Country crossover star Taylor Swift sang about being 16, but at only 13, Olivia Penalva is turning a few chairs with her beyond-her-years voice.
The Vernon resident may not be performing for Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, judges of a certain televised talent show just yet, but her voice and bubbly personality has captured the attention of just about everyone who has heard her sing.
And that includes Vernon-bred hit-maker Andrew Allen, who first heard Penalva sing this past summer when he was invited to perform at Lake Country’s Ex Nihilo winery for an event.
“Ellie, the event planner there, asked if I would be OK with having a young lady named Olivia perform a song or two at the event. I told her I’d look her up, and see if it made sense… After one listen I couldn’t believe how amazing her voice was. It’s like listening to a blend of Norah Jones and Colbie Caillat, with all their sweet jazz and pop sensibilities fused together in a 13 year old,” Allen told The Morning Star via e-mail from his now home base in L.A.
Not only did Penalva sing at the winery that night, she came back the following evening and performed Come Away With Me — the wedding song for Allen and his wife, Julia — at their 10-year wedding anniversary.
Penalva has since flown to L.A. twice to write and record with Allen and his partner Robin Ghosh, and she has just released a single called Christmas for Two, which she wrote with Ghosh and recorded with Allen. The team also worked on the song Unravel together.
About to release her first CD, Rainfall, with a concert at Powerhouse Theatre Saturday, Nov. 30, Penalva is looking forward to testing some of those new songs out to a live audience. She will also be performing at Allen’s Home for the Holidays show at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Dec. 18.
“She’s a pleasure to work with, and I have no doubt we’ll be hearing big things about little Olivia,” said Allen.
Excited about her first headlining show, Penalva, who is in Grade 8 at Kelowna’s Aberdeen Hall Preparatory School, admits she is also a tad nervous, but she has an entourage around her that keeps her grounded.
That support team came in handy when she first started performing in public. It was at Our Kids Have Talent, the talent show started by Kath Raeber that encourages youth in the Okanagan to highlight their musical skills, in 2012.
“I connected with the other young musicians there,” she said. “When I first entered I was scared of messing up the words. There was lots of talent there, but I received some good pointers to move around more and connect with the audience. I think I sounded comfortable but I didn’t look comfortable.”
It was Penalva’s mom, Tatyana Penalva, who first recognized her daughter’s talents when she heard Olivia singing in the car. Later, upon a recommendation, Olivia started taking lessons with Betty Anne Northup, who owns a vocal and recording studio in Vernon.
“I was not interested in singing in front of people back then, but (Northup) brought me out. She made me feel comfortable,” said Penalva. “She’s sweet. We’ve been working together now for two-and-a-half years. She’s my favourite mentor and has helped me so much. We get along so well.”
Northup has also accompanied Penalva on keyboards at a number of her performances, including at Our Kids Have Talent, where she placed in the top 10 this year. The young singer has also recently started taking guitar lessons with Neil Fraser at the Vernon Community Music School and has been getting used to doing a number of solo acoustic performances around town.
“I have learned some new songs and have gone from not so great to pretty good. I am not just strumming chords now,” she said.
Not one to just cover other people’s material, Penalva has also been trying her hand at songwriting. In fact, most of the songs off her new album are self-written.
Originally wanting to do a Christmas album, Penalva started recording her songs last November, but instead decided on a more fall-themed record.
“I started writing my own songs a year ago and ended up amassing eight of them. It came when my mom asked me if I was going to finish them up for the album, so I wrote a bunch of songs on the spot,” she said.
Penalva released two songs from the album in January and then finished the material over summer, recording them this past September.
Fresh from mastering and the printers, Rainfall has already been received enthusiastically by local supporters. She recently sold a number of copies when she performed at Intermezzo restaurant.
“When we first got it, my mom said ‘guess what came in the mail? Your album.’ We played it in the car. I like listening to myself, but it’s a bit awkward,” said Penalva. “Putting these songs out have made me feel good about myself and have helped me to talk and communicate with an audience.”
With her confidence brimming to the surface, Penalva has also recorded two new music videos, one at Silver Star for Christmas for Two, and the other for Fight for You off Rainfall. (Sales of the latter song off iTunes will be donated to the homeless.)
She is also ready to take that centre stage and has a whole load of local musicians supporting her. They include Northup, bassist Dave Moore, drummer Dan Oldfield, guitarist Craig Brown, sax/flute player Craig Carmody, cellist Olivia Walsh, and Nico Boesten of New Horizon Productions, who will perform a duet with Penalva.
There will also be a surprise guest along with Our Kids Have Talent alumni Jesse Mast and Ben Klick.
“Everyone is so talented,” said Penalva, adding, “You don’t realize how small the world is. I’ve really had doors open here for me in Vernon… I am really grateful to everyone and this is a way I can tell them in front of a live audience.”
The Nov. 30 performance at Powerhouse Theatre starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 on sale through the Ticket Seller, 549-7469 or www.ticketseller.ca. Sponsored by 107.5 Kiss FM and Nixon Wenger, proceeds from ticket sales go to Our Kids Have Talent and the North Okanagan Youth and Family Services Society.