Few things are ever fully planned at the Sayers Club in Los Angeles – much less rehearsed. So when a string quartet settled in to perform "Room for Happiness" with Skylar Grey in the wee hours of Sunday morning, it was the first time they’d even seen the performer.
Best known for her songwriting– she earned a Song of the Year Grammy nod for co-penning Eminem’s "Love the Way You Lie" – Grey has been slowly crawling out of the shadows as a solo artist. Her Interscope debut, "Invisible," a fitting eulogy for her once-faceless songwriter, just reached Number 14 on Billboard’s Dance/Club chart, right above Beyonce’s "Countdown" and Taylor Dayne’s "Floor on Fire"; her second full-length album, Invinsible, comes out next year.
A small lounge with a full assembly of Gibson instruments and a retractable stage that descends from the ceiling like a drawbridge, the club is hidden behind a Papaya King in Hollywood. "You’re very stripped down and human in that room, instead of being behind a barrier on a big stage under the lights," says Grey, who just returned from a European arena tour opening for Bruno Mars.
Inside the club, a low-lit living room out of a gothic castle, she was thrown in to a close-quarters mix of actors, musicians and industry types. Sayers, which opened in June, has become known for its odd mashup of star sightings – like Joe Jonas, Eddie Money, Jamie Foxx and Drew Barrymore – and impromptu performances by people like Prince and Estelle. The crowd can get a little distracted.
But when Grey opened with a medley of her familiar hooks – off "Love the Way You Lie," "Call Me a Doctor" and "Coming Home" – the audience settled down and became her chorus. Singing along from the couches was Dayne herself, who’d performed "Floor on Fire" on the same stage Thursday night. Over the weekend, she was there just to watch.
Dressed in a black leather jacket, jeans and ski hat, Grey sang her haunting ballads about isolation, hurt that feels good and emptiness that leaves room for happiness. It was a powerful, if brief, performance, one that could mark a turning point for the 25-year-old: Two of the biggest names in the music business, Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine and Live Nation’s Michael Rapino, had come out to see her.
Grey finished her set with a cover of Radiohead’s "Idioteque." Not what you’d expect from a woman best known for collaborations with Diddy, Lupe Fiasco, Eminem and Dr. Dre. But hip-hop was never really supposed to be in the cards. As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, she performed on family-friendly albums with her mom, who played banjo and harp, singing about the dangers of smoking or the colors of the rainbow. "I was not cool," she says.
But now she's gotten the seal of approval from someone who's quietly emerged as one of the most influential bookers in town: Jason Scoppa, who opened Sayers Club with L.A. nightlife king Sam Nazarian, who gave Scoppa his own venue and carte blanche to do with it as he pleased. Scoppa has created some of L.A.'s most influential rooms; Bruno Mars used to play at his weekly Hollywood showcases not too long ago, as did Cee Lo Green and Young and the Giant’s Sameer Ghadia.
Now that Sayers is an industry hotspot, even Scoppa’s "house musicians" are getting their own deals. His star vocalist, a tiny, shaggy-haired songwriter who goes by L.P. (Laura Pelogizzi), was just signed by Warner Brothers records. She’s one of several talented back-up singers and musicians who’ve learned to cram set lists and play along with spontaneous late night performances. In September, that meant a 2 a.m. jam session with Prince, who jumped up on stage to play Parliament’s "Good to Your Ear Hole," after a set by Nikka Costa. In August, a couple of the regular musicians learned a last minute set list from the Eighties (before most of them were born), so they could play along with Jefferson Starship’s Mickey Thomas, Foreigner’s Lou Graham and Eddie Money.
Just as daunting is the increasingly high profile crowd that surrounds the stage, inches away, and with them all the heated expectations. Will this be the next Bruno?
None of the pressure seemed to faze Grey. She’s in no hurry to top the charts, she confided to Rolling Stone after the show – "Better to grow a career over time than have a quick rise." But nothing intimidates her right now. "All the success I’m having now, I really can appreciate it. But I also know that I don’t need to rely on a single thing to be happy."