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Two young musicians pave their own path to fame

"How old is she, again?"

It's a question T.J. Cole and Chelsey Bellnier and their parents hear often. Chelsey, 15, has the vocal chops to rival someone twice her age, and T.J., just 12, is already composing music wise beyond her years.

Both girls have no doubt they've already found their calling, and they're not waiting around to grow up before getting started. Chelsey released her first CD of Christian country music at age 13 and T.J. recently produced a CD of her own, "Solace," filled with piano music she composed herself.

With their parents standing firmly behind them as both patrons and chauffeurs, these girls are two of many local musicians starting from the bottom and slowly but surely working their way up.

In tune

T.J. Cole recorded her CD, "Solace," as a way to raise money toward tuition at a prestigious music camp. But the process has taught her much about the logistics behind producing music.

Her goal? "I want to compose music for film," she said.

The Creekland Middle School sixth-grader is a huge fan of John Williams, the composer behind films including "Star Wars" and "Jaws." She loves movies with complex scores, such as the "Harry Potter" series, "Red Violin," "Chocolat," and "Finding Neverland."

T.J. learned to play the piano at age 4, and by 8, she was already writing some of her own songs. But her piano teachers were confused by T.J. - she seemed talented but couldn't even read simple music. She had come from a long line of relatives who could play music by ear, said father Don Cole, and she was following suit.

It wasn't until, at 9, when she attended a music summer camp in Michigan, Interlochen Center for the Arts, that she started to realize her potential.

"I realized I could do more," T.J. said.

T.J. started tackling harder music, the classics, like Chopin, and quickly picked up on them. But at the same time, her teachers encouraged her to backtrack and learn to read music from the beginner's books.

When T.J. set her mind on returning to Interlochen camp this year, her parents balked at the nearly $6,000 cost. Soon, the idea of recording and selling a CD of T.J.'s music was born.

Don Cole used his experience as a recording engineer to record T.J. playing on a friend's Bosendorfer piano. He also took the photographs used on the cover. Real 2 Reel Studios in Jonesboro mastered the CD and DiscDuplications.com, a self-publishing company for CDs and DVDs, printed 1,000 copies.

"We self-published the CD," Don Cole said. "That's the way you start. It's the first step in understanding the business. ... The music industry is so tough, and we feel like if she wants to do this, she has to get started young."

Of the 10 songs on her first CD, T.J. wrote eight. The other two are a Chopin waltz and Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Learn to be Lonely," from "Phantom of the Opera." The disc costs $10, and will soon be for sale on local music Web site AthensMusic.net and iTunes.

Balancing school and music is no easy task, T.J. admits. Sixth grade has brought about three hours of homework a night, and she's supposed to practice piano for an hour a day, plus cello for an additional 15 minutes. In her spare time, T.J. plays around on her new eMac, a hand-me-down from her grandfather. She films mini-movies starring her younger brothers, Julian and Casey Jack, and scores them with her own music.

Honky-tonk girl

Chelsey Bellnier took a different sort of route. Chelsey grew up loving to sing, and joined several local choirs, including the prestigious Gwinnett Young Singers of Atlanta. The Grayson High School freshman quickly learned she loved the spotlight and started seeking out local talent shows and festivals in which she could perform.

Everywhere she went, Chelsey's parents heard the same thing - "you should get that girl a recording contract."

But since Nashville only comes calling in the movies, the Bellniers took things into their own hands. They went looking for a recording studio and found High Tower Records, an Albequerque-based Christian studio. Chelsey interviewed with and auditioned for the studio and they helped produce her first album, "The Hand of God," a collection of 10 gospel songs, at age 13.

She was pleased with the CD but found herself back at square one after its release.

"They weren't really helping in terms of promotion, and we were pretty much on our own," Chelsey said.

So the Bellniers sought out a promotion company, and found HMG Nashville, a company that produces projects, promotes selected songs from them and sends off demos to various radio stations across the country.

With the help of HMG, Chelsey made a switch from Christian country to plain old country music and recorded her second CD, "So Sweet."

"I didn't really want to stay in Christian music. I can sing about more things, and say things that I can't in gospel music. It doesn't have to be about God all the time," Chelsey said.

"So Sweet" contains 10 country songs, including the single "At 16," in which the plaintive teen asks her parents to accept her 18-year-old "older man" boyfriend.

HMG has helped land Chelsey singing gigs in Nashville and sends her tracking reports saying which radio stations have been playing her single. So far, she's played at the Christian Country Music Awards, conventions and parties. On Saturdays, Chelsey has been performing at local La Cazuela restaurants.

Without HMG, it would be nearly impossible to get Chelsey's songs on the radio, the Bellniers said.

"A lot of stations and places don't let you contact them first," said Tom Bellnier. "You've gotta work the connections. We just keep bouncing from contact to contact."

She's still on the hunt for a manager; so far, that job as fallen to her dad. Good old Dad has also shelled out $30,000 to get his daughter's career up and going.

The hardest part, he admits, is all the shuttling around. At 15, Chelsey can't drive herself to local gigs yet, much less back and forth to Nashville. And Chelsey admits her singing career has been interfering a bit with her school work - if she misses one more day of school, unexcused, she might not be able to get that driver's license on time.

Their next hurdle is getting signed by a major record label. Right now, Chelsey's CDs are available for sale only on her Web site, www.ChelseyBellnier.com. When Chelsey's 16, she'll be eligible to try out for "American Idol" and "Nashville Star," the TV contests that award their winners a recording contract.

Tom Bellnier said he has no doubt in his mind his daughter will be signed.

"We've just gotta get her CD into the right lap," he said.