Two years ago Savannah Leighton sat in her Spring Garden home and taught herself to play the guitar.
Last week, the 16-year-old sang to millions of viewers over NBC’s reality show The Voice.
The sophomore at Spring Garden School has a shot at winning $100,000 and a recording contract through the show.
Leighton recorded the first portions of the show in Los Angeles in October. Later in the season the show goes live.
Leighton held her grandfather’s Fender acoustic guitar inside her stepfather’s Piedmont pawnshop for a photographer. Her choice of instrument was appropriate because her grandfather, Donnie Pope, who sang and played in church and did the occasional karaoke, spurred Leighton’s interest in music.
“I knew I wanted to be just like him,” Leighton said. Pope died in August.
Leighton began singing in church at age 2. Piano lessons followed at 8. She opened for a local gospel group at 9 but didn’t pick up the guitar until 2015.
“You’ve got to have it built in you,” said her stepfather, Paul Byers, speaking of Leighton’s natural ability on the guitar. Byers and Leighton’s mother, Theresa Leighton, are huge supporters of her music.
In 2014 Leighton sang at the Rome River Jam, placing second in the event’s local version of The Voice singing contest. Her last performance locally was at the Locos Cantina Mexican restaurant in Piedmont, a world away from Los Angeles.
She sings country music locally, but pop is her genre. She’s a serious Demi Lovato fan, and loves Katy Perry and Ed Sheerin. Leighton is writing her own songs now, and has her sights on a career of doing nothing else.
“It’s been my dream since I was a little girl,” Leighton said. “I can’t think of anything else that I want to do for the rest of my life.”
She works three days a week at a steakhouse in Centre, and when she isn’t working at the restaurant she’s practicing her music. Making time for friends is important for her, too, she said. She’s working on that. Her phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the show aired Tuesday. It feels good, she said.
Leighton auditioned unsuccessfully for The Voice once before, in Memphis for season 11 of the show. The second go-around in Atlanta last June was different, she said.
“I felt way more comfortable because I knew how things would go,” she said, but still, her nerves led a judge to ask her to sing a second song, which won her the spot to Los Angeles.
Leighton said taping the show in Los Angeles “was crazy. The schedule was so busy.” Among the judges are giant names in modern music, including Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, Alicia Keys and Adam Levine.
Asked about what it was like to meet those stars during taping, Leighton said “meeting and talking to them made me realize they’re really just like us. They’re really down-to-earth.”
In Tuesday’s show Leighton sang Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally.” She chose Gwen Stefani as her coach.
“The main reason why I picked her is because she can help me build my confidence, and I really need somebody to help me do that,” Leighton said. “She makes me feel so secure.”
“She’s so beautiful; she didn’t even look real, because she’s so beautiful. She’s really a genuine person. She means what she says,” Leighton said.
Leighton said she’s honored by the chance to be seen by so many, and she’s got no plans to take the good fortune for granted.
“I’m just really grateful, because I come from such a small town. People always think, they’ll never make it out of this small town, but then...This is a really good opportunity” Leighton said.
Staff Writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @burkhalter_star.