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She That's Got Is Getz : Her considerable skills have long been brewing in coffeehouses. Will her debut CD make her a star?

March 15, 1997|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Coffeehouse culture may be hip nowadays, but it's a kind of purgatory for any musician forced to compete for years on end with the cackle and hum of caffeinated conversation and the grind of the espresso machine.

Kerry Getz has been singing in coffeehouses in Orange County for 15 years, but she finally may have found her ticket out. Mundane as a career as "coffeehouse singer" may sound, there is something fairy tale-like in the story of how she came, after all those years, to release her first album.

She says that in the early 1990s, she fell under the spell of a record producer who controlled her like a dark wizard, while she sank into a dungeon-like state of mental entrapment. But she emerged at last to find what she calls "a fairy godbrother," a wealthy businessman from Newport Beach who now is her financial backer.

Instead of returning at the end of her adventure with a Tolkien-like magic ring, Getz has emerged with a magical compact disc called "Apollo." Its level of performance and songwriting artistry and its first-rate production values make it clear that Getz, at 36, is long overdue for deliverance from the coffeehouse grind, up to the national platform she deserves.

The daughter of a manufacturer whose company makes megaphones and pompoms for cheerleaders, Getz grew up in Newport Beach and turned to singing as a career after realizing she didn't have the grades to be a veterinarian. At open-mike nights at Bilbo Baggins in Costa Mesa, she conquered her initial shyness and graduated to the local circuit of clubs and coffee shops.

Aside from a few forays elsewhere in Southern California, she has performed several nights a week on the local coffeehouse scene since 1982. By the mid-'80s, she had shown her potential by writing "Apollo," a haunting, instantly memorable song in which she sadly yearns to escape everyday dreariness for a world of creative inspiration.

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In the early '90s, she thought that she had found a path out of the coffee shops. A small-time record producer with big plans and a well-equipped home recording studio in Sherman Oaks wanted to turn her into a star. She moved to Los Angeles County to work with him.

Getz admits that the 3 1/2-year chapter that followed was one of humiliation and loss of self. But recently, on the patio of a coffeehouse in Costa Mesa, she told the story without hesitation--speaking in a deep, breathy voice, with an openness that also is evident when she performs.

"I spent pretty much every waking hour almost being brainwashed by this guy," she said. "It sounds ridiculous. It would make for a really, really bad movie of the week."

She said that in her desire to make a record, she gradually ceded control of her life to her Svengali, who dictated how she ate and exercised, jealously limited her performing schedule and contacts with friends and put her through mind games and endurance tests in the recording studio in the name of eliciting an emotionally charged performance.

The recordings were very good, Getz says now, but her life was a wreck. Two very troubled songs on her "Apollo" album came out of the experience. "Let Me Out" depicts someone awash in suicidal thoughts and reaching for a reason to live. "Inhale," a beautiful and deep song inspired partly by her only brother's death from a drug overdose, captures a moment in which one becomes aware of, yet is unable to connect with, something very near yet infinite--something commonly called a soul.

"In that horrible period," she said, "I felt there was nothing of me left, just this little part floating around that I couldn't grasp."

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Finally, in mid-1994, she broke through the chain of fears that had bound her to her manager/producer--which meant giving up on an unfinished project into which she says she had poured $28,000, part of it borrowed from her parents.

"She seemed like these cult victims I had read about, somebody who removes any reason to exist except to please this cult figure," recalls Drayfus Grayson, a close friend who kept in periodic contact with Getz during her dark period and helped her pull out of it after she decided to sever ties with the producer. "She got some counseling, and she seemed to dust herself off, and I think [playing] music helped a lot."

Getz says she came to realize that her loss of self stemmed from "a character flaw I had. . . . I would put other people's opinions and decisions before mine. Even though this episode was horrific, I am grateful I went through it. There are lessons I needed to learn in a bad way."

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She returned to Orange County in 1994, and her performances made it apparent that she had transformed herself from a talented but unfinished contender into a full-fledged artist, an undiscovered peer of the Shawn Colvins, Joan Osbornes and Sheryl Crows of the world.

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