Holiday Music Motel Hosts 5th Annual Dark Songs

Last year’s Dark Songs culminated with a song performed by all participating musicians. Photo by Len Villano.

Just days before Halloween, forty-five songwriters from across the country will play spin the bottle at Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay while songs penned and recorded at previous Dark Songs events sound throughout the room. The game decides who will write “dark songs” with whom – bringing together artists of varying ages, instrumental choices, and genres.

Over the course of the week musicians pen, play, and plan their costumes for the culminating performances at Third Avenue Playhouse on Nov. 1 and 2 from 7 – 10 pm.

“People think it will be this dark, heavy thing,” says motel manager and co-organizer of Dark Songs, melaniejane, “but there are so many fun songs.”

“We don’t discourage people from writing some really dark stuff, but by the time it gets to the stage it’s just a really fun, and funny, show, a real vaudeville variety format,” says co-organizer and creative director of the Holiday Music Motel, pat mAcdonald.

Unlike Holiday Music Motel’s annual Steel Bridge Songfest, where artists play throughout Sturgeon Bay, these performers all gather together to showcase their wide-ranging talents.

“There’s not individual performances, everybody’s playing,” says melaniejane. “It’s collaborative writing, collaborative performing. There’s no one spotlight shined on anybody, it’s on everybody.”

The event is dedicated to Billy Triplett, Holiday Music Motel’s in-house sound engineer, who passed away suddenly in August.

Each performance costs $5. For more information, listen to tracks, or watch video clips from previous Dark Songs events, visit

In an effort to highlight the variety of songwriters participating in Dark Songs, we distributed questionnaires to a few artists. Here are their answers.

A. Name

B. Current City

C. Genre of Choice

D. Instrument of Choice

E. Why are you participating?

F. Have you participated before?

G. If not, what are hoping to gain from the experience?

H. How do you approach songwriting?

I. Give us an original “dark” lyric now…3, 2, 1, Go!

J. What was your best costume ever?

Mackintosh. Photo by Dan Eggert.

A) Adam Mackintosh

B) Chicago, IL

C) 1-car Garage Rock

D) Guitar

E) I was available, able and invited.

G) Pain.

H) Quietly, through the back door, and with a secret to share.

I) Aristocrats and nailed bats are gathering in the square / their dirty hands are poised, prepared to possess what is theirs / and they will be triumphant the meek will be disowned / by an ivory quill still wet with ink as the gutters wash their bones

J) I was born naked, since then I think I have always been in costume.

A) Carley Baer

B) Portland, OR

C) I can’t really commit to a single genre, either as a listener or a performer. I love it all.

D) I play guitar mainly out of habit, but I also play ukulele, a little bit of piano, and I’m learning the accordion.

E) If I had to pick a favorite holiday, it would be Halloween. This time of year always tends to bum me out, because it just keeps getting colder and darker, and I love exorcising those dark feelings with playful wickedness.

G) This will be my first time at Dark Songs. I’ve participated in Steel Bridge Songfest for the last three years, and I’ve completely fallen in love with the process and the people. Dark Songs seems so similar and yet so different, so I’m excited to see what that’s like.

Songwriters are an interesting bunch. Most of the ones I know, myself included, have a really dark, heavy side that only gets to come out occasionally, if at all. This process of not only exposing it, but reveling in it, is one that I’m really looking forward to.

H) I often feel like I’m more of a transcriptionist. I rarely sit down with a plan to write. What usually happens, at least lately, is that I’ll be minding my own business and then suddenly I’ll be singing the new song over and over in my head, and I’ll have to run to the nearest place where I can write it all down before it disappears.

I) Autumn comes with a wail and a moan / The cold, the cold, goes down to my bones / Leaves skitter off to find ends of their own / They go to seek shelter, but they’ll die alone

J) The costume that I remember loving more than anything was when I was maybe three or four, and I was Big Bird. It was one of those store-bought costumes, with like a plastic ‘shirt’ and a mask. I still remember the smell of that mask. My cousin went as Oscar the Grouch, in the same style.

I was a total Big Bird fan-girl in my early childhood, so getting to actually ‘be’ Big Bird was a pretty big deal for me.

Boheme performs at last year’s Dark Songs. Photo by Len Villano.

A) Charles Bohéme

B) Spring Green, WI

C) Psychedelic Blues

D) Voice

E) I’ve been involved with Steel Bridge Songfest for many years and participated in Dark Songs last year, so it’s kind of like a family reunion. The artists are all amazing in their own unique ways, and the process produces some amazing and often unexpected results. I wouldn’t miss it. It’s a little bit of magic, curated by pat and melaniejane.

F) Though a Steel Bridge veteran, due to travel and other commitments this is only my second Dark Songs. I’ve gained friends, camaraderie, and some really great songs.

H) Usually either a lyrical progression occurs first and then I try to discover a melodic line that suits it. Sometimes it’s reversed, the music comes first, and then I try to uncover the lyric that lies latent in the melody.

I) Okay. From last year’s Dark Songs: “His pulse instantly began its decline as in her skin he divined the milk thick light of moons and greening gaslights, of will o’ wisps made mad by the meager dram of souls so oft encased in human flesh. He did not flinch as she leaned down, as her fingers, fine as filigrees of pain, nails long as interminable Scandinavian evenings, traced ecstatic trails across his quickly paling skin.”

J) Just a few years ago, I was a speaker on a panel at a House on the Rock Halloween literary event/huge party. Neil Gaiman was the featured speaker. Renee and I made our own kind of woodland creature/elf/faery costumes with wings and headdresses of curly willow and peacock feathers and full body makeup and boots that made us ridiculously tall.

She almost put out Neil’s eye with her wings at one point. Halloween inside the craziness that is House on the Rock—along with bands and liquor—was just a little bit more than fun. People were agog.

MacDonald. Photo by Len Villano.

A) Lena MacDonald

B) Chicago, IL

C) Soft Rock

D) Vocals and guitar

E) Because I learn the most from these incredible musicians. I grew the most at the first Dark Songs and Sturgeon Bay Songfest.

F) I have and I learned how to collaborate and it pushed me out of my comfort zone so that I can grow.

H) I usually get a lyric idea and sit down with my guitar and write melody and set it aside to marinate for a bit and then finish it.

J) Corpse Bride!

Gates performs at last year’s Dark Songs. Photo by Len Villano.

A) Vincent Gates

B) Seattle, WA

C) Memorable musical stories from old school hip hop to jangly folk.

D) Guitar, vocals

E) I attend Dark Songs to write, record, and perform songs with other artists. I want a focused, intentional writing experience that taps into a deep collective well of creativity.

F) I attended Dark Songs last year and found a wellspring of creativity and inspiration by working with, and around, the other artists in attendance.

It’s really about all the different gifts each artist brings to the table, and collectively, we create something different, and often better than our solo work.

H) There are always exceptions but typically I pick up my guitar and start playing and singing gibberish until it sounds good. A few words start to creep in and replace the gibberish over time. I’ll set it aside if I don’t have anything ‘literal’ to say. I revisit these ideas when something strikes me and helps shape the lyric idea or story.

I) 9 lives, 9 lives / Wish I had 8 more / Shoulda listened to ma and pa / When they said don’t go through that door

J) Hobo. I was eight years old.

Hoover. Photo by Len Villano.

A) Nick Hoover

B) Sturgeon Bay

C) Must I choose?

D) Guitar and voice

E) Why not?

G) I have not participated in Dark Songs before but I have done a couple of the songwriting intensives at The Holiday Music Motel. Each time it’s been such a meaningful bonding experience with other musicians – both creatively and emotionally.

I love the collaborative element and I love being in the studio and on stage sharing what we have created with the community. It’s a long, tiring, yet energizing week and I almost feel a sort of spiritual transformation occurs by the time it’s over.

H) Unless there is some theme I’m trying to encompass, or it’s something personal I’m writing about, I go for the music and melody first.

J) Call me boring but I don’t often get into to costumes.

Beck performs at last year’s Dark Songs. Photo by Len Villano.

A) Michael Bleck

B) Madison, WI

C) Crossover

D) Voice

E) I haven’t missed one yet. Many of the participants are like family to me. Dark Songs is a lot of fun. I learn something I didn’t know about songwriting every time I do one of these collaborative songwriting workshops. I keep getting better at songwriting.

H) I start with the words or a concept

I) You can tell by how I’m kickin’, I’m that kind of guy. When it comes down to chicken, I’ll take a wing and a thigh.

J) Old man, really old.

Schwall performs at last year’s Dark Songs. Photo by Len Villano.

A) Jim Schwall

B) Madison, WI

C) Singer-songwriter covers about everything.

D) Various guitars, accordion, mandolin, bass, whatever else is lying around

E) Being around a bunch of other songwriters gets my juices flowing.

F) Yes. I co-wrote several songs while there, one really good, one on my own the next week or so.

H) No pattern

I) Broken-hearted and wishing for a fatal disease

J) Tarzan. I was 18 or so, when I could still pull it off.

Clark. Photo by Dan Eggert.

A) Jamey “J-Dirt” Clark

B) Sturgeon Bay

C) My favorite genre is still rock-n-roll.

D) I play drums and guitar.

E) This is a great way to open up and collaborate with other artists from around the globe.

F) This will be my 4th Dark Songs. Every year has gotten better and better. It’s amazing what folks can accomplish in a short week.

H) I have no songwriting style. I feel I’m developing one through events such as these.

I) “He’s not my dad, he’s my step-clown!!!” ~ Charley Chaney, Chunks the Clown

A) Rick Wood

B) Los Angeles

C) Experimental, my wife calls it noise.

D) Guitar

E) Outside of spending a tremendous amount of money recording an album, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to be so fully immersed in the creative process with so many other musicians nearly around the clock.

F) Yes. Finding out what other peoples writing strengths are, how they’re different from mine and trying to improve those parts of myself. That and diplomacy.

H) It starts with either a little piece of a lyric or a riff, maybe just a chord. Then I keep trying to add to that until it’s done enough. Like making a pearl or a rubber band ball.

I) The ground is cold the sky is black / The breath of death rolls down my back

J) Zombie Regan. I’ll probably do it when I’m eighty but it’ll be the best costume ever when I do.

French performs in last year’s Dark Songs. Photo by Len Villano.

A) Danielle French

B) Calgary, AB, Canada

C) Adult Contemporary

D) Guitar

E) Since pat mAcdonald invited me to the first songwriting intensive I attended in February 2012, I have made the trek back to Door County religiously for every songwriting intensive since.

Before coming to the Holiday Music Motel, I had not done any co-writing before and having the opportunity to collaborate with the other artists I have met there has been nothing short of life-changing!

I am currently forming my first band, Miss Scarlett and the Madmen, with musicians I have been collaborating with at these intensives over the past year and a half.

And I am in process of recording a CD to be titled Dark Love Songs – a homage to the Love on Holiday and Dark Songs songwriting intensives, which will primarily feature music that was co-written at the intensives.

F) My first Dark Songs intensive was last year and it was my favorite intensive I have attended so far. I am a huge Tom Waits fan and have always been drawn to the dark side in my writing.

My 2007 CD is titled Shadows, in reference to the term “shadow self” as described in Jungian psychology. We all have a dark, shadow side and it’s only in embracing that part of ourselves that we can transform it into the light.

What I gained from my experience at Dark Songs last year was embracing this dark side in my co-writing with the other artists. And I also had the opportunity to co-write and perform my first punk rock song! This is not my usual genre, so it was a very liberating experience to realize that as a songwriter I was capable of writing in other genres. And I was shocked to discover that I had this punk rock persona lurking in me! In fact, right after performing this song at Cherry Lanes, pat mAcdonald came up to me asking, “What was that?” Pleasantly surprised he said “You are a force of nature, Danielle!”

H) I try not to limit myself to any one method in my approach to songwriting. Songs have emerged in a myriad of ways for me. But generally I start on the guitar and in playing around will come across a chord pattern that I like that inspires a vocal melody and then the words kind of appear that fit the melody.

In co-writing at the intensives, we are starting with a topic, however loose (Love Songs, Dark Songs etc.). One person in the co-writing group usually pitches an idea (chord pattern, melody, subject) and as a group we develop the idea together.

I) I’d love to give you a verse from the punk song I wrote with Vee Sonnets and Kory Murphy last year:

I read the obituaries every day / To find out who has died, who’s passed away / I show up to pay my respects / To all these people / that I’ve never met / I’m a funeral crasher

J) My mom used to go all out at Halloween. She was an amazing seamstress and would buy patterns and sew elaborate costumes for us, which meant so much more than a store-bought costume.

When I was in grade 5 she made me an amazing leopard outfit with a stuffed tail and a hood with ears. Perhaps that’s why I love leopard print to this day!