Knowing how to play to the room

Times Staff Writer

In the last several months, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Meiko has landed not one but two new songs on the ABC taste-making drama "Grey’s Anatomy” and released an album that's receiving some warm reviews. But to hear her tell it, the big break she'd been waiting for came when she got a shot at cocktail waitressing.

"Waiting tables at the Hotel Cafe was really awesome, I loved everything about it," she said as she settled into a barrel chair among the dusty bric-a- brac of the music venue's latest enterprise, a nearly finished recording studio. "I have a cool song about how people should tip more. I worked here for two years, my whole record was probably written when I worked here."

As it turns out, the Georgia native is just the latest in a growing list of the acoustically disposed to find a creative outlet and a career launching pad at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe. Singer-songwriters rule the night at the dimly lighted club, which is tucked into an alleyway off Cahuenga Boulevard and has built a significant local following of regulars since opening in 2000.

Much like Mark Flanagan's Largo, the intimate comedy club/nightclub newly relocated to the historic Coronet Theatre, the Hotel Cafe has flourished by creating a culture of respect. Their sound system -- the height of the stage, the placement of the speakers, the reverb in the monitors -- was fashioned according to artist specifications. And from the beginning, audiences were honor bound to listen.

"We started as a coffee shop, and it was crazy because we couldn't make a dime, because if people ordered a drink, we could only run the steamer in between songs," said Hotel Cafe co-owner Maximillian Mamikunian. "If someone ordered a blended, forget it."

"I'm the best shusher in the world from working here. And that's how everyone is," Meiko added. "It's a listening room, and you should know that before you come in here."

A brunette pixie in a plaid baby-doll dress, Meiko (she's one-quarter Japanese) sits with Mamikunian, who is wearing his "best white T-shirt" and drinking a Jameson on the rocks. As they talk, a melody begins to thrum through the studio's shared wall as New Yorker Fionn O Lochlainn takes the stage next door. This show isn't being recorded, but Mamikunian and fellow owner Marko Shafer have just finished talks with iTunes, paving the way for what sounds like the birth of a nationally recognized brand -- official "Live From the Hotel Cafe" downloads set to debut next month.

"A mini-mogul is how somebody put it," Mamikunian laughed.

The description isn't far off the mark. On Monday, a four-artist compilation of Hotel Cafe regulars (including Meiko) will ship out to some 2,100 Starbucks locations. The cafe's eponymous record label, launched this year, has one artist, Jim Bianco, on the roster and a Christmas compilation and a couple of live albums in the works. And just before satellite-radio stations Sirius and XM merged, Mamikunian and Shafer put together a pilot radio show for the latter.

"I always play catch up to Marko's madness," Mamikunian said. "Most of the things we end up doing start with Marko saying, 'Wouldn't it be cool if . . . ?' And then I'm hooked, I have to do it."

For the fourth year running, the club next month will curate a group tour, featuring performers such as Rachel Yamagata, Brooke Fraser, Thao Nguyen and Meiko. The outing will bring the Hotel Cafe's convivial vibe across the country, with stops Oct. 10 and Nov. 18 in Los Angeles. Previous installments visited such far-flung locales Fionn O Lochlainnas Oslo and Vevey, Switzerland.

Meanwhile, the venue's website has become known as something of an unofficial database of great talent.

"I've used quite a lot of bands from the Hotel Cafe," said Alexandra Patsavas, the "Grey's Anatomy" music supervisor who selected Meiko's songs "Hawaii" and "Reasons to Love You" for the series. "The venue definitely has a point of view. I can always count on hearing something interesting."

Even Mamikunian has to concede one point: "I heard someone say, 'You've just become an adjective. Some A&R; guy was pitching a band to us and said, 'It sounds very Hotel Cafe.' "

As for Meiko, it would seem that she's graduated beyond her proving grounds. Her debut album, a collection of poppy earnestness, quickly reached iTunes' No. 1 folk slot upon its early-August release. The CD hit stores Tuesday, only a few days before the release of the Starbucks compilation and just after a concert at the Roxy, which served as the culmination of her monthlong cross-country tour.

The fact that her L.A. date happened somewhere other than the Hotel Cafe was remarkable. She practically refuses to play any other club.

"It's like returning the favor in some way," she said. "People get so annoyed with me because I talk about the Hotel Cafe so much in interviews, the Hotel Cafe this, the Hotel Cafe that. I'm so emotionally connected to this place."

"I remember one night sitting in the back room, on the stool there," she continued. "And we were passing the guitar -- those are the days I loved so much, we'd stay here until 3 or 4 in the morning, just passing the guitar -- I was like, 'Here's a quarter of a song I wrote.' " The rest of it just wasn't coming until Mamikunian stepped in. "You handed me a piece of paper and were like, 'Write it right now.' " It became "Heard It All Before," the third track on her album.

Greg Laswell, who just finished a residency at the Hotel Cafe, has played many of these free-flowing, cross-pollinate evenings. "It's really rare how they approach the business," Laswell said by phone. "It's like a little family. I don't know how many times I've been told, 'We could tell how much you all got along and had fun up there.' That stuff's just contagious to be around."

Fionn O Lochlainn

That sentiment extends to the audience as well. Mamikunian recalled an evening in July when he stayed late to deal with some paperwork, even though the club was closed, and some 30 people arrived ready to see a show, any show. "I thought they were looking for the club next door, but people were like, 'Hotel Cafe?' "

"You always think people are fans of yours and are coming to your shows all the time, but people are in love with the Hotel Cafe." Meiko said. "It's really cute, they'll help out, they'll clean glasses off the table when it gets busy."

With the wider industry just begging the public not to rip them off, it appears there might be a lesson in the timing of the Hotel's success. "This is also happening at the same time as the dissolution of the music industry in its former life," Mamikunian noted. "When we're here cowboy-ing it and doing crazy things, we still have a physical presence, whereas you don't know what's happening with a lot of companies.

"The tour taught us it is possible to take that out into the rest of the world and show people what you're doing. And just now are we understanding the power of new media," he continued. "The iTunes offerings will change things for us. Hopefully, we'll have a broader reach in general. I don't know why, except, wouldn't it be cool if?"

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mindy.farabee@latimes.com

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