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Their first notes

Jun 18, 2018 09:27AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Photo by Jie Deng

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Eighteen-year-old Ava Awitan of Hockessin is, self-admittedly, a shy person.

Owing in large part to her many years of singing in ensemble groups, when she performs her original songs in front of audiences, her reticence vanishes, and suddenly, she owns the presence of a musician who has already graced ten thousand stages.

While her 15-year-old sister Marlena is the more sociable of the two, it's Marlena who uses her instruments – a piano, a guitar and sometimes even a ukulele – as a protective wall when she performs live.

Ava's songs arrive at the surface from a wellspring that simmers way deep inside of her.

Marlena's songs come from observation, pulled from films and poetry and other people.

The musical journey of the Awitan sisters is a story, currently being told, that begins in differences, but within its sentences and its lyrics, it is a story that is also tethered by a shared belief that music at its finest is supposed to be revealed as truth, not just stuff that you can dance to.

“Ava was born in New York City, and to me, she has this New York City approach to life – the idea that you create your life from the tight confines of a phone booth – whereas Marlena was born in LA – a hippie baby, all full of peace and love,” said their mother Leah. “They've carried these sensitivities their whole lives.”

For the past several years, the Awitan sisters have emerged as two of the bright lights of the local singer-songwriter scene, spurred on by their appearances at the Ladybug Music Festival that has led to shows at the Queen, and at venues throughout northern Delaware. In an industry whose young talent is showcased through the bombast of theatrics and costuming, the Awitan sisters perform quietly in servitude of their lyrics, allowing their delicate voices to become a vessel for their artistry.

Local audiences will get an opportunity to see Ava perform at this year's Ladybug Festival on July 20 in downtown Wilmington, and Marlena at Rockford Park's Summer Concert Series on July 23.

“We call Ava and Marlena 'old souls, and it really comes through in their music,” said Jeremy Hebbel, who along with Gayle Dillman operate Gable Music Ventures, which provides opportunities for local musicians to showcase their talents at shows and festivals in Delaware, including the Ladybug Festival. “When we first heard some of Marlena's music, she was 13 years old and performing at Ladybug. We had worked with other 13 year-old girls, and they were writing about boys, but Marlena was performing songs that she had written that sounded as if they were written by an older person. Gayle and I thought, 'She can't possibly be 13.'”

“When you come to Ladybug, your see that's it like a strolling atmosphere that allows audiences to stop by and listen to an artist for a few minutes, and then move on, but both Ava and Marlena are captivating artists, and they both have the ability to pull you into their lyrics,” Dillman said.

Like most musicians, lessons in piano began early for the Awitan sisters, mostly in the form of tiny fingers exploring the keys for the sounds that the C, G, A and A minor chords can make. When she turned 8, Marlena began to watch her older sister learn the piano under the tutelage of instructor and local musician Gina Degnars, and soon, she began to take lessons with Degnars, too.

“I wrote a song inspired by Ava, and it was about the fact that she had begun writing songs,” Marlena said. “The song had no title, but even at that young age, Gina inspired Ava and I to not just play the piano, but to write, as well.”

“Songwriting has been in me since the beginning,” Ava said. “It's my way of expressing my feelings. I love playing classical music, but when I realized that I had the gift to write songs, along with the encouragement of Gina to pursue my talent as a songwriter, it grew from there.”

“It may have been a few months into her lessons when Ava – she was about nine at the time – told me that she had written a song,” Degnars said. “It was one of those five-finger, simple pieces, but the notes that she chose were exotic, and I nearly fell out my chair. I knew she was talented, but that was the first time I was ever aware of her gift.”

For Degnars, working with both sisters gave her early insight into just how mature an approach Ava and Marlena had to learning music.

“Some kids will come in and go through the motions, but with Ava and Marlena, it was as if they were literally soaking in information, well beyond what other students were doing. The first time I gave Marlena more chords to practice for the week, she had begun to incorporate them into her songwriting.”

The Awitan sisters even write songs differently, and take their inspiration from different sources. Marlena, who writes lyrics and then her accompanying music, is inspired by jazz music and slam poets like Rudy Francisco, and her songs come from her observations.

“Music is the best way to express my emotions, and I love the songs I write when I am in that place,” Marlena said. “My songs are stories, and I write based on other people and movies I watch and things I see.”

For Ava, who writes the music first and then the lyrics, songwriting is more reminiscent of a personal bloodletting, in the tradition of Sara Bareilles, Sabrina Claudio and Ariana Grande.

“Knowing that the songs are so personal, I write with the idea that maybe someone else can relate to them, or allow my songs to help them come to terms with what they're going through,” Marlena said. “Yes, it's more personal, whether that's in a deeper sense, but when it comes from a deeper place, the more that it can express.”

“Ava is a very visceral writer, and if she doesn't feel it, she's not writing a song about it,” Leah said. “Marlena, on the other hand, can write about any topic that's thrown in front of her. They're different in songwriting style, in the sources of their inspiration, and their performance styles and writing styles are different, but they are both approach their music from a point of honesty, and the audiences they have played to feel their honesty.”

Ava, who graduated this past June from the Cab Calloway School of the Arts as a vocal major, will be attending the University of Delaware's World Scholars Program in the fall, and will be spending the first four months of her college career in Rome, Italy.

“I had three places to choose from: Spain, New Zealand and Italy, and the program in Italy is the only one that will have a piano in the place I'm staying,” she said. “This way, I won't have to carry my keyboard overseas for four months, so I'm very happy about that.”

While she looks forward to departing for school in August, Ava is writing as much as possible and establishing an Instagram account where she posts snippets of her songs. While in Italy, she looks forward to the possibility of performing there.

“Music is the goal for me,” she said. “For awhile, I was only making music for myself, but now, I'm looking to get my music out there. I definitely am planning for a career in music, and going to Italy for four months will help me find my creative path.”

Marlena will be entering her junior year at Cab Calloway, where in addition to music, she plans to pursue another passion: fashion, in order to pursue the dual goal of continuing music while also owning her own fashion magazine. She already has a foot in the door of one goal: her father Brian is a veteran of the fashion industry, and is owner of Thick as Thieves, a menswear branding agency.

“I look at my pursuit of music and my goals in fashion from a side-by-side standpoint,” she said. “They both play a huge part in my life, and I either turn my songs into stories, or my stories into songs.”

Leah Awitan said that while her daughters continue to pursue their musical paths, she said that Ava and Marlena have demonstrated a maturity in avoiding the lure of what she calls the “Disney-esque churn-and-burn machine” of instant stardom.

“The reality of the music business is that very few make it, and that if you light on fire too quickly, you can burn up just as quickly,” she said. “We happen to have a lot of connections in the music business, and we could make a phone call tomorrow and get their work in front of a handful of really high-level people, but they have chosen not to do that.

Instead, they know that they have to put in the work and try to make the right choices and choose the right paths, and because they've done that, they know that if they choose a career in music, they know that they will be standing on solid ground. And if that opportunity comes, then they will be ready to take it.”

Ask anyone with an armful of songs and the aspiration to play them in front of an audiences or put them into a recording, and they will tell you that the trick of becoming successful is found somewhere in the paradigm of talent, persistence and luck. It also helps these days to have a shtick, whether it's found in an invented persona or a gimmicky marketing campaign, and a scan up and down the music charts today reveals that to be true.

On the contrary, there are no theatrics in the music of Ava and Marlena Awitan, just an intentional simplicity that asks audiences to listen closely for the turn of a phrase, the pluck of a minor note, and the occasional sweet and silent spots between chords that reveal truths.

“There is always room for a performer whose music breathes,” Dillman said. “When Jeremy and I look to book musicians, we keep in mind that our intention is always to expose audience to new types of performers – to talent they've never heard before.

“When our audiences first see the Awitan sisters, there is always a surprise factor, because they don't expect to hear the complexity and beauty in their music. Then they do, and their reaction is always, 'Wow.'”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com.

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