Arts & Culture

At AS220, local songwriters challenged creatively

Monthly event with local musicians fosters original performances, novel exchanges

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, February 14, 2014

A guitarist plucks out a rapid staccato. People wander the room with salty snacks and cold drinks. Songs about lost love and adventure.

Songwriters in the Round, founded by guitarist and singer Ryan Fitzsimmons, is a monthly event held at AS220 that features a diverse collection of talented musicians performing original pieces. The group celebrated its 10th anniversary last week with a fundraising performance for the Rhode Island Songwriters Association.

 

Root of the chord

Fitzsimmons, who moved to Providence in 2004, performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 2008. He soon became involved with RISA, an organization that aids artists by working with them on albums and by hosting songwriting workshops. He also worked with AS220, a non-profit that helps artists and musicians exhibit their work. He was  inspired by a music series that his friend created in Syracuse, New York, Fitzsimmons said.

Performer Jim Tata said RISA now comprises 145 members from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and other regions .

Songwriters in the Round meets once a month. Three locals and one traveling musician perform their works. Fitzsimmons was the host for many years but eventually passed the torch to other coordinators, like Joanne Lurgio, who is also in charge of booking  artists.

During the event, there are four rounds of songs — each performer plays one original composition for every round, Fitzsimmons explained. Three of the songs are the musician’s choice, but the song performed during the third round must be inspired by the theme that was chosen the month before, he added.

Throughout the night, notecards are scattered on tables and chairs. Audience members are tasked with writing down possible themes for songs on these pieces of paper. The host selects four notecards at random and the audience votes for the best theme. The next month, each musician must play an original song pertaining to the theme in some way. Fitzsimmons said there are no hard and fast rules, but the chosen concept should work as inspiration.

The themes tend to be random— “we’ve had ‘Running in Circles,’ ‘Broken Fences’ and ‘Darth Vader,’” he said. The primary enjoyment stems from watching how the musicians choose to handle the theme. “People will take it in completely different ways,” he said.

Instead of Fitzsimmons soliciting performers, most musicians reach out to Songwriters in the Round, he said.

Tata met Fitzsimmons after his children left home. Feeling the effects of an “empty nest,” he joined RISA and began attending Songwriters in the Round, he said.  He was eventually asked to participate and then host.

Jacob Haller ’00 also originally arrived as a member of the audience to support his friend, performer Chris Monti. “That night it was a theme I suggested — ‘Robots’ — that got picked, so that was also a nice introduction to the series,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

 

Contested sounds

Songwriters in the Round normally focuses solely on acoustic performances — but the anniversary event was “plugged in.”

Fitzsimmons said he prefers playing acoustic to electric, because it is a “more intimate experience,” adding that amplification tends to only be necessary when performing in larger or more crowded spaces. Tata said he also favors the acoustic guitar, because he enjoys “the richness of the harmonics, which is so different from electric guitar,” adding that he considers playing plugged in a “necessary evil.”

Some musicians use microphones instead of amps to try to keep the original acoustic sound, he added.

For Jan Luby, another frequent contributor to Songwriters in the Round, the choice between acoustic and electric “completely depends on the venue,” she wrote, adding that she enjoys performing without amplification while “playing the streets in Europe and out on the west coast, small cafes…or the old vaudeville theatres.” But she wrote that she finds it necessary to have a decent sound system in bars, restaurants and outdoors.

Tata said he draws on the Beatles, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell for inspiration — people he considers “strong foundations for songwriting.”

“I don’t know if I ever would have written my first song … if I didn’t know some talented songwriters who were friends of mine growing up in Brooklyn, NY,” Luby wrote. “So I started putting poetry to music.”

 

A balancing act

Both Fitzsimmons and Tata mentioned an infamous song written and performed by Haller during his first performance for Songwriters in the Round in 2007. The song was based on the theme “Childhood Photographs” and titled “Photo Album,” Haller wrote.

“He wrote about a family going through an album,” Fitzsimmons said, laughing. “Their daughter was a demon. It was a comedic take.”

“The song came together pretty quickly, and as the day of the show approached, I became more and more concerned that one or more of the other songwriters would have had the same idea I had, and would have written essentially the same song (only better),” Haller wrote. “But that didn’t happen, and I’ve learned not to worry about that any more.”

For Tata, composing music for Songwriters in the Round has pushed him out of his comfort zone in the best way possible, he said, adding that he considers himself musically, but not lyrically, oriented.

“I didn’t think I could write songs. I didn’t try,” he said, adding that songwriting is a “balancing act,” because there are so many components that need consideration. But Tata finds following a theme a “liberating” experience, because it becomes more about “problem-solving” and less about the “entire universe, which is a fearful thing.”

He added that some of his best songs were written with the most mystifying themes, including “Velcro and Leather.”

Luby expressed a similar sentiment.

“I loved the challenge of writing on a theme, one I may never have written on otherwise,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. “Most of the time the songs are so new we’re reading them off of the page, and that’s when they’re the most exciting.”