Songwriter showcase Run With the Moon anchors the record label Long Road Society and a country-folk scene in Oakland. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
When the Starline Social Club opened in Oakland in 2015, Lisa Pezzino started playing records there on Wednesdays. "I'd end the night with a set of sad country—Blaze [Foley], Townes [Van Zandt]," she says. The selections resonated with a server, Desiree Cannon, who was writing songs in a similarly plaintive, roots style. The two became friends and, later that year, booked a show for New York songwriter Feral Foster, with Cannon as the opener.
Many of the attendees were fellow songwriters. While Cannon was still on the clock, Hollow Bones frontman Kit Center tested the speakers. "He didn’t fill up the space with notes," she says of his impromptu performance. "There was room for feeling." By the end of the night, the show-goers were passing a guitar. The next gig, booked for a pair of train-hopper friends who play banjo and fiddle, happened in the small side room. Cannon lit candles and decorated the stage with roses.
"We couldn't have a campfire, couldn't be sitting in the grass, but it was the next best thing," Cannon says.
Center recalls being struck by the focus and stillness in the room. "You could hear a pin drop," he says. "We'd been feeling the absence of a place for this kind of music for a long time."
The shows were the first installments of what became Run With the Moon, a popular showcase of local and touring songwriters that anchors the record label Long Road Society and a country-folk scene in Oakland. Named for a song by Van Zandt (who Pezzino called "our patron saint"), it occurs every full moon (they hold dates a year in advance) and is hosted, salon-style, by resident songwriters Cannon, Center and Sarah Rose Janko of Dawn Riding.
Pezzino, who co-organizes the night and plays drums in Hollow Bones, spoke recently in the living room of her home, which doubles as a recording studio, on a hill above Glen Echo Creek in Oakland. Center tended to logs in the fireplace. Run With the Moon, which officially started three years ago this month, attracted songwriters "like moths to a flame," she says. "I felt surrounded by talent, but they were all at the beginning of their careers—no debut albums."
Last year, Pezzino, Center and Morgan Nixon launched Long Road Society with an album by Sitka Sun, creating a platform for the artists orbiting Run With the Moon. Janko of Dawn Riding writes earnest, windswept songs with an itinerant heart, her lilt enriched by harmonies with Hall McCann. Aviva le Fey likewise works in a clear register of bell-like melancholy atop spare instrumentation, while Mikayla McVey uses gossamer finger-picking to stirring effect.
McVey and Sitka Sun, an instrumental ensemble led by Patrick Murphy, headline Run With the Moon's free, third-anniversary installment with the regular hosts this Wednesday at Starline. Expected guests also include Jessica Leigh Smith, Karen Less and Liam Golden.
Cannon's album, Beach Sleeper, which Center recorded on reel-to-reel at the creekside home studio, stands out among the label's releases for its somber, rocking-chair swagger. "Rose of No Man’s Land" is a narcotic waltz, while the ambling "Long Road" sets teardrop guitar melodies against Cannon's wistful voice. "Oh Darlin'," a Shangri Las-style ballad at the album's core, captures the whiplash between regret and spite, resentment and righteous self-preservation of breaking up.
Cannon grew up shuttling between San Francisco and her grandfather's cattle ranch in San Benito County (south of Santa Cruz), where she absorbed Hank Williams Sr. on cassette and the frontier pulp of novelist Louis L'Amour. (She noted L'Amour's matriarchal ranch motif as a particular inspiration.) Cannon went to college in New York, but dropped out. She started appearing at the Brooklyn songwriter showcase Roots and Ruckus, pining for the Bay Area while writing material that would appear on Beach Sleeper.
"I'd come from my grandparents' place, riding horses through the rolling hills of Steinbeck country," she recalls before a recent show at the Cat House in Oakland. "So I was basically dying in New York. There was no horizon anywhere—you look up at the sky and it’s a grid."
Cannon moved to Oakland in 2013 to study photography at California College of the Arts, and eventually started working at Starline. Playing guitar since the age of nine, she'd encountered Svengali types who wanted to architect her music career. But Cannon never felt as inclined to make an album as she did when Center and Pezzino, by then close friends through Run With the Moon, proposed recording and releasing Beach Sleeper through Long Road last year.
Long Road is run by people who, until they launched the label, had never used Spotify. Pezzino and Center are longtime record collectors, and Nixon is a vinyl obsessive with expertise in the arcana of the early Jamaican record industry. (Long Road is slated to publish Nixon's book on the storied Studio One label.) Still, they've learned the minutiae of digital distribution, and built websites and press kits for the Long Road roster, scoring praise from NPR and SF Weekly.
Long Road signees have complicated views of authenticity and nostalgia. Cannon's genuine connection to ranch life ("I doubt most of the country singers on today's radio have been arms deep in the ass of a cow in order to place her uterus back inside of her," she quips) influences her feminist inversions of country tropes. ("Long Ride," for example, is about her grandma's career as a trucker.) And her study of country storytelling shapes her lyrics in urban settings.
Janko, for years a train-hopper and busker, says she learned to play folk music through a folk lifestyle, gleaning songs from fellow travelers. But to her mind, folk refers to music made with the resources at hand, whether acoustic guitar or a cellphone. And she strongly rejects what she called roots revivalism, saying she won't glorify a past that's even more exploitative than the present.
"As a feminist, anti-racist woman, how could I feel nostalgic?"
At Run With the Moon, there's a revolving door between the stage and the dance floor. Like Long Road's emphasis on home-recording and unvarnished feeling, it reminds Janko of punk scene camaraderie. At the Cat House show, where Dawn Riding shared the bill with Cannon and Zero Charisma, she pointed to a motorcyclist friend in the audience and thanked her for inspiring a song about how "you can’t cry with the wind in your eyes."
That spirit colored the Beach Sleeper release event last October at La Honda roadhouse Apple Jack's. Friends from Oakland arrived by bike, bus and motorcycle, and they got along well with the locals; the bar owner allowed everyone to camp out back. "By the end of the night we were dancing," Cannon says. "And after it closed we brought all of the bartenders to this school bus and passed a guitar."
The next Run with the Moon takes place at Starline Social Club on March 20. Details here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.