Child prodigy sings her heart out

Leah Sewell

ne of my favorite Topeka singers smells like bubblegum. Ellie Smith is a twelve-year-old kid with pipes to impress even the most stonehearted of talent agents. I had the privilege of hearing Ellie sing numerous times when I was a cocktail server at the late Tucker’s Bar and Grill downtown, where she belted out tunes by Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Fleetwood Mac. In that dark and smoky bar filled with middle-aged, slightly drunk patrons, Ellie could silence the crowd and elicit the occasional “ahh” of delight. Her voice is akin to what one might expect from an angel.

Ellie is the front girl for the local blues/folk/rock band Bridges. On Saturday Jan. 21, I went down to Lazio’s coffee bar to speak with this youngster about her rare abilities. As always, her performance reminded me that age has nothing to do with talent. You either have it or you don’t.

“My mom says that when I was young I sang like any little girl except that I almost never missed any notes or sang off-key,” said Ellie.

Since Ellie has been singing from age three, her performances now are flawless. The only comparison I can find is that she sings a little like Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Starr, except louder, less raspy. Her rendition of “Angel from Montgomery,” a John Pryne tune, is haunting and melancholy, exactly the way such a poignant and sad song should be sung.

“When she began singing this kind of stuff, it was sort of funny to me,” said Vicky Luttrell, Ellie’s mom, while motioning toward her daughter on stage. “She was a nine-year-old, and I wondered, when did she have time to know the blues?”

Ellie insists that she grew up around folk and blues music, and so it just came naturally that she would sing the stuff.

“Our whole family is pretty much musical, too,” Ellie added.

Older brother Josh Luttrell is the keyboardist for local industrial band The God Project. Although he participates in a very different musical genre than Ellie, he nevertheless recognizes her talent.

“I’ve always been very impressed by her singing,” said Josh Luttrell. “But for me, the most special part is when she started, being able to hear her improve and develop.”

Her vocals are now at the level where she can entertain patrons at bars and coffee shops. Members of the band Bridges are proud to have her up front at these sorts of gigs.

“Ellie has got maturity and power in her voice,” said Danny Blackwood, bassist and veteran of the local music scene. “It scares me sometimes how good she is.”

Mark my words: This kid will be famous someday.

“I’m just going to try my best to get myself out there, get more gigs and try to enter contests,” said Ellie with a modest shrug.

Family, friends, band mates and devoted fans, such as myself, will all be keeping an eye on Ellie in the coming years.

“I’m anxious to see where she’ll be in five, let alone 10 years,” said Blackwood.

Ellie will be singing confidently and with panache at the Jam for Justice March 3 at the Celtic Fox around 8 p.m. She’ll be back at Lazio’s March 18.