When singer/songwriter Eva Castillo turned 16, her parents gave her an acoustic guitar.
For years, it gathered dust.
"I started playing it and I realized how hard it was," she said. "My fingers started hurting, and I was like, 'You know what? No. Maybe some other time.' So it just sat in the corner, and I didn't touch it."
But now, with a 1-year-old debut album and regular bar and club gigs around the city, Eva Castillo is steadily building a solid fan base. She plays the Mammojam Music Festival - a charity event to raise money for breast cancer awareness and treatment - Saturday at the 8x10.
Playing shows - let alone recording an album - seemed almost impossible to Castillo five years ago.
"I was too shy," Castillo said. "I was way, way too shy. I couldn't handle being on the stage. Talking to people freaked me out."
Castillo overcame a lot of her stage fright in the classroom. As an architecture student at the University of Maryland, College Park, she had to give presentations in front of other students, which she said helped her people skills. She brought the guitar to college with her and tinkered with it from time to time.
Aside from middle-school chorus, Castillo really never sang or performed in front of a large number of people until college. At her friends' requests, she made her public debut in 2002 at a college party. It went over well and helped persuade her to start writing her own music.
Once Castillo had a handful of original songs, she started playing open mikes in College Park. She remembers one gig at a seafood restaurant, when 30 friends showed up to see her perform.
"I felt so comfortable up there," she said. "I never in a million years would have thought that anything like that would happen. People enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it, and it felt right. I was like, 'Maybe I'm onto something.'"
When Castillo graduated in 2003, she took a six-week trip to Paris. After she returned, she wrote one song she really liked, called "Pure Intimidation." She stopped playing the music she'd previously written and focused on making more songs like this new one.
"I made sure that every song that I wrote after that I'd be as happy with it as I am with 'Pure Intimidation,'" Castillo said. "I don't even know how to play the songs I wrote in college. I haven't played them since."
Castillo builds songs from the guitar up. She starts with a chord progression, then comes up with a melody, and usually adds the lyrics last. Almost all of her tunes are upbeat, and most have laid-back grooves. She doesn't play haunting ballads or darker pieces because she doesn't want her music to bring people down. Though her mother passed away last August from cancer, she can't touch the subject with her music. Every time she tries to, she cries and can't finish, she said.
"I try to keep it out, because it's too powerful," she said. "I gotta stick with the subjects that aren't really too important, like having crushes on boys and that kind of thing. Nothing too serious that I'd want to break down and cry in front of an audience. I kind of keep that stuff to myself."
Live, Castillo plays solo or with upright bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Shareef Taher. Together, they're called the Eva Castillo Trio.
Both Leckie and Taher are classically trained musicians - which can be intimidating for Castillo, she said. She's self-taught and knows only a few of the traditional chord changes.
"As soon as they see me play, they see that I'm not trained, and they can probably see the mistakes right away," she said. "I think they enjoy it too, because it's very raw. That's what I have to offer - what I'm feeling and what I created. But it is very intimidating that they do know what I'm doing and I don't."
Castillo has lived in Baltimore and worked at an architecture firm in Ellicott City since graduating in 2003. Here, she met local funk jammers the Bridge and wound up singing background vocals on their debut album. Then she won an open-mike contest at the 8x10.
The prize was 12 hours of free recording time at the Bunker Recording Studio. She used the free time and some of her own money to record and mix her debut album, Day by Day.
As Castillo continues to gig around the area, more and more strangers come up to her and compliment her voice and music.
"I think it's awkward. I'm usually the person that goes up to an artist and says, 'I really love your stuff, I really love your stuff. I came out here intending to see someone else, but I really enjoyed your music.' Now people are doing that to me."
The Eva Castillo Trio, the Grilled Lincolns, the Reserves and Joanne Juskus play the Mammojam Music Festival Saturday at the 8x10. 5 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door. The venue is at 8-10 E. Cross St. For more information, call 410-625-2000 or go to mammojammusicfestival.org. To learn more about Castillo, go to myspace.com/evacastillo.