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  • Writer's picturekristina jacobsen

Dear Open Mic: Why Do I Love You So?: Getting Over Ourselves and Out of Our Own Way

Updated: Nov 27, 2023


When I am in New Mexico, I try to attend my friend Felix’s open mic, each week. I leave it feeling refreshed, connected and motivated to keep writing songs. In sum, what a singer-songwriter and anthropologist ‘scholartist’ needs and wants to be feeling, as often as possible. It’s the sweet spot.


As I drove home in my truck after this week’s open mic, I started thinking about why I find open mics so satisfying.


I play lots of shows, both with my band The Merlettes and as a solo artist. Some of these are fairly formal and structured, with lots of rehearsing in advance, setlists down to a T, performance contracts, and music reviewers in the audience. Some are also out of state and overseas, such as the tour my band the Merlettes just returned from in South Africa. So I know the feeling of reward—and potential stress—of preparing for a large show, tour, or set of shows, with many folks in the audience and a band that is trusting you to do right by them. That has its own particular arc of preparing, performance, and post-show glow.


ABQ Distilling Open Mic, photo courtesy Felix Peralta.


But your local open mic is a different beast. You show up, tune your instrument, and you have little time to prep, even less time to think about what you’ll play, and, once on stage, very little time to ‘settle’ into the performance; by the time you’ve relaxed into your songs, you’re done. (you are typically given 2-3 songs at the mic). So it eliminates the hope for and ability to play ‘perfectly.’ As a perfectionist, this is a tremendous relief, and allows me to simply settle into the moment I am in, knowing it’s not, and never can be, ‘perfect.’ Or, from another perspective, it’s exactly the present, perfect moment it needs to be, without changing anything. It allows me to get over myself and get out of my own way.


ABQ Distilling Open Mic, photo courtesy Felix Peralta. Open Mic host, Felix Peralta, with his guitar, Far right.


It’s also a profound lesson in not judging a book by its cover. On Wednesday, a shy, petite woman with a facemask and long, dark hair sat at my table as we both waited to play. She was crocheting while she waited. When it was finally her turn to perform, she began to sing some of the most feelingful, throaty blues songs, accompanied by a screaming lead guitar, that I’ve heard in years. Mid-set, she tore off her face mask, and started to sing these soaring high notes, to the great delight and surprise of the already focused crowd. The room had been re-energized—electrified, really—and once again my expectations were flipped, torn asunder, and I had to question what I thought I ‘knew’ about a person.



ABQ Distilling Open Mic, photo courtesy Felix Peralta.



Another performer has recently picked up the ukulele to accompany her singing. She sang early on in the evening, these beautiful, slow and intimate ballads, including Stevie Nix’s “Landslide,” accompanied only by her finger-picking on the small ukulele in her hands; the crowd quieted, leaned in, and shared three precious songs with this performer, giving her their full attention.


ABQ Distilling Open Mic, photo courtesy Felix Peralta.

ABQ Distilling Open Mic, photo courtesy Felix Peralta.

ABQ Distilling Open Mic, photo courtesy Felix Peralta.


Open mics allow for spontaneous jamming and music-making, something that can be hard to find in a large-ish, southwestern city. Last week, at this same open mic, it was a slower night and there were fewer performers. We had longer slots to play, and we ended up jamming on three songs with our host, harmonizing, playing solos, and learning to make music, in a Distillery on a Wednesday night in November on historic Route 66 (Central Ave), with complete strangers. It was also a sort of next-level community building, where each person chose to leave the privacy of their cozy home, come to an open mic of their own accord with an instrument in hand, and ended the night playing music, together. We all left as new friends.


Open mics are also a jumping-off point. For newer performers, a positive and supportive reception at one’s first open mic is the green light to really lean into your newest (or first!) song, instrument, or artistic project. I perceived this happening with a middle-aged couple that got up and played three rocking, original tunes, with the man playing rhythm guitar and the woman playing electric lead guitar. It was, they shared, their first time playing out in that configuration, and they rocked it. It was so satisfying and lovely to witness the moment of that birth of their duo, right there in that room.


Mind you, it’s not all open mics. Like anything else, hosting one is an art form. It’s also dependent, I think, on the alchemy between a venue that really supports the arts and the open mic host. But the ones that are done with intention and care, and where the host greets each performer by name and holds the space for a wide range of genres, experience levels, and diverse identities, can be transformational.


For me, open mics are something I miss profoundly when I am living overseas, and they are my ‘welcome home’ sign. They are a place to plant my feet, my heart, and my songs and stories, when I am recuperating from recent travels overseas (in this case, leading a songwriter’s retreat in Spain), and as I recharge for my next overseas adventures in the spring and summer. Open mics bring me home.


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Here are a couple you might like to visit in Albuquerque; I hope I get to see and hear you, there!


ABQ Distilling: 5:30 (signups); 6-9, Wednesdays: https://www.facebook.com/gato.malo.568


High and Dry, The Draft Sessions: 4 (signups); 5-8, Sundays


And here’s a constantly updated page with all of the open mics in Albuquerque, managed by songwriter Gary Costley: https://www.facebook.com/groups/651069649872356/


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