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Leaving the nest: Songbird Noelle Smith spreading her wings in Music City

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Singer/songwriter Noelle Smith, 18, took six months of guitar lessons around the age of 10. Since then, she has also taught herself to play piano and ukulele. The Kentucky native has been playing music at local restaurants and clubs since her family moved to Greenville five years ago. ‘Here in North Carolina is where I started really kind of pursuing it as a job and getting it to take off,” she said.

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By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Listening to Noelle Smith’s music these days, it’s not too hard to figure out what she’s thinking. Original songs like “When You Leave This Town” and “Windows Down” hint of someone who will soon be out of the nest.

After spending a third of her young life playing music in Greenville, this songbird is ready to fly. Like many of her friends from the Class of 2018, she’s off to college. But she’s also spreading her wings as an artist, hoping to see her music career take off in Nashville, Tenn. Noelle, 18, will play a few last gigs in her hometown before packing up and heading for Belmont University, where she plans to major in music.

“It’s all I talked about since sophomore year was Belmont,” Noelle said of the school that counts Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood among its graduates.

Belmont, a Christian, liberal arts university located next to Nashville’s famous Music Row and 2 miles from the Country Music Hall of Fame, was the first school Noelle visited. It was love at first sight.

“It was in Nashville, and I knew that it was known for its music,” she said. “I cannot wait to go to Nashville. ... I’m not used to living in one place this long, so I’m ready for change.”

Born in Kentucky, Noelle divided her early childhood among three states before moving to Greenville in middle school. Amid those moves, music was a mainstay.

Noelle (pronounced like “Noel,” and, yes, it’s her real name) began to sing as soon as she started to talk. She “wrote” her first song around age 2, making up lyrics about a Barbie and belting them out from her crib.

Her talent came as a bit of a surprise to the Smiths.”My dad, you could not put a gun to his head and make him sing on pitch,” Noelle said, laughing.

Although Noelle’s older brother and sister displayed some musical inclination, the odds were against Noelle. A congenital deformity called microtia atresia caused her to be born with an underdeveloped outer ear and no ear canal on her right side, where she has very little hearing.

Surprisingly, few people notice what Noelle calls her “baby ear.” Most fans of her music would know nothing of the condition except that she mentions it on her website and sometimes posts encouragement online for families whose children are affected by microtia atresia.

“It’s something that I really like to talk about because it’s part of me,” she said. “I’ve really kind of come to accept it and really be confident about it in the last two years.”

Despite some a hearing deficit, by the age of 7, Noelle was performing impromptu concerts in her neighborhood in Kentucky. Equipped with a Hannah Montana microphone, Noelle would set up lawn furniture and kitchen chairs outside for friends and neighbors to hear her sing.

It was a practice she would continue after the family moved to South Carolina, where she performed in her first talent show as a fourth-grader at Lakeview Elementary School. Shortly afterward, she placed third in a local competition, Greenwood’s Got Talent.

Moving with her family to Connecticut, she won the Plainfield Country Music Talent Show at age 12.

“That’s what I see as my first real competition,” Noelle said of the event, which led to the recording of her first EP and a chance for a paying gig at a place called Hank’s Dairy Bar.

“They paid me a little bit of cash and some free ice cream, which was really what I was there for,” she said, laughing.

By the time the family moved to Greenville for Noelle’s eighth-grade year, her music and her tastes had begun to mature. Almost as soon as she moved here, she started playing gigs at local restaurants and anywhere else that featured live music.

“When I first got here, it helped that my dad kind of was showing every waiter he met my YouTube videos and trying to get me into restaurants,” Noelle said. “It’s just a lot of being persistent and constantly seeking out those opportunities and just playing everywhere I can until people have heard my name enough to know that they can take me seriously.”

Noelle also sought out a coach to help her polish her sound. She was still in middle school when she began working with voice instructor RaSheeda Waddell to prepare for an audition on “The Voice,” where Noelle has twice made it to the producer’s round.

“It’s funny, when I first met her, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why this girl wanted to play Taylor Swift songs on her guitar,” Waddell said. “I would always say, ‘I don’t understand, you sing better than and write better than Taylor Swift.

“It’s even more ironic now,” she said. “Artists like Taylor Swift evolve and that’s kind of what Noelle has done as well. It’s really been fun to watch her grow up. It’s really happened before our eyes.”

Percussionist/​singer/​songwriter Daniel Vaughan has performed periodically with Noelle since she was 16.

“The age doesn’t really matter to me,” Vaughan said about working with a performer who is still in her teens. “The maturity she has in her music, in her writing and in her performing, that’s all that matters to me.

“She’s a phenomenal songwriter, phenomenal performer, vocalist. She’s just all around and still growing,” he said. “I really see a lot of good things coming for her.”

Vaughan performed Friday with Noelle at Whirligig Stage at a singer/​songwriter showcase that is part of her “farewell tour” of eastern North Carolina. For some fans, it is news to find out that the musician who has frequently entertained at downtown breweries is too young to order a drink and has had to be accompanied by her parents at some venues.

“I kind of flaunt it now,” Noelle said of her age. “My tip jar says, ‘Noelle’s college fund.’”

Her last performance in Greenville is scheduled for 8-11 p.m. Saturday at Trollingwood Taproom and Brewery. It will be bittersweet to play the last set.

“I love these venues,” Noelle said. “I’m not done with Greenville.”

While she hopes to play locally when she is on break from school, Noelle thought it would be fitting before heading off to college that she say goodbye to those who have supported her. Just like in her song, “When You Leave This Town,” Noelle has fond memories of people and places she is leaving behind.

“In the last month or two, right before I’m about to move away, I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities and a lot of positive attention that I’m so grateful for,” she said. “I think it’s so cool. I want to share with the community, ‘Hey, because of your support of my music. I am heading out to Nashville, and I want that to be like a shared celebration.’

“It’s nice that I’m going somewhere else and I know that back at my home there’s going to be a local fan base that supports me.”

For more information, visit noellesmithmusic.com.

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