Isaac Cheong, a San Diegan known best for his influence as open mic host at several local venues, has recently traveled to choice locations around the globe. Now, he’s returned home, although it doesn’t represent any kind of end to his overall journey. Whether he is living in Sydney, Paris or San Diego, as a musician and entertainer, Isaac has demonstrated a talent for blending in. He betrayed his artistic and philosophical dispositions while, during our interviews, he drew a particularly creative analogy between his recent experiences (i.e., being embedded within other cultures) and his experiences in San Diego as its longest-running open mic host. Both experiences, he suggested, gave him a window into the different worlds that people can exist in, even when they share a set of common understandings and experiences. Isaac now feels at home in many cultures. But, we’re going to focus on two specific cultures that Isaac has been a member of for the longest – those of host and performer. One of his most compelling talents is that he can function in both of these vastly different settings simultaneously. He’s back home, but still on a journey – so, where is he now?..
The short story is that Isaac is in a transition between the southern and northern hemispheres. Having recently arrived back in San Diego, from Australia where he was living happily for the past four years, he has settled in quickly and reintegrated himself into the music scene that he has always been a part of (even in his physical absence). Although Isaac moved to Australia (in2008) mainly to work, he also became integrated in the music scene abroad and grew as a musician and entertainer while he was away. Most people know Isaac Cheong first and foremost as an open mic host. Perhaps this is because any musician that has been coming up through the ranks over the last 15 years probably wound up being introduced by Isaac at one of his beloved open mics! But, he’s been more than an open mic host.
Isaac is no stranger to the plight and lifestyle of musicians – he’s walked the walk, so to speak. He’s done the four-hour bar gigs, gotten both good and bad reviews and otherwise suffered through the challenges and indignities that are unique to the artist’s way of life. But, he has also been unusually constructive, helping to build San Diego’s music community through his efforts to elevate and nurture musicians, one by one. His own personal artistic path has allowed him to see the San Diego music scene as both an insider (with deep roots and access to San Diego’s community of musicians) and as an outsider (able to see artists, venues, and even whole music scenes grow from a distance). His tenure as, perhaps, San Diego’s most influential open mic host (at some of San Diego’s most influential open mics) gives him long-range and intimate insights into what makes San Diego’s musical community special. Now that he’s back home, he brings with him fresh perspectives and his broad view has expanded even further.
Isaac is easy and fun to talk to and his varied interests and experiences make him even more compelling in person once you get past the usual sidewalk chatter. The depth of his character owes partly to his wealth of experience (he’s been working this scene since the early ’90s) and partly to the wealth of artists he’s had the privilege to get know (many of whom have had a lasting influence on him). During our interviews we chatted about everything from neighborhood bars to TV shows (including, strangely enough, “The Amish Mafia”). But just as I got complacent amidst our easy talking, he’d allude to something not at all mundane, like the recording techniques of the Beach Boys and I’d realize that, although he can be very light, comedic, and personable, it’s a mistake to presume that those represent the boundaries of what he brings to the table. On the contrary, Isaac seems to have collected many insights surreptitiously and, as a result, he can speak with authority about many things that may or may not come across as light, comedic, or personable.
Isaac has been a musician, host, and entertainer for a long time. He’s recorded and released his own music, booked and played gigs in different towns (even different countries), and he’s made a lasting impression on his hometown music scene by inspiring, collaborating with, and empowering the next generation of San Diego musicians (through his example, his open mics, and Java Jams – more on that later). He is powerfully charismatic and well-respected by many. His reputation has undoubtedly been shaped by his consistent commitment to developing as an artist and entertainer while supporting thousands of other artists as they attempt to undergo the same transformative process that he’s been going through. His story is uncommon because he’s done so much and yet it’s so familiar to anyone who has struggled to live an artist’s life in America’s Finest City.
Isaac’s story started back in the fog of time (i.e., 1991). OP was still a well-known brand name and the grunge scene was taking over the radio waves. In North County, Isaac was learning to play guitar. He was invited by a friend, luckily, to the Metaphor Café in Escondido where he saw a concert that included local musicians Frank Lee Drennen and Dave Howard. Isaac remembers that Drennen was wearing a flight suit onstage and sweating like a man on fire. Isaac, in a moment of clarity thought to himself: “I want to do that… that’s cool!” he remembers fondly.
After that, he took his first foray into live performance, playing at the original Java Joe’s in Poway (circa 1991). At that time Java Joe’s open mic was hosted by Jeff Lee. The fact that Isaac began his live performances there is only one of a few notable facts about the original Java Joes (as many San Diegans are aware). “I vaguely remember saying [to Jewel], ‘I’ll have a Snapple please.’” he remembers. Java Joe’s went on to be a very important San Diego venue (helping to spawn the international careers of Jewel, Jason Mraz, and others). But, in 1991, it was Jeff Lee that most influenced Isaac’s future, helping to inspire his characteristic approach to hosting years later when he began hosting the open mic at Mikey’s (also in Poway). Herein lies one of the most unusual and powerful contributions that Isaac has made to the music scene – his hosting style elevated the open mic beyond its old form and helped make it more exciting and fun. “The way I host has a lot to do with [Jeff],” he says.
They say that half of life is just showing up. This principle definitely applies to how Isaac describes how he got his start in hosting open mics. In the early 1990s, Isaac was hanging out at Mikey’s in Poway. “Mikey’s became a second home… for several years,” he recalls. The host of Mikey’s popular open mic went on a hiatus and Mike Chambers (Mikey’s owner) asked Isaac to guest host and fill in for a little while (since he was always hanging around anyway). It was good timing for two reasons – first, it was lucky that the opportunity opened up and second, there was a true entertainer inside Isaac waiting to come out. He brought an entirely innovative approach that made him successful at it (and also made musicians want to come back again and again). He says of open mics: “[They’re often] dry and boring. I had this idea that it could be more.” He was thinking about how David Letterman hosts with humor and charisma, and he wanted to bring that possibility of actually hosting (rather than simply announcing names from a list) to the open mic he was now guest hosting. “[To me,] it’s more like a variety show,” he says. “I thought it was funny… I enjoyed it [and] I had fun doing it.” After guest hosting for one month Isaac took over as the permanent host.
Isaac continued working on his music and improved his repertoire of witty banter on stage and Mikey’s at the same time. In 2001, despite the success of the open mic and Mikey’s coffee shop, they closed their doors amid curious circumstances that seemed to indicate that the business lease was not renewable. This left a frustrated, but dedicated open mic community and host in its wake. Isaac “floated” for a little while. Then, one fateful day he was invited by a friend to play at Lestat’s open mic (in Normal Heights) on a Monday night (circa 2002). Once again, timing seemed to be on Isaac’s side and opportunity knocked a second time. The open mic host at Lestat’s also happened to be going on a hiatus (due to work commitments and time constraints). Lestat’s West, the complete performance venue, had recently been built next to the coffee shop and the venue was going through a huge growth spurt. The owner of Lestat’s wanted to keep things moving in the right direction and didn’t want the open mic to skip a beat. He had heard about Isaac from local musicians “in-the-know.” Soon they were talking about Isaac taking over the Monday night slot and Isaac agreed to guest host for six weeks. “Six weeks became seven years,” he remembers with a chuckle.
It was about this time that Isaac took on an additional, but different kind of hosting job – hosting a local community TV show focused on local musicians called “Java Jams.” After two years of producing the show, the producer decided that the show needed a host – and Isaac’s name came up quickly thereafter (as it did often when an entertaining host was needed) and he got the gig. Hosting on TV was very different from hosting in person because he didn’t have to think on his feet in real time – there were scripts and second takes. “Java Jams” represented an interesting and important new opportunity for Isaac to contribute his talents to yet another project that would support the music community and contribute to his own personal development. He’ll be the first to remind you that San Diego has a close-knit collaborative and supportive music scene. “We take it for granted sometimes,” he says. “Java Jams” was another way to reinforce the music scene that he had come to love.
When it rains, it pours. Between 2004 and 2006 Isaac was hosting prominent open mics at Lestat’s and Hot Java Café in Carmel Mountain as well. The pace was quickening and then in late July of 2008 Isaac was given an offer that he couldn’t refuse. He’d have to leave San Diego, but he’d get a chance to travel. Apple was starting up a new Apple store in Sydney, Australia, and Isaac was asked to help get it off the ground. “They only brought over four people in my position.” he says. Travelling had long been one of his great personal favorite activities. It meant leaving his home, friends, and family in San Diego and at Lestat’s, but it was a chance he didn’t want to give up. Before he left, Lestat’s and the music community gave him a grand sendoff: “The last night I hosted [open mic]… was cool,” he remembers nostalgically.
I didn’t know this before writing Isaac’s story, but before even setting foot on Aussie soil, Isaac had something important in common with many Australians already – he has always been a HUGE Crowded House fan. In my first interview Isaac sang “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over…” (and I admit I need a clear reminder of what songs Crowded House made famous!). Australia has international brands to its credit (kangaroos and Foster’s beer, for example). But, did you know that one of their most cherished exports is Crowded House? I didn’t. This added to the allure for Isaac and put him on an even footing immediately with his new Aussie friends and neighbors – apparently everyone in Australia knows Crowded House. “It’s stuck in their DNA,” Isaac says. One of Isaac’s “top concert experiences of all-time” was seeing Crowded House live at Homebake, an annual arts festival that has been running for 18 years in Sydney’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park (called simply the Domain). It was a moment of affirmation as Isaac joined thousands of people all singing along… to Crowded House.
While Crowded House is a hometown hero in Australia… and even though Isaac can cover his fair share of Crowded House songs, he told me that covering the band on their home soil can get a hectic. It’s a bit like covering Jewel songs in San Diego. It has been done, but the performer has to overcome a lot of expectations to pull it off. As a result it has, over time, become a bit of a musical taboo. Not that this fact deterred him from finally pulling it off and it is a point of interest that when Isaac finally crossed that cultural boundary, he was well-received!
During his four years in Sydney, Isaac traveled to Melbourne (a couple of days drive to the south) where he played music and got a taste for Australia’s “arts capital.” He saw the interior of the country as well, even visiting Uluru, a sacred Aboriginal rock formation (also known as Ayers Rock). But, even though he was living half-way around the world and quite happily ensconced in his adopted home city of Sydney, Isaac still kept in touch with friends and family at home, here in San Diego. When he completed his first EP in 2009, he returned to San Diego to hold his official CD release party (to a standing-room-only crowd) at Lestat’s. He returned home again for a friend’s wedding and periodically to see his family as well.
Finally, in 2012, Isaac would need to return home to San Diego for good (after his Australian visa ran its course). Posed with real possibility of getting citizenship in Australia, he thought long and hard about staying in Sydney. However, after much careful consideration he determined that San Diego was where he wanted to be and, in retrospect, he believes it was the right move. “It [was] very comforting,” Isaac says, to come back to San Diego and reconnect with old friends and familiar surroundings. His decision to come home could be summed up with one sentiment: “[I wanted to] go to where the love is… and I feel like there’s a lot of love in San Diego… and I missed that.”
After leaving Australia in June 2012, he made a pit-stop in San Diego before travelling to Paris where he wanted to study French. He had started studying French in Sydney, taking classes for three to four months before his visa ran out. While he was evaluating his options during his last months in Sydney, a friend told him about a month-long live-study opportunity in Paris and it fit with one of his great passions: traveling. “My original plan was to buy a round-the-world ticket!” he says. He’d hoped to take his time getting back home, circling the globe before finally landing back in San Diego. But, one event in particular caused him to make a more hasty return. One of his closest childhood friends was getting married and he and his fiancé (Isaac had introduced the couple) wanted Isaac to officiate their wedding at the end of the year. It was the pinnacle of hosting gigs! This turn of events clarified a plan for Isaac and helped put events into motion that would get him back to San Diego once again. He left Sydney, went to Paris and returned home in time to marry his friends in September.
As you can see, Isaac’s personal history can often be measured by unexpected milestones. It was circumstance that had given him his first hosting gig and further luck that took him around the world and back. Strangely, now that Isaac is back at home and settled, he’s amazed how quickly he felt like he’d never even left! He’s already involved in a project with an old friend from the Mikey’s days, playing guitar and singing harmonies in a local band. He’s also participating in a weekly songwriting challenge in which he and a handful of songwriters (including one in Melbourne, Australia) must write a song each and every week and share it with the others in the group. The exercise works his songwriting muscles and is the kind of challenge that may lead to unexpected turns and further opportunities down the road. He’s making music and continuing to prosper artistically and the challenge of writing a weekly song is stretching his creative boundaries. “Writing lyrics, for me, is especially hard,” he admits. He and his fellow challengers are strongly motivated to fulfill their weekly duty to one another because if they don’t, they’ve agreed to buy a six-pack of beer for each of the other songwriters as recompense. “It’s called pre-commitment,” he explains. “It’s an exercise in finishing.” (The cost of beer in Australia is a strong enough incentive to keep Isaac focused.)
Isaac Cheong celebrates his birthday with a special birthday concert at Lestat’s West on Friday, April 19. The show will include a line-up of supporting artists and will begin at 9pm sharp.