[REDWOOD CITY] As the sunlight fades and day turns to dusk, the mercury in the thermometer refuses to budge. It’s 95 degrees in the shade. Despite the heat, people trickle inside the Little Fox Theatre, pull up straight-backed chairs, order cold drinks and fan themselves with placid resignation. Of course, there’s no air-conditioning.
But even on this scorching Sunday evening in a sleepy suburb of San Francisco, it’s a respectable turnout. Amiable folks chat with friends and strangers alike, and a small-town vibe permeates the room, making it easy to forget the hipper-than-thou posturing that passes for cool a few dozen miles north.
A slim blonde in well-worn jeans, subtly gorgeous cowboy boots and an immaculately tailored sleeveless black shirt makes the rounds from table to table. She greets friends with an easy laugh and takes the time to stop and talk, one hip cocked just a little. When she steps onto the modest stage, she takes a seat and adjusts the tuning on her acoustic guitar with practiced familiarity; clearly she’s held this gleaming instrument in her arms many times before. Her voice is honeyed gravel, and her stories have a warm comfort to them, even when she talks of past sorrows. In front of a crowd, she manages to come across like she’s talking one-on-one, making eye contact with everyone in the room. When she begins to sing, there’s an instant hush. Her voice is both sweet and gritty, with a tone that’s pure and resonant. Her face glows, as if she’s recalling the joy of singing in church. In fact, this moment does seem holy.
I heard it said along the way dear
Nothing ever stays the same
Like the back of my own hand here
Thought I knew the master plan
Elation comes easily these days, because Brigitte DeMeyer is in love. She’s in love with her son, 1-year-old Jeremiah. She’s in love with her husband, Sam Saks. She’s in love with her kitchen, which she gutted and redesigned into a breathtaking space redolent of European-style traditions. She’s in love with her new record, “Something After All.” And she’s in love with all the renowned musicians who helped bring it to fruition.
“Aside from being a sleep-deprived new mommy, I feel happy,” she says, curled up in a corner of the couch in her sun-drenched living room. “It’s amazing how powerful you feel when you do what you love.” Her smile lights up her whole face. “I owe that to my husband.”
DeMeyer sang throughout her childhood, but didn’t pick up a guitar until she was a 19-year-old USD student. She tried singing in the campus choir, but that didn’t exactly work out. “It was just too strict,” she confesses with an infectious laugh. “I wanted to sing louder than everybody else, and just do my own parts, and I didn’t want to read the notes.”
Her friend, alternative folk-rocker Steve Poltz — a singer/songwriter known for his work with the Rugburns and Jewel — was a student at the same time. When he heard her sing, he talked her into joining him at the folk guitar Masses at Founders Chapel.
“He was the one who really pulled me in,” DeMeyer recalls. “He graduated ahead of me, but we overlapped. He said, ‘You’re a really good singer; you should sing in church.’ Next thing you know, I got hooked on it. Plus, I loved singing in that room. It’s so warm, you know?”
As much as she reveled in letting her voice take flight on Thursday and Sundays, DeMeyer didn’t confine her singing to liturgical services.
“I used to sing behind the Beat Farmers all the time. They were a great country-rock band that was happening down there.”
She marvels that she even managed to graduate, given how devoted she was to gigging whenever possible. “The whole time I was in school, I was playing music. I’d have a final the next day and I’d be out until two in the morning.”
“I didn’t play music for three or four years after I moved up here. It was just hard, because I’d moved from Southern California, and I didn’t know anybody. I missed it so badly. I was kind of a private guitar player for a while.”
After one last San Diego performance, at her own graduation ceremony in 1986, DeMeyer took off for the San Francisco Bay area. She’d majored in international relations because she’d always wanted to become fluent in French; she credits her immigrant parents with sparking her curiosity about European culture (her dad is from Belgium, her mom is from Germany). Once in Northern California, she ended up working at a French hotel and didn’t play music for several years.
“It was hard, because I didn’t know anybody. I missed it so badly; I was kind of a private guitar player for a while. But I’d sung all through college, and eventually I made some friends.” Through a roommate, she met members of a successful local cover band and started sitting in from time to time. Before long, she met her longtime collaborator, Chris Rossbach, who proposed that the pair branch out and do their own musical thing on occasion.
“So we started sitting in with different bands, and we started attending music festivals,” DeMeyer recalls. “We were at one in Telluride, Colo., and the music there was more like what I personally identified with.
I thought, ‘I could do that.’ So I said to him, ‘We should start a band together.’ And we’ve been playing together for 15 years.”
Though she was making music just as often as she could, she still needed to pay the bills. “I was doing what I wanted, but not all the way,” she says with a shrug. “There was all this shucking and jiving just to pay the rent.”
So DeMeyer worked in a variety of marketing jobs — in pharmaceutical and high-tech companies — all the while playing music on the side. When she met Saks in 1999, he urged her to follow her dream. “He kept saying, ‘You should play music full time.’ And I said, ‘I have to pay the rent, my friend.’ And he said, ‘I’ll help you.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to take anything from anybody.’” She shakes her head, marveling at his persistence. When the couple married, she relented. “He said, ‘Just try it for a couple of years, OK?’”
So she quit her marketing job. It was a decision she’s never regretted. She’d made what she calls a “homemade CD” with Rossbach — recorded by bartering solo performances for studio hours — and once she was able to devote herself full-time to music, things started to happen.
“Within two months, I got a gig opening for Dan Fogelberg, solo (which I had never done before), and Hall and Oates, and I played at the High Sierra Music Festival, and my CD started getting reviewed.” She shakes her head, delighting in the details.
“I started getting a lot of opening slots, which was cool. I got a gig opening for Marc Cohn. Bonnie Raitt was in the audience.” Her voice lowers; she seems a little embarrassed. “She came backstage and I got to meet her, which I was very excited about. I was also scared to death. She’d hate it if she heard me say that, because she’s so down-home.”
So DeMeyer kept the ball rolling; she admits that her marketing background didn’t hurt. (Her pitch-perfect Web site, brigittedemeyer.com, is proof positive of that.) She got a band together and recorded a second album and “that one was better than the first.” Her momentum was building, assisted by her own know-how. With the help of a better team — including a publicist and a Nashville-based radio promoter — she got radio play, which led to an invitation to play a Colorado festival alongside luminaries like Lyle Lovett and Kenny Wayne Shepard.
But it’s the stage she shared with Bob Dylan that let her know she was well on her way. Even though it’s been years since the two played at the same festival, her awe at trodding the same stage-boards as the master is obvious. “I wanted to meet him, but he has this entourage of people who kind of buffer him. Understandably, I reckon, because he’s Bob Dylan, and he’s an icon. I don’t think he probably sees himself that way, but there’s a lot of crazy people in the world, and he needed to be buffered.”
When pressed, she shares the tidbit that his fellow performers weren’t allowed to so much as peek out of their dressing rooms if Dylan was walking down the hallway. “You couldn’t go near him, not closer than 20 feet, even if you’re working the same show. He doesn’t make eye contact.”
Well I’d never sell you down the river
I’m just tryin’ to be your friend
Well I’d beat the drum for you forever
Just to see you get down off that fence
As savvy as Brigitte DeMeyer is about keeping her musical career moving forward, she tends to have a horror of appearing to toot her own horn. Which didn’t hold her back when it came to rounding up a core group of players for her second record.
“I went to an Emmylou Harris concert, and I noticed her drummer, Brady Blake, and I thought he was awesome,” she recalls. “So I tracked him down, got his cell phone number and called him up at home in Sweden and asked if he wanted to guest on my record.” She jokes that she practically stalked him, but the reality is that her persistence in tracking him down has been instrumental in the steady trajectory her career has taken ever since. For one thing, it was Blake who introduced her to Ivan Neville, the keyboard player/singer for the Neville Brothers. “Working with those people was a dream come true. I thought they’d go off on their separate ways, but we’ve all stayed really good friends.”
When it came time to make a new album, DeMeyer already had a producer lined up. “Brady had told me, ‘If you ever make another album, please let me produce it.’ Brady’s been around the world and has met all these great people, and he really believed in my songs and thought they were good.
“Making the record was the most fun, soulful music experience I’ve ever had,” she says, fervent. “It was a six-week lovefest. And Brady said, ‘I wouldn’t have brought in all these people to play on it if I didn’t think it was really good.’ That’s his reputation on the line. I’m just happy to have all this support from all these accomplished artists.”
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you live in Nashville? You’re a countrified folkie.’ But even though I’m Southern at heart, I’m not Southern.
I love California.”
The players that Blake rounded up on DeMeyers’ behalf are definitely consummate pros. Among the crew who joined the lovefest are Steve Earle on harmonica, Daniel Lanois, Buddy Miller and the Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers. There’s been considerable support from critics; the album has garnered glowing reviews from some of the most respected names in the Americana/folk music world, with accolades like “vivid and bracing” and “combines just the right amount of backbone with beauty” tossed around like so many long-stemmed roses.
At DeMeyers’ record release party in April, a mini-college reunion of sorts took place. “We’d gotten together previously, in the fall in San Diego during Homecoming week, a big clan of us from freshman year at USD. It had been 20 years, but it seemed like I’d just seen them last week. It was incredible.
“So I gave them all CDs, and they all came up for the record release party at (San Francisco’s) Great American Music Hall.” DeMeyer’s joy is contagious when she recalls that a whole crew of former classmates flew in from all over the place to celebrate this latest milestone. “Since then, we’ve all kept in touch.”
The album they were celebrating is a lot like Brigitte DeMeyer herself: Without artifice, genuine and lovely, its sound reflects her own love of folk and country music. “People always ask me, ‘Why don’t you live in Nashville? You’re a countrified folkie.’ But even though I’m Southern at heart, I’m not Southern. I love California. But my heart, well.” She pauses, eyes closed. “Well, every time I go to Texas or to Kentucky, the music just resonates with me.”
The songs, she says, reflect where she is in her life. “This album is less depressing than my other records. It’s more hopeful, more spiritual.”
She sits up, opens her eyes a bit wider. This part is important. “I went through a whole lot until I finally found my true self, until I finally found out who I am. I used to be anxious, really angst-ridden. But now I feel more peaceful.”
There’s an appealing genuineness to “Something After All”; the opening song, “By and By,” a delicate, timeless love-song, has a yearning quality that’s enhanced by DeMeyer’s graceful guitar fingering. The energy kicks into gear with “Mama’s on a Mission,” an autobiographical ditty that catalogues the status of various family members in the first verse: “Mama’s on a mission dishing out the wisdom / Papa got his wings and he ain’t coming back / Granny’s in the back yard kicking up the daisies / Sister’s preaching to the choir from her Cadillac.”
DeMeyer’s lyrics are by turns poignant and rollicking, the musicianship uniformly crisp and soulful. “This album totally reflects me,” she says. “The people who are on it, the way it sounds, the way it was made, all of it is me. Before, I listened to too many people’s opinions, and things got convoluted.”’ This time around, things are different. “Brady, the producer, wanted it to sound exactly how I wanted it to sound. And that came through in the vibe during the sessions. That comes through when you listen to it.”
I will be your sword
I will be your pearl
All this writing on the wall
Must be good for something after all
At the Little Fox Theatre, the singer sits in a straight-back chair, alone with her guitar. She is in full command. She catches people’s eyes and gives them a little crinkly grin, as if sharing a private joke. She has a timelessness about her; while she’d seem right at home in a black-and-white Dust Bowl photo by Dorothea Lange, it’s just as easy to picture her galloping across a rodeo ring ready to show a calf a thing or two with her lariat, or to imagine her featured in the latest CMT country music video. She’s got one of those faces that manages to look simultaneously vulnerable and tough, and her smile, while dazzling, has a hint of suffering behind it, as if she’s seen some things in her day.
The audience is rapt. Everyone is paying close attention. “I wrote this song for my husband,” she says, flashing him an incandescent smile.
And when she launches into the bittersweet strains of “My Everything,” she sounds a bit like Sheryl Crow with a hint of Emmylou Harris thrown in.
Truth be told, she sounds exactly like Brigitte DeMeyer.