The music business is not for the timid or the faint-hearted, and the road to success as a singer-songwriter is fraught with obstacles and hazards. Overcoming them requires – in addition to first-rate talent, hard work, patience, perseverance, and an indomitable spirit. All of which Allegra Barley possesses in abundance. On a blustery winter day at a bistro in Pacific Beach, Allegra (who performs using only her first name) cheerfully shared her story over a cup of coffee. The perky 30-year-old San Diego native comes from a musical family. Her father, Woody, plays the upright bass (and gave Allegra her first guitar, a 12-string Ovation). Her older sister, Angela, who is also her roommate, plays percussion. Allegra has been singing and writing songs since her teen age days at Torrey Pines High School and San Dieguito High School Academy. She played in a band in high school, called Next Exit. After bagging a theatre-dance degree at Chapman University and the obligatory stint pursuing an acting-stage career in Los Angeles and New York City, Allegra returned to San Diego in 2006 and began to focus exclusively on her music two years later. For years, she has played every gig she could get, singing covers as well as her growing repertoire of original songs (now numbering over 100). We’re talking bars, restaurants, clubs, wineries, even cruise ships, private parties, and weddings. She traveled to Los Angeles to audition for “The Voice.” She recorded a few albums and an EP, including 2003’s Some Clever Invention, none of which generated the critical recognition or commercial success she sought. On the cruise ship gig (in 2010), singing for five hours a day, she over-taxed her voice and literally lost it, which required months of vocal therapy.
But Allegra did not give up. Her voice returned, stronger and richer than ever. Her ebullient attitude is, “A lot of people give up, but it gives me inspiration to keep trucking, no matter how frustrating it gets – and it does get frustrating at times. But it’s really rewarding. You have to keep trying. You just have to put yourself out there in every way you possibly can. You’re never going to win the lottery unless you buy a ticket. I have to keep buying tickets.” She concludes confidently: “I will eventually win – it’s just a matter of time.” That evening, during a short break in her four-hour set at a local bar, Allegra described that one of her biggest frustrations as a singer-songwriter is doing so many cover gigs at venues where the audiences are not really paying attention to the music. “Don’t get me wrong,” she explains, “I am incredibly grateful that I get to perform for a living, and cover gigs are what have made that possible. But during a gig where plates are clacking, drinks are flowing, and happy, loud conversation is in full effect, it is hard to get the audience to listen – and I mean really listen – to original songs that they’ve never heard before.” And ultimately it is her original songs that she wants to share. “I am a songwriter, she declares. “I love lyrics. I love rhyme. I love rhythm. I love word play. And I know that if people get the opportunity to listen to my originals, they will like them or even love them. But you have to listen to my music to like it!”
Audiences have been listening. Inevitably, her undeniable talent – and fabulous voice – began to attract attention. Allegra started to win contests: second place winner at the San Diego County Fair’s Musicpalooza in 2009 (out of more than 400 contestants, and earning her a place on the Grandstand Stage where Joan Jett appeared later that night); winner of the San Diego Songwriters Guild’s competitions in March and August 2009 (earning her the spotlight at the Belly Up); named one of the top five songwriters in San Diego by SDSG (earning her the spotlight at Humphrey’s Backstage); and nominated for San Diego’s Best Vocalist at the San Diego H.A.T. Awards in 2006 and 2008. Earlier this year Allegra was featured on Cathryn Beeks’ “The Homegrown Hour” program on 102.1 KPRI-FM. In addition to her typical local gigs, Allegra has occasionally performed at “premier” venues: twice at Anthology and also at House of Blues and the Hard Rock Café in the Gaslamp. (In the meantime, to stay in shape and burn off some of her boundless energy, Allegra works as a Jazzercise instructor, singing as she leads her work-outs.)
Last year, her fans asked when she was going to record some of her new songs. Allegra doesn’t yet have a record contract, and producing an album is expensive. A friend, Jessica McKimmie, who works in marketing, suggested that Allegra use the fundraising tool Kickstarter to solicit pledges to self-finance the recording project. Allegra was initially reluctant, but eventually proceeded to raise $10,000 in 60 days, enough to record her new album, Keep It Simple, which is scheduled for release on March 2 at Humphrey’s Backstage Lounge. Produced by Alexander Dausch and recorded during 2011 at his Studio Studios in San Diego, Keep It Simple features 11 original songs, all written by Allegra. The album showcases Allegra’s amazing voice by keeping the arrangements spare. Allegra accompanies herself on acoustic guitar, overdubs her own harmony vocals, and Dausch plays all the rest of the instruments – electric guitar, bass, and drums. (On one track, “Is What It Is,” Andrew Webb plays lead guitar.) Allegra describes her genre as “pop,” but on some tracks (such as “Is What It Is,” “One of Those Dreams,” and “Is It Gonna Rain”) her soulful vocals invoke the rich R&B texture of Adele. She can sing scat like Ella Fitzgerald (e.g., “Cliché”), but she can also vary her range to carry pop ballads in a style that recalls Sheryl Crow or Carrie Underwood (“Keep It Simple,” “Easy,” “Be Good,” “It’s Time”), or sing a sentimental song about romance like Alanis Morrissette (“Love Song,” “Give It Love”). “Heart Knows Best,” packed with dense lyrics and rhythms, channels Paul Simon, one of Allegra’s musical inspirations. Some of her other musical influences are James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Ben Folds, the early Dave Matthews Band, John Denver, and Pearl Jam.
Allegra’s goal with Keep It Simple was to produce an “organic” feeling that would sound as much as possible like a live performance, without digital enhancements, electronic instruments, and studio gimmickry. “We wanted to have a polished product, obviously, but one that kept the honesty of the music, so the listeners of the album would hear only real musicians playing actual instruments, and my real voice, without auto-tuning. And that’s what we did.” Allegra plans to distribute her album via 40 online retailers, including iTunes, Spotify, CDBaby.com and ReverbNation.com. Allegra wants to reclaim “pop” as an authentic genre that is defined by its popular appeal, not technical gimmicks and shallow hooks. She explains, “There is no reason why pop can’t have the substance, passion, and depth of other genres like blues, soul, and folk.” Her ambitious goal – starting with Keep It Simple – is give the face of pop a makeover.
The release event for Keep It Simple will be held at Humphrey’s Backstage on Friday, March 2 at 9pm. Allegra will be performing with her best friend and eldest sister, Angela, playing percussion and singing harmony vocals; Dausch playing bass; her high school band mate, Jesse Charnow, on drums; and Wil Forbis on lead guitar. Allegra’s musical ambitions are to go on tour (both within and outside the United States), get television exposure, and, some day, to fill Cricket Amphitheatre. She wants to “be big.” But mainly she wants to keep making albums, and continue writing songs. In the short run, she slyly mentions that she would like to sing the National Anthem at a Charger’s game (as she has for the San Diego Soccers and Sea Lions, and the Derby Dolls at the Del Mar Fair). In the meantime, Allegra does not focus on the setbacks and disappointments; to the contrary, she exults that “I have led a really charmed life. I’ve had a great time of it. I have been able to travel all the way across the world. I have a loving family. I have a wonderful man in my life.” (In her personal life, she is engaged to be married.) “Thirty is my best year yet,” she insists. No wonder her lyrics are so upbeat and positive.
Allegra has an obvious passion – even excitement – for her music. She explains, “The best thing about music is the memories you attach to it. The years just won’t slow down, and moments are fleeting, but each moment leaves us with a memory. And the wonderful part is, the memories last forever.” She is already planning her next album, and busy writing new songs. Asked about her unusual name, Allegra responds that her parents chose the name based on a character from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem The Children’s Hour. (It has nothing to do with the musical term allegro.) Appropriately, the character she is named after is described in the poem as “laughing Allegra.” How could her parents have known their youngest daughter would be so happy?
Allegra has a digital presence (blog, photos, music, and videos) at www.allegrasings.com; www.facebook/allegrasings; www.myspace.com/ allegrasings; www.youtube/allegrasings.com; and www.reverbnation.com/allegrasings. It’s true, Allegra sings.