By Zach Collier
When the doors to Muse Music opened at 8PM last night, we were greeted by the red neon “People” sign, a hallmark of the venue. A nice, smooth blend of soft rock and indie folk filled the air – a perfect fit for the intimate, seated acoustic gathering that was about to take place. By the time the lights dimmed for the 10 minute warning at 8:20, the house was half full. Guests would continue to trickle in until just before showtime, leaving few seats empty. Muse has done a remarkable job of making their new location a welcoming one. The soft purple glow of the stage lights made the performance area look like something from 70’s television. Think “I’ll Meet You Halfway” by the Partridge Family, only dimmer.
The Muse Songwriter Showdown is divided into 4 rounds. In round 1, all 6 songwriters play one song each. After the performances, a panel of judges heads into the greenroom to decide which songwriter will be eliminated that round. Songs are scored on lyrics, melody, chords, and song structure. The process is repeated until only two songwriters remain and are sent on to Saturday’s finals. Last night’s performance order was chosen by random draw.
“I’m nervous as hell right now,” said The Real Doug Lane who was about to take the stage as the first performer of the night. “When you’re playing a set at a show, you have a few songs to draw the crowd in and see what they like. But with this? I’ve only got one shot. One song. That’s it. I hope they like it.”
Michael Barrow, who was to perform second, pointed at an empty water bottle and said, “I drank all of this water, and I’m not even thirsty. And now I have to pee.” The nervousness in the air was palpable. “I’ve only ever heard one of these artists before, and he was fantastic,” said Barrow. “There were a lot of submissions, so I’m not sure what to expect. They must be good if they’ve made it this far. I’ve got a lot of friends here tonight. I hope they get to hear me play more than one song.”
Doug Lane stepped onstage. A faulty DI box delayed his performance, and he was left stranded up there until the issue was resolved. Luckily, Lane has a friendly, calm demeanor, and his presence onstage wasn’t uncomfortable as the DI box was switched out. “How are you?” he asked the audience. “It’s an obligatory question, but someone’s gotta ask it. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m The REAL Doug Lane. There are a lot of imitators out there. But I’m the real deal.” His confident humor was amusing. “I’m as real as it gets. All of my songs are about my life – my real life. This first one is about the time I was on death row, about to be executed.” This drew laughter from the audience as he began his performance.
Despite using some tried and true chords (like a constant e minor to D Major motion), Lane was able to establish an engaging groove. His first song made nice use of dynamics, with large swells to a full, lush forte and sudden drops in volume and intensity for intimate moments. He had some nice vocal turns at the climax of the song, and he was able to seamlessly transition to his upper register. It was a solid opening performance.
Wish Granted Records’ Michael Barrow took the stage next. Confident and bold, Barrow performed his newest song, “Hey, Hey, Hey,” – one that was fondly received on Park City Radio just two weeks ago. The song’s first chorus featured a beautiful, thoughtful line: “A shout of Hallelujah on your tongue // but a shout into the void can’t be heard by anyone.” The song also featured a nice use of a deceptive cadence in the final chorus before repeating the hook one last time.
Barrow’s guitar was simple but moving, using more contemporary chords than Lane. Barrow’s voice was clearly more radio ready. It should be noted that Tess Bybee – who was running sound last night – added just the right amount of reverb on Barrow’s golden voice to make it ring bright and clear. She did a superb job with sound overall last night.
Kylie Kap took the stage after Barrow. It was interesting to watch each of the performers deal with nerves in their own way. While Lane was all nervous – but effective – humor, and Barrow appeared a little on the determined side, Kap was all smiles as she plugged in and sat down on a stool center stage – the first performer of the night to do so. Her first song, “Look at This View,” featured nice palm mutes at the beginning, giving an energy to her song that wasn’t present in the first two. The song was a nice contemporary country song with an excellent half time shift in the second half of the chorus. However, the first half of the chorus came up a little lacking as far as strum patterns were concerned. It wasn’t bad by any means. Had Kap had a full band behind her it would have sounded wonderful, but on its own it wasn’t anything to write home about. Luckily that half time shift kept things interesting. Kap has a lovely voice.
Rob Tanner was next. He plugged into an Orange Amp stack. It appeared to be a strange move, since every other artist was running through the house speakers. After a smooth, finger picked intro, Tanner grabbed a pick and went to town. As soon as Tanner started strumming it became apparent why he needed the amp. His song, “Ms. Opportunity,” featured fast paced strum patterns. It was ambitious, and gave him a distinct sound over the other performers, but it wasn’t executed well. Rob’s choice to play a new song (this one was written only 2 weeks ago) may have been a poor choice. The licks weren’t quite in his fingers, nor the rhythm in his wrist. Frequent, unintentional tempo changes plagued the performance, showing his nerves. He didn’t look too pleased when he finished.
Paul Travis, a frequent Songwriter Showdown contestant, was a breath of fresh air after Tanner. Travis is humble in the extreme. He has such a disarming stage presence. In a soft voice, he introduced himself and said to Tess Bybee back in the sound booth: “If you could up the guitar and vocals a little bit, and maybe add a pinch more reverb if you’re feeling generous.” Bybee complied, and the results were out of this world. His music matches his personality. The guitar sounded vintage – like an old recording you’d hear in a movie. His first song was a 6/8 time lullaby, dripping with emotion. It sounded like music you’d listen to on a stormy day as rain beats down on an old tin roof somewhere. Travis’ pitch perfect falsetto proved he was the only male vocalist to rival Michael Barrow last night.
Mel Soul, a bubbly Polynesian from Orem, was last to perform. She stepped up to the mic with a wide, welcoming smile. She was wearing some seriously cool shoes. They looked like toms, but they had cat faces on the top and little pointy ears. It was adorable.
There’s this stereotype that all Polynesians have fantastic voices. Mel Soul embodies that stereotype and lives up to her name. Her voice was soulful as all get out. She put on a stellar vocal performance, reminiscent of Hawaiian vocalist Paula Fuga – a frequent collaborator of Jack Johnson. Her melancholy lyrics reflected a depth of thought and character you wouldn’t initially pick up on from her big smile and carefree giggles. Her first song easily had the catchiest melody of the first round – possibly even the entire night.
After Mel Soul concluded, the judges went into the back to deliberate. After reviewing my notes, it seemed more than likely that Rob Tanner was getting cut. A pale faced Tanner said to me, “I feel like I rushed. I played really fast. Everyone tonight has been so good so far, and honestly I think I’m done.”
Mel Soul was much more confident – but not cocky. “I feel like when I perform, I trust in the song. If I trust in the song and nothing else, I can’t go wrong,” she said with a peaceful smile. “Even though I was nervous, I feel like I did my very best.”
After a brief deliberation, it was announced – to everyone’s surprise – that Michael Barrow would be going home. This sent a murmur through the audience like a jolt of electricity. A guy sitting behind me, there to see Kylie Kap, said to the guy next to him, “Whoa. I thought for sure he was going to the finals.” Easily the biggest shock of the night. I had no idea what to expect in the coming rounds.
Doug Lane returned to the stage with a song called “Faces.” It was slower, featuring a very interesting use of both a capo and a cut capo. Cut capos have become increasingly popular with worship leaders and Christian artists over the last few years, with popular Christian artist Chris Tomlin being one of them. For Doug Lane, a pastor himself, the cut capo was a choice that made sense.
On “Faces,” Lane explored the use of his falsetto. While it wasn’t the strongest in some places as it could have been, overall he managed it very well. The song featured some masterful guitar playing. Doug Lane is not only good at crafting some intricate guitar parts, he’s also able to play them well and incorporate dynamics into their melodic lines.
Kylie Kap took Barrow’s spot as the second performer. She was much more confident this time around, as everyone seemed to be after the initial round. She sat down on the stool center stage and, noticing she was the only performer who had done so, asked, “Is it weird that I sit down to perform?” It was a nice, personal quip that put me at ease as an audience member.
Her second song, “Fragile,” was about grief after the loss of a loved one. The song was a better stylistic choice for an acoustic competition than her first one was. Lyrically, it showed much more depth and the maturity of her songwriting. It also featured some nice vocal runs that I would expect to hear on a Jenn Blosil track. My favorite lyric? “Everything reminds me of you // The mountains, the fall leaves, and our back porch view.”
Rob Tanner returned a new man. He looked more relaxed and even used some humor before beginning. “I wrote this song like 10 years ago. Honestly can’t remember what it’s about. Politics maybe? You tell me.”
If playing a two week old song was a bad choice for Tanner, playing a 10 year old song was a great one. He was much more in time, though an exposed solo section showed that nerves were still affecting his finger dexterity. You could tell that Rob definitely writes for a rock band (Rob the Queen) and isn’t an acoustic artist. I’d love to hear his guitar licks on an electric guitar in the midst of a full band arrangement instead of on their own.
Travis came out again as humble as ever, but little details like a stuffed fox keychain hanging from his pocket and an armful of tattoos hidden under his long sleeve shirt hinted at a much more daring personality off-stage.
“Hello. This song is called ‘Samuel.’ That’s all there is to it, really,” he began. “Samuel” was still another subdued piece, but this one featured more gentle guitar and showcased the ease with which he could switch between registers. Travis is comfortable on stage. He loses himself entirely in his music. His eyes are closed, daring the audience to join him in his world, which is probably painted in long, flowing brushstrokes of blue, gray, and gold. “Samuel” was a breathtaking song, but it left me wondering if he could show some variation in tempo and style in the next round.
Mel Soul looked a little more nervous this time around, but I think it was because she was about to really put herself out there – share something personal. “This song is called ‘This Is Just Me.’ So this song is called Melanie, too. Because it’s just me. This is the song I want people to remember me by.”
“This Is Just Me” was a very positive song about self worth, inner beauty, and acceptance. Mel’s thick, full voice sang lines like, “If you got a problem, I’m not willing to solve it // Because I’m not the problem – I’m the solution to myself.” Despite the wonderfully positive lyrics and the great rhythm in the vocal lines, Mel’s voice was a little shaky this time around. A slightly out of tune guitar messed with her pitch center, throwing off her near-perfect vocal runs from last round. Given the results of round one, I was worried she’d be cut. Again, the judges departed to decide. While we waited, I was able to speak with some of the performers.
“I’m feeling great,” said a beaming Kylie Kapp. “This is the first time I’ve gotten to perform the songs I’ve written in public. It’s nice to know that people are enjoying it.” I was amazed. Kapp’s performances had been top notch and in no way betrayed the fact that this was her first solo outing.
“I wasn’t expecting to be cut so soon,” said Michael Barrow, who decided to stick around to enjoy the other performances and show support. “But it’s alright. It’s good that others get a chance to share their music some more. I just wish I could have as well.”
After about five minutes, Muse owner Darcie Roy took the stage to announce the next contestant to get the axe. The tension mounted in the room as four names were called. All of the contestants except The Real Doug Lane. The audience applauded him as he took off his guitar. He gave a slight bow and then packed it up before returning to his seat in the audience.
With Lane cut, Kylie Kap had to go first. I don’t think she realized the implications of him being knocked out. She looked more nervous than I’d seen her all night. She took the stage, sat on the stool, and almost started her song before she realized she had forgotten to plug her guitar in. Very close call.
Once she started in on a song called, “Breaking My Own Heart,” she was totally back in her element. This was her most intricate guitar part, showing her finger plucking skills. It was very polished. Lyrics like, “I don’t feel beautiful today // I hate when you look at me that way” would make country-era Taylor Swift proud. The entire time she performed, her eyes were fixed on the back of the room like she was lost in a daydream. This is a classic stage presence technique, and it showed that either 1) she’s put some thought into her stage presence, or 2) she’s a born natural. Kap’s voice is wonderfully consistent. It was a great performance.
Rob Tanner came out with more humor. “Okay. I’m gonna join the trend and play something sad now.” Rob was getting more comfortable on stage. His humor and personality were really starting to grow on me.
He started in on a driving 6/8 number. He opened his mouth and suddenly sounded a lot like the lead singer from the Fray. A very pleasant surprise, and easily his best vocal performance of the night. He still hit the occasional clunker, but you’ve got to give him credit for trying things no one else was. He took chances and went all out. Even when those chances didn’t quite land, you still had to give him credit for being bold.
Paul Travis returned, announcing that he was performing a brand new song – one he wrote a few days ago. After Tanner’s nerve-rattled performance in the first round, this announcement had me on edge. But Travis’ performance showed none of the nerves or the fresh songwriting mistakes Tanner’s did. It was a beautiful song, even though it still didn’t vary from his Damien Rice-esque, mellow style. He dropped a line, saying something along the lines of, “I want to be the dirt under your fingernails.” That line expressed a desperate desire for closeness in such a profound way. Lyrically, Travis is proving himself to be the best of the night.
Mel Soul was last again. She announced that she would be playing a song called “Muses.” This song was a nice showcase of her range. Her voice is as beautiful on the top as it is on the bottom. However, the guitar part got old – just quarter note strums the entire way through. But this was a nice little ditty. “There’s a song stuck in my head // One I haven’t made up yet,” she sang sweetly. Mel is just so dang cute.
The pace of the show was definitely starting to speed up as the number of performers was diminishing. It was looking like Kylie Kap, Paul Travis, and Mel Soul would be moving on, but in another twist, Rob Tanner made it through to the next round. Kylie Kap did not. Let me tell you: this was making for some good drama.
Rob Tanner, the underdog, took the stage for the last time with a song about his grandpa during World War II called, “Can’t Sink This Ship.” He started off with a nice western strum pattern. The song’s chorus featured some Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros whistling and some Lumineers-styled heys. It was the first song that felt appropriate to play without a full band behind him. I’ve come to the conclusion that Rob Tanner got by last night on diversity of style. The antithesis of Paul Travis, he wasn’t nearly as polished but was definitely more diverse.
When Paul Travis took the stage, he gave a heartfelt thank you to the members of the audience who had stuck around until the end. His final number was the song “Everything I Touch” from his first record. It featured the most energetic strum pattern of the night for him, with nice hammer-ons and a steady bass line. “Did I wake up in a nightmare or in someone elses’s dream?” he crooned in his signature soft tenor. It was a beautiful way of describing feeling out of place. After watching him all night, I can say that I’m a Paul Travis fan. Travis is an artist with important things to say, and he has a wonderful knack for making you feel like a better human for having heard them.
Mel Soul finished off the night with a 6/8 ballad called “I Fell In Love.” A breakup song, heartfelt lines like “You kissed me with lies from the tip of your tongue” came close to the quality of Travis’ lyrics tonight. While this song ran into the same issues the last one did (namely a repetitive strum pattern), this was a great song for her voice, showing that she can be both delicate and soulful. Clearly, Mel is a vocalist before anything else. And with a voice like hers, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
After the longest judge deliberation of the night, Darcie Roy took the stage one final time to thank everyone for coming and to thank the sponsors for their prize offerings. She informed the talent that she’d definitely be willing to book them any time for a show at Muse. The anticipation grew the longer the speech went, and finally it was time to announce the winners. Two names were called. The first? Paul Travis. The second? Mel Soul. Despite hanging in there for the majority of the competition, the daring Rob Tanner was going home.
Last night was full of twists and turns. The structure of the event was great for building drama, and it was a blast to watch. I was impressed by how all of the performers respectfully stuck around to the end and complimented each other, talking about their songs and their influences. It was cool to witness firsthand the collaborative spirit that permeates the Provo music scene.
Tonight, the Annual Songwriter Showdown returns. It’s going to be an interesting show, featuring Andrew Wiscombe, Chris Hurley, Taylor Woodward, Tate Sexton, James Junius, and Katie Mahrie. With a show like last night, who knows who will move on to the finals?
Come out to Muse Music on center street tonight at 8PM to see the second round of preliminaries. Tickets are $5.