Arts and Entertainment

Pete Spencer brings Songwriters' Conversations to Poulsbo's Jewel Box

Guitarist Peter Spencer will host a new live music series at the Jewel Box Theatre, Songwriters
Guitarist Peter Spencer will host a new live music series at the Jewel Box Theatre, Songwriters' Conversations, beginning Jan. 15 in Poulsbo.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The stage in Poulsbo's Jewel Box Theatre has seen a parade of characters. It has held the weight of a thousand of props and heard a cacophony of musical numbers. But tonight will be a first: Two guys and two guitars will take the stage for the first show of a new series — and the first time the Jewel Box has live music of the sort.

The new series, Songwriters' Conversations, will offer an original take on music appreciation at 8 p.m. tonight.

Host Peter Spencer is a fingerpicking guitarist, singer and songwriter with roots in Pennsylvania. In the 1970's he clocked thousands of miles on the road, playing early blues, jazz and ragtime around North America and Europe. He later began writing songs, and co-founded the Fast Folk Musician's Cooperative in New York's Greenwich Village, where he toiled with the likes of Suzanne Vega and John Gorka.

In the late 80s Spencer graduated from Columbia University's writing program to become a full-time writer for industry magazines including Rolling Stone and Sing Out. His book "World Beat: A Listener's Guide to Contemporary World Music on CD" was published in 1992.

He returned to the music scene in 2000, releasing six albums over the next decade. He currently teaches guitar and voice on Bainbridge and in Seattle.

Spencer proposes there are three facets of a good song, each of which is equally technical and artistic:

  • The lyrics, the heart and pathos evoked from poetry and words;
  • The melody, which somehow sticks in people's memories long after the sounds have been heard; and
  • The interplay between the two, the measured relationship that marries language and notes into a memorable expression.

These are the facets at work, whether acknowledged or not, when a familiar tune pops into someone's head and off the tongue.

"I know people are curious about the nuts and bolts of songwriting, whether they're songwriters or not," said Spencer, emphasizing the power of the art form and its elements. "People's interest in that comes from the fact that they feel that working on them."

Performers traditionally preempt their songs, offering an audience a small explanation on its meaning or background. But songwriters don't often talk specifics when they're speaking about their work, and rarely will they delve into technical nuances — mostly, they talk about where they were when writing a song, or what they were thinking about, Spencer noted.

"I've always been interested in the process in a very technical way: How do you work with meter to heighten the message of a song? How do you work with rhyme? How do you decide which piece of information goes where in the structure of the song?" he said. "I've found that when songwriters talk this way, the result is actually very interesting."

The unconventional nature of the show doesn't mean music will be absent — Spencer and his guests will play pieces they discuss, sometimes as a duet.

The two-seater format is by design, to allow unique examinations of songs under the microscope of another songwriter.

"Having two people up there is going to give us a chance to ask questions of each other," said Spencer. "In a way, we're going to be interviewing each other and talking in very specific terms about how these songs came to be written.

"You could think of it as almost a concert, or a concert with especially long intros."

Twenty-five year old folk singer Eric Miller said there's no strict formula behind his songwriting — once he folded in a lyric written with magnetic poetry from his refrigerator.

"Sometimes I'm really intentional about setting aside time each day to work on (a song), and sometimes something just falls out of the sky," he said.

The Seattle-based performer will be Spencer's first guest. The two met years ago at an open mic on Bainbridge and have performed together a few times since. Miller said Spencer's sense of humor and his ability to converse with an audience make for great shows.

And: "He's the best fingerpicker I've ever seen in person."

From Todd Erler's perspective, the Songwriters' Conversations series represents a new turn for the Jewel Box. As the theater's new artistic director, he's attempting to put more on the schedule for the theater's "dark days," when no major plays are running.

"The Jewel Box has been known for its theater," he said. "What I'd like to do is have people in Poulsbo and North Kitsap think of the Jewel Box as their living room."

Also to boost that idea, a new theatrical literature series is debuting tomorrow, Jan. 16, and "Poulsbo Live," a blend between an open mic and talent show debuted last weekend.

The Jewel Box's small setting and low ceiling allow sound to carry, so much so performers often aren't wearing microphones, Erler said.

He and Spencer agree: Those who enjoy a good song will like what Songwriters' Conversations is all about.

"It's interesting, multi-faceted entertainment," Spencer said, "that I think is going to be subtle and engaging and give people something to think about while they're humming their favorite tunes."

The Jewel Box Theatre is located at 225 Iverson St. in Poulsbo. Tickets to Songwriters' Conversations are $12.50 and can be purchased in advance at Brownpapertickets.com. For information, call (360) 697-3183 or visit www.jewelboxpoulsbo.org.

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