4 Artists Who Wrote Their First Songs Before They Were Teens

During the summer of ’61, Ronnie White, member of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, heard an 11-year-old Stevland Morris singing and playing his harmonica. He was so impressed by the young performer that he set up an audition with Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. After hearing the kid play, Gordy said “Boy, that kid is a wonder.” The word stuck, and a year later, Little Stevie Wonder recorded his first album, The 12 Year Old Genius, which included his debut single “Fingertips.”

By the time he was 15, Wonder—who started learning piano at 7 and mastered the instrument by 9—co-wrote another hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” which peaked at No. 3, and No. 2 hit, “I Was Made To Love Her” in 1967.

When she was just 11, Brenda Lee signed a record deal with Decca and released her first hits—“One Step at a Time” and “Dynamite”— a year later. In 1957, 15-year-old Paul McCartney was blown away by a skiffle band called the Quarrymen, featuring his future bandmate John Lennon, and had to join. The rest was the history of the Beatles. Michael Jackson started performing at the age of 5. By 11, Jackson was appearing on television and released his solo debut, Got to Be There, by 14. Steve Winwood joined The Spencer Davis Group at 14. At that same age, Ari Up formed the punk band The Slits and a year later, the band was opening up with The Clash.

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[RELATED: 7 Songs You Didn’t Know Stevie Wonder Wrote for Other Artists]

American soul star singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Stevie Wonder. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fiona Apple was just 15 when she wrote “Never Is a Promise,” which later appeared on her 1996 debut Tidal. Lorde was already signed with Universal after they caught a video of her performing Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue” and she penned her breakout hit “Royals” at 15, while Adele wrote her first song “Hometown Glory,” at 16, in protest of staying in her hometown of London.

Plenty of artists started peaking just as they reached or entered their teenage years, while others were already well ahead, writing at 10, 11, and 12—or earlier. Here are four artists who started writing before they were teens.

1. Willie Nelson

At 12, Willie Nelson was already playing in a local polka band in Abbott, Texas, and wrote what would become one of his first two singles, “The Storm Has Just Begun.” The woeful ballad is a story of heartbreak set against a stormy night. The storm is within him as he faces life without his love:

Each night the raging storm clouds take away the moon above
And each day the same clouds take away the sun
My world is filled with darkness and I’m lost without your love

“That’s kind of looking on the dark side for a 12-year-old kid,” said Nelson in a 1991 interview about his pre-teen dating years that led him to write the song. “I had some real young girlfriends, so it wasn’t unusual for me to think about writing love songs. But to come up with the words that I did come up with at that early age was a little baffling. A little unusual for a kid.”

[RELATED: The Story Behind the Debut Single Willie Nelson Wrote When He Was 12]

Years later, when Nelsom was working as a DJ at KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas in the mid-’50s, he used the equipment at the radio station to record his first two songs: “When I’ve Sung My Last Hillbilly Song” and “The Storm Has Just Begun.”

2. Janis Ian

When I was just the age of five / My world had just come alive / Wondrous things to be seen and be done / All that I could think of was fun sings Janis Ian in the first song she wrote “Hair of Spun Gold.” Written when she was 12, the song was published in the folk publication Broadside in the early ’60s and later appeared on her eponymous debut in 1967.

By 13, Ian was already well beyond her years when she wrote “Society’s Child (I’ve Been Thinking),” which centered on an interracial love affair and was released two years later. The song went to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains one of the most iconic songs by Ian.

“As a writer, when you feel like you finally caught the scent of greatness in yourself it’s such an elusive, rare moment,” Ian told American Songwriter in 2022. “Anyone who’s not in the arts, not living in the arts as an artist, can’t understand that because they can’t understand how all-consuming it’s got to be. If it’s not, you aren’t being true to the gift you were given.

[RELATED: 4 Songs You Didn’t Know Janis Ian Wrote for Other Artists]

3. Hanson

When Hanson formed in their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1992, the brothers were barely teenagers. The eldest, Isaac was 11, brother Taylor was 9, and the youngest Zachary was 7. By the end of the ’90s, the brothers had a No. 1 with a song they wrote a few years earlier, “MMMBop.” Recorded in 1995 and featured on the trio’s 1997 debut album Middle of Nowhere, the first verse of “MMMBop” was written by Taylor before all three collaborated on the remaining lyrics.

“I was 14, and my brothers Taylor and Zac were 12 and 10 respectively,” said Isaac in 2018, recalling when the brothers wrote the song. “We listened to a lot of doo-wop, which influenced the chorus of ‘MMMBop.'”

He added, “We were trying to write a part for another song and came up with this catchy hook, but it didn’t really fit. Much, much later, I said to the guys ‘Remember that hook? It really sticks in your head. We need to find a way to use it.’ Then, as we were getting ready for bed, we all sang it together in the bathroom.”

4. Taylor Swift

By the time she was 12, Taylor Swift already had a collection of original songs. Some of them made it onto her 2006 self-titled debut, which also included hits she co-wrote with Liz Rose, including “Tim McGraw,” which went to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and her No. 2 hit “Teardrops on My Guitar.”

The album also featured three songs Swift wrote solo, “Should’ve Said So” and the closing “Our Story”—which was written during her freshman year of high school and went to No. 1 making her the youngest artist (17 at the time) to write and sing a Hot Country Songs No. 1. The third track that Swift penned was one of the earliest she had ever written when she was 12: “The Outside.”

[RELATED: The First Song Taylor Swift Wrote When She Felt Like an “Outcast” at Age 12]

“This is one of the first songs I ever wrote, and it talks about the very reason I ever started to write songs,” said Swift, reflecting on her early song in 2007. “It was when I was 12 years old, and a complete outcast at school. I was a lot different than all the other kids, and I never really knew why. I was taller and sang country music at karaoke bars and festivals on weekends while other girls went to sleepovers. Some days I woke up not knowing if anyone was going to talk to me that day.”

She continued, “I think every person comes to a point in their life when you have a long string of bad days. You can choose to let it drag you down, or you can find ways to rise above it. I came to the conclusion that even though people hadn’t always been there for me, music had. It’s strange to think how different my life would be right now if I had been one of the cool kids.”

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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