Marko Shafer simply calls it “the café.” Adele, Damien Rice, Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles call it a place where they got their start. For the rest of us, it’s the Hotel Café, a box of a building on the northern side of Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, painted red and shaded by a lone palm tree whose roots have seen their share of cigarette butts.
Like many of the best venues, the Hotel Café is a living, breathing organism. While some places are simply that – a place to land, a bare platform – others take on a life of their own, a personality or point of view. Sometimes, even, they spur a movement – The Gaslight in the ’60s heyday of New York City; the Crocodile in grungy Seattle; the Bluebird in country-focused Nashville. In 2000, when co-owner Shafer opened the then-coffee shop with fellow screenwriter Max Mamikunian, there were no expectations.
“I think the success of the place had a lot to do with my business partner and I being so young when we opened,” he says. “We treated the Café more as a musician’s clubhouse for friends rather than a business. Nothing was forced. We didn’t pay for ads, didn’t hire outside promoters, and we moved the entrance to the back side of the building, which allowed it to grow more organically.”
It had been ages since Los Angeles had a foothold in the singer-songwriter scene – beyond maybe Jonathan Wilson’s mythical homestead, but that was limited to those lucky enough, like Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst, to be invited in. Silverlake hadn’t yet reached its peak as a thriving artistic pulse, and other venues like the Troubadour were sonically appropriate but too big for smaller, burgeoning artists armed with little more than a guitar or a voice.
Locals like Bareilles took notice, using the stage to exercise new material, and traveling acts – like Mumford & Sons, for one – stopped in for sets as they toured on the front end of an ever-growing Americana insurgence. A young Katy Perry tested out her stage skills in the early days of “I Kissed A Girl” there, way before she replaced her six-string with whip-cream squirting brassieres.
“Hotel Café was a school for a lot of us,” says Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit. “Seeing acts in an intimate environment where you could make out the lyric is kind of a rarity in Los Angeles.”
Soon, a songwriting scene began to form – but Shafer, ever modest, doesn’t like to take credit. In fact, he doesn’t like a lot of the flashy trappings of a club owner – the Café’s web presence is still basic at that, and neither he nor Mamikunian make it a mission to speak with press or have their faces plastered in glossies alongside the artists they helped make famous.
“I don’t think Hotel Cafe necessarily paved the way for songwriters,” Shafer says. “When we opened, there just weren’t many venues in LA for singer-songwriters to play. As word spread that there was a new place in town, the pool of artists that wanted to play the room began growing. It took some time, but they eventually found us. Inevitably, when so much talent ends up in one place, people start to take notice. Industry starts to take notice, and eventually acts started to ‘break’ out of the room.”
And “break” they did: the Hotel Café began to blossom into more than just a place, as two compilation CDs, a themed tour and an expansion came next. In true Los Angeles fashion, music supervisions routinely paid visits amidst the candles and red curtains to look for the next big thing – Adele among them, when she played an early show at the front end of her career. They still do.
Meiko, whose songs were plucked from the stages of the Café to the soundtrack of Grey’s Anatomy, credits the venue with helping her to hone her live performance skills and giving her – and others like her – a place to snag that ever-important sync.
“Over the years,” she says, “the venue has become the place for film and TV music supervisors to discover up-and-coming talent whose music they license for projects they’re working on. Being able to perform in front of those types of tastemakers in a super-friendly, low-pressure atmosphere has been a huge benefit to my career as a songwriter and performer.”
On any given week, the Café will host rising acts like Caroline Rose as well as established names like Rhett Miller or Rachael Yamagata, seeking refuge at the intimate venue as an antidote to less storied rooms. It’s the rare place where an artist doesn’t necessarily have to boast a built-in fan base to draw a crowd – patrons trust the musical palate of the bookers, regardless of any previous familiarity.
“The Hotel Café is a tastemaker in the best sense,” says Yamagata. “By insisting on unique and important music they’ve drawn artists to them and music lovers alike. They were instrumental for my own career.”
Soon, the Café will expand into a second room, allowing the venue to host both acoustic one-man-or-woman acts and larger bands, as Shafer has watched the trend gravitate. But, “no matter what happens in music, shifting trends or wherever the new sound ends up – which we will book as well – the Hotel Cafe will always be a home for singer-songwriters,” he says, adding: “I’ve always said, without the artist, songwriters and musicians, the Hotel Cafe is just a room.”
This article appears in our November/December 2014 issue. Subscribe here.