By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Jodi Siegel is a bona fide working musician — an endangered breed even before the pandemic shut down stages and pushed artists off the road. The respected guitarist and singer-songwriter postponed the official release of her newest album, the soulfully eclectic “Wild Hearts,” until things open enough that she can promote it on tour. Till then, she’s teaching guitar and selling advance copies of “Wild Hearts” at the shows she’s once again playing at restaurants, private parties, and outdoor gigs. She’ll be performing on the Canoe patio in South Pasadena Wednesday, Dec. 22, along with harmony-singing folk-rock duo JC & Laney.
Siegel inherited her work ethic from her father, composer Sid Siegel — featured in Dava Whisenant’s big-hearted 2018 documentary “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” about musicians who made a living in industrial musicals. Growing up in suburban Illinois, she remembers hearing her father head upstairs each morning to his day job.
“He would work at home; I could hear him upstairs, stomping his foot, playing the piano,” she said with a soft laugh, adding that her father was still working on a musical when he died in 2015.
“He’d get up, eat breakfast, go up there, stomp for three or four hours, come home, have lunch, go up, stomp for four or five more hours. That’s how we grew up. He was up there working. Then he would go to a session and they’d record the music. I really appreciated that.
“He did a movie with Marcel Marceau, which was cool. But he was a working guy who wanted to be a pop songwriter but then had a family and needed to make money. He stumbled on jingles and these industrial shows, and that supported his family. He was taking care of business.”
Siegel brought a similarly disciplined focus when she arrived in Southern California in the late 1970s. “You could really make a nice living back then, playing these clubs up and down the coast of Orange County,” she recalled.
Playing multiple sets a night at bars and restaurants, her nimbly tasteful acoustic and slide guitar playing and smoky vocal tones earned accolades from peers and audiences.
Teresa James and Maria Muldaur later recorded some of her songs, and blues great Albert King, who called her “Little Devil,” became a mentor in his last year. Now living in the South Bay in Lomita, Siegel describes rising daily between 4:30 and 6 “before the noise starts” to write songs.
“I always have songs going,” she said. “I’m writing songs every single day.”
One of the pleasures of the songs on “Wild Hearts” is their organic groove and curiosity about the human beast. Nothing sounds forced or inauthentic, from smooth R&B opener “Too Much of a Good Thing” to the witty blues “BBQ” and the graceful Laurel Canyon balladry of “How’s That Working for You?” (“All alone with your thoughts/ Wound up tight as an eight-day clock/ Chased but never caught/ How’s that working for you?”).
The old-school jazz of “Comfort Zone” nods to Billie Holiday, while real-world tensions hum between the lines of relationship woes addressed by “Stand for Something,” the blues-rocking title track and “If It Ain’t One Thing” (“What is it about love and affection/ That makes us settle for less and call it perfection/ … If it’s too good to be true/ Oh, tell me, why do you want more”).
Being a professional musician has never been a cakewalk, and pandemic life has thrown even more obstacles before artists. Yet Siegel says they’ve “cemented” her relationship with music, in part because she’s been writing so much. “I have enough songs now for two more records, but it’s cool. I’m grateful that I’m healthy. There are more important things going on.”
Like most veteran musicians, she’s mastered the art of pivoting to stay in motion and employed. She’s opened numerous shows for marquee artists in concert-type settings that are a considerable distance from her bread-and-butter restaurant gigs, where her job is to be sonic background. “You just have to switch your perspective,” she said. “Rock quietly. Groove quietly. People will hear you. Do I always dig it? I played a place a couple weeks ago where an event next door was really loud. It gets hard. But I’m a working musician, I’m grateful to be working.
“I tell people all the time, instead of playing twice a year, go out and get a gig playing some cover songs. It will help your songwriting, and it will keep your chops up. Then when you’re going to do a show where they’re really listening, you’re ready. You can’t stop playing. It’s like exercising: you have to work that muscle.”
It’s easy to get jaded. But should a snake-tongued club owner or unruly audience knock the wind out of Siegel, her students, whose ages range from 7 to 75, reconnect her to the joy of making music.
“Do they love music more than I do? Or did I forget?” she mused. “I have a student who owns some fitness gyms in Minnesota. Another student, a woman who has purple hair, is a rocket scientist, and she loves music. I’m so in awe of that. Why shouldn’t she pursue music too? People are fascinating. No matter how well you know somebody, if you take a little time to talk to them, you’re going to find something you don’t know about them that’s going to totally blow your mind.”
Wine & Song presents Jodi Siegel
WHEN: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 22
WHERE: Canoe House patio, 805 Fair Oaks Avenue, South Pasadena
COST: $15 suggested donation (cash in the bucket)
INFO: 626-799-4169, jodisiegel.com