For two weekends each August, stately Brucemore manner becomes a rip-roaring nightclub, showcasing the best in local stars under the stars. Some have found fame around the country, others are beginning their careers - and all have Cedar Rapids ties.
Since 2003, the popular event has featured diverse musical styles, from the Broadway stylings of Robert Lindsey-Nassif, Timothy Shew and Kevin Worley, bands including the Daugherty Family, Gerard Estella and Orquesta Alto Maiz, to established stars Susan Werner, Dan Bern and Sidney James Wingfield and up-and-comers Judy Butterfield and Chase Garrett.
This year's lineup spotlights two singer/songwriter/recording artists who have been lighting up Eastern Iowa stages in very different ways. Saturday's show is already sold out, so don't wait to snap up tickets.
Professional photographer by day and musical theater actress by night, Alisabeth Von Presley, 27, of Cedar Rapids, is springing something new on her Cabaret audiences.
"I've never ever performed an original song onstage," she says. "I'm excited for that. With my theatrical background, I've played the roles of other people. Now I get to play the role of myself."
The Brucemore concerts coincide with the release of her first CD, "My Foolish Heart," featuring 12 songs she's written alone or with Gerard Estella. The collection can be purchased at Cabaret, then a couple weeks later on iTunes, CD Baby and select retail stores.
A pop rocker who made it to the Hollywood round of "American Idol" Season 12 in 2012, the Marion native explores various musical styles on her new CD, even adding a little country and jazz.
"The majority of it is pop and a little bit of punk," she says. "It's kind of like Pink meets Sarah McLachlan."
Her theme is easier to categorize.
"Mostly I write about relationships, which is what singers write about," she says. But inspiration hits her in a most unusual place.
"All of the songs were written in parking lots - really weird," she says. "For some reason, parking lots really inspire me. Every single song on the album was written in a parking lot."
She'll divulge the locations before singing about eight of the songs at Cabaret. All of the sites are in Cedar Rapids, and range from coffee shop parking lots to those at performance venues, retail stores and even a fitness club.
"When the inspiration strikes, you just gotta pull over and write it down," she says. "First I jot down a lyric - a hook line - and then I will record on my phone what I'm thinking about for a melody." She revisits the idea the next day, to decide whether to keep working on it or scrap it.
She'll also weave her own interpretations of several pop tunes and show tunes into her Cabaret act, and bring along a backup band with drums, keyboard, guitar and bass.
A self-proclaimed workaholic, a typical day for Von Presley begins with a trip to NewBo for a pumpkin spice coffee. Then she heads across the river to her photography studio in Czech Village, where she'll edit about a thousand photos in the morning. She'll do a photo shoot in the afternoon, then head to a rehearsal or performance at night. In the fall, she choreographs several area high school show choirs, so she squeezes those sessions into her schedule, as well.
"The days are never the same," says Von Presley, who has been married for three years to her husband, Thor. "I'm always all over the place - and include some time in there for shopping for shoes."
She'll need them for her upcoming regional tour on the heels of her new CD. She also hasn't ruled out another stab at the New York City scene. She went there in 2008 and stayed for a year, but says it just wasn't the place for her at that time in her life.
"I didn't need to be in New York to do what I wanted to do, which was to just create," she says. "And, it was really expensive in New York, as well."
Her "American Idol" experience taught her "a lot about the music industry as a business and I got to see how shows are put together and how story lines are created," she says. "It was a really, really eye-opening experience. ... It helped me realize that I love performing."
Singer/songwriter Ben Schmidt, 41, of Iowa City, is another artist with his "fingers in a lot of pies." He writes, performs and records his music, has been the artist-in-residence at Johnson School of the Arts in Cedar Rapids and has been a scenic artist and guest designer at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
He also enjoys serving as a producer for the musicians who record in his home studio. "I get a lot of satisfaction in bringing my creativity to other people's work," he says.
Schmidt has a harder time describing his own work.
"I have a really wide range of influences. I feel like I have a strong connection to many different styles," he says.
"When I sit down to write, I don't sit down to write any particular style of song. I usually sit down with a guitar and the style comes out of the playing. That kind of puts me in a mood, and then words start coming.
"It's often a long process of editing, where I'll play the song a bunch of different ways. Then I'll think to myself, this is too long, too boring and have to change something around. Or vice versa, it's too busy, too involved and I'll just strip it down to the simplest the song can be. I'm usually going for that - what's the simplest this song could be.
"That's a really interesting component of the band I picked (for Cabaret). They're all top-notch players," he says, "but the reason I chose them is because they're really good, instinctive musicians. They're really good at helping deliver a song to the audience. It's not about showing the audience what a fabulous guitar player they are.
"That's a real joy - to work with people who are able to pull out whatever they need in the moment, but also are willing to let the song be the center of what's going on."
He's putting together Cabaret sets that showcase the roots of his music, framing his original tunes in some cover songs that also show the genesis of his singing and songwriting. He'll even include the very first song he performed onstage - "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens - and maybe even a heavy metal tune from his youth.
He really wasn't that into music, growing up in Oak Park, Ill., but agreed to be in a variety show his freshman year to impress a girl.
"It's always about a girl," he says with a laugh. He added guitar and vocals to a band, played to a packed house in his school's 1,600-seat auditorium, and was hooked. He joined the choir and just kept singing and playing.
"It was the best first experience you could have singing," he says.
These days, his house is full of music, with his teenage daughter playing viola and piano and one older son playing guitar and bass, finding his niche in the Midwest hip-hop scene.
"It's a fun house to be in," says Schmidt, whose wife is a playwright with a good musical ear. "Often, we'll have several different music genres going at once."
The family is used to juggling, and will have just a bit more to do as husband and wife tackle new jobs this year. Schmidt will be leaving his position at Johnson Elementary to become technical director in the Coe College theater department, and wife Lisa Schlesinger will be working at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop, ending her eight-year commute to Chicago to coordinate the playwriting program at Columbia College.
Once everything settles down, Schmidt has an album to finish ...
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHAT: Cabaret in the Courtyard
WHERE: Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today (8/7) through Saturday (8/9) and Aug. 14 to 16
PERFORMERS: Alisabeth Von Presley, first weekend; Ben Schmidt, second weekend
TICKETS: $18 and $20 in advance, $25 gate; Saturday (8/9) SOLD OUT
DETAILS: (319) 362-7375 or Brucemore.org
EXTRA: Seating provided at small tables; bring beverages but not food; parking available on the grounds