When Sal Retta went searching for her first guitar, she came across a queer classified ad.
One guitar, two canaries: $150.
"I got the guitar and the birds for a really good price, so I kept the guitar and let the birds go," Retta says. "It seems kind of wrong to have them caged up."
If songs are like birds, then Sal Retta is a one-woman flock. The 21-year-old songstress, born Whitney Rosalise Hiebert, pens melodies that flutter about like hummingbirds, hovering midflight and then darting in startling new directions. Even her voice sounds at times like a birdcall, suggesting a secret language of barroom echolocation.
To put it bluntly: When Retta performs, people shut up and listen.
"She drew me in really fast," says local musician Billy Smith, who booked Retta to play at the Record Bar with his band, Olympic Size. "She channels some old spirits onstage. It seemed like the room was divided between people who got it immediately and people who thought an alien had dropped down and started playing music."
To the uninitiated, Retta's trembling high-register voice can be startling. Toss in some jazzy finger-style guitar moves informed by bits of Django Reinhardt and Delta blues, and it's easy to see why she's one of the most riveting new voices in Kansas City.
"I was shocked when I saw how confident she was with her instrument," Smith adds. "Everything from her recordings came to life and was magnified tenfold."
Thus far, Retta's recorded output amounts to a few one-take solo tracks on her MySpace page (though she recently removed all but one). She has begun recording an album on reel-to-reel tape with a new band, including upright bass, drums and second guitar, but until that ensemble coheres, she plans to continue performing solo with her rustic, hollow-body guitars.
"The band has to get used to how I play," Retta admits. "I hear scales in my head that don't make sense to people."
Tempo and cadence are also malleable subjects for Retta, who ebbs and surges at will and often strays off-course with frilly arpeggios and volcanic eruptions. Such spontaneity reflects her interest in jazz music, once a forbidden fruit under the tutelage of a strict piano instructor who immersed Retta in Russian classical music.
"She taught me that every single note and sound in itself is a story," Retta says. "Every piece of music is not just melody but literature — like you're reading a book."
Though she cites Tom Waits, Jolie Holland and Jeff Tweedy as favorites, most of Retta's principal influences are dead: classical composers such as Debussy and Chopin, archetypal blues performers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Memphis Minnie, and World War II-era cabaret singer Josephine Baker.
Retta's love affair with bygone-era sounds stems partly from childhood trips to the Blue Room's Monday-night open jams.
"I begged my father to go," she says. "Sometimes I'd just stand outside and listen."
For her 21st birthday, Retta opted to forgo the token get-drunk, pass-out ritual and take in a ballet at the Lyric Opera.
"We ended up at this one where children were kind of debuting their skills," she says, giggling. "It was kind of beautiful to see that, though. They're still growing into performing."
These days, Retta is just as likely to visit a jazz bar as a local rock club. She writes on piano as often as guitar but doesn't perform with piano because she considers it a barrier to the audience. That could change if her ensemble eventually takes the stage, though she's just as likely to hop behind a xylophone.
Born to a French father and Ukrainian mother, Retta is often queried about her singing accent. Though she doesn't speak another language fluently, she did spend a couple of weeks in Romania traveling with a caravan of Gypsies.
"They're extremely superstitious," she recalls. "If you look at their child, they'll think that you're cursing it."
Chatty and confident onstage, Retta is soft-spoken and inquisitive outside the spotlight. At numerous points during our interview, she says she doesn't like interviews. She offers three questions for every answer and talks quietly enough to render a tape recorder useless. She expresses some frustration with the rock-band-centered music scene in Kansas City, admitting that she may eventually have to fly the coop of her lifelong home.
Aspiring ornithologists take note — when this bird flies, we can't wait to hear the sound she makes.