LAKE PLACID - Julie Kathryn took the stage solo at Smoke Signals in Lake Placid Saturday night, but she hasn't always comfortable with doing that.
When she was growing up in Lake Placid, Kathryn was always too nervous to be a solo performer. She sang with her father, lawyer Tim Smith, she sang in chorus and she played guitar and piano, but "I was pretty shy about singing on my own," Kathryn told the News in a phone interview last week.
But after years of being a social worker, Kathryn toughened up enough to face the stage.
She now lives in New York City and works full time as a musician, sometimes performing solo and sometimes with a band. She's starting to see some commercial success with the release of her first full-length album, "Black Trees," in August.
Kathryn grew up in Lake Placid as Julie Smith. Her new, married last name is Franco, but for her musical persona, she uses her first and middle name.
Kathryn went to St. Agnes Elementary School and then Lake Placid Middle/High School, graduating in 1997. She went to Cornell University, then moved back to Lake Placid for some time, working a variety of jobs including as a reporter for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (she wrote under the byline Julie Smith).
Then she went into social work, which she did for many years.
"I think being a social worker helped me lose my stage fright," Kathryn said. "I realized if I could do that, I could play music for people."
She worked with homeless people and inmates as they went through emotionally intense situations, like coming to terms with a drug addiction or having HIV.
She was in the position where, from time to time, people would threaten her. Once, she was meeting with a man who was in jail for stabbing his psychiatrist in the neck.
"He looked at the pen and he was like, 'I could stab you with that pen right now,'" Kathryn said.
Dealing with things like that started to give her the inner strength and confidence in herself as a singer and songwriter. It also gave her a heightened sense of emotional awareness, which she said helped make her a good songwriter.
Slowly she started playing shows and evolving into being a solo performer.
"I remember when I was still a social worker and would play gigs at night or go to open mic nights, I was just terrified," Kathryn said.
With a style that's been dubbed Americana noir, she released "Broken Love," a four-song EP, in 2012 and "Black Trees" her first full-length album, in August that has been well received by the music industry. It's mostly original songs written or co-written by Kathryn, but there are a few covers, including a lesser-known Bob Dylan tune, "Emotionally Yours."
She's been touring some since the release, including Saturday's show at Smoke Signals. She said she loves coming back to play in Lake Placid, because so many of her friends get to come see her play. In July, she played another show there on the bill with 1990's singer Jill Sobule. It was a benefit for the Palace Theatre, which is where she had her first date. That made it all the more special, she said.
Kathryn also opened for Martin Sexton in Connecticut recently, and she has a handful of dates lined up throughout the Northeast.
Kathryn said she strives for a rootsy feel with a darkness underneath. She tries to bring out the darkness of raw emotion without being too depressing.
"It's a balance I try to strike," she said.
In a video she made for the title song, she said she and her team tried to bring out the darker side of it.
She said the song and others on the album are inspired by the one relationship she never really got over - though she notes that she has moved on from it and is married. She said the image of black trees was the most poignant, touching, sad image she could think of as a metaphor for the relationship.
Kathryn is big on visual imagery in her music. She works with a songwriting coach in New York City to develop her writing skills. With him, she does exercises like writing lyrics first, or writing music first, write something that's fast, or with certain chords, or about a specific topic.
Her time at the ADE seems to have helped her learn to write more quickly, though she never made the connection before she was asked about it.
Kathryn's story may seem somewhat reminiscent of another Lake Placid native who has developed a strong musical career: Lana Del Rey. Kathryn said they've known each other their whole lives and used to be really friendly, but they haven't talked in a few years.
"I'm super inspired by what she's doing," Kathryn said. "She's really determined and talented."
In addition to her current style of music as Julie Kathryn, watch out for the other musical persona she's working on developing. I Am Snow Angel is the name of the current project she's working on in which she is exploring electronica that she produced entirely on her own.
She has only released one song under that moniker so far, "Let Me Go," that's reminiscent of bands like Massive Attack, but she's planning to release more and hopefully film some videos soon.
"This is a totally different and fun creative outlet for me," she said. "It's completely electronic and self-produced. It feels like an alter-ego of sorts.
"I really love being able to simultaneously pursue these different sides of my musicality ... very exciting for me."