By: Cathy Larson Sky
I’m sitting on the funky orange Victorian sofa in the living room of a pink house perched on a stone-terraced hill above the town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Indigo De Souza, musician and songwriter, lives here with her mother, the artist-entrepreneur-chef-designer Kim Oberhammer. Kim and Indigo’s home is a kinetic event, a work in progress. Today a long swag of multi-colored shag hangs above the archway into the dining room, transforming the place into a combination of a Luau Hut and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I have asked Indigo to describe the way song lyrics come to her; she shrugs, and then responds in her poised, gentle manner.
“People always ask me about that. I have no idea. I don’t even really think about it while it’s happening. I just write and write and then once I’m done I play the song. That’s how it goes.”
He folds up his mobile home, a cardboard box,
Or at least what’s left of it.
He shines your shoes, you throw him some money and walk away,
Without saying anything,
Don’t choke on that silver spoon in your throat,
And don’t trip ‘cause this life of yours is a game of jumping rope.
Row, row, row by row swiftly down the streets,
Feet of a wealthy business man, life is but a dream,
Twinkle twinkle of your car,
How I wonder if you’re really happy.
This song Lampshade on the Sun comes from Indigo’s quiet rage about how “really rich people can walk right by homeless people and that the plane can’t be even, because one of them has to be really poor and the other one has to be rich. In Asheville there’s this one man that sits there and he doesn’t have any legs and he just sits there all day. I just saw this picture in my head: this man walking by in a suit. He could have been rich or not, but he just looked . . . completely opposite.”
Indigo De Souza is not your typical, topical singer-songwriter. She is a girl of fourteen who started guitar lessons at the age of nine and wrote her first song as soon as she learned her first three chords. Indigo made her first demo when she was eleven, the same year she entered an annual singer-songwriter contest at the Little Switzerland Café, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, competing with twenty adults.
“I know I was scared, because I’d never played in front of anyone before,” she says, remembering that summer night. “I know that they were all looking at me. They all stopped what they were doing and looked because I’m sure it was surprising to see a child, so when I was onstage I was rather nervous, but I got second place. I remember that’s when I had that first little glimmer of hope, because I didn’t know if I was actually good or not but I went up and did it, and I won something and that seemed like it meant something.”
Indigo’s winning song that night was Phantom Dreamer. “It was about falling asleep and going off with a phantom,” she says. “I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I liked the word. And he took me to a place that was perfect. And then waking and wishing I could go back.”
Phantom Dreamer may be the result of Indigo’s love for the works of Edgar Allen Poe. It also seems like a reflection of the tensions she faces learning to grow and become her self in a politically and religiously conservative mountain mining town. She moved with her Mom from Bethel, Connecticut, to Mitchell County, North Carolina, when she was seven years old.
“I just don’t feel that this is the place I’m supposed to be, especially with everything I am and everything that I want to be. Other than my Mom being creative, and knowing people at Penland (famous local Fine Arts School where mom Kim works as a chef and an artist) and at Arthur Morgan School, the people and the town don’t help me at all with creative things.”
Indigo’s early childhood included time in various alternative schools, so she’s had vacations from public education. But it was her middle school experience at Arthur Morgan School, enjoying holistic education in the embracing mountains of the Celo Community that cemented Indigo’s determination to find her own path. She grins, remembering her idyllic time there.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I feel like, maybe before Arthur Morgan School, I wasn’t who I am yet. But when I went there, you can’t do anything that anyone will judge you for, because you’re just there and you do what you want to do and you are who you are.”
Now Indigo is back in public school, a freshman at Mitchell High. It is not an easy place for a young woman of budding conscience:
“I think I’ve grown up having an opinion. I always have facts or ideas or philosophies to back it up. While people at my school definitely have opinions, they don’t always have the facts to back them up, which frustrates me . . . The biggest thing that bothers me about that school is the fact that everyone seems to want to be the same. You walk in the bathroom every day, and there’s a bunch of girls in Hollister shirts straightening or curling their hair. It’s a hard world to be in when you’re someone like me who is completely herself and is fine with it. I’m known as that kid who’s different, the kid that’s weird, or the one that doesn’t pretend to be someone else. To some people that’s a good thing and to other people, that’s a bad thing.”
Indigo’s pilgrim spirit shines through more lyrics from Lampshade on the Sun:
I walk down the hallways of a place to learn, but all I learn is I don’t have a place.
He writes a book of things he’d like to say, and reads it through his face.
I am a simple thing, who walks a line of pure recycled time,
I am a universe within this sullen mind.
Row, row, row by row people sit in seats,
Watching a wealthy business man chatter faulty grief.
Twinkle, twinkle of your eyes, how I wonder if you’re really trying.
A deep breath, and Indigo takes her new Gibson Sunburst from its case. The room is filled with dancing light reflected from its brilliant surface. For a moment we sit in silence, admiring the pearl inlay on the neck. It is a dream instrument with a clear bright sound. Indigo has already made the guitar her best friend. Her playing is deft and surprising, shaded with rhythmic variation and sophisticated phrasing.
Where does this gift come from? You wonder, listening. When Indigo’s Brazilian dad, a Bossa nova guitarist, set up his microphone, she enjoyed singing into it when she was barely past toddlerhood. Her mom realized that there was something there right from the start, and took nine-year-old Indigo to study guitar with accomplished multi-instrumentalist Rhonda Gouge of Ledger, North Carolina.
“I remember that my fingers hurt so much and I wouldn’t dare complain, because she just had this way about her. You just had to keep going till the end of the lesson,” says Indigo. “Then I would go out to the car and complain and complain to Mom.” But Kim kept pushing, urging her to persevere. Indigo admits to a dislike for structure but also says that every hour she practiced when she didn’t want to has paid off. “It always seemed to do me good.”
These days Indigo is self-taught, using guitar tutorials she finds on YouTube to learn arrangements. Her use of techno tools is prodigious. She tells me that she’s going to be recording with Garage Band and giggles when I ask her who else is in the band. Turns out Garage Band is a Mac application that does everything a complex synth did way back when. A white Star Wars looking device hovers by her laptop; she explains that it’s a Snowball mic, good for recording.
Doors seem to open for this young musician when she puts her talent to the test. Last summer, she recorded her second demo with renowned bassist Steve Bailey in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Bailey, a tennis buddy of her Uncle Erik, was blasé about listening to her as a favor to his friend. Jaded with similar experiences, he spoke to his wife at home and said “I’ll call you if it’s anything good, but I don’t think it will be.”
“I played for him,” smiles Indigo. “He got on the phone to his wife, and she showed up a few minutes later.”
What is she going to do with her demos? “Not much,” says Indigo. “It’s hard when you do something when you were smaller and then grow up and write new songs. My voice definitely doesn’t sound like it did when I was eleven. I knew my whole view on what those songs should have been when I wrote them, but that personally changed. I don’t want to release what isn’t me anymore to everybody.”
Indigo’s trajectory, you feel, just won’t quit. Right now she’s honing her craft, studying voice and performance skills with Asheville musician Peggy Ratusz, who performs with the band Daddy LongLegs. It’s like her life at home with Mom: change is a constant she can ride with. A little bit of hard work, added to maybe some magic and dreams blend smoothly with reality. The Irish call this approach to life driaocht, enchantment.
Speaking of her mom, Indigo recalls, “I remember that she made a fairy house out of glass bottles in our back yard that was big enough so I could stand up and it would be above my head. I was little, of course, but it was one of the best things. I just remember all the light coming through it.”
Indigo can be found on Facebook. She often performs in open mic events at the Firestorm Café and the Westville Pub in Asheville.
Cathy Larson Sky writes novels, poems and freelance articles and holds an MA in Folklore from UNC Chapel Hill. A performer and teacher of Irish traditional fiddling, she currently lives in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Visit her at: cathylarsonsky.blogspot.com