Sandy Zio can’t remember a time when she didn’t sing. The 30-something vocalist, guitarist, and keyboardist says she sang on her own for years before summoning up the nerve to go out and perform for the public.

"I always sang, whether with a microphone for my father’s reel-to-reel-tape recorder, or just privately, working something out on piano," says Zio. Raised in Pompton Lakes, Bloomingdale, and Kinellon, she began piano lessons as a seven-year-old. Now living in Princeton, Zio can be heard on Friday, December 19, with guitarist Matt Robinson, at Orpha’s Coffee House, part of the Village Shopper center in Skillman.

"I never played in a band, and I never took singing lessons — until recently," she says. "I played piano through my teenage years and in some talent shows. As I got older, I realized I loved to sing, but I didn’t think I was very good." About eight years ago, while taking a piano lesson with the Kingston-based teacher and area jazz piano player, John Bianculli, she made a breakthrough.

"I sang a song for John, and he said, `Sandy, you have a great voice! You can sing with my band anytime.’ Then I played him some original music. He has always been very encouraging about my own songs and my singing," Zio adds.

Zio (whose real last name is Cobuzio), is the daughter of two real estate brokers, and a graduate of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Having majored in business administration, her day job is in computer technical support for Amersham Health at 101 Carnegie Center. For a time, she was roommates with Alice Leon, founder and lead singer with the Alice Project, and she and Zio maintain their friendship.

"Alice was always also very encouraging. I probably went to almost every gig, and she would let me sit in for a song here and there at the Ivy Inn," says Zio. Through her association with the Alice Project, she has met many area musicians and now has a band of her own, Soul Symphony.

Although she kept her talent under wraps for a lot of years, Zio came to understand that singing was her first love. "As you grow up, you realize — Who cares, as long as I’m doing something I love and it’s not painful for the people listen to."

Zio says the turning point in her fledgling career was when Bianculli — who often accompanies Jeanie Bryson and other nationally-known jazz singers — first heard her sing. "I didn’t immediately start gigging with him, but I was working with him a bit, and then I started doing some open mikes. I was learning to try not to be so nervous in front of people. All the while, I was collaborating with other musicians, and then I started singing again with John, and he wasn’t hesitant to work with me, because he knew I’d been gigging around," she says.

Zio describes herself as more of a singer and songwriter than she is a piano player or guitarist, but she does all three at her shows. At Orpha’s she will mostly play piano, since Matt Robinson will be doing most of the guitar playing. She’s been playing guitar for the last four years, she says, and her main area of expertise is piano and keyboards.

Aside from the Skillman coffeehouse, Orpha’s, Zio can be heard at Mediterra Restaurant on Hulfish Street. In November she and Bianculli played together at La Principessa in Kingston.

Zio and Robinson are featured with five other performers at the Watchung Arts Center on Saturday, December 27, in the "Folk, Blues and Roots Music, A Holiday Show and Singer-Songwriter Showcase." Zio has high hopes for Soul Symphony, and has begun recording an album of her originals with that band and with other area musicians.

Soul Symphony members include Robinson on guitar, Mike Carthan on bass, Scott Miller on drums, Charlie DiVuolo on guitar and vocals, and Zio on keyboards, guitar and lead vocals.

"Hopefully my original songs will make those shows unique and we’ll be able to do some more original stuff. Right now, we’re doing mainly covers at the Ivey Inn, but at least we’re not doing the same tired covers every other band does," she says. "Soul Symphony will eventually be moving in the direction of more original songs."

"There aren’t a lot of places to go see live music in Princeton, and a lot of people love it and they do come out to places like the Ivy Inn," she says. She hopes to start performing with Robinson at the Rusty Scupper early next year.

Zio says she particularly likes to approach places that haven’t presented live music before because the end result is a new venue for musicians throughout the Princeton area. "If it makes a better scene for everyone, so much the better," she says, noting she and Robinson "have been developing a bit of a following through shows at the Bucks County Coffee Company."

Musically, Zio is working on her covers of Sheryl Crow, Nellie Furtado, the Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Susan Tedeschi. She says she’s headed in a blues direction. "I think my voice really shines with jazz and blues," she says, "but I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I’d rather be an artist who sends people home saying, `She can sing anything.’ That would make me happy."

Sandy Zio, Orpha’s Coffee Shop, 1330 Route 206, Skillman, 609-430-2828. Zio and guitarist Matt Robinson. No cover. Friday, December 19, 7 to 10 p.m.

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