Phoenix's Korbe Canida Isn't Just Taylor Swift-ing Her Way Through Songwriting

Korbe Canida was always that loud, obnoxious girl who constantly was singing and who thrived in a musical theater setting, eventually making her way to the K-12 Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics. She says her animated nature led to her being bullied as a kid. Now, she is modest and self-deprecating, playing three-hour solo sets of acoustic indie folk rock with her guitar on the patio of 5th and Wine in Old Town Scottsdale. The knockout beauty admits onstage to loving Dungeons & Dragons and other "nerdy things" before announcing, "Forgive me while I bite my nails -- they're too long to play guitar."

The 22-year-old nervously laughs while introducing songs, but when she starts to sing, her powerhouse vocals captivate. Her sweet gaze, which she holds with each intent listener, keeps audience members transfixed and brings some to tears. Canida is not afraid to have intimate moments, no matter how big the crowd.

She sings about ex-lovers and relationships turned sour, with lyrics more powerful than the trite ones in Top 40 hits. She doesn't just go through the motions and belts about heartbreak, longing, and finding her identity. A New York City-trained actor, her performance chops are striking. She's admittedly still "that shaky girl apologizing for everything," but she's also more confident than ever.

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"I used to make eye contact and then avert my eyes really quickly," the Phoenix resident says. "I would lose so much connection. Things have gotten exponentially better since I started holding eye contact. Those are the people who want to come up and talk afterwards, and that's my favorite part."

Though Canida only began writing songs a few years ago, the Portland, Oregon-born singer's musical prowess came before her first words, when she hummed "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on pitch. She joined choir and was a musical theater star in high school before heading to the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts to study film and television acting. That's when she fell in love with a gay male neighbor, which inspired her first original song.

"The song was called 'Without a Boat,' which I wrote when I was feeling very depressed, like nothing would ever work out the way I wanted it to," says Canida, a self-taught guitarist who crafted the tune on a secondhand guitar from her mom. "I felt like no one I liked would ever like me back, and I always would be alone."

Canida turned her angst into poetry and more originals, then learned some covers, enough to build a small repertoire. She played her first open mic during winter break at The Dubliner in Phoenix almost three years ago, and the performing bug hit: She vowed to do an open mic every week for the rest of the year. She headed back to school and played open mics in New York City, then continued gigging in Phoenix after graduation. She kept her vow, missing only a couple of weeks.

Canida's repertoire includes more than 30 originals, and she keeps a journal with her at all times for lyric-writing. She plays weekly at bars, music venues, and resorts around the Valley and is releasing a five-song EP this month, a mix of songs she recorded at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences with producer, engineer, and mixer Jared Hacmac. The highly polished recording of lead single and title track "The Siren and the Sailor" is hauntingly powerful and is the song Canida says resonates most with audiences.

"It was mindblowing because this was a song I didn't think anyone was going to like when I first wrote it," Canida says. "It was my first fingerpicking song, and it's kind of a weird metaphorical, allegorical story of this siren feeling guilt for singing to this sailor, because the mythology is the sirens sing and the sailors throw themselves in the water and drown."

Canida says the track came after an ex moved away and she began dating someone new.

"I felt super-guilty about connecting with this new person because I felt like my heart wasn't really my own," Canida says. That such deep personal experiences inspire her lyrics translates to the passion she conveys while she performs. Her stepfather, Ronnie Winters, a prominent local musician and professional guitarist for 35 years, says Canida has a "certain charisma and star quality" he rarely encounters.

"She has a way of connecting with her audience, pulling them into her space," Winters says. "It's not easy for her to go unnoticed when she performs. I truly believe she has that combination of talent and personality to become really big in the indie scene."

Canida is planning a West Coast tour at the end of January to support the EP release and is practicing piano and ukulele to expand her musical palette. Listeners can expect new material from Canida to be more identity-focused, as she's declared a four-month dating sabbatical to get more in touch with herself. A Reiki master, Canida uses the Japanese energetic healing technique to focus her energy and keep herself grounded.

"I'm figuring out who I am," Canida says. "Not dating anyone for four months is terrifying because I've used the dating world to validate me and give me this sense of confidence. I'm taking that security blanket away and have committed to doing this whole single thing to find a different source for my confidence and validation."

Part of that includes evolving her fashion style. Canida grew out her hair in college after feeling pressure to look like "leading lady material," and she recently chopped her locks. She loves "boy fashion" these days, donning bow ties and a pixie cut. She sometimes sings to women in covers she performs, when gender-swapping lyrics don't make sense for the song. Though she's never dated a woman, Canida says, she's open to the concept of fluid sexuality and doesn't mind how audiences interpret her lyrical choices.

"I am completely pro-anybody expressing whatever and loving whomever they choose," Canida says. "If someone connects a song with me having love for a woman, and that's something they can connect to, where they feel not alone because I did that, it's cool."

While she says she's been accused of "Taylor Swift-ing" her way through her music career, Canida's openness about her vulnerabilities increases empathy in her listeners. For fans like Anamieke Quinn, who recruited Canida to play at her Sidepony Express Music Festival in Bisbee this past November, it's exciting to watch where Canida evolve.

"She looks kind of shy and unassuming, but when she opens up her mouth, it's like a lion roaring, like her secret power," Quinn says. "Her voice really stands out because it's powerful and dynamic. She has a way of keeping things rhythmic and upbeat but still very emotional and intense."

Canida still draws on the range and technique she honed as a musical theater actor, though her voice has become less Broadway and more radio-friendly since she left the stage. While she's more focused on her music career today than acting, says her acting training taught her to be aware of her emotions and helps her bond with those who watch her.

When asked what makes her stand out in the local music scene, the chatty Canida, whose cadence is even melodic, significantly pauses for the first time. Her humility is still evident as she finally settles on her authenticity and the kinship she feels with her listeners.

"It's been so great to see as my style shifts, I end up connecting more with my audience," Canida says. "I need to trust the more I write, and the more I am myself in it, the more people usually respond well."

Korbe Canida is scheduled to perform Monday, January 19, at the Rogue Bar in Scottsdale.

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