As one of the worst storms in recent history began moving into the Treasure Valley, local musician Audra Connolly and her brother Aaron serenaded a crowd of seven or eight on the patio of Smoky Mountain Pizza on State Street. Hidden from the road by huge trees and a high fence, the air resonated with Connolly's sweet voice and the entrancing combination of her acoustic guitar and her brother's electric. The slight but growing breeze carried the sound, causing more than one passerby to peer through the slats in the gate. They didn't seem to know who Connolly was. But with an exhaustive show schedule and a new debut CD titled Dear Friend on her own label Hole Heart Records out soon, she hopes to change that.
Connolly, 29, started plinking keys before her little fingers could hold a No. 2 pencil. She followed her musical ear through college, receiving a degree in piano performance from Boise State. Growing up, she'd always had guitars around as well and taught herself to play during high school. She still tickles the ivories--she teaches music at Hillside Academy--but writing music and playing the guitar allowed the studious woman a freedom the piano didn't offer.
"This is a funny explanation, but I grew up with people putting music in front of me on the piano, saying, 'Play this. Learn this.' I'm classically trained, and I'm glad for that ... [But] with the guitar, the writing comes a lot easier. I can break off from all the theory and the knowledge I have and just use my ears."
With the guitar, she could explore new sounds and new ways of playing and discovered that she preferred writing her own tunings as well. Instead of tuning her guitar in standard E-A-D-G-B-E, she tunes the strings in a way that allows her to delve into dark harmonies and dissonant chords. The influence of alternate tuners Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco rings clear in Connolly's songs. It's a technique that gives her pop, singer-songwritery tunes a softened folk edge, and with the 16 or 17 different tunings she likes to use, the songs are stacked like a fancy wedding cake, layers of chords and harmonies building to beautiful moments. And like DiFranco, Connolly pushes phrasing in surprising directions and pens lyrics that are at once metaphorical and autobiographical, as in the opening track of Dear Friend: "I was taught to love / and try to rise above / all the stuff out there / that just ain't fair. / Well this thing called life / is so full of strife. / So why can't you let me be ... exactly who I want to be."
Though Connolly started playing in front of audiences in 2003, she's only now releasing her debut CD. Six years is a long time between playing for audiences and finally giving them something to take home with them, but Connolly wasn't willing to set up a microphone and Pro Tools in her basement. She gathered some fine local musicians, including Rob Hill on bass and Laura Davis on bassoon, and went into a local studio to record. She doesn't seem the sort to take anything--especially her songs--lightly.
"I didn't feel like I was ready for a long time, and I wanted to have more of a backlog so I would have songs to choose from," Connolly said. "And during the process, it took so long ... Now that I look back on it, it was really good."
She actually had the album done at the end of '08 but couldn't get permission to put three Robert Frost poems that she'd set to music on the record. Unfazed, she pulled from her extensive library and recorded three new songs, understanding that there is more to music than just performing. It's something that may serve her well in the music business.
It's with that acumen that she asked Rebecca Scott and Marcus Eaton to join her for her CD release party. Asking Eaton--who opened for Dave Matthews Band at the Gorge Amphitheatre not so long ago--to open for her took some courage.
"I met Marcus before I even started writing music ... we became friends and stayed in touch. When I called him, I said, 'I feel funny asking you this, but will you open for my CD release?' she said, laughing. "He said, 'Oh, yeah!'"
Eaton said he gets requests like Connolly's from time to time and always considers them. He feels a responsibility to help young and upcoming musicians if he can. But only if the music is any good. And he thinks Connolly definitely has something there.
"When I think it's good, hell yes, I'll help out," Eaton said. "I've had some really cool people help me out and continue to help me out. That seems like it happened more in the past, though. In the past, if a band saw another band and thought they could help them by taking them out on the road, they would do it. In my experience, it's been really difficult to have that happen now ... Bands that are huge, they get to that level and they don't care anymore."
With four acts on the bill that night, Connolly may not get to the stage to strum her stuff until late. But after six years of waiting, this classically trained folk musician can afford to wait a few more hours.