Whenever 17-year-old singer Hope Partlow opens up the floor for questions at a school — like she’s doing Wednesday at West Liberty, Iowa — there’s always one that surfaces early.

How do I get a record contract, too?

“It seems like that’s the million-dollar question,” Partlow said. “I just tell them my story, but everyone’s different.”

The Tennessee native, who’s sung professionally with her family since she was 5, was heard and signed on the spot by Virgin Records at age 14.

“I thought by 17, I’d be rolling in the dough or something,” she said in a phone interview from a Michigan airport. “I don’t have any money. That’s not the way it works.”

Instead, she went through two-plus years of trying to find the right songs. A parade of pop, rock and country songwriters tried out their tunes for her.

“I would like the songs for about a minute, but I realized that if this was going to be what I was singing for the rest of my life, I was gonna get bored really, really fast,” she said.

Most of her complaints, Partlow said, came from the lyrical content of the songs — deep relationship content for a girl in her mid-teens.

“I was singing stuff that I had no idea what I was talking about,” she said. “I was singing about what these songwriters had been through. Obviously being 14, 15 and singing songs about loving and losing — by then, I hadn’t yet.”

To better show what she — and, in turn, other teenage girls — were thinking, she turned over her middle-school and high-school diaries to two songwriters.

“It was awkward and I was nervous about it, but in the end it was totally the right thing to do,” she said.

And, she feels, it worked. That’s evidenced by “Who We Are,” the title song from her album, which was released last month.

“I knew they hit it right,” she said. “Giving my diary away isn’t exactly the easiest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. But they got everything I wanted from it.”

Although her music comes from a teenage girl, Partlow said it’s miles away from predecessors such as Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Think more of a younger version of Alanis Morissette or Sheryl Crow, she said.

Partlow’s had varied amounts of exposure before the release of the album, with everything from being an opening act on pop heartthrob Jesse McCartney’s tour to singing the theme for the WB sitcom “Living With Fran” to an appearance on Jay Leno and touring Wal-Mart parking lots in the South and Midwest.

And these tours to schools in various places across the country. (The school date is not a public event, but just for students at West Liberty.)

Although many of Partlow’s fans are, like her, teenage girls, she was also surprised at the teen guy following she developed — not just because of her looks, but for some of her songs.

Especially the ballads.

“A lot of their favorite songs were the slower songs,” she said. “I was totally surprised.”

David Burke can be contacted at (563) 383-2400 or dburke@qctimes.com.

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