Beneath a dim barroom light, Jon Styles walks onto the makeshift stage and takes the microphone. As the singer eases into Live’s 1994 hit “I Alone,” the crowd hoots and hollers with approval. “It’s easier not to be wise/And measure these things by your brains,” he begins with restrained intensity before unleashing the howling chorus. It’s Friday night and karaoke at the Tiburon Tavern is one of the hottest tickets in town, thanks, in great part, to Styles, an extraordinary singer who delivers performances you’d expect to hear at the S.B. Bowl rather than at a neighborhood bar on upper State Street.
Wowing karaoke audiences is nothing new for Styles, who moved to Santa Barbara from Kona, Hawai’i, last April to start a record/entertainment company, Visi Records, with longtime resident and entrepreneur Mike Hill. “I was 15 when I started going to bars, to karaoke,” Styles told me recently in an interview at his office/recording studio in Goleta. “Almost every bar in Hawai’i has a karaoke unit. Karaoke is huge there. Karaoke in Japanese means ‘to free the spirit’ and that’s how it is looked at in [Hawai’i].”
Styles means to bring that same love of karaoke to Santa Barbarans when he starts hosting his own show, dubbed Rock Star Karaoke. What will set it apart from other karaoke venues in town is revealed in its name. “The difference is that it will be like a miniature rock concert,” Styles said. “People love to go out and sing karaoke and that’s the whole point-everybody wants to be a rock star. Well, this is it. Rock Star Karaoke is the place to do it. Even if you’re not good, everyone’s going to love you because those are the rules.”
Not singing well is something Styles has never needed to worry about; he is blessed with a voice at once mesmerizing and powerful, edgy and lyrical, smooth and silky. Plus, he’s had a lot of practice. “I’m the youngest of four and I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember,” said Styles. “My mom has a very powerful voice, very soulful. : On road trips that we’d take she’d teach us four kids how to harmonize.” Born in North Carolina and raised in a very musical Pentecostal church, the first 10 years of his life were about “singing, loud worship, and passion,” Styles said. “I grew up around that.”
But it wasn’t until his family moved to Kona when Styles was 13 that he really started honing his singing chops. In high school, he not only started frequenting karaoke hot spots, but also formed an a cappella group with some friends. “We learned doo-wop and would walk around town singing and tourists would listen,” he explained.
In 2002, Styles left the Big Island and moved to Chicago. It was in the Windy City that the idea of starting his own karaoke germinated. “I was living in Aurora, a suburb of Chicago, and I would go downtown because I heard about karaoke contests where you could win money,” he said. “I’d see these different karaoke people with different big setups-you know, a huge song library and lights and a good sound system-and I’d start getting ideas about starting my own. Of course I didn’t have the confidence then to start my own business. I just had ideas.”
Fast forward to 2007 and Styles’s ideas are coming to fruition with Rock Star Karaoke.
So what does he hope to achieve with his venture? “I want people to come out of their shell,” Styles said. “[Rock Star Karaoke] is also a platform to discover the talent in Santa Barbara.” Styles also plans to give back to the community: “Once [the company] is established, I’m going to start an afternoon program for kids. The opportunities I didn’t have growing up, I’m going to create for other kids-music, lighting, sound, singing, vocal lessons, stuff like that.”
While karaoke can be an easy target for cultural cliches and social mudslinging, Styles shows it is much more than something to be made fun of. “Karaoke is my release. To me, it is more real because everybody is right there. Basically this is what I love to do : and I love for everyone to have a good time, and I’ve found that my shows offer that.”
Catch Rock Star Karaoke at Whiskey Richards (435 State St.) Mon.-Tue., Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. till closing. Call 963-1786 for more info.