Bear with me, as this two-part blog series is basically a subpar word vomit of some of the things I’ve been wanting to say about the local songwriter scene, community-building, the cost of living, and how they all intersect. It’s part-opinion, part-interview, part sleep-deprived spatter, and it probably should be more eloquent, but I’m very much in survival mode and don’t really have the capacity to churn out anything other than scribbly musings, soooo make of this muck what you will, which is essentially the thesis of the whole dang thing in case you’re not feeling the TLDR version.
Coming Back to Life
Clear! Ben Grace Gilmore and Karyn Thurston Gilmore, spent much of 2022 and 2023 organizing not one but two events that helped resuscitate the San Diego songwriter scene: Writers Round SD (a weekly open mic Nashville-style round with a curated feature round) and its sibling event Songwriter Sanctuary (a monthly concert series in a beautiful historic venue).
Their community-building prowess is nothing less than remarkable, especially considering their other responsibilities (raising a kiddo, tending to writing and recording clients, and watering their own indie folk duo project Story & Tune). Especially especially considering the somewhat bleak local singer-songwriter situation they entered following the height of the pandemic and the shutdown of iconic music venues like Java Joe’s and Lestat’s West. (Cue: tumbleweeds rolling across the city.)
For myself, a new mom struggling to resuscitate her own creative identity (for what feels like the fifth goddamn time post-The Lovebirds, post-dead mom, post-Lady Brain, post-pandemic, postpartum) WRSD was the thing I didn’t know I was missing so dearly until I experienced it. It was just as much a nostalgic nod to the past as it was a hopeful wave to the future.
As the open mic series began to take root (first at Park & Rec in University Heights, then moving to its current home at the Ould Sod), Ben and Karyn got to work on the Songwriter Sanctuary in partnership with Normal Heights United Church. This extended-format monthly series brings three acts together in the round, both musically and literally, as the century-old venue’s seating encircles the performance area, making for quite the immersive and intimate experience. Still in its inaugural year, the series has featured veteran troubadours including Lisa Sanders, Joel Rafael, and Mark Montijo, alongside emerging talents such as Flamy Grant, Anna Ballew, and Joy Fuliga. (Not to mention middle-aged twats like me…hair flip.)
Everything the pandemic threatened to strip away from our creative and communal human experience, these events aim to restore. There is a palpable energy of gratitude in the air as local songwriters fill these spaces, not only with their heartfelt tunes, but with an eagerness to experience music and togetherness as a collective unit in a singular location. It’s a gift to be savored because we know all too well how quickly it can be taken away.
Joy Fuliga, accompanied by James Bishop, with a transcendent Songwriter Sanctuary performance
America’s Finest Least Affordable City
There’s no question that both WRSD and Songwriter Sanctuary have become fixtures in San Diego's burgeoning songwriting community, but sadly, the series founders won’t be around to shepherd these projects into the future. With their recent move to Portland, Ben and Karyn join an ever-growing list of local artists and community-builders who make the tough choice to leave their beloved city of San Diego and the state of California for (among other reasons) more stable and affordable housing. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I can get my wife’s boss Todd Gloria and other City Hall suits to care about, but maybe I can appeal to you.
Reports vary, but San Diego is always a top ten, if not first place, contender for Most Expensive Places to Live. Of course, you don’t need any official census data to reveal evidence of a major housing and financial crisis: you can see it for yourself via ludicrous rental listings, cars lined up around the block at most local food distributions, sprawling encampments, and thousands of our neighbors -- many in serious physical and mental crisis -- clinging to survival in America’s finest least affordable city. As the cost of living rises due to rampant inflation, stagnant wages, and the gobbling up of housing inventory by greedy corporations and short term rentals, low-income and working-class residents (including local creatives such as moi), are struggling to stretch this month’s last dollar to next month’s paycheck.
This local problem is reflective of a national economic system that is not failing, but is functioning as designed to over-resource the ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else. (To be clear: it’s not a sustainable system and will ultimately and inevitably collapse as all available natural and human resources are extracted to the detriment of our planet and species). Woof.
On a larger scale, it feels hopeless, right? We might as well just keep doom-scrolling and shouting into the social media void til all the insulation between any financial security we enjoy and our ability to survive slowly erodes and we are met with a choice to fight, flight, or freeze against the zombies or the Bezos-Gates-Waltons or flood-hurricane-earthquake-drought-tornado-tsunami or the second coming of Jesus or whatever immortal, mortal, or natural disasters eat our brains or kick in our teeth or raid our last two cans of beans or take us to hell or whatever apocalyptic picture you want to paint. There is a big-time “I can’t even” stench steaming up over humanity as we circle the toxic drain of capitalism. I can smell it coming off myself, as I pull back on my own activism and community-building/fundraising efforts because I am utterly, physically, emotionally, and financially spent from the amount of work it takes to keep a roof over my daughter’s head. Fighting the snarling beast of late-stage capitalism feels impossible. How do you keep your neighbor’s family out of its jaws when your own family is in its claws?
Check out part 2 when I tell you how. (I think you know how).