The finals of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project's 2009 songwriting contest are this Sunday (6/7) at 4pm at the MilkBoy in Ardmore. I had the opportunity to talk to Dena Marchiony, executive director of the Project, about the organization, the contest, and the Philly music scene in general. This is an edited transcript of our interview. For more information visit www.phillysongwriters.com.
Philly Acoustic Reviews: Could you tell me a little bit about the Philadelphia Songwriters Project: How did you get started?
Dena Marchiony: We started in November 2002. It was me and my business partner, Stu Shames. We’re both songwriters and we were pondering the plight of all the people who were so talented and not getting any traction. This was seven years ago and things were very different in the Philadelphia music scene.
PAR: How so?
DM: I think the scene has gone through peaks and troughs, and this was during a trough. In the 1960s, when I was growing up — and I’m dating myself here — there were lots of clubs and other venues where emerging artists could play. In 2002 things were different for new artists. Our first show was in a black box theater, the Adrienne, which was a purposeful choice because we wanted the music to be center stage. For about two and half years we did a series of shows on Sunday evenings — a laid-back time when artists generally aren’t working their day jobs and when we wouldn’t be in competition with bars. We also did a weekly show at smaller venues for emerging artists, they were one step up from an open mike — each performer got four songs. We’ve since gone through lots of evolution, trying to figure out how to nurture and how to be a resource for performing artists.
PAR: What other programs have you sponsored?
DM: We run a mentoring program that started off giving business advice to performers and moved into different areas — one year we focused on the artists’ inner life and we had a life coach working with performers. Last year we had established songwriters mentoring on the art of songwriting. The program is on hiatus this year. We’ve also brought artists and workshops to schools and done innovative festivals and presentations like Beyond Measure. This started as a songwriting contest. We chose 12 songs in different genres and set them for a choir or vocal ensemble. It resulted in a great concert in 2007 and a CD the following year.
PAR: What are some of the aims of the Songwriting Project?
DM: Philadelphia is a great music city, it really is. It often gets overlooked and New York gets so much attention, but we saw that Philadelphia has its own flavor and its own great music scene. We want to help develop the talented artists and make them part the cultural landscape of the city.
PAR: How is the Project organized? How many people work on it?
DM: We are a 501C3, so donations to the Project are tax deductible. We're all volunteer. I’m full-time we a have a board of directors who also contribute. We’d like be able to have a paid staff and to pay our artists. Maybe one day.
PAR: Pending funding.
DM: Pending funding.
PAR: How long have you doing songwriting contests?
DM: I think we’ve done contests since 2004. We’ve had many different prize packages, generally not cash: the Beyond Measure concert and CD, one year two performers got a place at the XPN Festival; last year winners performed at the Bethlehem Music Festival.
PAR: What are the prizes this year?
DM: The six winners will perform at the Kimmel Center, at the Bethlehem Music Festival, and at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Plus we have an assortment of smaller prizes from our sponsors.
PAR: How many entries did you get?
DM: Over 200. From that we chose 12 finalists, who will play this Sunday at the MilkBoy. Six winners will be chosen by the audience and by a smaller panel of judges.
PAR: Are all the entries from Philadelphia?
DM: Most of them, but we had entries from as far away as Ireland and California. Last year we had a winner from Illinois who drove all the way for the final and then back for the show at the Bethlehem Music Festival. This year all the finalists are from this general area, except for one from D.C. That’s just how it turned out.
PAR: Have you had any previous winners go on to modest fame?
DM: A winner from last year, I think she played as Ali Kat, recently went on tour with David Bromberg. And we’ve seen people from our other events go on to great things. Birdie Busch played at one of our first shows. This was before she even played her own guitar, she had someone else playing for her. Mutlu and Amos Lee played with us. Mutlu was discovered by XPN at one of our shows. Sharon Little played with us; she just got off tour with Alison Krause and Robert Plant.
PAR: Did you grow up in Philadelphia?
DM: I wasn’t born here, but I grew up and have spent most of my life in the Wynnewood/ Ardmore area. I grew up in a time when there was an amazing music scene in the city: the old Electric Factory; Second Fret, a great place that closed in perhaps the early 70s, it was around 19th and Sansom if I remember correctly and Joni Mitchell and other major acts played there; the Main Point; numerous phenomenal venues and some great musicians. It was inspiring to grow up in that environment.
PAR: You mentioned that seven years ago it was a bad time for the Philadelphia music scene. How have things changed since then?
DM: There’s so much more opportunity, a greater appreciation and focus on original music. I think having some major people come out of Philadelphia and make it to the next level in performing is inspiring. There’s an incredibly deep talent pool in the city, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. It has really blossomed and people are into it. I wouldn’t say we started it, but we’ve been lucky to be at the head of the wave. When we started there was the Tin Angel and the Point and that was about it. Artists used to complain that there was nowhere to play. Now there are many more venues where emerging artists can be heard. There are some great studios and producers. It’s an awesome music town.
PAR: Are there certain attributes that Philadelphia musicians share?
DM: It’s not like the time of Gamble and Huff when you had twenty or so artists doing a “Philly sound.” There’s just a general high quality of musicians and artists. At the show on Sunday we’ll have everything from an instrumentalist playing a Hang, a percussion instrument that looks like a spaceship from a 1950s movie, to standard jazz, to mixes of genres.
PAR: What are some of the future plans for the Project?
DM: This was supposed to be a year of hiatus, but of course there’s always things going on. We’re going through a period of reevaluation. One of the biggest issues is funding. This was a year that hit every arts organization hard. I knew there would be a learning curve the first year of two of the Project as we introduced the concept to philanthropists, but I didn’t realize how very hard it would be. People always hear about us and say “that’s really great; I love what you’re doing,” but that doesn’t translate to donations. It’s something we have to focus on. But I can’t really tell you what our future plans are because they are still being cooked.
PAR: Thanks for your time Dena. I’m looking forward to Sunday.
DM: See you there.