Quitman, texas (pop. 2,000), is not listed in tourism brochures as the hip music capital of the Lone Star State. But it's doing its part. The tiny town is the home base of Shea Seger, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter behind one of this year's smartest debuts, The May Street Project (RCA). "Growing up, I hated the smallness of the town," says Seger, who was born in Fort Worth but moved to Quitman when she was four years old. "Now I respect it for its simplicity." Seger has also lived in a number of other places, including Virginia Beach, Virginia (where she embraced rap), and London, (where she launched her singing career in earnest at age 19). Her music reflects her itinerant upbringing: her album has some elements of hip-hop (it was mixed by Commissioner Gordon, who also worked on Lauryn Hill's hip-hop masterpiece The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), but it also features some rock-'n'-roll guitars and a bit of country twang. "I'm a soul singer," says Seger. "But I like to rock too."
Seger is part of a new sisterhood of soul. In recent months, a wave of promising R.-and-B. divas has hit the radio and video airwaves, including big-voiced newcomer Alicia Keys (Songs in A Minor), neo-soul singer Res (How I Do) and soul-rock crooner Nikka Costa (Like a Feather, the single from her recently released album Everybody Got Their Something, is one of the year's catchiest songs). All these young soul crooners make music that's tinged with rap rhythms: the hip-hop gives their work an edge, while the soul makes it all go down easy. Seger's work stands out because she takes a slightly different route-leading her style of hip-hop-tinged pop-soul down the back roads of East Texas.
The May Street Project-named after a street in Quitman-is a surprisingly smooth listen for an album that boasts such seemingly disparate influences. Many of the songs have a billowing, dreamlike quality to them; images and melodies twirl around in tiny zephyrs of sound. Twisted (Never Again) sounds like echoes from a carnival, with spinning ferris-wheel-like choruses and offbeat funhouse instrumentation. On the bluesy I Can't Lie, Seger lets herself go, howling some of the final lines with a gleeful abandon that evokes a carefree Janis Joplin.
One of the album's best tracks is Always, a duet between Seger and Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith. Seger has a bright, brittle voice, like a leaf that's turned some colorful shade of autumn. Her vocals contrast nicely with Sexsmith's plaintive tenor. Always has some elements a listener might associate with folk or country-including gentle acoustic-guitar work-but the track, tastefully sweetened with synthesizers, never settles into any one genre. "I know what I want to see," sings Seger on the song. "And I know where I want to be." Seger may have a peripatetic past, but she's right at home when she's performing.