BRANDON — Lisa Casalino is running two minutes late.
She just came from a gig, she explains, at a Brandon nursing home. Her long, dark hair is pinned back with a glittery flower. She's grinning.
"They requested Santa Baby," Casalino said of the residents. "They always sing along."
In the three years since Casalino, whose real last name is Hertzner, made the shift from high school teacher and real estate agent to professional singer, she has progressed from sporadic nursing-home performances to weekly gigs at WestShore Plaza's Palm restaurant, Timpano Chophouse and Martini Bar in Hyde Park Village and Love's Artifacts Bar and Grille south of Gandy Boulevard.
Between those performances, Casalino croons at other restaurants, including Grillsmith in Brandon, bars, private parties, fundraisers, venue openings and the occasional visit to her first fans at the nursing homes.
It's a faraway world from where she started — when she splurged on a $500 sound system in 2007 and hit the nursing home track, finally securing her first solo restaurant gig in 2008 at 717 South restaurant in Tampa.
"I've been very blessed, very lucky, to have people give me a chance," Casalino said.
In 1995, after graduating from the Crane School of Music in New York and working for a year as a teacher, Casalino came to Florida and taught music at Durant High School. Because the school had just opened, Casalino was given the task of writing the alma mater.
She enjoyed teaching, but in 2005 made a change and switched to real estate. But with the market bleak, she quickly readied for another switch.
While filling in for half a year at an elementary school, Casalino finally gave serious thought to pursuing her passion: singing.
It was something she learned to love as a child. Her dad often played doo-wop music on the family's jukebox, and her mother taught Casalino how to play guitar.
"I've never made a lot of money. It's not about how much money you make," Casalino recalled thinking. "I learned to just let go and have faith."
Her boyfriend at the time laughed when she bought her first sound system. Casalino didn't have a single gig lined up, but she figured, "Build it and they will come."
She was right.
The sound system meant she could venture out on her own, without a band or another person playing guitar. Slowly, bookings trickled in.
She mastered a repertoire of jazz standards — Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole — but also contemporary material from Norah Jones, Fleetwood Mac, Alicia Keys and Jewel.
She doesn't use a set list anymore, instead taking requests from the crowd or playing off a theme, such as "decades" or "songs from A to Z."
If she has a following, she said she hasn't noticed, despite having more than 4,000 friends on Facebook.
"I never promise a crowd," Casalino said. "I'm a singer. I just want to sing. But I do promise quality entertainment."
The clock strikes 4, and Casalino has to head out. She's got another gig in a few hours at a holiday party, and she needs to rest her voice.
But before she goes, she wants to offer some advice — to anybody afraid of leaping into a job they would love.
"Do it," she said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.