STURGEON BAY (WCWF) -- The collaborative songwriting retreat known as Dark Songs stems from the original songwriting festival Steel Bridge, and was originally started as the Edgar Allen Polka, celebrating Edgar Allen Poe's 200th birthday. It all takes place at the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay, and it's certainly one-of-a-kind.
Talented musicians of all genres and styles from across the country are personally invited to participate in this week-long event.
"The more variety that we have in the genres that they pull from, the better the songs we get. This was definitely more of a rock and roll crowd here, but we have had a punk guy, country and folk artist collaborate and come up with something really cool. So we can't really put any kind of stamp on what genre it is because each song is so different and each style is so different," said melaniejane, or "MJ."
MJ is dubbed the Air Traffic Control Specialist at the Holiday Music Motel and Steel Bridge Songfest, and works alongside Creative Director pat mAcdonald in organizing the songwriting events.
"It's the collaboration that really makes it so special."
After all the musicians get settled in, the first of three "bottle spins" occurs. During the bottle spin, each person is teamed up with two others to create and collaborate songwriting ideas to write, record and perform songs together -- pending the festival's theme.
"The randomness of the spinning... we let fate decide basically, who’s in each writing group," said Greg Roteik, a bassist who often participates in Dark Songs. "The bottle has never steered us wrong. It’s amazing to even fathom that these incredible songs come from just the wind of a bottle spin."
After the bottle picks the teams, the collaboration begins.
"It’s unbelievable. It’s literally you sit in a room and you’re like: 'What do you want to write about?' 'I don’t know, what do you want to write about?' 'Well, I had this crazy idea;' and that’s how it starts -- and then a lot of times it’s written in one night and it’s recorded the next couple days," Roteik said.
At the very end of the week, the musicians perform the brand new original songs live. Dark Songs started as more of a bar party, but now takes place at the Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP) in downtown Sturgeon Bay.
"We're really grateful that Third Avenue Playhouse really extends their generosity and opens their arms to us to be in there so these songs can really be heard and appreciated in a way that they should be," said MJ. "I mean, these guys spend all week carefully crafting every word and lyric, what a shame if it's not heard."
"The crowd response at the TAP is insane. Every song they’re screaming. We get standing ovations every night. At the end of it, people jump out of the seats and dancing they’re clapping along and it’s just insane," Roteik said. "People actually dig what you’re doing and they’re in there and they reciprocate that love right back to you."
Between the Friday and Saturday night performances, each song is different and unique in its own way. This truly immersive and creative event will surely send you home buzzing with inspiration if you're a musician yourself, or in awe of the music freshly created if you're simply a supporter.
"It’s a crazy concept. Just the fact that we all throw ourselves into a hotel for a week and come up with 40-50 songs in a week and record them and perform them on the weekend," Roteik said. "It’s quite a spectacle just to know that these songs were not written before that week, these songs did not exist, and that’s amazing to me."
A few months later a similar songwriting retreat takes place, but with a different theme: Love on Holiday. Taking place the week before Valentine's Day, these songs, whether of love or lust, are sure to rhyme your reason for a date night out. Different from Dark Songs, the basis for lyrics alone offer a different perspective.
"I find that there’s more emotions involved, people are becoming a little more vulnerable," Roteik said. "Usually it’s a little more low-key, it’s like a more relaxed environment; Dark Songs can get a little hectic but it’s not unmanageable. We really get into some vulnerable positions, just even just sharing that kind of life experiences."
Another way this festival is different is how it aims to bring together visual artists and the music community.
"The songwriters are both spinning to randomly get paired up with other songwriters, then they spin again to get paired up with a piece of visual art that gets used, for kind of the inspiration or the jumping-off plate for their song," said MJ.
Truly an amazing week-long experience for all involved leaves the participants feeling sad to go, but cherished on the work they've created.
"The festival, Pat, and MJ pull this creativity out of you, it’s like they have the sixth sense of it out of people," Roteik said. "It makes you want to keep riding that wave, (it) just makes you want to be better, gives you motivation to want to strive to become better at what you do in every aspect of your life."
But that's not all. Of course the music performed had also been recorded and is released on the annual Dark Songs CD.
"They leave here, there name is on at least three if not more songs. Fourteen records has definitely came out of this, but seeing how they carry on, the spirit of this into the world is really awesome," said MJ.
"I like a little bit of recognition, but what I really like is doing this with my friends instead of like a solo, ‘hey look at my name standing out of this thing,’" Roteik said. "It’s more of a group effort, and I think I respect it like that. More so than a personal gain, like wow look what I was a part of."
To some, this week-long retreat is mind-opening, and may be the most time they get to explore and share that creative side of themselves.
"It gives everyone a chance to get out of their real lives, because some of these people are full-time musicians and some of them aren’t," Roteik said. "Some of them are full-time parents, have to work full-time and support three kids, and this is their week to just really let it fly, you know? Everyone has their love for this thing for sure."
First-time participant Chris "CRS" Scheer shares his experience of the event.
"It was very educational to me because it’s been a long time since I’ve exercised some of those skills, and just to have that many seasoned and veteran songwriters and musicians around, it was really eye-opening and amazing to see what they could do, so I just tried to soak in as much as I could and learn from everyone else," Scheer said.
The money from the tickets sold go toward covering the expense of the event, and as MJ says, it doesn't even come close.
"We need a grant writer, we need donations, sponsorship that kind of stuff. Someday that will all come together, help with those pieces so we can keep going," MJ said. "Because without more of that reality, if this thing could operate just on love and goodwill and the power of song and collaboration and all that -- we'd be just fine."
Thanks to many donors and supporters, participating musicians don't have to pay for their stay or food, but they also don't get paid to be there.
"We wouldn’t be able to do it without them, 100% there’s no way -- would just be too expensive," Roteik said. "It’s just show up, bring your creative juices to the table. That’s it, everything else is taken care of."
"For everyone that comes here, no one comes here thinking that they're going to get famous. Nobody's going home with a fistful of cash or anything," MJ said. "They've taken a week off of work; that's largely why we don't charge them to come here -- because the moment you start charging them it changes the whole expectations and motivation."
To donate to the song fests, click here. Donations go directly to the non-profit events, and are tax-deductible.
You can attend "Love on Holiday" Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7 and 8, at the TAP in downtown Sturgeon Bay. And to listen to the recorded originals all year round, check out Steel Bridge Radio, available online and in the app store, free!