Colbie Caillat and Company Ride a New Wave of Mellow Music

Brett Dennen, 28, whose next album, "Hope for the Hopeless," arrives Oct. 21, is opening for Mayer this summer, along with Caillat. He says his "big break, aside from John Mayer taking me under his wing, was getting songs on 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Scrubs' and 'American Idol.' People heard me there when they didn't hear me on radio. That was my radio."

Advertisers, too, have given some of these artists "some of their initial and biggest exposure," says Blender editor in chief Joe Levy. Hilton Hotels is using Dennen's "Blessed" in its commercials, just as Old Navy showcased 28-year-old Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am" last year; her music was subsequently played on "Grey's" and "One Tree Hill."

Similar success stories include Sara Bareilles, 28, whose "Love Song" surged on the pop charts after being featured in a Rhapsody ad last year, and French-Israeli singer Yael Naim, 29, who nabbed a top 10 hit in the USA after Apple used her single "New Soul" in its MacBook Air campaign.

Before releasing his new album, "Three Flights From Alto Nido," Greg Laswell promoted and sold his EP, "How the Day Sounds," at Whole Foods as part of the market's new Artist Discovery Series.

"People who shop there tend to believe that anything Whole Foods thinks is cool is cool," says Laswell, 30, whose songs also have been featured on "Grey's," "Smallville" and other shows. "They wanted to share good music, and I lucked out."

Such collaborations may have once raised concerns about the corrupting influence of commerce on art, but no longer, says Levy. "We're well past the moment when audiences, young or old, are turned off by seeing music attached to television commercials, let alone television shows."

Moreover, the same virtues that attract advertisers make this music appealing to a multi-generational audience. "It's easy to listen to in the car, on the way to school or soccer practice or the mall," Levy says.

While opening concerts for Johnson, Donavon Frankenreiter, 35, "would tell him, 'This is the first time I've taken my son or daughter to a concert and we've both loved the artist.' " Bareilles is pleased that at her shows "you can see teenagers and their parents, and the parents aren't being dragged kicking and screaming."

Neither are the kids, says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis: "It's easy to generalize and say that young audiences like more abrasive things, but they're more diverse in their tastes."

And they're surely loath to hear music pigeonholed. "Labels are meaningless to a young person who's falling in love with these songs," says Dennis Elsas, a veteran radio personality now at New York's WFUV-FM, which champions singer/songwriters. "Fans in their teens and 20s wouldn't identify a song they loved as 'mellow rock' or 'soft rock.' It's just not something they would be inclined to say."

Johnson is mostly amused by such terms. "People can call my music whatever they'd like," he shrugs. "It's not a bad thing to be called mellow." Apparently, he and many of his peers aren't as saddled as previous post-punk artists with the notion that strife and angst need be prime sources of creative inspiration.

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