On March 13, Rose Cousins and her audience broke the fourth wall at a small, intimate venue in San Francisco and the space became a place to heal and bond with others.
Cousins, a native Canadian singer-songwriter, performed solo and was in the middle of a tour covering the West Coast.
Just a few nights before Cousins played at the Lost Church in San Francisco, all of her instruments had been stolen from a rental car in Los Angeles.
“I wasn’t gonna bring it up,” Cousins said to the small audience after someone asked if her instruments had been found. The loss seemed to be heartbreaking for Cousins, who called her instruments precious on a social media post a few days earlier.
By this point in the evening, the audience had formed a close bond and intimate rapport with Cousins, who was no more than 20 feet away from those sitting in the back row of the tiny venue, which seats only 50 people.
News of the incident was all over her social media, partly because she had a sudden need to borrow instruments for the remainder of her tour, which included cities such as Portland and Seattle.
She began posting photos of the instruments lent to her by fans and their friends along with heartfelt messages of thanks. She told the audience that she was overwhelmed by the generosity of those who lent instruments to her—their own precious items, which, after being played by Cousins, would carry new special memories.
To those passing by, the Lost Church looks no different than the other houses surrounding it on Capp Street, and the street is dark and quiet compared to the lively 16th Street BART station that sits only a block away. But what is inside can change you forever. Often, attendees recognize each other at the BART station after the show and chat. The venue attracts locals, many of whom, like myself, are regulars in this place, which is lit by warm bulb lights and decorated with holy items and stained glass-like wall hangings to make it look like a sort-of church.
However, Rose Cousins is a big name— according to her website, her 2012 album “We Have Made A Spark” won a JUNO Award, three East Coast Music Awards, a Canadian Folk Music Award, was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, and made picks/best of lists in USA Today, NPR Music and Oprah Magazine—so this March evening attracted fans from as far as four hours away, and most of them, like Cousins, had never been to the Lost Church. The venue was packed—some people even had to stand on the balcony.
Normally, shows at the Lost Church can feel like a party, in which familiar faces often gather to support local acts. This evening, however, the venue was transformed into a place full of unfamiliar people who seemed surprised by its size, and perhaps did not know how to act there.
Cousins, too—a seasoned performer who is comfortable on stage—was surprised by the intimacy and told the audience early on that she would take requests for songs, but only if the person knew all the words and would help her if she forgot any. This started a night of witty banter between Cousins and the audience. People began raising their hands to requests songs, and eventually, to make general comments—something unusual during live performances.
“So polite!” Cousins remarked after the first person raised their hand to request a song, resulting in laughter throughout the room. Even more laughter filled the space after Cousins—without missing a beat—responded to a fan’s question about when her next album would be coming out with “When’s YOUR album coming out?” She did forget words to songs here and there, pausing to asking audience members for help.
Cousins introduced her song “Donoughmore” with a statement about it being written about her time in Ireland and “the existential crisis [she] was having.” Again, the room erupted into laughter.
But Cousins’ music is not as humorous as she is, and not all of her conversation was intended to get the room laughing. Above all, she was authentic and focused on connecting with her audience—something easy to do in a space where performers are literally on the same level as those listening. Before singing the song “Stray Birds,” Cousins turned to the person in front of me who had requested it so that she could face them and then learned their name.
“It’s an anthem for people who feel like stray birds—I am one of those people,” she said about the song, which she played without a microphone. She also took the time to mention the name of the person who lent the baritone ukulele she was playing.
Cousins’ connection and authenticity inspired audience members. A woman sitting next to me—so close that I was squeezed between her and the wall—told me that she was from the same town in Canada as Cousins and had seen her perform early-on there. She had traveled over an hour to see Cousins at the Lost Church, and eventually requested a song, too. When Cousins started singing, this person did as well, and they sang the song together, eyes locked the entire time. This moment seemed to touch the hearts of everyone in the room.
“We create, sustain, and defend spaces for live performance. We are a group of artists, musicians, and industry professionals dedicated to the belief that people need beautiful, intimate performance spaces to share their ideas, stories and arts,” the Lost Church mission statement says.
The statement explains that the average lifespan of a performance space is five years. The explanation given for their small size is that “there are far more artists who can fill a 49 seat theater, than can fill a 490 seat theater.” They often host local artists.
The acts I have seen there—who have given the most exciting and beautiful performances I have ever seen—have included Quinn DeVeaux, a blues singer-songwriter from Oakland, Penny Opry, a duo of two women from the East Bay who sing sea shanties and other music they call “Maritime Folk,” and, most recently, the Secret Emchy Society, led by the pink haired, queer-identified Cindy Emch from Oakland. The venue also holds monthly open mics and magic shows.
It seemed that Cousins and everyone around her were able to heal at the Lost Church through music, laughter and conversation. And although none of them were regulars and most were not local, the power of a small space dedicated to live performance reached—and changed—all of them.