I woke up early this morning,
Didn’t know who I was,
Your heavy head still on my pillow.
You exhale, stale with alcohol.

If someone had told me that this is how
Love would all go down
(‘Cause it’s going down),
Then they may have saved me from your touch.
— Deidre Muro, “Red Afternoon”

Standing onstage with her guitar and sipping a rum and coke, a faint smile spreads across Deidre Muro’s face as the spotlight fades. Halfway through her set at the East Village’s Sidewalk Cafe, the last notes of her brooding reflections on lost love seem to hang in the air for a moment before rising applause takes over the candlelit room.

“One of the coolest things about playing music in front of a crowd is the ability to shut up a room,” Muro said over coffee and a bagel at Cafe Pick Me Up a few days before the show. “When I play ‘Red Afternoon,’ sometimes it’s scary how quiet the room gets. Suddenly everyone is on the same page with me.”

Muro, a 21-year-old NYU senior, is a petite girl with short brown hair, a disarming smile and a big voice that belies her small stature. She channels the singing voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the songwriting of Jeff Buckley and the soul of Muddy Waters, all with the help of her longtime backing band. But Muro said not to confuse her with those Michelle Branch/Ani DiFranco “girl with a guitar” types spreading their white noise all over the radio.

“I hate the term ‘singer-songwriter,’ ” she said. “Even though I suppose that’s what I am, and I’m not trying to hide that. But it’s become a genre, and as a genre, it’s so stuck in whiny, lame-ass acoustic shit. I like to think I’m more varied than that.”

Muro was raised in Smithtown, Long Island, by a mother who is a church organist and choir director and a father who is a longtime writer and teacher on the subject of synthesizers and electronic music. As a result, Muro grew up with a love of music, attending her mother’s choir practices as a baby and later joining at the age of seven. She also watched every movie musical she could find – including her favorites by Rodgers & Hammerstein – and sang those same tunes for hours while her father accompanied on piano.

In high school, she and her brother, Derek, began writing “silly little pop-rock songs” together, which eventually led to the formation of their alt-rock band, The Token. Derek Muro, two years Muro’s senior, graduated from high school shortly after the band was formed. He attended Manhattan School of Music where he met drummer Mike Christy, and would return occasionally for shows at local dive bars and Battles of the Bands.

“I was so nervous at those first shows,” Muro said. “I don’t really get tense like that anymore, but I remember feeling very nervous. But once we got started, I was like, ‘This is fucking awesome. I want to do this all the time!’ ”

The Token played throughout Muro’s high school career but broke up the summer after her senior year. She took a break from performing until her sophomore year at the Steinhardt School of Education – where she is majoring in music business – to focus on her studies and what she now recognizes was a “bad relationship.” Once she started writing a few songs on her own, however, Muro decided that she wanted to record her first album.

“I don’t just spit out songs,” she said. “I have to wait for them to come. Sometimes months will pass and I won’t write a single song. Other times they come out all at once. But I can’t force myself to sit down and write.”

Muro released Red Afternoon in December 2004. The album, produced and engineered by her brother, is a collection of songs recorded over three years, dating back from her days at Smithtown High School up to this fall.

But she is changing her sound constantly. She tests out new material at New York venues like Crash Mansion and the now closed Bitter End, and incorporates new instruments such as the melodica (“It looks like I’m playing a duck with a keyboard on its back”), while also keeping a few of her old tunes on reserve.

“I don’t want to get up and whine about my life in front of people anymore,” Muro said. “It got to the point where there were songs I was uncomfortable playing. And when you can’t even feel comfortable playing your own songs, that’s a shitty situation.”

To remedy that, Muro took another break from playing for almost a year while she focused on writing new music. Since then, she has come up with some of her strongest material to date, departing from her alt-rock beginnings in favor of jazz and blues.

“My new songs are not really about me,” Muro said. “They’re more abstract. It’s easier for me to perform because I basically feel like I’m acting a part. With the older songs I was too involved; I couldn’t remove myself enough from them to just have fun and perform.”

Muro debuted several of her new songs – which are set to be released as a six-song EP sometime in the next month – during her show at Sidewalk. One of her new songs includes the lyrics “There’s blood on her hands/ No weapons to blame/ She killed another man/ You know it’s always been/ A dangerous game” (from “Blood on Her Hands”).

With new lyrics in store, you have to trust that Muro is writing bluesy fiction rather than her memoirs, at least for now; with perpetual change, who knows?

This story was written Oct. 2006 for the NYU Journalism course “New York Characters,” and was published in the Nov. 10-12, 2006 issue of the Washington Square News.