Erin Lammers will never forget what her theater director told her as she was on the brink of tears, 45 minutes away from a one-hour public performance of all original songs she had hardly rehearsed for. She was "freaking out," tearfully aware of her nerves getting the best of her.
It was Amy Pringer's next words that latched onto those tangled nerves and peeled them apart one by one.
"Hey, it's time for you to stop being an artist and start being a performer," Erin recalled Pringer saying.
And with that, Erin swallowed her nerves, stepped out onto the Scene One Theatre stage, guitar and heart in hand, and performed.
But although the 16-year-old singer-songwriter has written original songs since she could rhyme words and create bits and pieces of poetry, she hasn't always been keen to performing. A painful "show-off hour" in seventh grade still lingers in her mind. She'd quickly found out middle school students can be brutally honest.
"The feedback wasn't any good. They were definitely critiquing me," Erin said, and recalled thinking, "'I shouldn't have done that. That wasn't smart. Why did I choose that one?'"
Then the seventh-grade talent show came around, and she sang an original (the "cringiest thing ever") with a friend, a song about love written through the eyes of a girl who hadn't experienced it yet. It was that year, and the next, that she briefly fell out of touch with the musician inside, transitioning from public to private school at Helias Catholic High School and battling with feeling like her songs were just "words on a page with no soul."
But she didn't stop. Her mindset of, "Oh, whatever. I'll try again," has pushed her forward to public performances at Jefferson City's PorchFests, Scene One and, most recently, to her first studio-recorded single on Spotify.
A song with a story
Most people give their grandparents a small gift or card, host a nice dinner or buy flowers for their anniversary. Erin wanted something a little more personal. So, she penned a song.
It was just before her grandparents' 50th anniversary, and Erin was dreaming of a certain, simple love story. Longing to freeze it in time, she texted her grandparents — separately — asking about how they met and their first impressions of one another. What one grandparent lacked in details, the other picked up without knowing. Erin said her grandpa distinctly remembered the cabin party and her grandma the prom. And, she said, "I think they all knew their wedding pretty well."
"The way my grandparents fell in love wasn't a big ordeal," Erin said. "They met, and they just liked each other, stayed in touch. That was inspiring enough, how humble their love was and how true, simple love lasted for 50 years."
The simplicity of their love has shown through in the way Erin wrote her lyrics, choosing to repeat variations of the same phrases and structures. The chorus, which she said "just kind of came" to her, made it easy for everything else to fall into place.
"He said, 'Anna Marie, you look so lovely
All dressed in yellow, you look so beautiful.'"
It's the first moment they meet, and her grandpa is already asking about the next.
"Anna Marie, when's the next time we'll meet?
I have to see you again
Because you're so beautiful."
And he does. The lyrics follow through to their prom with Anna Marie "all dressed in lacy gold," to walking down the aisle "all dressed in white" and to the two settling down in Kansas, growing old, starting a family and falling more in love.
"And that's how we all came along —
Well, at least for me, so I could write a song."
And in the end of the song, Erin speaks directly to her muse.
"And say, Anna Marie, you look so lovely
.... Anna Marie, for 50 years, you see,
I have been loving you
Because you're so beautiful."
And in the end, choosing to include her perspective in the last stanza was only natural, Erin said. A sign she recalled seeing at her grandparents' 45th anniversary was one of the driving forces of the addition.
"'All because two people fell in love,'" Erin recalled, then added, "And I've always thought that was the sweetest sign. Whenever I was writing the song, I was constantly thinking about that sign."
And with the last "beautiful" penned into the lyrics and chords added last minute while in a St. Louis hotel, Erin was ready to present her gift. The first time she sang it at their family reunion, everyone but her grandparents cried — the second time around, later that night at dinner with the extended family, her grandparents gave in. Everyone was crying, even Aunt Beth, who Erin said she'd "never seen" cry.
"I thought, 'Oh, the song is really pretty, and they liked it because they can relate it to my grandparents,'" Erin said.
But the overwhelming response wasn't limited to family. At her sister Aidan's graduation party, when Erin sang the song again, there were few dry eyes in the crowd.
"Everyone was crying — and these are just teenagers doing their own thing," Erin said. "That's why 'Anna Marie' is so special to me. It really is just two people who fell in love. It's genuine and true. Everybody wants what Anna Marie has.
"I'm really happy that it moves so many people."
The feedback this time was positive, a reflection of artistry grown through a challenging transition. It's what prompted her to sit in a home recording studio for hours on end, frustrated because she couldn't get the song right. At one point, Erin said she got sick of the song and had to take a step back, record another song and then revisit "Anna Marie."
Eventually, one complete song, burned onto a CD, came out of the session. Her Spotify photo depicts a grinning, Hawaiian-attire clad teenager in front of a studio microphone and pop filter, but Erin said she got home that night, took a shower, laid on her bed and cried. Roughly a week later, on July 28, Erin's first official song was released.
A poet first
It took years to get to the public eye, but Erin's mother, Whitney Lammers, remembers a 2-year-old Erin dancing through the hallways, music in her ears. From the time she was born, Whitney said, Erin was ready.
"She was born with that spark," Whitney said. "She's been singing since she was born and just walking around in her own world. It was a way of communicating."
As a child, Erin said, she and Aidan would make up songs by finding patterns and catch phrases. Over the years, those songs have accumulated. Erin's song notebook is full of quick dashes of words, phrases and roughly 35-40 completed songs. Then there's voice memos on her phone — there's no telling how many songs have been discarded.
"Anyone can write a song. I think that's easy," Erin said. "But I strive to be a poet first and then a songwriter. Think 'Landslide' by Fleetwood Mac. Anyone who sings that song — there's so many versions of it, but it always sounds beautiful because of the words and the way it's played. I try really hard to write songs that will sound beautiful even if they're not being sung."
Her dedication to songwriting recently earned her a chance to write the spring ballad for Jana Fox, the music director at Helias. Fox has worked with Erin for three years and said Erin's music and character have grown and matured.
"She's definitely a leader in the group," Fox said.
Last year, Erin sang an original song at Just Desserts, the annual show choir fundraiser. Fox said she was "really impressed with that" and decided to brainstorm a theme and general idea for the song as a group but let Erin write the lyrics.
"I just thought it would be awesome for her to do that," Fox said, adding Erin's commitment and desire for music has made her "very well respected" among her peers.
"I see a lot of talented musicians, and some just don't have the commitment and the desire to just really hone their skills," Fox said. "She really does. She has a passion for it."
Coming full circle
Erin's passion was initially ignited by none other than her parents, who she said raised her listening to classics, making sure she had an understanding of "good music." The first song she learned on the ukulele was "Sloop John B" by The Beach Boys. And now, her parents are her biggest fans.
"Every parent thinks that their kid is amazing. All those tuba lessons, violin lessons when they're 7 years old — you get through it. You think your kid is amazing," Whitney said. "But when they're actually composing, when they're combining melodies and harmonies and lyrics, and they're actually composing this beautiful music, it takes it to a different level. You're not just being a parent proud of your kid. You become like a fan. It's admirable."
"I have friends that are musicians," her father, Matthew, added. "And I see parents gush over their kids. It's kind of just exciting for us to be inspired by what she does. She gives that back to us. It's full circle."
The admiration on their faces was visible as Erin picked up an acoustic guitar in their living room and strummed the strings before picking through "Painted Skies," a song she recorded but never released. As Erin's caramel-like tone filled the living room, they watched. Matthew teared toward the end of the song, and Whitney never took her eyes off her daughter.
"Well there's nothing left to do, but to paint the skies for you when you see that scarlet fade right into blue, I paint it for you," Erin sang.
She plucked the last string and finished it off with a happy strum as she looked up and smiled ear-to-ear. The song has a special meaning for Erin and for her parents. She wrote it overwhelmed with love for her friends, and it's inspired by a phrase her mom used to say to her as a pick-me-up, often driving home and seeing the sunset.
The majority of her songs are inspired by her own life, but she said she strives to keep them relatable. There's stress of school, work, wondering if the boy is going to like her, why friends are moving on to other friends — when the "straw breaks the camel's back," Erin said, she lets all that in and focuses it into a song. Those songs, she said, are often her best. And they're often the ones most relatable, too.
"I want to perform because it makes other people happy," Erin said. "But the music world, it's always so cutthroat, and everyone is trying to be better and be famous. I don't want to be famous."
She added, "The songs that really make people happy are the songs that I've put the most heart into and the songs that have helped me through a lot."
It's the cutthroat aspect of the industry that has made Erin reluctant to pursue music as a career.
"Will I lose touch with my roots, why I write music? Will I just be writing because I'd have to?" Erin wondered. But, she doesn't deny music's immense importance in her life. Thankfully, she has roughly two full years left of high school to decide.
Songwriting, she said, is a like a ball of stress, strung up throughout her room where four ukuleles, two acoustic and two electric guitars line the wall and a framed 2018 PorchFest poster is hung by the door. When she writes, she undoes the knots.
That August evening at Scene One, just 45 minutes before stepping on the stage, Erin had to undo a knot she carried with her.
Pringer's recollection of the comedy night at Scene One where Erin performed is a bit more optimistic. After Erin said she had only 30 minutes of songs to fill the one-hour slot, Pringer told her she needed to "figure it out" because "that's how this works."
It may sound harsh, but Pringer said she knew Erin needed a push.
"I knew that, as a songwriter, (Erin) is wonderful. It's simple. It's very Joan Baez. It's storytelling it's very deep and meaningful lyrics. And I don't think she had the confidence to put all of her stuff out there," Pringer said. "But when I gave her almost no choice, she stepped up beautifully as I had imagined she would."
In the following hour, she said Erin made connections with "almost everyone in that audience" through her storytelling. They became part of her songs. Pringer said she's never seen Erin perform like that before.
"Sometimes it takes an audience to really bring out the magic in the artist themselves," Pringer said, then added: "I saw the magic."