Holiday Music Motel
Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, is home to a very special motel for music enthusiasts. The Holiday Music Motel, an ideal accommodation for traveling musicians, hosts weekly jam sessions, open mic nights, songwriting retreats, and other music events year-round. It has two recording studios and is run by musicians melaniejane, and pat mAcdonald (formerly of Timbuk3), who also perform together as Purgatory Hill.
Among the motel’s annual songwriting retreats are: Construction Zone (held in June, prior to the Steel Bridge Songfest), Dark Songs (at Halloween time), and Love on Holiday (held close to Valentine’s Day). There’s a weekly original open mic at the motel on Thursdays, the motel sponsors a tavern jam on Wednesdays, and it also hosts frequent house concerts.
How the retro-looking motel, built in 1952, became a haven for musicians is a story in itself. Back in 2005, mAcdonald and his sister, Christie Weber, were fighting to save Sturgeon Bay’s beautiful steel bridge, which was on the verge of being torn down. The first Steel Bridge Songfest was held to raise awareness for the cause and celebrate the bridge. The grassroots organization Save Our Bridge, aka “the SOBs,” which organized the first effort, was successful in not only saving the bridge, but also creating a unique gathering of musicians.
The following year mAcdonald rented the Holiday Motel and gathered songwriters for a retreat prior to the festival, which he coined the Construction Zone. The 26 songwriters wrote songs in support of the bridge, and then performed, along with other musicians, at the 2006 Steel Bridge Songfest. Among the songwriters that year was Jackson Browne, a personal friend of mAcdonald’s, who has returned four times since to perform at the festival.
Construction Zone was a special experience for everyone involved that first year, when 42 original songs were written and recorded in the motel. Singer-songwriter Anna Sacks commented that she wished they could buy a motel to continue this type of collaboration year-round. The motel happened to be for sale, and when a collective of musicians banded together and purchased it, the Holiday Music Motel was born.
On mAcdonald’s insistence, cellist melaniejane came up from Milwaukee to take part in the 2007 Construction Zone. “I thought it was going to be hippie-like people writing ‘Kumbayah’ songs about the bridge; I can’t take a week off to do this,” she recalls. “But it turned out to be the most amazing experience and it changed my life.” By 2008, she had moved permanently to Sturgeon Bay, which she refers to as “the best decision of my life.”
Construction Zone, which is now held annually prior to the Steel Bridge Songfest, is a happening for songwriters like no other. This year it included 73 songwriters, among them first-timer Tomcat Joe.
“To kick-start the process everyone gathers after dinner on the first day and spins the bottle to determine song groups,” explains Joe. “You write, you collaborate, you share in the music and the lyrics; you help each others’ ideas become real. We split off into different groups every day and write a song that day, practice it, and then record it in one of the in-house studios. It’s the best time of my life; I would do it every day if I could.”
The Steel Bridge Songfest continues to build appreciation for the bridge and Sturgeon Bay’s historic downtown every June (June 12-15, 2014). It’s a celebration of music in the area, but also draws musicians from around the world. At the 2013 festival, more than 160 acts performed original music in about 15 unique Sturgeon Bay venues. The volunteer-run event is intimate and reasonably priced—$25 for four days of music (in 2013).
The Holiday Music Motel (HolidayMusicMotel.com) welcomes guests year-round as a regular motel. Songwriters who are interested in taking part in a songwriting retreat should contact the motel well in advance. Space is limited and prior approval is required.
This article is from our September-October 2013 issue. Click here to order.