Sean Kelly’s Top of the Mic: Esprit de Corps

By LEISA GREENE NELSON

On stage at the Pub, the lights are hot.

It’s not just an illusion of red. Hands shake. Breathing unstable, not matching the pulse of the heart. Sweat pours off the brow. Glancing out at the crowd knees start to shake while setting up the keyboard. Ears ring. Hands sweat, yet the mouth is dry. Singing may be impossible. At the very least the voice will crack.

She brushes her hair behind her ears and takes a seat at the stool in front of the piano. She looks forward, smiles, and quickly looks down at the keyboard. She stretches out her fingers, in out, in out, and rubs them on her jeans.

Local singer/songwriter Robyn Shepherd has long-battled debilitating stage fright. As a high school student, she was told that she could not sing well. She used to believe it. She also couldn’t play an instrument (besides the flute in marching band) and has taught herself to “get by” on the piano over the last five years or so. Sean Kelly’s Open Mic Night is the place Robyn feels free to work, with support of other musicians, to overcome her fears and become the performer she knows she can be.

Mondays used to be Open Mic Night at Sean Kelly’s, and last October, Robyn performed there for the first time. Back in September, she lost her job in Missoula. Up to that point, Shepherd had only performed music at church back in California. With unemployment came hours during the day to spare. Robyn explained, “Losing that job hurt a lot. But this was my silver lining. I could finally put time and energy into my music.” During the months before the competition, Robyn estimates she played Open Mic Night 10-15 times.

Missoula singer/songwriter Robyn Shepherd.

Missoula singer/songwriter RobynShepherd.

It wasn’t until she met the 1980’s musician and Star Search winner Beth Hart that a change occurred for Robyn. Hart had a hit in 1999 “LA Song (Out of this Town)” which aired on the last season of Beverly Hills 90210. Beth Hart had a gig in a small club in Phoenix and Robyn went to see her.

Robyn says, “When I saw her perform, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought to myself, ‘That is what I do.’ I was a singer and a songwriter and I needed to just do it. Beth Hart’s performance and her album “Screaming for My Supper” were life changing for me.”

It took Robyn twelve years after witnessing Hart’s performance to finally summon up the courage to perform her original music in a secular venue. Open Mic Night became that arena for Shepherd.

Goals and deadlines are important to Robyn. She claims to not be disciplined and if a goal or deadline is not in sight it’s harder for her to produce.

One goal presented itself when she was asked by local fiction writer Gaaby Patterson to write some music for a book she was working on. Shepherd wrote four songs for Gaaby’s novel in the male protagonist’s voice, including one of Robyn’s crowd favored songs “Brother Judas”.

The song’s chorus:

Brother Judas, Brother Brutus

Brother Cain, you’ve slain your Abel.

I am broken, bleeding, breathless

from the blow of your betrayal.

Brother Judas, Brother Brutus

the unkindest cut of all,

you cut the thread and let

the heavy sword of Damocles fall.

Now the love that I once knew I can’t recall,

where there once were three there’s nobody at all

Brother Judas

Hanging over Robyn’s head was this debilitating fear of performing, an insecurity exacerbated by the reality that her voice could not belt out like Kelly Clarkson or Celine Dion. But the songs Robyn produces suit her own voice, and listeners sometimes compare her to Sarah McLachlan. “I put myself in a small box,” Robyn states. “It took me a long time to figure out my own voice.”

In fact, it took Robyn the full six months to get to a point of comfort singing and performing her originals on stage. Robyn says, “The first few times, I did not do that well at all.”

Due to her showing up on a consistent basis for Open Mic Night, Mike Avery asked her to sign up for the Top of the Mic contest. Regarding Avery, Robyn says, “Mike is gracious, helpful, charming, and supportive. He is encouraging to all the musicians in town.”

The first week of Top of the Mic, Robyn was in the audience sizing up the competition. She realized there were a lot of “girl with piano acts”, and started strategizing ways to stand out and add depth to her music.

Robyn Shepherd at the piano during Sean Kelly's Top of the Mic.

Robyn at the piano during Sean Kelly's Top of theMic.

Previously, Robyn had performed for the Open Mic Night that used to be held at Brooks & Browns, where she met fellow musician Teri Llovet. Robyn later met drummer Roger Moquin at The Loft. Regarding his technique, Robyn says, “I think his Jazz style of drumming is very sexy.” Both Teri and Roger were performing at Sean Kelly’s Open Mic Nights as well.

Robyn went from “not knowing, to knowing” what she needed to do. She ran her idea past both musicians to add drums and bass guitar to her Top of the Mic set. It wasn’t long before Roger told Robyn he would be willing to help and “he’d bet Teri would, too.”

Before Robyn knew it, she had a band. She called them “The Flock”. They had three weeks until her turn on stage to hopefully make it to the semi-finals. All three rehearsed twice at Teri’s house, and recorded Robyn’s songs so the additions to the group could practice Robyn’s songs when she was not there. Roger and Teri took it upon themselves to help Robyn out and back her up on her own songs.

Robyn says, “Bottom line, it felt great. We had good rehearsals for as green of a performing musician as I am.”

When it was Robyn’s turn to be onstage on Thursday night for her actual competition slot, Shepherd relays, “It was so awesome just not being up there alone. Having two truly talented human beings on stage with me was a good feeling. I had never done that before.”

Robyn Shepherd and The Flock did not make it to the semi-finals. When asked how she felt about that, Robyn says she still felt it was a success. “I did what I went there to do.” she says. She hopes to be able to see the judges score sheets and use that feedback for a solid learning experience.

Robyn believes Missoula is a great place to be a musician and that there is mutual support among the artists. It’s a place where “less competitive and more supportive” musicians help other performers find their music, voice, and confidence.

Until the regular Open Mic Night resumes, after the Top of the Mic Competition is over, Robyn will be busy writing new material. She is also looking forward to working with Kenny Wait of BRB Productions on her demo, which she hopes will get her some paying gigs.

Shepherd talks about how she didn’t make any real progress in her life until she got sober three years ago. She cites her drinking problem as the reason it took twelve years from when she first saw Beth Hart in Phoenix for her to finally get on stage.

Robyn says, “I am a baby in every aspect of my life. A late bloomer, yeah, but define ‘late.’ It doesn’t matter that I got a late start, it’s only too late if you’re dead.”

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The next Top of the Mic show at Sean Kelly’s will be the final competition on Saturday, May 5. 

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Missoula writer Leisa Greene Nelson

Call her a big city girl at heart, finding and satiating that appetite in the city of Missoula. Born in Butte and raised in Missoula, she is fascinated by people and looks for interesting characters to write about.  Everyone has a story to tell, or not, but the people and places in Missoula are unique.

Moving fast in life (for that big city feel) Leisa’s passions bounce around music, theater, food, art, family, and  friends that’s supported by an IV line of dark roasted coffee. Single and a recent graduate from the University of Montana with a BA in Creative Writing, she learned what it was like to be a co-ed in her 40s.

She currently works as an Office Manager at Inter-State Studio and Publishing, working on school photos and yearbooks. Her personal life and nightlife is where she discovers and creates creative non-fiction stories. She has four supportive, loving children:  Dustin, Michael, Jalynn, and Mark (adopted through marriage to Dustin) who are all artistically creative in writing, theater, dance, and singing.  Leisa likes to think she moves faster than they do.