Norman folkster Penny Hill had plenty of thoughts for songs, but it took prodding from friends for her to fly.
2nd Annual Opolis Toydrive with Penny Hill, Samantha Crain, Ali Harter and more
8 p.m. Thursday, Opolis
113 N. Crawford, Norman
$7 with a gift, $10 without
Penny Hill with The Workweek and The Mustard Beards
10 p.m. Saturday
The Blue Note
2408 N. Robinson
You probably remember a girl from high school much like Norman native Penny Pitchlynn — the voice and mind behind the folk project Penny Hill.
She was the quiet, introverted one who holed up in her room with classic literature and poetry from Robert Frost and the like, but her trajectory following graduation was entirely different. College proved tumultuous as she hopped from major to major, dropping out and re-enrolling for a number of years at different universities, generally finding the college life unfulfilling. It was after her first dropout that she began to seriously reconsider what life meant to her, and her revelation led to a totally divergent path.
“I really started to process life and realize how much bigger life is than school,” she said. “I saw that being able to not only live life, but soak and marinate in it, was so important.”
Pitchlynn found that music offered her a chance to revel in that feeling. She had messed around with songwriting since her junior year of high school, but now she was fully committed to reflecting on life and all the things behind it through music.
“It’s all about responding to life through song,” she said. “I like what music offers me in that emotional and mental stability that I don’t otherwise feel like I have. It helps me sort out my thoughts and makes troubles easier to leave behind.”
Her first dropout helped fuel a flurry of songwriting, but it was during another stint in college — this time at the University of Oklahoma — that she saw her modest songs first move beyond the safe confines of her bedroom walls.
“I found myself in a lot of community living situations. It was still a private place, but people would hear me playing from outside my room. Eventually, they would ask me to play the song for them in the living room,” Pitchlynn said. “It went from playing for myself to my roommates to people hanging out at our house and eventually at a friend’s art opening.”
Her first public gig — at said friend’s art opening — was a memorable night for the woman who never actually intended to perform in front of anyone but herself.
“I remember almost choking on my words,” she said, laughing. “My voice sounded so much different from what I thought of it as. I got offstage and thought, ‘Well, I’m never doing that again.’ Luckily, my friends believed in my songs enough to encourage me to keep going.”
That she did, and those people who first pushed and prodded her out of the bedroom were the same ones who have witnessed Penny Hill move from self-induced, isolated acoustic musings to playing with a full cast of musicians across the state and country. She released a full album, “Unbutton Your Heart,” this past spring, with plans for another around the same time in 2011.
The experienced backing group also has helped update Pitchlynn’s simplistic, organic folk noise, bringing out bits from the influential likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to contemporaries like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. Psychedelic underpinnings and generally sorrowful, but beautifully poignant lyrics help tie things into a full package.
But it’s Pitchlynn’s voice — which manages to be assertive, soft and velvety smooth all at the same time — that has endeared her to a fan base far beyond those first friends she has to thank for pushing her out of the nest and giving her license to soar. She next appears as part of Thursday’s all-star Opolis Toydrive, then Saturday night at The Blue Note.
“For me, it’s all I can do, all I can think about doing, and nothing else really appeals to me. Even still, I don’t yet really feel worthy of standing above people with lights shining on me,” she said. “But with so much support, it’s not been as scary of a development as I figured it would. We are all nothing without each other, and I would still be holed up in my room writing if it wasn’t for them leading me outside.”