Four metro Detroit area artists will demonstrate their songwriting prowess tonight at Ann Arbor’s most intimate and private music venue.
Jeff Scott, Brooke Ratliff, Kelsey Detering and Mike Gentry will participate in “For Song Sake,” a creative challenge in which songwriters compose a new tune over six weeks and debut it before a live audience at Black Crystal Studio. Songwriters apply to participate in the challenge.
All artists are given the same song title, but must write their own lyrics and music as well as determine the genre. Tonight’s song is called “Best Guess,” said Gerald Wayne “G.W.” Staton, who’s owned and operated the 44-seat Black Crystal Studio since 2007.
“I gave the artists an example of something I wrote just to show them what they might do with it. Two of them have written me and said, ‘I’m deep in the rabbit hole,’ but they’re challenged by it,” he said. “Artists always say they needed that challenge, and they needed something thrown at them to get out of a rut.”
During “For Song Sake,” audience members will rate each song from one to five based on lyrics, melody and likability. The winning songwriter will receive a prize, which could include cash, an instrument, a short trip or another item.
Staton and his Black Crystal Studio crew will record each artist’s performance of “Best Guess” and air the recording during an upcoming “For Song Sake” session on Ann Arbor Radio, one of the venue’s two online radio stations. Each artist will receive a copy of the recording.
“I’ve got four dates for ‘For Song Sake’ lined up for next year, one a quarter,” Staton said. “The audience was what impressed me. People came out that I wouldn’t have guessed would come, but they were interested in hearing about songwriting.”
As one of tonight’s “For Song Sake” artists, Scott is eager for the audience to hear his version of “Best Guess” with pianist and keyboardist Tony Jaworowski. This is the pop-soul-jazz singer-songwriter’s second time participating in the challenge and his first new piece of material since releasing his third solo album, “Nola to New York,” in April.
“I would bet in terms of genre, this song is different than what the other players are going to bring,” said Scott, who returned to the music industry in 2010 after a 17-year retreat into a corporate career. “I probably had three to four different versions of this thing at least from a core idea perspective before I just threw all those out and said that’s not what I’m feeling on this thing.”
Known for his unique, soulful voice and sophisticated lyrics and melodies, Scott has created a pastiche of songs evoking late night listening rooms, jazz clubs and supper clubs of the ‘60s as well as esoteric singer-songwriter fare from the ‘70s. He served as co-founder and lead singer of The Big Picture in the early ‘90s and opened for Hall & Oates, Richard Marx and Smokey Robinson.
With his latest release, “Nola to New York,” Scott shifted from a folk rock approach centered on the steel guitar and returned to his classical guitar-oriented and pop-soul-jazz roots. The album serves as a celebration of the music he listened to while his parents held cocktail parties in the living room, his sisters spun 45s in their bedrooms and cars rolled by with windows open and radios blaring.
“From a subject matter perspective, I really just wanted to write a beautiful album, songs that were sonically beautiful, that were organic in how they were presented and could be done by a trio or a quintet in a large setting or an intimate setting,” Scott said.
Like Scott, Brooke Ratliff, Mercury Salad Sandwich vocalist, guitarist and percussionist, has created her own version of “Best Guess,” which inspired her to take a fresh songwriting approach.
“The Sandwich is always pretty practical and straightforward, we just want people to enjoy the song and have it be positive and fun. I’m not trying to be preachy or too introspective, so it came along at the right time because I was actually struggling with a song idea,” she said. “This song contest pushed me to rethink the idea that wasn’t working, and I was able to finish it and come up with much better lyrics so I’m really happy with it.”
Formed in 2015, Mercury Salad Sandwich incorporates elements of funk, folk and country into an acoustic-centered sound, otherwise known as “acoustic funk.” Along with Ratliff, the band includes Kurt Bonnell (acoustic and electric guitar), Dan “Ozzie” Andrews (acoustic and electric bass) and Kyle Kipp (drums and guitar).
Last year, Mercury Salad Sandwich released their debut EP, “Volume 1,” which features eight tracks nicely wrapped in slices of folk, twang, country, Americana, funk and rock topped off with an ode to whiskey. It’s the ideal combination of personal storytelling mixed with folklore about man-eating grizzlies and unconventional neighbors.
The band will release their follow-up EP, Volume 2, with six new tracks on Nov. 30. “We recorded our two EPs at the same time, and we needed to recut the vocals, redo some percussion and mix it,” said Ratliff, who’s bringing Andrews to perform with her tonight. “It’s kind of the same style as before, a little bit Americana, a little bit funk, a little bit of folk rock. We even have a song about Martha Stewart.”