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Megan Birdsall finds her voice and sings again

By STEVE PAUL

Megan Birdsall has a cold. A knit cap covers her straight blondish-red hair. She’s poking around near the piano at Jardine’s looking for something, then sound-checks the microphone.

It’s early on a Wednesday evening, and after her trio warms up the room, Birdsall, 29, a vibrant and tiny woman, steps onstage and points a video camera toward the audience.

“It’s amazing that you’re here,” she says before launching into cold-be-damned, torch-jazz takes on “Too Close for Comfort” and “Old Devil Moon” and then a languid, full-throated version of the Beatles’ “Something.”

What most of those who fill the room know as they listen is how amazing it is that Birdsall is standing in front of them and singing again.

It was exactly a year-minus-a-day earlier, on Nov. 27, 2007, when a Dallas oral surgeon sliced Birdsall’s facial muscles, replaced her decaying jawbones with titanium implants and straightened a pinched windpipe that threatened her life.

Late last April, when she sang a comeback gig in the same Main Street club, she found out she could, in fact, sing again, though her doctor kept pressing her to slow down and let her mouth properly heal.

She’s still healing, and every now and then when she cocks her head and opens her mouth as if to pop a plugged ear, it’s a reminder that she’s got a long way to go before everything works the way it’s supposed to.

Playing only one club gig a month leaves room for other things, so Birdsall has been working on what would be her third CD.

Those who’ve grown accustomed to the young singer’s pop-inflected jazz may be surprised by the project’s new direction.

But, as Megan Birdsall has discovered in the last year, when life deals you a curve ball like the one that bore down on her, it don’t mean a thing — apologies to Duke Ellington — if you don’t take a swing.

It was an April morning in 2007 when Birdsall’s reign of pain began. She woke up, couldn’t open her mouth and wondered how she’d be able to sing a studio session that day.

A muscle relaxant helped, and soon she learned she probably had a routine case of temporomandibular (TMJ) disorder, which typically involves clicking and tightening of the jawbone. But the pain never went away, even as she sang jazz gigs regularly around town.

Eventually an MRI revealed a far more serious condition. The cartilage attaching her jaw and skull had disappeared, and bone scraped against bone. Her mandibles, or jawbones, had eroded precipitously. This kind of rare auto-immune disorder most often occurs in women and for some it’s thought to be connected to hormonal changes that begin in puberty. Birdsall had just turned 28.

But even worse: As the shape of her mouth and head slowly shifted it put backward pressure on her spine and crimped her trachea. A typical windpipe measures 14 mm; Birdsall’s was down to 4 mm. That was astounding, to the few around her who knew what was happening, given the power of Birdsall’s singing voice.

By August she and her mother, Jeri Birdsall, were meeting at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas with Larry Wolford, a facial reconstruction specialist, and she and her family were fretting over the riskiness of the procedure. And the enormous cost — more than $30,000 just to get the titanium prostheses made, a requirement for scheduling the surgery, and at least $100,000 more in medical procedures and hospitalization.

Birdsall hid her condition from friends and audiences through the summer, hid the pain that often gripped and pierced her head, but the word got out and efforts to raise money on her behalf began.

When Birdsall sang a gig in late October 2007, about the time she released her second disc, “Little Jazz Bird,” it was just weeks before the scheduled surgery. She knew it would be her last performance for many months. Or much longer.

For weeks she carried around the real fear that everything she’d worked for in the last few years — to become a vital presence on her hometown jazz scene — was about to be taken away.

T

he night before the surgery, Birdsall’s actor father, Jim, captured the family’s anxiety when he announced, “We’re outta here.”

Maybe he was joking, but not so much. He couldn’t bear the uncertainty. This surgery was rare enough, but it had never been done on a singer.

“It really was a transformation for all of us on one level or another,” says her mother. “It required a lot of surrender and trust. It was not your ordinary medical situation.”

The next day their daughter spent more than seven hours under the knives and saws of Wolford and his surgical crew. They sliced. They peeled. They cut bone and screwed metal pieces into place.

In her hospital bed at Baylor for nearly a week, then recuperation in a nearby hotel for two more, Birdsall was surrounded by her parents, sister Rhiannon, brother Cameron and boyfriend Michael Andrew Smith. “It was like Christmas every day,” Birdsall says.

And within days of the surgery, groggy and scarred, Birdsall started hearing songs in her head.

New songs with melodies and lyrics of her own: There was an old man standing in front of me, and he waited till the end of the show / I played with my eye on him, not knowing which way I should go.

She and Smith started killing time by working together on that song and others. They were just having fun. She’d been a performer since childhood and veered into music from theater. He’d gone the other a way: a onetime musician now an actor on Kansas City stages.

Birdsall’s recovery from the surgery turned out to be much faster than anyone expected. Though her face remained as round as a Cabbage Patch doll, she could eke out enough voice to know that she might be OK.

After Birdsall got home, she and Smith kept up with the songwriting. She’d pull out her violin, he’d play guitar and they continued to churn out new tunes and arrangements. One after another. A love ballad, a road narrative. Mostly dark and introspective songs, Smith says.

“We wrote this stuff because we didn’t think I could go back to singing,” she says, “and if I didn’t go back, maybe we could sell these songs.”

Every now and then, it helped make her feel as if she could still think of herself as a musician.

B

ut also in that period after the surgery, Birdsall had the blues.

Braces trellised her teeth, and stitches crisscrossed her swollen face and gum tissue.

She was medicated and anxious, and it took a lot of physical energy just to close her mouth.

Because she wasn’t working, she didn’t have her musician friends around. Smith was often away at work and school. She spent most of her time numb and feeling alone.

The day after Christmas, she decided she had to get off her pain medication, liquid hydrocodone.

“It was totally stupid,” she says, and indeed she soon suffered withdrawal symptoms serious enough to send her to the emergency room.

“Everyone said to go back on it, and I said no way.”

Last winter and spring she held her ground, stayed off the painkillers, all the while not knowing whether she’d be able to go back to making music.

A regular teaching gig, helping Shawnee Mission North students prepare their annual musical (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”), gave her a respite, and eventually the songwriting project gathered enough steam that Birdsall and Smith recorded a dozen tracks for a demo. They sent it to an old family friend, Jack Sundrud, who produced records in Nashville. They thought he could shop the songs to other performers.

All along, Birdsall had been warned that recovery from the surgery could take as long as 18 months. By last April, though, she was ready to try again.

She and her regular backup band — pianist Paul Smith, bassist Bob Bowman and drummer Tim Cambron — didn’t even rehearse. Birdsall was tired, and she planned to limit her sets to 25 or 30 minutes each. She didn’t know what would happen with her voice or her stamina.

As she launched into the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote love song “Sleeping Bee” — When a bee lies sleeping in the palm of your hand, you’re bewitched — the microphone cut out.

Something to ease the tension: “Just the way I hoped it would be,” she joked.

I

t’s a quiet Sunday night in October. Chapman Recording Studios in the Crossroads Arts District, a cozy warren of soundproof rooms and limestone-walled hallways, operates nearly around the clock. In one room, two engineers man the soundboards as lights and colors bounce on meters and computer monitors.

She and Michael Smith have spent hours at Chapman in recent months, encouraged by Sundrud’s enthusiasm over the demo. No need to sell the songs. Why couldn’t Birdsall sing them herself?

Sundrud, a onetime member of the country-rock band Poco, has been working with her to refine tracks, add musicians and vocal harmonies.

“What I’m trying to do is help Megan and Michael achieve what they’re hearing in their heads,” Sundrud says.

“I think they’ve written some really cool songs, and we have to find a way to make them sparkle. She’s dynamite.”

From the speakers comes the sound of acoustic guitars in ballad mode and Birdsall’s voice.

She stands alone, behind a window in an adjacent room. At the microphone, she perches her hands at her waist so her arms angle backward like wings.

On this Sunday night the work includes a brief discussion with the Chapman engineers about the sound of a single word in one song.

In several takes, Birdsall emphasizes the word “places” by modulating it through two rising notes, then a falling third, so it comes out “puh-LAY-sez.”

She tries it another way, singing the word in two straightforward syllables: “play-sez.”

What to do?

She sings it each way again, and finally they settle for the three-note word.

“We’re ready for harmonies,” she eventually says. “Now we’re telling a story.”

On the intercom comes Smith’s voice: “You sound freaking awesome, honey.”

B

irdsall still sounds much like the singer she was before her face was reconstructed, although maybe she projects a fuller and more resonant tone.

“My voice has changed,” Birdsall says. “Some people notice, some people don’t.”

She points to her cheek. Inside, her mouth has actually expanded by three millimeters all around.

“So the resonance chamber is larger,” she says. “And I now have a larger windpipe.”

Before, she says, she thought her voice seemed swallowed. Now she thinks it sounds better.

Her musical colleagues agree.

“As far as we can tell,” says her regular pianist Paul Smith (no relation to Michael), “she’s just really roaring.”

A

few weeks later, she is back at Chapman. In this session Birdsall, in Nikes and a pale-blue sweater, is re-recording the vocal track on one song, and guitarist Jake Blanton is adding a tremolo texture to another.

“I think my mind just got blown,” Michael Smith says after one take.

It’ll probably be a few months before Birdsall and company finish the record. Then comes packaging and selling it and convincing her jazz friends that a countrified pop album, with echoes of Aimee Mann and Patsy Cline and a whole lot of Megan Birdsall’s raw emotion, does not portend a permanent detour.

Bassist Jeff Harshbarger, who plays on half the tunes, calls the sound “jangly folk,” in the tradition of singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell.

“Megan’s jazz friends know she’s working on something,” Michael Smith says, “but not this.”

B

irdsall’s theatrical pilot light is always on, making her onstage presence both wacky and warm. She seems to carry an equal measure of confidence and queasy self-deprecation.

At the Jardine’s gig Nov. 26, Birdsall scat-sings a bouncy “Centerpiece,” the Harry Edison-Jon Hendricks classic.

Then she pauses to mention her surgery’s anniversary.

“The doctor told me I might never sing again,” Birdsall says. “We made it.”

The audience applauds. She thanks them for their support, for being among those friends and members of the jazz community who helped raise money to pay part of her hospital bill last year. She reminds them of the frequent struggles local musicians go through just to get by.

“Here’s to us.”

She lights a candle. “I know this is dorky,” she says.

Dorky or not, Birdsall feels blessed by the experience, for discovering how to let life takes its course so long as you show up and take that swing.

Shortly, in memory of the festive season she essentially missed out on last year and in hopes for the one coming up, she begins another tune: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Three hours later, the last song of the night just finished, it’s almost Thanksgiving Day. Birdsall’s parents and her boyfriend gather around the candle and help her blow it out. ★


A MERRY LITTLE SHOW
  • Megan Birdsall sings a Christmas show at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Jardine’s, 4536 Main St. Reservations are suggested; call 816-561-6480.

  • Steve Paul is a senior writer and editor at The Star. Allison Long is a staff photographer. To reach them, call 816-234-4762 or e-mail paul@kcstar.com.

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