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Astorian sings of faith, depression on new CD

Latina singer and songwriter Melissa Otero celebrated the release of her debut album “My Spirit” in January. She finds it difficult to contain her joy, which is validated not only by her rising success, but also by a more personal triumph.

“My music is not Christian,” Otero said. “But my beliefs definitely helped me with my own therapy.”

Like many people, the Astoria resident has dealt with some emotional hardships — namely, depression. Though some turn to professional counsel for their blues, or even medication, Otero, 28, sought solace through something more spiritual: a new religious awakening. In doing so, she conjured up the inspiration to create and promote “My Spirit,” an honest collection of songs that emerge with a light contemporary feel and evolve toward a darker pop rock with the progression of the album.

“It’s still hard to sing some of these songs, but I feel like I needed to do it,” Otero said.

As it is, each song acts as a reminder of the darkest days of her depression. Otero wrote some of the tracks during her lowest moments, and some of them throughout her religious transformation. “My Spirit” encompasses the last five years of her life, hence the range of the album.

“Everything I write is because of Him. It’s my word, but through Him,” Otero said, referring to God himself. But there is another “him” in the equation, as there often is with women, especially artists. And it’s a heartbreaking “him” of this world — an ex. Many of the songs are derived from that whirlwind of emotion that comes with stepping away from someone close to your heart. This may be one of the reasons why fans find Otero’s music relatable.

“Once, while performing, this one girl came up to me after I sang the song ‘Free’ and said, ‘This is the song. This is the song that is going to help me,’” Otero said.

It may be Otero’s willingness to open up completely that will emerge as her great strength as a songwriter. She is quick to point out that this is a conscious element of her writing.

“My goal with the album is to relate to other people. Some songwriters are vague. Sarah McLachlan writes about personal experiences, but her lyrics are too mysterious for many people relate to. Mine are more direct,” Otero said, adding that she has experienced happiness and sadness, and would like to reach people going through similar problems.

Five years after her birth in Elizabeth, N.J., Otero’s family picked up and moved to Puerto Rico, the country of her heritage. Her encounter with Hispanic pop was the first kiss of her love affair with music.

“My mother was always dancing and had music on at that time. That’s when I starting listening to Gloria Estefan,” Otero said. Within no time, Otero voiced her dreams of becoming a singer and was met by warnings from her family of the difficult lifestyle they promised.

Regardless, the aspiring musician took vocal and piano lessons, and soon began performing at a local level in Puerto Rico. She sang mostly in Spanish but occasionally in English. Her bilingual ability drew attention to her performances.

“As a teenager I was able to perform in places all over the island, so I was pretty well known. I was the only one singing in English rather than Spanish. By the time I was a teen, American music was popular. So I could always find a venue,” Otero said.

But as her adolescence dwindled, so did her satisfaction with her modest career. At 21, Otero returned to the States to settle in New York, and it was here that her aspirations took off. An Astoria resident for two years, Otero has enjoyed riding the New York City music circuit, performing at various clubs throughout Manhattan.

“I’ve been around Greenwich Village — Kenny’s Castaways, Uncle Mike’s. Now that the album was released, I will build a schedule to perform around the city,” Otero said excitedly, adding “I love performing live, it’s such a therapy for me.” Otero took the fall and winter of 2008 to finish “My Spirit,” and is anxious to jump back into the limelight.

Otero also performs as a backup singer for the Latina pop singer Brendaly, who Otero says has the kind of financial backing with Universal records that she’d love to have. “[She] loves my music as well. So we’re talking. Maybe my next album will be interesting!” Otero said.

As for that next album, for the time being Otero is keeping her focus on “My Spirit.” But in six months, she plans to start writing her second album, with an anticipated release in 2010.

“I don’t need crazy type of fame. I’d love a career like my idols Sarah McLachlan, Celine Dion and Gloria Estefan,” Otero said, emphasizing her admiration for the sturdy, steady nature of their careers. “Every time they have a record, they sell the same amount of records because of their loyal fan base.”

“My Spirit” can be purchased on the Internet — iTunes, Rhapsody, CDBaby.com or on her website, www.melissamusic.com.

“I’ve wanted this since I was a kid. I did this almost all on my own, and I’m getting the response I’ve always dreamed of,” Otero said. “I can’t wait to reach more people.”

This article has been changed since publication. Melissa Otero's age and information about Brendaly was corrected.

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