Monterey 12-year-old Taylor Smith’s musical journey may have started small — singing at home and eventually in school programs and local theater — but she’s already poised for much bigger things, as is evidenced by a CD release/autograph party slated for Oct.16 at Border’s Books in downtown Indianapolis (1 to 3 p.m.) followed by a live performance onstage at the Hard Rock Cafe just down the street (from 4 to 6 p.m.).
Those events are part of an ongoing media blitz planned for the recording debut of Smith and a handful of other performers on Ruff Dog Records (ruffdogrecords.com), a label launched recently by New York-based Stefano DeLano, formerly of Sony Records, who makes regular trips to Indianapolis.
Taylor Smith is the daughter of Monterey Elementary School kindergarten teacher Stephanie Smith and husband Rory, whose singing and guitar playing Taylor credits — along with an uncle in California who’s pursued a career in music — as part of her early musical inspiration. According to Stephanie, Taylor began singing at age 4 around the house “constantly — and it was anything: Commercials, songs on the radio. Honestly, I always thought she could sing, but I never would have imagined she would do anything with it.”
Once in school at Monterey Elementary, Taylor “always had special parts in school programs; she always loved to be on stage,” notes Stephanie. Monterey music teacher Suzanne Hollis presented the family with sign-up sheets for the Indiana All-State Choir, an honor for which thousands of Hoosier students send in audition tapes, when Taylor was just a fourth grader.
“I said, ‘Do you think she’s good enough?’” recalls Stephanie, “and she looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Uh yeah!’ That was probably the first time I heard her sing with just a microphone and piano...that was when I was clued in that we might have some talent.”
Taylor was one of 140 elementary school vocalists chosen from around Indiana for the All-State Choir, and took part in its performances from dourth through sixth grades. She had just turned 10 when she was awarded the part of Fern in “Charlotte’s Web,” a summer theatre production in Winamac spearheaded by Brigid Cook there.
The following year, Taylor played Dorothy in the same group’s production of, “The Wizard of Oz,” which Stephanie says “opened up a new can of worms when we realized she could act.”
Other theatre roles include Monterey school productions (she played the lead earlier this year in MES’s version of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”).
“Acting is really easy for me,” Taylor says. “If I can’t make it as a singer, I will probably try to make it as an actor.”
In the meantime, Taylor Smith won talent shows at Culver — which led to her singing the National Anthem to kick off this year’s Relay for Life in Culver — and Monterey the last two years — which resulted in her being hired by the Monterey Days Festival to sing there for the entertainment of the crowds. In the summer of 2008, Taylor won the talent contest at the Pulaski County Fair in Winamac, and placed second in the Junior Division (which included 35 contestants chosen from ages 4 to 12) at the State Fair in Indianapolis.
Does performing in front of all those people give Taylor the jitters many people describe when forced to speak or perform in public?
“The night before (a performance) I get a little nervous,” she says, “but when it’s time to get onstage and perform, I feel nothing. It’s just something I like to do. I love it when I’ve finished the performance.”
Mom Stephanie affirms, “There’s just a glow” when Taylor comes off the stage. “Her smile is huge and she just bounces back to whoever she’s with. It’s just so natural for her to be on stage.”
It was through Brigid Cook that the Smiths connected with DeLano, to whom Stephanie sent an email saying her 11-year-old daughter had a great voice.
“We didn’t hear from him,” she says, “so I went back to Brigid...who said we should send him a link (so he could hear Taylor sing). So I attached a couple Youtube (online video) links (of Taylor singing), and it wasn’t 15 minutes before I got a call from him. I was shocked! He said, ‘She really has some talent. Let’s set up a meeting,’ and it just went from there.”
DeLano left Sony to pursue his passion for finding and promoting young talent, operating off the philosophy that it’s better at the outset to develop local talent in lesser-known locales such as the Midwest, than encourage “rough,” undeveloped performers to seek a niche in large fields like New York City.
Others currently on or affiliated with the Ruff Dog label include Winamac-based 17-year old Ridge Parks, as well as singers from New York City and New Zealand. DeLano has told the Smith family his goal is for “everybody between Winamac and Indianapolis to know who Taylor Smith and Ridge Parks are” this year, and he intends to set up performances for them as well as pushing the singles they’ve been recording heavily on regional radio.
Taylor’s has spent nearly 30 hours in the recording studio in Indianapolis so far, and while the first take was completely finished, DeLano decided it would sound better sped up, so Taylor and her mother will return for several more hours there in the coming week. The long-term plan is an entire CD, though DeLano hopes to have three or four songs featuring Taylor by Christmas. Ruff Dog affiliate Whitney Irwin is already getting airtime on Radio Disney, Stephanie says, and DeLano plans to push Taylor’s singles there and at Nickelodeon.
“It’s all original music,” notes Stephanie, adding a brand new song was written for her after Taylor’s singing was heard.
She describes the first song, currently being recorded, as “more of an inspirational pop style.
“This man has been wonderful,” she adds, “in remembering she’s 12 and not pushing songs that are over her head, or have themes of boyfriend things. He’s been really great about choosing themes that are suitable for a 12 year old.”
Taylor not only has recorded lead vocals, but also her own backup singing and harmonizing. The Smiths have met most of the studio musicians for the recording, and were surprised to learn the piano player spends summers in Monterey. And Taylor admits her time in the recording studio is “very tiring. You were tired afterwards. I would have to go in the studio and he just wants me to record a line or phrase at a time. Then once it’s down, we listen back to it and go back in and do it all over again! It takes quite a while, and sometimes you’re just sitting, waiting around.”
Taylor has had to sacrifice for her passion in music, admits Stephanie, from losing entire weekends to all-day recording sessions in Indianapolis, to having to put extracurricular school activities second..
But, adds Stephanie, “she’s willing. We’ve had several discussions of, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ She knows if there’s a time she doesn’t want to do that anymore, that’s OK. If it was something I thought was a hobby she could just give or take, we probably wouldn’t be doing all this traveling. But I think she’s got something. I don’t know where it will take us, but it’s worth doing right now.”
Taylor, who is involved with the choir and plays flute in the school band at her new school in Winamac, says “it sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s real,” but she’s also clearly excited, and not yet nervous about the Hard Rock Cafe performance (“She didn’t understand the coolness of the Hard Rock Cafe at first,” smiles Stephanie. “I had to explain the history of it to her!”).
DeLano suggested the performance be a fund-raiser for a charity, and the conclusion was reached the proceeds will benefit Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, where Taylor had a small operation as a young child. Riley representatives, says Stephanie, “were thrilled. They’re doing media for the event, and Ruff Dog has invited 25 of what we call VIC’s — Very Important Children -- who will get as many free things as they can, and Ruff — will pay for their meals.”
The three Ruff Dog performers on the CD will be escorted to the show in a limousine, she adds, noting “everyone’s invited to the Hard Rock Cafe for the show.” People are also encouraged to join Taylor’s fan club via the Ruff Dog website. Local events are planned in Winamac and the Culver area in the coming months.
“We’re enjoying the experience she’s getting,” says Stephanie Smith. “She’s 12. Who gets to do this at 12? She’s very passionate about it. I can’t imagine her doing anything else right now.”
Taylor says she’d like to be a “pop country singer” and hopes to perform for a living.
“I think it was in first grade that I said what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she says with a smile, mixed with more than a hint of determination, “is a singer.”