Influenced by a performance overseas, the serendipitous request of a winery owner, and the desire to shine a light on female singer-songwriters, Ramona’s Ashley E. Norton has found a winning formula with the Songbirds series. At Songbirds shows, three female musicians perform original works in the round. The name of the group changes based upon their location, such as Songbirds of Ramona Ranch, Songbirds of Shelter Island, and now, Songbirds on Tour.
“The idea is that you don’t really get to listen to the artists’ songs on this kind of level when enjoying them at a normal gig or concert,” explains Norton. “It’s hard to really understand what they’re saying lyrically.”
Norton explains that the concept has been in the works for some time and was first conceived while on tour overseas with her and Edwards A. Williams’ band, Whitherward. After receiving an invitation for the following year’s event, Norton asked the festival producer if she could bring along two female songwriters for the event and others in the area. The promoter was agreeable to the idea, but the pandemic quickly foiled plans before it could really get off the ground. Norton later tested the idea at a San Diego-based winery, which was well received.
Then, around the time Norton considered proposing the idea to Ramona Ranch Vineyards & Winery owners Teri Kerns and Nicole Moore, Kerns reached out independently to suggest the idea. That first show, which took place last September, featured Leah Keane and Sheila Sondergard.
“It was so popular that people were getting turned away because there wasn’t enough parking,” says Norton.
Future attendance was capped and, though their popularity grew and tickets quickly sold out, the result was a more intimate experience. Since then, the Songbirds have expanded their reach to Humphrey’s Backstage Live and venues in Sedona and Phoenix, Arizona.
Songbirds, as the participating musicians are known, are diverse in their experience, genres, and backgrounds. Norton herself brings a wealth of knowledge to the table, with a background in booking, producing, and managing, as well as podcasting, songwriting, and performing.
Songbird Leah Keane explains that it can be time consuming to line up gigs and seek out new opportunities, especially when just starting out. As part of the group, she’s grown her audience and her support system. “I have someone truly paying attention to what I’m doing,” she says. “I think that’s how you grow as a musician. Being vulnerable in front of an audience because they want to accept you and support you.”
“Ashley is so good at keeping things streamlined,” adds songbird Thea Tochihara. “She had this idea and didn’t veer from it.”
Before the start of each show, Norton emphasizes the importance of listening by designating a quiet zone situated closest to the performers. She compares it to the format used at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. “It gives a totally different experience of listening to music,” she says. “Everyone walks away from the show saying it’s magical.”
Those attending a Songbirds performance can expect to hear lyrics and melodies that touch on the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences. Somber moments balance out with light-hearted banter, and some songs even call for audience participation. Between songs, the audience is asked to help musicians by following them on social media and streaming platforms, signing up for their newsletters, and purchasing their albums and merchandise.
Along with promoting the importance of supporting female musicians, which Norton says are underrepresented in the industry, she aims to help young up-and-comers. At the anniversary show at Ramona Ranch Vineyards & Winery on September 2, two young artists will perform alongside ten established musicians.
Though the September show is sold out, there are regular opportunities to see the cast of Songbirds throughout San Diego County. Visit facebook.com/songbirdsofmusic.
The Songbirds platform is a win-win for audiences and musicians alike, a place to celebrate the voice of the individual, the shared human experience, and the talent of established and up and coming artists alike.
Photos by John Hancock.