It was every performer's worst nightmare. On a recent evening at L.A.'s famed Hotel Caf, two young acoustic guitarists were struggling to be heard over the lingering music-industry chatter of a preceding afternoon showcase. Finally, one member of the crowd could stomach no more.
"Shhhhhh!" hissed Meiko Sheppard, like a venomous rattlesnake threat. And, believe it or not, the crowd promptly shut the hell up and gave the artists a chance.
"See, I've been through this before, in this very same situation," Meiko who strums a bit herself, sans surname explains later, post-gig. "And I just think the audience should show performers a little respect, because it's not easy to get up there alone."
The 26-year-old knows what she's talking about. Whenever she's in her current hometown of Hollywood, she gets carte blanche at the Hotel Caf, where she waitressed for several hardscrabble years. The rest of the time, she's on the road backing her eponymous Lucky Ear/MySpace debut disc (which spent a month at No. 1 on the iTunes folk chart) and dealing with jabbery, glass-clinking houses on an almost nightly basis. And her coolly confessional folk-pop repertoire hum-alongs like "How Lucky We Are" and "Boys with Girlfriends" is trumping club noise every time.
As the Japanese-descended Meiko tells it, she's never been shy about standing up for herself, especially back in small-town Georgia, "where I just knew that I was different. I come from a place that was pretty much half-black, half-white, and there was no one in town who had any Asian in them at all.
"And I remember it was Veterans Day, I was in seventh grade, and these old men were on stage at my school, talking about the war, and they kept saying, 'Japs this' and 'Japs that.' And at the end of it, they asked the auditorium if there were any questions, so I walked up to the mike and said, 'Why do you insist on calling Japanese people Japs?' And they didn't really know what to say."
The school, however, did.
"I got suspended for disrupting a school function. But I just had to do it," she says.
Not surprisingly, Meiko and her sister Keiko (seriously) hightailed it to California, where she started writing songs by day and waitressing by night.
"And I was still waiting tables when I got a call asking if I wanted to cover 'Time is on My Side' for a Slim-Fast commercial," she says. "This lady I was working with also did film and TV placement, so she helped me get some Grey's Anatomy stuff, too. Extra money was always nice."
Eventually, Meiko applied at the city's folk-scene focal point, the Hotel Caf. For a gig, not a job. But she landed both, heading up their cocktail-staff team while simultaneously self-issuing her album (which was quickly swooped upon by the newly minted MySpace label).
And now, fans may occasionally bump into her at her old haunt, "because once you work there, you're part of the Hotel Caf family," she explains.
And she'll be cordial, too. Just as long as you're not talking during anyone's set.