Christa Larson: Future star -- In the studio with Walt Disney Records first artist

It looked, at first glance, like any other rock & roll recording session. The ponytailed producer stood behind the console looking over sheet music, the engineer punched up background tracks on the monitors, the background singers read through lyrics, and the star asked her mother if she wouldn’t mind holding on to her homework.

Hey, wait. Stop tape. A mom? Homework? Right. The star in the booth was Christa Larson, and at 10 years old she was getting ready to record her first single. ”Okay now, just a little more determination,” Shepard Stern, the producer, is saying as Christa belts out ”The Girls on Minnie’s Street,” one of the songs that mark Walt Disney Records’ first full-fledged assault on the children’s music market: The high-profile promotional blitz for Christa’s Minnie ‘n Me album includes music videos and live appearances, all part of a $10 million product-licensing campaign.

Christa, slightly shy when she’s not performing, responds to Stern’s coaxing with a dimpled smile. During especially difficult passages, the producer mashes his face up against the control-room window for a little comic relief. ”I want it to be, not angry, but a little sassier, all right,” he tells his young star. ”Like this: ‘Hey, hey you! Dance and shout. Minnie’s . gonna tell you what it’s all about.’ Okay? This is going to be good.”

We should have known it would come to this. From that first moment Elvis twitched and little girls screamed, the target audience for much of rock and pop music has been getting younger, gigglier, and a lot more likely to believe in the tooth fairy. The Archies went to No. 1 in the ’60s. Tiffany hit it big by singing in shopping malls in the ’80s. And just who do you think bought most of those Milli Vanilli records last year? Graduate students? So it was probably inevitable that someone woup a major record label aimed at an even younger audience, that some record executive would one day say, ”There are 19 million children under the age of 7 in the United States. That’s a huge potential market.”

Say hello to Mark Jaffe, vice president in charge of Walt Disney Records, the man who said those words. Jaffe is convinced he has seen the future of rock & roll — and it’s wearing diapers.

”I think we are really on the threshold of a brand-new era in children’s music,” Jaffe says, sitting in his unpretentious Burbank office. ”Children are so sophisticated now, the time is right to expose them to all sorts of musical genres on a level that is relevant to them.” Which is why Walt Disney Records, after years as a low-profile Disney subsidiary that subsisted on soundtracks, nursery rhymes, and assorted novelty records, is embarking on the production of original contemporary music especially for kids.

”We’re actively signing artists in all different genres: pop music, black music, folk music, even comedy,” says Jaffe, who was director of marketing at A&M Records’ children’s division before taking over the Disney label last spring. At A&M, Jaffe was heavily involved in the success of Raffi, the Canadian folksinger whose records for kids have sold more than 4 million copies. Now, with the 12-song Minnie ‘n Me, aimed specifically at girls from ages 3 to 8, Jaffe and Disney are opening their assault on kids’ music in typical Disney style. The music video forr”The Girls on Minnie’s Street” features Christa dancing with an animated Minnie Mouse and was budgeted in the six figures, according to a Disney spokeswoman. Christa will make special appearances with Minnie in selected cities, and the licensing campaign includes everything from toys and clothing to wallpaper.

”There’s a need,” Jaffe says, ”for a child who can communicate with kids, rather than having adults singing to children.” Eventually the label plans to release albums that will make it without asssstance from the rest of Disney’s vast promotional machinery. But for now, the label will take all the help it can get. ”Our objective is to have Christa become a singing star, and we have options with her for many years,” Torrie Dorrell, Disney Records’ artist-marketing manager, says. ”But this (Minnie ‘n Me) is a great vehicle for her to get started. If we just released a Christa Larson album, people would look at it and say, ‘Who’s Christa?’ But doing an album with Minnie on it heightens her exposure and gets her immediate sales before she’s even known.”

In October, Walt Disney Records will release Sebastian, an album of reggae and calypso songs by Sam Wright, the voice of the animated crab in the Disney movie The Little Mermaid, but after that, Dorrell says, the label won’t lean on cartoon characters anymore. ”We have a keen advantage just because our name is Disney. We could be doing Mickey and Minnie albums for the rest of our lives and be doing just great. But we’re not interested in that. We don’t want our image to be that we’re relying on the Disney name, but that we’re pushing the envelope.”

When Larson auditioned for Minnie ‘n Me in March, she had just finished nearly two years with the national touring company of the stage musical Les Misérables. She was chosen not just because of her singing ability and strong stage presence, but also because she looks — and, more important, sounds — younger than she really is.

”When we started auditioning, we started with girls in our target age group, between 3 and 8,” Dorrell explains. ”We soon realized that even if we found little girls that age who could sing, once we took them away from the microphone and started asking questions in an interview-type situation, they couldn’t handle it at all. Christa’s voice was perfect, and in an interview situation she’s calm, collected, and still so innocent. We’re not hiding the fact that she’s 10 years old. This is a kids album, and Christa sounds like a kid.”

For the Larson family, which moved to California from St. Louis last fall so Christa could pursue acting and singing, all of this has come amazingly fast. Within weeks of her arrival, she was getting callbacks for television and movie auditions all over town.

”I tried out for (the sequel to) The Blue Lagoon,” Christa says, ”but they wanted to show a faraway scene where you had to have a naked behind. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t think I’ll ever do nude scenes.”

Christa recorded the vocal tracks for Minnie ‘n Me in late May. Every day after school her mom drove her from Anaheim to the Digital Sound & Picture recording studios, in southwest Los Angeles, on the fringes of the city’s danger zone. The sessions never lasted for more than four hours a day, but Christa finished all the songs — everything from rap to ballads to a cover of ”Swinging on a Star” — in barely a week.

Producer Stern is a former jingle writer and circus clown who became an Emmy-winning producer of children’s television programs before he started producing such Disney albums as Rock Around the Mouse and Silly Songs. Working within parameters outlined by Disney executives, he solicited most of the songs — about slumber parties, jump ropes, and little girls’ dreams — that ended up on Minnie ‘n Me.

”The license was designed to position Minnie Mouse as every little girl’s best friend,” Jaffe says, ”and Christa Larson is the personification of that ‘me.’ So we told Shep (Stern) that we wanted songs that were relevant to a young girl’s life, that talked about friendship and the things little girls enjoy.” While the subject matter was necessarily limited, Stern didn’t want to compromise the integrity of the music and hired topflight L.A. session musicians to lay down the basic tracks.

”I was able to convince everybody involved that just because we’re shooting for 3-year-olds doesn’t mean it all has to be tinkerbells and xylophones,” the producer says. ”I try to keep it hip, to be comparable to something the kids’ parents would be listening to so it doesn’t bore them and it doesn’t make the children feel like something less.

”But I also keep in mind that the kids will probably be hearing some of these things for the first time in their life. So I might give the trombone something to do, something very splatty and entertaining, as opposed to it being a virtuoso performance that would only appeal to adults.”

Why do 5-year-olds need their own records? Why can’t they just listen to their older sisters’ New Kids on the Block albums?

”If you listen to a song on the radio and hear lyrics that relate directly to you, it means something,” Torrie Dorrell says. ”It pulls you in a little more. That’s what we’re trying to do for these kids, to pull them into the music a little more, to let them feel like they’re special, that there’s something out there just for them.”