In the past few years, as MTV and pop radio have given way to the Internet and American Idol as the nation’s primary star-making vehicles, film and TV soundtracks have begun to emerge as a grassroots means by which up-and-coming artists can get music to the masses. For an unknown, getting your tune on shows like Scrubs or Grey’s Anatomy is the modern equivalent of a spin on American Bandstand back in the day, with increased album and download sales usually quick to follow.
No music scene has benefited more from this phenomenon than the indie-folk enclave of the Hotel Café. Providing a launching pad for a tight-knit community of singer-songwriters such as Joshua Radin, Cary Brothers and Ingrid Michaelson, the Los Angeles club has emerged as a nationally known brand thanks to annual package tours over the past four years. But the Hotel Café’s latest success—Meiko, a beautiful brunette whose debut recently hit No. 1 on the iTunes Folk chart—grew up far from the hipster haven of L.A. in the tiny little city of Roberta, Ga.
“It’s a town of 808 people according to the last census,” she notes in a sweet Southern drawl when asked about her childhood home. “I was raised by my dad, and started singing in little talent shows at the age of 8. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 13, and I’d always practice playing guitar while looking in the mirror and acting like I could really play it. Finally he got tired of me ruining his guitar, so he bought me my own. I’d ask him to teach me a chord and practice it until I learned it, then I’d ask him to teach me another one.”
Influenced by a diverse array of artists ranging from Edie Brickell and the Cocteau Twins to Sade and Patty Griffin, she began writing songs almost immediately. But her career aspirations were largely relegated to the intimate confines of her bedroom for nearly a decade, thanks in large part to what Meiko describes as a severe case of stage fright.
“I got really nervous when I thought about being in front of people and playing,” she admits. “My music was something I kept private. I didn’t do it for anybody else; I did it for me, to get through those sorts of things I was going through as an awkward teenager.”
Not long after graduating high school she moved to L.A. to follow her sister, who had moved there to be with her boyfriend. “It was three years before I played my first open-mic night. I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it. I would just take my guitar, ride the bus to the club, play my songs and leave without talking to anybody. I did that for about two years.”
Eventually Meiko got a break in the form of an introduction to Will Golden, who ran the soundboard at Hotel Café. “I started hanging out there a lot and got to be part of the family there,” she recalls. “So when I got fired from this Indian restaurant, I called the owners and begged them to give me a job. So I got in as a waitress, and eventually ended up playing a lot of shows there, filling in at the last minute whenever artists would cancel. I got to open for all these amazing people, like Patty Griffin, Macy Gray and Butch Walker, which was really cool.”
Last year, Meiko’s self-released debut (which was co-produced by Golden) shot up the iTunes chart, logging more than 200,000 song downloads, thanks in part to heavy support from L.A. tastemaker station KCRW and a prime slot on the season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy. Now signed to MySpace and DGC Records, with her music earning favorable comparisons to folkies such as Feist, she seems poised to break out, with a September appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and an all-girl Hotel Café tour in October and November.
“It’s just a bunch of girls on a bus together,” she gushes about the jaunt, “so it’s gonna be like one big slumber party! It’ll be me, my really good friend Ingrid Michaelson, this girl named Emily Wells who’s just insanely awesome, Jenny Owens Young and Rachael Yamagata. I’m very excited about that, and about playing on Conan.”
She’s also excited about returning to Georgia for only the second home-state concert of her career, performing at the Variety Playhouse Oct. 22. “The first thing I’m gonna do,” she insists with an infectious laugh, “is stop by Chick-fil-A and get me a gigantic sweet tea and some chicken nuggets.” Spoken like a true Georgia peach.