As a fourth-year student at Alverno College, Salzer has built a rapport with the college crowd who frequent her shows. Her calming voice is well-suited for intimate settings like cafes and low-key bars in front of familiar young adults. Like most musicians, she likes the rush of performing in front of adoring fans. But some of her work isn’t for the fan, but for worshippers attending Mass at Salzer’s home parish, Mary Queen of Heaven, West Allis, where she occasionally plays piano and leads the congregation in song.

While she enjoys playing and singing artistically and religiously, she said the two are rewarding in very different ways.

“I love just playing because it’s something that I feel passionate about, and I think brings such energy to the Mass,” she said. “It’s a different experience for me right off the bat because I’m nervous because I don’t read music.”

As an artist performing her own songs, she can take artistic license with her music to change how she plays based on how she feels. But at Mass, she’s not a performer but a leader of the congregation in the musical component of the Mass.

“My responsibility is to play this music, and you have to pay attention because people are following your lead. You kind of have to be the leader,” she said. “It teaches you to follow the rules and I have a hard time following the rules.”

But being a facilitator of music instead of the focus of an audience’s attention is enjoyable, too, and it gives her a role to play in the Mass.

“This is not a performance; it’s an enhancement of the Mass. It’s good to not be a center of it, you’re just part of the Mass. It’s good to be a part of something. And it’s a part of my faith,” she said. Plus, having that job to play helps her stay involved with the church, which she said can be hard in college.

Parish was perfect venue for first recording

Masses aren’t the only times she plays in the church. The Jeanna Salzer Trio made their first recording, their 2008 EP “Raindrops,” at Mary Queen of Heaven in one night after the band had been unable for months to get into recording studios. The quality on the EP is surprisingly great; the echoes from the church shine through the recording, giving the music an ethereal depth.

As a teen, Salzer played at Life Teen Masses. After entering college, she longed to have that style of worship again. Together with a group of about five other young adults, they created “Faithbook” Masses, celebrated at 7 p.m. the first Sunday of each month at Mary Queen of Heaven, aimed toward young adults. The homilies and music are designed for such an audience. The goal was to reach out to the young adult community who’d fallen out of practice with the church.  Attendance grew slightly over the months into the 20s and 30s, but the outreach wasn’t to the caliber the group had hoped. Salzer said the Masses are currently postponed as coordinators think of new ways to attract more numbers, with hopes to restart the Masses.

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“She seems like a very strong, energetic, self-driven young woman,” said Fr. Michael Merkt, pastor of Mary Queen of Heaven. “I guess the one thing I think of is, when a child is baptized and then (goes on) to Catholic grade school and high school, the hope is that they always keep the fire of the faith alive; not just through academics but their whole life, Christ becomes part of everything they do.

“I think her music – especially in church – is an extension of that baptism, and I’m hopeful that Christ is the leading, guiding force in her life,” he added.

Her voice is friendly, calm and low with a confident quality that makes it seem familiar, like the way your best friend’s voice might sound. It’s the same when she sings, and every bit as honest and vulnerable as your best friend’s if she were to read her diary to you. It’s wise but youthful and unjaded. It’s next-door neighbor genuine.

Salzer started playing the piano in third grade.  She’d harmonize with songs on the radio, but goofily so that no one would hold it against her if she was bad. Her breakthrough performance was in her ninth grade English class at Pius XI High School, Milwaukee, where she was asked to perform a poem she’d written and put to music. She was nervous and clammy, but loved the reaction her creation got when it was performed.

“One of my friends at 15 was kind of tearing up, and I thought, ‘Wow, cool,’” she said. “Since then I just love sharing whatever I create.”

She became a prolific writer, sporadically jotting lyrics at inspired moments on receipts and napkins. Her songs are more poignant, more focused than they were in high school, but still personal,  drawn from her observations as a people watcher.

“There’s nothing like just letting yourself go when you’re writing,” she said.

She loves the creative expression she gets from music, but she’s confident she can also make it  a profession. She released her first album, “Breaking Point,” last year and she’s working on more material for another. Her music is sold on iTunes and the band is looking at some prospects to sell songs to independent films.

“To make music my career would be ideal,” she revealed. “Music, traveling and food: If I could incorporate all those together, that would be my dream.”

Honest lyrics, honest songs

Filling out the Jeanna Salzer Trio are bassist Harrison Dole and drummer Alex Bunke. Both are older than Salzer and male, and that lends itself to a fair amount of playful jabs at the band’s female leader.

“There’s a lot of laughing in the band,” Dole said. When his and Bunke’s joking pushes Salzer’s patience, she gives her token “womanly look,” as Dole calls it.

“She has the best faces,” Bunke affirmed, laughing.

Does Salzer ever make the guys’ eyes roll with chick music she writes?

“She writes really honest lyrics,” Bunke admitted. He and Dole have some boyish fun at her expense, but she’s proven herself with her talent and stage presence.

“You have to be really comfortable to sing really honest songs,” Bunke added. “She puts everything out there and (Dole and I) get to just kinda play with it.”

“I think they dig my music,” Salzer said, smiling smugly.

The Milwaukee music scene is vibrant and growing, but Salzer says it’s still very male-dominated. She says she’s often asked if she’s one of her band mates’ girlfriend. But the struggle is giving her thick skin – a necessity if she plans makes it big.

Thanks to recognition from the Shepherd Express and a healthy dose of airtime on 88.9 FM Radio Milwaukee, Salzer and her gang are moving on up in the Milwaukee music world. They’ve grown from their cozy 20-person shows at local joints like Mocha and Rustico to their third show at the much-larger Turner Hall.

Considering she is still an undergraduate, Salzer’s success is remarkable. She says other local musicians admit to her they’re jealous that she’s gotten her start while she’s young. But for now, being only mortal, Salzer is just trying to keep her life in balance. She’s holding back on fully devoting herself to her musical career, at least until she graduates in December.

“I feel like there’s always reigns on me. I’m giving all I can to it, but I still feel like I’m holding back.”

That is, if you consider songs on iTunes, a Summerfest gig, prestigious awards from local music critics and two recorded albums plus a third on its way in May to be “holding back.”