Little ladies, big voices

University songbirds take the stage, chronicling life, love and this crazy world

Kara Nesvig

It’s tough being young and female, seeking to claim your rightful place in this big, bad world all on your own. Even harder is trying to illuminate that quest with words, but University sophomores Breanne Durenberger and Caroline Smith are making it that much easier by throwing open those doors with their fresh, striking voices, shedding some much-needed light onto the campus music scene. One pounds the piano keys, one strums a guitar, but both have the power to stop you in your tracks and send shivers up and down your spine with their absolute sincerity and raw emotion.

The 400 Bar

WHAT: Caroline Smith
WHEN: 9 p.m. Wednesdays,
WHERE: 400 Bar, West Bank 18-plus carolinesmithmusic

WHAT: Breanne Durenberger
WHEN/WHERE: Check out her MySpace for more information: breannedurenberger

Breanne Durenberger could easily be labeled as a “girl and her piano” in the vein of Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and Vanessa Carlton. Upon listening, though, she isn’t so quickly pegged. “I have been singing and playing piano since I was in elementary school,” says raven-haired Breanne, a native of Apple Valley. “I was learning covers while developing my ear and passion for song, and I started writing my own material and playing gigs with my brother when I entered high school.”

After beginning college last fall, Durenberger began to make the rounds all across campus, most notably Dinkytown’s gorgeous Varsity Theater and Coffman’s own Whole Music Club. Playing Wisconsin’s Summerfest is Durenberger’s career highlight so far, but it’s obvious her abilities will take her much further than Milwaukee.

Her brother Caleb, a University first year, provides percussional backing, his drums the ideal backdrop for his sister’s powerful chords and resonant vocals. It’s a simple aesthetic: a girl and a piano, a boy and a trap set. But the sound is full and rich, perfectly complimentary to one another.

“The wonderful thing about Breanne,” says Brittany Tracy, who happens to be Durenberger’s housemate, “is that she manages to stay personal but isn’t inaccessible.”

“Her voice sounds like a bell. And she is willing to be shy, to be quirky – she is always herself onstage,” adds fellow roomie Rae Thompson.

Caroline Smith, who hails from Detroit Lakes, Minn. and looks like a little indie-rock princess, likes to think she was admitted to the University because she opened a show for B.B. King. Those who are familiar with Smith and her many gifts know this isn’t the reason, but it certainly is an accomplishment.

With a weekly Wednesday gig at the West Bank’s legendary 400 Bar and an immense Jenny Lewis-esque vocal talent, Smith and her guitar are well on their way to sweet success. Her songwriting skill is immediately evident and infinitely relatable, and she is just as sublime unaccompanied as she is backed by a revolving door of musicians.

“The first time I saw her, I felt the same way I did when I saw Mason Jennings and Haley Bonar,” says 400 Bar owner Tom Sullivan. “She’s great.”

Both songwriting starlets are strong supporters of networking Web site MySpace, using it as a tool to spread their music far and wide.

“MySpace replaces promoters and agents and publicists. I’ve done the business without MySpace and I can safely say I am very happy it exists,” says Smith.

Durenberger and Smith consider themselves blessed to be part of such an encouraging, receptive musical community.

“The thing that stands out about the Minneapolis music scene is that people genuinely want to help you out,” says Smith, who is ultra-appreciative of the city she now calls home. “It’s less about money and more about belief in music. And I think that is the greatest thing, how much support I’ve received.”