In May 2004, at the wide-eyed age of 15, Sahara Smith stepped onto the hallowed stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., guitar in hand. Before her waited an audience of 1,000. Beyond the walls of the Fitzgerald, even more were listening — nearly four million across 500 radio stations from coast to coast.
Months before, Smith's father, Russell, persuaded her to submit a demo tape to National Public Radio variety show "A Prairie Home Companion." The program, anchored by the warmly authorial Garrison Keillor, was holding a contest, "Talent from Twelve to Twenty," to spotlight young musicians.
"I submitted it on a whim to placate him, because he was so excited about the idea of it," Smith says. "But I sent in the tape thinking nothing was going to happen."
Keillor loved the tape, and "A Prairie Home Companion" flew Smith and her father out to St. Paul to compete against seven other youthful players. Smith was excited. She was anxious. Truthfully, she was terrified.
"The moment before she went on stage, knowing there were going to be so many people, she seemed like a deer in the headlights," Russell Smith says. "She was so nervous. It seemed like she was having a panic attack. And I said, 'Honey you're going to do great.'"
The turning point came backstage, as Smith glanced Keillor, bathed in the orange glow of the studio lights, standing just out of view of the audience, calmly contemplating his words before beginning the show. Following his example, she pulled herself together.
"I'd been listening to Garrison Keillor since I was really tiny," Smith says. "My parents would put on his monologues as a way to make me go to sleep. That's how soothing his voice and personality were."
Listen to that episode of "A Prairie Home Companion" (available at prairiehome.publicradio.org) and you can hear the hesitance in Smith's voice. As Keillor banters, she sounds slightly uneasy.
"The Blanco River they call it?" Keillor inquires of the river flowing through Smith's hometown of Wimberley. "How white is the Blanco? Are there chemical plants along the river? Is it foaming?"
Smith laughs tentatively.
But every last ounce of anxiety seems to melt away the moment she plucks her first string and sings her first note, as she launches into a sad, lilting folk song. Still, even as audience votes were tabulated, Smith was convinced she had played her only song that evening.
"I was so sure that I wasn't going to get called back that I actually put my guitar away," Smith says. "I was so certain I had messed it up. So I went backstage and packed it in. And they called me back, and right before I went back out I had to start tuning it again."
When Smith returned for the finals, she exchanged quips with Keillor as she tuned her guitar before launching into a haunting original song. Smith's mother, Suzanna Chesshire, got goosebumps as she listened in, 1,200 miles to the south.
"I was shaking. It was very exciting," says Chesshire. "She stepped out in front of an audience of 1,000 people and prior to that she had only performed at a restaurant in Wimberley. It was an amazing moment."
Smith nabbed second place that evening, and her future as an Austin singer-songwriter to watch was assured. She releases her debut album, the richly evocative "Myth of the Heart," today. The project was shaped under producer extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett — the musician with a seemingly infinite résumé that includes Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, a staggering number of soundtracks, including this year's Oscar-winning "Crazy Heart," and Robert Plant and Allison Krauss' Grammy-winning "Raising Sand." Burnett shepherded "Myth of the Heart" before handing production off to collaborator Emile Kelman.
A hybrid of folk, Americana, country and bluegrass, "Myth of the Heart" makes good on Smith's promise. Melodic and often heartbreaking, it's an assured debut, an elaborately painted canvas anchored by Smith's poetic songwriting and otherworldly voice. And all from a 21-year-old.
Although, as Smith would tell you, youth can be deceiving.
Maturity beyond her years
It's hard not zero in on the contrast between Smith's age and her world-weary, astonishingly wise musical view. Talking about the album at Progress Coffee on a late August afternoon, she appears almost improbably fresh-faced, rail-thin and impossibly easygoing.
"People say that about me a lot. 'But you're so young!' And I am, I know that's true," says Smith. "But the thing is, I may be young, but I've been doing this for a really long time. I started singing and writing before I can remember. I've always done both of those things."
Sahara — so named because her father hiccupped while suggesting "Sara," and both parties liked the mistake — is truly her parents' child. They played Mozart for her in the crib, and she picked up her mother's love of words — Chesshire is a playwright — at an early age. Smith wrote her first poem by 3 years old. She had a poem published in the "Anthology of Poetry for Young Americans" in the second grade.
And her fondness for music emerged just as early.
"When she was I guess about 4 years old, she picked up an electric guitar that probably weighed more than she did and tried to sing a song about the weather," Russell Smith says with a hearty laugh. "She fell over pretty quickly. The guitar pulled her down."
Russell showed his daughter the guitar ropes after she turned 8. Smith quickly started writing songs, but didn't discover her calling — folk music — until she was exposed to Paul Simon, a musically seismic event that she credits for setting her on the path she now walks.
"The songs I used to write were the kind of things my friends were listening to, and at that age it was Green Day and pop-punk," says Smith. "And then I think my mom couldn't take what I was playing in the car stereo so she made me listen to Simon and Garfunkel's 'Concert in Central Park.' And I don't know why nobody had ever played me folk music before. But I distinctly remember the first real experience I had listening to folk was this one record, and that changed everything for me."
At 12, Smith made her Wimberley debut at an open mike night at an area restaurant. That evolved into regular open mike and restaurant gigs on what Smith calls the "Wimberley/Bastrop/Smithville" circuit. She played with friends from middle and high schools, and she participated in bluegrass jams alongside another Wimberley phenomenon, the Grammy-nominated bluegrass prodigy Sarah Jarosz.
Those shows turned into her eventual "Prairie Home Companion" appearance, which in turn led to more shows around town — sets at the Saxon Pub, the Pecan Street Festival and a morning performance at the 2007 Austin City Limits Music Festival. Smith's trademark nervousness never fully went away, but it abated.
"I was horribly nervous then, and I still am. I'm a pretty awkward person, and when I get on stage, I feel about a million times more awkward. It's just a matter of being able to suspend that until after the show," says Smith. "I was playing this gig in Chicago not too long ago and these people in the audience kept on going 'awk-ward.' They were right in front of me making direct eye contact. But I've kind of gotten to a place where I can put everything into the moment and immediately afterward I can freak out."
And through all the shows Smith continued to churn out songs — inspired regularly by heartache and mourning. At 8 years old her parents divorced. Her stepfather passed away while she was a teenager. A short-lived move to Houston uprooted her from the friends and bucolic surroundings of Wimberley. Like many adolescents, she drifted into and out of torrid relationships.
"For the most part the songs came out of things that were frustrating or things that were sad. Because those are the emotions I need to get out of me. I don't need to work through joy. I don't need to understand joy," says Smith. "Any kind of minor heartache, or even any day that I was feeling really upset, I'd pick up my guitar and start playing and a song would happen out of that. I don't know what I would have done without that release."
At the right time
There's few more worn music journalist clichés than the young player with the old soul. It's tempting to pull it out to describe "Myth of the Heart." Song after song aches with creaky melancholia. Smith's smoky, often-sultry siren sound channels everything from the pastoral beauty of Allison Krauss on opener "Thousand Secrets" to the sinister grit of Neko Case's murder ballads and dark laments, as on the terse and impressionistic "Train Man."
"There's a bar on San Jacinto/Where the lonely people go to get useless," she intones on "Are You Lonely." "u2026 And if you forget me in the morning that's all right/Because I'll forget you too."
But to ascribe that old-soul narrative would do a bit of a disservice to Smith, whose ethereal voice and sound comes less from a place of experience beyond her years and more, seemingly, from some other universe entirely.
"Her delivery can be very haunting and spooky. It can be dark, it can be heavy. She fits into that kind of world pretty nicely," says Kelman, Smith's producer on "Myth of the Heart." "But at the same time she has this very sweet, sensitive background, and this angelic quality that's also appealing. It's very hard to qualify."
The album's had a long and winding road to release — after signing to Loophole Management shortly after her appearance on NPR, Smith talked with a succession of labels at precisely the wrong time. Each contact and tentative first step seemed to lead to a record label implosion.
"I started meeting with labels when I was about 17, I guess, and obviously that went really well," says Smith. "I think three or four of the record labels that I went with either were bought out or had their staffs sacked or just dissolved completely."
That series of inconveniences climaxed, conveniently, just as her management decided they were going to form their own locally focused label, Playing in Traffic, which has since released EPs by Los Lonely Boys, the Steps and Speak. Smith and her manager brainstormed a list of dream producers, quickly settled on T-Bone Burnett, and sent some demos his way.
To Smith's surprise, Burnett connected with the material and brought Smith in to the studio. The project was eventually handed off to Kelman, with the recording team combing through Smith's 50-plus catalog of songs. A cadre of Burnett's best session players backed up Smith in the studio, including famed guitarist Marc Ribot, a collaborator with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, among others.
"Looking back on it, I'm pretty sure that everything happened at the right time. I have the right songs now and I'm at a place where' I'm comfortable enough performing that I can promote the album," says Smith. "I just don't think that I would have been ready for that before."
Old song, new meaning
When Smith was 13, shortly after her Paul Simon revelation, she approached her dad with a guitar and a newly written song.
"She said 'I've written a song. Would you like to hear it?'" says Russell. "And of course we did. And she played it, and by the end we had tears in our eyes. That's when we knew something special was going on."
That song was "Twilight Red," a sad melody written shortly after Smith had moved to Houston and been thrown into a new school. She played it as her second song on "A Prairie Home Companion," and it closes "Myth of the Heart." It's the earliest-written song on the album, a time capsule of a different time in Smith's life. Since then she's graduated high school, moved to Austin, recorded a full-length. But the DNA of her long and winding journey is in that song, and eight years later, she says she can still relate to it.
"It doesn't mean the same thing for me now that it did. Now when I sing it I kind of strikes me as nostalgic, like looking back on this person that I used to be, and that's how I can connect to it," says Smith. "This sad, nostalgic song of a different me."
Amid all of the mourning on "Twilight Red," the song closes on a note, however strained, of optimism:
"I believe that time will make it easier."
As it turns out, Smith was being prescient.
When: 5 p.m. Sept. 8
Where: Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd.
Sahara Smith plays ACL festival at 11:20 a.m. Friday, Oct. 8, on the Austin Ventures stage.