Emilia and Sydney Schmier (pronounced "shmear," as in what you do to a bagel before eating it) are juniors in high school. They're fit, good looking, and have excellent manners — they both look directly at you when you ask them a question. They are smart: One has a 4.0 grade-pointe average, the other a 3.5. The twins seem to be genuinely good kids. They love their parents, their amazingly cute toy poodle, and they totally love each other. They're articulate and seem capable of real empathy. Their band Stereo Jane is absurdly good, though they don't have any records released yet (on YouTube, a fancy video they made when they were just 14 years old has over 1 million views). These girls do not seem likely to overdose, not even on gummi bears. In other words, in whatever equivalent of a VH1 Behind the Music special might exist 20 years from now, we'd only be a few minutes into the program at this point.
But this point in time is also an enormous watershed for Emilia and Sydney; a few months ago, the teens signed an exclusive deal with Atlantic Records, which carries a large advance and the possibility for multiple releases. The whole thing could also tank before anything is released, of course; that happens all the time. But the label is investing a lot of time and money into these kids, with the deal personally overseen by Mike Caren, one of the top A&R people in the world. (He's been enthusiastically retweeting their Vines since at least Halloween, which is how excitement is measured these days.) Deals like that are rare in the age of incredibly shrinking revenues for the music industry. So what's so special about these Schmiers?
Seated on an almost-ratty sectional in the basement of a roomy, four-bedroom custom ranch, Mark Schmier, the twins' father, watches them run through 10 songs. The band starts playing and at first it's hard to concentrate, in part because I didn't expect it to be so loud. Their gear is super nice. The P.A. they're using is better than P.A.s at many clubs. They're showing them off and performing as if there were hundreds watching, cheering, shouting. Sydney is singing and has her eyes closed through most of the song. There is a framed photo of a very young Aerosmith that looks like it's hung there a few years. The house, and the gear, are all very nice. Zillow says this place itself is worth a lot. As Sydney sings, her father is mouthing the words to the songs and staring at the singer, and I think he's occasionally flashing commands.
More likely, he's just really into the songs, which I realize are far better than I could have expected. As they play, he keeps looking over at me to judge my reaction. I'm a bit too flummoxed to offer up much, though. Half the songs sound like they could be on a popular record that people would stream and later write the names of the band in their math textbook. At least a third of these songs should be played in front of a stadium filled with people going nuts, as carefully placed fans blow the performers' hair back just so. And of the 10 songs, two are mega-crazy hit songs. Sydney can sing like a cross between Katy Perry, Joan Osborne, and Aretha Franklin. Emilia is a metronome with groove — how is it possible that this little white girl does that? The band sounds a little bit like Maroon 5 crossed with Weezer and Imagine Dragons. This is a great full-on pop-rock band. There's nothing manufactured or pre-packaged about them. At least on the music side. As for the rest, it's all part and parcel of making a band. Well, at least this kind of band.
Like her mother, Holly Baird, who was a ballet dancer well into her 20s, Sydney is of medium height and conventionally pretty.
"I have to always wear heels to get close to as tall as my sister," she says.
Emilia, like her father, is a touch exotic looking, and beautiful.
"Like all sisters we argue but soon after the argument, we forget what we were even arguing about in the first place," Emilia says.
"Of course we argue, but we get over it at the end of the day. It's amazing to experience everything with her," Sydney says. "It makes me feel like I don't have to go at it alone."
They're not identical twins, so they have little in the way of creepy twin stories. They share a used 2006 GMC Envoy, but don't have a telepathic connection. They do have one twin tale. "I woke up one morning and went to the kitchen to describe the dream to my family, and my sister said she had the same dream about a week earlier!" says Emilia.
Sydney is savvier than most musicians I know three times her age. I ask in an email for lyrics because I thought it would be cool to pepper some of them throughout the piece. She replies, "I don't think I can send you them because we haven't released those songs."
On the wall above them in the basement, the girls placed a stencil years ago. It reads: "Music is not what I do, it's who I am." Their mother, who designed their logo and is supportive of the group, wasn't upset that it was put there without her permission, but she was upset that it was placed just a bit askew, off-center.
The girls have gone from writing songs together to writing them with their band, and a few times now to working with other, seasoned songwriting pros. Sydney has lyrics at the ready, lines and snippets that have stuck in her head. When melodies coalesce, she just starts singing on top of what others are playing. These older musicians are often stunned at what she lays down, especially with such a powerful voice.
A lot of what they've listened to and love has come from their father.
"When we were little, we listened to Aerosmith, Alice in Chains, and Stevie Ray Vaughan – who was like our favorite when we were little," Emilia says. Sydney's been a fan of Paramore for seven years. This week, she is really into Beyoncé, the Beatles, and that new song by Ellie Goulding off the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. As to local influences, it's all about Franklin. Sydney has loved her since she was very little. Once, she ran up to her at a local supermarket to profess her love, undeterred by the two large bodyguards flanking Franklin.
As I write this, I keep wanting to call them women because they carry themselves more like someone in college or beyond. But they have a year and a half left in high school, which, beginning this year, they've been doing online to accommodate their burgeoning career. In June, they'll head to Los Angeles to work with a handful of top songwriters, to write material there on the spot, and to try to improve existing material. And now, they're furiously writing new songs then recording demos of them to send to the label, all for feedback at least and consideration for release at best. They've recorded studio versions of a few of the best songs, with Al Sutton, at Royal Oak's Rustbelt Studios. He's worked with everyone from Laughing Hyenas to Kid Rock.
Meanwhile, the girls are still in regular school, and it's working out OK, but it's also weird. All their friends are talking college, while the girls are on a path to be on Atlantic, home of Aretha, Led Zeppelin, and Flo Rida. A typical school day has three hours of school tutoring followed by a couple hours of either music lessons or practice. The band practices three days a week, for hours at a time. Beyond that, there is further schoolwork. And sessions of songwriting and recording last for hours.
"Sometimes I'll stay up until 4 in the morning writing songs — yes, I'm nocturnal. I'll even wake up in the middle of the night and start writing," Sydney says.
The girls miss their friends, but they get to hang out on the weekends. Emilia went in to take the ACTs recently and bumped into several teachers in the hall that seemed unaware of what to say. "Are you still doing that band of yours?" they said.
Emilia stopped by the lunchroom after taking the tests. "Looking around, I see kids jumping on tables in the lunchroom and throwing stuff. I don't miss this. I'm so grateful to be doing what we're doing now." she says.
"I'm always intrigued by sibling bands — they're usually very locked in, and it's fun to watch decades of making music together play out onstage," Kathy Vargo, who does PR for Rustbelt, says. "It's obviously really unique to have twin girls as lead singer and drummer. Not to mention the fact that they're stunningly beautiful, and they have a freshness about them."
Their father asks that people do consider how young they started, and how serious they take this stuff. He never calls them prodigies, but I would.
"People might think they're 17 and this just happened. But they've been doing this since they were 6 years old, at least three days a week," their father says. "They've been going into studios since they were 9 or 10. There have been the disappointments of people promising them things or contacting me and saying they want to do this, that, and the other thing. The biggest disappointments have been where they think they're gonna get a show that somebody offers an opening for so and so. They do thrive so much on playing live. And when you're young, a little disappointment seems like such a bigger disappointment because you don't have the context yet. I come from a business background in the construction business. I have that perspective, and I have the perspective of playing music. Thankfully, I've been able to make a lot of good moves for them."
There are a lot of stories about their early development, but I like his story of the first time he noticed Sydney could sing.
"I believe she was 2 years old, and watching the The Little Mermaid," Mark says. "I heard this crazy voice so I went in to see what was going on, and it was her, singing. I'm not sure she could string sentences together at the time. It was a booming voice and word for word the song from the movie, and right on pitch. I remember looking at her thinking, 'Wow, I've never heard a little kid sing like that.'"
Her first song came a few years later.
"We were at a family dinner, hanging out. It was called 'Girls Night Out,' the song," she says. I ask what it was about and she says, "Just me and my friends on a girls night out."
Because this word is ridiculous, let's only say it once: Dadager. It's not only a poorly constructed term, but the reputation for fathers who help run the careers of their talented kids is not the best one. The dads of Brian Wilson, Michael Jackson, and Jessica Simpson all spring to mind. Mark strikes me as imposing, intense, and focused on helping his kids. With how they've all worked toward this goal for so long, and the way that music is incorporated into everyday life, he's far closer to the parent of girls about to go to Olympic Village for the first time, more than anything.
"He never left them alone in here, the whole time they recorded with us," Sutton at Rustbelt says. "He definitely gave a fair amount of input during the sessions, but he is an experienced musician. And he hovered around, but isn't one of those hovering parents."
Mark is from Detroit, Seven Mile and James Couzens. His dad was in construction and even built one of the shopping malls the family frequents today. Mark's band Nailing Betty played around town a lot in the '90s and early Oughts. They sounded like Led Zeppelin meets Stone Temple Pilots; Mark sang, with a bit of a Vedderesque swagger. They were good, and they released one CD, but they never broke out much beyond regional coverage and gigs. He talks of always having to work real hard to be a decent singer. When he realized while they were very young that his girls might be more talented than he, there was a mixture of pride and humility.
"The pride I feel when I see them onstage, even sitting in the basement as a fan and listening to a song, it's so much more rewarding — for them to be the stars means so much more to me," he says.
When the twins were brought home from the hospital 17 years ago, their parents decided they were not going to tiptoe around and whisper all the time. Even when it was loud, they figured when the kids were tired enough, they'd fall asleep. This often meant that they fell asleep while their father's band was playing, as their bedrooms were right above the basement practice space. Mark and Holly split when the kids were 4, so the Nailing Betty practices stopped in that house when Mark moved out. But it wasn't too long before the kids took over the practice space beneath their bedrooms and made it their own. And their father was there for any lessons, drum heads, or anything else they might need.
Mark took his kids to Florida when they were about 10, not long after they'd started to play out. (Their first shows were at the Nu Wave, at 9 years old; they were called See Jane Rock at the time.) Mark somehow arranged for the kids to open for the Four Tops. They were originally asked to play five songs. That got trimmed to three, which upset Sydney. The group liked them so much, they invited them to go record a demo at their Harmonie Park Music studios in downtown Detroit.
"The demo didn't quite work out; they just weren't as tight as they needed to be," Mark says. But as a result of the Florida show, the twins played at DTE the following year, opening up for the Four Tops and the Temptations. "And they flew us out to Hollywood and did the Gibson's Amphitheatre, warmed up for them there. We've become very friendly with them, and still stay in touch. Duke Fakir, he's the only remaining original Top. And his son, Duke Jr., we've become very good friends with. We still talk to them a lot."
When they were 12 years old, the twins won best new artist at Summerfest in Milwaukee (which calls itself "the world's largest music festival"), voted by the audience out of 700 local and national bands. Around this time, back at school, Sydney started to get hassled. Other kids were teasing her because she could sing. That might sound trivial to adult ears, but it traumatized a young Sydney. "I just never understood why someone could be bullied for being talented," Emilia says.
With a bit of time, Sydney was able to write an inspirational song about the experience.
"I figured they were bullying me because I was a bad singer," she says. "It came to the point where they bullied me outside of school, and I was afraid to even go out. I was thinking about quitting singing until a few friends stood up for me at school. Some teachers got involved, and eventually the bullying stopped. It was around then that we went to Atlanta to write some songs, and 'Sing It' just came to me."
The tune caught the attention of Detroit production team Exxodus Pictures, who were looking to branch into music. Over the course of three days, Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad at Exxodus filmed the girls in the Masonic Temple and then added a bunch of special effects in post. The song went viral, and, as of this writing, has 1,235,445 YouTube views (they don't sound anything like it anymore, though, if you're curious).
I spend an hour and a half watching the group record a demo for a song called "The Antidote" in Garage Band on guitarist Joey Gaydos Jr.'s laptop. A scratch guitar take plus Emilia's drums were laid down in one or two takes. Then bassist and backing singer Randy Martin got his bass part done in six, as he was still figuring out some transitions. Sydney needed three run-throughs to get her vocals right. It was a relief to hear the lyrics, as I'd misheard one bit as "James Brown lips," which is lame. The real lyric was "James Bond slick."
"Joey played a guitar lick that reminded me of the James Bond movies, so I decided to go along with it," Sydney says.
One of the curious things is the fact the girls are signed, and not the band. Major label deals really are rarer than hen's teeth these days. Local acts who've signed to majors recently include DeJ Loaf (Columbia) and Big Sean (Def Jam). Olivia Millerschin has a publishing deal with BMG, but no publicized record deal. As for teens signed to majors, one has to cast a wider net. Fifteen-year-old pop singer Bea Miller from New Jersey recently signed to Hollywood, while teen bands Residual Kid from Austin, Texas, and Unlocking the Truth from Brooklyn, N.Y., signed to Sire and Sony, respectively.
"They're signing the twins because that's the selling point of the band," Gaydos says. "But they've welcomed my songwriting in the band, and I am happy to know that Mark and girls feel as strongly as they do to involve me in all things Stereo Jane."
Gaydos is 23, lives in Dearborn, and was born into rock royalty. His father played with Mugsy, Cub Koda, and many more, while none other than MC5 singer Rob Tyner blessed Gaydos in utero and proclaimed he'd be a musician. At the age of 11, Gaydos tasted child music fame when he was cast as the guitarist in Jack Black's School of Rock film.
Martin is from Bloomfield Hills and used to play in Nailing Betty, so he's known the girls since they were knee-high. He's in his 40s, probably (he refuses to give his age), and it's remarkable that so many adults consider these kids their equals.
The most obvious test for catchiness is whether a song involuntarily snakes its way into your brain. "Starry Eyed Youngsters" has not left my head for 10 days as of this writing, and this is not something I want, necessarily. I like the song, but I'm far from the intended audience. It's stuck in my brain because it works.
"Starry-Eyed" was actually co-written with Steve Dresser, when Emilia and Sydney went to Los Angeles last summer to work with the Detroiter in his new home. This is a process they'll have to do a lot in the future.
"For Atlantic, it's all about the song," Mark says repeatedly. "Atlantic is about the song, and the top line, and the melody."
They're fishing for radio hits, in layman's terms, and the commercial licensing that follows.
"We're in constant communication with Atlantic, more than a couple times a week," says Mark, who sounds a bit exhausted but also exhilarated.
Vargo is impressed with how humble and hardworking the girls are.
"A lot of young bands who have good initial buzz and backing start to believe their own hype and don't seem willing to put in the hard work to back up all that raw talent," she says. "Stereo Jane has that great blue-collar Detroit work ethic that you don't see from a lot of young bands these days."
The plan now is to work super hard during those weeks in L.A., and to get a first single out eight months from now.
"It's now about the girls doing all the work they can for the next few months, submitting 50 songs, let's say, and then going out and meeting with them," Mark says. "Atlantic will get a sense by the work they've created completely on their own of whether they should hook them up with this producer or this writer. Atlantic wants to rent a house and bring in people to work with them."
I witnessed the girls get recognized at a strip mall on Telegraph, but in a low-key way. When the girls go to some larger malls, other younger girls follow them around sometimes. But it's already gotten a little bit creepy. One time, some female fangirls followed them into the bathroom; the girls graciously asked for their privacy. Their shows at local schools and venues are routinely at capacity.
"I think they'll find an audience, because they won't intimidate teen/20something girls and the boys will love them too," Vargo says. They've been covered in the Detroit Free Press, Farmington Observer, and Birmingham Eccentric, while their appearances at Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Red Wings games have garnered TV coverage.
Which isn't to say that all press has been of the brand that the family wants, even if it comes in horrible ways the family can at least expect: Last year, a male blogger interviewed them on the phone and asked something along the lines of would they ever pose topless for photos.
"I wasn't present, but they handled themselves pretty well, and I was proud that her response was, 'If this is an interview about music I'm happy to talk to you about that,'" Mark says. "I'm gonna pick my battles."
The girls used to shy from doing too many cover songs, but this trend of people doing short covers on Vine is so big now that they've capitulated and posted a few. They know it's important, so they'll do more in the future. They're a bit at the mercy of what their label wants from them, but whatever they have to do to get a song on the radio, they're prepared, so long as it's good. Live, they maintain they'll always perform in this sort of heavy rock vein they've already perfected. Even if Atlantic will try to paint them as the next Disney princesses, they're plainly not that. They're strong-willed, which might be the thing about them that their dad is the most proud of.
"I know the world is a crazy place and they're going to run into all kinds of craziness," Mark says. "I don't think from what she was saying that it was something to take action on. They've had things where people have been jealous. Some girl a couple weeks ago on Twitter said, 'You look fat.' And Sydney responded that there's bullying in this country and cited some statistic about kids and suicide and that stopped her dead in her tracks. They've got a lot of common sense. They know how to handle situations. And at 17, I understand that they're going to have boys looking at them, people making comments. They understand that this is the game that they're playing, the business that they're in."
I've hung out with a lot of dedicated musicians in my life but have rarely witnessed people as driven as these two. "My life has changed so much since we signed to Atlantic, and it's about to change even more," Emilia says. "At first it was hard to adjust, but we're finally starting to get the hang of things."
I've got a feeling that things are going to work out for them, even if the Atlantic deal somehow tanks.
"We'll tell people we're signed to a label and they won't believe that we're more than just your average garage band that plays weird music and doesn't really go anywhere," Sydney says.
People assume that it's a hobby, at best.
"This is my career, my job, and what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. No one really believes us. But one day I'll be singing on stage and everyone in the audience will know the lyrics to my songs," Sydney says.
And listening to them, listening to her, it's really hard not to believe right alongside her — even though that sounds cheesier than a line from the fucking Little Mermaid.
Learn more about the band at stereojanemusic.com.
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