by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & t a little after 11 pm last Friday, Empyrean erupted with applause. Though the front room couldn't have held more than 30 people, wedged haphazardly into the spaces between tables, the audience clamor over Kaylee Cole's performance felt like the work of 60.
She had just finished singing "Ghost Song." Less haunting than rich with the imagery of loss, the song was made a bit ethereal by the vocal reverb left on the mixer after Josh Hedlund's set. Cole's voice -- a warbly, lispy, coy, affected thing, with considerable dexterity and surprising range -- toyed with her lyrics, drawing out words for emphasis, omitting syllables to play with expectation. "I've got to leave you tonight / I've got to leave you tonight / but if I leave you / when I leave you / I won't leave you / 'cause, I'll stay along ..." The piano part was simple and twinkling under a mournful viola played by a girl named Kim. It wasn't Cole's most complex or successful work of the evening, but it was the final swell that caused the wave to break, sending people into a reverie. People hooted and cheered. A few began chanting her name. They demanded something Spokane audiences seldom ask of their local acts: an encore.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hese were not Cole's friends cheering, nor the hyper-supportive coterie of singer-songwriters that usually hangs out at Empyrean (they all had shows elsewhere). The clamor was primarily the work of complete strangers drunk on the ecstasy of new musical infatuation. Kaylee Cole -- pianist of eight months, songwriter of perhaps six -- had taken an unfamiliar room and turned it.
It's a rare and strange thing for a performer to captivate a crowd so fully as Cole did. Usually it happens on the heels of intense nostalgia or expensive pyrotechnics or both. Impressive, then, for her to manage it with just that gravelly, sexy, sad voice; a worn coffee shop upright; and a little accidental reverb. Whatever sparks she gave off were cast with voice, character, imagery and those crooked, preternatural fingers twinkling across that battered piano. Whatever sense of community existed was born of her intense, showy displays of humanity.
Those displays, in truth, weren't easy to digest. Cole had stepped onstage and, in an affable, self-deprecating way, introduced herself. "Um, this is a song about my car crash," she said, sounding a little like Mary Katharine Gallagher. She paused and fiddled with her hands before turning toward the piano. In a seeming moment of hesitance and uncertainty, the girl who'd just started playing hadn't yet figured out how to begin. She pushed her hands down upon the keys, though, and, as the first tempestuous notes of "Car Wreck Song" bubbled their way out of the piano, she became a different person. Her eyes closed, her left foot pumped the floor as her right manned the pedals. Her face screwed up in ways it never did otherwise. She grinned out of the side of her face; she bared her teeth. She pushed back against the piano, fighting with it, beating it until it yielded not just the notes, but the quality and tempo and feeling she wanted. Cole sang yearningly about hitting a stopped car on the freeway outside Portland, dumping lyric metaphor into a melodic whirlpool until it became less personal trauma than group therapy.
Cole was completely beguiling and counts among the most surprising moments of concert-going I've ever experienced. Though it was clearly a stage persona, she wore it so perfectly and completely there was no reason to think, as someone who had never really talked to her, that this Kaylee Cole wasn't the real one. Then the song ended. Her shoulders drooped, her head bowed, she sat briefly on her hands, then spent three minutes stuttering her thanks to the audience. Blam. The spell was broken. She was just some girl again, and I had no one to sing my thoughts. That sharp, jarring shift happened 10 times, once for each song she sang.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & wo days later, I asked her about it. We'd gone to the chapel at Gonzaga to run through some of her songs, searching for the alchemy that had made a room of people swoon. She swore her stage presence wasn't an act, but a different aspect of her personality. "I think the part of me singing these songs is a realm I've never explored," she said. That felt genuine, but why -- how -- was it so different from her day-to-day personality? "Our greatest gift is our ability to express a range of emotion," she said, casting the question off. "It's the way I survive."
This wasn't an answer I liked. As she played a few melodies and worked on lyrics, I tried rephrasing the question. It wasn't the shift in emotion so much as the pendulum swing from so profoundly confident in song to so hopelessly deflective of praise after. So I decided to tell her, in no uncertain terms, how good I thought she really is.
Kaylee Cole is a smart, well-spoken girl, but here words failed her. It seemed hard for her to process how much love and admiration audiences had begun to give to something she'd created. Her eyes got glassy, looking for about two seconds like she was going to cry. Then she changed the subject.
It became clear in that moment the most jarring part of Cole's performance wasn't the clash of in-song and after-song personalities. It was the slow-dawning realization that this girl honestly doesn't seem to understand how deeply gifted she is. Possessed of the spark to conjure gorgeous melodies and the patience to hammer out elaborate image patterns and lyric meter, Kaylee Cole is a songwriter born fully formed while still discovering what that means.
She'll get used to the applause, by and by, learning to take the love with a bit more grace. One thing that happens, there'll be nothing to focus on but her intense, shifting persona and those troubling lyrics.
Kaylee Cole with Karli Fairbanks and the Shook Twins at Empyrean on Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 pm. Cost TBA. Call 838-9819.