As working musicians, Marci Geller and Cathy Kreger have paid their dues, played many gigs beside and opening for other artists, and had their hearts bruised though not thoroughly broken (thankfully) by the business.
Both independent artists based on Long Island who joined talents under the name Lucky 13, they both have stuck around and succeeded in a tough trade in exceptionally tough times.
"It's great to be excited, but soon reality sets in. And it does become more doable when you realize what you're up against," said Kreger, a Connecticut native currently of Huntington who over 20 years of performing has shared the stage with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and The Band.
"I'm not bitter anymore," said Geller of Stony Brook, talking backstage with Kreger at Grounds & Sounds at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Stony Brook on Friday night. "There was definitely a stage when I was angry, but we've begun to hit our stride. You get this new life breathed into you when you start getting the gigs."
Some of those gigs for Geller included singing backup with ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore as well as the less glamorous but lucrative field of soundtrack work, racking up credits with (to name a few) MTV, Discovery Channel, VH1, ABC, PBS and A&E.
It started much more humbly for Geller, when she was just a kid "wearing the grooves" out of her Carly Simon and Elton John records. Geller's tastes broadened to include other artists like Peter Gabriel, Sting, Steely Dan, Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole as her piano skills grew, though she dismisses her ability from a technical standpoint, preferring a more feel-oriented approach: "There's no chops in these fingers."
Soaking up pertinent knowledge like a sponge, Geller had earlier in her musical evolution taken a job working for the management company that represented her for a lower rate in exchange for opportunities to beef up her already-considerable knowledge base for how to survive in the industry.
"I can't tell you how many times I took different jobs," she said. "I offered to work there for less money as a trade-off, but I never wanted to take a sabbatical. It wasn't my parent's responsibility to support me that way. I wanted financial independence."
Meeting through local fellow artist John Tabacco about four years ago, Kreger had needed an opening act for a performance at Brookhaven National Laboratory's Berkner Hall. Tabacco put the two artists in touch, and the collaboration proved incredibly fruitful. Teaming up with fellow musician Susan DeVita in 2008 for a compilation entitled "Lucky 13," released by the Stony Brook-based Sonic Underground label co-owned by Geller and her husband Gian DiMauro, the trio adopted the compilation's name, celebrating its 13th year in existence since its establishment in 1995, for their own collaborations. Now a duo (DeVita has since departed the lineup to raise her son), the two artists continue to chase their muses and entrance audiences.
"It was a way of reinventing my career without handing control over to people who only count money," Geller said of her decision to release music via her own imprint, one of the last standing independents on Long Island, and how prioritizing the creative end can allow one to forge a different kind of success. "It's artist-owned and artist-run."
Armed with an unabashedly poppy melodic sensibility, the nuanced complexity of jazzheads and the no-throwaway-lyrics frankness of singer/songwriters at their best, Lucky 13 ran the emotional gamut, always sounding assured but nonetheless vulnerable. Only playing self-penned material, Friday's set included "Home," a somber examination set to Kreger's muted guitar strums of a night when Geller's father sustained an injury (he's fine, Geller assures); "Love's Easy Chair," a reflection on settling into a time-tested relationship with a commanding lead vocal by Kreger; the debut of "Walk the Wire," a testament to an abiding and ferociously committed love, aided by audience participation on the catchy chorus; and "Not That Girl Anymore," a solo piano-and-vocal reflection on maturing beyond other's expectations, simultaneously hearkening back to youth in all its fragility and flaws.
The process for hammering out songs is shared, and both Kreger and Geller agree that getting to a point where either party could freely pick apart each other's work without personbal feelings getting in the way took time.
Kreger added that the emphasis remains on the lyrical end, and that there is only hard-and-fast rule: "Whoever begins writing the song has the final say on it."
Having played nationally and internationally as separate musicians, Lucky 13 hopes to take its act to that next stage as well. And the exposure continues to grow, with an appearance on the FOX Morning Show in October of 2008 being a particularly memorable highlight.
"We're women over 40," said Geller, matter-of-factly. "We don't want to be up at 7 a.m., but you do what you have to do and pray for good lighting."
Lucky 13 is currently in the studio at Five Towns University recording their new album. For more info, including where they've been and where to catch them next, visit www.lucky13.fm.