When Bill Kostelec started writing songs in the 1990s, it was a way to play through his problems. “The guitar was my salvation. In the midst of things falling apart I started writing songs,” he said.
But he didn’t perform his pieces in public until 2003, after he met his wife Kathy, also a musician and songwriter. “She pushed me to go public but I didn’t know many musicians around here.”
Two years later a conversation between the Kostelecs and musicians Frank Delaney and Laddie Ray Melvin sparked an idea for an organization that would connect area songwriters. “We talked about it first as having a regular song circle where people would exchange songs because we were all writing. But we decided to make it a public event and invited people,” said Kostelec.
Now the Spokane Songwriter’s Organization, which has about 20 active members, holds its Brick and Mortar shows the first Thursday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. at Chairs Coffee so area songwriters and music enthusiasts can convene, listen to original music and support Spokane’s songwriting community.
Melvin, who hosts the free shows, said it’s important for songwriters to have an encouraging place to perform. “We don’t judge what somebody is doing,” he said. “We decided it might be a good way to promote song craft and give people an opportunity to play in a listening environment. If you’re writing your own songs, often the environments aren’t really conducive to listening. You’re more background music. The idea was if we could provide a place where people could be heard it might encourage them to actually continue and to work on their craft.”
To that end, Melvin opens the evening with a song and warms up the audience. Then they have 30 minutes of open mic so a variety of songwriters can share a song or two. That’s followed by two featured musicians who each perform 45 minute sets to showcase their original work.
“We’re there to listen to songs and songwriting, to give these folks a venue of people that are interested in listening,” said Kostelec, explaining that this might not matter much if a musician is playing cover tunes, but is crucial for songwriters.
“When somebody goes and puts the efforts into writing a song it’s discouraging to be background music. If you’re playing Beatles you don’t really care,” he said. “But if you’re playing something that took a week and you had to rip out a piece of your soul because it’s personal, it isn’t cool to have people chattering about you.”
The venue at Chairs Coffee is small so songwriters often play alone or in small groups, performing all genres of music, from original pop to folk tunes.
For Kostelec, who primarily writes political, historical and topical songs, the group has encouraged him to keep writing and performing. “I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from other songwriters. That’s been an encouragement and made me more aggressive as a writer and a musician. It vindicated stuff I was doing,” he said. “If I write a song this week I can go play it at the open mic at the next songwriter’s group. There’s a lot of positive feedback that way.”
The organization also aims to help promote member musicians. This year they provided a full day of music at Pig Out in the Park and they are currently working on a compilation CD.
“Spokane is a peculiar place for music. It’s difficult to get press if you aren’t 20-something. So, promoting the songwriters ourselves is a way to get around that,” said Kostelec, adding that they want to support songwriters of all ages and genres. “There are an awful lot of people with talent. It’s neat for us as songwriters and musicians to be able to hear these other people, how they work and learn from each other.”
And according to its founders, Spokane Songwriter’s has met its goal of providing a place to meet and talk shop with a variety of local musicians.
“I enjoy meeting the people and talking to others about what they’re doing, how they approach their work,” said Melvin. “Every time you’re listening to somebody there’s something to learn about the craft and the way it’s applied. I’m constantly amazed at what people come up with. … It makes you feel you are part of something, a community of people who share an interest in songwriting.”