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Anitra Jay's not-so-heavy 'Crown' 

Singer-songwriter's new release has warmth and humor

For a period of six months in 2010, going to a restaurant, sitting in the coffee shop or browsing at the grocery store were all unsettling experiences for singer-songwriter Anitra Jay. She had just done the "big chop," cutting off a lifetime's length of silky, chemically straightened locks in order to get acquainted with her own natural hair, and the introduction was going a bit rocky.

Anytime strangers whispered or giggled, she wondered if they were laughing at her. "I wondered, 'Do they think I'm a dude?'" she recalls. Fat chance, with her slim build and high cheekbones, but she took to wearing a full face of makeup and oversized earrings to compensate for barely there curls. It's not like she wasn't getting affirmation at home. Her husband and bandmate, Rob Schultz, was very supportive.

When she first decided to go natural, she sat him down and explained that she had to cut it all off and start fresh. She showed him a picture of a woman with long textured hair — that was how her hair would eventually look. First, she had to shave it almost bare.

"When I walked out of the salon he was like, 'This is so beautiful; you're really beautiful.' It touched my heart!" Jay says. "Eventually, I got a lot of confidence with my TWA [teeny-weeny afro]. It really helped me realize I can be beautiful without my hair or all that other outside stuff."

Jay's sophomore album, Crown and Glory, is overtly about natural hair, with a subtext of transforming oneself by way of acceptance. Released earlier this year, the concept album was recorded at Scratch Tracks Studios and mastered at Glenn Tabor's GAT3 Studio in Charlotte. Crown's spare sound is something like the lost tapes of an unvarnished India.Arie, with its acoustic guitar and hand claps.

"The theme is being confident in who you are, and not being afraid to showcase that in whatever way," she says by phone from Nashville. "I've gotten to the point where I have a groove now. I know what I'm doing, and my hair knows what it's doing. I had to relearn it, it's a different shape and different style at each turn."

Jay grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by music in church and choir, and always knew she wanted a career in the industry. She bought a guitar and taught herself to play. Her first performance was at an apartment complex clubhouse.

"I was so scared, I didn't do any crowd interaction at all. My girl friend was the emcee, and she did a lot of it for me," Jay says.

She and her husband moved to Charlotte in 2010 and went for broke, pursuing music full-time. She cut her first album, Genesis, in 2011, and started doing shows. At first, she was nervous about networking with other musicians.

"I felt inadequate because I didn't have much performing experience. So having a music community that embraced me was unbelievable. It made me not afraid to step out," Jay says.

She connected with musicians and did a lot of street teaming to promote herself, and forced herself to get over her shyness.

For a year at Crown Station, she hosted Singer/Songwriters & Poets in the Round, a showcase of five different acts who took turns sharing their own material. One night, the theme was animals, which yielded the seeds of the cautionary song "Shortcuts and Wolves." The cheeky fairytale appears on her upcoming album, Work in Progress.

"It was so electric seeing art come to life onstage," Jay says. "That's what was really cool about the series. It was a way to cast a wider net and introduce myself to all sorts of new listeners."

Jay's a far cry from the shy performer she used to be. She incorporates comedy and games to improv in her shows. For the crowd-pleasing "Cell Phone Song," she invites audience members to show her their text messages and then incorporates them into the lyrics on the spot. It's a great hit.

"I want people to walk away from my shows with an experience," Jay says, "memories of me putting your story into a song, singing a text your girlfriend sent you."

It's this commitment to live energy and real connection that sets Jay apart. Some performers have guitar chops for days, but without that connection they ultimately are just playing at you. Though she left Charlotte for Nashville in October, she frequently returns to North Carolina. She played a house concert in Winston-Salem on Nov. 29, and has been releasing songs from Work in Progress one by one. This month, members of her VIP list will receive the entire album.

Her latest single, "Do Something," takes an upbeat, Motown pop feel as she exhorts listeners to stop over-thinking it and get something started. It too is from Work in Progress, which Jay expects to drop in early 2015.

"Progress is about the work that still needs to be done," Jay says. "It can be hard. But it's a lot of fun."

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