A karaoke machine would play inside the Tavernier home where a young Leah Sutter would walk around and sing. Her parents knew there was something special inside early on in her life, and that belief grew, from her days learning guitar, taking piano lessons and singing at church.
Soon enough, the Keys community would experience what her mom and dad long knew about their daughter’s musical passion and talent.
Today, the 28-year-old from Tavernier is gracing stages across the Upper Keys with her vocals, guitar and favorite music. From the beer garden at Florida Keys Brewing Co. to Baker’s Cay Resort, Sutter’s performances add an elegance and sense of relaxation for those enjoying a drink and a picturesque day.
One of four kids, Sutter recalls the piano lessons and the recitals. She also remembers the day her dad gave her a guitar — her very first instrument — at around 12 years of age. Sutter immediately gravitated toward strumming.
“That’s when I really started to write more songs because you can sit there with your guitar and play chords. … You start to think of melodies and things in your head,” she said. “It’s this amazing process, especially as you’re a young person where you’re coming into your own and figuring out these heightened emotions you go through. Music was one of the main resources to express myself.”
Sutter took classical voice lessons during her middle school years and all throughout high school. While homeschooled, she participated in theater and music programs at Coral Shores High School with help from Michele Zofchak, teacher and play organizer.
“She got me that much more comfortable performing in front of people and getting to experience the arts,” Sutter said.
She was also a part of a band in high school that played at the annual Bayjam at Founders Park. The more she performed on stage, the more she realized that music wasn’t just a passion, but also a part of who she was.
“Moving forward, I knew whether or not I did this professionally or if it was a hobby, I knew I had to be practicing music in my life. It had to have some place in my life.”
After graduating from high school in 2011, Sutter continued to practice music while interning with ICE (Islamorada Community Entertainment) and working in the restaurant business. In 2012, she attended Florida State University where she majored in international affairs with a concentration in sociology.
“I had originally wanted to study music, but I decided I wanted to have a backup plan as far as my future. I had other passions for people and the history of the country and the world, public relations and affairs.”
Sutter continued to play music while taking music lessons on the side during her college years. She also continued with her band from high school — all members went on to attend FSU. They were known as “Leah and the Aviators.”
“We played all these venues in Tallahassee. We wrote an EP (extended play) together and published it called ‘Air Ride.’ That was really exciting to record music that we wrote together,” she said. “Pretty much every moment growing up was just further realizing music was a part of who I am.”
After college, she came back to the Keys and picked up gigs. She ultimately made a business out of it, with the island chain providing an opportunity unlike any other for artists. One gig turned into another. Almost five years later, Sutter said, it’s working.
“It’s a very fulfilling experience,” she said. “One, I love the Keys. I wouldn’t be where I am without the community who influenced me. The nature of who I am, trying to be the most laid-back, easy-going, kind person I can be. There is a nature of easygoingness and ‘don’t take life too seriously’ here.
“I feel a lot of pride being able to perform here whether in the beer garden or at a resort,” she continued. “I am taken aback every time by the beauty of where we live. I’ll look out at the beach and the beautiful sunset and feel an island breeze. That’s my office.”
Sutter traveled to Los Angeles before the pandemic to record songs for an album. She planned to release the album in 2020, but the pandemic happened. Nonetheless, Sutter said she’s excited for 2021 — her goal being the release of her new music.
Sutter is one of many students in the Upper Keys to receive financial support from the Upper Keys Rotary Club. With its signature Gigantic Nautical Flea Market raising nearly $200,000, funds go to support scholarships.
Sutter said her scholarship allowed her to pay for everything from books to housing on campus. Not only does she appreciate the Upper Keys Rotary Club’s financial support, she is thankful for the performing opportunities at the flea market that the group’s given her.
“I’m in the community and they still support me. They have not just forgotten a person who moved on from college,” she said. “To me, being part of this campaign to help scholarships with no Gigantic Nautical Flea Market, I’m so happy to give back because they gave back to me.”
For the first time in 26 years, the Gigantic Nautical Flea Market wasn’t held in person due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A fundraising effort continues, however. Those wishing to donate can visit www.keysrotary.us or send a check payable to Upper Keys Rotary Foundation to P.O. Box 1514, Tavernier, FL 33070.