Friends who checked Margaret Durante’s Facebook page earlier this year were in for a shock.
The Potomac singer—whose music videos have caught some attention on Country Music Television over the past few years—had significantly lightened and lopped off her long locks, transforming herself into a platinum blonde named Maggie Rose.
“I wanted to change my name to kind of give myself a fresh start,” the former Durante says by phone from Nashville, to “still maintain who I was to fans I had already at that point, but show that I had moved on to a new chapter.”
Using a nickname for Margaret and her middle name, Rose, didn’t seem like too much of a stretch. As for the hair, “I’ve been super blond before.” But cutting it “goes with the music a little bit more—it’s a little bit more sassy.”
It was the latest transformation for the 24-year-old, who seems to have all the elements in place for a country music breakthrough with the release of her debut album this fall.
One of three daughters of Steve and Lizz Durante—he’s in software technology sales; she’s with a payroll processing company—the singer attracted notice for her talent early on.
“Even at 16 months old, Margaret was singing,” her mother says. “I remember distinctly thinking: Hey, this baby can sing. She would practice a note, listen, make a higher note, and listen again. We could tell it wasn’t squawking. It was singing.”
After her first solo as a kindergartner in her church Christmas program, she earned an annual slot. And “at every party we went to, or every family gathering we’?d have, they’?d say, ‘Go sing, sing a song,’ ” Rose says. “And I was like: Oh, I like this! People are enjoying this!”
Though she participated in choirs at her Bethesda church, she couldn’t quite manage the one at her high school, Georgetown Visitation. “They met at 7 a.m., and I was not making it to that,” she says.
Her musical influences came from her home stereo. “In the D.C. area, we are kind of a melting pot ourselves, and I heard all different kinds of music,” she says. But country started to creep in; she especially connected with Mary Chapin Carpenter, who once lived in the area, as well. “She was one of my favorites. I still remember all the words from the songs on the album Mom always played over and over.”
Rose had an early supporter in Tom Natelli, the father of one of her friends and a Montgomery County real estate developer. An unabashed Bruce Springsteen fan, he got her together with his favorite tribute act, the B Street Band, with which he sometimes sat in on guitar.
“I can remember her winning over the hearts on stage at Our Lady of Mercy Christmas plays in the third grade,” Natelli says. “She was recognized, all while she was growing up, as having an outstanding singing ability.”
Getting to tour summers with the B Street Band up and down the Jersey Shore helped hone her performance skills at an early age.
“I was like 16 and they were 45, but it was a lot of fun because they’re such a great band,” Rose says. “I had my own little set where I would open their shows and sing, you know, Sugarland, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Linda Ronstadt, Shania Twain, Melissa Etheridge and these different artists. And eventually I worked up the courage to write my own music and incorporate it into these sets. So I owe a lot of my stage experience to the B Street Band because they eased me into that process.”
Still, it didn’t help her when she tried that 21st-century avenue to stardom, American Idol, which has produced young country stars from Carrie Underwood to Kellie Pickler.
“Idol came to Washington, D.C., after I had just turned 16. I was barely eligible, but I said, ‘I’m going to try out for this.’ So I slept on the D.C. Convention Center floor with thousands of other people who were auditioning,” she says. “I barely sang a note and they took my bracelet and said, ‘Come back next year, you’re too young.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, this is not at all what I anticipated.’ ”
A few years later, when Rose was 19 and a sophomore at Clemson University in South Carolina—majoring in vocal performance, singing in a cappella choirs, learning guitar and writing songs when she could in the privacy of her Jeep—she got a call from no less than Tommy Mottola. The former head of Sony Music Entertainment, Mottola helped break out acts ranging from Celine Dion to the Dixie Chicks, and was married for a time to Mariah Carey. Natelli had used some business contacts to get him a tape.
“I was actually on my way to Econ with my friend,” Rose recalls of that day in 2007. “It was one of the most shocking phone calls that I’ve ever gotten.”
In a matter of weeks, she was in Mottola’s New York office, singing.
“He was duly impressed,” says Natelli, who by then was the singer’s business partner. “He said she had the raw talent to be able to make it, but the only way to pull it off was to fully commit to it—move to Nashville and develop her abilities.”
Fortunately, Natelli had some great connections in Nashville, too, chief among them James Stroud, the hit producer who helped launch the careers of Clay Walker and Tim McGraw, among others.
“It was like zero to 60 in a very short time,” Rose says.
Like Mottola, Stroud was impressed. “Margaret has one of the most unique voices in our genre today,” the producer says now. “Her skills as a vocalist are second to none. She’s one of the best in interpreting a lyric, and she fills it with emotion. She’s just a great artist.”
For her family, though, the teenager’s move to a city they’d never been to was a big step. “We started making regular trips down there monthly or every six weeks,” Lizz Durante says.
Two years after Mottola’s call, Rose (still Durante then) was drawing raves with her cover of the Kings of Leon hit, “Use Somebody.” A music writer in Knoxville called her “one of the most refreshing sounds to come out of Music City in a long time.”
She was refining her sound, picking songs that suited her and writing more. But image is also part of becoming a star, so she got a personal trainer and some nutrition advice.
It wasn’t only to get her ready for a field that rewards the beautiful, she says. “We’d prepare for a photo shoot, but it was also for my stamina: Doing a show, you run around a lot, and when you’re singing, you have to have lung capacity. A lot of my songs are very belting songs, so day after day I had to make sure I was physically in shape.”
Even so, “I didn’t go crazy over it. I had to keep in mind what the priority was, which was always the music.”