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Haley Grigaitis was in the closet. Literally, in the closet.
The 17-year-old hung heavy coats around her, ensuring she was shrouded in pure darkness and any sound she made would go unheard. Even though she grew up with music-freak Deadheads for parents, she didn't want them to hear her sing to herself.
She uploaded to YouTube, where she goes by the handle xxrucaxx, her cover of Pepper's "Green Hell" from the pitch-black darkness of the closet, hoping to garner feedback on the anonymous performance. After the "thumbs up" began to accumulate, she made her next video a little brighter — you could almost see a person singing. The next video? You nearly saw her face.
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Six years later, Grigaitis still is one of the Valley's best-kept secrets, a singer with strong, emotive vocals that sound better than a mix of Colbie Caillat and Joss Stone. Her songs are densely pleasurable, blending folk and soul, recalling her dub and rocksteady influences, and veering smoothly into blue-eyed reggae.
Insiders are starting to catch on: She played South by Southwest's TMI Radio Showcase last week with her four-piece band, Ruca (including three backup singers), but she's not headlining large venues in Phoenix — yet. Grigaitis and Ruca have been performing live only since last summer, and though she never envisioned herself on a big stage, it appears inevitable that she'll on one soon enough.
Grigaitis' only musical education came during flute lessons in grade school, before she taught herself guitar in high school using her dad's old electric in an elective class at Foothills Academy. After receiving positive response on YouTube, the Cave Creek native started attending open mics at coffeehouses and outdoor malls, playing covers by some of her favorite artists, including Sublime, from whose song "Waiting for My Ruca" she drew her band name.
It wasn't until local musician Anamieke Quinn heard Grigaitis at the Rogue Bar that her career as an original songwriter was born.
"I heard something that stood out above and beyond what you hear at the average open mic," Quinn says. "I was captivated by her vocal timbre. She was still playing covers, but her voice was so interesting and cool that I was just blown away."
Music was never a guarantee for Grigaitis. In another life, she might have been a horse trainer. Her mom grew up showing horses, and Grigaitis followed suit, taking riding lessons and working at a barn, saying the horse life is what she lived and breathed for 10 years. She sold her horses to move to California to be closer to a guy she dated after high school. She didn't touch her guitar for a year, let alone think about forming a band.
After moving back to Arizona because of finances, the long-distance relationship with the guy in Cali fizzled. On her first date with a guy here in the Valley, she decided to impress him by singing for him at the Rogue open mic.
"The Rogue saved my music career," Grigaitis, 24, says.
Quinn told producer Jack Howell, owner of WilloDisc studio in Phoenix, about Grigaitis, and Howell reached out to write with her.
"Her voice to me seems to be an old soul in a young person's body," Howell says. "It has this character that's not pop at all and has this allure that a lot of vocalists don't have."
Grigaitis had never written original music before, but when the pair came together, the 13 songs that make up her debut album, Flow, came naturally.
"I was terrified because I had never written a line or a melody to a song," Grigaitis says. "I had just gone to Bonnaroo [music festival] by myself, and I talked to him about that. He scribbled away and asked me how it sounded. I was like, 'Wow.' It became the first verse to 'B Family.'"
Much of the rest of the album is full of peaceful, reggae-influenced jams that touch on everything from struggles at her office day job to past love.
"You can pretty much understand who she is just by listening to the record," Howell says. "It's a record that really represents the birth of an artist who's really not trying to be anyone else. I think a lot of records people put out are intentional songs about love or the fashion of the day, and this record is just about an artist trying to be who she is, in a sea of homogeneous pop."
Grigaitis recorded and released Flow in 2011 and since has recruited Howell and Quinn, along with a drummer and guitarist, to play in her live band. Since then, the group has performed at such standbys as Martini Ranch and Crescent Ballroom, but the band's recent small-stage performance at The Firehouse Gallery in downtown Phoenix indicates that it's still making its way in the Valley scene.
Not that Flow isn't powerful. Quinn says her aunt, who was recently in the hospital with heart, lung, and kidney problems, started to get better after listening to Ruca's album.
"Something happened, and she found that spirit and fought through," Quinn. "I think the positivity of the music really helped."