The Annie O Music Series: A Low-Key Home for Emerging Artists In an Upscale Manhattan World
Three times a month in the illustrious rooftop penthouse of the Standard, East Village at Cooper Square, pop and world music tastemaker Annie Ohayon invents the improbable: Showcasing local, national and international artists -- mostly emerging and unknown except for their fans -- in an intimate space with floor-to-ceiling windows, a 360-degree view of New York City and, in good weather, an outdoor wrap-around terrace for after-show hangs. This Friday (March 23), the Annie O Music Series, celebrating its 10th season, spotlights pop-rock singer/songwriter Chris Stills, who will be launching his first recording in 10 years, Don’t Be Afraid.
But you won’t see this advertised in the media. (This publication excluded, of course.) Although Ohayon’s Annie O Music Series website announces upcoming shows, the events are an old-school word-of-mouth affair, free with an RSVP. That's rare enough in today’s music world, but for the upscale hotel it works incredibly well, both artistically and businesswise.
“I have my RSVP list and the artists have their lists and we fill up a room for 120 people,” Ohayon, a respected music veteran who previously worked as a publicist for Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox and Philip Glass, among others, tells Billboard. “I reinvented myself. Now I’m helping to support musicians, most of whom are under the radar. I love it.”
The French-Moroccan mover-and-shaker’s greatest joy is that Standard Sounds, the hotel's live-event wing, is giving back to the people of the neighborhood while at the same time supporting the hotel, which is dedicated to culture, fashion and especially music that attracts. “The Standard has given me carte blanche on who I want to present,” Ohayon says. “The music brings a new audience to the hotel, and some people stay and drink or stay and eat. The shows go from 40-45 minutes, and fans or agents or managers or friends hang out before and after. It’s like a real party.”
Ohayon says she’s heard her series described as today’s underground of the New York music scene, albeit in a flashier setting than seminal clubs near the neighborhood like CBGBs and the Bottom Line. Stills, who is based in Los Angeles, says that the space has a speakeasy feel. “Annie loves music and knows good talent, and she’s had so much experience with promoting new acts,” says Stills who calls himself a “re-emerging” artist with his new eclectic mix of pop. Stills has returned to recording after spending the last several years keeping himself busy with other endeavors: performing in the French musical Cleopatra -- The Last Queen of Egypt (playing the role of Julius Caesar); guesting on Showtime’s hit series Shameless; and serving as the co-producer and musical director for the Light Up the Blues annual benefit concert Autism Speaks, a role he will fill again with this year’s all-star show April 21 at L.A.’s Dolby Theater. (The event will be hosted by his dad, Stephen Stills, and his wife Kristen and emceed by Jack Black.)
“Music under the radar is often more interesting than the A-list world,” says Stills, who will be staying around for the Annie O Music Series all-star show on March 27 paying tribute to groundbreaking French rock superstar Johnny Hallyday, who passed away in December. “That’s the allure that Annie has at the Standard. There’s an element of mystery, and she’s very good at attracting diverse talents in different fields. And that draws an interesting cast of characters to the shows: socialites, celebrities and family friends.”
Amar Lalvani, the CEO of Standard International who oversees all the boutique Standard hotels, including New York’s Standard, High Line and locations in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Miami and, opening soon, London. "The pillars we care about as a business is music, fashion and activism,” says the New York-based Lalvani. “We do the music because we respect it, we care for it. We don’t advertise, so there’s not really a business plan. We do it for the neighborhood and for our guests who can experience the planned and unplanned with us.
"Annie’s shows are a hidden gem," he continues. "Having her series in the penthouse isn’t like going to a venue. It’s almost like being in someone’s apartment.”
Lalvani cites as an example the rising vocalist (and David Lynch protégé) Chrysta Bell, who Ohayon invited to perform at The Standard, High Line’s chic Top of the Standard, better known as the Boom Boom Room. “That’s been one of the best shows I’ve seen,” Lalvani says. “[Bell] can’t be in a traditional club, so Annie pairing her music with that space was special.”
Lalvani talks about how Standard Sounds reflects the community, including Miami’s afternoons-by-the-pool shows, Los Angeles’ rooftop electronic music and Hollywood’s Cactus Lounge that features the weekly Desert Nights acoustic series curated by KCRW’s DJ Valida. Ohayon and Valida will host a special Desert Nights evening on April 30 with Naomi Greene and The Little Miss -- a transcontinental sharing of musical wealth.
In the meantime, Ohayon has her hands full for her music series, keeping abreast of what needs to be heard. She imports French artists and has a strong focus on world artists (she has presented Angelique Kidjo, Bebel Gilberto, Au Revoir Simone and Amadou & Mariam). Her Music Series has hosted dozens of up-and-comers on the cusp of breaking larger, including Joseph Arthur, Elvis Perkins, Julian Lage and Marian Hill, the duo team of Jeremy Lloyd and Samantha Gongol. Upcoming shows include an evening with Ben Taylor and Sophie Hiller on April 18.
“I’ve been super grateful,” Ohayon says. “The hotel is a hotel, but not all hotels are so committed to music -- not DJs, but real music regardless of the finances.”