Parlor Showcase


Mercedes Moore. Photo by Steve Covault.

Mercedes with Missy Andersen and Sharifah Muhammad at a Coronado concert in the park. Photo by Jeff Beeler.

Mercedes with Joao Lima and Larry Teves aka Chickenbone Slim (right) at Proud Mary’s.

Photo by Jeff Beeler.

Mercedes with Taryn Donath.

From the moment Mercedes Moore takes the stage you can’t look away. She welcomes you to the show, thanks you for coming, and the band rips into its opening chords. As dancers rush to the floor, the smile on Mercedes’ face grows more radiant; you’re in her world and nothing else matters. You might think she was destined to do this, but you’d be wrong. Moore grew up doubting her skills, “I didn’t think that I could sing.” She says. “I didn’t think it was possible.” That was then, this is now.

Today, fronting her own band, Mercedes works hard to be more than a voice. She wants fans to feel the music, the way she feels the music. Watching faces in the crowd on this night, as Mercedes swings through an extensive playlist of ballads, blues, and soul shakers, it’s obvious she has them right where she wants them. Yet, the most remarkable aspect of this story, the woman has only been singing professionally for a little more than eight years. Eight years. Let there be no doubt, Mercedes Moore is making the most of her time.

As a three-time San Diego Music Award nominee, Moore performs regularly with some of Southern California’s premier musicians. The list is endless–Taryn Donath, John Simons, Mark Campbell, Marc Ramos, Tracy Wiebeck, Kurt Kalker, Matt Taylor, Steve Wilcox, Scot Smart, Missy Andersen, Sharifah Muhammad, and Laura Chavez–to name but a few. When asked, Moore is straightforward about the multitude of players. “It just makes you a better singer.” She smiles. “And different people have different strengths. Plus, I want to learn, so I can be better.”

It appears to be working. Mercedes Moore is currently juggling four major projects and her music can range from blues, gospel, and R&B to a boatload of classic rock and blue-eyed soul. This does not take into consideration the assortment of duo and trio sets, the occasional jazz venture, and an array of impromptu performances with local and visiting artists.

When we sat down to talk we started with the obvious. “I was born in Anaheim.” Mercedes says. “And raised in Northern California in a tiny little town called Placerville. My mom moved up there when I was three or four. I ended up graduating from Folsom High School, you know, where the prison is? I came and went before finally leaving for good. I moved around, bounced all around until I ended up in Houston and stayed there for seven years. Then I came out to San Diego and I’ve been here for 13 years.”

How did music start for you? “My mom had some records that I listened to…she liked the Beatles, but she had one Linda Ronstadt record that I really, really loved. Later on, I realized it was all Motown covers. When I look back over my life, I kind of see a common thread of blues and soul that I’ve always loved. I started working in bars when I was 17, cocktail waitressing, serving food. So I was always surrounded by music, a lot of different types of music. In one of the clubs I used to work in, when I was 20, there was a DJ who loved blues. So he would play blues all the time. He’d play Nina Simone and Stevie Ray Vaughan…when I’d hear it, I was, like, ‘who’s that…who’s that?’ And I just loved it. And when I moved to Texas, I worked at a blues restaurant/club called Billy Blues. They had live bands. It was so close to Austin, they brought a lot of people from there.”

Do you play any instruments? “I play shaker and tambourine.” She says. “I wanted to play piano as a kid but we didn’t have any money. We got the piano [laughing] but couldn’t afford lessons. To be honest, when I was a kid, I was super frustrated. My stepdad was an alcoholic and my mom was preoccupied. I just roamed around in the woods, bored. I had desires, but nobody to express them to. I had kind of a rough life growing up.”

Did you sing as a child? “I didn’t think that I could sing. I didn’t think it was possible. In high school I took choir one year and I tried out for the solo part. When I went in, I was super nervous. So I’m trying to sing for the piano teacher, she’s playing and just stopped and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m just really nervous.’ She says, ‘Well if you can’t sing in front of me, how are you going to sing in front of the whole school?’ I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t really think about that. I don’t know what I’m doing here.’ [laughing] So I left there thinking I could never sing because I’m never NOT going to be nervous. So, I never sang… for maybe 20 years.”

And yet, here you are. “I just started singing about eight years ago. Something in my head said, ‘Now or never!’”

How did you respond to those voices? “I did one little open mic thing where I was petrified.” She shakes her head. “And I was horrible and I sounded so bad… and then nothing bad happened. I couldn’t use the microphone and I had a sweater and a hoodie on. So nobody could hear me over the piano and I had my eyes closed the whole time. Nobody yelled at me, so I did another one and I noticed there was a tiny bit less terror, and I thought that’s interesting. The second time, I think I did use a microphone but I still had my hoodie on.”

Stage fright affects a lot of artists, some crutch on alcohol to overcome it. “I started the drinking without the singing.” She laughs. “But now I don’t drink, I got sober when I was 21. So I’ve never had any buffer. It’s petrifying, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke weed. I don’t do anything and it’s harder.”

How did you overcome the fear? “One day the thought occurred to me, just a flash of me at the end of my life and looking back and having regret. Somehow, some way the fear of that met up with the fear of actually doing it and I was able to overcome it by the tiniest little bit. I just did it.”

Sounds like you were determined. Moore nods. “Then every time I would do something, other opportunities would present. I started hanging around blues jams. I started going to Chet Cannon’s Blues Jam and I would sort of hide. I wanted to just watch. And Chet… I never signed up once, but Chet, once he found out I was a singer… I would be hiding behind a pole thinking he’s never going to remember that I’m here. And he ALWAYS remembered that I was there. [laughing] But I would wait till the end when everyone was either drunk or gone and I would do the last song of the night. And I would just be terrified. But I kept doing his jams and then he started inviting me to sing with his band and then I met Scot [Smart] and we started playing together, going to different jams, and meeting different people and we started a band…”

Open jams are still a great way to meet other players and hone your chops. “I used to go and one of the first bands I played with was the Fremonts. I used to go see them all the time for swing dancing and they started learning a couple of songs for me. They learned Barbara Lynn, some James Brown, about six different songs so I could have something to do and they were really supportive and really encouraging.”

Did you ever experience that defining moment where you felt, okay I’m supposed to do this? “That’s another reason I never sang because I thought everybody was focused like I was focused and I come to find out people are hardly listening at all. [laughing] The very first time I sang on stage was with longtime friend Dave Patrone, a jazz crooner guy. They learned a song for me and I went up and totally blanked out on the whole song and I just sang the first line over and over. It was pretty much my worst nightmare and its happening. And I had some friends who came out to see me and in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘You’re totally bombing right now, you’re making an ass out of yourself in front of all of these people.’ I finished the song and apologized to the guys and went to sit down and my friends were all clapping and saying, ‘Good job, good job.’ And I go, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ And they’re, like, ‘What?’ And I could see on their faces that they weren’t trying to be nice. I screwed up the whole song; I sang the first line over and over. They said, ‘Oh, we just thought it was just a repetitive song.’ And that was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was liberating because I realized at that moment that I could just make up words, I could do whatever I want. People are taking in the whole experience and I’m only about 10 percent of that. They’re talking amongst themselves, ordering food, drinking…”

Tell me about your infatuation with swing dancing and how that has influenced your music? “I’ve been swing dancing for so long.” Moore says. “Since ’98 or something. I saw some dancers in a club, in a bar. I thought, ‘Where can I learn that?’ And that’s how I was exposed to swing and Ella… All I ever listened to was Etta James and Nina Simone, Gladys Knight; Aretha Franklin is one of my all-time favorites. Billie Holiday… my thing is I’ll get one record and I’ll listen to it over and over and over until I know every word to every song.”

How do you determine songs in your set lists? “I have to pick songs I relate to… I have to relate to the feeling of the song. I’m a blues and soul woman. To me soul music is blues…on steroids. You know what I mean? They both have the same feeling underneath. Emotion, raw… pain. Blues to me is when you’re still in pain and soul is how you get out of it. Soul is a way to relieve your pain. The main thing I relate to is authenticity; it’s what I’m always drawn to, what I relate to, I have to have an authentic feeling in the music.”

You seem to be working all the time, how many projects are you involved with right now? “I have four, basically. My band is the Mercedes Moore Band with Taryn Donath, Steve Wilcox, and Matt Taylor or Marty Dotson on drums. Taryn Donath and I also do a duo. Then there’s Southland Soul and that’s either acoustic or a full band with Sharifa Muhammed and Missy and Heine Andersen. I do another duo with Joe Amato and will be doing more with him. I also play in a ‘yacht rock’ band called the High Tide Society.”

Yacht Rock? “The definition of ‘yacht rock’ is the music baby boomers used to do cocaine to on their yachts. It’s music like Michael McDonald, Fleetwood Mac, Hall and Oates. It’s really soulful shit, like blue-eyed soul from the ’70s, late ’70s. We do Happy Hour at Humphrey’s and have our little cult following. It’s a big band; it’s got two guitars, sax, piano, two other vocalists, sometimes trumpet, and a trombone. It’s fun, it’s me and nine dudes [laughing] and it’s fun! I get to do a lot of harmonies. Between that and working with Missy and Sharifah, it’s really helping me be a better singer.”

With so many genres and players, blues, jazz, soul and standards, you cover so much territory… “It just makes you a better singer and different people have different strengths. If I play with Joe on guitar he has different strengths than Taryn on piano. Plus, I want to learn as much as I can so I can just be better. Then, when I play with somebody else I get to do different stuff.”

I’m always impressed by how musicians seem to be able to just sit in with others and still sound like they’ve been practicing together for years. “When you do blues, you have this foundation and then everybody just puts their color and ideas on that foundation. That’s why blues is so awesome because I could go anywhere in the world and sit in with anybody, anytime, and sound like I’ve been playing together forever if there are good musicians.”

You seem to enjoy the live setting. “Yes, I do.” Would you like to record a ‘live’ album? “That would be great, but once you know you’re being recorded it kinda messes with your head. Whether you’re in a studio or recording live–as soon as you’re aware that someone pushes record it takes up brain space, and then you don’t want to make mistakes or you feel that didn’t sound good… and it’s being recorded. I’d rather record live because there’s obviously more energy when you’re live. So, yeah, I’d like to do a live recording.”

You include your audience like they are part of the show, as if it’s instant feedback. “When you sing, you feel like you’re telling a story.” Mercedes smiles. “So if you don’t have anyone to tell the story to it’s like talking to yourself or talking to people that have heard it a million times. If you have a live audience you feel like you’re telling them something new.”

You’re getting ready to take an international tour. Can you fill us in? “Missy Andersen and I are going to Sweden.” Mercedes eyes light up. “We fly into Stockholm, get off the plane, and jump onto a boat. The boat is a blues cruise that goes from Sweden to Finland and back. It’s a 24-hour blues cruise. Then we do several shows in Stockholm, and our friends in the band Trick Bag have a day set aside for recording. Missy and I are each going to do a few soul and blues songs, so I’m excited. They set it all up; I think they have a vintage recording studio in Stockholm. One of the guys in Trick Bag also manages a bar and we’re playing at his club. Then we’re going back to Finland and we’ll do three nights in a club there.”

You’ve played with so many people over the years, tell me a little about the people you’ve worked with…

Chet Cannon: “Thank God, for Chet. I just wouldn’t have done it if he wouldn’t have constantly been pushing me. I would still be hiding in the corner.”

Steve Wilcox: “Bad Ass… he’s a monster. I love that guy.”

Scot Smart: “Great guitar player… AND bass player!”

Heine Andersen. “Oh God, he’s unbelievable.”

Marty Dotson. “Marty Dotson is incredible and I get to play with him all the time.”

Sharifah and Missy. “Singing with Sharifah and Missy is like a dream come true for me. To be on stage with them is… surreal. I look around and think, ‘How the hell did I get here?’ She smiles and then adds, “I get to play with Laura Chavez. When she comes to town I book her for whatever gigs I have. I’ve always had Scot, but when he left I mentioned to Laura, ‘If you ever want to play?’ and she’s like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ And she loves Taryn’s playing, too.”

Let’s talk about Taryn Donath…“I love Taryn! She’s a great musician and an even better friend. She’s super supportive and very intuitive. She really listens to everyone. She always notices when I sing something a little different or put a little extra feeling into something. She’ll give me a little ‘Yeah, Skittlez’. She calls me Skittlez. We have a blast together at gigs. We’re both slightly demented, so it works out. On slow nights I make up funny lyrics and we entertain each other. Sometimes she’s laughing so hard I can’t believe she’s still playing, but she does!! She never plays a song the same way twice! She creates music in the moment on the spot. She gives each song a life of its own and makes it a story, a journey. Not just notes.” Moore remembers, “The other day one of the Beach Boys, Bruce Johnston, was at a brunch we did and he came up to shake her hand and compliment her ‘chord voicing’ on his way out. I love that I get to play with her. We have great chemistry and she makes me a better singer.”

When asking Donath about Mercedes, Taryn says, “I met Mercedes through [former Mercedes guitarist] Scot Smart. I was friends with Scot and we played on a short little four-day cruise. Scot and I got to hang out and that’s how I got to know Mercedes.”

Over the years you and Mercedes seem to have developed a unique rapport. “Oh, she’s funny.” Taryn laughs. “We both love kidding around and that’s the thing about Mercedes, she’s good at interacting. She goes out and talks with people and she makes a point on the break to communicate, meet, and greet. She’s very good at that, whereas I hide out in the parking lot. Her song material is good and we play together six or seven times a month, sometimes more. I love Mercedes to death, she’s great.”

Mercedes Moore has been nominated for a San Diego Music Award three times. Considering you’re a relative newcomer to the local music community that must feel pretty good? “Yeah, the first one I’d just started and didn’t understand how anyone knew that we even had a band. [laughing] But, yeah, it’s very nice to be recognized.”

You’ve come a long way in a very short period of time. As you reflect on your journey, how would you describe your mindset today? “Never happier; I think my whole life has gone by without ever expressing myself, but now I have this vehicle of expression: singing. When I was a kid, I used to record myself; I would sing in my room and write out the lyrics, memorize lyrics, just me alone in my room. But, I never had any adult supervision, direction, or support, nothing. I was just miserable and started drinking and doing drugs instead. I was just drunk for many, many years… then I got sober.”

What motivated you to get sober? “I just got tired of pissing on myself every night.” Mercedes states. “Blacking out all the time, I just felt like I was living the same day over and over again. Get up, get drunk, pass out, get up, get drunk, pass out… the same day over and over and over. When I got sober, I started doing yoga then I started teaching yoga and it became one of my jobs.”

What other jobs did you have outside music? “I used to work at the Old Globe Theater making costumes. After I got sober I went to school to study fashion design and when I moved out here I worked at the Old Globe a couple of years.”

Do you have any crazy bar stories? “We were playing the Rivera in Palm Springs, a real nice resort where we were in the bar. There were a bunch of knuckleheads who spent the whole night irritating each other and then all hell broke loose and the women were worse than the men. The women were instigating it and they were taking off their heels… as soon as something started they’d take off their shoes. One girl punched a waitress in the face on the way out. She was being escorted out by the police and she saw the waitress that had ratted her out and punched her in the face. We were in the corner and we’re, like, do we stop playing, do we keep playing? They’re fighting all around us…geez!” [laughing]

Having weathered so much, are you surprised that you’ve come this far? “I haven’t been singing that long; I thought it was impossible so I just lived my pathetic life wondering, ‘What do I want?’ I’ve always known that I wanted this, I just shoved it so far down that I definitely wouldn’t be singing if I hadn’t gotten sober.”

On stage today you seem limitless, always smiling and having fun; happy-go-lucky. “It’s not a façade now, but it took me a long time to get there.”

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