Skylark Cafe & Club mastermind Jessie SK is no stranger to the music business. She’s worn all kinds of hats, from breaking child-labor laws as a phone jockey at her dad’s recording studio to working for free as a music festival volunteer. Now, she’s finally got a nightclub to call her own. While many venues and bars rely on $15 a pop Hungry Man dinners to squeak past the Liquor Control Board, Jessie SK’s Delridge haunt offers delicious comfort food that’s just as quality as the free shows the Skylark serves up five nights a week. How does she stay in business? Don’t ask her (just yet).
Where do you hail from?
What was your first job in music?
I answered the phones at my dad’s recording studio when I was 10. “Somerville Media Action Project, how may I direct your call?” I got 50 cents an hour.
How did you go from that to opening the venue?
Well, I wrote music and booked bands at my college [Sarah Lawrence] in New York. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Fugees both played our cafeteria. After moving to Seattle in 1997, I played around in a few different bands for five years and volunteered for Ladyfest Seattle 2003 and 2004. I learned a lot about the musicians’ experience in Seattle. In 2004, I partnered with Jeff Steichen and others in the Mirabeau Room because I wanted to learn as much as possible about the business. Meanwhile, I always had an eye out for my own place. Ileen’s, Sit & Spin—I looked into both of those locations early on.
How does your approach to booking differ from other venues in town, and why did you choose to do things that way?
I imagine it’s pretty different, though I can’t say I know how other venues work. We’re not competing for national acts or anything, so it’s pretty straightforward and relaxed. I put one ad out a few weeks before we opened, and I’ve never had to advertise again. I try to put together bills that make sense, because as a musician I’ve had to play awkward bills where the genres clashed. I let bands make suggestions and help with booking if they’re enthusiastic about it. I don’t really follow who’s “hot” right now because it doesn’t seem to apply. Bands with great local press have bombed here, and then bands have played their first show ever to a packed house. It’s pretty mysterious. I’m not trying to predict the next big thing. I basically just wanted to create a place for good bands to play who were in that limbo before getting a label or any support from elsewhere. That limbo can last a good long while, so I have no doubt I’ll continue to see strong acts come through here.
Is it difficult to pay the bands with the shows being free?
We don’t have a doorperson to pay, sound-engineer fees aren’t charged to the bands, and any promotion we do is free to them. Bands have told me they are happier to get a small guarantee for a free show, rather than end up with the same amount after their friends have all paid a high cover. Pay is proportionate to your draw, although the system is naturally slanted towards the—how shall I say—hungry-and-thirsty draw.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened at a Skylark show?
We had a punk band from Tokyo do a cover of “Open Arms” by Journey. They didn’t speak English but had memorized the whole thing phonetically.
Top three shows you’ve seen there and why:
1. The Fucking Eagles. They put on a great live show.
2. Brent Amaker & the Rodeo. Every time they play is a huge party.
3. Chris Black. He’s from Austin. An upright bass, some banjo, looping…you have to come check him out on Aug. 25 to see why he’s on the list!
Have any rock royalty eaten, sipped, or taken in a show at your establishment?
Jack Endino, Kurt Bloch, and Doug Martsch.
What’s the most irritating thing a customer Has ever done?
There was a woman who came in and kept yelling about karaoke, even though it wasn’t karaoke night, and then she groped several male staff members—including my husband—before being kicked out. Like, grabbed their package!
Behind the Scene sheds light on folks you won’t see onstage, but who make it all happen.