Midway through her set at Cafe Nine on Tuesday night, having already won the crowd over, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Lydia Luce motioned behind her.
“You may be wondering about the jellyfish,” she said.
They had been suspended in the air on the stage since the doors opened. Luce informed the audience that she’d made almost 40 of them for an album release party but now wasn’t really sure what to do with them
“They work in this setting,” she said, “but not necessarily in a home setting” — though, she informed us, her place in Nashville is indeed heavily populated with them. If any audience members wanted to buy a jellyfish or two, she said, this was their lucky night.
Sincere, emotional songwriting coupled with entertaining and endearing banter was the theme of the evening for the bill at the club on State and Crown, which brought together the Nashville-based Luce with the Connecticut-based Elle Sera.
Sera warmed up the stage by introducing herself and her songs, and outlining the path that led her out of Connecticut to New York and back again. “I’m talking too much, but there’s a reason,” she said. It turned out she had a lot to say, both in and in between her songs.
Employing a guitar style that favored open tunings (“this is everyone’s favorite song — tuning,” she quipped at one point), Sera filled Cafe Nine with warm strings and a voice strong enough to not need a microphone, though she used it to great effect. She mentioned that some of her albums had a more indie rock sound — like last year’s release Right or Wrong — while other albums relied on a more acoustic sound. With some strong right-hand work, Sera could suggest the bigger band sound that the albums deploy. But in this format she excelled with the slower numbers, as she could pull lush chords from her guitar and let her agile voice float over them, delivering messages that spoke of trials and hardships, but in the end, resilience and hope. The audience, rapt from the beginning, was dead silent while she performed and enthusiastic at the end of every song, when she shared even more of herself.
“I feel like I’m a people pleaser,” she said toward the end of her set, “and I got to cut that out. This is a song for when you want to say no.” She sharpened the edge of her voice for the number that followed. But the mood never stayed dark for long.
“How about I play something you know?” she said. “How about some Backstreet Boys?”
“I don’t think Backstreet Boys has ever been played in this bar,” someone in the audience said. But she prevailed, and the audience dug it.
She ended on a sweet note, a call to unity that felt deeply sincere. “We are sun, moon, and stars / We’re all in this together,” she said. “We are sun, moon, and stars / always, forever.”
Singer-songwriter Lydia Luce believed this was her first time in New Haven, and ingratiated herself quickly, opening with a song about Mount Saint Helens that deployed atmospheric guitar playing and a swooping, writhing sense of melody that carried poetic, clever, and startling lyrics. “And now I’m lying in debris,” she sang, “just like you promised me.”
It was a winning strategy for the crowd at Cafe Nine, which listened intently to every song and laughed in between at Luce’s disarming sense of humor.
“I don’t know what it’s about,” she said to introduce a song that she said was quite new. “Well, yes I do know what it’s about, but it’s too recent and personal to talk about. Maybe you’ll relate to it. But we don’t have to talk about it.”
She also related how, growing up in Florida and living in Los Angeles, she was unprepared for driving in icy conditions in Nashville and parts farther north. “No one really teaches you these things. You just have to learn by error,” she said. After sliding through a couple of stop signs, she said, “I learned to pump the brakes. Kind of applies to everything, right? Pump the brakes!”
She revealed that she had turned to songwriting after a long sojourn in the classical world. Her mother was an orchestra conductor and she had a masters in viola from UCLA. But she found that classical music didn’t allow her to express herself quite as freely as she wanted. One of her earlier songs was written for her brother’s wedding (he plays cello on her albums). She told another story about being hung over on a plane from Los Angeles to Nashville and feeling out of it enough that she ended up writing a poem. Those words served as the basis for perhaps the most beautiful song of the evening. “Strawberry Moon,” a more uptempo song about going out in nature alone and the peace of mind that can result, was dedicated to Mary Oliver.
“Thank you guys for listening,” she said at the end of her set, amid applause.
“Thank you,” someone said from the audience. He sounded like he meant it.