Singer-songwriter Melissa Bret connects with big audiences from a small stage

By Bliss Bowen

Performing during happy hour is tougher than it looks; it’s generally demoralizing for musicians to feel they’re rating the same level of attention as the wall art. Redondo Beach resident Melissa Bret, an acoustic pop singer and guitarist who performs regularly at Aloft Hotel’s W XYZ Bar, is “totally OK” with being in the background, but decided to live-stream from the stage just to see how many people would tune in online — and unexpectedly tapped into a new fan base.

“It just started off like an experiment and it kind of escalated,” she explains. “Now it’s something I really look forward to doing. For me, it adds this element of excitement.

“I got so much positive feedback after posting the first one; people were saying things like, ‘I needed this,’ ‘This made my night.’ There was a soldier in Afghanistan who reached out to me privately and said it was 3 a.m. over there and he’d just been having really rough nights and he’s going to be tuning in. You don’t realize the impact you’re having just by the click of one button. It might not be the most flattering camera angle here [laughs], but it’s not really about me. I mean it is, but it’s not. I’m doing it more for people. That’s my whole goal. If I feel defeated, like, ‘No one in this room cares that I’m playing,’ all it takes is seeing just one person nod their head or tap their foot, and that’s it. That’s what really validates what I do. I made somebody happy.”

According to Bret, even though there are usually only 100 or fewer watching simultaneously, some of her Facebook Live videos have attracted as many 25,000 views overnight, thanks to people sharing them on their individual pages. She says it’s “crazy” to think someone’s watching in Minnesota as she performs, set up alongside the bar window while planes roar in and out of LAX nearby. Between songs she takes requests from online viewers — which requires a sensitive balancing act between virtual and actual reality.

Melissa Bret tried live-streaming a gig and found a much bigger audience outside the room
Photo by Vanessa Adams / vanessaadams.com

“Usually the people at the bar are pretty engaging, which is fun, so I have to be careful how I balance interacting with them vs. giving too much attention to my phone,” she says with a laugh. “It’s kind of a weird thing, but it definitely gives me more fulfillment.”

A self-described “military brat” who grew up primarily in Florida, Bret studied piano and sang in choir throughout childhood, and taught herself to play guitar. She started performing publicly about 10 years ago. The evolution of her percussive style can be tracked through her numerous YouTube videos: from basic strumming to more dynamic, rhythm-driven fingerpicking that undergirds her sultry tones, whether she’s playing beachy originals like “Living for Today” and “Live Where You Vacation” or soulfully covering Adele, Alicia Keys, Kings of Leon and Bob Marley. Now she wisecracks about her “guitar problem”: “It’s bad, I have a lot of guitars. They’re like cars — they all drive different.”

Three years ago Bret moved to L.A. and burned the proverbial candle at both ends, working an 8-to-6 job in hotel management and often heading straight to gigs afterward. She became a full-time musician last November. In April she played her first full-band show at Saint Rocke, showcasing her songwriting.

But cover tunes spanning genres and generations are the main menu at the happy hour gigs that are the polished performer’s bread and butter. Each set, she slips in one or two songs from her 2009 album “Waiting,” made when she was still a college student in Florida, and 2015’s more organic “Easy Way Out” (both released as Melissa Brethauer). Before year’s end she hopes to start on her third, which will likely boast bluesier undertones. (“I never cared for it in the past, but blues in the last year has really resonated with me.”) Touring the Pacific Northwest is another goal, as is finding a duo partner, and venturing beyond the South Bay bubble to play more Westside and Hollywood shows. She cites Colbie Caillat as instructive inspiration.

“People know her, but paparazzi’s not following her around. What I respect about her is that she seems to have achieved her success while being authentic in her true self. It’s so encouraging to see someone who has experienced success in the industry and hasn’t lost themselves. That’s what terrifies me about the music industry — you hear so many stories about people losing them-
selves and not always finding their way back completely.”

Experience has helped her read L.A.’s notoriously jaded audiences: “A big part of it is really being able to feel the energy in the room. There might be an older couple who’ll be happier if you play Peter, Paul & Mary, and there might be teenagers that want to hear something by the Weeknd or Ed Sheeran,” she says. “There’s so much diversity in the audiences that I play for at hotels, I have more options stylistically.”

Her biggest adjustment here has been the competition — and “figuring out who’s really your friend,” she says with a chuckle. “We’re not in the South anymore.”

Melissa Bret performs from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 21, at Aloft Hotel’s W XYZ Bar, 475 N. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo. No cover. Bret returns to her usual Thursday “Sassy Hour” schedule on July 6. Call (424) 290-5555 or visit aloftelsegundolax.com for venue info; hear songs at melissabret.com.

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