Chelsea Thompson Callista Clark
This is how 17-year-old Callista Clark's life in her hometown of Zebulon, Georgia (pop. 1,078), went last Sunday: In the morning, she led the singing at her tiny family church. Then that afternoon, she hung out at her grandparents' backyard pool, and later, she watched her little sister fish at the pond. To get back home, she took the dirt roads on a side-by-side.
"That's my life," Clark tells PEOPLE. "That's what I do every weekend."
Of course, if she'd driven Zebulon's main road (there's just one), she could have seen her face plastered on a giant billboard across from the Dairy Queen that was put there by a local fan. Or if she'd turned on country radio, she might have heard the new single off her five-song EP, "It's 'Cause I Am," which is now on the cusp of the Top 30. Or if she'd checked her email, she may have seen something sent from the office of her manager, Scooter Braun, who also oversees the careers of Justin Bieber, Dan + Shay and Ariana Grande, among others.
No doubt Clark's competing worlds could inspire a Disney-channel teen sitcom — that is, if Miley Cyrus hadn't done it already.
Plus, unlike Hannah Montana, Clark hasn't had to keep her star-on-the-rise self a secret to hold on to her small-town self. The good people of Zebulon are happy to let her be the girl she was before Braun plucked her from near obscurity, at age 13, after one of her YouTube videos went uber-viral.
Chelsea Thompson Callista Clark
"Everyone's been really sweet and supportive," Clark says of her hometown. "When I'm home, I kind of forget I'm an artist sometimes."
Which is extraordinary, considering the improbability of this career that untold numbers of teenagers endlessly aspire to. This is like winning the Powerball on your birthday during a solar eclipse. This is long-odds stuff.
Yet somehow Clark is the calm at the center of the attention, confident that everything is at it should be, even though she didn't go looking for it.
"I thought that if it was supposed to happen," she says about her music career, "it would just kind of work out, which is what it did. It was really interesting because it was happening when I almost wasn't trying for it to, if that makes sense. It happened when I least expected it. So that just really told me that it was meant to happen, and it's kind of meant to be."
The middle child of a bank examiner and a math teacher-turned-home-schooling-mom, Clark grew up loving to sing — and becoming accustomed to people loving to hear a voice mature beyond her years.
Painfully shy as a little girl, she felt most comfortable performing between her older brother and younger sister at community events. Later, she joined a 4H group for young artists, and she was among several singers who met and performed for Jennifer Nettles, a fellow Georgian and former 4H group member. After Nettles signed on to appear at a Georgia 4H awards show, she remembered Clark and invited her to perform a duet.
"I was beyond terrified," Clark recalls now. But in Nettles' introduction, she called the 12-year-old "fearless," and when Clark heard that, "I said, oh, okay, well, she's saying I'm fearless, so let me pretend like I am!"
The brush with star power fortified her confidence — "I've always liked performing a little bit more than how much I was scared to do it" — and she stepped out even further by posting videos of herself doing cover songs on her guitar. She did it, she says, with no thought of getting "discovered."
"I was following a lot of my friends [on socials], and I wanted to know what instruments they were learning, what songs they were loving," Clark explains, "and that was my way of staying in touch. I definitely didn't expect anything from that."
When her cover of The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" topped 100,000 views, she and her family "freaked out," she says. Then, one night on a family beach vacation, she recorded herself singing Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1971 hit "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" Then she posted it.
"And that," Clark says succinctly, "is what changed my life."
In the video, she's sitting cross-legged on an outdoor deck, her hair unbrushed. She shifts in and out of focus, dimly lit by the cell phone that's telling her which guitar chords to play. But what the video lacks in cinematography, it more than makes up for with the sound of Clark's voice, vibrant and soulful, with an authority of a seasoned professional. To date, the video has 28 million views.
When an email arrived from Scooter Braun's partner, Allison Kaye, Clark's mother first checked to see if it was a prank. A week later, Clark and her parents were sitting with Braun and Kaye in his living room in Los Angeles.
Clark says she steadied her nerves by trying to keep her mind off Braun's superstar roster. "They're so nice," she says about that special two-person audience, "and they're very calm people, so it calmed me down. It was just a huge compliment to me and to them, as human beings, that they saw potential in me before I even knew it myself or before I'd even really done anything."
Chelsea Thompson Callista Clark
Within a year of signing with Braun's management company, Clark had inked a Nashville record deal, and at age 14, she was traveling back and forth between Georgia and Tennessee for sessions with top Music City songwriters. Already with some early experiences of putting her own poetry to music, she quickly determined she was capable of much more than singing covers.
"I have my own stories, things that are unique to me, that are relatable," she says. "I do have a lot to say, and if I just keep honest and real with myself, people will hopefully relate to that. I feel like being a teenager should be the most relatable time in your life, not the one where you're misunderstood."
Those emotions come through loud and clear in "Real to Me," a song that emerged from just her second writing session, with hitmakers Laura Veltz (Dan + Shay's "Speechless") and Casey Brown (Russell Dickerson's "Yours"). The lyrics are exquisitely fitting for Clark's age, and her voice turns them into a power anthem to adolescence: "Too old to cry and too young to drive / Smart enough to know better, too dumb not to try / Too soon to have life down to a T / But the way that I feel is real to me."
In "It's 'Cause I Am," Clark throws down the gauntlet to a boyfriend — or anyone, for that matter — who doesn't take her seriously: "I can't help that I'm one of a kind / I'm more than meets the eye ... / You want a one-dimensional woman / It's okay, I understand / If I seem too complicated for ya / Mmm, it's 'cause I am."
At 17 — and she knows she looks even younger — Clark says she's more than comfortable to sing "woman" in a lyric: "It's not about your age. It's about where you're at in your life and the confidence that you have in yourself and how bold and how powerful you feel when you do certain things. For me, it's songwriting."
At this point, it's safe to say the shyness has taken a permanent leave of absence. Clark spent more than two years earning a foundational education from Nashville's finest, not only learning about music but also growing as an artist and as a person. (She's also been working on completing her GED online.)
The career entry also gave Clark her share of Hannah Montana moments as she adjusted to one foot in Zebulon and the other in Nashville.
"When I was home, I was trying to fit in with all the kids my age and talk to them about what they were going through," she says. "I was going through the same things, figuring out what I'm gonna do in life — just in front of some of the top people in Nashville. But I think it's also really special that I've been going through something that not a lot of people my age can say they have."
Last year Clark was finally primed for her breakout moment, but the pandemic slammed on the brakes. She's now grateful for the delay and the extra time with her tight-knit family; her EP wasn't released until this past February.
Today, her home base remains Zebulon, and she's still not ready to change that "because I really love the support I have from my family," she says. "And my sister — she's my best friend."
Plus, there's the rhythm of life that she loves about Zebulon — enjoying the outdoors ("that really relaxes me"), leading the songs at the church her grandfather pastors, hunting for her next fun fashion statement in nearby thrift stores, having the time to pick up yet another musical instrument.
To date, she is self-taught on ukulele, acoustic guitar, piano, bass, electric guitar, banjo and mandolin. Her latest obsession is the keytar, a combination keyboard-guitar. "Super random," she allows, "but hey, it's another one that I can count."
Eventually, she hopes the people she loves will join her in Nashville. "My parents and my grandparents and everyone else are going to be trying to fit in my suitcase," Clark says with a laugh.
She admits she still hasn't fully processed her life changes: "Since I've put music out, I have little girls coming up to me and saying, 'Oh my gosh, I love you so much,' and it's still hard for me to be like, 'Oh yeah, I'm an artist. I put out music. Hi, nice to meet you.'"
Still, Clark says, "I think I'm so ready for all of this. I am beyond excited about everything happening — and I'm about to have live shows again. And my song's been on the radio, and people are going to know it and sing it back to me, which is crazy. Yeah, everything's just happening, and I'm so thankful for it."
So far, Clark hasn't set any specific career goals. But then, when she's already beaten improbable odds, why should she limit herself?
"I want to reach as many people as I can with my music, and I want to do as much as I can, which seems very vague, but for me, I just love music," she says. "I love every side of it. So if that's writing a song for another artist, I want to do it. If that's having a number one for myself — oh my gosh! — I want to do it. I think my future is music and I'm ready to see it."