Shayna Leigh remembers the exact moment when she knew it was time to dedicate her life to singing. “It was in a workout class called Shrink Sessions — an aerobics class where you say positive affirmations,” she recalls of that 2009 realization. “I suddenly said to myself, ‘I want to do music.’ ”
Leigh’s epiphany wasn’t just the result of an endorphin rush. The 27-year-old former valedictorian of the Winter Park (Fla.) High School Class of 2004 has been involved with musical theater for more than half her life.
For Leigh, who will perform at World Cafe Live on Aug. 13 in advance of the release of her first album, Tenderness, next month, it was never a question of whether or not she would wind up onstage. For her, the issue was always which form of musical entertainment would be best suited to her voice and musical preferences.
“Singing was always the reason for me to go into any artistic field,” she explains. “Part of the reason why I went into acting was because I wasn’t sure there was a place for me in music. I didn’t know if there was a place for my voice.”
That voice, which comes across in song as a deeply colored emotive vehicle, does seem to belong to another era, a time of nakedly powerful female singers like Shirley Bassey, Etta James, Dusty Springfield and other icons of the 1960s.
Leigh acknowledges the debt she owes to those women, both in conversation and on her album. The self-professed fan of 1960s pop ballads that came out of New York hit factories like the Brill Building (which housed the likes of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Phil Spector) sings covers of songs like “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” “Darling, Be Home Soon” and “I Saw the Light” on a debut featuring three of her own songs.
Her own material channels the chops of singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro and Carole King. “I’ve always felt that I have something to say. I struggle with what it is on a daily basis, but there are things I want to say to the world,” she explains.
One of those things she wants to communicate is the importance of Judaism throughout her life. Leigh and her sister host holiday dinners in their New York City apartment, and she invites Jewish organizations like Sharsheret, a support group for Jewish women facing breast cancer, to set up informational tables at her shows. “My Jewish values are pretty important — I’m obsessed with them,” she emphasizes. “It’s part of the way I see the world, and one of the defining elements of what makes me.”
And it’s part of what makes her someone to watch.
Shayna Leigh at World Café Live
3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia
Aug. 13, 8 p.m.