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The Philadelphia Songwriters Project: Fostering a New Philly Sound

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It’s a great time to be a songwriter in Philadelphia. There are a host of venues sympathetic to song-focused acts of the folk or indie variety, with a growing audience of tuned-in and receptive listeners. XPN radio station has a weekly show featuring local artists and Philly performers often make it into regular rotation. In recent years the city has produced such nationally successful singer-songwriters as Mutlu and Amos Lee and a wealth of lesser known talents are waiting for their break on area stages.

This was not always the case. “In 2002 things were different for new artists,” says Dena Marchiony, head of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project. “There was the Point and the Tin Angel and that was about it.” Marchiony has seen the local scene go through many peaks and troughs in her decades as a Philly songwriter. “This was a trough,” she claims. “Now there are many more venues where emerging artists can be heard.”

The non-profit Marchiony founded with longtime friend Stu Shames, has been a major force in the renaissance of the Philadelphia music scene. “I wouldn’t say we started it,” Marchiony jokes. “But we’ve been lucky to be at the head of a wave.” The Project hit the ground with a series of showcases beginning in 2003 at intimate venues where the music would be at the forefront. Amos Lee (whose last album broke the Billboard top 30) and Sharon Little (who just got off tour with Robert Plant and Allison Krause) played in some early concerts and such staples of the current Philly music scene as Birdie Busch and Chris Kasper cut their chops and gained confidence on the Project’s stages.

Kasper’s recent album Chasing Another Sundown has received rave reviews and regular play on XPN. He credits the Project showcases with helping to foster camaraderie among local songwriters. “It’s a very friendly time to be a Philadelphia songwriter, and some of that community spirit came from sharing the stage [at Project shows].”

From its beginnings, the Project focused a portion of its efforts on artists near the beginning of their careers, sponsoring a series of revues for emerging songwriters and a mentoring program to provide artistic, financial, and lifestyle advice to up-and-coming songwriters. Some of the early programs have been put on hiatus as clubs like the World Cafe Live and Burlap and Bean stepped in to fill voids that the organization had exposed. One of the Project’s programs has grown in stature, however. The annual songwriting contest receives hundreds of paid entrees from as far away as Ireland for the chance to win a changing grab bag of impressive prizes.

The finals of the 2009 contest, which saw twelve committee-selected songwriters competing to be one of six finalists, provided a great glimpse of the Kelly Ruthdepth and breadth of talent the region is home to. Folky singers such as Dawn Iulg, Angella Irwin, and Kelly Ruth (featured in photo) typified the pared-down acoustic songwriters that the Project have helped foster. Jazz virtuoso Leon Mitchell and his talented vocalist Ella Gahnt represented the city’s rich history of jazz musicians, a legacy evident in the songwriting of performers Andrea Carlson and Brian Dilts. Dante Bucci wowed audiences with his innovative original compositions on a newly invented melodic-percussive instrument: the hang (pronounced “hung”). Marchiony delights in this diversity. “It’s not like the times of Gamble and Huff, when you had twenty of so artists doing a ‘Philly Sound.’ There’s just a general high quality of musicians and artists.”

Like any arts institution, the Philadelphia Songwriters Project has been hard hit by the economic downturn, and the growth of future programs will depend in large part on funding. But already, the Project has helped spawn a talented pool of Philadelphia musicians who value the art of songcraft and find receptive audiences in the city’s clubs.

You can see evidence of this talent by catching the six contest winners — Carlson, Bucci, Irwin, Iulg, and Ruth, plus precocious DC-based 18-year-old Adam Swink — live at their reward spots at the Bethlehem Muzikfest (August 6) and the Philadelphia Folk Festival (August 14-16). If these musicians are any indication, the future is bright for Philadelphia songwriting.