“Did you hear that girl?” members of the crowd whispered to one another incredulously.
Jaden Carlson probably would have been a unanimous choice to win the preliminary Steamboat Springs round of the Aspen Songwriters Competition at the Tugboat in January, but she was too young to be sent to the finals in Aspen.
Jaden’s guitar looks enormous in her 11-year-old arms. But her skill, attitude and heart match those of seasoned musicians.
Jaden, a Boulder resident who has been traveling to Steamboat to ski since 2007, will be playing her first official Steamboat show Friday night at Old Town Pub. The free show starts at 9:30 p.m. with young Jaden fronting a soulful rock trio comprising Jubal on bass and Will Trask on drums.
Jaden first picked up a guitar at kindergarten age and has been practicing for more than an hour each day since then.
“I was the kid that crawled toward the guitar closet in class when the teacher was handing out word searches,” Jaden said in her peppy, tomboyish twang.
She started writing songs at age 6 and played her first gig in a coffee house in Boulder. She got an electric shock from her equipment, but the response was amazing, she said.
“I was a little imp on stage, and everybody thought that was pretty cute,” Jaden said. “And I liked sharing my message to the crowd.”
She recorded her first album at age 8 and began to garner introductions to major players in the Colorado music scene.
“When I was maybe 10 1/2, when I saw my buddy Garrett (Sayers, of the Motet) and how much he played and how much he enjoyed it, I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to go on tour. I want to get enough experience to be a pro and get all the experience in music I can in the world.’”
Now, she goes to school online and spends most of her time on the road with her mother, Kelly Carlson, playing gigs across the region. She’s played the Fox Theatre in Boulder and the Ogden Theater in Denver, sharing stages with the likes of Michael Franti, Trevor Hall and Melvin Seals.
But taking it slow is important to her. She’s not looking for any instant YouTube fame.
“I could deal with it, but I don’t want to reach the peak of my career at such a young age,” she said.
Jaden knows she’s still a kid, and she knows she still sometimes can act like one.
She’s on her game in professional situations, but she gets to let loose at Nordic skiing practice with the Boulder Nordic Juniors.
“It’s the days when I’m at my dryland or ski practice, I’m a total kid. I’m a spaz, I jump all over the place, I fall into the trees, and I have pole fights with my friends.”
Her mother, Kelly, said Jaden fits in when it comes to backstage jams and bar gigs. There was only one bar that wouldn’t let her play because of her age.
“She gets a lot of compliments from other musicians, that have been playing for 15 or 20 years, that she’s more seasoned and more mature than musicians they’ve been playing with.”
Although the life of a touring musician isn’t an easy one, Kelly said she couldn’t imagine Jaden heading in any other direction.
“She has too much of a gift to not let her pursue it,” Kelly said, speaking from a car on the way down to Denver, where Jaden was about to see Melissa Etheridge perform and meet the legendary rocker backstage. “The world needs to see what she just does.”
Jaden said she’s looking forward to playing a gig with her band in Steamboat. In addition to the songwriting competition, she unofficially played Old Town Pub when she sat in with Springdale Quartet last winter while she was in town for a Nordic race.
“I love playing there because the people there like my music,” Jaden said. And onstage is where it all comes together for her:
“I’m not focused when I’m up there; I’m just playing,” she said.