The Brown Bag Song Writing Competition kicked off its 8th season earlier this month with a revamped format, a new location, and an appetite for music. The open-mic style competition where songwriters are invited to perform original content is currently happening every Monday until November 17th. On November 23rd, a finals competition will take place featuring ten finalist songwriters. This year’s event has moved to the Asheville Music Hall providing contestants a real-stage experience. Brown Bag’s performers include novice and seasoned songwriters and musicians, as well as a rotating cast of judges with vast professional backgrounds in the music industry. We sat down with founder and fellow music lover, Jenny Greer-Fares, to get the lowdown on the Brown Bag Songwriting Competition.
Mason Jar Media: What inspired you to start Brown Bag Songwriting Competition?
Jenny Greer-Fares: Basically, to create a way to test songs in front of a listening crowd and make more music friends. Before I moved to Asheville, I was really involved with the songwriting scene in Atlanta. Folks there seemed to think Asheville was a songwriting hot spot. When I moved here (12 years ago, wow!), it was hard for me to find anything. I started doing some songwriter circles (taking turns playing songs on stage) in different bars with Valorie Miller, Ryan Cox and Max Chain. When Max, the inventor of Root Ball, decided to open the Root Bar in Swannanoa, he, of course, wanted us to play there. Eventually, his desire to get music out to B.F.E. combined with my love of building a music community gave birth to the Brown Bag Songwriting Competition concept. I was inspired by the awesome experiences with the listening room at Eddie’s Attic and we felt creating a competition like the Brown Bag was the best way. It solved many of the low budget/high impact things, too. I hated calling it a competition and disliked the go-to-the-coffee-shop-and-snap-your-fingers term "singer songwriter." Having a platform for myself and others to try out new material, and get feedback on songs for my band, Jen and the Juice (now on tour in Japan), was what inspired me.
MJM: Brown Bag is a platform for all Western North Carolina songwriters, from novice to professional. Can you remember any 'wow' moments from artists of either spectrum?
JG: For me, WOW moments happen when that quiet looking person gets on stage and rips a song. This happens a bunch at Brown Bag. It’s exciting to guess what someone might sound like and then get it all wrong. In one night, there are always a few folks that have something really special and "wow" like. But, my definition of wow is uniqueness and song writing. Sometimes people start coming out and they are just… horrible; HOWEVER, as the time goes on, we see them come back and get better and that is a wow moment too!
One year, we had an Iron and Wine band member’s sister perform and get in the final three one night. The entire band came to cheer her on. We also had Jason Isbell (former member of the Drive-By Truckers) hanging out one night. He really loved the scene. He came in and really listened to the final 3 one night. I happened to have a pair of Groucho Marks glasses (black plastic glasses with a big nose and mustache), and I wrote a note on the inside of the nose asking him to be a guest judge "in disguise" for the final 3. Ani Difranco's management came in one night.
MJM: What is the best/craziest item ever placed in the Brown Bag?
JG: We get receipts and pocket lint a bunch, but Mellow Mushroom has offered a gift certificate for each bag this season. Also, the Rhetorical Factory gave a best-dressed prize in last season’s final.
MJM: Who is involved in Brown Bag this year?
JK: KP, the owner of Asheville Music Hall and promoter for Geniass Productions, bravely moved us upstairs for better sound and lights. Jessica Tomasin, manager of Echo Mountain Recording Studios, comedian and Asheville CVB 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year, is donating a day in the studio again. The studio has done this every year. She's also calling up industry insiders to come help judge the Brown Bag Finals, as well as helping to organize a songwriting workshop with the help of Asheville Music Professionals (AMP). Alex Krug has hosted the past 5 series of Brown Bag. She's been screen-printing brown bags and posters by hand, too! Debrissa McKinney, a new Brown Bag host and in no less than ten local bands is getting on board to help with the weekly events. Eric Janoski, the Brown Bag 2013 winner, is hosting this season as well. He's been a Brown Bag lover for years and claims every musician he knows he met at the Brown Bag. Crissa Requate and Matthieu Rodriguez of Mason Jar Media are beefing up our social media and print media presence, as well as giving us all kinds of great ideas to help our event grow. Alli Marshall, a Mountain Xpress columnist and Brown Bag judge, has been advising us and promoting. Gary Reckard is building our website (coming soon www.brownbagsongwriting.com), judging, and being a Gary-amazing music fan. Ryan Burns, a well-seasoned local musician, has helped us get our posters printed through his company, Rock-a-Print. Aaron Price and Jeff Knorr, both of Collapsable Studios, are donating studio time to do a “Best of the Brown Bag” song circle. Aaron is also giving us advice on the judging process. Gar from New Song Music/Records, who hosts an international song writing competition with a showcase at Lincoln Center, has been advising us on business practices and sponsorship. Josh Blake, a musician, producer and co-organizer of the weekly Funk Jam, from IamAVL has agreed to give us an upstream for each event, and we are planning on getting more archived video to share throughout the year. Basically, Brown Bag is a hyper-local community event that has attracted many of Asheville musician’s and music industry folks and we’re excited to see that grow!
MJM: How would you like to see Brown Bag Songwriting Competition grow?
JG: Prizes - I'd like folks to see the Brown Bag as an offering plate that will help our competition grow (i.e. cool prizes). If you have something to give, then put it in the bag. This will help the spirit of the Brown Bag to grow in an authentic way. I would like people to offer money to the winners, but services and gift cards could be cool. For example, some guitar lessons or strings would help. But so would letters of support, oil changes, and teeth cleanings from a dentist, or bike repair.
Audience - I'd like Asheville folks to come out and show their support for the songwriters, have a beer, tip their bartender, and maybe even give it a try. I think everyone has a spark of talent waiting to be ignited and we are creating a place for experimentation and support. That's the spirit of Asheville anyway!
Community – Musicians, please stop by. You could be playing for the first time, trying out a new song, or rocking an old tune you've carried for years. Building a strong rooted community has always been easy to do in this town, and it is the exact thing that is helping the Brown Bag grow.
One more thing… We are so fortunate to have so many folks onboard that want to see Brown Bag succeed, but we still have room to grow! Come out and cheer for the Asheville music community, or come out to be cheered! We are also still in need of sponsors to support our workshops and help pay for services that promote our community-minded event. If you think you might want to help, please contact me at email@example.com