Jesse Elliot recalls trading soccer for his older brothers’ guitar at 13. He remembers, in high school, writing music, playing in bands, playing at the former Conduit in Trenton, and trying out original material at open mic events at Side Stage (now Trenton Social). He reminisces about Trenton’s Trinity Cathedral, which rented space out to kids to hold concerts one weekend each month: “Kids from Lawrence (where Elliot grew up) still talk about the good times we had at that place,” he says. “There was no religious aspect to them. The cathedral opened its doors to use as a community center.”
The now 26-year-old Princeton Junction resident has just started a new full-time job as a development associate raising funds for a pro-bono law firm in Newark. In his spare time, he still frequents the local live music scene and organizes meetings and events for Trenton Area Music Club, which he founded in April, 2012. Elliot filters youthfully idealistic ambitions through enough patience, consideration, and foresight to be confused with someone 10-15 years older. Once he finally gets to talking about himself (he’ll often defer to others by instinct), he attributes his persona to his parents.
His mother, says Elliot, was an award-winning, “fantastic writer,” who “would tear my papers apart when I was a kid.” His stepmother, founder of UMDNJ’s nursing school, would remind him how communities had become almost callous outsiders who introduce programs they come to rely on, only to pull out a year later. “And that kind of stuck. It made sense.” His father was an author and English professor at the College of New Jersey. His three siblings [including brother Luke, a singer-songwriter who is also a sales representative for Community News Service] grew up to work in writing, fine arts, and music. There was always an appreciation for the arts, community, tolerance for change, and an attitude of “always have room to improve.”
“This is probably why I’ve kept up the TAMC as long as I have,” says Elliot.
Elliot studied English at Montclair State University, spent a semester studying music at Mercer County Community College, transferred to the College of New Jersey as a junior English major, and spent a study abroad semester at Trinity College, Oxford, before graduating and moving to Grovesville (Hamilton) in 2010. He spent a year “moving Shakespeare from one end of the warehouse to the other” at a Princeton shipping center. Then he began advancing a career serving the greater good for minimal pay, from AmeriCorps, to CASA, to Trenton Makes.
Trenton Makes assigned Elliot the task of managing the buildings that housed Trenton Social, a bar-restaurant-lounge that commonly hosted live music, and the former Conduit, along with 25 small business and non-profit tenants. Elliot had taken his guitar with him wherever he went since college, periodically performing at open mics and even playing for Euros when he ran out of money overseas. He liked the way the Trenton fine arts community organized groups and events to support one another. And one night, over drinks at an open mic night at a bar in New Hope, he decided to start the Trenton Area Music Club. One 16-page business plan and an e-mail blast later, a dozen community organizers, musicians, and promoters showed up to his first meeting at Bethany Presbyterian Church. Meetings were soon moved to open mic nights at Trenton Social.
Ed Pratico e-mailed Elliot “out of the blue” to volunteer his 30 years of playing, teaching, and songwriting using a variety of instruments in what Pratico describes as “more or less every genre.” Marissa Benson, a local spoken word artist and community organizer who had met Elliot at prior Trenton Cultural Resource Network meetings at Bethany Presbyterian, invited Elliot to speak at a TCRN community panel at Ellarslie museum. Carolyn Stetson, an Ellarslie trustee and another TCRN regular, offered to let Elliot use the space for workshops in exchange for the group’s volunteer time. And, suddenly, a songwriting workshop went from a second thought to a test pilot in practice.
This past April, Elliot organized the first of eight weekly songwriting workshops. They are held every Sunday in a back room on the museum’s first floor. In total, about 11 or 12 people have floated in and out of the workshops.
Seven of them are here on this day, three weeks before the group is scheduled to perform for the general public. Benson, Pratico, and Elliot are here. Brian Williams is a long-time Trenton music scene regular and part of a local bluegrass band. He’s here mostly for esthetic feedback. Joe McGeady had spent the last eight months relearning the guitar after a years-long hiatus. He had recently attended a Trenton Social open mic night. Winifred Howard is a local radio station program manager who is working on a song for a play she co-wrote, her first. She had been part of TAMC since the first meeting at Bethany Presbyterian. Victoria Vanable is an amateur spoken word artist who is new to the area and had tagged along with Benson by happenstance.
Elliot, Benson, and Vanable are all in their 20s. The rest of those in attendance appear to be 40 or older. They all describe themselves more or less as curious amateurs. They spend much of the next hour performing their personal projects in a round-robin, with Pratico giving guidance and supplying a bassline on his guitar where needed.
McGeady goes first. He mostly plays by ear, trying to align the sounds in his head with technique and vocabulary he reads about or workshop members share. As he strums through his first song, Pratico suggests he double the length of the melody, which he says is moving twice as fast as the chords underneath, so the two align. McGeady’s second piece is based on a seven chords scale he recently read in a book. It sounds a bit like a cross between Spanish guitar and Arabic. Over the past few weeks, McGeady has used the sessions to learn how to structure a song. He also receives more feedback than extended conversations with his shadow ever could.
“The thing is that you don’t know if you produce anything that sounds good when you’re sitting in your living room,” said McGeady. “And so, I knew that eventually, to know if I’m doing anything that sounds worthy of other people hearing it, I’d have to do it in front of other people.” The melody for his songs, he says, has changed a number of times since he started back in April.
Williams will be playing two songs at the event. One will be in his trademark bluegrass style. He plays the second at the workshop. Williams’ black T-shirt, jeans, and wavering eye contact have the marks of a man who would prefer to remain unnoticed. His guitar, however, vividly drags elongated chords under riffs that hang, overlap, and merge into a lifting, multi-layered echo. The effect is exaggerated by the amplifier, producing a sound that is “kind of like Led Zeplin,” says McGeady, and “doesn’t want to be pigeonholed,” adds Pratico. Elliot later recounts it as a “Velvet Underground, avant-garde experimental kind of sound.”
Because Williams already had an instrumental and a general understanding of songwriting, Pratico, says Elliot, only had to guide mood and tone. “Whereas Brian may be thinking on a 12-bar blues, Ed might say would you think about extending this verse for another measure or add a fourth chord to not make it a twelve bar blues,” Elliot later explains, “[Williams] has someone to tell him the songs could be more interesting if …”
Elliot sings a simple love song, backed by acoustic, folksy strumming that Pratico says defines his style of music in general. Today, as is usually the case, Pratico needn’t do more than follow the chords and carve out a simple bassline to back Elliot’s strums and Williams’ riffs. They’re more experienced than the others; here more for esthetic feedback and the discipline deadlines instill than instruction.
Everyone likes Howard’s stage song. It’s a melodic tune — the group says it sounds jazzy; she says she’s aiming for country or blues-folk — “about a young girl whose parents died,” says Howard. “And she lies about her age to be able to raise the children and keep the family together.” By this point everyone, not just Pratico, is comfortable enough to throw in their two cents about what kind of instrumental would pair well with the vocals. Howard settles on a single guitar in the background. Pratico offers to “reverse engineer a chord.” Vanable, the newest member, says it is “a story kind of song” that would benefit from the dramatization a stronger instrumental with an intensified bridge can provide. They all agree.
The same guitars initially disagree with Benson. She works a cabaret-style sass into lyrics describing a personal experience about an unreturned book. In spoken-word fashion, she carries the weight of the piece in the emphasis of her words, neglecting to fall in rhythm or in tune with the guitars that back her. They start over, with one guitar instead of four, and, for a little while, the vocals and guitars move in pace evenly. She repeats while recording on her smart phone so Elliot can spend time pairing rhythms at home.
After practice the group begins discussing logistics: The order of performance, use of donations, marketing, places to record music between sessions, finding a for-credit videographer for the event, and so on. Yes, they’re here to learn song structure and technique. But the trial-by-fire management methodology is as much a necessity of running an all-volunteer group as it is an experience that will help artists become better professionals.
“We’re not teaching musicians how to play their instruments,” says Elliot. “We’re teaching them what to do once they have some sort of foundation.” That includes in-song collaborations, press kits, stage technique, audience engagement, and anything else that will help them better manage a performing arts career or hobby-for-hire.
Eventually, Elliot wants the organization to evolve into a 501(c)3 tax status so that it can support itself and the local music community. But, right now, the focus is simply on getting the most out of the people in front of him. “That’s what’s been so good about it,” says McGeady of the workshops. “You didn’t feel intimidated by people who are better than you because they were there to help you.” Pratico says that the group is here to help everyone express themselves. Benson says it has helped her to better understand collaboration. Howard is happy to have a place to begin the songwriting process “from step one.”
Elliot, as usual, is less immediately open about what he thinks, deferring to the others in the group. A few days later, after a bit of prodding, the man who spent a semester studying Shakespeare and romantic poetry while traveling Europe during a study abroad program, shares a bit more. He expects that anyone who joins the workshop will have some shared sense of struggling through the music.
“There’s a famous song by Woody Guthrie. ‘This Land is Your Land,’ ” says Elliot. “Supposedly he had been carrying this song for years and years. And he didn’t want to do anything with it. But it transferred into the classic traditional American song.” Elliot says Guthrie had been traveling during the time, and was probably bouncing ideas off other people. “I’m not comparing anyone to Woody Guthrie. But I don’t think a song is ever done at any point. It’s a continuing process.”
Elliot hopes that basic premise can eventually be used to help Trenton become a regional music hub. As authentically romantic as his oft-closeted vision sounds, Elliot has worked in community service, played in music, and seen family members make a living at both to know what it takes to start on the ground floor. And for the time being, he’d be happy if strangers attended the workshop at Ellarslie or made a habit of stopping by Trenton Social for a beer or two. Or three. Preferably on open mic night.
Songwriters Workshop Performance, Trenton Area Music Club, Ellarslie Museum/Mansion in Cadawalder Park, Trenton. Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation of $XYZ. Contact Jesse Elliot 609-902-4661 or firstname.lastname@example.org.