Erin Rae Finds Her Voice in Columbia City’s Open Mic Scene

by Jacob Uitti

Like guerrilla outposts packed with tallboy Rainier cans and old guitar cases, the venues invite people out of  their apartments to fill small rooms and play at open mics across Seattle. In Fremont, Mo’ Jam hosts weekly improvised group jams. In Capitol Hill, Capitol Cider hosts regular open mics in its basement. In Ballard, Conor Byrne has long kept its open mic going. In Wallingford, the Seamonster is an oasis for jams. And in  Columbia City, the community has turned the open mic into an art form.

Almost every night in the neighborhood, a prospective musician can wander into a bar and find some of the area’s top talent — from True Loves guitarist Jimmy James to Bear Axe’s front woman, Shaina Shepherd and others. On Wednesday nights, the Royal Room hosts an often-jazzy jam session. Thursday nights, about two blocks away, Rumba Notes hosts a female-run open jam. Sunday nights, the Hummingbird opens its doors to improvising musicians. And on Tuesday nights in Columbia City Theater’s Bourbon Bar, Tuesday Night Music Club is packed with songwriters.

That’s where Columbia City Theater bartender Erin Rae found her voice in the open mic music scene.

“The Tuesday night open mic vibe is like a family,” said Rae, who regularly works shifts for the Tuesday Night Music Club. “It’s like we’re in someone’s living room. People come in and then bop over to another place and come back. People are strangers at the beginning of the night and often friends by the end.”

Rae, who’s worked the Tuesday Night Music Club sessions for over a year, has a distinct bond with them. Along with being a bartender, pouring beers and mixing cocktails, she’s a singer who jumps from behind the bar to hit the modest stage and perform each week. And while some bars may not want their staff to take this kind of break, it’s the ethic of a close-knit group that makes it all the more part of the atmosphere.

“Often I’m amazed at the community that’s been created around Tuesday Night Music Club,” says Columbia City Theater booker and open mic host, Michelle Searle. “This space is special. When I show up to just hang out, it’s a barrage of hugs, good conversations and listening to people play. I think all of us have found a new part of ourselves creatively here.”

Over its lifetime, the nearly 100-year-old Columbia City Theater has been host to up-and-coming bands and established bands. From Lisa Loeb to the Cold War Kids to Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix, the century-old venue has seen it all, and then some. Yet, it remains a place that prides itself on fostering new talent and community development.

“I started bartending here in April of last year,” says Rae. “And at the end of one of my first shifts, Michelle turned to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t you sing?’ At the time, I was playing in a couple bands, but I didn’t really have the solo material to perform on my own. Michelle pushed me and I played the one song I had and that kept me inspired to keep writing.”

Over the course of the following year, Rae started to sing more during her Tuesday shifts. She met and reconnected with like-minded musicians. And on July 26th, Rae, almost a year and a half after performing that first song at open mic, played her first solo show with her new band, Erin Rae & the Heartbeets, to a crowd of over 150 applauding fans. The bill, which also featured Hezza Fezza and Harrison B, included many artists Rae encountered through Columbia City’s Tuesday Night Music Club.

“What came out of that night,” she says, “was more than I ever could have fathomed as far as the good feelings in the room.”

Veterans of the Seattle open mics will say that you will inevitably see novices become important players on the scene if you hang around the jams long enough. And along the way, you’ll encounter bands like Rae and her Heartbeets. They’re born out of an encouraging community, dedication, and a collaborative spirit.

“Tuesday Night Music Club helped grow my confidence,” Rae says. “The people there believed in me. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in yourself and you need to hear it from other people. The open mic provided a space for me to blossom but it also gave me the support and connection I needed to make that happen.”

Featured Photo: Erin Rae & the Heartbeets. (Photo: Jacob Uitti)