Sophomore Kayla Saltzman has been singing ever since she could talk, and dreamed of becoming a recording artist one day. Last winter, her childhood dreams began to take shape in the span of just five short days.

Starting when she was 13, Saltzman’s father took her to a local recording studio during the holidays to record covers of songs just for fun, she said. Kayla would sing and her father would play along on the guitar.

“One Hanukkah, one of the presents I got her was a couple hours in a local recording studio,” Saltzman’s father, Barry Saltzman, said. “The engineer was amazed at how in-tune she was for such a young girl and how little he had to adjust the tune of her voice.”

During Saltzman’s annual trip to the recording studio with her father last year, the man who runs the studio, John Mulrenan, told Saltzman that he knew a songwriter named Vito who needed someone to sing one of his songs, she said.

Vito paid Saltzman to sing and record his song, and he passed the recording on to Greg Ricca and Phil Castellano of the record label Gravel Hill Records.

A few days later, Saltzman met Ricca and Castellano, who told her they wanted to start working with her, so she signed on to sing under their label. 

“This all happened in the span of five days,” Saltzman said. “It’s crazy. I was just singing for fun. I had given up on that dream a long time ago.”

Today, a year later, instead of paying to record covers of songs in Mulrenan’s studio, Saltzman now works under Castellano and Ricca’s label, singing original songs. She’s written five songs, has four more in the works and is looking forward to this winter break when she’ll begin preparing to play at music festivals this coming summer, she said.

“I had never written a song before I started working with Greg and Phil,” Saltzman said. “I didn’t even know that I could — I had never really tried.”

Saltzman has no formal music background, but has found that during mundane moments in the day — getting ready for bed or walking to class, for example — a melody pops into her head. She records these bursts of inspiration on her phone, and then works to write a song around them, Saltzman said.

“It’s really weird,” Saltzman said. “I just kind of hear music in everything.” 

Ricca and Castellano spotted this talent immediately when they met Saltzman, and saw that she had an obvious natural gift, they said.

“Her ability to write melodies and lyrics and creatively collaborate with our team inspired us to make the investment in developing her talent,” Ricca said.

Saltzman defines her style as a mix of Amy Winehouse, Fleetwood Mac and Carrie Underwood, and she is inspired by the work of each, she said.

But realizing her musical dreams has not been a complete fantasy. Saltzman made the conscious choice to stay in school instead of pursuing her singing career full-time. 

“If it were up to Phil, I would have dropped out of college and just been working every single day,” Saltzman said.

But Castellano has told Saltzman that, though he sees so much potential in her, he respects her decision to put her education first, and that he has faith in her success regardless, she said.

“She has her feet firmly on the ground,” Castellano said. “She balances her commitment to her studies and her singing and artistry.”

Keeping up with school means that when she gets into the studio, Saltzman works long and grueling hours to make sure she and her team can produce her best work. It’s not as easy as just recording the song a few times, Saltzman said.

This past Thanksgiving break, Saltzman worked on finishing a song she had begun recording over the summer. Recording the song takes six run-throughs. Then, Saltzman, Ricca and Castellano listen to each take line-by-line to decide which line sounds the best out of each take. They do this for every single line of the song. Then, adding music and different ornamentations to the song adds on even more time, Saltzman said.

“It’s a really long process,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be there for up to 10 hours.”

The recording process is long and tiring and sometimes frustrating when Saltzman has an idea for a song and can’t find a way to articulate her musical thoughts into words, but she and the team take breaks in a special break room at the studio where she can clear her mind and drink tea or coffee, she said.

Saltzman’s passion was evident in her giant grin as she spoke about even the challenging parts of being a recording artist. 

“Up until a year ago, I didn’t think that any of this would be possible,” Saltzman said. “I’ve been able to revive my childhood dream. It’s amazing to think that now I have these people who can really make something happen for me.”

And Castellano and Ricca feel lucky to have found her. 

“Her potential might very well be limitless,” Ricca said. 

Contact senior features writer Lucy Nalen at lucy.nalen@richmond.edu.