Right now, the smoky amber of her whiskey is all that’s keeping Kaleigh Baker from running out the double doors and not stopping. It’s a chilly Friday night in December and the 21-year-old New York native eyes a growing crowd at the Social in downtown Orlando, near her home of almost two years. Kaleigh (pronounced Kay-lee) came to Florida to attend Full Sail, the vocational entertainment institute, to learn about the business of music and how to put on a show and she’s put it to use many times before – at coffeehouses, hookah bars, even her own school. But this is different. The Social is the center of gravity in Orlando’s music scene. It’s not a breeding ground; it’s a proving ground.

She takes another hit of whiskey and heads out with her band, a star sextet she’s amassed from members of local jazz crew Swing in Time and Sam Rivers’ Rivbea Orchestra. And then, she goes nearly deaf.

“I couldn’t hear anything. I was in some weird zone,” says Baker.

What happens after that moment is entirely unpredictable and nearly magical. With impeccable swagger, vocal chops as playful as Diane Schuur with a Patti Smith bent and backing musicians telekinetically linked to Baker’s every whim, she shrugs off the jitters and brings the house down. Behind the enraptured masses and off to the side sits Baker’s benefactor, Alexandra Sarton, that inescapable invisible hand of Orlando’s female music scene, grinning knowingly and nodding her head.

“At Full Sail, one of the `projects` was to do a live event for charity. We find the bands to book, the venue, the sponsors; we do the engineering ourselves, cooking, cleaning … the entire thing. My class asked me to play, so I did. I invited `Sarton` and Tonya `Combs` to sell their jewelry at the event. They heard me and that was that,” says Baker.

Now, almost exactly a month removed from the Social show, Baker is walking to lunch downtown when she’s stopped by a skinny, disheveled man asking for a cigarette. “I’m not a bum or anything,” the man says. “They won’t let me leave this corner.” Baker asks no questions. She dishes out a handful of Marlboros, smiles and says, “You better fall in love with that corner, then.” She should know – he’s standing in front of the Social.

A self-described high school jock, Baker’s small-town New York upbringing was pretty far removed from a life in music. Her father works at “a shit plant” (water pollution control) and her mother has a full-time career as well. They did their best to expose Baker to a variety of music. “The radio stations we had weren’t fantastic for different kinds of music, but my dad would play Name That Tune in the car with us. My mom wasn’t huge into music. My dad would make me listen to Pink Floyd and my mom just had Grease on vinyl.”

Baker first tried her hand at singing in the fourth grade, trying out for her school’s production of The Wizard of Oz, but was cut. “I might’ve been too big for a Munchkin,” she says. “In 10th grade they cast me as Cinderella. So I was a short, stocky, brunette Cinderella. Go figure. We did Sound of Music – I hate that musical more than anything – so I tried out for `Mother Abbess` and I absolutely loved it, cause going from Cinderella and having to change eight times to wearing a nun’s outfit the entire time was fantastic.”

A few short years later Baker is recording Baker’s Kitchen, an eclectic mix of folk stories, kiss-off anthems and gothic scat blues. Far more than the experience of putting her songs to tape, Baker is excited by the musicians she’s working with. “Shak Nasti `is` one of my favorite local bands. Then to have them hear the music and want to play on it, it was something else. We actually got Chris Charles to lay down some baritone sax. He played every chair in Sam Rivers’ orchestra!”

Baker’s songs have the heartbeat of a musical purist, but lack any touch of pretension. “Old News,” for example, is jokingly referred to as “pop rocks” by the singer. “It’s definitely the poppiest thing I’ve done.” The midtempo ballad finds a mournful Baker running an exhausting gamut of emotion, from slow-strumming guilt over falling for the guy in the first place to shocking submission (“Of course if I had the choice I wouldn’t leave you, baby”), bafflingly low self-esteem (“Why are you still with me?”) and finally triumph. As Baker’s voice lifts skyward an octave or so, the song flips into a gospel-flavored revelation while an incendiary guitar provides moral support. And Baker calls this pop? Nothing’s simple in her sonic world.

“I’m a people-watcher. I like to make up things. Every once in a while a song will start with something that happened personally, but I have to cater to the song. I just regurgitate it, I guess.”



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