October 16, 2010 12:00 AM
Something strong and pure comes through in the Texan artist 21-year-old Sahara Smith's voice. She projects the kind of wisdom and musical assurance of an old soul. At least, that's the impression put forth on her beautiful debut album, "Myth of the Heart" (Playing in Traffic), which also bears the sonic goodness of producer T-Bone Burnett.
Ms. Smith, just now learning about life on the road, makes her Santa Barbara debut tonight in the Sings Like Hell series at Lobero Theatre, on a bill with John Doe.
For Ms. Smith, things have been coming together for several years already. Her first notable spotlight came when she was 15; she won a young songwriting contest on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Having the high-profile but true-hearted musical legend Burnett behind her work marks another high-water mark in her fledgling music career.
Ms. Smith recently checked in on her cell phone as she was checking out of her hotel. The modern-day roadster has definitely learned the art of multitasking.
"Touring is something you get used to, but I have really enjoyed it," she says. "We've just been on the road pretty constantly the past couple months. The live show keeps getting tighter. I feel like each run we do ends up with us feeling a little more confident. Personally, I feel more confident about my performance as time goes by. Also, having amazing people to back you up doesn't hurt."
In creating "Myth of the Heart," Mr. Burnett is very hands-off as a producer.
"He likes to let things happen," Ms. Smith says. "I was surrounded by these incredible musicians, and he loves playing until we found it on our own. There was not a whole lot of direction. Any guidance that we got was very loose. It was all about exploring for it yourself and coming to it on your own."
On songs like "Midnight Plane," "Angel," the haunting "Midnight Red" and the title track, Ms. Smith shows the sensitivity and attention paid to the power of carefully selected and well-paced words, integrated into melodies that just feel right. At times, her songs can be reminiscent of Mr. Burnett's ex-wife, Sam Phillips, and other female artists who avert the predictable, but who are keen on the power of a melody.
Hearing Ms. Smith tell it, though, you learn that she found strong early influences in different places, away from the standard song business.
"I just think Leonard Cohen is the most brilliant songwriter ever," she says. "I love the way that he will say something really simple, but in such a way that it's just deeply haunting and beautiful and moving. I also like the way that he allows the music to follow the natural pattern of speech, so nothing that he says strikes you as incongruous or wrong in any way.
"I think Townes Van Zandt has a very similar quality in his poetry. It's very natural, but it's also sometimes unexpected and catches you off guard. It says things in a really simple but beautiful way."
As naturally as Ms. Smith eases into Americana and the outskirts of the country, she is already contemplating her next move as an artist. It may take her more in the vicinity of "indie" land.
"I think I would like my next album to be a little bit less in the country vein and a little more toward the indie vein, more sort of like Iron & Wine and less like Townes Van Zandt. But I still want to retain those sensibilities. I would like it to be produced more inside that genre, but not necessarily have the music be any less rooted in Texas music."