived in Portage la Prairie as a teenager in the late '90s.
The connection between Striemer and Aragon is their Toronto manager, Steven Nowack. It was his idea to resurrect United We Stand, which was Striemer's reaction to the devastation wreaked upon New Orleans by hurricane Katrina in 2005. At the time, the pop songstress was living in California and shared with many in the country the feelings of insignificance and helplessness in the face of nature's punishment.
The logistics were too complicated to record it in time as a benefit song, so it was included as the final tune on her 2006 album, Images. She approved of Nowack removing her lead vocals from the recording.
"I'm very happy the song will get the opportunity to help," says Striemer, who lives with her husband outside Nashville. "It is very poetic that it can be a Filipino girl who can present it as a gift. I would like the song to get enough recognition to make a difference."
According to Nowack, this is the first original song written in aid of typhoon victims in the Philippines. The compilation album Songs for the Philippines features 39 hits from the likes of Beatles, Madonna, Beyoncé and U2. He opted to release United We Stand after Christmas to ensure a featured spot on the iTunes home page. The risk is that the public will not in the giving mood they might be before Christmas.
"I'll be shocked if 100,000 people don't buy the song," says Nowack, who says Aragon will appear shortly on American morning TV to promote the fundraising effort.
The benefit single will be another step in making Aragon into a professional recording artist. Since signing on with Nowack's S Records almost exactly two years ago, she has been groomed slowly behind the scenes, emerging occasionally to sing for charity or public events such as the recent We Day in Winnipeg. The Grade 8 student at Isaac Brock School has earned a few paydays for performing at private corporate functions, as well as pocketing $25,000 for two interviews in her home for a Japanese TV show.
"I have not been concentrating on monetization," Nowack says. "That will happen as long as we focus on the art. We could have pushed her out early to take advantage of her age and sensationalize her every day. She is very pretty. No one has forgotten her. But she is 13, not 50."
Aragon was part of the entertainment for a 2012 Hospital for Sick Children fundraiser in Toronto and met headliner Jennifer Hudson backstage afterwards. The two ended up singing Whitney Houston's hit I Want to Dance With Somebody and the Grammy Award winner was impressed.
"I don't really like to talk about how other people describe me," says Aragon. "She said I had a heart for singing. She brought something out of me. When I'm in front of really important people, I try to impress them as much as I can."
YouTube made her famous and Aragon uses it continuously to entertain her 280,000 subscribers. In November she released four new videos, one each week, of self-styled covers of pop songs such as Katy Perry's Roar, Lorde's Royals, John Legend's All of Me and Billy Joel's New York State of Mind. That song quartet, which she dubbed the Soulful Sessions, makes 99 videos she's put online. United We Stand will, fittingly, be her 100th.
"How many 13-year-olds can do that?" asks Nowack. "She plays guitar and learned to play drums. She has become much more proficient on piano. She is writing her own lyrics and music. When I met her she was a one-trick pony."
Aragon wrote Runaway -- her first single, to be released in February -- on guitar but says her percussion ability with the school band is still pretty amateurish. The rest of her first album will debut a single a week on Nowack's website, welovefreemusic.com.
She has been impatient to get her music out to the world and is hopeful that 2014 will be the year of Maria -- but first she has to help those typhoon victims still without a roof over their heads.
"I need to help out as much as I can, even if it's only a song."