Haslett High School junior dreams big at Grammy Camp

Every year, the biggest names in American music vie for the Grammy Awards’ gilded gramophone trophies. This summer, just over 100 high school students — including one from East Lansing — got a boost on their path to Grammy eligibility through the organization’s five-day Grammy Camps.

Jennifer Barnett, a 16-year-old Haslett High School junior, was one of 119 students selected out of over 1,000 other instrumentalists, vocalists, songwriters and audio engineers who applied for this year’s Grammy Camps.

“This experience was the highlight of my year,” Barnett said. “It was an amazing experience, and I gained so much inspiration.”

Of the 119 students selected, Barnett was the only one from Michigan. The students were split into smaller groups, which attended camps at either Belmont University in Nashville or the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Barnett’s group, which featured 32 students, attended the camp May 30 to June 3 in Nashville. She worked with other campers to learn and perform a song specifically written for her.

“Before I went there, I had the drive to do what I love, but it is just so inspiring to see others with so much talent and passion for music,” she said.

Rachel Hoke, Barnett’s mother, said the level of talent at the Grammy Camp was something she had never seen before.

“You will definitely see these people become Grammy nominated,” Hoke said.

And there is precedent there. Maren Morris, who won a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance in 2016, gave a shout-out to Grammy Camp during her acceptance speech. She attended the program in 2015, the first year of the program.

Barnett has been studying under Grammynominated jazz singer Sunny Wilkinson for years, and she often performs with a jazz combo featuring local jazz fixtures Ron Newman, Ed Fedewa and Austin Howard.

“I have the best dynamic with my coach,” Barnett said. “We are close friends despite the age difference, because she completely understands what I am going through.”

Barnett said she first got into music through Amy Winehouse. She loved her sound and memorized the lyrics to the entire “Frank” album.

“From (Winehouse) I found jazz,” Barnett said. “I started listening to who Amy Winehouse listened to, and then started listening to older jazz music, and I just fell in love with the sound.”

Hoke was researching summer music programs when she discovered the Grammy Camp program. It was close to the deadline, but Barnett focused on the application, made her audition recording sound as good as it could and sent it off.

At Grammy Camp, Barnett and the other vocalists were paired up with songwriters, also high school students, who were charged with writing a song for each vocalist to perform at the end of the program. The singers were asked to perform a song that really displayed their sound and musical taste for the songwriters, so the writers could create a song that matched well with the vocalist. Barnett was the first to perform but the last vocalist to get her song.

“I didn’t like the song that I was given right away,” Barnett said. “I had to change it up — it was too much like something you would hear on the radio. Being a songwriter myself, I just couldn’t sing something that I felt I wouldn’t normally sing.”

When it came to the final performance, the songwriters performed how the song was originally prepared, and then the vocalists took to the stage with their bands to perform their renditions of the songs.

“It was amazing to see how everyone had their own twist to the songs that were made for them,” Barnett said.

Barnett and her bandmates from Grammy Camp are trying to meet up again to record a new song together, because they had so much fun at the camp.

Barnett said the best thing that came from the experience was everyone she met. She misses the other campers already, but she has been keeping in touch with them.

“At other programs, I didn’t make that strong connection that I did at Grammy Camp,” Barnett said. “I was just so in awe of everyone’s skill and absolute passion for music. I can’t emphasis enough the importance of the relationships and connections.”