With a Billie Holiday-style microphone, an Apple computer camera and her two bandmates on either side, Maggie Tobias transforms from a lively newspaper reporter into a sultry jazz singer.
“You can put on a mask a little bit; it’s very theatrical,” said Tobias, a 23-year-old reporter for The Sylva Herald and Ruralite.
Tobias and fellow musicians Michael Collings and Jeff Savage compose Maggie and The Romantics, a jazz band from Sylva.
Tobias described Maggie and The Romantics as a fusion band. Their original songs always have jazz roots but can also be classified as funk, salsa or singer/songwriter.
Last month, the band started an early resolution, the kind typically reserved for New Year’s — to write one original song a week. The exercise helps them hone their songwriting skills and learn to create new tunes quickly.
Although it may seem daunting, the task is easier than one might think, Tobias said. Just start with a single theme or idea, she said, and form the song from there.
“It’s not going to be perfect. There are going to be some things you wish you changed,” Tobias said.
Each week, a different band member debuts their new song.
“They (Collings and Savage) are really good,” Tobias said. “It always surprised me how they can take this little song I’ve been singing in my head and make it into a real song. That’s pretty cool.”
The group uses the camera on an Apple computer, an external microphone and five or six takes to record the original song and post it to YouTube.
The idea for the weekly song came from Savage, who told them about a more than two-decade-long project by They Might Be Giants, Tobias said.
From 1983 to 2006, the alternative music group They Might Be Giants recorded new songs each week, and sometimes daily, on an answering machine. People would call the answering machine to hear the band’s newest recording.
While Maggie and The Romantics original song project may not last that long, Tobias said the troupe will post “as many as we can.”
As of Monday, their four videos had racked up a few hundred views each and mostly positive comments.
“People have said they like it,” Tobias said.
Like any family, hers had a few critics, she said.
“My mom told me to stop being so sultry in my videos,” Tobias said, adding that one of her sisters thinks she puts on a different voice when she sings.
The trio hopes to include other local artists in their future videos and posted a call for guest musicians on their Facebook page.
Tobias is currently composing a folk song for Kelly Jewell-Timco, a hula-hooper and wife of a coworker, and is making plans to perform a Frank Sinatra-style song with trumpeter Boyd Sossamon.
Tobias began singing at the First Presbyterian Church in Sylva, where bandmates Collings and Savage also play.
“I’ve sung my entire life,” said Tobias, who was a member of her college jazz band. “My whole family is very musical.”
However, it wasn’t until high school that her first boyfriend — a fan of music icons Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and John Coltrane — kick-started her affinity for jazz and blues tunes.
“There is something just kind of sultry about jazz,” Tobias said. “It’s kind of a sexy, evolving art form.”
Some people think that the time for jazz music has come and gone, but artists such as Diana Krall and Corinne Bailey Rae continue to add a modern flair to the genre.
“I think people kind of see jazz as a museum art form,” Tobias said. “It’s like classical music; it’s untouchable. It’s hard to see it as the popular music that it once was.”
Collings, a bassist, and Savage, a guitar player, had performed together as a jazz duo for six years at Sylva establishments like Guadalupe Café, where they play for tips. And after meeting her at the church, Collings and Savage asked Tobias to join them for a jazz cover gig.
Tobias said she thinks being a girl helped with the tips during her first performance with the guys.
“I think that’s kind of why they wanted me to keep playing with them, because after that one show we got so many tips,” Tobias said.
Soon after her first gig with the duet, Tobias started writing original songs, which the troupe performed in addition to traditional jazz standards.
The trio decided to cement their partnership by creating a band name. After receiving such suggestions as Beauty and the Beats, The Lovesick Fools, and Lady and the Tramps did they settle on Maggie and The Romantics.
“It just kind of sounded right,” Tobias said.
The band plays at various Sylva locales for tips about once a week in addition to its weekly YouTube melodies but is looking at branching out to venues in other Western North Carolina communities.
“We really like playing,” Tobias said. “It’s not the main source of income for any of us, so we can just have fun and take our time.”
Where: JJ’s Canteen & Eatery on N.C. 107 in Glenville
When: 8 p.m, Jan. 27
What else: Tips are accepted
Like Maggie and The Romantics on Facebook or check out their YouTube channel, MaggieRomanticsMusic.
It’s unsurprising that in the mountain town of Sylva, the music scene is a pretty vibrant place to be. With a long and strong heritage of Appalachian music, it’s only natural that a community would grow up around that scene.
But alongside that long-standing bluegrass tradition is a lively music scene that is less public but still growing, offering the area’s younger crowd an alternative musical outlet that they can help create.
Jeremy Rose has spent years doing just that. As the guitarist and vocalist for Sylva indie band Total War, Rose is a strong member of the alternative, pseudo-underground music scene that has grown from the ground up in Sylva and the university community in Cullowhee.
Though he’s quick to point out that the grassroots groundswell is essentially leaderless —“it really is just a community of people just contributing in their own way” — Rose said he’s been actively cultivating it since coming to the town as a shy college student.
“I guess I just happened to run into a bunch of people that were determined to make something to do,” said Rose, explaining how he fell into the town’s musical world.
While Rose said the cultural experiences offered up by Western Carolina University and the town’s fairly active arts groups are excellent, there has always been plethora of people who are looking for something they can be more involved in. Without a venue springing up, they’ve started doing it themselves.
It’s hard, really, to get a concrete picture of how the whole thing started, nebulous as it is, or even a solid definition of what, exactly, constitutes an “underground music scene.”
But by most estimates, young musicians and music lovers of all kinds, from metal to folk to prog-rock to traditional bluegrass, were looking for a place to practice and enjoy the craft they love. From basements to skate parks to old storefronts, bands and their fans started getting together for performances. When one show was shut down, another sprung up in any place willing to hold it, spurred by online forums and homemade ‘zines produced by Rose, et al.
These days, it’s social networking that gets the word out, and when old supporters fade or move away, new ones always seem to spring up to take their place.
Rose thinks this is one of the endearing things about Sylva’s musical life — thanks to the high turnover provided mostly by WCU students, the town is a perpetual blank canvas, with a pretty steady stream of artists willing to paint it.
“One of the nice things about around here is that people tend to be really supportive because they’re just happy that somebody’s doing something,” said Rose. “If you’re doing anything, everyone will at least come check it out.”
Unlike other, larger markets like Asheville or Knoxville, there’s a multitude of engaged and interested potential fans, which can be hard to come by in a place where live music of all genres is abundant. The problem is usually space, and finding places to play can be difficult.
Recently, businesses like Guadalupe Cafe, Soul Infusion Tea House and Signature Brew Coffee have been offering musicians and their fans a place to perform, which helps keep the shows legal. But not having official hosting places hasn’t been a problem, said Rose.
“It’s really independent of venue,” he said. “Even if there’s nothing there, we’ve always found way — you know basements or somebody’s parents house — if people wanted to do it.”
For bands like Gamenight, a Knoxville-based group, that’s what makes Sylva such an enticing place to play.
The group’s drummer Brandon Manis said they’ve been coming to the town for years because it’s just such a welcoming atmosphere. Their first show there was back in 2003, and they’ve played eight to 10 shows there since, always eeking out time for the tiny mountain locale in their regional touring schedule.
“We love that place,” said Manis. “We’ve played in a lot of places and to a lot of people we didn’t really know and people [in Sylva] are just so receptive. People just really appreciate live music there and it’s not so much just a social event. People actually like seeing live music.”
Rose said he hopes that love of live music and desire to be a part of it will continue. He and his band intend to be in it as long as they’re around. Though he doesn’t know if the town is big enough to support a dedicated venue — over the years several have popped up and withered — his hope is that the town’s young people will always care enough to make art and music a part of their lives and their community, in all manner of genres and media.
“Everybody’s into their own thing in the Internet age — you can live in Cherokee or Sylva and still follow Norwegian metal or New York hipster music — and around here people will be open about things that normally wouldn’t be their thing,” said Rose, and the continued growth of that mindset is what he and others hope for the scene they love and have made.
“It would be great if I left for 20 years and came back and there was still a sign in a window that said ‘basement sale this Saturday,’” said Rose. “Because we want people to support us, so we know that we need to be there to support other people, too.”