Ryan "Shmed" Maynes has performed with some of the best professional musicians in America and elsewhere. His piano playing can be heard on old episodes of "Weeds" and "Third Rock From the Sun." He toured the country with the popular indie band Arlo. His original music was once recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.
None of that, however, fully prepared him for the day when Kira Means walked through the door of his Missoula recording studio.
"When I first heard her sing, I was kind of intimidated by her, she's so good," said Maynes, who runs Club Shmed Studio. "She's maybe the most naturally talented musician I've ever dealt with."
Ask Missoula's finest musicians about Kira Means, and across the spectrum, the superlatives pile up.
"She's got a crazy-beautiful voice," says jazz musician Eden Atwood, herself an internationally recognized singer. "She's the real deal."
"She blew me away," says Darko Butorac, the conductor of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, who first heard Means perform when she auditioned for the annual First Night Idol competition this past December. "To find a talent like that in a local talent competition, it was shocking, to be honest."
"She's brilliant, amazing," says Tom Catmull, a popular rock and Americana musician in the regional nightclub circuit, who recalls meeting Means at a songwriting workshop he was leading last year.
"She busted out one of her songs, and it just knocked everybody out completely," recalls Catmull, who now teaches Means guitar lessons. "I think we all felt like we were sitting there next to somebody who was going to be famous."
Kira Means isn't famous - not yet, anyway. She's not even sure that she wants to be famous. In any event, she's got time to choose her path.
At 14 years old, Means is still less than half the age of most of her adult fans in the local music community. For now, her life is dominated by the day-to-day activities of a freshman at Hellgate High School.
"It's been kind of cool," says Means, her dark brown eyes framed by a mouthful of braces and a swirl of brown hair. "But I do have a lot of things I like to do besides music."
That may be the case. But as word of Means' talent has spread through the local community over the past year, she has suddenly found herself in demand at benefit events, talent shows, and concerts. She recently won the First Night Idol competition at the Wilma Theatre on New Year's Eve, performing the very first song she ever wrote, "Hello." She's been invited to play solo gigs at Sean Kelly's, and at an upcoming benefit concert in March at the Wilma Theatre.
Means doesn't remember a time before she enjoyed singing. Though she doesn't come from a particularly musically oriented family, her father, local architect Kent Means, began studying guitar when she was young. At age 9, Kira began studying that instrument through the Childbloom Guitar Program.
At one of her early recitals, Kira decided to sing and play the Beatles classic "Let It Be."
"I got lots of compliments for that, so I thought, that's cool, people like it," she says.
In December of 2008, Kira wrote "Hello," inspired by the story of Dong Yun Yoon, the San Diego man who lost his wife, children and mother-in-law when an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet crashed into his house.
"I tried out for a talent show last year after I wrote that song, and then it started coming; every time I got one gig, somebody there would ask me to play another one," says Kira. "It definitely has started taking off. I haven't really had to turn down gigs yet, but once I start getting more I guess I'll have to start turning them down. I've kind of been taking it one step at a time mostly."
On a recent Sunday, Kira sat on a stool in the recording room at Club Shmed Studio, quietly fingering the fretboard of her acoustic guitar while Shmed Maynes adjusted his recording equipment.
"OK, you can go," said Maynes.
Means began to play, her fingers deftly sliding along the neck of her guitar as she picked out the complex jazz progression of the Billie Holiday classic "God Bless the Child." As she played, her dark eyes narrowed, her face almost vacant as she disappeared deep inside the music. A few minutes later, she stepped into a smaller sound booth and added her vocal track, her golden voice soaring through the aching melody.
"That was awesome," said Maynes after she finished her first take. "I would tell you exactly how great it sounds, but it'd take up too much studio time."
Sitting behind Maynes on a couch, Kent Means quietly smiled. The past year has been a bit of a whirlwind, he says. Today, he finds himself not only serving as his daughter's roadie - setting up sound equipment, helping to make gigs run smoothly - but also helping to manage her expectations and commitments.
"I always wanted my kids to learn music; it's something I think is a great life-skill to be able to play music and enjoy it," said Kent. "But I don't think we ever expected she'd become a musician. So we're trying hard to balance the excitement with the rest of life as a kid."
Kira's mother, Laval, echoed that attitude.
"There's a part of letting her be a kid and in a way not commit to too much, because then she's too busy to hang out with friends or do schoolwork or experience all the varied things that you want a teenager to experience," said Laval. "But there's another part of, just enjoy it when there's energy toward it."
Already, many of Kira's peers have suggested that she try out for a singing competition such as "American Idol." For a couple of years in middle school, she thought about it. Now, she's pretty sure she's not interested.
"I don't want to do the commercial thing," she says. "I don't feel like that's the best way to get into music by winning a contest and having the press all over you. It's also so much about popularity and looks, and I don't really want to do something that's superficial. I'm more about the actual music."
In fact, despite the fact that her parents say she'll disappear for hours in her room while she practices and writes music, Kira Means isn't at all certain she wants to pursue music beyond an enjoyable pastime.
"I'm not sure I want to play and sing for a living; I've thought about doing something in writing instead," she says, noting that she and her friends often create "zines" together of their poetry and other creative writing. "If this (music) continues, it'll have to continue on its own merits rather than forcing it."
Such wisdom is hardly common, coming from the mouth of a teenager. But that, as much as anything, is what strikes the adult musicians who know Means best.
"She is able to write about true things in a very abstract way," says Eden Atwood. "It's amazingly sophisticated; it's certainly not something I can do. ... And she has that rare thing that I definitely don't have: the healthy ego."
"She's a smart person who happens to like guitar and like songs," says Tom Catmull. "She's interested not only in all kinds of music, but also in all kinds of ideas. So that makes her a better guitar player."
"She appears," adds Catmull, "limitless at this point."
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-5358.