Songwriter Jessica Smucker in Musikfest Lyrikplatz debut
Lancaster County singer-songwriter Jessica Smucker has been to Allentown plenty of times, but not to perform concerts.
She almost made it to Bethlehem.
More than one year ago, she was to play at a south side Bethlehem coffeehouse, but the place closed.
Smucker makes her Musikfest debut at 6 p.m. Aug. 8, Martin Guitar Lyrikplatz, being presented in the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas, ArtsQuest Center, SteelStacks, Bethlehem.
The Aug. 8 lineup includes: Kenny Ferrier, 5 p.m.; Sarah Ayers, 7 p.m.; Carlos Barata, 8 p.m.; and Katie Kelly, 9 p.m.
Smucker, a vocalist and keyboard player, is expected to sing original songs from her recordings, including "The Sleeping World" (2008), "Reluctantly Yours" (2010) and "This Broken Moment" (2010), the latter her first full-length CD.
Smucker has performed up and down the East Coast at venues and music festivals, including the 2010 Renewable Energy Festival in Kempton.
She's sometimes accompanied by musicians who've played on her CDs, including Dave Sheaffer, bass; and Tommy Leanza, drums.
Smucker's songs have been dubbed "dark pop," with catchy melodies in minor keys and lyrics that infuse sad stories with humor and hope. Her songwriting is described as "woven with a sort of defiant sadness, a square-jawed resilience" (Fly Magazine).
She placed first in the 2010 SolarFest Singer-Songwriter Showcase Competition and second in the 2010 Susquehanna Music & Arts Festival.
Smucker, who graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School, began singing in Ridgeview Mennonite Church, Gordonville, near Bird-in-Hand, East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County.
"I've played piano since I was five. I wasn't very disciplined. Some of my teachers wanted me to read music and I wasn't that into it," Smucker says in a telephone interview.
"I would write songs occasionally, but it was always for fun. I was always writing something," says Smucker, who usually plays a Yamaha CP 33 piano in concert.
Smucker attended Goshen College, Goshen, Ind. and received a BA in English and Creative Writing from Western Illinois University. Her poetry was published in literary magazines.
Of her initial view of performing her songs in public, which began about five years ago, Smucker says, "I was sort of intimidated by other musicians the people who were doing it seriously."
She says readers of her poetry encouraged her to write songs. Smucker wasn't sure she wanted to share her innermost thoughts and feelings or her experiences and observations.
"I've always been really driven. With poetry I was feeling stuck and was blocked. I was putting too much pressure on myself.
"I started playing more piano and doing more songwriting, just for myself. I had a few people, including my ex-husband, say, 'You should be doing something with these. They are great.' I didn't want to. I didn't want to ruin in for myself, the way I felt I had ruined poetry."
After living in Macomb, Goshen and Chicago, Ill, Smucker moved back to Lancaster County in 2005.
Her father, Marlie Smucker, owns Stoltzfus Amish Deli at The Allentown Farmers' Market, where she has worked part-time.
"I was just coming out of a divorce and not sure what I wanted to do," says Smucker, married for two and one half years and describing the divorce as. amicable.
In Lancaster, she met Jeff Bryson of the band, Vinegar Creek Constituency. They became friends.
"I said, 'I write some songs sometime.' He urged me to play them. His immediate reaction was 'I can't believe you're not performing these songs. What can I do to make sure that you will?'
"At that point, my biggest reluctance was that I didn't think I was a musician. I didn't think I was very good on the piano.
"It takes a lot of audacity to ask other musicians to accompany you, especially coming from the background of being a writer and working entirely in isolation." Smucker told Bryson that if he could find musicians to accompany her, she'd give performing her original songs a try. She and Bryson played at some open mikes.
"My mentality was that: 'If people like it, I would keep putting it out there, if the response was there.'
"I didn't want to be another musician pushing my music on people. I wanted to feel that people were asking for it.
"And the response was good. I kept going with it. A couple months later, I started the band.
"I turned 30 and started the band in the same month."
The title of Smucker's "The Sleeping World" and band is derived from a Leonard Cohen quote.
"I'm a big Leonard Cohen fan," she says. "There was already a band called Midnight Choir."
The interview, Smucker recalls, included this quote from Cohen: "'The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.'
"It has a sense of pomposity to it," she allows, "but it has a lot of layers. It's really the sleeping world that we're singing to."
So, Smucker's music is a wake-up call, she was asked?
"Hopefully. Exactly," she says.