‘The idea came to me because I had spent some time in London two years ago,” says singer-songwriter Sarah Donner of the monthly Indie Music Nights she has been organizing in the Griggstown Pavilion since November, 2005. “There was a great place called the Half Moon in Putney, and it was an amazing venue. What they did was, on Monday nights they had a show where they had amazing singer-songwriters, and everybody played just two songs, and that was all you had. I thought, why don’t you have something like that in Princeton? So when I came back, my friend Joe McLean (who does sound and technical work for the shows, and who lives next to the Griggstown Pavilion) said we could use that as a venue.”
The groups that play Indie Music night are usually acoustic solo performers or duos, with the occasional small band thrown in. “They can’t be too loud or rockish, because this is a residential neighborhood,” Donner says.
The next Indie Music Night is Saturday, January 13, and in addition to Donner, the lineup features Jenny Owen Youngs, Trains and Taxis, Jerzy Jung, Ryan Asher, Suzie Q, and Michael and the Tanjents. “It’s a kind of rock-star lineup,” Donner says.
Griggstown Pavilion is a historic building that was the original town meetinghouse. Despite the tiny size of the Pavilion (seating capacity of 70), Donner says, the shows have attracted attention regionally among the community of singer-songwriters and those who are fans of the music.
Indie Music Night fills a niche that was not being filled, Donner says. “There are not a lot of places where people will sit and listen to you as a singer-songwriter. There are places like Triumph where you can play, but everyone is talking. There are other places where you are sort of just background music. So, you’re driving to Philadelphia, or to New York, or to Asbury Park, but there’s nothing in Princeton. That’s why I decided to start this.”
To find performers Donner first went to the Internet, chiefly myspace.com, looked for musicians in the area, listened to their music, and contacted them by E-mail. Now, more than a year later, Donner gets more people E-mailing her than the other way around, because the shows have developed a word-of-mouth buzz. “Things have really grown, and I have developed a much bigger network,” Donner says.
Donner, who cites Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams as major influences, has her own distinctive, half-spoken, half-sung, all-quirky style. She sings with a highly expressive, conversational demeanor, employing well the nuances of the language and an ability to change her dynamics to induce a sense of drama in her songs.
She says the inspiration for many of her songs comes from the weirdness and ironies of everday life — anything from 401K plans and health insurance to art and overheard conversations.
Donner, who lives in Princeton Township, is petite and pixieish — she could be mistaken for a schoolgirl but she also projects an air of serenity and intelligence. A native of the small southeastern Massachusetts city of New Bedford, which is full of maritime, whaling and Portuguese-American history, Donner, who says she is “slightly Portuguese,” grew up in a home where classical and religious music was often heard. Her father is a worship leader at a church, where Donner sang in the choir, but she also delved deeply into Broadway show tunes while learning piano and guitar.
She works as a set painter, principally for the theater and dance department at Princeton University as well as McCarter Theater. As a student at Westminster Choir College, Donner says, she began working on sets. After graduating in 2001 with a B.A. in music performance, she continued to work on sets and was a nanny for a single mother.
In 2004, when Donner’s employer, who had just had a baby, moved to London, so did she. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says. “There was this whole culture and so much inspiration in that city for me. I found it intoxicating.”
She also had time to play her guitar and write music. “I was away from a lot of my loved ones and was kind of secluded with my thoughts, and I just started writing songs and practicing my guitar, trying to make interesting music.”
The January 13 concert will be Jenny Owen Youngs’ first Indie Music Night but she’s certainly heard about them. “I just played a show in Red Bank and the other performers knew about it and had great things to say about it,” she says. “I have heard that the audiences are great.” she says. Youngs works fairly regularly on the circuit but she also has a full-time job as a sales and marketing staffer at Shanachie Records, a record producer in Newton.
She has had a fascinating musical life. A native of Newton, in Sussex County (“lots of cows and trees there,” she says), Youngs studied studio composition at Purchase College of the State University of New York. As a child, she at various times wanted to be a veterinarian,a writer, an astronaut, a marine biologist, and a musician. Of course, musician won.
Youngs said the songs she writes and performs are “un-love songs.” “I think when you get to the root of almost any song, it’s about humans interacting with other humans, and I am no exception. My producer, Dan Romer, and I approach things from a ‘post pop’ perspective, using instruments in uncommon ways where we can, but still coming from a pop place arrangement-wise.”
Her single, “F— was I?” has made quite an impact. Since releasing it as part of her first, self-produced CD, “Batten the Hatches,” she was the opening act for singer-songwriter Regina Spektor during the Northeastern part of Spektor’s national tour last spring. Then, the song was picked up by the producers of the Showtime series “Weeds,” and has been heard on the show several times.
‘The reaction to ‘Batten’ has been more than I could have ever hoped for,” Youngs says. “Things were building nicely, people started to pay attention little by little. (The gigs with Spektor) gave me a nice boost in visibility and myspace traffic, and then when ‘Weeds’ aired, I had a very hectic few weeks dealing with mail order, which just skyrocketed. So, that is to say, ‘Batten’ has done alright for itself so far.”
That’s somewhat of an understatement. Since she released the record, Youngs said, she has sold about 2,000 copies. But she’s not selling any more records right now, because she’s got a label deal. Her now repackaged record will be available on the Canadian indie label Nettwerk, to be released in April.
She didn’t pitch Shanachie? Well, the world music, jazz, and roots-music label wasn’t really the best fit for her, Youngs says. “Shanachie was not the kind of label that would make sense for me, nor me for them. We’re just not a match.” She did say, though, that she has learned a lot about the music business from working there.
Indie Music Night, Saturday, January 13, 6 to 9:30 p.m., Griggstown Pavilion, 373 Bunkerhill Road, Princeton. An evening of singer-songwriters and bands. Performers include Sarah Donner, Jenny Owen Youngs, Trains and Taxis, Jerzy Jung, Ryan Asher, Suzie Q, and Michael and the Tanjents. Free. For more information visit www.myspace.com/indiemusicnight. 609-672-1813.