Her move to college was three days away. Freshman-to-be Salli Denner had packed up her black Jeep Wrangler and was headed to Norman — no doubt on a path to Pi Phi sorority parties, swirls at The Mont and all the fun that campus life can bring.
Then the Siri voice on her iPhone, which was cued up to navigate from her family home in north Oklahoma City, said, “Turn around and return to I-44.”
There was that “44” thing again, Salli thought. She had seen it in dreams, on signs, parking spaces and the check number from her first gig. A number that had already reached spiritual significance to her – a sign that guardian angels had watched over her. Guided her big decisions. And here it was again.
“It was telling me to get back on Route 44. That is where I belong. And I’d known that for a long time,” she said.
So, she whipped a U-turn that took her home. And she embarked on a distinctly different path that has set her on course to become one of the hottest emerging vocalists on the Oklahoma City music scene.
Yes, Salli Denner, that 19-year-old blue-eyed and brown-haired former Heritage Hall cheerleader and volleyball player, is becoming the singer songwriter Salli, belting out her own soulful pop lyrics on local stages now and maybe on bigger stages in the future.
Proclivity for performance emerges at age 2
This path really began at age 2. Salli stood in her diapers and red cowboy boots, singing and prancing before a mirror, as her doting parents watched from around a corner of their den.
“I pulled out the camcorder when she wasn’t looking and started recording. She saw that, gritted her little teeth and said, ‘Ahhh, Dad!’’’ recalled proud father David Denner, an Oklahoma City roofing contractor.
David and wife Libby’s second child was a prolific singer, opting to communicate in song rather than talking. By middle school, Salli had developed a smooth and moody timbre to her voice, something that she has polished as a teenager into a wide vocal range, fitting for what she calls her “soulful pop” sound.
Think Amy Winehouse, Lana Del Ray and Norah Jones. A rich siren’s call, with lyrics to match. Emotional words fill her songs Used To, Roll (above) and Mona Lisa — ostensible singles that Salli wrote at her creative place: a piano tucked into the corner of her childhood home’s living room. Lyrics and music that she began writing before she even knew how to read sheet music.
“When I am there, it is my favorite place. I love whenever there is total silence and I’m totally by myself,” Salli said.
“You are going to think I’m crazy, but it will feel like I’m being surrounded by loved ones. Past people. My guardian angels. When I am by myself singing I can feel it.”
‘It was like angels are guiding me’
That “44” number thing began as an odd coincidence when she would wake up at 4:44 am or be customer number 44 at a restaurant, but it became a spiritual fabric in which Salli wrapped herself as she began creating music. She discovered the number had symbolic meaning: that guardian angels watched over and helped direct her.
“I looked it up. It was like angels are guiding me,” she said. “They are going to push you on the right path. What you are supposed to be doing. That was like the biggest ‘holy shit’ moment. Ever since then, everything has been falling in place.”
It began with her mom, Libby, at the gym, doing her treadmill workout, coincidentally chatting with a stranger on the adjacent treadmill who happened to be the owner of a new recording studio, Castle Row Studios in Del City.
Soon, Denner was recording her music at Castle Row. Within a year, she had released her EP titled “XLIV” (yeah, that’s Roman numeral 44), shot music videos in Colorado for her YouTube channel, performed at local sports events and discovered ACM@UCO in Bricktown when taking a songwriting class there.
“What struck me the most the first time I heard Salli was her unique approach to lyrics and phrasing. You could just tell that she saw and heard things differently than most,” said Garrett Starks, owner of Castle Row Studios. “When she starts a line, you know instantly that it’s Salli. She puts so much emphasis and character into each part. She has a way of conveying so much more in a sentence than just the words.”
‘Who does this chick think she is?’
Considering that Denner comes from a family living comfortably in an upscale, peaceful, suburban neighborhood — where she continues to reside after she cancelled the college-at-OU plan — one might wonder where she gets the angst, hurt and sadness that marks some of her songs. After all, her parents are happily married. Her older sister, Anna, 23, is one of her best friends. Her two dogs are snowballs of affection.
Salli said many of her emotional songs are about boys in high school.
Until high school, she had hidden her vocal talents. She said her parents had pushed her to sing as a child, but she had silently rebelled — she did not participate in organized music groups at school. Then, the urge to share her voice overcame her contrariness.
Plus, the desire to show the boys at school what she was made of became overwhelming.
“They had never heard me sing before. So, they were like, ‘Who does this chick think she is?’ They said, ‘Can she even sing?’, making fun of me. That just brought me closer to music. Every single day I looked forward to going home and jamming.”
When Denner pulled back into the family home’s driveway last fall and announced she was not going to attend her mom and dad’s college alma mater after all, one might imagine how they (or any) parent would react.
But dad saw his daughter’s dream.
“If she had gone to OU and done the sorority thing like her mom and her sister, that would have been a great time, but it would have put the brakes on her music,” father David said.
ACM@UCO replaces OU
And, then, mom remembered the school that would give a boost to Salli’s dream.
“I told her, ‘It’s a great idea (to sing), but you are going to school’,” Libby said. “We said, ‘We are behind you, but you have to go to school. Remember ACM? Let’s see if we can get in there.’”
See Salli Friday and Saturday
Enrollment at ACM@UCO had already ended. Salli and her mom delivered an audition tape to the school’s admissions staff anyway. By the time they had returned home, the school had called. She was in.
Salli has no regrets bypassing Soonertown in Norman. She is on an adventure.
“I didn’t want to be in my dorm room (at OU) and someday be like, ‘Dang it, what happened to my singing career?’ I would think about that for the rest of my life,” she said.
So, Salli hones her singing and writing talents at the school in Bricktown. There, she also receives encouragement to broaden her sound. As she says, there are a lot of singers doing “loungey” (as she calls her signature style).
‘Lots of students are talking about Salli’
Wherever Salli’s musical genre leads, she has already made a mark on ACM’s 350-student body.
“Lots of students are talking about Salli. She is going to be a success,” said fellow ACM student, Alexa Ace, herself hoping to make it big in music.
For Ace, it will be the record-label business rather than performance. She has learned the first thing is to identify which talent can become a star. Eyes are on Salli.
Indeed, the trajectory for some at ACM@UCO may be fame.
“If it happens, then it is supposed to be,” Salli said. “I don’t necessarily need to be famous to feel successful. I just want to be able to make a living and be happy with what I do.”
However it turns out, it will be on a path that Salli decides — with help from her angels.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Salli Denner’s older sister. NonDoc regrets the error, which has since been corrected.]