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Life's trials inspiration for musician from Mt. Lebanon

| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Musician Stephanie Kong, 17, a Pitt freshman, uses her experiences with bullying and relationships to inspire her songs.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Musician Stephanie Kong, 17, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in Oakland.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Stephanie Kong, 17, of Mt. Lebanon, a musician and Pitt freshman, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in Oakland.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Stephanie Kong, 17, of Mt. Lebanon, a musician and Pitt freshman, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in Oakland.

Stephanie Kong acknowledges her rough childhood. She felt isolated, rejected in school and struggled with relationships.

Yet she feels blessed.

The 17-year-old singer-songwriter turned her personal trials into soulful songs, and she hopes that her lyrics about loneliness and loss — contrasted with hope and faith — can help others.

Her audience is building, from classmates in the Mt. Lebanon High School cafeteria and Shadyside shoppers to thousands of listeners online and on the radio.

“I'm glad I'm doing something positive. I'm almost glad I was an outcast, because it makes (my songs) more accessible to people,” said Kong, a University of Pittsburgh freshman who performs under her name or as Stephthelyricist. “I'd rather people like my message and not pay attention to me.”

Kong started singing when she was 9 and posted self-made recordings on YouTube.com the next year. The site's commenters didn't spare her feelings, but she saw their criticism as an motivation to improve her singing. She taught herself to play a second-hand guitar she purchased from a flea market, and other instruments followed.

Kong says she grew up in Mt. Lebanon in a family that wasn't as affluent as some in the community, and her parents didn't support her music. In school, she dealt with bullying, loneliness and difficult relationships with classmates.

That inspired songs such as “Her,” about a time when she tried to strike up a friendship with a girl who helped her through suicidal thoughts.

“I did everything I could; I did everything I should, but it was all in vain. ... She's the one who gave me hope, but she don't feel the same,” Kong sings of the would-be friend pulling away.

Kong hopes people can relate to her music, as teenage bullying has returned to the national spotlight as a result of the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, 12, of Florida and the arrests of her two classmates for stalking, .

“Most of my songs have true stories behind them. ... I've personally been through all these things,” she said.

She was encouraged by some teachers and classmates.

Mt. Lebanon High School English teacher Dan Petrich encouraged Kong to join a songwriter's circle he and another teacher formed with students. The youths brought lyrics and music they wrote and shared them to get constructive feedback.

That helped Kong become more self-confident and outgoing, Petrich said.

“You saw this transformation from this uncertain, shy, awkward girl into someone who just belted it out,” he said. “People were just wowed by that. ... She would look for any opportunity to perform, even just standing up in the cafeteria.”

This summer, Kong began working with Zach Reeder, who earned his master's degree in classical guitar from Carnegie Mellon University and started a music studio/production company called Creaky Seat Productions.

Kong sent him acoustic recordings, and he layered them with drums and other instruments. The two then worked together to produce a final version, Reeder said.

Unlike some artists, Kong was hands-on with the half-dozen songs Reeder produced for her.

She seeks out gigs to get more exposure, he said.

Her voice helps drive her songs as much as her drawn-from-life lyrics, Reeder and Petrich said.

“More than anything else, there was a sort of vulnerability, a naked emotion when she sings that's hard to fake,” Petrich said. “I think that's what people respond to.”

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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