Phyllis Heitjan: A performer worth a listen

phyllisheitjan.jpgOne of the most satisfying aspects of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, the annual Asian community event that I’ve been involved in since its debut in 2001, is the mix of traditional Asian and Pacific Islander culture on display along with the new, Asian American values and ideas. That mix is most evident not in the festival athletic competition or the marketplace, where 90+ vendors sell their wares, but on the Performing Arts Stage.

In recent years, some of my favorite performances have been by APIA artists playing contemporary music: Chinese-Filipino Wendy Woo, a popular Colorado singer-songwriter and guitarist, with her Woo Crew rock band; Dwight Mark, a Chinese American multi-instrumentalist mining everything from blues to bluegrass for his original music; and this year for the first time, Korean American singer-sonwgriter Phyllis Heitjan from Philadelphia.

Heitjan is the youngest of these three performers, but her music stands out with the voice of experience, as if she were a world-weary veteran of many a relationship, and every one has added to her arsenal of songs. She’s only 18 years old, and about to start her first year at Princeton.

But she already has two CDs released, and her music shows nothing but promise.

Her self-titled first recording set the stage with a production pallette that leaned to the acoustic side but relied on a lot of ethereal, overdubbed harmony vocals that serve as Heitjan’s sonic trademark. The songs belied her youth (she must have only been 16 or younger when she wrote most of them), and showed a fearless determination to get her music out there in the world. You could hear her inspirations — Dylan, Morisette — but her mature vocals defined her own style.

“Parallels,” her second CD, was released in May, and it only sharpens her skills. The sound is overall more “produced” — which is to say, it features fuller, more rock-band arrangements — and that’s a good thing. Her voice sounds even stronger, and she’s found a raw, rough edge that she seems to be able to call up at will. The layered harmonies still add a compelling counterpoint to her melodies. Best of all, her songs are chockfull of hooks.

Songs such as “Better Day,” “Don’t You” and “Sidelines” are propelled by drums and electric guitar that mesh perfectly with her well-observed lyrics about relationships. “Better Day” in particular sticks in your head once you hear it, and would be right at home on any alt-rock or even pop radio station playlist.

Other tracks, including the title track “Only You” are just as catchy but start slower before building into a crescendo. Heitjan’s already a pro at expressing herself in increments — she know how to rein in her emotions and then turning up the heat to suit the stories she tells.

She’s compelling on stage, even when she’s performing solo like she did at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival in from of a big outdoor crowd. The promotional video on her MySpace page shows she can lead a band in a club; I’m looking forward to making the trek down to central New Jersey to see her sometime.

She’s one Asian American artist who might make a mark on the national music scene — she certainly deserves it. Her success won’t hinge on her ethnicity in the sense of any traditional influences that show up in her art. But she’ll still be a beacon for other APIA performers.

Like the other Asian Americans who played at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, Heitjan isn’t stuck in her roots, and she’s simply a talented American artist. We should all support her, and other Asian Pacific Islander American artists in their endeavors.

Their success means we’re becoming more accepted in the American pop culture landscape. Then, we can choose whether we want to be “American” or enrich our art and draw on our cultural heritage.

Until then, we’ll have to struggle to be visible in popular culture, and struggle against the mainstream’s need to put us in the more traditional, stereotypical buckets as geeks and geishas.

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