Songwriter’s Square Puts Distinctive Touch on L.A. Singer-Songwriter Scene

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Songwriter's Square
The Lyric-Hyperion Theatre is a cozy, 50-seat theatre in the round, located in the hilly Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. Its name, derived from the intersection where it’s located—Lyric St. and Hyperion Avenue—coincidentally makes it an appropriate choice for a songwriter showcase.

Songwiter’s Square has been at the Lyric-Hyperion every month for more than a year and half. Curated and hosted by songwriter-singer-playwright Bill Berry, the Square is a twist on the traditional “songwriters in the round”—in which the writers traditionally sit in a line upon the stage of a club or bar—with the writers actually performing in a round, err…square, facing each other. The theatre setting raises the intimacy level and reduces the typical bar/club distractions.

Writers who’ve performed at the Square include Grammy winners Art Podell (New Christy Minstrels) and Julie Gold (1991 Song of the Year for “From a Distance”); Grammy nominees Shelly Peiken (for “Bitch,” who’s also had #1 hits with “What a Girl Wants” and “Come on Over Baby”) and Harriet Schock (“Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady”); hit writers Lois Blaisch (#1 hit “Could’ve Been”) and Ruthann Friedman (#1 hit “Windy”); as well performers including John Wicks (The Records), Debbi Peterson (The Bangles) and Marvin Etzioni (Lone Justice), among many others.

When the house lights dim for a Square show, the performers take their places and Berry, animated and outgoing, introduces them and some of their achievements. This is usually followed by some banter, which the audience is encouraged to contribute to. The tone is casual, the humor loose, occasionally bordering on…mild sexual harassment, but not quite. Then the group launches into a cover song–something that reflects a current event or the performers’ common artistic ground.

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The January 18th show began with Kiki Ebsen at her keyboard, playing a familiar chord progression that I could not immediately place. However, by the time the group hit the first chorus, I was smiling: It was “Sailing,” the big Christopher Cross hit from 1980 (that seems to have been on the radio ever since). Ebsen went on to explain that she has been a member of Cross’ west coast touring band for years but I personally think she was being modest: Her credits include performances, tours and albums with a who’s-who of popular music, including Tracy Chapman, Al Jarreau, Chicago, Dolly Parton and Kenny Loggins. But, as she displayed Saturday night, she’s not only a world-class session musician but a world-class songwriter-performer in a jazzy vein, with a polished vocal style and songs of substance. For “Over and Out,” she wondered aloud about growing older and being unmarried, chuckled knowingly, and proceeded to tell the story of waking up in a motel room while on tour in Japan. She’d had a vivid dream that she was a pilot, in the image of Amelia Earhart–fiercely independent, “An island,” Ebsen said–who lost control and barely survived the crash, laying broken on the ground with a dying two-way radio, finally willing to accept some help. And the song delivered on her poignant lead-in (as did all of her songs).

Todd Lincoln Richards, looking a bit like Jamey Johnson and sounding more-than-a-bit like Neil Young, brought much of the evening’s Americana-country content, with tunes even more recent than the ones on his recently-released CD, Where I Stand (which features master country picker Albert Lee on guitar). Richards showed skill with imagery and metaphor, in songs like “Let’s Take a Drive,” in which he sang about going for rides in the old truck with his father and getting “them big ol’ twister cones” at the Dairy Queen. In “Ghost Town,” he put a sad-but-brilliant spin on the “heart of gold” methaphor. And on “This Bar Takes You Away,” he had the audience hanging on for the next chorus to find out which classic rock chestnut the bar band in the song was going to do injustice to. Richards is one to keep an eye on.

Next in the Square was Shannon Hurley. Even if you don’t recognize her name, you may very well have heard her, since her songs have been on TV’s The Young and the Restless, American Idol, 90210, So You Think You Can Dance and others, as well as several movies and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver—not to mention four independent releases of her own—and it’s easy to see why: Her bright, melodic pop-rock is instantly likeable (Berry wanted to bang the cajon on every one of them) and have brought her a sizeable following (who Kickstarter-funded the production of her latest CD, Light).

Host Berry has also written songs for TV (ABC’s Sons and Daughters) and several musicals produced in L.A. He has deep roots both in the local songwriter community and in the traditions and history of American music—and it comes out in his songs. At Saturday night’s Square, Berry skillfully employed the ragtimey-talking blues style (ala “Alice’s Restaurant”) for his own amusing and masterfully-written “My Cross-Country Love” and had the audience fully enthralled through every word of “Piano Tuner with the Lazy Eye,” a poignant and insightful tale leavened by the repeating title hook and Berry’s well-placed inflections and humorous observations. His first CD is in the works and it can’t become available soon enough.

Songwriter’s Square may have changed the “shape” of songwriter’s showcases but it nonetheless carries on Los Angeles’ rich singer-songwriter tradition. Future scheduled guest include Jack Tempchin (writer/cowriter of the Eagles hits “Already Gone” and “Peaceful, Easy Feeling) and Wayne Kramer (formerly of the MC5).

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Nicole Atkins

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