Sabrina Duke doesn’t remember a time when music wasn’t an important part of her life. As a kid, she experimented with self-recording, using a double tape deck and a Casio keyboard.
At 15, she started looking for local bands to sing with. (One of those projects even landed her a spot on stage at the ’97 Warped Tour.) And at 23, she flew down to Nashville, where she turned down a record deal that might have brought her overnight success.
“I felt as if I was going to have to sell my soul if I went in that direction,” she says. “I decided that if I was going to do music, I wanted to do it my way.”
Now, 10 years later, Duke has the confidence of a seasoned performer and the balance and poise of a mature adult. Rather than give up on her dreams – as so many talented artists do – she’s found a way to weave those colorful threads into the fabric of everyday life.
By day, she works as a fourth grade teacher for the Red Lion School District. “I love working with kids and watching them grow and learn,” she says. “I always knew in my heart it was going to be music or teaching. I feel very fortunate that I can do both.”
It’s not hard to picture Duke at the front of a classroom. She exudes a maternal sort of warmth and kindness that any good teacher should have. And yet, she’s also a natural on the stage – whether she’s rocking out to an old Motown tune or belting out a soulful original.
Although she doesn’t really play a musical instrument (learning guitar is on her to-do list for 2014), she’s written a body of songs with her writing partner and guitar accompanist, Frank Tittiger. The two met 15 years ago when they were both members of a cover band called Planet 7. “Once he saw my passion for original music, he said, ‘Let’s do this together,'” Duke recalls.
Writing with Tittiger felt natural to Duke from the beginning. “We’re a great writing team,” she says. “Typically I write lyrics and melodies and I’ll explain to him what I hear in my head as far as rhythm and drumbeats, and we’ll rearrange it together.”
Duke and Tittiger often perform together as a duo, but Duke is comfortable on stage in a variety of scenarios, ranging from acoustic duos or trios to a full band. She has an extensive roster of musicians she can call on for accompaniment, and she enjoys the diversity that brings to her life as a performer. Being well connected in the local music scene also helps her keep her options open. “I can’t turn down shows,” she laughs. “I’ll always find a way to play that show.”
That level of determination is somewhat new for Duke, who all but disappeared from the music scene for three years while she struggled through a toxic relationship. “I almost lost what I love the most,” she says. “But coming out of that relationship, it was my goal to get back out there.”
In addition to booking more shows in the area, she released her first full-length solo album last May. A 12-song collaboration with Tittiger and producer Marshall Deasey, the self-titled album features a wide spectrum of songs written over the last 15 years.
For the average listener, moving through Duke’s album from beginning to end is part music history lesson and part orientation to her big, emotive voice. The songs dabble in styles from old school Motown to contemporary rock and soul.
Spanning four octaves and a range of emotions, her voice is a force on par with R&B giants like Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Joss Stone and Alicia Keys. In songs like “If You Want It” and “Who Do You Think You Are,” she carries all the anger and longing of a jaded lover (think Gloria Gaynor in “I Will Survive”), then dips into her sultry lower register for love songs like “Easy” (evoking a whiff of Toni Braxton or Taylor Dayne). In “5 Questions” – a ballad that could easily pass as an Adele cover – her powerful voice drifts into a quiet vulnerability, demonstrating the softer side of her range.
Although Duke’s influences (Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and many others) are evident in her music, her voice is unmistakably hers. And her songs detail her own stories, loves and heartbreaks.
“I grew up with an alcoholic father, who’s now recovered,” she says. “It’s a success story. But that definitely shaped my view on relationships and kind of shaped my personality. You can hear that in a lot of the stuff that I write – whether it’s about addiction or struggling to find love.”
In October, Duke rallied several other local women performers – including Dana Alexandra, Caroline Rose, Sarah Beth and Lauren Fein – to put on a benefit concert for the YWCA of York’s domestic violence shelter for women. The show, which was well attended, gave Duke the satisfaction of using her music to help others in a palpable way.
As a teacher, she’s very aware of the influence she has on others and feels a keen responsibility to use that influence in positive ways. Her teaching and her music don’t directly intersect, but her students can see her in the local newspapers and look up her videos on YouTube.
“It is two separate lives, but it’s crossing over,” she says. “I love it, because it gives me even more of an incentive to be a positive role model. I want them to look up to me and be proud of me.”
Many of Duke’s songs seem to center around the concept of what she calls “love that isn’t right for you.” But in a world overflowing with the wrong kinds of love, she seems to have found an abundance of the real, long-lasting kind.
As a teacher and a mother, she gives real love and care to the children in her life. As a woman who’s pulled herself out of some oppressive relationships and forged her own path, her self-love propels her to empower other women to do the same. And, of course, her love of music has stood the test of time, helping her navigate through all of life’s storms.