Hilton Head Prep student Taylor Kent might be young but has undeniable singing talent

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 8, 2013 

Up and coming island musician Taylor Kent is photographed on Thursday in her Hilton Head Plantation home.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

It's easy to forget that Taylor Kent is only 15 years old.

From her emotional honesty -- she talks openly about her songwriting process, her love of music, recent heartbreaks and her insecurities about being tall -- to the way she carries herself, Taylor is, in many ways, not your typical high school sophomore.

She certainly doesn't sing like one.

With a buoyant, smoky quality to her voice reminiscent of Colbie Caillat or indie chanteuse St. Vincent, Taylor has captured the attention of local audiences and Hilton Head Island bar owners surprisingly interested in booking an artist not yet old enough to drive herself to her own gigs.

But there are moments, however brief, when the on-stage bravado of an artist mature beyond her years dissipates and the teenage girl emerges.

Like when her mother, Treva, and local music producer Greg Critchley prod her about being more self-promotional on Twitter and Facebook.

She balks at their suggestion because she doesn't want to seem "conceited" to her friends and classmates at Hilton Head Preparatory School.

"I don't want ever want to come off as bragging," Taylor said. "I've seen some people my age really put themselves out there, and they think they're really talented, and I was never that impressed. I don't want to come off like that. I think it's more important to let how you perform speak for you."

If Taylor continues on her current trajectory, she won't need to promote herself on social media. She'll have plenty of people singing her praises.

A LOVE OF MUSIC AT AN EARLY AGE

Taylor's musical career began at home plate and with a song that's challenging for adult artists let alone a 5-year-old girl -- the national anthem.

Her father, Lew Kent, was then the baseball coach at Radford University in Virginia, and Taylor would often sing the song before Highlanders' home games.

If she was nervous before those performances, she didn't show it, Treva Kent said.

"She talks sometimes about her legs being shaky before those performances but she always got out there and belted it," said Treva, an art teacher at Hilton Head Island Elementary School. "And we noticed, even from a young age, that she had an effect on people when she sang. People would say, 'I was just bawling when she was singing up there.'"

She wrote her first song at age 5, and was soon asked to perform at church functions, parades -- "small-town Virginia stuff" as Taylor describes it -- and from there her love of music blossomed.

The family relocated from Radford to Hilton Head when Taylor was 10. She took note of the island's vibrant nightlife scene and made it her goal to someday play locally.

Her opportunity to do so would come about four years later.

A FAMILY FAVOR

Taylor Kent's fearlessness behind a microphone and confidence on stage has surprised and impressed her friends and classmates and helped win over restaurant owners initially disinclined to book the underage singer.

Tristan O'Grady, owner of The Big Bamboo Cafe on Hilton Head, was one of them.

More than a year ago, O'Grady drove to The Smokehouse at the behest of his neighbor -- Treva Kent -- who asked that he come see her then-14-year-old daughter perform.

He was reluctant but went anyway.

"If I'm being honest, it was really more of a favor to the Kents," O'Grady said. "I got out of my car and heard this girl playing Weezer's 'Island in the Sun' and I honestly thought it was someone else and that she must be coming on later. I was blown away when I found out that that was Taylor."

"It was immediately clear to me that she had everything," he added. "She is a striking young girl, her voice is so unique ... and she is a truly nice person."

O'Grady soon booked Taylor and her best friend John Sheehan, who plays the cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument, to play at The Big Bamboo, where she quickly became a favorite of its staff and patrons and still performs there regularly.

From there, Kent began playing at nearly every suitable venue on the island and it was up to Treva and husband Lew, the baseball coach at Hilton Head Prep, to manage their daughter’s burgeoning music career and some sense of normalcy.

Kent still plays volleyball and basketball for the Dolphins and recently appeared in a school production of "Legally Blonde."

"During the school year, we don't let her do more than two nights a week," Treva said. "Once June 1st, she’ll start back heavy with five nights a week but we’ve always told her that if she doesn't feel like playing a gig or wants to cut back or stop doing this, she can."

That doesn't seem like it's going to be a problem.

Now playing a set that includes a mix of original songs and covers that range from "House of the Rising Sun" by The Animals to Dolly Parton's classic "Jolene" to Adele's "Someone Like You," Kent said she doesn’t like going long stretches without performing. "During school, when I can only go out once or twice a week, yeah, I don't like that at all," Kent said, shuttering slightly. "I love performing. It's so exciting and fun for me."

THE FUTURE The buzz surrounding Kent’s performances and her voice caught the ear of Greg Critchley, a Los Angeles music producer who recently relocated to Hilton Head Island and whose credits include the "Southern Stomp EP" featuring John Cranford of Cranford and Sons and Hilton Head native McKenzie Eddy.

The two met to see if they could work together. Taylor was nervous but excited by the prospect.

"I was skeptical," Kent said. "I'm a teenage girl so I wasn't sure how easy it was going to be for me to open up to a 50-year-old man ... but once we broke through that awkward wall, we were fine. He now gets regular updates on the life of a teenage girl."

For his part, Critchley said he saw in Kent what many people did -- a unique voice and undeniable talent.

"Having worked with Taylor ... I find her to be a wonderful and very talented singer/songwriter," Critchley said in an email. "Taylor has a ton of support around her from her family and her community. She shows a lot of potential which is a prerequisite for anyone I want to develop and work with locally."

Though Critchley was tight-lipped about any future work with Kent, she said the pair are assembling songs for a soon-to-be-recorded, five-track EP.

There's no timetable for its release, she said.

"We're going to start as soon as possible with writing new songs and shaping up some of my existing stuff ... but we are also trying to figure out what we want to put into it and who we want to work with based on budget."

In the meantime, Kent will continue criss-crossing the island to play as many shows a night as her parents will allow and plans to begin playing in Savannah this summer where her street team of friends, fans and even teachers likely will follow.

As one might expect of someone who doesn't turn 16 for another three months, Kent is unsure of what her future holds but knows music will be a part of it.

"I've always been a little too much of a dreamer for my own good," she said. "I always picture what can happen in any situation -- the good and the bad. I'm lucky that the things that have happened, happened because I love music and I would love to make it my life."

"Music has helped me understand things and understand myself better so better. I can't imagine doing anything else."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

RELATED CONTENT

To follow Taylor Kent on Twitter

For more on Greg Critchley For more on upcoming Taylor Kent gigs

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WHAT TAYLOR KENT IS LISTENING TO ...

JOHN AND TAYLOR SINGING JASON MRAZ'S 'I WON'T GIVE UP'

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