San Diego Songwriters Ride High on a Legacy of Java
The Bottomless Cup
Every city has a celebrated venue that provides its neighbors a little musical heart and soul. Los Angeles has the Troubadour, San Francisco the Fillmore, and New York had CBGB. For San Diego, that place is a little coffee shop just east of downtown in Poway. While S.D. natives like Stone Temple Pilots and Blink 182 probably only sampled the coffee at Java Joe’s, for a myriad of singer/songwriters, it offered both a good brew and a launching pad for careers.
The names that passed through Java Joe’s read like a who’s who of contemplative music. It was a second home to both Steve Poltz and Gregory Page of the legendary Rugburns. It also hosted one of Jason Mraz’s first gigs and provided the setting for the live album (Live at Java Joe’s) that thrust him onto the worldwide scene. But the legend runs even deeper; prior to Jewel’s early performances there, she worked as a Java barista. And, of course, it was one of the places where Lisa Sanders first took to the stage.
“All of us who are still around now pretty much started at Joe’s,” explained Sanders via telephone from her adopted home of San Diego. “Either that, or we got noticed there. We’ve all had really cool things happen for us in our own ways and that’s where it started. When I turned up, there was Steve Poltz, Gregory Page, and Carlos Olmeda, and Jewel was just starting to make it. I wasn’t playing out as much as some around that time as I was just kind of getting my feet wet.”
Even before Sanders started performing live, music was her constant companion. It was there during her childhood in the projects of Philadelphia. It was there when she moved with her family to San Diego. And it was what fueled her migration to Los Angeles, where she tried her hand at jingle writing. When the jingles ran their course and an opportunity to write for the Jacksons didn’t quite pan out, Sanders headed back to S.D., determined to write songs for other people.
“I had just come off of doing commercial jingles and I decided that I would pitch songs for other people to sing, but I didn’t have anywhere to try them out,” she recounted. “One night I stumbled into an open mike at a place in Escondido called the Metaphor and there was nobody there, but I got up and played anyway. After hearing me play, the guy who was running the night said, ‘You’ve got to go to Java Joe’s-that’s where all the action is.’ So that’s where I headed.”
After performing a song at a Java’s open mike night run by local physicist-cum-flat-picker Doug Milward, Sanders was invited to open his next performance. Even though she was somewhat short on material, she took him up on his offer. “I didn’t have that many songs, but I went and opened up for Doug, and he turned around said, ‘Now you go out and get yourself some of your own shows,'” Sanders laughed. “This wasn’t what I’d intended. I was just trying out songs for other people to sing them, but he said, ‘Oh no. You’ve got to sing these songs yourself.'”
Sanders heeded his advice, built up her repertoire, and it wasn’t long before record labels came knocking. When MCA signed her to their label, Sanders called upon Poltz, who helped her craft her debut release, Isn’t Life Fine. Some 10 years and five recordings later, Sanders is still calling San Diego home and playing an integral part of one of the country’s most dynamic singer/songwriter scenes.
“I’ve seen all sorts of people come and go,” said Sanders. “I’ve seen people play their first show and I’ve seen them go on and get signed. One of our newest guys, Jason Mraz, has had the number-one song in America for the past nine weeks now. He started out at Java Joe’s, too. There have been a lot of changes, but we all still get together and play. When people come back to town they still come out and perform with us.”
With Mraz currently commanding the nation’s attention and Tristan Prettyman following suit, another wave of San Diegans appear to be on the brink of superstardom. Affectionately dubbed the “Grey’s Anatomy Crew” by Sanders and her contemporaries, the current collective includes the likes of Anya Marina, Greg Laswell, and Molly Jenson-all of whom have opened for Sanders.
“Yeah, we’re the ones the kids down here look up to now,” she laughed. “We help them with their songwriting and we put them on our shows and we encourage them. Then they go off and do big things. San Diego is like that. You can come down here and play your own songs and make a living. You don’t have to play covers-everywhere you go, you’re encouraged just to be yourself. It was that way from the very beginning and it’s still like that now.”
Lisa Sanders will play The Mercury Lounge (5871 Hollister Ave., Goleta) on Thursday, January 8, at 9 p.m. alongside Greg Page. For more info, call 969-0907 or visit myspace.com/mercurylounge.