Close Encounters: Conor Byrne Pub

In which I attend an open mic

I moved to Seattle at the start of February, and it has been a bumpy transition. I tested positive for Covid the day we got the keys to our house and was knocked out of commission for a good six weeks. Finally surfacing and slowly regaining the strength and desire to move around the house and even to the surrounding environs, I have been gathering experiences that, when woven together, give shape to this new era of my life.

I have lived all over the united states and in many countries around the world. Each place comes with a new set of customs, rules, and rituals. Some become familiar with time and practice (opening a bank account, becoming familiar with public transport, applying for a visa in Belgium). Others remain baffling and perplexing (the French system for healthcare and pretty much every form of French bureaucracy).

I am well-versed in leaning into or full on immersing myself in discomfort. I live at my edge. This comes with benefits and drawbacks. There is no dearth of character building, and I grow by leaps and bounds as a person in the world. I also grow exhausted and weary, and sometimes I just want to exist in a space where I can exhale and feel grounded, present, and fully relaxed.

Moving to an urban area has thus far not invited a lot of deep, cleansing exhalation. It has offered opportunities to step into a new dimension of being that comes from moving more deeply into the discomfort that arises and wallowing in what is coming up in the wake of this wave I am a part of.

While I have some catching up to do with regard to the written reflections of life in yet another new (to me) place, I want to begin with an experience of a musical twist: the Conor Byrne Pub Sunday night open mic in Ballard.

Let me start by saying that if you are from the United States or familiar with musical trends, you might think of Seattle as an origin point for innovative music(ians). Since I walked into a school assembly in 7th grade to the droning baseline from nirvana “Come as you are” and felt the transformative power of the music wash over my very (easily influenced?) being, I have thought of Seattle as the ultimate in “cool” with regard to all things musical.

When I lived in Washington state for several years after graduating university, I lived way up in the North Cascade mountains and I did not play musical on any kind of regular basis. I had quit the classical music piano scene and was fully focused on proving my value to the National Park Service. This involved long hours and becoming a chameleon to other people’s needs and wants. It did not involve finding my own identity and voice as a musician.

The latter path came when I moved to small town Alaska, where it seemed that everyone played an instrument and social gatherings were formed around singing and performance.

It was in Alaska that I began to notice a fire inside, calling me to return to my musical roots. This return was more of a forward motion, listening to that inner call toward music that was wholly different from the classical music path I had followed for the first 20 years of my life and subsequently followed into my professional career that followed.

Rather than fit into the cramped box of external expectation for how to be a musician, I found myself stepping into a more open space of discovery and authenticity.

This shift was definitely uncomfortable. Gustavus, Alaska open mics took place on Fridays at the Homeshore Café. I was so anxious to perform that I did not eat at all and spent a good deal of the day, shaking with nervous energy. While I had spent my childhood and early adult life memorizing and performing 15-page classical piano pieces, performing at an open mic was an entirely different experience.

A piano, particularly a baby grand or grand piano, allows the performer a certain amount of protection and even anonymity. Depending on the placement of the piano, the audience might not even see me as I performed. And I was so focused on transmitting the notes from the written page through the embodied knowing and memory of my fingers, that I could not risk paying any attention too anything but the keys. If I lost  my focus and allowed a stray thought to enter my mind, I could lose the flow of music, lose my place in the piece, and have to begin again.

Classical piano pieces generally come in two parts, one for the left and another for right hand. To learn and perform a piano piece required that my entire body memorize the performance as a kind of musical dance. This required an enormous amount of concentration. There was little cognitive thinking going on. I did not have time to wonder what the audience thought of my performance or question whether or not they were listening. That might come after the performance, but in the moment I had to be fully present and committed to my dance with the piano.

Playing a song on a guitar and singing at an open mic presented a new experience with performance. I had only rarely sang in front of people, and I had long since believed that I did not have a good voice. This stemmed from my experience trying out for a musical in middle school and not getting chosen for the part and being told by other people my age (namely, middle school girls) that I did not have a good voice.

In Gustavus, I decided to give singing a try a second time nearly 20 years later. Friends had been encouraging me and boosting my confidence, but the idea of sitting in front of an audience with nothing but an acoustic guitar to shield me was fairly terrifying (I refer back to the no eating all day in anticipation of the performance).

Gustavus open mic was a wonderful venue for building confidence in performing. Everyone was super supportive and encouraging. Of course, when people are always thrilled with everything, one starts to wonder if they would be honest if your performance was not up to snuff. Still, it was a great place to practice with the raw vulnerability of singing in front of people.

I have spent more than a decade, continuing this practice and regularly putting myself in performance situations that push my edge. Being a performing musician is challenging for many reasons, one of which is that you are expected to be a talented musician and have a stage presence/be a standup comedian. It’s a tough act, especially if you want to become big. I have not figured out the “big” part yet, but I do my best to be my authentic self on the stage.

Even after all of these years of pushing my edge, I still get nervous before a performance at a new place, and Seattle has proved no exception. When I decided to perform at a local open mic this past Sunday, I once again found myself gripped with self-doubt and an attack of nerves and anxiety.

My husband and I discussed possible songs I could perform. So much depended on how many songs I was allotted. Most open mics I have joined range from 1-3 songs. It also depended on the audience and feel of the venue. So we came up with a list that I could choose from, and I practiced those a few times over the course of the day. I was otherwise fairly unproductive, counting down the hours and observing the rise in nervousness the closer we came to the time to leave.

I suggested several times that maybe we shouldn’t go at all. My husband was tired. Maybe we should stay home. I didn’t want to waste the day being unproductive because I was nervous. Maybe we shouldn’t go. Even as we were walking down the stairs to the car, I was suggesting we might just throw in the towel.

Let’s just go and see how it feels, my husband said. We can always leave if it’s not the right space.

I will chime in here and say that not every venue is right for my music. When I performed in Massachusetts and Arizona, I played mostly cover songs because that tends to be what people at bars and restaurants want to hear. The more I have written songs with people from their stories, the more drawn I am to perform those songs. I was lucky to be invited to perform at several venues in Brussels where people were there to listen to folk music. This means they were interested not only in hearing the finished songs but also in the stories behind the songs.

We followed the labyrinthine route suggested by Google Maps, which seems to have a propensity for sending you zig zagging on the way there and on a more direct route for the return trip. This could be construed as a scenic, behind the scenes adventure or an exercise in trying not get car sick (for me it tends to be the latter).

The parking gods were with us, along with my husband’s savvy ability to make good choices while searching for a parking spot. We got out of the car, put the large Costco package of toilet paper in the trunk. Being well into the pandemic, we thought it unlikely that someone might break into the car just for toilet paper but we also didn’t want to take the risk because it is a major bummer to return to a car with a smashed out window. I write from experience.

We walked toward the main street and noticed a Scottish pub MacCleod’s on one corner across from the Irish Conor Byrne Pub across the way. We walked into a bar that smelled strongly of old beer. It was definitively not the type of venue that felt welcoming. I was reminded of the bars on Whiskey row in Prescott, Arizona, places where people generally did not want to hear songs written with refugees about opening borders and treating all people with kindness and humanity.

We were just getting ready to throw in the towel when my husband questioned whether we were in the right place. We walked out, turned to the left, and saw the sign for the Conor Byrne Pub.

Thank the folk music gods!

We opened the door and felt instantly better by the absence of old alcohol smell. I wouldn’t say that I was sold yet on the atmosphere being supportive of politically controversial folk music, but the fellow behind a wooden podium was very welcoming as he asked for our IDs and stamped an adorable woodland creature onto our wrist to indicate our respect ages meeting the minimum for imbibing alcohol in the establishment.

Any place with a hedgehog stamp couldn’t be all bad.

We wandered toward the stage in the back, which was familiar from the photos I had seen on the Conor Byrne website and Facebook page.

From there it took a few minutes to figure out who the person in charge was and where I should line up to sign up to perform. The seconds ticked by slowly until a slender man walked toward the stage with two purple Crown Royal bags, one in each hand. He headed to the mic and welcomed everyone to the Sunday night open mic. He asked who was there for the first time, and I raised my hand. All first-timers were invited to approach the stage, where we were given chips with a number in black. Mine was befuddling as it had a line that could be underneath or above, depending on which number it was. My husband said it was a 6 because the line was underneath.

As we were discussing 6 versus 9, a crowd of other musicians was gathered at the stage, each taking a chip from the two purple bags.

At exactly 7h30, the emcee, Sheldon, who had returned to his post behind the bar, began calling out numbers. Number one, number two, etc. Each person met him at the bar and chose their preferred time slot to perform.

When the number six was called, I went up, explaining that I wasn’t sure if it was a 6 or a 9.

It’s a six, he said. I chose 8h20.

Is that a good time to perform? I asked.

Yes, it’s a good time.

He then asked me to tell him my name so we he could write it down.

Do you want me to spell it phonetically? I asked.

No, I want you to spell it as it is meant to be spelled, he responded.

Ok, I thought. Your funeral.


As he was adding a phonetic spelling in parenthesis, I added my own two cents about thinking like a pirate “Marrrrrrr”. The emcee explained that there would be 10 minutes per performer. This allotted time included him introducing the person and the performance of two songs.

And so the signups continued. We sat on a bench by the back and surveyed the scene. I began chatting with a woman sitting next to me, who was wearing delightfully sparkly glasses. Her partner had chosen the number 26 and wound up with a time slot after midnight, so they probably wouldn’t be staying. I had a lovely time chatting with them both.

I was feeling general nerves and a fair amount of intimidation. This was so far the most regimented, intense open mic I had ever joined. I thought with nostalgia to the open mics at the Back Page in Lowell, hosted by Steve Clements and Paul Ortolano. They provided drum and bass/guitar backup for performers, and they became dear friends. The entire community of people who came out either to perform or support or both became my family.

Back at Conor Byrne, I felt relieved I was a first-timer. I am not a night owl (the nickname granmarieke from my time in Alaska was apt), and I tend to turn into a pumpkin somewhere between 8-9pm. I also get so wound up from evening events that it takes me hours to fall asleep, which means fatigue the following day. On the drive home later that night, I bemoaned to my husband, “If only they could host open mics at 1pm.”

My husband went to retrieve some liquid courage, and I sat, anxiously awaiting the start of the open mic. Time passed quickly, and 8pm arrived with the emcee coming back on stage to announce the beginning of the event.

From our vantage point, we had a clear view of the stage and a partial view of the men’s bathroom. This meant that we could watch someone performing in two very different scenes at the same time. I also noticed a woman with a harp. It seemed very Seattle (and also maybe Portland) that there should be a performer with a harp.

It also felt right that Sheldon the emcee should begin by describing his current state as being “droll” and subdued. He also asked that performers have their instruments in tune when they come on stage because it would take extra time to tune and also lose the attention of the audience. Upon hearing this, I dutifully took my ukulele into the women’s bathroom to tune it.

Side note: If you are a musician, I highly recommend tuning your instrument in the bathroom. Apart from the strange looks you might get from other bathroom visitors, the acoustics tend to be pretty good, and the overall scene is far quieter than your typical bar or pub.

The entire scene felt very Seattle. Guitar cases lining the back wall. Jean jacket clad clientele, buttons and vintage attire abounded. Our neighbor in Brussels once told me that my style of dress would fit well in Seattle. Sitting with my husband, I wondered if my own leather boots were too new looking.

The first two performers each took their turn on stage. They were both really good. Over the course of the night I noticed that many musicians also shared upcoming gigs, many at a venue called Sunset Tavern. As the second performer was unplugging the cable to their guitar, I walked toward the far side of the stage to await my introduction.

When my name was announced, Sheldon pronounced it correctly (wonder of wonders, miracle, miracle). I was floored and felt the rise of a more familiar, comfortable kind of excitement as I took the stage.

After years of practice, I find that I am far less nervous once I get on stage than during the many hours leading up to a performance. Given the ratio of time before and time on stage, it probably isn’t worth all of the energy I expend, worrying that people won’t like me or my music for the 10 minutes of fame in front of a mic, but the endorphin burst and boost in confidence I often experience are pretty phenomenal.

This evening was filled with endorphins. Despite my propensity to say a bunch of weird shit (which I have edited out of the videos below) when I am nervous, the two songs I performed seemed to be well-received.

I started with a gospel tune that would give me a chance to really wail. I even managed to get some people to sing along. It also seemed that folks were paying attention because it grew pretty quiet in the bar while I was singing. That might have been because I was singing so loud that I drowned everyone out, but I am hoping it was because they were digging the music.

Wade in the Water

The second song I performed was one I wrote with my poet friend Sarah Reader Harris and residents at the Fedasil Arrival Centre in Brussels, Belgium. Partway through the song, I noticed some people were talking and I got a bit kerfuffled but managed to make it through to the end.

Open the Borders

Later in the evening, the emcee came and sat next to me to wish me a job well done. He told me my performance “landed really well” and “we are here for you every Sunday.”

A great wave of happy energy came bursting forth from inside of me in that moment. In response, I thanked you profusely for the support and encouragement and offered him a sticker. I offered many stickers to the folks I met, including another musician who had recently moved up from Tucson and a fellow at the bar who told me he enjoyed my performance. He was performing much later in the evening so I didn’t catch his set, but he was super kind, gave me one of his stickers in exchange, and shared some other open mics that I might like to join.

Once again, I was reminded that it is almost always a good idea to a) leave the house and do something different and b) put myself out there creatively. I was up for ages that night, trying to come down from the vibration of energy from performing, but I also felt happy, hopeful, and very much alive.

Thanks, Conor Byrne! See you next time 😊

p.s. Special thanks to my husband for going with me to the open mic, filming my performance, and especially for his love and encouragement.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Karen says:

    Marieke, you are terrific…… your choice of songs. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thank you SO much!!! As one of my favorite yoga teachers says, “It takes terrific to know terrific!” Your comment made my day 🙂

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