Local singer and violinist Hannah Caroline Kirby knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. The 2012 Sulphur Springs High School graduate decided to attend Texas A&M-Commerce for a year, get some theory classes under her belt before heading to the University of North Texas to pursue a degree in music.
Theory is not her favorite subject. In fact, it’s the bane of her existence at the moment, but it’s a necessary stop along the road to success.
“If I’m ever playing somewhere and I’ve got some people who refer to something theory-related, I will be able to converse with them on that level,” she noted. “Hopefully, once I finish theory, I will never have to use it again. I tell myself, ‘I love theory,’ but I don’t. I wish we could just sit around in a circle and write songs together.”
Theory classes are just part of Kirby’s plan to make it big as a vocalist.
“I’ve always considered myself a singer,” she explained. “That’s who I am.”
To hear her mother tell it, Hannah has been creating beautiful music since she was born.
“She would just lie in her crib and make these noises,” said her mother, Nancy Borden Kirby, a high school counselor at Winona ISD. “She giggled in her sleep and she would run through the house and scream like ‘The Little Mermaid.’”
One day Hannah’s grandmother told Nancy she should ask the toddler to be quiet.
“I said, ‘Mom, what if she’s a singer? We can’t tell her to hush,” Nancy remembered.
Richard and Nancy Kirby were living in Flower Mound when Hannah was born in 1993.
Her father is a counselor with Cumby ISD.
While she remembers singing “Cherokee” all the time when she was little, it was at church that Hannah gave her first public performance.
“I think I was about 3,” Hannah said. “The children’s choir director stuck the microphone in my face because I was singing really loud.”
When she was 4, Hannah started a Suzuki violin program, but the family moved to Gustine, where violin teachers were scarce.
“When we moved to Sulphur Springs, I found Sarah Masat Holmes in Mineola,” Nancy noted. “Hannah studied with her until her sophomore year.”
Pretty soon, Hannah started singing and playing the violin, performing for anyone who asked her – and she liked it.
“Every time I sing, I put myself in the place of the song,” she confessed. “I’m really empathically connected to music because I become the words I’m singing and that’s the only way I feel I can truly perform. If I can’t be one with the song and become the point of view or the person in the song, then I can’t perform it. It’s really like breathing to me.”
Being sure of herself and her style is second nature to Hannah.
“I’ve always felt different,” she explained. “It wasn’t difficult. I had lots of friends, but I never wanted to be anyone else.”
KSST radio personality and popular singer Enola Gay Mathews met Hannah when she came to see Mathews and local jazz guitar great Kurt Bittner perform at the old Blue Fountain (now Prairie3).
“She was shy, but very attentive,” Mathews remembered. “She was looking to find her voice.”
Eventually, Hannah started playing some gigs with Bittner, learning a wide variety of music and discovering how to handle a crowd.
“While she was still in high school, Hannah became the fiddler in the Sunshine Band at the Reilly Springs Jamboree,” Mathews explained. “That was probably the first time she played whatever the band selected the entire evening, and she sang some, too, but she really began to polish her versatility as a singer when she teamed up with Kurt.”
Hannah once told her mother, “I respect all music.”
Performing is second nature to the self-assured young woman. Unlike some artists who never get over pre-performance nerves, Hannah doesn’t suffer from stage fright.
“I could sleep on stage,” she said with a laugh. “Just get me a cot. I’m not even kidding. It’s the best.”
Delta County native and best-selling author Jim Ainsworth thinks the spotlight is the perfect place for Hannah. She performed for Ainsworth several times during the launch of his latest book, “Go Down Looking.” The fiddle played an integral part in the plot, so Hannah’s gifts was not lost on the author.
“She is a rare combination of musical talent, people skills too seldom seen in someone her age, down-home humility and goodness,” he said. “Her voice, her playing of the violin and comfortable stage presence makes audiences almost forget she’s pretty, too. OK. Maybe not.”
Not content to sing and play violin, Kirby began writing songs. Her first original tune was the result of a class assignment involving William Shakespeare.
“We were doing ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” she said. “I really do not like the play. My mom, being the counselor, said, ‘Tell me how you feel about that.’”
Nancy, who played guitar, drums and keyboards in a band when she was younger, sat down with her daughter and helped her write “Romeo and Juliet,” a song Hannah still performs.
“That vein was opened,” Hannah said. “Since then, it just flows out. I can sit down and write a song in 10 minutes.”
One of her most popular songs is “Light,” a tune written while she was at a prayer retreat with her mom. It’s the song her friends seem to like the most, and the young artist acknowledges she wasn’t alone when she wrote it.
“I look back at the song and think there is no way in my earthly form that I could have written these lyrics,” she explained. “Sometimes I feel like it’s the Lord who writes through me.”
Faith is important to Hannah. In fact, she hopes her audiences will recognize her as an artist who is a Christian.
“When I perform, I say, ‘Not by my talent,’” she explains. “No matter if I’m singing Christian or rock music, I?want Him to annoint me and I want it to be Him that is portrayed through me.”
One of her former teachers agrees her talent is heaven-sent.
“She learned at an early age the talent that God gave her,” said Charles McCauley, director of fine arts at Sulphur Springs High School. “And, she has worked hard to develop it. Seldom do you find a player who handles different styles with equal proficiency like Hannah.”
Hannah’s respect for all music has served her well.
When she was in her early teens, the family took a trip to New Orleans and stayed at a bed and breakfast near the French Quarter.
“The owner introduced us to a lady who owned the Palm Court,” Nancy remembered. “He had heard Hannah’s first CD and told the lady that Hannah was a jazz singer from Dallas.”
The family headed to the Palm Court to hear the band, never knowing Hannah would be invited to sit in with the band as their featured vocalist. (See last photo at bottom right.)
One of the band members drifted over to their table during a break and asked Hannah if she could sing jazz.
“Of course I can,” was the answer.
And she did.
At the end of the set, the piano player told Nancy that Hannah had some of the most perfect pitch he’d heard and said it was important to keep encouraging her to work on her craft.
Carol Allen, director of Northeast Texas Choral Society, also appreciates what Hannah brings to a performance. Hannah joined NETCS at their spring concert for a powerful cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”
“Hannah Kirby is musical,” she said. “By that I mean that she interprets words and feelings and emotion through the playing of her fiddle and the singing of her songs. She can wail and she can croon. All of us know one thing for sure, we love to hear her sing and play.”
In addition to her performances with Bittner, Hannah recently gigged with Ryan McKenzie, who also embraces all forms of music, especially Americana.
“Hannah has a truly distinct voice with incredible control and plenty of power,” McKenzie noted. “[She is] Very soulful and has to feel the song and the lyrics if she's going to sing it. It would be a crime if she didn't pursue a music career. Regardless of which genre she chooses to focus on, she'll go far.”
Although her parents told her they would send her to the college of her choice, Hannah decided to stay close to home for the first year to develop a foundation in theory before heading to Denton.
“She doesn’t want to be behind the curve when she goes there,” her mother said of the university’s world-famous school of music.
At the beginning of the fall semester, however, Hannah was questioning the decision.
“I told myself I don’t have to be here,” she remembered. “But something was making me get up at 6:30 every morning and drive over there.”
It didn’t take long to realize why she was there.
“I would like to meld my head voice and my chest voice to get that range like Amy Lee of Evanescence [my favorite band] has,” she explained. “Her range is amazing. I feel I could have that range. I just need help to get it.”
Help came in the form of weekly voice lessons with Dee Ann Gorham, a member of TAMU’s music faculty.
“We’re working on getting rid of the break in my voice when I switch from my chest voice to my head voice,” Hannah explained. “If there was one reason I was at Commerce this year, it would be for those voice lessons.”
It’s been tough going, but Hannah knows it’s all happening according to a higher plan.
“I feel like I’m going to fail my theory class every day,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve had, like, three emotional breakdowns.”
While it’s been stressful, Hannah knows it’s all part of the journey toward success – a journey she could not have made a few years back.
“I used to have a lot of pride, but that’s gone and that’s good,” the young musician noted.
The journey has taught Hannah patience and trust.
“There are a lot of times where I feel like I do things that are not my favorite thing to do,” she mused. “Recently, I’ve been feeling like I’ve not been getting to the musical things I love and want to do, but I have trust in God.”
Enola Gay, who knows star quality when she sees it, says, “It’s been a privilege to watch and listen as Hannah has formed her musical preferences. Her compass was that mixture of styles, those favorite sounds in her head and in her hands. Hannah will use her music to fly. She’s almost on the wing now.”
Flying is OK with Hannah.
“When I sing in church, I always become very emotional,” she noted. “When I sing ‘Turn Your Eyes to Jesus,’ I’m connected to both sides. People who are doing things they are meant to do can feel almost like heaven touches earth for a moment and that is absolutely amazing.”
To experience the magic that is Hannah Kirby, make plans to attend the Friends of the Sulphur Springs Public Library’s “An Evening with Hannah Kirby” Thursday, Oct. 4, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Author Jim Ainsworth will handle the introductions and News-Telegram Arts Editor Terry Mathews will host a brief question and answer session with the young artist. Kirby, Enola Gay Mathews, Carol Allen and Ryan McKenzie will also perform. Light refreshments will be served. Admission is free and everyone is invited.
Hannah and Kurt Bittner will be in concert at The Market on Saturday, Oct. 6. There is no admission fee.
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