The New York Songwriters Circle 25th Anniversary

by James Linderman

There is something truly wonderful about performing your own songs at a songwriters circle.

First and foremost it is the graduating event that pulls us up from the open mic night. It seems to many of us who write songs that the open mic night is where we sharpen the skill, and the songwriters circle is where we get to not only show how sharp that skill has gotten but also where our sharpness is celebrated.

Just by being on the bill, in this invited and limited capacity, makes a statement and I believe most of us see it as a sign of ascent.

My first songwriters circle was Bluebird North in Toronto and I sat beside Melanie Doane who had won a Juno (Canada’s Grammy) for her album Adam’s Rib which was in my top 10 favourites list of all time. It was magical to not only sit beside this artist whose work I so admired completely, but to have her guitar player mention to the audience that I was a hard act to have to follow….priceless!

So if we agree that the songwriting circle is a cherished tradition then we can also agree that the New York Songwriters Circle is the most cherished of all, in this, it’s 25th year.

To try and imagine all of the incredible moments that have taken place over that time would be only possible if you had been involved with it for a long time and fortunately I got to ask the host and co-ordinator of the New Your Songwriters Circle, Tina Shafer these 11 questions that will give you a very good idea of what it has been like over the years and where she believes the NYSC is headed in the future.

Q. What did you think of the Circle the first time you went?

A. The first time I went, I was invited to be a performer. I was a songwriter signed to Warner Chapel at the time and performing in a “round”, listening to other people’s tunes and not having to carry the whole show was a delight to me!

Q. Did you make any significant changes once you started hosting?

A. The format remained the same but I used many of my early co-writers and voice students to perform …we were all just starting out in the business and it was such a great way to share our music and perform.. Some of those artists were: Norah Jones, Jesse Harris, Richard Julian, Nellie McKay, Lisa Loeb, Vanessa Carlton, Billy Porter…

Q. How has the NYSC evolved since you first started hosting it?

A. It became kind of famous out of it’s own accord, there really was no other “in the round format” in those early days and the amazing talent just brought more of the same in from all over the country, and eventually from all over the world.  We soon had ASCAP nights, BMI and SESAC nights, we had SONY nights, Nashville Nights, Pop nights, R&B nights….It was truly an amazing time for songwriters and a few of us started having real success!

Q. What is the significance of hosting the Circle at The Bitter End?

A. The Songwriters Circle was actually the brainchild of the late Ken Gorka, owner and manager of the famous club.  I never planned to take it anywhere else once I started hosting it in 1991.

Q. Are your younger writers able to appreciate the significance of the NYSC and the Bitter End location?

A. It really depends, some do, some don’t.  Most of the time we do let the writers know that it is truly something special that they were chosen to be a part of our community and that the Bitter End represents one of the original spots to hear great songwriting. Really, the vibrations that come from that room are haunting, in a great way. It is a place where the music makes a difference and there is a transformation that comes from listening to a song in it’s purest form in a place like that.

Q. Is it interesting to go from a “Young Performers Night” to a night of veteran celebrity writers?

A. Yes it is a shift! Wisdom, craft and experience make for some incredible performances by the more seasoned writers.  You really feel like they are our troubadours. They have a voice that is truly their own. In watching the young songwriters, you get to see the “diamonds in the rough” and all that goes with the budding of new talent. Often, many of them are still finding their true voices and their own uniqueness.

Q. What are some of the special showcase moments that made you say, “There it is! That is what this is all about”?

A. Talent is so subjective… but then there are just those few rare artists that you simply have to watch, you have to listen. For me that was Jane Kelly Williams, Billy Porter (Tony Winner for Kinky Boots), Nellie McKay, Vanessa Carlton, Rob Mathes, The Story, Jesse Harris, Richard Julian…these artists always made me listen, I just couldn’t help it. There was something there that was so pure, you had to listen…

Q. Does your own personal success as a songwriter with songs on recordings that have sold over 33 million copies make it easier to attract top tier songwriters when you are assembling a roster that will fill the room?

A. It is easier certainly, since I have known some of these songwriters from cowrite sessions and from being a vocal coach, but also from being in the industry for so many years, my own success as a songwriter translated into greater access to hit songwriters for the Circle when we set up those pro nights.

Q. Why the focus on songwriting as a performance art? Why is performing songs by the songwriters valuable?

A. This is a great question! One that I really struggled with when trying to turn the Circle into a company back in 2006 with our famous songwriting contests. For me, seeing the “man behind the curtain” and the process of what goes into making a song out of thin air, was always the most fascinating part.

We songwriters tend to be cerebral, shy people…that is why most of us choose songwriting and then only performing on a safe stage. We take the time to think through our thoughts, emotions and spin a tapestry of words and music into a 3 minute song that capsulizes that.  To me that creative process is the great unknown, the greatest miracle.

Q. What would the late Ken Gorka think of how the NYSC has progressed in 25 years?

A. I was lucky enough to know that Ken was very very proud of my work. He told me so and when he passed last March, his wife and daughter came up to me and told me how much he respected my work with the songwriting community through the Circle. It meant a great deal to me.

Q. How should the Circle progress in the next 25 years? What should change or remain?

A. That is the million dollar question! For the most part, through all the years, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the power of great content. That has always been the consistent factor.

What I would like to see, moving forward, is greater sponsorships so we can offer some form of scholarship support to some of the newer up and coming talent. Right now, the Circle hires a videographer, photographer, sound man and promoters and paying talented people their worth makes it difficult to invest in the future of our Circle and in the future of our writers. It would be great to see some sustainable growth.

We hope that investment will come from a community that wants to continue to have a rich and vibrant culture filled with the beauty of songs performed by the artists that created them!

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