Music : Beyond talent: Sabrina Luening
Sabrina Luening always knew she would be a performer. It was a natural and conspicuous gift. She made her stage debut at age three, when Mary Payne, founder of the Island Theatre Workshop, cast her as a crow in a fairy tale production. From that moment on, Ms. Luening was certain of the path she wanted her life to take: "I just loved the stage. I knew that was what I was going to do."
But that is not usually enough to make it easy or simple. Life had other plans, even for a remarkably gifted and motivated Island girl.
Ms. Luening admits that her perspective on Island life has changed since she was a young girl. "I hated the Island when I was growing up," she recalls. "It was dead and there was nothing to do."
By the age of 18, she was one of the Island's favorite singers, performing at every opportunity in school plays, with Island Theatre Workshop, and in local singing competitions. But her appetite for excitement and her initial desire to become a singing star influenced her decision to move to New York City where she worked on singing technique with a private coach.
With a voice that is deep-down soulful beyond her years, Ms. Luening is able to pull meaning and expression out of even simple lyrics. She sings with her whole body, her voice swooping and soaring through a full, broad register. She puts her entire presence into her music.
That hasn't changed, although much in her life has. Now 38, Ms. Luening loves living on-Island. She cites the Island's beauty and the support she receives from her family as benefits of living here. And, she says, "It's so peaceful, and there are a lot of places where I love to perform."
Now a resident of Edgartown, her professional career started in her 20s, when she appeared as the vocalist with the local disco cover band, The Boogies.
After a short stint in a hip-hop band with her brother, Erich Luening, Ms. Luening formed the short-lived band Drawn Butter, and in 1998 made a recording. Their guitarist now works with rock legend Bob Dylan, and its former bassist plays with country star Rodney Atkins.
In 2004, her singing career established, an important new focus was added with the birth of her daughter, Ella. The baby was born with a coronary defect that has necessitated numerous open-heart surgeries. Various fundraising benefits were held for Ella, to finance her cardiac procedures. A single mother, Ms. Luening makes it clear that she is infinitely grateful for the support she's received from her family and the tight-knit community of Islanders and Island musicians.
"My mom is amazing," Ms. Luening says. "She and her strength have helped guide me, and it's nice to know so many wonderful musicians who care about each other. When people ask about my daughter and me, they're genuinely interested."
Always energetic and smiling, it seems, Ms. Luening continues to perform at local venues, one of her favorites being Mediterranean on Beach Road in Oak Bluffs, where she performs every Monday. Given her ability to span diverse genres (rock, soul, hip-hop) with her deep voice, she works with a variety of Island musicians, including Jon Zeeman, Hugh Burrows, Wes Nagy, Robby Schultz, Felicia Taylor, Mike Benjamin, and Don Groover.
Despite the hurdles she's overcome, Ms. Luening's enthusiasm for her métier has not waned. "I love to sing, it makes me feel alive," she says, adding that she draws inspiration from her now five-year-old daughter. "My daughter is my motivation for everything. She's incredible - she's taught me how to grow up."
Although she still hopes to record a solo album someday, she has adjusted her ambitions: "For a long time I wanted to be a huge star, but now I've realized that too much comes with that from what I've seen. Also, as far as going places and chasing my musical dream - it's all about Ella now, and what's best for her, and being here is what's best. Motherhood has taught me that it's not all about me."
Indeed, she has learned a lot from being a parent, including the importance of health care, which has affected her professional involvement in private health care. She supports herself by caring for an Alzheimer's patient by day, and by giving performances in the evenings, during which her mother looks after Ella.
Ms. Luening claims that Ella is already showing signs of becoming an entertainer: "Whenever there's music playing, you can't talk to her. You have to watch her dance moves. She has so much rhythm, she'll definitely be a musician."
And music will always be Ms. Luening's passion: "It comes from my soul and there's no other feeling like it."
Sabrina Luening performs at Mediterranean and The Ritz in Oak Bluffs. She plays at The Ritz tonight, Thursday, Sept., 24.
Megan Cerullo divides her time between the Vineyard and New York City.