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Stephanie-Blair Watts

FireHouse Music Series gives Detroit artists a platform

Detroiters film local talent and use power of the Internet to amplify their music

Stephanie-Blair Watts was at a friend’s house a few years ago when she came across NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts, a music series where musicians perform intimate sets at the desk of “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen.

She noticed right away the lack of Detroit musicians. Frustrated over the lack of a platform for Detroit musicians, she launched the FireHouse Music Series. She and her team — including her collaborator Brian Oscar, the founder of multidisciplinary art collective Stableheed; photographer Desmond Love, who shoots and does sound; Shevonne Clark, another videographer; and DJ Stacye J — produce the performances at Watts’ home and post the episodes on YouTube. Watts, a fashion-forward creative with a background in marketing, taught herself how to use Adobe Premiere to edit the videos.

The performances started last year with a handful of people at the Islandview flat Watts shares with her musician roommate, with the artists setting up in the living room. The venue is intentional because it’s meant to be intimate versus a traditional venue like a coffee shop or auditorium. The space itself is minimal, basically just white walls and hardwood floors — other than a wooden table that serves as a DJ or keyboard stand, all of the furniture is stashed away in the bedrooms. It’s all about the performer. An eclectic mix of artists have been highlighted, from the soulful singing of Bevlove to the genre-defying band ONEFREQ, which brought a full band complete with guitar, bass, drums and keyboards to the living room.

“When you come to FireHouse,” Oscar says, “it feels like someone's performing just for you ’cause it's not like some big concert type of thing. It's more like you come here, it's an intimate space … You feel like you're with family.”

There’s a different feel when you see a performer on a big stage versus someone’s living room. One of Clark’s favorite performances was from singer Bevlove, one of the earlier concert episodes. She’s seen the singer perform before, but at the FireHouse set, there were about “seven of us in the house and just listening to her just sing, oh, my God it was the most amazing experience just to listen to her sing. That day I had goose bumps just being able to be a part of something like that and watch artists do what they do and what they love to do and you’re right there.”

“When you come to FireHouse, it feels like someone's performing just for you ’cause it's not like some big concert type of thing. It's more like you come here, it's an intimate space … You feel like you're with family.”

Playing in intimate spaces is Jaye Prime’s jam. In her FireHouse performance, she sang a couple of original tracks with a little of OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” weaved in. The R&B singer – who has been making her own moves lately including the launch of her record production company Create Proper and a stint as artist-in-residence at Assemble Sound – says this type of platform helps to raise awareness of art in the city and lifts up artists like her.

Prime will be one of the featured artists at FireHouse’s one-year anniversary party, which is going down at Watts’ friend’s Indian Village home, a bigger space to elevate the experience. Watts says the curation of artists for this lineup is one of the best she’s done. Aside from Prime, who is one of her favorite artists in the city, Sterling Toles, Milfie, Scolla and Lu Fuki and Divine Providence are set to perform.

After a year of working nonstop to shine a light on the artists who live and hustle in the city, FireHouse has grown slowly and steadily. In the summer, FireHouse took the performances outside. They built an outdoor stage and the crowds grew to about 100 people who came through, hanging out on the lawn, listening to music and enjoying drinks and food.

Kathy Wendler of West Village was one of the passers-by at one of the summer shows. She happened to be out walking with her neighbor when they spotted a platform where a singer was performing. The spirit of the day — and the vibes FireHouse in general is cultivating — reminds her of when she moved into the neighborhood during the 1980s, when people spontaneously would set up produce or hot dog stands outside and that would attract someone with an acoustic guitar who would come out and play, resulting in little impromptu neighborhood gatherings. There’s a sense of community that’s been revived, Wendler says, with the FireHouse shows and the energy coming from Islandview in general.

Wendler recently met Watts and Oscar on the idea of organizing a block party in May. The idea is to bring people together, Wendler says, between the neighborhoods.

In the meantime, FireHouse is hoping to bring the people and pack the Indian Village house for the one-year celebration on Nov. 11. There will be specialty cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (prepared by Watts’ mother) and both Oscar and Watts emphasize this is a black-tie, high-fashion event. Part of the ticket sales (previous performances have been free) will go toward helping a FireHouse alum artist travel and perform outside of Michigan.

Watts’ long-term vision is to take the FireHouse team on the road and curate local talent and shows in other major cities where musicians also need a spotlight. They’ve set their sights on Hawaii, Vietnam, Europe and Africa (“for sure, they have good sound right now,” Watts says).

Another part of their mission is to help artists achieve self-sustainability and teach them how to go on tour. “You can make money as a musician, Watts says. Watts knows the game being a self-sustaining artist herself.

Aside from FireHouse she also founded RockCity LookBook, which she started in response to what she saw as a lack of inspiration in Detroit fashion. “We won’t be a competitive city if we don't look the part,” she says. “We cannot compete with Chicago right now because everybody looks dope ... overall the visual aesthetic has to be strong.” She supports herself from styling clients, editing and curating other events.

Doing FireHouse is also personal for her. Recently she tweeted “Doing this for my late best friend and the city of Detroit.” A few years ago after she moved back to Detroit from Oakland, California, she was working as an Apple Genius. Her best friend encouraged her to quit her job and follow her passion. “He really encouraged me to do it and be an artist and just be myself.” He passed away at age 25 suddenly due to asthma. “I miss him, this is around the time he passed away. … This is for him. I don't ever want to forget him. I never want to not acknowledge what he's done for my life.”

FireHouse’s one-year anniversary party is from 7-11 p.m. Nov. 11. RSVPs are required. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased on Eventbrite.