After two years of trying to make it as a songwriter and performer, Lisa Cerbone was ready to return to teaching English last November.
But then she signed a six-compact disc recording contract, the start of an upswing in her career that continues with her performance tonight at the Columbia Festival of the Arts, one of Maryland's biggest entertainment events.
Ms. Cerbone, 30, and her four-member band will play for the VTC Lakefront Birthday Celebration, the part of the festival that marks Columbia's 28th birthday. She and Baltimore-based disappear fear are tonight's entertainment at the Lakeside Stage.
In 1992, Ms. Cerbone, a former language arts teacher at Owen Brown Middle School, gave herself two years to succeed at songwriting -- a mix of her background in writing, singing and guitar-playing -- before returning to teaching.
"Right at my time limit, I was signed," she said in an interview from her Baltimore County townhouse near the Patapsco Valley.
Two weeks ago, her Atlanta-based recording company, Ichiban, released "Close Your Eyes," her debut CD.
"She's good, and she takes her work seriously," said Alexandria Lippincott, assistant managing director of the festival, who chose Ms. Cerbone to perform. "She's also growing in popularity, which is a plus for the festival."
Her band consists of Ms. Cerbone on vocals and guitar, Dave Vergauwen on guitar, Frank Young on drums and Gary Mosca on bass. Her husband, Eric Jensen, also contributed to her CD, co-producing and playing guitar and bass. During the day, he is an engineer at Sigtek in Columbia.
Ichiban told Ms. Cerbone Monday that the CD is selling well in New York City, Boston, Florida and on the West Coast.
Ms. Cerbone's music is difficult to fit into standard categories. Critics have used terms such as folk-rock and alternative, but it is safe to say that the music is lyrics-based acoustic with a melody. The words and the instruments achieve a balance of sound that is neither intimidating nor weak.
Ms. Cerbone muddies the water by calling her music "a form of pop music" -- although sunshine and lollipops aren't central topics on the 10-song CD. "Close Your Eyes" looks at subjects such as low self-esteem, dysfunctional families and domestic violence.
She says the CD is "one person talking, and they're all chapters in her life at different times and how she survives. I wasn't really trying to have a commentary on any thing. I just wanted to show the reality of situations."
Ms. Cerbone has had a desire to write since she was a third-grader in her hometown, East Hanover, N.J. When she was in her late teens, a voice teacher suggested that she take her soprano voice into opera, but she decided instead to study English literature at the University of Maryland College Park and picked up the guitar.
"I was taking a lot of creative-writing classes at Maryland," she said. "I was also taking classical guitar at the same time. My first songs were pretty bad. It took a while to develop that craft."
After she graduated in 1988, Ms. Cerbone taught teaching at Harford County public schools while living in Kings Contrivance. A few years later, she moved to Owen Brown Middle, where she stayed until 1993.
"I really liked teaching," said Ms. Cerbone, who is still certified to teach in Maryland public schools. "I liked the kids a lot."
Ms. Cerbone, a self-described introvert who made her debut performance more than five years ago in Baltimore, said she found performing a challenge.
"I was so still when I started," she said. "It took me a really long time to get confident on stage. I'm not a natural performer."
Among musicians, she likes Lisa Germano, the Cocteau Twins and Robyn Hitchcock.
She counts among her literary influences Dorothy Allison, Mary Gaitskill and J. D. Salinger.
"They probably influence me more than any musicians do," she says. "They have this emotional distance from what they write about. I try to keep that."
Lisa Cerbone will perform at 7:30 p.m. today at the Lakeside Stage for the Columbia Festival of the Arts birthday celebration near Lake Kittamaqundi. The celebration is sponsored by the Columbia Association, the Columbia Festival of the Arts and the Columbia Birthday Celebration. Admission is free. Information: 715-3055.
Jazz innovator Cassandra Wilson will perform at the Spear Center in Columbia at 8 p.m. tonight as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts. Article, Page 5 of Maryland Live.