15 minutes of fame
By Tyler Gray | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted October 20, 2001
Adored by dozens from the moment she steps behind an open mike, SusieCool is a genuine star.
But only for 15 minutes at a time. With her baggy tie-dye T-shirt and short-cropped, hair, the 43-year-old singer looks like someone's eccentric mom, not someone likely to boogie behind a guitar playing "I Want to Mambo." In "Computer Love," another of her crowd-pleasers, she finds a goof at her own expense over an online romance. "Is there any love for sale? It's time to download, hot on the trail. Is he a prince or a cyber toad?" She sings it all with a giddy, quivering tone that bursts with so much joy it nearly sends her sliding out of key.
It's Saturday night at the Rubicon Café, the once-a-month incarnation of Meyer Hall at the Unity Church of Christianity on Clarcona-Ocoee Road. Show organizers funk up the fellowship hall with candles and an array of instruments on stage. Rubicon's kitchen smells like Holiday House and fresh-baked carrot cake. The squeaking and giggling of children in a back room cut through most of the tunes. Bluegrass players, a perfectly pitched R&B three-piece called Vast Remedy and a singer with a small child in one arm and another clinging to her leg patiently wait then savor their slivers of performance time on stage.
This is a SusieCool crowd.
The 15-minute fix
SusieCool, whose real name is Susan Trewick, is one of the quirkiest in a band of open mike regulars, shower singers and closet songwriters who hop from vignette to vignette playing open-mike nights, honing their skills as original entertainers and lining up their next fix of fame. It might only last 15 minutes, the typical length of an open-mike slot, but what matters to performance junkies such as SusieCool is that they get it again and again, on their own terms, whenever they want it.
"There's no commitment," SusieCool says. "You don't have to say you'll be there. You can go if you feel like it." Most nights, she's driven to go wherever the mike is open. "If you attend an open mike and you follow the strict rules of just three songs, you're giving somebody some of yourself," SusieCool says. She has played open-mike forums at venues that attract the kind of songwriters dying to quit their day jobs, the kind of performers who seek out record industry types and believe a three-album deal is just a handshake away. She networks, too. But she doesn't have the same sort of expectations. "I don't necessarily want to perform for the sake of being picked up by somebody," she says. "I do it because I love it. I enjoy being appreciated."
Originality or bust
Fellow open-mike regular John Gallagher started in 1999, too, at open-mike night at Winter Park Borders Books & Music. He was shaking, sweating and barely appreciated with polite applause. Now a thirtysomething licensed mental health counselor by day, deep-voiced performer of "Chubby Love" and other humorous hits by night, Gallagher is hooked on open mikes. "It's rare that you have a place where people will listen to original music, have it not be familiar and still have them give you a chance," he said.
The original aspect is important for most in SusieCool's circle. "I'd rather cut off my nose than play a cover," she says. She has tried. At a fine-dining restaurant, she was hired to play a three-hour set, some covers, some originals. But folks there just wanted familiar background music, she says. She's hardly powering through loud rock tunes at full volume, but patrons kept asking her to turn down, she says. "It was demoralizing." There's less risk at the 15-minute forums. "When you're at open mike, it's a quick burst of energy, and you get it out and you go away," SusieCool says.
Fifteen minutes is a cinch for the woman who started playing piano at age 12 and progressed to guitar, now her instrument of choice, at age 15. She moved to Orlando in 1987 from Kingston, Jamaica, and blazed through a stint playing in bands for oblivious convention crowds. She quit when the rigors of the business side of music became too tedious. In March '99, she discovered her niche at the Altamonte Springs Borders Books & Music -- it's where she played her first real open-mike showcase. "People clapped. They even laughed where I thought the song was funny," she said. "That made my day."
Now in her 40s, she's a computer-aided design technician. She works part time for the city of Orlando, so she has plenty of time to play her own songs for free at small cafés. Others in her circle seem to share the same folksy priorities -- if people listen, laugh and clap, that's payment enough.
Safety in numbers
Regulars float in and out of the scene. Crowds rarely exceed 50 or more people at most venues, and 75 percent to 80 percent are performers themselves or friends of performers. It's a safe environment for someone who might never have played his or her songs in public. SusieCool and others tread lightly. "I'm not just there to say hey, look at me," SusieCool says. "I'm very much there to nurture other singers." When she's not on stage, she's networking, telling others about new open-mike nights or helping put together online and printed calendars and brochures promoting the special community. Her list includes 20 or more spots that host nightly, weekly or monthly open-mike nights.
Bar workers and owners like open-mike nights because they draw some customers and are free entertainment. Hosts are occasionally paid, but entertainers aren't. And patrons aren't charged a cover. Players and spectators do spend money at the establishments, though. The scene is its own artistic and financial supporter.
Jeff Friberg, owner of the Eustis Street Grill and host of the restaurant's open-mike night, says he has been running open mikes for three years -- they're on Fridays at 6 p.m. now. His performers split tips at the end of the night, but, he says, "it's still music -- you don't make money." His business just breaks even on open-mike nights, too, he says. "It's pretty much people coming for the love and the contacts and the camaraderie." Nonperforming open-mike watchers say the intimacy and the element of surprise make for entertaining evenings.
"It's the quaint, small venue," says Dan Maskiell, a manager at Mad Lyn's café in Orlando who frequents the open-mike nights as a listener. "People are just right up in your face. It's a rollover of just different entertainment."
Performers who play before SusieCool at Rubicon say she introduced them to open-mike nights. For that, most love her before she sets foot on stage. She works the room with all of the intensity and none of the pomp of a Vegas entertainer. She greets friends, plugs her next appearance, then goes on to play a few favorites behind the fellowship hall's open mike, but not before host Mike Dale tells a story to add context to SusieCool's show. A while back, no performers wanted Dale playing with them, he says. His homemade, wooden cube- or mushroom-shaped hand drums look best suited for the band in the Star Wars cantina scene. SusieCool, however, welcomed him to join her on "I Want to Mambo" one night. And in him, he says, she found a fan for life. "I'm forever grateful to Susie and the Mambo song," he says on stage, then introduces her with labels such as "the original open-mike junkie" and "the open-mike diva." "Everybody knows her!" Dale hypes. "Everybody loves her -- SusieCool!" She meanders to the stage and grins as a near-capacity crowd of dozens goes wild.
You can reach Tyler Gray at 407-420-5164 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel
A Portrait of a Black Cat Performer
"Adored by dozens from the moment she steps behind an open mike, SusieCool is a genuine star. But only for 15 minutes at a time," writes Tyler Gray of the Orlando Sentinel. Always a favorite at the Black Cat, SusieCool is well-known in the Orlando area as a singer and songwriter of thoughtful, witty songs. SusieCool (Susan Foster-Trewick} was born in Jamaica; she came to the U.S. with her family in 1987. She started writing songs at age 12 with a song called "The Sun." Most of her music can be described as acoustic, folk, and island/reggae. She picked up the stage name "SusieCool" when she sang with an all-female band in the 80s in Jamaica. The other women in the band called her "SuperCool Sue" because she was not a nervous as they were about performing. Because she had more experience than they, she was unruffled about getting on stage.
Although she is a popular performer, she thinks of herself primarily as a writer. "I sing so that people can hear my songs. I would just as soon someone else sang them," she told us at the Black Cat last month (Sept 2002). Although she's had paid gigs, she prefers appearing at the numerous "open mic" nights that have sprung up around town. "These places are more comfortable. There's not a lot of pressure," she said. On the other hand, if an artist isn't very good and can't hold people's attention, they find out fast at an open mic night. People talk, don't listen to the performer, walk around the room, etc. SusieCool, of course, does not have that problem: she is very popular with the audiences at the Black Cat and other open mic places. Her "day job" is as an architectual draftsperson, in which she does computerized autocad drafting. She put her computer skills to work in building her own website, https://sites.google.com/site/susiecoolsongs
Her song, "Computer Love" is an audience favorite. Set to a lilting reggae beat, the studio version of the song is accompanied by actual recorded modem noises; the live version is accompanied by SusieCool's very realistic modem imitation. The lyrics go as follows:
I'm into Computer Love
I'm checking my e-mail now
I'm burning my modem up
I'm into Computer Love
Enter a chat room, type "Hi I'm here"
Will our love bloom, make us a pair
Type in users name, locate someone you know
Console each other, will our love grow
Find what room you're in, are we the same
what are we trying to win, is it a video game
Open a document, edit a file
The message has been sent, we'll be friends for a while
Getting ready to surf, finding a special love to share
Internet is my turf, you'll find true love there
Is there any love for sale, it's time to download
Hot on a trail, is he a prince or a Cybertoad?
Interview by Gaye Reese