Singer/songwriter Abi Permenter performs during the start of FlintFest2 at Riverfront Park in October of 2012.
TROTMAN — As you talk with singer/songwriter Abi Permenter, the 21-year-old ingenue with the old-soul voice who is drawing raves in the region for her growing catalog of thought-provoking material, you can’t help but dwell on the seeming contradictions of person vs. persona.
She’ll talk openly about the desire that fueled songs like her steamy “Roots,” the first track on Permenter’s debut album “Just a Matter of Time,” and then she’ll proudly show off the promise ring that mom Nea points out she’s been wearing — and whose tenets she’s adhered to — since she was in her early teens.
“I feel things — I’m human,” the singer says as she and Nea, who seem more like BFFs that mother/daughter, relax at downtown Albany’s Our Daily Bread restaurant. “But when I write about those things that I haven’t experienced yet, I write from a perspective of looking forward to them.
“I have a conscience; I have common sense. I know my boundaries. They’re self-imposed, but they’re based on the choices I’ve made. I was raised right.”
Permenter is still putting the finishing touches on the packaging of “Just a Matter of Time,” an impressive collection of 13 tunes she wrote and recorded live with Justin Belew at his Phenix City, Ala., studio, most in one take.
“It was just me and my guitar,” the singer said. “A lot of people, when they hear me play, ask if I have an album they can buy, so I thought it made sense to get one out there. We actually finished the recordings for all 13 songs in about two hours.”
A musical prodigy who started singing “before I could even talk,” Permenter’s early musical education came from a variety of sources. Nea was the singer in the family, and dad Robert, an instructor at Albany Technical College who was recently named the college’s teacher of the year, played guitar to the classic rock tunes of the ‘70s.
And, then, there were all those Disney musicals.
“Dad worked at Walt Disney World, so we were always at the park,” Abi Permenter said. “And we had all the Disney movies.”
Nea recalls walking through a furniture store with baby Abi, who couldn’t yet walk, and hearing the “Pocahontas song” from that Disney classic.
“Even then, she could sing the song,” Nea says.
The home-schooled Permenter children — brothers Robert and Daniel, who are 31 and 27, respectively, and younger sister Emma, who’s 18 now but started playing piano when she was 4 — all pursued their musical and artistic passions, but it was Abi’s ability to write and then sing her own compositions that started drawing attention.
“I sang in church and at fairs, and I guess around 12 I figured out I was able to carry a decent tune,” she said. “I’d never really thought about singing as a career — I loved animals and figured I might be a zookeeper; my ambition had always been to be a cat when I grew up — but after I graduated high school it hit me that I’d written a bunch of songs.
“I tried to get several bands together, but that never seemed to work out, so a couple of years ago I decided to give this a go on my own.”
Robert and Nea, who insisted that Abi get a post-secondary degree (in design and media production technology from Albany Tech), became her road crew, and Abi started her singing career at the most basic level, playing open mics and free gigs wherever she could and singing for hours a day in the parking lot of strip malls.
“One day I was playing between a Barnes & Noble and an Atlanta Bread store in a mall, and I looked up and there were 30 people or so just standing there watching me,” she said. “I looked around and said to myself, ‘I think I can do this.’”
One fan dropped an angel pendant (which she keeps with her) into her guitar case, and a homeless man who’d been inspired to dance through an impromptu performance dropped his baggie of change he’d collected into her stash.
“That humbles you,” Permenter said.
As word of the singer’s talent has spread, she’s played a number of gigs in Albany and Columbus. She’s played at Mellow Mushroom, Casa Tapatia, Our Daily Bread, Nights at D’town, FlintFest and the Georgia Throwdown in Albany and at The Loft, Picasso’s Pizza and Fountain City Coffee in Columbus.
“Word’s getting around,” Nea said. “Abi played at an open mic, and some of the folks from Uptown Columbus heard her and hired her to play at events they have. Someone at Picasso Pizza heard her and hired her to play Monday nights there, and one of the guys who works there videoed her and sent it to the Loft, and now she’s playing there regularly.”
If the growing buzz she’s generating is impacting Permenter, she’s not showing it. She talks about the possibility of signing a record deal and about expanding her fan base in the region. But she’s adamant that she won’t change who she is to achieve either goal.
“I was raised on my dad’s ‘70s rock, so I’ve seen too many rebels — the real rock renegades — who said no when told they had to conform,” she said. “I’ve got enough gypsy in me that I’m not going to change who I am for someone who wants to turn me into a product. I’m going to keep doing things my way.
“I don’t know if this is my life’s calling; one of the most consistent things about life is that it constantly changes. But I’m willing right now to take the steps, to work my hardest to do what it takes to get where I want to be as musician. I just won’t demean myself to get there.”