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Lauren Mayer: Political activism through music

Lauren Mayer: Political activism through music

Lauren Mayer (right) writes songs as she waits for San Francisco Conservatory of Music students. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

The Artist’s Life is a recurring feature that spotlights the talent who help make up the rich tapestry of the Bay Area’s cultural life.

For their Thursday, Nov. 8, cabaret show at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, pianist Lauren Mayer and collaborators Sandy and Richard Riccardi are leaving the set list up in the air until two days beforehand.

The determining factor? The midterm elections.

“I did a song about Beto O’Rourke,” Mayer says. “I love him, and the (Ted) Cruz campaign just keeps shooting itself in the foot, so I made fun of him.

“ If (O’Rourke) wins, I’ll put that song in.” If the Democrats perform poorly, “it’ll be more of a commiseration set. If we win at least one house, I’ll do more celebration.”

Having multiple set lists on hand is no problem for Mayer, 59. The private vocal coach and music director at San Francisco Conservatory of Music has a vast oeuvre. From her San Mateo home, she’s been writing, recording and posting a parody song about politics or current events every week since 2012. Titles include “The Sexual Harassment Prevention Song” “Just Another Middle-Aged Jewish Mother with a Crush on Steph Curry” (both of which she’ll perform at Feinstein’s), “I’m a Jew, and I Know That Ain’t Christian” and “Dear Internet Trolls.”

It all started when she sent the song “It’s a Scary Time to Be a Jewish Mother” (the Jewish mother identity is a frequent trope) to a now-defunct political commentary website whose name she can’t remember. “They said, ‘Do you have any more?’ I jokingly said, ‘Sure, how about one a week?'” They agreed. Mayer thought, “Well, let me try.”

Lauren Mayer at the Conservatory of Music annex before a rehearsal with students. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

“I’ve been writing songs for a long time” â€" since she was a kid, growing up in Irvine â€" “but this was the first time I made myself do it regularly. A lot of my songs were garbage, but it took the pressure off. Because if I’m doing it once a week, I’m not going to be writing brilliant songs every week. As a result, my writing has gotten so much faster.” She needed only about an hour to write “I Didn’t Come From Your Rib, You Came from My Vagina,” a title she borrowed from a photograph she saw of a sign at a protest for P lanned Parenthood.

For Mayer, the benefits of disciplined weekly posting have extended beyond a more fluid creative process. It’s “how I have channeled my frustration with current events. … A lot of my friends who are similarly liberally oriented can’t even watch the news. They get too angry. This gives me something constructive to do with it. I hear all the time from people, ‘I was so upset, and you helped me laugh at the news, and now I can deal with it.'”

Lauren Mayer rehearses a cabaret show with Conservatory students at the Conservatory of Music annex. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

“I’m not curing cancer. I’m not endowing some great thing like Bill Gates,” she adds. “I can’t do that.” Songwriting “is what I can do to try to make the world a little b etter, not to sound too Pollyannaish.”

But songwriting isn’t how Mayer supports herself. At San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she’s music-directing “The Threepenny Opera,” which runs Dec. 6-7. It’s a chance to see “the stars of tomorrow,” Mayer says, for free admission.

Mayer’s also a writer, director and facilitator for the theater-based training at Stanford’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Office. Theater, she says, can teach in a way PowerPoint can’t. In one of Mayer’s scenes at a recent training, an actor talked about how much an assault “had affected her studies, and there were people weeping in the audience.”

Lauren Mayer goes through songs with musical director Michael Mohammed before rehearsal of a cabaret show with Conservatory students at the Conservatory of Music anne x on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Mayer’s done corporate theater, including events for Hewlett-Packard and Wells Fargo all the way to “a convention of funeral directors, where I was a tap-dancing casket.” (That crowd loved it, by the way. “They really let their hair down,” Mayer says.)

A freelancer her “whole adult life,” Mayer says her survival strategy is to be “the Madonna of the Bay Area â€" not in terms of my talent or anything” but in the way that Madonna “keeps reinventing herself.” When the piano bar and cabaret scene dried up, Mayer went corporate. When companies switched from in-person meetings to video-conferencing, she got into vocal coaching.

There was no time to mourn the loss of old professional identities. “Nobody was booking them any more, so it wasn’t like, ‘I have to let go of this.’ It’s gone. They took it.”

Lauren Mayer (seated on left) rehearses a cabaret show with Conservatory students at the Conservatory of Music annex. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

As a vocal coach, Mayer had missed performing, and her Feinstein’s midterms show is part of an antidote to that. She also recently sang with her son, drummer Ben Visini, at Hotel Utah, and will perform her cabaret about married life, “Yes, Dear,” with her husband, Scott Grinthal, at San Francisco’s Society Cabaret on Feb. 16.

In the classic model of cabaret couples, “the pianist is the guy; he’s kind of wisecracking, and he does the back-ups. Then it’s the beautiful girl singer. Well, I’m the wisecracking pianist, and he’s the beautiful guy singer.”

Lauren Mayer with Sandy and Richard Riccardi: 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8. $22.50-$ 50. Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., S.F. 866-663-1063. www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com

“The Threepenny Opera”: Dec. 6-7. Free. San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F. 415-503-6275. www.sfcm.edu

“Yes, Dear”: Feb. 16, 2019. Society Cabaret’s to-be-announced new venue. https://societycabaret.com

  • Lily Janiak Follow: Lily Janiak Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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