Last year on New Year's Eve, Kira Means played to a packed room at the Wilma Theatre for the teen talent contest "First Night Idol." It was an overwhelming experience. Not just because Means was singing and playing guitar to a full audience inside Missoula's historic theater, or even that she was set to play yet another gig later that evening at Break Espresso, but also because she'd just come from playing at a funeral for two fellow Hellgate High School classmates killed in a drunk driving accident.
Standing on the Wilma stage, Means told the audience, "This song is about overcoming tragedy," before launching into her trademark tune, "Hello," and be-coming the first freshman ever to win the contest. It was a bittersweet day, emotionally and physically.
"That was hard," Means recalls. "That whole day was insane. There have definitely been days like that."
At 15 years old, Means' talents have been getting a buzz in the local music scene. The singer/guitarist has been in high demand for benefits, block parties and coffee shop gigs. She's played Sean Kelly's on numerous occasions, farmers' markets and local festivals like the recent Garden City Localfest. And, this week, as Means celebrates the release of her debut album, Hello, her visibility seems ever more likely to be on the rise.
"All the adults around her are getting fired up about her talent," says popular local Americana musician Tom Catmull, who teaches Means guitar. "I can't imagine what's going through her head, being her age and having the notoriety she's getting already."
In person, Means comes off as a humble but confident person. She candidly recalls how when she was in elementary school she wanted to be on "American Idol," the television talent show that's made some unknown talents instant pop stars.
"I just liked Top 40 music then," Means says. "I wasn't that musically educated. I watched 'American Idol' and I wanted to be on the show as soon as I turned 16."
But as she started immersing herself in classical guitar and piano lessons, things changed. She discovered indie rock musicians like Feist, Dr. Dog and Animal Collective, and she became drawn to music in a more complex, personal way.
"I started taking more lessons and developing my musical tastes, listening to indie rock or jazz and classic rock," she says. "I've tried to mature my music. And 'American Idol' isn't really my goal anymore."
Means played around with melodies and guitar strumming. She wrote "Hello" in summer 2008 after she saw a news report about a man in San Diego whose wife and kids were killed when a plane crashed into their house.
"That stuck in my head," she says. "I wrote the song from the guy's point of view, talking to his wife. The bridge part of the song, where it slows down, that's her talking back to him."
In the song, Means sings with a clear, full voice, "I just want to hold up my hands and sing to you, just sing to you. And every day I hear your tears on my roof, and I miss you."
The song is a perfect example of Means' ability to write simple and catchy tunes without being overly simplistic.
"She avoids cliché in an instinctive way," says jazz singer Eden Atwood, who teaches Means voice lessons. "Sometimes lyrics from young women like herself can be maudlin. But she doesn't do that. She's sophisticated. She's already written a song ["Hello"] that, fully produced, could be a Lennon/McCartney song."
On her upcoming album, Means offers other original tunes inspired by her young life. "Beauty" is about the snowy landscape near a town in Northern Alberta where Means and her mother, Laval, visited a friend two winters ago. "Dear Someone" is inspired by the piano stylings of Coldplay, with lyrics stemming from ideas she got after watching the film 500 Days of Summer.
Means takes all the hype surrounding her music in stride. She's not pushing herself to make another album anytime soon, she says, and she's trying not to plan too far ahead. But these days she has become more picky about the songs she writes; if they're not as good as the last one, she trashes them. And she's finding that every new gig makes her more comfortable seeing herself as a musician in a community of already-established musicians.
"It's been overwhelming at times, but it's been good," she says. "I feel welcome in the musician community. And even though I'm a 15 year old and sometimes people don't really know if that makes me serious or not, I'm happy they do take me seriously."
Kira Means plays a CD release party at Break Espresso Friday, June 4, at 6:30 PM with guests Tom Catmull and Eden Atwood. Free.