Pittsburgh native Tarra Layne competing on new season of ‘The Voice’
When she was a teenager, Tarra Layne was driving with her family down a country road north of Pittsburgh, listening to the radio.
A Muddy Waters song came on. She listened to the words:
I got a black cat bone / I got mojo too / I got the Johnny Concheroo / I’m gonna mess with you.
And it changed her life.
“It’s one thing when a song is catchy, but when I heard Muddy, it was something completely different,” Layne, 31, recalls years later. “It was beyond this world. I felt like I was in it, like I was experiencing it. And I knew that when I became an artist, I wanted to make music like that, to stand for something and touch people in that way.”
Someday soon, one of Layne’s songs might touch a young artist in the same way.
Layne, who’s originally from the North Side, participated in the blind auditions on NBC’s new season of “The Voice,” which debuts Sept. 19.
She is not allowed to reveal how far she advanced in the singing competition, but she described the blind audition — in which contestants sing for the judges while their backs are turned — as thrilling and nerve-racking. This season’s judges are Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.
“I’ve performed in front of thousands of people,” Layne says, “and then there are just four people, but they’re celebrities, and especially with Alicia Keys there … it’s like you forget how to sing.”
Layne’s music ranges from Southern rock to piano ballads. In one song, she seems to draw from the Black Keys; in the next, from Tori Amos.
Artists often find inspiration through tragedy, and Layne is no different.
First, there is her complicated relationship with her father, Marty Birdsall, who heavily influenced his daughter’s musical journey, even if only from a distance.
Layne’s parents divorced when she was a little girl. Her dad moved away and stayed away. Her connection to him was the occasional phone call. And the mix tapes.
Birdsall made them for his daughter from his massive collection of vinyl. They included an eclectic array of songs and bands: Cyndi Lauper and The Rolling Stones. Erasure and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The Romantics and Pink Floyd. New Kids on the Block and Jethro Tull.
“I inherited his vinyl,” Layne says. “I was never allowed to touch them growing up, but now I get to fiddle with them all the time.”
Birdsall was an accomplished guitar player and after Layne graduated from college in 2008, they made plans for her to visit him in Florida. He had converted a room into a recording studio. Finally, they would explore music together, with dad on guitar and daughter behind the mic with that big voice.
“I was getting ready to pack up,” Layne says. “Then I got the call. He never told me and my brother that he had cirrhosis. He was 51.
“I’ve been writing a lot about him, especially recently with the success. It’s made me miss him,” she says. “I’m so appreciative of my stepfather — he raised me like he’s my dad, and he is. My father would get a little upset about that, but he just wasn’t around. … I would have loved to explore music with him.”
Layne’s younger brother, Garron Birdsall, 28, of Grove City, was too young to remember their dad being around. “She definitely saw more of him and missed him more than I did,” he says, “because I wasn’t that kid sitting on the stoop waiting for him to pick us up.”
Layne has never released a song about her dad. Not yet. But she will, she says. Soon.
She has released a song for her mother. Sally Helch suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her father, Layne says. The song is called “Makeup.”
Love is so blind / Mom was so right / Makeup don’t cover that.
“I wrote it for her, and then I had an experience with someone I was seeing who became violent,” Layne says. “I feel like every artist, we pull from the world around us. I definitely write about my own experiences more than anything.”
Triumph has always mixed with tragedy for Layne.
When her dream of moving to Florida with her father fell apart, she moved instead to Nashville, where, two months later, she released her first single, “Beautiful Day.”
In Tennessee, she fell deeper in love with her boyfriend, even as she discovered he had a drinking problem. When she moved back to Pittsburgh five years ago, she told him to go home, to Cincinnati, and address his drinking. He later committed suicide.
“I thought we were going to get married,” Layne says. “I just hit the fan. It was way too much. Life is like waves. You hit them, and life can pull you under. Then you have to swim back to the top.”
That’s what Layne does, her brother says. Every time.
“She has a fire and gumption that doesn’t ever stop,” Birdsall says. “It seems like with every hit she takes, she gets more determined.”
Through it all, Layne keeps a mental list of personal milestones. Like the first time she performed in front of people outside her family, late at night at summer camp. Her tent mates asked her to sing, and Layne obliged, but only if she could turn her back, “because I was so nervous I couldn’t face them,” she says.
Or the first time she performed on a stage, during a fifth-grade talent show. She dressed up like Madonna and sang “Material Girl” while her little sister danced next to her, and Garron, wearing a tuxedo, walked the stage tossing fake money.
“Before I went out, I said, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I can do this,’ ” Layne says. “She handed me her cat-eye sunglasses and said, ‘Just perform like no one is watching.’ And I went out there and rocked it.”
Since then, Layne has moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music dreams, released three EPs and multiple singles, performed in New York City and become a singing voice on “Welcome to Monster High” and “Barbie’s Starlight Adventure.”
And she regularly drives to Barstow, in the high desert of California, checks into a random, dingy hotel and locks herself in a room for days at a time. Alone with her guitar, she pushes herself and her music forward.
“I relate to people who are ramblers, who are never bored, who are excited to get to the next place,” she says. “I know I am.”
Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or [email protected].