“I’m Tinkerbell a lot. Rapunzel, too.”
Sydney Schumsky runs a hand over her head as if in explanation of how that could be possible considering that her own hair is closely cropped. “We all wear these nice wigs.” She used to be a barista; now, she works the kids’ party circuit part-time for San Diego Party Rentals. The first time I met Schumsky, long before I knew she was a singer-songwriter and an open-mic regular, she was standing outside of Cosmos in the La Mesa Village dressed as Snow White. Schumsky sometimes appears with the Misters, her two-man backing band. Other times she sings self-accompanied on a ukulele the color of toast. She goes by Sydney Blake. “Since I’ve been playing ukulele,” which she describes as having been a bucket-list thing, “I’ve seen a few more of the regulars showing up with them, too. One of them had this cheesy little ukulele. I said, ‘How much did you pay for that?’ ‘Fifteen dollars,’ he said.”
Schumsky’s music is original and resides in that same indie groove that underscored films like Juno or weekly television night-soaps like The O.C. or Grey’s Anatomy. “I play music because it helps me get out my emotions and it helps me process what I’m going through. Last year, I contemplated suicide. I was in a serous depression.” She talks about having had a boyfriend around that same time who cheated on her (“He was the icing on a shit cake”) and about going to therapy after all was said and done. “They asked me what I liked to do and the answer was music. They said I should try writing music and that I should try performing.” She resisted, at first. “But I felt like myself onstage, like I could get out better what I wanted to say.”
The message was that she was angry at her ex-boyfriend. But there was something else looming in her soul: “I wanted to tell people that there is life after depression.”
Schumsky says she’s been singing since she could talk, that she turned pro in the sixth grade. (“Our chorus group got paid.”) Born in El Cajon, she lives in Jamul now. She’s hit up a few of the other open-mic nights around town but favors the one at Cosmos best “because you’re guaranteed a slot, which isn’t always true at the other open mics. And, it’s a little community. Everybody knows everybody.” Her first time onstage as a singer-songwriter was January 2013. “I was, like, Oh, do I want to do this? I got a time slot and I got up when it was my turn, and I said, ‘Hi. My name is Sydney Blake.’ It wasn’t scary. It was more like good nerves. And it felt nice, telling my story to a room full of strangers.”
Sydney Blake Schumsky performs "After Hours"
Sydney Blake Schumsky performing Velvet Underground's "After Hours," accompanied by Danny Ellis on guitar at the Valhalla High School 2009 Pops Concert.
There’s an EP in the works. One of the songs on it, “Midnight,” is about her time of depression. She eases into a verse: “It’s so damn lonely, what do you do when you can’t see?” She closes her eyes, and the voice comes up a notch and rises above the noise around us. “It’ll be all right, because it’s only midnight.” “Music,” she will say later, “gave me back my life.” She confesses that she would like to make music her prime gig, but the gap between the two (meaning bigger-money shows and a La Mesa coffee shop) seems discouraging and inscrutable. “Practice, practice, practice,” she says. “And put yourself out there.” Which means? “To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know.”
Ever since a singer named Jewel
...broke out of the old Java Joe’s in Poway and went on to staggering success in the mid 1990s, San Diego has gained the image of being a music-industry singer-songwriter farm team. Jewel Kilcher and Steve Poltz and Gregory Page happened a generation prior to many of the current crop of young hopefuls seen around town on most nights. But they surely know about Jason Mraz and his more recent leapfrog to glory from Java Joe’s, along with other contemporary success stories like Tristan Prettyman, and to a more regional extent, local singer-songwriters such as Berkley-Hart, Cathryn Beeks, or Michael Tiernan. Not one performer signed up for stage time at a hometown open mic would mind if the same hand of music-industry providence were to scoop them up and transport them far away to career gold, if only they knew how.
“You can find an open mic on every night in San Diego. Sometimes two or three a night.” Marian Liebowitz, a classically trained concert clarinetist, teaches courses in professional orientation for performers at San Diego State University and manages a few local acts on the side. “Open mic is an opportunity for novice musicians to try out their music. Even not-so-novice musicians come out sometimes because they love performing. There’s a wide variety [of skill levels], from beginners to seasoned musicians.” The downside of all that, she says, is open-mic performers tend to play in front of an easy audience, meaning, each other. It follows, she says, that they may therefore be spending a lot of time listening to inexperienced musicians. “Open mic is the first step in the reality check: can you find people that like your music? If yes, then good. It’s a place to work out relationships and mistakes. Years spent in a practice room or your bedroom won’t teach you how to interact with an audience.”
“My experience with open mics,” says Cathryn Beeks, who is also host of KPRI’s Homegrown Hour, “has never been favorable. When I first got here in November of 1999, it was right after Jewel and right before Jason.” She and a friend had busked all the way across the country and were surprised to find that San Diego was the hardest nut to crack. “There were only two open mics — Java Joe’s and Lestat’s — and they were very clique-y. Unless you had an in, you didn’t get stage time.” She says that’s why she started ListenLocalSD.com, an online networking opportunity for local singer-songwriters. But times have changed. “Now, open mics are inclusive and they’re everywhere. That’s why I’m getting back into it. I’m going to host an open mic at Winston’s in O.B. on Thursdays, and on the alternate Thursdays, I’ll be hosting another one at the Parkway Bar in La Mesa. Both venues are rotating hosts, and that’s brilliant,” she says. “An open mic is only as good as its host.”