Most 14-year-olds spend the summer thinking about starting high school. Ava Earl spent the summer preparing to perform on the main stage at the largest summer festival in Alaska.
It's a big step; last year she performed on the smaller River Stage. "I think last year when I performed it was kind of a test," Ava said. "I'm young; a lot of people don't want an inexperienced musician on the main stage of Salmonfest."
Ava is a confident teenager with a bright smile and wild, curly hair. Raised in Anchorage and Girdwood, she enjoys the outdoors and drawing. She began playing music when she was 5, starting on the pennywhistle before her mother enrolled her in guitar lessons with Melanee Stiassny. She had a natural affinity for guitar, and soon Stiassny encouraged her songwriting.
Her parents were supportive of her growing passion for music; they gifted Ava with the opportunity to record her first album, "Chronicles of a Best Friend," for her 12th birthday. "My first album … I'm not exactly sure how to theme. I think I was a little overwhelmed by myself at the time," Ava said.
"Those songs, most of them I didn't even know what I was singing about. The first album was less based in reality and … I think it just came out of me and exploded."
Tracks like "JR" speak to Ava's youth and the joy that comes with being young and hanging out with friends. But there are also songs where Ava's lyrics are mature beyond her years, such as the melancholy tracks "Wonder" and "Control."
Things picked up quickly for Ava after the release of her debut album. One major step was getting a manager. Her mother, Shannon Earl, was in charge of booking and managing Ava's shows in the early days; that role was eventually handed over to family friend and local musician Julia Issac. In the year and a half since the two joined forces, she opened for The Last Revel and Austin Miller, booked larger gigs and recorded a second, self-titled album.
Released May 26, "Ava Earl" was recorded at The Hallowed Halls in Portland, Oregon. Ava wrote all the lyrics herself, co-producing the record with Hawkins Wright. It was an important experience, Ava said, in part because she learned how to be more open to outside suggestion during the writing process.
Ava said her first album was "very experimental." It was her first time in the studio and her mother Shannon and producer Kurt Reimann tried to tell Ava as little as possible. Whatever instruments she wanted to hear in a song, they did their best to accommodate.
For the second album, "I wanted to make a CD that really reflected how I play live," Ava said.
As a result, there are fewer contributors on "Ava Earl" than her previous record. Andy Mullen joined her on guitar and bass; Anna Tivel played violin; and her younger sister, Hadley, was featured as a guest vocalist.
Ava calls Mullen a "musical inspiration and a great mentor."
"He's like my partner in crime now," Ava said.
Working with Mullen in the studio helped Ava learn how to collaborate with other artists. "At first I was like, 'Yeah, whatever goes!' But then I got locked up in my own little world," Ava said. "He'd be like, 'Can I do a solo here?' and I'd be like, 'Y'know, let me think about it … that would be a good idea.'"
"I've had to open my eyes a little bit wider and he's really helped me do that."
With two studio albums under her belt and a successful set on the River Stage at last year's Salmonfest, it's no surprise that Ava was invited back to the festival this year. Now 14, Ava is probably the youngest person to ever play the Ocean Stage, Salmonfest's main stage.
"I can't recall anybody that young playing Salmonstock or Salmonfest," Jim Stearns, Salmonfest festival director and producer, said via telephone. "I can't recall anyone younger than 25 ever playing."
Ava is slated to play the opening set Saturday morning. With more than 8,000 people visiting the Kenai Peninsula Fair grounds annually for Salmonfest, it will be the largest crowd that Ava has ever played for.
With her music career quickly propelling forward, one of the biggest questions on Ava's mind is where she imagines music taking her, especially as she starts high school in South Anchorage. Despite being a freshman, she's already thinking ahead.
"Honestly, when I go to college I don't want to get a music degree," Ava said. "I want music to be something that continues throughout the rest of my life. I'm not sure where it will take me in the future, but for now this is enough for me and I'm just happy to be doing it."
Zakiya McCummings is a features intern at Alaska Dispatch News. She has worked as a reporter for the Anchorage Press, The Associated Press and Salon. Follow her on Twitter: @realzakiya.
When: 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds, 16200 Sterling Highway, Ninilchik
Tickets: $65-$145. Visit salmonfestalaska.org for details.