Kaya O’Brien-James, a senior at York High School, says she learned to sing before she could read; maybe that’s why she’s so good at it.
“My mom likes to tell me she had to play the songs on repeat so I could memorize them,” Kaya said. “It was before I was able to fully read what I was singing, so I had to listen over and over and over again to sing with my church.”
Singing in her church choir led to participating in community choirs and numerous local events, including Second Sundays in Williamsburg. She recently recorded the national anthem for Thomas Nelson’s virtual graduation ceremony, which will air May 13 beginning at 10 a.m.
She does most of her singing outside of school because she doesn’t have time for choir in her schedule. This was at least her third time performing the national anthem, including twice at Langley Speedway. Her teacher at Centerstage in Yorktown, where she takes voice lessons, is always looking for opportunities for her students to sing at local events.
This opportunity also allowed her to give back to the community that has been so supportive of her.
“I’m participating because I know that the arts community has been struggling due to the virus,” she said.
Many people say “The Star-Spangled Banner” is tough to sing, and Kaya would agree. The song involves a wide range of notes, and singers often put their own stamp on it, which she also does.
“I try to make it my own,” she said, adding it’s boring when it’s performed the same way all the time. “Even marching bands, they make it their own.”
Two other factors made it more difficult this time: performing it in the morning, and with no audience. She prefers singing in the late afternoon and evening, after she has had time to warm up her voice. She recalls performing the national anthem before one of her travel volleyball team’s tournaments.
“Playing the matches was more nerve-racking,” she said. “The worst past was it was so early in the day.”
She also prefers performing for people, not just singing to a camera crew. Her mom says she comes alive when there’s an audience
“I like being able to look into people’s eyes. I love making a connection with the audience,” Kaya said.
Her musical talents aren’t limited to singing. She plays the guitar, the piano and the ukulele. She attributes that to genetics. Her mom was in chorus in high school (Bruton) and played piano. Her mom’s dad was a great pianist, and her dad’s mom and aunt recorded a CD of gospel music.
“Everyone has been involved but no one has taken it as seriously as I have,” she said.
That will continue at college. She will attend Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where she has been accepted into the honors program and will study music. She’s thinking of a double major with psychology because she has an interest in music therapy.
“It would be a way to combine my two passions: music and working with children and seeing how the mind works,” she said.
Kerri Difiore, who teaches at the York County School Division’s School of the Arts, has known Kaya since she was in first grade, and has had her in a number of classes through the years. She isn’t that surprised at Kaya’s success.
“She’s a wonderful student, a real pleasure,” Difiore said. “I’m just so proud of her. She’s such a unique talent and just so giving; just a real pleasure. I’m going to miss her. She might provoke quite a few tears.”
Kaya doesn’t normally write music, but that changed during the pandemic, when she had more time. She recorded a few songs, including one about her 13-year-old brother, whom she’s especially close to, put them on a CD and has sold them to friends and family.
Despite that success, it’s not her preference.
“I would rather sing someone else’s work than my own,” said Kaya, adding her musical influences include Alicia Keys, Rihanna, and regional star Jocelyn Oldham.
Along with talent, her success can be traced to dedication. While her volleyball teammates eat, sleep and breath the sport, she admits, “I’m like that with music.”
As she prepares to relocate from the East Coast to the West Coast, she has no hesitations about such a big move for a teenager.
“I’m really, really excited to leave and be in the big city,” she said, noting she also considered colleges in New York City. “I’ll miss my friends, and I’ll miss my family.”
The path she’s on doesn’t surprise Difiore.
“I feel like from knowing her in the later part of the middle school years into high school, she’s just blossomed,” Difiore said. “I would say she might be one to watch to see where she goes with her music.”