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All By Herself 

Jenny Vasquez has talent — now she needs backup.

It didn't overwhelm Vasquez, whose singing soared above and dived through the multilayered arrangements with a full-bore power that recalled a young Aretha Franklin. It was an impressive opening, especially given that the songs were all originals composed by the singer and the band.

But while the next logical step is to go into the studio to record a demo CD, the next performance is still very much up in the air.

"It's kind of a weird limbo," says her band-mate and boyfriend, Guistino (Justin) Riccio. "Everyone was blown away by her singing. They knew she had a great voice, but once she got onstage in front of people, it was a whole new thing. Now so many people believe in her, but it's an uphill battle getting them to dedicate themselves."

Most of her band-members' commitments are nonexclusive. Riccio, like several other players, plays with local salsa band Bio Ritmo. It's hard enough to make a living as a musician without creating and perfecting a whole new set of songs.

"Getting people to dedicate the time and practice takes away from their money," Vasquez says. "And I'm not just looking for a backup band, I want collaborators who can write songs as well as play them.

"You are definitely vulnerable doing your own material. It's safer to stay with the Top-Ten hits, but it's just an interpretation, and people will always compare you against the original."

Vasquez's determination was forged at an early age, growing up in the projects in New York City's gritty Hell's Kitchen. "My father was a musician who could play anything," she recalls. "But he was also very Pentecostal and only played in the church. Until I was 10 all I heard was Christian music; everything else he called 'worldly.' By the time my mother left him, I was hungry for any other kind of music. I listened to everything I could get my hands on."

Her musical talent was quickly recognized. She appeared on Star Search when she was only 12 and won admission to the city's prestigious School of the Performing Arts, where one of her classmates was Alicia Keys. Vasquez studied singing, got bored and switched to musical theater. Writing her own songs, she taught herself to play guitar.

This promising start came to an abrupt end when her mother decided to move the family to Virginia Beach. Going to conservative Cox High School by day and working every night, she lost interest in studying and eventually dropped out.

Soon she was performing with genre-defying Norfolk funk/soul/rap/rock band Seed Is. She views her time with the band as a great experience in a friendly and intimate scene. She met Riccio when their bands played gigs together. He initially tried to bring her into Bio Ritmo and takes partial credit for her decision three years ago to strike out on her own.

"Richmond has some tough crowds to warm up," Vasquez says. "Maybe it's because there are a lot of musicians here. The audience can sense discomfort like a dog can smell fear. If you don't have confidence, don't bother to get up onstage. On the other hand, like New York, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere."

Vasquez is undaunted by the challenge of launching a serious soul band, in the tradition of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. "The music I write requires a band," she shrugs. "I don't want to compromise, that might be the demise of me."

One of the first things they need to do is find a new name. At Bandito's they performed as Pinch (after a well-loved whiskey.) A well-informed local fan pointed out there was already a band in Chicago with that name.

"There's so much on my plate but I'm a tough cookie," she says. "I've fended for myself my whole life. I've had a job since I was 12, raised my brother, and I've know what I have to do and what makes me feel good."

Her nickname, she says, is "Mariposa" - and she used the English version, Butterfly, as her performing name in Virginia Beach. Today, with no fixed plan, a nameless band and talent to burn, she's launching herself against the wind into a bright, uncertain future. S

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