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Knowing how to play to the room

With help from its owners, Hotel Cafe has become a launching pad for singers.

September 10, 2008|Mindy Farabee | Times Staff Writer

In the last several months, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Meiko has landed not one but two new songs on the ABC taste-making drama "Grey’s Anatomy” and released an album that's receiving some warm reviews. But to hear her tell it, the big break she'd been waiting for came when she got a shot at cocktail waitressing.

"Waiting tables at the Hotel Cafe was really awesome, I loved everything about it," she said as she settled into a barrel chair among the dusty bric-a- brac of the music venue's latest enterprise, a nearly finished recording studio. "I have a cool song about how people should tip more. I worked here for two years, my whole record was probably written when I worked here."

As it turns out, the Georgia native is just the latest in a growing list of the acoustically disposed to find a creative outlet and a career launching pad at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe. Singer-songwriters rule the night at the dimly lighted club, which is tucked into an alleyway off Cahuenga Boulevard and has built a significant local following of regulars since opening in 2000.

Much like Mark Flanagan's Largo, the intimate comedy club/nightclub newly relocated to the historic Coronet Theatre, the Hotel Cafe has flourished by creating a culture of respect. Their sound system -- the height of the stage, the placement of the speakers, the reverb in the monitors -- was fashioned according to artist specifications. And from the beginning, audiences were honor bound to listen.

"We started as a coffee shop, and it was crazy because we couldn't make a dime, because if people ordered a drink, we could only run the steamer in between songs," said Hotel Cafe co-owner Maximillian Mamikunian. "If someone ordered a blended, forget it."

"I'm the best shusher in the world from working here. And that's how everyone is," Meiko added. "It's a listening room, and you should know that before you come in here."

A brunette pixie in a plaid baby-doll dress, Meiko (she's one-quarter Japanese) sits with Mamikunian, who is wearing his "best white T-shirt" and drinking a Jameson on the rocks. As they talk, a melody begins to thrum through the studio's shared wall as New Yorker Fionn O Lochlainn takes the stage next door. This show isn't being recorded, but Mamikunian and fellow owner Marko Shafer have just finished talks with iTunes, paving the way for what sounds like the birth of a nationally recognized brand -- official "Live From the Hotel Cafe" downloads set to debut next month.

"A mini-mogul is how somebody put it," Mamikunian laughed.

The description isn't far off the mark. On Monday, a four-artist compilation of Hotel Cafe regulars (including Meiko) will ship out to some 2,100 Starbucks locations. The cafe's eponymous record label, launched this year, has one artist, Jim Bianco, on the roster and a Christmas compilation and a couple of live albums in the works. And just before satellite-radio stations Sirius and XM merged, Mamikunian and Shafer put together a pilot radio show for the latter.

"I always play catch up to Marko's madness," Mamikunian said. "Most of the things we end up doing start with Marko saying, 'Wouldn't it be cool if . . . ?' And then I'm hooked, I have to do it."

For the fourth year running, the club next month will curate a group tour, featuring performers such as Rachel Yamagata, Brooke Fraser, Thao Nguyen and Meiko. The outing will bring the Hotel Cafe's convivial vibe across the country, with stops Oct. 10 and Nov. 18 in Los Angeles. Previous installments visited such far-flung locales Fionn O Lochlainnas Oslo and Vevey, Switzerland.

Meanwhile, the venue's website has become known as something of an unofficial database of great talent.

"I've used quite a lot of bands from the Hotel Cafe," said Alexandra Patsavas, the "Grey's Anatomy" music supervisor who selected Meiko's songs "Hawaii" and "Reasons to Love You" for the series. "The venue definitely has a point of view. I can always count on hearing something interesting."

Even Mamikunian has to concede one point: "I heard someone say, 'You've just become an adjective. Some A&R guy was pitching a band to us and said, 'It sounds very Hotel Cafe.' "

As for Meiko, it would seem that she's graduated beyond her proving grounds. Her debut album, a collection of poppy earnestness, quickly reached iTunes' No. 1 folk slot upon its early-August release. The CD hit stores Tuesday, only a few days before the release of the Starbucks compilation and just after a concert at the Roxy, which served as the culmination of her monthlong cross-country tour.

The fact that her L.A. date happened somewhere other than the Hotel Cafe was remarkable. She practically refuses to play any other club.

"It's like returning the favor in some way," she said. "People get so annoyed with me because I talk about the Hotel Cafe so much in interviews, the Hotel Cafe this, the Hotel Cafe that. I'm so emotionally connected to this place."

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