Little Songwriting Monsters

For the sixth straight year, The Holiday Music Motel will bring together musicians from all walks of life to collaborate in creating ghoulish, dark and strange tunes in honor of Halloween.

Dark Songs 2014 is back and bigger than ever, adding 11 new musicians to its weeklong songwriting marathon that began Oct. 26 and ends with a two-day costume party Oct. 31 – Nov. 1.

The event has grown significantly since it first began in 2009, with a total of 40 individuals on this year’s bill. Though nearly a dozen are brand new to the Halloween-themed event, a handful of the newcomers have participated in one of the Motel’s other collaborative songwriting events – Steel Bridge Songfest and Love On Holiday.

That happens to be the case for Ruby James, who leads Door County favorite WiFEE and the HUZz Band. She considers Love On Holiday to be the birth of her band.

“But Dark Songs is really special to me as it is the contrast of light and dark, spooky and dark yet silly and goofy,” James says. “I enjoy all of it. The shows are the most fun because people dress up and even though I’ve never been too into Halloween, I feel like a part of me was born from Day of the Dead and it’s the day after Halloween so it goes together.”

The sole purpose of the event is to encourage collaboration among individuals whose paths likely may never have crossed if it weren’t for Dark Songs and its organizers, melaniejane and pat mAcdonald.

“The purpose is to collaborate; to get songwriters to write with each other,” mAcdonald says. “People don’t come there to write by themselves so much. People gather there to write collaboratively.”

So what types of musicians and genres does the motel bring together during these songwriting weeks? Everything from country, rap and folk to Irish jigs, metal and any other genre you can think of.

The songwriting marathon commences with Sunday dinner, which is enjoyed to the soundtrack of last year’s Dark Songs creations.

“During each event, we release the CD with the songs from the year before,” melaniejane explains. “Volume five is coming out.”

And then out comes the custom Dark Songs bottle spinner and the reason behind the random collaborations the event produces – Spin the Bottle.

Musicians spin for two other songwriting partners. Once the three musicians come together, they are given 24 hours to write and record dark music that suits Halloween.

“Some of them are dark and sad, some are dark and spooky, some of them are just outrageous and twisted, dark fun,” melaniejane says. “It’s a total mix of things. It’s really pretty amusing stuff.”

For singer/songwriter Carley Baer, Spin the Bottle was the best part of her debut at Dark Songs last year. The game’s infinite possibilities keep her looking forward to the week to come.

“At that point, you have the whole week ahead of you and anything is possible,” Baer says.

The whole group comes together again for dinner the following night, listens to tracks from their first recording session, and then the bottle is spun once more. Another 24 hours is granted to the new teams and the process continues.

However, musicians are not tied down to the recording and writing partners the bottle randomly lands on. If musicians finish their songs early, they are welcome to partner up with other individuals.

“They’re little songwriting monsters,” melaniejane laughs. “You can’t stop them. They’ll be everywhere in the motel – in the diner, in the lobby, in the hallways, in their rooms … they find any nook and cranny to go to.”

While the music tends to range from dark to silly, sometimes it’s not always about the music. In fact, some of the most interesting results have come with a combination of people who, on the surface, appear to have nothing in common.

After putting them together in a room for a day, mAcdonald and melaniejane are always surprised by what results.

“What’s interesting for me is not even so much genres but the people, I find certain combinations of people interesting,” mAcdonald says. “That’s kind of where the funny part is.”

“They bring out different things in each other with their personalities,” melaniejane adds.

Dark Songs will celebrate the collaboration of its dozens of musicians with a two-night Halloween costume party at Third Avenue Playhouse on Friday and Saturday nights. The events are open to the public.

“It’s the culmination of a week’s worth of effort,” Baer says. “It’s the payoff. And it’s a hell of a party.”

A Second Line Parade will kick off Saturday’s performance as a tribute to well-known blues guitarist Chris Aaron, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly Oct. 15. Aaron was scheduled to perform at Dark Songs.

While many of the musicians have been connected to Dark Songs through their introduction to Steel Bridge Songfest, interested musicians are always welcome to get in touch with the Motel about future songwriting weeks.

“What is happening under the roof of the Holiday Music Motel is incredibly unique and special and nothing else exists like it in the world,” James says. “I know Door County is full of so many amazing artists but where do you find people creating their art from nothing just days before and then putting it on display in full production by the end of the week? That’s insanely cool and if I weren’t a part of it, I would definitely be so supportive of it.”

Dark Songs will be held at Third Avenue Playhouse, 239 N. Third Ave. in Sturgeon Bay. The Oct. 31 show will follow the playhouse’s screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at 10:30 pm. The Nov. 1 performance begins at 7 pm. For more information visit