East Hardwick, Entertainment

Local 14-Year-Old Songwriter Takes the Stage

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Venetian Soda Lounge thrummed with people and guitars.

Piper Hall of East Hardwick, a rising star profiled in this story, has performed locally at the Greensboro and Hardwick Farmer’s Markets.

Chatter filled the small Pine Street speakeasy on a late January night, as contestants and their supporters moved among the colored lights, hanging lanterns and a red curtain reminiscent of an old opera house.

The lounge has quietly become a go-to spot for Burlington-based musicians. But its latest endeavor, the Emerging Songwriters Contest, has drawn musicians from across the state out of the woodwork to claim prizes and recognition. 

The contest began January 16, and that recent evening, January 30, was part of a six-week semifinals stage from January to mid-February, featuring 12 slots every Tuesday night. Performers sing two original songs for a trio of judges — musician friends and colleagues of lounge owner Justin Bunnell and fellow organizer David Karl Roberts.

Each night, judges choose two singers to move to the finals, set for March 5. The grand prize: a free day of studio time at Burlington’s Tank Recording Studio.

“It’s a really cool community because we’re all writers and we’re all kind of sharing our latest craft,” Roberts said. “Oftentimes, this is the first place you get to reveal your song.” 

As the audience grew that night last month, staff rushed to open the shutter separating the lounge from its neighbor, Brio Coffeeworks, to allow for more seating. Introductions breezed by.

Then the first competitor, James “Jas” Stewart, stepped onto stage, tuning his guitar and singing a few lines. His voice was raspy and soulful.  

Originally from Alabama, Stewart moved to Burlington after retiring recently and has performed with several groups in his career, such as the University of Alabama Jazz Ensemble. He has produced one album, “Just Short of Redemption,” in Nashville. He said he liked the feel of Venetian. 

“As a new guy I don’t expect to get all the way in,” he said later in the night, noting how many people there knew each other already, “but it depends on the judges.”

Lily Pool, a contestant and first-year student at the University of Vermont studying music technology and business, said her dream is to “make music my career.” Her name was drawn from the walk-in pool: four performance slots a night go to a lottery.

It was one of Pool’s first times performing alone, and she asked a photographer to take a picture of her. She said she wanted to send it to her mom.

Her first song, a blend of folk, pop and indie, guided the audience through a moment of jealousy she experienced when she was 17.

“People always say like, ‘Write what you know,’ but I like to say, ‘Exaggerate what you know,’” she said afterward, standing in the hallway. “And like, even if you haven’t experienced an insanely painful breakup or a great love, you can still totally write about it.”

The idea for the contest came together over a year ago when Bunnell, a self-proclaimed “band nerd in high school,” partnered with Roberts, a folk musician born in the Northeast Kingdom who has performed gigs across New England and published three albums over his 40-year career. 

But all the conditions that made their collaboration, and the contest, possible grew years earlier. In 2017, Bunnell revived Venetian Beverages, a 1920s ginger ale bootlegging company in Burlington started by his great-grandfather. Bunnell opened Venetian Soda Lounge as its soda tasting room in 2022.

Bunnell had been involved in creative ventures already. He owned a marketing video production company called RetroMotion Creative. He knew from the beginning that he wanted Venetian’s speakeasy to feature artists and musicians.

“I think one of the first things that I bought was a stage holding the lights and speakers,” Bunnell said. “And the second thing I bought was a piano.”

Shortly after opening, Bunnell sought musicians for performances and reached out to Roberts. Impressed by Venetian’s budding musical atmosphere, Roberts volunteered to run open mic nights at Venetian for free starting in November.

Roberts and Bunnell noticed how popular the venue and open mics were proving with Burlington’s musicians. Perhaps, they thought, they could do something more.

“Venetian really has become a great listening room for acoustic music,” Roberts said. “And you know, as an extension of the open mic, we had the opportunity to come up with some kind of a plan to give somebody a boost.”

Somebody like the smiling 14-year-old Piper Hall, one of the youngest competitors, who has already had one of her songs, “UHappy?,” recorded in Nashville. She has been songwriting since age 11.

Roberts had seen Hall perform at a previous open mic night and invited her to sign up for the competition.

Inspired by Taylor Swift, Hall brought her energetic pop-folk songs and red guitar all the way from her hometown of East Hardwick. 

“When you go to an open mic, on a lucky night, it’s like five people performing, especially in Hardwick,” Hall said.

“So it’s not exactly as easy as going up somewhere like a city and there’s all that music going on,” she continued. “But my parents are very supportive, and it’s still really fun to do it.”

The night featured wide-ranging performances: power ballads, jaunty folk songs, bright ukulele diddies. Contestant Todd Schlossberg, an open mic regular, shared his love for the community that has formed around the club’s events. 

“Something I really like about this scene that you can see here live tonight, there’s all ages and all genders and shapes and sizes,” Schlossberg said.  

He continued, “This is the kind of thing that appeals to me because you’re hanging out with people that just want to make some music and share and listen and laugh and cry a little bit. It’s pretty special.” 

For his first song, Schlossberg invited the audience to join him in singing the chorus: “You can’t argue with a river; a river is always going to find its way.” 

As the competition concluded, Roberts sang two songs while the judges deliberated on the evening’s finalists. A duo, Suter Point, and a soloist, Steve Hartman, were chosen as the best of the night. They will move on, with Hall and Schlossberg selected as alternates.  

Hall, Schlossberg and the rest have one more shot at a guaranteed spot on the main stage: The last night of the semifinals is Tuesday. But even if he stays as an alternate — even if he doesn’t get to be a finalist at all — Schlossberg is grateful to share his songwriting. For him, those weekly ventures up on stage have offered some regularity amid the tumult of recent years. 

“Songwriting has been really something that helped me get through this pandemic,” he said, “with, you know, at least half a mind and heart.”

(Jordan Barbour is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program.)

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