Western NC Songwriters: Nine of a Kind
Asheville and its environs are home to a deep bench of musical talent. Whether they’re homegrown or drawn to the region to pursue their musical careers, singer-songwriters make their mark in and around Asheville. Launched in 2019, the Western Carolina Writers’ Showcase provides a lively forum for those singer-songwriters to share their creative work with audiences (and, if they like, with each other) in a round-robin setting. The latest installment of the series features nine local/regional artists – Melanie Ida Chopko, Troy Crossley, Dulci Ellenberger, Galen Holland, Carey Leigh, Billy Litz, Scott Stetson, Lillie Syracuse and Andrew Thelston – and happened on Sunday, January 8 at the Grey Eagle.
Nick McMahon started the multi-artist performance series a few years ago with two other singer-songwriters. “The idea was to have a traveling songwriter-type show where we take turns swapping our tunes,” he explains.
After a dozen of those shows, McMahon began inviting other artists to take part. The concept proved even more popular than he had envisioned. “We’ve probably done close to 150 shows – with nearly 80 different artists – in the last four years,” he says. Original songwriters in the region are encouraged to email McMahon about future opportunities. “If you’ve got original songs, I think you should be able to find a platform for them to be heard,” he emphasizes.
Recently, McMahon and current project partner Stephen Evans decided to take the idea to “the next level,” moving away from “noisy bars and breweries” and into listening room-type venues. The Grey Eagle-hosted event is the biggest and highest-profile date in the series so far. Ahead of the Showcase, I spoke with three of the featured artists.
Melanie Ida Chopko
A recent transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area to Asheville, Melanie Ida Chopko writes and plays her original songs on piano. “Most folks put me in the category of chamber pop,” she says, “But I draw from jazz, folk and classical music as well.” Her most recent EP release, I Come From came out in 2021. The six-song collection features finely-wrought, contemplative compositions with a subtly baroque character. At present, Chopko is busy working on a follow-up.
Chopko says that she “creates really elaborate demos at home” and is working toward eventually recording and releasing an album of 10 or more new songs. “I love the process of recording, and I also love the magic of live performance,” she says. The latter “creates a space in which the complex human experience has a place to be,” Chopko says.
Events like the Showcase provide an opportunity for togetherness, Chopko believes. “When I was growing up, I was part of a church,” she says. “On a weekly basis, I was together with big groups of people. So, if I think about, ‘What am I here to do?’ I’m here to support people, to help people feel and create an experience of transformation, telling the human story through the magic of live performance.” Artists and audience alike can take part in that shared experience.
Chopko’s set at the Grey Eagle will include an assortment of original compositions. “I’ll be playing a lot of newer songs that haven’t been recorded,” she says, “and then one or two from I Come From, just so I can tell people, ‘Hey, this exists in recorded form.’”
Best known as a member of Asheville indie-pop/soul quartet Hustle Souls, Billy Litz maintains a creatively fertile solo career as well. “Trumpet and piano are where I feel at home as an instrumentalist,” he says, “but my real passion is just straight-up songwriting.” His Kid Billy solo project provides a means to pursue that passion. “It’s the most stripped-down side of my musical [personality], where I dive deeper into Americana/roots and lyrics-driven songwriting.”
When Litz sits down to write a song, he’s fishing. “I’m throwing out a line, and whatever comes in is what I go with,” he says. “If it turns out to be a folk song, then I know it’s going to be for Kid Billy.”
The lyrics of Kid Billy songs reflect Litz’s worldview, but by design they’re universal in character. “I wake up every day and try to figure out how to be a human,” Litz says. “That encompasses everything, and for better or worse, I try to cram all that into the songs.”
Collaboration is as the core of Litz’s work in Hustle Souls; his Kid Billy project is a much more solitary endeavor. “Going with the flow and bringing in surprise elements is a lot of fun with music, but I much prefer spending three hours arranging a song and having it perfect in the way that I envision it,” he says.
Litz is excited to be part of the showcase, and feels it represents something important. “I’m appreciative of the opportunity to gather fans and creators of this music in one space,” he says. “Because ‘singer-songwriter’ is a solitary genre of music, sometimes.”
New York-born singer-songwriter Scott Stetson got his start playing punk rock, opening for headliners like garage rock legends The Chesterfield Kings. He took a break from music for a few years while living in Charlotte, but once he landed in Asheville i n2001, Stetson got back into the scene, playing with the Dirty Badgers. These days, Stetson’s original music is destined for his solo work.
“Some [songs] end up more on the mellow, acoustic side,” he says. “And some would still translate pretty well to an electric, full-band format.” He says that when he starts writing, he doesn’t put a lot of thought into which is which. “I’ve learned that my songwriting got a lot better when I was just really honest about it,” Stetson says. “When I stopped caring about what ‘sounded cool,’ I found my songs got way better. If they translate [to a band setting], they do. And if they don’t, they don’t.”
Stetson says that his songwriting process isn’t structured. “I don’t plan,” he says. “When I do, nothing comes out.” Instead, he waits until he feels something growing in him that he needs to express. Sometimes those songs are about other people – real or invented – but Stetson’s in there, too. “Parts of myself always end up coming out in the songs,” he admits, “consciously or not.”
New music from Scott Stetson is on the way; in late December, he spent a day at Arrow Sound Studios, recording his debut EP. And while he’s currently working in the acoustic singer-songwriter idiom, his punk roots are still showing. “I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do, they seem to come out very fast,” he says. “It’s almost like I vomit a song!”
During the worst of the pandemic, the Western Carolina Writers’ Showcases were put on hold. But once it was practical to do so, the series returned, focusing for safety’s sake on outdoor venues. Co-organizer Nick McMahon says that the showcases “have been great for the [songwriter] community. We’ve been able to give artists a platform to come out and share their original material. And that was the goal from the get-go.” He notes that the showcase format provides both quality and variety. “You may have seen one or two of the artists before, but [between featuring] various folks and having spontaneous collaborations every now and then, each show is something you’ll probably never see again.”