She’s a little bit genius. Or more.
She’s got a great, slightly gravelly voice and beautiful blue-green-grey-touch of gold eyes. Really.
That’s what I noticed first when I met her. The eyes and pale skin and perfect teeth. We said hello when she made a cup of coffee for me at Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea on East Main.
Who knew the woman on the other side could sing her own songs that come right out of the sixties, with gravitas and gorgeous melody both?
To that, she’d say, “Don’t get carried away, man.” I’d say, “I don’t get carried away, Sharayah.”
Sharayah Spears, a musician’s name if there is one. She’s named after “Sharayah,” a 1985 Amy Grant song. And Spears been brewing java and serving sandwiches in the heart of Salem for nearly a year now.
“It’s a warm place,” she said. “Welcoming. Easy. Attentive. When you talk here, people listen.”
The young woman originally from Burlington, Iowa, has 100 songs in her music library at age 23. She wrote ’em. She plays ’em with her acoustic guitar. Self-taught talent with the strings. But the voice comes from the genes.
“My mom was a church singer, a gospel singer who traveled with her group whenever she could,” Sharayah said. “Now that woman can sing.”
So can Sharayah Spears. Seriously sing. But it’s her lyrics that really grab you. They make you wonder if this folk blues, singer-songwriter might just become a hit.
In two months, she’ll hit the road to find out. Sharayah is grabbing her guitar and going to Nashville.
“I visited Nashville last winter,” she said. “I saw that it’s where I want to be. In three years, I want to be playing on the Grand Ole Opry stage. That’s the mark I’ve set for myself.”
Are those stars in her eyes? Not so much. Just songs in her head and heart, and on her fingertips. Always the songs.
“Of course, there’s a story behind them all,” she said. “The song just sums it up.”
It takes her about 15 minutes to write the lyrics, she said. When Sharayah is on, she’s on.
I were sitting and chatting at Mill Mountain during her half-hour work break around noon one day. As she finished with a customer and before we sat down, I saw a piece of art hanging on the red wall by Jimmy Noel. It was a painting of Albert Einstein.
Next to Einstein’s face, this quote: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Spears has the passion, if what you mean by that is aiming for truth in her tunes. About peace, kindness, tolerance, giving. About the power of listening, the way people do in Salem. About nature. She is all about the serenity of nature. Serenity in life.
“I don’t get all the warring, the fighting,” Spears said. “Where is that taking us as human beings? Nowhere.”
Spears also writes about hurt and hope, wishing and wondering. Love realized and unrealized.
I’ve lived and worked in Nashville. To an extent, “kids” flock there like young actors go to Hollywood and young dancers take aim on New York. It’s a shot in the dark.
“I don’t care about the famous for being famous part,” Sharayha said, and I believed her. “I don’t dig TV, really. Honestly, I just want to pay my own rent. Get a car. Live a life where food and gasoline are not a challenge.”
Spears is both circumspect and self-deprecating. Just plain funny, too.
“I can’t play guitar for…,” she said profanely over the noise of espresso machines and clattering plates at Mill Mountain. “But I’m learning.”
For several years, Spears has played a lot across the area and parts of the state, in clubs and festivals. She’s recognized. Her reputation is growing.
Sharayah has what’s called an EP, eponymously titled, on the web at sharayah.bandplay.com, and an LP, “Eastern Bird,” as well. A single, “Two for the Road,” has been popular at recent appearances. She is humble and lives that way.
“I basically own a guitar, a Mill Mountain Coffee tee shirt, jeans and a $40 backpack,” she said. “I like that backpack, though.”
Sharayah bums rides to her next gig so there is a next gig. Prepares latte after latte to pay some bills while she strums and writes more verse away from work. Then sleeps to feed her brain.
“I just hope there are people who want to listen,” she said. “I think I’ve got stuff to say.”
It’s true. The first song I saw and heard of Sharayah’s she was climbing on to the edge of a bathtub, all clothed up, in a big bathroom at her parents’ home. “I went there to get some dang quiet,” she said.
The scene had a good feel to it.
Sharayah tells the camera shyly that she’s going to have to read the words because she just wrote them.
The song is called “Wild Nothing.” There’s a long guitar open, as with most of her songs. Building up. Then, the words.
“When you wake up to find that you’re alone,” it goes. “And a feeling of fear has settled in…yes, it may come. But when you find yourself in solitude, don’t try to run.”
Sharayah Spears says all her new friends from the coffeehouse, close and not so close, have kept her focused and fulfilled.
“Talk about authentic,” she said. “I’m proud to have been here. Salem’s got a good vibe.”
For Spears, our community has been like the bridge from yesterday to tomorrow.
Her musical idols? Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris. More.
“Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald,” she said, almost swooning. “These are the people who move me and make me keep trying to get better.”
She’s got skills, all right. On the side of a bathtub, again.
“Wild Nothing,” she sings, the word “wild” stretched out like a wail, almost. “Is it really something, or do we make-believe it all?
Wiiiiild Nothing, or have we forgotten it is we who built these walls.”
As Sharayah and I finished our conversation outside the back of the café with the Farmers’ Market space in full view, I asked what color she thought her eyes were.
“They’re not hazel,” I said.
“You know, I once thought they looked like a gemstone,” she said, searching her smartphone. “Ah, Labradonite.”
She showed me an image. Yep.
We began to say goodbye, then Sharayah Spears mentioned one more thing, almost in passing.
“My middle name is Destinee,” she said.
I wasn’t sure I believed her. She pulled out her license. Then I believed her.
There it was. Destinee. So, from Salem to Nashville it is.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at [email protected]