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Various Authors 8:30 a.m., Jan. 20
A listener hears old, but sees young: the singing voice, and the person using it, do not match. Whitney Shay is 26, but she can pound out the blues like someone I interviewed years ago who told me her name was Miss Peaches and who had the advantages of years and heft on Shay.
It would not have surprised me to learn that Miss Peaches, whose childhood was tempered by the urban specter of drive-bys and random violence had a blade somewhere in her big carry-all; Shay is slight of frame and grew up on a ranch with Clydesdales.
"My mom says they're the gentlest of horses. She says you can ride with the reins in one hand and a beer in the other."
But Shay's singing is another thing entirely. It is informed by mean and thin realities that she could only have heard coming through vinyl portrayals.
"I started listening to blues, and soul, and R&B maybe three years ago. I started digging it. I started going out to hear live music more. It was, like, asking for me." She says doing the blues is sort of like doing a monologue. "It gives you a story to grab onto."
Shay grew up near Alpine in San Diego's East County. She lives in North Park now. "My parents lived down a dirt road. When it rained, we were stuck. We couldn't get out. We had to call in sick to work."
Pumpkins. She remembers pumpkins, and a petting zoo with miniature horses and cows, and pot-belly pigs. "I was also doing 4-H." And hay rides, and a horse drawn carriage business. "It was a lot of work." She laughs.
Sitting outside a coffee shop in La Mesa, the sun catches the punk-ish burgundy streaks in her hair. In person, Shay looks younger than 26. On stage, it is a different story. Shay ages, but nobody knows how.
"My producer was, like, how does a girl from East County learn to sing like this? My mom didn't listen to this music. But she says my grandmother used to sing, like, "Fly Me to the Moon" when I was in the crib and stuff."
In high school, when Shay's family moved to the Japatul Valley near Jamul, she began performing in a USO-type show in high school. "It was all, like, '40s music. We were doing all this Andrews Sisters music. That was the precursor."
Now, Shay has a debut album ready for release. The bulk of it was recorded at Archie Thompson's home studio. "Archie Thompson (he is Shay's producer and a sax player) who's been around a long time, I hooked up with him, he does this church gig, and he really likes my voice so he wrote a song for me." That led to the recording session. "It's all really old school R&B." At present, the tracks are being mastered in Nashville.
"He told them, I want a lot of low end. If you're gonna pick a reference record, pick Etta James and "Tell Mama." I want big, and I want lots of horns."
She says the record should be ready to release by mid-August. "We've been talking about getting the downstairs ballroom at the Grant. My birthday is September 16, so we're planning to do it on the 17th. That's a Monday."
The problem will be getting sidemen enough to flesh out the horn-rich charts for a live performance. Then, as if to dispel that fear, she lists the groups that she currently works with. "I have a couple of my own bands. And I front a 13-piece big band, and I've been playing with Billy Watson and Robin Henkel. A lot."
Her single biggest influence as a performer? "Etta James. Hands down. She can sing so many styles." Shay sometimes has a rasp in her delivery that sounds like her pipes were basted in the same gin and juice and nicotine as James over years (they were not.) At other times, she glides about the blues scale slippery, free of gravity like a trombone.
But what rivets a listener's shoes to the floor is the sheer sound of confidence. How does Shay engage the essence of her mentors in absentia?
"It's not something I consciously think about. If I think too hard about it, it doesn't work. I try to pull as much as the original attitude as I can from a recording, but at the same time," she says, "I don't want to pull every single inflection from it."
Whitney Shay and Robin Henkel: A Tribute to Bessie Smith, July 27, 98 Bottles, 8p.m., $10