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'Miss Lloyd' on cusp of stardom

Singer-songwriter Juliet Lloyd's biggest fans may be her Needham students. (DON HENRY)

In nightclubs from Boston to New York City, she's known as Juliet Lloyd, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter with a voice that's strong and sure. But to Needham elementary school students, she's their piano accompanist Miss Lloyd, and that day job just may be giving Lloyd's music career an unexpected boost.

Near the close of voting on June 1, Lloyd was leading in the Best Female Vocalist category of WBZ TV's annual A-List Poll. Whether she wins or not (results were announced yesterday after press time), even getting close is a coup partly fueled by her young Needham fans, who logged on and voted for her in droves.

Not that Lloyd really needed the grade-school-crowd edge. Just three years since plunging into the independent music scene, Lloyd, 26, of Newton, has racked up kudos at time-lapse speed. Her first song -- yes, the first she ever wrote -- took an honorable mention in Billboard Magazine's 2004 World Song Contest, which drew thousands of entries worldwide.

Next, within months of her solo debut, she reached the semifinals of the Acoustic Live competition in Los Angeles. Soon, she was invited to take part in the prestigious New York Songwriter's Circle , and found herself backing Grammy-winning and chart-topping acts, while lining up her own shows at East Coast clubs.

But no matter how late her gigs go, each weekday morning at 7:45 a.m. Lloyd turns up at Needham's elementary schools , where she plays the piano accompaniment for choirs and string ensembles . And with her sweet, girlish speaking voice, no one suspected a powerful songstress was hiding behind the keys.

"She never said anything to the kids about it," said choir director Heather Tryon of Newton. "It was only after she showed me her first CD -- and I listened to it and thought it was great -- that I decided to play it at a rehearsal."

The jazzy, Norah Jone s-like disc was an instant hit with the kids, who began showing up early before practice to beg Lloyd to sing.

"They just love listening to her. They're her biggest fans," said David Neves, director of fine and performing arts for the Needham public schools. But Lloyd is bashful about the attention.

"My music isn't something that I broadcasted at the schools," she said. "But they encouraged me to share my music with the kids."

Lloyd's budding career wasn't the only secret she was keeping. Tomorrow night, Lloyd celebrates the release of her second CD with a concert at Union Street in Newton. Had she not been prodded to go on record, however, she had no plans to share the story behind the emotional title track of this otherwise bright, fizzy, pop-and-Motown inspired recording.

Lloyd wrote "Leave the Light On" in response to the deaths of six Needham teenagers that occurred during the previous three years -- four by suicide and two by car accident. It's drawn from her own painful past as well.

"When I was in high school I lost a classmate too, so I remember being 16 and not understanding how that could happen. It was my good friend who committed suicide," she said.

Each death in Needham hit Lloyd in a familiar place, and she poured her response into a poignant ballad that opens, "You think you understand the world at 17/ You think there's nothing standing in your way but time/ But something happens in the minutes in between/ And suddenly you've got to learn to say goodbye/ 'cause it can bring you to your knees to let somebody go."

"The image [in the chorus] is of someone leaving the light on for someone they wish could come home ," she said, "but it's not meant to be a sad song. It's also about how the community rallies around their own to hold onto the ones they have left. It's sort of a hope. It's this hope that you have for everybody that's left, that you leave the light on for them too."

In a post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech world, Lloyd's lyrics would likely strike home beyond Needham. And couched between buoyant, soulful tracks such as the Jackson Five-like "City of Mine" and the self-confident pop anthem "Drive Away," Lloyd delivers sincere comfort without kitsch.

It's an astonishingly slick independent CD with a big studio sound, and it's a long way to come for an economics grad who didn't write a song until her 20s and who had planned to go to law school.

"I was accepted to Cornell, but when I saw the law library, I couldn't picture myself doing that the next few years, let alone my whole life," she said. "It was then that I realized that what I really wanted to do was music. I'd been playing piano and trumpet since I was a kid, but I really wanted to give songwriting a shot."

For now, she's going it alone -- no agent, no manager, no webmaster. It's all Lloyd, "24/7," she said. But should the WBZ attention draw her some support, she'd be thrilled.

"It's not about a record deal," she said. "It's about having people hear my songs."

Juliet Lloyd, 9:30 p.m. Friday at Union St reet , 107R Union St., Newton. $5 cover. Call 617-964-6684 for info or visit for music clips and videos.