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ROCKELL WILL REALLY SURPRISE YOU. Her succession of extraordinarily long-lived hits -- "In a Dream," "I Fell In Love," "Can't We Try," and "When I'm Gone" -- have made her a core artist in clubs and on dance-pop radio for four years. But her versatile second album, Instant Pleasure, goes deeper into a growing talent and a maturing personality. Her music is again highlighted by her edgy, honest knowingness and an irresistable dancefloor punch, while adding new, unmistakable notes of warmth and emotion.

With her first single in a year, a progressive uptempo adaptation of the country classic "The Dance," Rockell says that showing her strength as a singer is her main resolution now. "I never, ever lip-synch: at some live shows I've had to sing an entire song without music to show them that I wasn't faking it. So I wanted my new songs to be vocally challenging; I wanted it to be hard for me to sing these songs -- so that people would say: This girl has grown, she's not a kid any more, and she can sing.

" Rockell, born Rachel Alexandra Mercaldo in Long Island, New York, was thrown in the deep end of the pool when her first-ever demo, "I Fell in Love," became an immediate hit upon release. She was, by her own account, way off track and very alone at 18, when she was spotted in a Staten Island bar singing along to a Lauryn Hill record. Frankly surprised that an offer of studio vocal work was legitimate, Rockell sang back-up on a series of demos, and lead on "I Fell in Love." The song had been improvised in "about five minutes," she admits, but it was nonetheless one of the most clever and unconventional tunes ever to hit freestyle. Within four weeks, Rockell was signed by the first record label to hear the track, the BMG-distributed Robbins Entertainment. Not much later, she heard her record on the car radio at a stoplight, and found herself onstage, terrified, at her first live promotional appearances. With her single rising in the Billboard Hot 100, she recorded her first album, What Are You Looking At? "I was excited to do it," she recalls, "but I really didn't know what to expect from the career of 'Rockell.'

She found her stride in the supportive company of her new fans on a promotional tour through Canada, where "I Fell in Love" was a pop crossover smash. "I was at a club, and there were 4500 people screaming, singing and trying to get at me onstage. I remember thinking: I can make these people dance! I'm good at this! It was so much fun after that." The positive feeling was more than mutual, she adds. "Keeping in close touch with people, letting them know they're everything to you, laughing and being a real person with them" has been central to her own experience of success as a performer. "My favorite shows were with the Backstreet Boys; they asked me back for their recent eastern U.S. tour. I also did shows with 98 Degrees, and Edwin McCain asked me to sing harmonies and ad-libs with him when we met at a radio station event." Successive hit singles have lingered high in radio rotation for not only months, but for literally years after their release.

"I'm still amazed at the reaction," says Rockell, as the three-year-old "In a Dream" continues to gain airplay, even on the verge of her new album's release. Rockell says that taking a year to complete Instant Pleasure with top-flight dance-pop producers taught her much about her craft, and much about friendship too.

Production talent on the project includes Grammy nominated remixer/producer Hex Hector (Whitney Houston, Madonna, Toni Braxton, Deborah Cox), Tony Moran (Gloria Estefan, Luther Vandross, Celine Dion), Carlos Berrios (Corina, Lissette Melendez), returning producer Adam Marano (Collage, Lil' Suzy), the team of Lea Reis and Moe Doe, and newcomer Giuseppe D. "My producers will all say I was always late to sessions! But they befriended me, and not just in a producer-artist kind of way. Hex and Giuseppe and Adam are like family to me. I'm proud that I got through it, and got through it strong." The album's many strong points include Rockell's first self-written song, "Waiting," as well as her new freestyle bubbler "Tears," the pop-dance "What U Did 2 Me," and a classy smooth R&B number, "If You Don't See."

But among the album's showpieces, "The Dance" inevitably stands out to Rockell. "Hex and I took six weeks to do vocals because of the wide range of the melody," Rockell notes. "At first, I thought, 'No way am I going to touch this Garth Brooks song.' I called my mom in Texas to ask her if I should do it. She said, 'I really want you to do this, because if I didn't dance the dance with your father I wouldn't have been blessed with with you and your brother.' By that time, I was crying! So I said, 'Mom, I'm gonna do this for you.'"

"The Dance" songwriter Tony Arata applauds this new treatment as "a reinvention, not merely a re-creation." He adds: "There is perhaps no truer measure of an artist than their ability to interpret. This view of 'The Dance' as seen by Rockell is proof of a vision, an interpretation, beyond that which is obvious. As a songwriter, you can only hope that someone hears your work and makes it their own. I thank Rockell and her crew for doing just that -- for the opportunity to hear my work through different eyes.

" If her assured handling of "The Dance," and the Instant Pleasure album in its entirety, seem surrounded by a deeper vibe of self-awareness, it's no mistake. "Music saved my life," Rockell says. "I'll always feel that way. I'm a different person now because of music. Music taught me how much I had to offer myself. The Lord used it as an outlet to show me that there was more than I ever expected in life." Get ready to dance the dance with Rockell

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