chooses instead to set up his keyboard and guitar at Thanks A Latte, a newly opened coffee shop in his hometown. His black t-shirt and awkwardly tight acid wash jeans hardly comprise the typical outfit for someone in a suburban strip mall coffee shop with bright yellow walls and black-and-white photographs of children. But Marlowe, affectionately known as Charlie, is a regular here for open mic night and was granted his own gig tonight. His audience consists of his parents, his girlfriend, and a woman he met through the Woodshed named Wendy Ramsey.
Ramsey, who describes her own musical style as “the B-52s meet Patti Smith,” says she wants to encourage Marlowe in his music and encourage him to continue to attend the Woodshed. Most of the members are older men, with a sprinkling of women and Marlowe. He decided against attending college in order to pursue a career in music, but he has no intention of leaving Syracuse. “With a bigger city, there’s going to be a lot more competition. There’s a million of me in New York City,” Marlowe says. “Syracuse is a great place to have a home base to work on my art and try to get it out to the rest of the world. Especially with the Internet. You don’t need to move to a huge musical metropolis to do something.”
The Internet worked locally to introduce Marlowe to the Woodshed. Folkus promotes the group on its Web site, inviting the public in a larger way than Song Anon did. Cooke knows how to design and run a Web site, skills that help the group appear professional and organized to potential new members. With the meetings taking place in public, new people will ideally not feel intimidated, which is possible when groups meet in someone’s home. Though several of the core members knew each other before the Woodshed was founded, the Web site and other advertising brings in unexpected new members. Robin Butler, a poet and fiction writer, began to attend the Woodshed out of curiosity after she saw a poster for the group in October 2008. As a poet, Butler was familiar with the concept of a writers’ circle and attended a meeting with her husband, Chris. Though she does not contribute her work to the Woodshed and describes herself as “tone deaf,” she remains a trusted voice on lyrics. Butler typically blogs about the Woodshed on a monthly basis, with one entry featured on the Woodshed’s promotional website to describe a typical meeting.
Her presence does more than promote the group or provide a fresh voice. It encourages a new kind of collaboration of creative minds. Mark Zane, one of the musicians, took one of her poems that he found particularly rhythmic and set it to music. With her permission, he adjusted some of her original words to help the song flow. He presented it to the Woodshed earlier this year as a collaboration between the two, though she had little input. “I liked hearing what he did with my work, but I didn’t want to comment on it at Woodshed,” she says.
“I didn’t feel qualified.” Zane plans to rework the song and possibly record it for his next album.
Though the Woodshed is itself an offshoot of two other organizations, it now has a separate branch of its own. While the Woodshed encourages women to attend, they have always been a minority, and most of the women are not members of Folkus. Like Joanne Perry with her love song to a beach, or Wendy Ramsey’s eclectic style, these women decided to form their own song circle, which also meets monthly at Sparky Town. The women’s group has no critiques and members share everything from original songs, to poetry, to violin music. “I know some women who don’t want to come because they think it’s just a group of women complaining about men,” Perry says with a laugh. “But it’s not like that. It’s a chance to share our work and spend time with other creative women.”
The regulars of the Woodshed also cite the friendships and the sense of community as a reason they keep coming back every month, along with the obvious benefit of becoming a better songwriter. “It’s cool getting to know the local music community. In a city the size of Syracuse, after a while you get to know the locals,” Zane says. But there appears to be more to this group than networking and polishing music, or an excuse to go out on a Tuesday. In all the members, a sense lingers that songwriting is inexplicable. They cannot explain why or how they do it. Finding other people struggling with the same creative process creates a deeper connection than just an appreciation for music or writing. “When you meet people who write songs, many of them do it in private. It’s like their own private hell,” Cooke says. “When you meet another songwriter, there’s an instant connection. Songwriters, even amateur songwriters, are a different breed of people. We love to get together to just talk about it.”
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