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Singer Rebecca Pronsky: In a Brooklyn State of Mind

Local singer and songwriter Rebecca Pronsky has played all over New York City and the East Coast, but she has a special affinity for Brooklyn. Born and raised in Park Slope, the 25-year-old folk-rock musician appreciates Brooklyn’s “neighborhood vibe.” “I don’t like playing in Manhattan,” Pronsky said. “I’m from Brooklyn, I rarely leave Brooklyn, and I wanted to do something in the Brooklyn scene.” So last July, when she played for the first time at Vox Pop, a politically-minded coffee house in Ditmas Park, she immediately felt at home. The tiny café-slash-bookstore, which celebrated its one-year-anniversary in November, was packed with regular customers. Political and philosophical conversations intermingled with small talk. An alcove under the stairway in the corner had been turned into a play area for kids. “I like that it’s a neighborhood space, and it doesn’t feel too ‘New Yorkey,’” she said. “It’s cute, it’s small. It’s relaxed, and that’s what music should be. It’s really about connecting to people.” One gig led to the next, and soon Pronsky had orchestrated a monthly music series at Vox Pop, called the Songwriters Exchange, where she performs along with local and touring artists. The series began in September and has been attracting a growing audience since then. “We’re trying to show that you don’t have to go to Manhattan for culture; we’ve got a lot of great stuff here in the community,” said Sander Hicks, who owns Vox Pop with his wife, Holley Anderson. The marquee outside Vox Pop proclaims, “Books, Coffee, Democracy.” Inside, a wall of books lines up parallel to the coffee bar. For less than $10 a copy, customers can print their own books using the shop’s “Instabook” machine. A stairway in the corner leads to the second floor, where Hicks and Anderson live with their seven-month-old son, Coleman. At the far end of the room is a stage roughly the size of a dining table, where Vox Pop hosts book readings, movie presentations and live music, including an open mic night every Sunday. Anderson describes the café as “a lefty alternative to Starbucks,” and much of the entertainment deals with social and political issues. A recent screening of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price drew a crowd of more than 100 people. Hicks is also the author of The Big Wedding: 9/11, the Whistle-Blowers, and the Cover-Up. “We opened the shop because we wanted to unify people, to bring in people from the right, the left and the center, and the apolitical,” said Hicks. “Good intelligent songwriting is part of the revolution,” he said, then added, “although there’s no political litmus test for the singer-songwriters.” To Anderson, the Songwriters Exchange represents the kind of community participation Vox Pop advocates. “This store is only as good as the people who are involved,” she said. “Having someone from the community come in and get excited about the space, and create her own thing, and draw new people to the shop, that’s exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.” Pronsky returned to Brooklyn after graduating from Brown University in 2002, and currently lives in Park Slope with her boyfriend and band mate, guitarist Rich Bennett. Her band also consists of bassist Billy Likitsakos and drummer Brian Czachs, although she performs alone at the Songwriters Exchange because of the size of the stage. She and the band tour the region every other month, visiting cities including Boston, Washington DC and Montreal. The band also accompanied her on her last album, The Early Hours, which was released in 2004. In January, Pronsky will start recording again, and is looking for a label. Pronsky’s early inspiration came from female folk singers such as Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris, but over the last couple years, her style has evolved into a blend of jazz and rock, while maintaining folk undertones. “My earlier work was kind of folksy,” she explained. “But after playing with a lot of other people in New York, I’ve gotten more influences, and I don’t want to be characterized as just a folk singer.” The musicians who play at Vox Pop vary in genre and style, from folk to punk. The benefit of the Songwriters Exchange, Pronsky said, is the exposure to different artists. “It’s a good opportunity for me, because I get to meet people I’ve heard of but don’t know yet,” she said. “It’s great when you see someone who’s really talented, and then bring them to the shop.” Pronsky books all the acts: usually one local musician, one touring musician, and herself. The suggested donation from patrons is $5, and she divides the proceeds between the visiting artists. “It’s reward enough for me to know this is happening,” she said. “Plus I’m making a lot of great connections.” One of those connections is Stephen Clair, a musician who has lived in Ditmas Park for the last five years. Clair learned of the Songwriters Exchange through an e-mail forwarded through the grapevine, and although he didn’t know Pronsky or her music, he contacted her about participating. He performed at the first show in September, and will come back for another date in March. “There’s a need for community, for people to become aware of each other,” he said. “If Rebecca can build something like that for people right here, there’s enough people in this neighborhood to support it. I think the series will continue to build an audience.” Although Vox Pop is “just starting to take off as a music space,” Pronsky said, she thinks the Songwriters Exchange has the potential to become a mainstay of the neighborhood. “New York is so big, and people really do crave community,” she said. “People want to have a spot that’s their spot. I hope this series makes Vox Pop that place.” Vox Pop is located at 1022 Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park. Call the shop at 718-940-2084. Starting in January, the Songwriters Exchange will be held on the first Wednesday of every month.

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