They’ve traveled from town to town, night after night, playing their songs everywhere from cafes to clubs, from stadiums to street fairs, songwriters driven by a love for music and a need to speak their minds and hearts to anyone who’d hear. As the organizer and host of Songwriters in Mixed Company, a “writers-in-the-round” concert series, which occurs monthly at Mixed Company Theater in great Barrington, I’ve had the great pleasure to take the stage with some terrific singer/songwriters, swapping songs and stories and sharing a mutual love for music and the craft of songwriting. Recently, I caught up with Todd Mack, Luthea Salom and Jason Loughlin, three of the featured performers from the series’ first six shows, and I asked them to tell their stories and share more about their experiences with music.
What follows stems from those conversations.
He didn't set out that summer to become a performer, Todd Mack was tricked. Working at an Adirondack summer camp along with his sister Tracy more than 15 years ago, Mack thought he’d enjoy some quiet weeks in the woods, far from crowds, and especially, far from anything resembling stages and spotlights. But fate—and his friends—had other ideas.
“I remember it vividly,” Mack recalls. “The Monopole, a pretty cool, long-standing club in Plattsburgh, NY, hosted an open mic every Tuesday. One night, my sister says to me, ‘Hey, we’re all going up to the Monopole to check out the open mic tonight. Wanna come?’ And she tells me to bring my guitar just in case I want to get up there and jam with somebody.”
Mack hesitated. Though he’d already been playing music for several years, he still lacked the confidence to take the stage alone. But he threw his guitar in the car anyway, and with 20 friends in tow, he made for the Monopole, totally unaware that he was driving straight into a trap.
“I get there and walk in, only to find out that I’m due up on the stage in about 10 minutes,” he laughs. “Tracy had called the club ahead of time, and without my consent, she signed me up for the open mic. She orchestrated the whole thing so that we’d get there just before it was time for me to go on, so I wouldn’t have time to back out of it.”
Nauseous, nervous and more than a little bit miffed at his tricky sister, Mack bit the bullet, faced his fear and took the stage.
“I’m sure it sucked, but my friends cheered so loud for me that it didn’t matter,” Mack says. “The club never had that kind of audience before for an open mic.”
Won over by Mack’s set and the enthusiasm of the crowd, the host decided to let him play on far longer than the usual three-song limit and even gave him some money out of his own pay at the end of the night.
“He invited me to come back the next week to do it again, which I did, and that’s pretty much how it all started. When I got back to Atlanta, where I was living at the time, I was like a man posessed. I hit every open mic in town—three or four a week—for about six months.
Those eventually led to my own gigs, and there’s been no stopping me ever since.”
Not long after that fateful night, Mack began building a life around the music that he loves so much. He quit his day job, and never once looking back, he began a career that has involved songwriting, touring and record producing. Now the owner of the Off-the-Beat-n-Track recording studio, located in the Berkshires, Mack also hosts a radio show that features music by other “indie” artists, airing every Saturday night on 98.1 WKZE.FM.
For Spanish/Canadian singer/songwriter Luthea Salom, who was raised in an artistic environment surrounded by musicians, painters and writers, the story also begins with the trickery of well-meaning friends.
“When I was 13 years old, I had these jazz musician friends who wanted me to be their singer,” Salom explains. “But they would show me the song only once and then make me sing it. Since I couldn’t remember the song after just one listen, I had to kind of make it up as I went. They loved the melodies that I would come up with, so it became like a fun game for them, though quite tortuous for me, since I didn’t know any better. I just thought that was the normal way to rehearse. They later confessed all that was a trick to get the best out of me.”
Though it may have been much tougher on her at the time, Salom now credits those childhood friends with starting her down the road to becoming a songwriter.
“Today, I really thank them for that. I had to improvise and write the melodies as I sang them live. Quite the challenge!” she recalls.
“But that was the beginning of my songwriting career.”
new York City singer/songwriter Jason Loughlin says that his songwriting process often begins with musical motifs involving instrumental arrangements and interesting chord structures. An acoomplished musician whose uncle and mentor is a well-established Nashville songwriter, Loughlin’s melodies and lyrical ideas tend to flow out of a well-crafted musical structure.
“I don’t like musical arrangement or vibe to be an afterthought to the song,” Loughlin explains. “That always sounds forced or boring to me. The hope is that the lead vocal melody and lyrics will be born out of what’s happening musically.”
For inspiration, Loughlin keeps his ears wide open, drawing from a broad range of influences and always willing to try unconventional things.
“Everything from [Thelonious] Monk to a string arrangement on a Carpenters record will give me ideas,” he explains. “Not being afraid to do outrageous things is really impmortant if you’re attempting greatness.”
Loughlin is no stranger to reaching beyond his grasp. His first attempts at songwriting, as he recalls, were quite lofty.
“I first started performing my songs during my first semester at college. I remember feeling nervous but excited to share them,” he remembers. “They were ambitious. They were also really bad. Looking back, though, I’m happy they were big and crappy.”
As time has passed, Loughlin has learned from his early attempts and has tried to apply one simple lesson to the act of songwriting: don’t outwrite yourself.
“Write stuff that makes you shine. Knowing who you are is really important here,” he says. “It can be easier than you think to outwrite yourself. I still do this from time to time. I’ve written some great tunes that I just can’t sing.”
Self-knowledge is also central to Salom’s writing process, as she uses it to explore, understand and express her inner life.
“Writing helps me find who I am, which I feel is probably my main responsibility on this planet,” she explains. “I feel I need to look in there and leave the trail of my growth so maybe others can have an easier ride with their own search. I truly believe that we are all unique and that uniqueness is somehow hidden in there waiting to surface. It’s all covered in fears: fear of not fitting in, fear of solitude, imposed fears by our backgrounds. I feel it’s my duty as an artist to uncover it and throw my discoveries back to the world no matter how beautiful or monstrous they may be.”
Far from seeing this sort of creative process as self-indulgent, Salom believes that such a quest of self-understanding and expression can improve the state of the world.
“Maybe I’m being naïve or a romantic, but I firmly believe that if everyone spent most of their energy trying to understand who they were, there would be no wars and way more compassion out there,” she says.
Mack is also a firm believer in the power of music to create positive changes in the world. He recalls, as a child, watching John Lennon and Yoko Ono on television during their famous “bed-in” to protest the Vietnam War with “all we are saying is give peace a chance” being sung in the background.
“I was completely blown away,” he says. “It was at that moment that I realized the power in a song and in music in general.”
Four years ago, a life-shattering event in Mack’s life would solidify his commitment to using music as a vehicle for positive social change, when Mack’s close friend and band mate, the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan. Shaken to the core by the brutal murder of a man whose life was devoted to creating understanding between different groups of people, Mack felt determined to turn this terrible tragedy into something meaningful.
“When Danny was murdered, it crystallized in my mind this notion that music could make a difference,” mack says. “The pain of his loss never goes away, and there is nothing I can do to bring him back, at least not in the physical sense. But the reason why he was murdered never goes away either, and that is something I can do something about. Until my own dying day, I will continue to use music as a vehicle for reaching people and bringing them together in hopes of finding common ground and bridging gaps, whether those gaps are cultural, political, religious, economic, social or whatever. And I have vowed to myself to make sure that people never forget Danny Pearl and all the right things he stood for and all the wrong things he was murdered for.”
In association with the Daniel Pearl Foundation, last year Mack held the first annual FODfest (Friends of Danny) at his studio, featuring a number of local and national singer/songwriters, many of whom knew Pearl personally. They came together that day to sing songs to honor Pearl’s memory, as well as to demonstrate the power that music can have to create healing in the world.
“Danny was the absolute most inclusive person I’ve ever known. In Danny’s eyes there was always room to make the circle a little wider so as not leave anyone out. That is FODfest,” says Mack. “Whether you knew Danny or not, if you believe in dialogue and open-mindedness, you are, in truth, a friend of Danny. It was the power of music running through us.”
For Mack, musc has always also been about freedom. Even as a kid, he could feel the spirit coming through the music of bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin.
“I have an older brother who turned me on to rock, and it just seemed so cool,” he says.
“It symbolized a rebelliousness that I could identify with, and the impression it left on me has never waned.”
As someone who is dogged by shyness, Salom says that music can give her the freedom to say things she can’s otherwise express in social situations.
“I tend to shy off and keep inside all the things I wish I could’ve said, often regretting not having been able to come out of that shell,” she explains. “When I go home, I write those things I couldn’t say, or I write about why I couldn’t say them, and when I perform those songs, I feel like I’m finally making peace with my shyness.”
Ironically, it is Salom’s shyness that moves her to perform onstage.
I like the challenge of throwing myself into such an abyss, when you know all eyes are watching every movement you make and all ears are listening to every word you say,” she says.
For Salom, live performance can be deeply intimate, and experience of making powerful connections with other human beings.
“Performing my songs live is almost like a sexual experience for me, because you get this amazing mix of energy coming from the audience together with your own,” she says, “and after a while, I lose control of myself and just ride along on this wave of intensity. It’s very magical!”
She recalls one show in particular when she was surprised to find herself making a great connection with a stadium filled with heavy metal fans, despite her far more soft and subtle style.
“I was opening for this metal band called U.F.O. It was the first time I played in front of thousands of people, and I thought I was going to be eaten alive,” she remembers. “I remember doing wacky things onstage to get their attention, like kneeling on the floor to solo wiith my electric guitar and telling them funny stories. Soon enough, I magically captured their attention and they became one of the best audiences I’ve ever had in my life. It was a powerful experience.”
Making that connection with the audience can transform a mediocre gig into a great one. yet, Mack feels that as a performer, the first person he must please is himself.
“You are your own worst critic,” he says. “So I know that if I can please myself, I will be pleasing the audience. but if you invert that and try to please the audience first, odds are you will fall short not only of your own expectations but of theirs as well.”
Recently, Mack and his band The Star Alternative celebrated the release of their new CD &ldquoSquare Peg, Round Hole” with a party at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington. Mack remembers that night as an especially good gig, because first and foremost, the band was the tightest it’s ever been, and the crowd could feel that energy coming from the stage.
“The chemistry was felt throughout the room,” he says. “The audience was right there with us, and that’s the absolute best feeling in the world. That’s my drug.”
“The best shows for me have been the ones with lots of preparation,” he says. “The extra work and planning I’ve done to put on an entertaining and unique show has never let me down.”
But all that planning and preparation done in the privacy of a practice room or studio ultimately leads to that moment: the lights go up, the first chord is struck, the first word is sung. After ALl, everything comes down to the moment, live.
“Once onstage, you play by instinct,” says Mack. “The moment has passed forever before you’ve even realized you were in it. Every note happens so fast and then is gone like the wind. And once that moment is gone, it’s gone.”
When playing live, each of these songwriters tries to find the way to stay open to the moment.
“I perform best when I don’t think, when I just focus my energy and concentration into what I am doing and let the song and the performance take over,” says Mack. “It’s about finding that groove where you let your mind be first mate instead of pilot.”
“I let go and listen to my songs as I perform them as if that was the first time I sang them in my life,” says Salom. “I try to keep my mind empty, and maybe that is why performing onstage gives me such a redeeming feeling from which I need to recover each time, no matter how big or small the show was.”
Says Loughlin, simply, “I try to open myself up to the possibility of a moment. Don’t force it, but leave milk and cookies on the mantle for it.”