Ready? Set? Write!
Songwriters race the clock to compose and perform new songs at ‘TopTune’
By Bliss Bowen
There’s nothing like some ticking-clock pressure to blast the muse into action.
So say Shane Alexander and Ted Wulfers, two artists returning to “TopTune: The Songwriters Game” at Fanatic Salon Theater in Culver City this Saturday. The monthly show brings together six songwriters who are paired into three teams, then given a title for a new song and 17 minutes in which to compose it.
“If you feel the pressure,
you’re in the wrong business,” Wulfers says with a laugh. “I
get off on that.”
The basic setup is somewhat akin to a co-writing session — but much more condensed, and with almost instant feedback from the audience, which selects the night’s winning composition by applause. After artists pull names from a hat and pair off into their teams, another hat is passed full of song title prompts. While one pair remains onstage to perform original songs for the audience (often with accompaniment from the house band), the other two teams dash off with their song title to feverishly compose a new original song with their guitars and/or the piano stashed backstage for
“You’re still onstage when you get a song prompt, and last time in my head I started humming those lyrics before I even got outside with my guitar,” Alexander recalls. “I already had a melody started, because [laughs] you have to hustle it. You have no idea what the hat’s gonna give you. It all comes down to the hat.
“The whole thing is very exciting and keeps the juices flowing,” he adds. “You’re trying to write a song and somebody’s calling, ‘Three minutes! Two minutes!’ [Laughs] The first time I
was pacing around backstage going, ‘Why in hell did I agree to do this?’ But it’s a really
The combination of generation-spanning singer-songwriters, musicians, hat girls and comedians adds up to what Wulfers calls “a full package of great entertainment.”
“It’s pure creativity and pure talent together,” he enthuses. “You leave on such a creative high because you’re surrounded with top-notch talent. It really should be a TV show.”
In addition to Alexander and Wulfers, Saturday’s show will also feature hit country tunesmith Kevin Fisher, Norah Jones-style pop thrush Angela Parrish, rhythmic popster Keaton Simons and clear-toned stylist (and sometime Brendan Hines bandmate) Kristen Toedtman. This month’s “commentators panel” includes Matt Geiler, Mary Birdsong and Paul Provenza. House band Johnny Mench & the Thirsty Models is fronted by engaging keyboardist Jonathan Menchin, who created and produces TopTune with Tom Tully. Improv comic Jonathan Mangum will host.
“I think this will be my seventh time there,” Wulfers estimates. “Part of my solo live show forever has been an improv thing where I ask the audience to give me five words and a genre, and I come up with a song on the spot. That’s easy, because it’s just you. But in ‘TopTune,’ you have another writer. So you have two artists coming together and that can be the challenge or the joy.”
Saturday will be Alexander’s third visit; at both of his previous appearances, he co-wrote the winning song — the first time with Jaime Wyatt (“I Should Be Robbing a Train”), and then last March with Katie Ferrara (“For You Who Dream”).
“The only thing you win is bragging rights,” Alexander says with a laugh. “I don’t know how long the streak will go, but it’s cool that I won twice. Those kind of small theatres have their own energy too. So it kind of walks the line between rock ‘n’ roll and a cabaret vibe. It’s irreverent, harmless fun.”
With the emphasis on beating the clock, the format lends itself to the creation of novelty tunes. Yet the consistent quality of participants tends to circumvent kitsch. Previous guests at “TopTune” include respected folk and pop songwriters Dan Bern, Phoebe Bridgers, Tom Freund, Louise Goffin, Dan Navarro and Doug Pettibone, and past shows have featured comedy and commentary from the likes of Jim Belushi, Van Dyke Parks and Fred Ward. Songs that emerge from those 17-minute backstage sessions range from sad to silly, from Americana ballads to jazzy melodies, Broadway-esque duets to country rockers and straight-up pop.
Wulfers says he has recorded several of the songs he wrote at “TopTune.”
Alexander hasn’t yet recorded the songs he wrote with Ferrara and Wyatt, although he says both women have “hounded” him to do so when scheduling permits.
“I’m definitely not opposed to it,” Alexander says. “Both songs are pretty darn decent. “You just never really know how it’s gonna go,” he says of the show. “That’s the fun of it. It’s pee your pants, roll with anything, be decisive — and as a songwriter, I think that’s a really good ability to develop: trust the gut and move on. You can refine after the fact. But you have to play it in like two seconds. Get the line, move to the next line, run through it twice and get out there. “Even as I talk about it, I can’t believe I agreed to do this again.”
“TopTune: The Songwriters Game” with Shane Alexander, Kevin Fisher, Angela Parrish, Keaton Simons, Kristen Toedtman and Ted Wulfers, plus host Jonathan Mangum and house band Johnny Mench & the Thirsty Models, happens at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, at Fanatic Salon Theater, 3815 Sawtelle Blvd., Culver City. $20. Reservations needed. Call (310) 622-2046 or visit facebook.com/toptuneshow.