Feature Stories

Linda Septien Is the Dallas Kingpin Behind a Generation of Pop-Stars

Linda Septien sits in her office, struggling to collect her thoughts. She just has too many things left to do. The final season of American Idol is around the corner, and she’s developing several artists who plan to compete for a spot. When she’s not spending time at her studio off Midway Road, Septien’s flying out to work behind the scenes with talent producers at the show and at The Voice, helping fine-tune artists’ pitches and performance. It's a wonder she even has time to sleep. Not that she minds.

“I hate to sleep,” she says. “You have to force me to sleep. I just don’t want to sleep. That’s just how my mind thinks. This is the perfect job for me. It’s my dream job.”

The job is called voice coach, but that doesn’t quite capture what Septien does. She’s a talent whisperer, some would say, though that sounds a little New-Agey for a process that involves meticulous planning and relentless work to create the perfectly designed “organic” moment.

Not many women break into CEO suites in the music industry, so Septien is a rare bird. Even rarer is the success she’s had cultivating pop stars. Her Septien Entertainment Group teaches these lessons to 350 students at a 15,000-square-foot studio in Carrollton, a place that’s been called the “star factory” by many in the music industry, and that’s not an exaggeration. She coached Beyoncé Knowles back in her Destiny's Child days, and counts Selena Gomez and both Demi and Dallas Lovato as students. She’s also working with newcomers such as Rudi Aliza, a singer-songwriter signed with SEG records, and Griffin Tucker, a 13-year-old guitarist-singer who recently won the Texas 10 Under 20 Guitar Players contest at the 2015 Dallas International Guitar Festival. Septien Entertainment Group is one of the most successful artist development companies in the music industry, and factory is a fitting name for a place where aspiring stars learn not only how to harness their voices but also how to shape their talent through conditioning. Nothing is left to chance, Septien says. Everything is scripted. Every minute is calculated, from the hang-out with the crowd to key buzzwords they’ll say.

“I like to teach kids how to win American Idol,” she says. “But they have to have a good voice, more importantly a voice with a style. It’s not just about singing. It’s about being able to turn the audience on.”

Unlike coaches who develop an artist’s voice, Septien creates an entertainer, using techniques she taught herself by studying legends like the Rolling Stones, U2 and Whitney Houston. She spent years listening to the way they sang, watching the way they presented themselves onstage. She took notes on whatever she could find, often on napkins, until she had enough information to fill up 30 three-ring binders.

“It looks organic onstage,” she says. “But we have predicted everything. Judges will say, ‘Wow, what a great artist!’ And we’re like, OK, she just worked 10 years for this 15-minute showcase.”

Septien’s formula has produced American Idol semifinalists such as Kristin Holt, Celena Rae and Jolie Holliday. Peter Cohen, senior talent producer at American Idol, says she is successful because her techniques focus on stage presence, songwriting, recording and marketing. “Linda is truly dedicated to artist development,” he says, and she understands more than a great voice is required to be a complete pop performer.

“Anybody can be a singer if he or she isn’t tone deaf,” Septien says. “Anybody can be a singer, because we can train them like a guitar player, because the voice is a wind and string instrument. I teach how to add other muscles and retract it, same thing with a guitar — you can do all kinds of stuff on it. That’s what we teach in voice. … But they are not all entertainers, and this is the problem.”

At 62, Septien can spot a potential star as soon as one walks through her studio’s doors. That’s how she discovered Ryan Cabrera, because he had what Simon Cowell calls the “it” factor — basically a clear brand identity that can be sold. But “it” doesn't necessarily come with birth. Septien says it can be taught, provided an artist has the work ethic and the money to pay for it. Lots of money.
To learn the industry well enough to become a brand takes from 5 to 10 years, she says, and that brand needs constant upkeep to grow and keep pace with changes in music fashion.

“Just to take the classes needed to brand, train and cultivate is one thing,” she says. “Then there are also the gigs required to hone the skills in front of live audiences. If the client is a viable student from the start and we can brand in five years, it is at a cost of about 20K per year. If it is just a student who wants to take lessons and they are not serious, it costs about $5,000 annually or about $400 per month.”
The prices rise quickly depending on the level of services her company provides. A year of artist development and production of a student’s first branded demo, hooking them up with top writers and hiring PR teams runs about $70,000, and figure $250,000 to $400,000 more to make it as a successful pop commercial artist. (By pop, she means popular music in any genre.)

Septien understands singers because she is one; all of the careful management, training and other skills necessary to succeed as a pop entertainer she learned after she decided to pursue a career in the commercial music industry about three decades ago. Her first lesson came on a stage in Nashville, and it was a hard one.
THE MUSIC PRODUCERS looked awestruck, Septien thought, after she finished her gospel song. She was surprised, but she shouldn't have been. She was a natural when singing gospel music. She used to sing in her mother’s choir at a Baptist church in New Liberia, Louisiana. “She had a beautiful voice,” her 90-year-old mother recalls. “We did several musicals for the church, and I thought she was the star of it.”

Septien felt like a star when she moved to Nashville in the early ’80s to try her hand at making a living making music. Like countless others, she believed she could make her mark in the country music capital. She grew up around music. Her father would often host weekend jam sessions with other musicians, and she’d spent four years perfecting her voice at the University of Louisiana, where she studied voice and discovered a love of opera in the early ’70s. She used to stay out late at night practicing opera, her college roommate, Jean Derella, recalls.

Her hard work in school paid off when Septien joined the New Orleans Symphony as an opera singer and toured the world. She never planned to enter the commercial music industry until her opera career tanked in her late 20s, followed by divorce from her husband, Rafael Septien, a former Dallas Cowboys placekicker, in 1984. “He was just a Latin lover,” she says now. “Probably why I fell in love with him.”

As an opera singer, Septien was hired to perform with the symphony based solely on her voice, which filled one of six parts needed, and she didn’t realize the commercial industry hired artists based on their looks, or their “brand,” as well as their voices, something the producers realized she was sorely lacking when she finished her gospel song.

“Are you going to sing like that?” one of the producers asked.

She looked at him questioningly. “What do you mean?”

“Well, that just totally sucked,” he said.

Septien says she couldn't understand why he said her performance sucked. She knew she was a good singer. She’d earned praise and pay for her performance in Italy, but neither producer was moved. “You have no theme, no stance,” he said. “You don’t even know how to walk on stage.”

“I mean, he tore me apart,” Septien says.

The producer told her she sang without feeling and passion, she recalls. She had no story, he told her, and advised her to learn what entertainment is.

So that’s what she did.
SEPTIEN SPENT MONTHS studying various artists, the way they moved, the way the breathed, the way they conveyed emotion. But her singing career failed to take off. She was a single mother raising her son Huntington, selling real estate, working as a spokesperson and model. She offered voice lessons out of her home while she spent months poring over performances of the Rolling Stones, U2, Tom Jones and more.

In 1986, Septien founded Septien Entertainment Group and began offering lessons at a small studio on Westgrove Drive in Dallas, but she wasn’t teaching pop stars just yet. Many of her students were starring on Broadway and in Barney, a popular children’s television show. She later moved into a bigger location off Dallas Parkway.

But it wasn’t until the early ’90s when the rise of mall-touring pop stars like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany would bring a new kind of student to Septien’s studio, one who wanted to be a star like the mall brats. She thought, Why not? She knew pop music. She just had to figure out what worked for each artist.

Septien had to invent a system, so she opened her binders and developed one that Daniel Coyle describes in his book The Talent Code as a curriculum applying the rigor and structure of classical training to the world of pop. Septien not only mined Whitney Houston’s vocals for scale exercises, he says, but also developed programs for diaphragm exercises, ear training and scat singing.

She’d perfected her technique by the time 11-year-old Jessica Simpson enrolled in her Masters program in 1991. Simpson had recently blown her final audition for The Mickey Mouse Club, losing the part to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. “She was distraught, and her dad brought her to me,” Septien says. “She had a beautiful voice. She just got squelched.”

Although she had an infectious personality, Simpson was shy onstage and her voice needed work, Septien says. It was “too churchy,” in part because she grew up in church, where her father served as a Baptist youth minister. Septien spent five years helping Simpson regain her confidence, control her vocal chords and develop a stage presence, and when she turned 16, Simpson had a record deal. By the time she was 19, her album had sold 3.5 million copies and spawned a platinum single, “I Wanna Love You Forever.”

While she was teaching Simpson, Septien met Beyoncé’s dad, Mathew Knowles, who asked if she would teach his daughter, who was in Destiny’s Child at the time. Soon she was teaching the likes of Demi Lovato, who enrolled when she was just 9 years old, and Selena Gomez, who later released four studio albums that peaked on the Billboard Top 10. She also launched the careers of Ryan Cabrera and more recently Dallas Wayde, a teen rapper who signed with RCA.

“Linda and her program was a great steppingstone for my music life,” Wayde says. “She took the time to develop me as an artist and teach me about the industry. Her coaches stretched my vocal comfort zone beyond rap skills to include singing, and having consistent gigs set up really helped me become a dynamic performer.”

In 1998, Septien opened a studio at a new location in Addison, spending nine years there before moving into a much larger studio off Midway Road in Carrollton. From the outside, it looks like just another office space. But inside is an assembly line for stars: dance rooms, showcase rooms, teaching rooms, recording studios and storage and video rooms, all those things needed to develop a singer into a full-blown entertainer.

“It just takes brick-and-mortar space, and that’s why we are one of the few locations with everything contained under one roof,” Septien says. “This is what attracts bands like Kidz Bop. It’s a one-stop shop.”

Chris Seay, a Dallas casting director, took her niece to Septien’s star factory and quickly became friends with Septien, whose strong work ethic mirrored her own. Seay says Septien has more than just an eye for talent and a winning formula for development. She inspires young women to succeed as entertainers in an industry largely dominated by male CEOs, many of whom are constantly looking for the next Selena Gomez, Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus, the kind of star Septien’s studio has a knack for producing.

“She is a force to be reckoned with,” Seay says.
EVERY YEAR SEPTIEN looks for new innovations to offer her artists. Some of these are discovered from trends in the music industry, which she hires four companies to research. “I have to deliver — just like any business — a product that is better than anybody else, and in order to do that, I have to research,” she says.

Septien also employs 40 vocal coaches and music instructors, many of whom have been teaching for nearly a decade at her studio in Carrollton. They offer lessons in performance, songwriting and stage presence in various programs like Rockband, Junior Masters and Masters, an elite program that’s produced artists such as Demi and Dallas Lovato and Ryan Cabrera. Summer camps offer just a taste of what Septien’s studio provides.

Trevor Douglas, a guitarist and singer from Fort Worth, was in fifth grade when he first attended summer camp. He says he learned a dance and a song and experienced recording in a studio. He later returned for another summer camp, then auditioned for the Masters program. He was accepted and spent three years with 12 other artists, perfecting his stage presence as a solo performer wielding an acoustic guitar. “I think the main thing is a lot of practice, a lot of lessons,” he says. “I learned a lot about singing. I had to work at it. But I made it.”

Today, about 15 to 18 artists participate in the Masters program. Septien’s current break-out star is Rudi Aliza. She recently performed for several sporting teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Mavs and the Dallas Stars. But Septien also has several American Idol hopefuls, among them Evan Robertson, a St. Louis-based singer who’s preparing for Idol’s final season in January.

Septien is selective when it comes to allowing artists into the Masters program. She looks for their brand first, the illusive “it.” What do they look like? She says they don’t have to look like Britney Spears or Tori Kelly. For example, Taylor Swift is pretty lanky, she says. But Swift’s brand is her ability to engage fans, to pull them in, in part because she’s comfortable onstage.

But she knew Demi Lovato and her older sister Dallas had the “it” factor when their mother Dianna Delagarza brought them to Septien Entertainment Group for lessons. They auditioned for the Masters program and ended up making the cut. “They learned so many things at her studio,” Delagarza says. “It’s more than just their voice, that’s the important thing.”

“But they also have to have a talent that can be groomed and grown,” Septien says.

Septien recently took seven young artists from her Masters program to sing for a few Sony Music executives. The singers were scared, and it took them a few minutes to hit their groove. So Septien created a new technique called “lightning-round interviewing” as a way to prepare her students to answer questions that judges and music executives might ask after a performance.

“The thing is to find those unknowns,” she says, “and then find the artist personality that will not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.