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CLT Loft Sessions Prioritizes Intimacy, Inclusivity for Local Music Fans

True friendship can bloom in the least suspecting of places. The seed can be planted in line at the cafe, when you’re stopping in for your morning coffee. That passing conversation that lays the foundation for friendship could happen in a parking lot, where instead of getting in your car and driving away from an encounter unchanged, something inexplicable draws you in and you stay.

That’s what happened one Sunday morning in 2018 when Emily Sage and Sara Colèe crossed paths in a church parking lot, both wearing Star Wars shirts.

The two had a brief conversation, discussing their serendipitous shirts — Colèe’s saying “Empire Strikes Back” and Sage’s “Metaphors be with you.”

There was an electricity between them, an unstated connection, and the two knew there was something more to it than a cordial Southern smile.

“At this point, I thought, ‘I can either lean in or walk away,’” Colèe said. She chose to lean in. They both did.

From there, the two quickly became partners in launching an intimate concert series called CLT Loft Sessions, which spotlights local musicians and gives Charlotte music fans an up-close-and-personal look at local acts. The next show will take place on August 17 at Not Just Coffee’s newest location on Jay Street.

Emily Sage (right) and other performers at CLT Loft Sessions. (Photo by Adam Eugene)

Colèe and Sage fell deeply into a platonic love that night and became certain their paths had crossed for a reason.
They later ended up at the same Super Bowl party, where Colèe chatted Sage up about tacos. “It was my go-to new-person conversation,” Colèe said.

Both women had just moved to Charlotte, and reluctantly. Colèe had moved from Montreal, Canada, where she’d started her own graphic design business in what seemed to be the perfect scenario in a beautiful and artistic city, filled with diversity and opportunity. But it was “Game of Thrones north-of-the-wall cold” and not the most opportunistic location for a startup. So she headed south.

“I figured [Charlotte] would just be a staging point for my next adventure,” said Colèe, who had lived in San Francisco, California; Grants Pass, Oregon; and Sydney, Australia, before Montreal. “I just didn’t think I’d plant my roots here.”

Almost simultaneously, Sage was going through a similar experience in Nashville, where she was attending Belmont University, studying songwriting.

“I was studying simply to learn about it, not to become an artist,” Sage said.

Nashville was more cutthroat than Sage had anticipated, and after a short time she realized she did not align with that world. The industry was unhealthily competitive. Sage was a barista during the day and recorded a demo by night. She found herself engrossed in work from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day.

She worked those hours for weeks that turned into months, eventually feeling so burnt out that she swore off music. She needed a change.

Sara Coulee (left) and Emily Sage. (Photo by Cristina Gregor, makeup by Sammie Kolk)

In November 2017, Sage moved to Charlotte. During her time at Belmont, Sage’s parents had moved to Charlotte after having lived in her hometown of Portugal for almost two decades. Sage decided that being near family and away from music was where she belonged.

For a few short months, that was all Sage needed. She knew that her love for music was deeply embedded within her, but she wasn’t quite ready to step back into it. “I’d always loved music but I needed to decide internally that this was what I wanted,” she said.

Like Colèe, she viewed Charlotte as a pit stop. She planned to save up and move somewhere with a beach. But she couldn’t find a job and she wasn’t making friends. Then, suddenly, something happened.

Sage felt an overwhelming, almost spiritual urge to invest in this city using the gifts she was given. She realized she didn’t need to swear off music altogether, but instead to go about it in an unconventional way.

After months without engaging in singing at all, Sage began yearning for an outlet. A friend who owned a local production company set Sage up with space at Atherton Lofts to play a small show for a handful of friends. Colèe was among them.

After the taco conversation, the pair began spending more time together. They would hang out as transplants in the city, piecing together their past lives and deciding between themselves how to move forward creatively in a new, expanding area.

“It was March [2018] and we were sitting over dinner and Emily said, ‘Hey, I’m playing some music at a friend’s loft and you should come,’ and so I went,” Colèe said. “Emily just has this way about her. The way she carried herself with grace. She was uncommon, quiet, an observer. She had a delicate nature, was incredibly strong and it was beautiful to watch. I decided ‘I want to help her, whatever that looks like.’”

By the end of that April, Sage had brought Colèe on to manage her new concept, which would eventually manifest as a local concert series called CLT Loft Sessions.

Greg Cox performs at CLT Loft Sessions. (Photo by Joshaun Anderson)

The two complemented each other as partners in the new venture.

“Sara can walk up to someone and within 10 seconds find something in common with them. With her it was different. It wasn’t transactional but was genuine,” Sage says. “She had a lot of strong qualities, we could work well with one another and contrast one another.”

The more they got to know one another, their dreams and the city, the more they realized that what they were looking for in terms of creativity and music didn’t yet exist. Despite the more traditional realms of performance, Sage stayed true to her instinct of unconventionality, knowing that she had something alternative to offer — to authentically invite in diverse genres, to find that commonality in music the way Colèe does in conversation.

“Charlotte [has had] an incredible transformation, but the growth of culture hasn’t quite caught up,” Colèe said. “Everyone bitches about it but it’s the perfect recipe for lightning to strike. It didn’t exist so we had to do it ourselves.”

Audience members at CLT Loft Sessions. (Photo by Joshaun Anderson)

Loft Sessions began as a three-part series in July 2018. Sage says she booked three shows in a row so she couldn’t back out of the plan. The pair showcased local musicians and brought local music supporters together in an intimate setting. The vibe was electric, and the women knew they had to do more.

They began seeking other ways to support the Charlotte music scene, repeatedly asking themselves what it would take for people to recognize Charlotte as a music city. With once-beloved venues closing and artists overlooking the Queen City on tours, something seemed amiss.

They began to brainstorm ways to structure shows that supported Charlotte musicians, asking themselves, “What do people need and want?”

From their own experiences, a recurrent theme was intimacy — the intentionality found in smaller settings. Sage and Colèe both recounted intense feelings of exclusion while growing up, which inspired them to prioritize inclusivity and make sure everyone who walked in the door felt valued.

Local singer Dexter Jordan at CLT Loft Sessions (Photo by Colin Cassidy)

Sage and a few friends hand-pick each musician to perform at Loft Sessions. Seating includes rows of benches and chairs with a community-table feel. Blankets and pillows are strewn around the floor at the feet of the musicians. A pre-show announcement is made, reminding viewers to respect the artistry by staying quiet and putting their phones away.

The walls are lined with local art, as those in attendance nod their head — whether vibing to the rhythm of the tracks or in understanding of the performers’ narrative interludes, as they share their own stories between songs. Each show has the illusion of drawing listeners closer and closer to the stage as musicians allow patrons in through their lyrics and authenticity.

Local musicians like soul pianist Curt Keyz and rapper/producer Yung Citizen might have distinctly different sounds, yet during an April Loft Sessions show, their music was stitched together by a common thread of self-awareness. The genres may change, but the commitment to alternative ways to engage the music community remains. There’s a camaraderie between the musicians, the organizers and the audience.

Yung Citizen performs at CLT Loft Sessions. (Photo by Jayci Livingston)

Sage, who has also returned to her own musical roots, is often pulled on stage by musicians to accompany them, while the audience is known to break out into a Shakespearean chorus to sing refrains. Everyone has a place, everyone is included.

And so, people keep coming back, shows keep selling out and the concept keeps evolving.

As time goes on, sustainability comes into question. In the beginning, the two say this was not a part of the conversation, but they keep circling back to it as things progress. It’s important for them financially support the artists, oftentimes forgoing any profit themselves. They believe their energy is best spent building relationships rather than money.

Sage points out that, after doing the math following the last Loft Sessions, she figured that she and Colèe made about $2 per hour.

“People love to say we have our shit together and are living the dream,” Colèe said with a smile that implied she knows otherwise.

Audience members at CLT Loft Sessions. (Photo by Christina Gregor)

This is fine with the pair, for now. They both have careers outside of this movement, though it takes up a large portion of their time and energy. They both know that the non-committal idea that began with a simple three-part series will need more energy to propel them forward as they move toward Loft Sessions’ one-year anniversary in July.

For now, the two spend their time deciding what’s working, what’s not and where they want to go from here.

“We have a continuous conversation about what success is,” Colèe said. “We find ourselves thinking, ‘How do we keep up, grow it, scale it?’ and then say ‘Wait. Do we even want to?’ It was designed to be intimate. Each larger step is a step away from that mission. We want to remain a community for artistry.”

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