Denver singer-songwriter Michael Engberg makes a decent living as a solo musician. But if he ever comes up short, he can always earn some extra money the way he once did--by delivering singing telegrams.
"I'd say there are three main requirements for doing them," he theorizes. "You have to have some amount of comedic timing. You have to be able to carry a tune. And most of all, you have to have no shame."
Engberg's job experience convinced him that he had all three of these qualities. What changed his mind was an epiphany that followed a certain memorable gig. "I had to do one for a woman who had almost died giving birth," he recalls. "She was in the hospital. It was kind of a combination of congratulations, get well and hope-you're-feeling-better sort of thing. But it required me to appear dressed in a gorilla costume and wearing a diaper. This is what I mean about no shame. Anyway, I delivered the telegram and was walking back to my car, and I literally heard a voice that said, `Do you realize that there's a part of you that thinks this is the best you can do?' It stopped me short. And I realized that, more than any other person or situation, I have held myself back."
Since then, Engberg, now in his mid-thirties, has tried to change his perspective. The recipient of a master's degree in music composition, he knew he had the talent and background to succeed in his chosen field. What he needed to learn, then, was how to market his skills. And he has: Today Engberg, who recently discarded his stage name, Iowa Jones, performs in a wide array of settings before a great variety of listeners. He churns out cover tunes on request. He plays classical guitar when his employers want to create a highbrow mood. He's equally at home entertaining at weddings or ski resorts. He oversees two open stages each week--the regular acoustic get-together Wednesdays at the Mercury Cafe and a poetry-and-music combo Thursdays at Coffee Grounds. With stringed-instrument virtuoso Ernie Martinez, he offers songs of the Old West under the moniker the Unknown Brothers. In addition, he and his business partner, Robynne Pennington, run Many Hats Recordings, a project they hope to gradually turn into a full-fledged indie label.
Engberg is at his best, however, when he's simply writing songs. The deserving winner of the Newfolk Songwriting Competition, awarded during the 1989 edition of the Texas-based Kerrville Folk Festival, Engberg documents his gifts on a new CD called The Way of the Wild Heart. The collection, which features area musicians such as Martinez, Motherfolkers bassist Mary Stribling and guitarist Neil Haverstick, is far more interesting than the self-made vanity recordings so often heard on the local level.
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According to Engberg, his work is "kind of a cross between Lyle Lovett and Suzanne Vega." That's wishful thinking; his compositions actually belong in the country-pop/easy-listening category with the recordings of Jimmy Buffett, Jackson Browne, Dan Fogelberg and Nancy Griffith. Don't sell him short, though: If the right artist covers one of his tunes, Engberg could wind up as a Nineties Jimmy Webb or Kris Kristofferson. That's not everyone's dream, of course, but there are a lot worse fates.
Rather than spending all of his time scheming to get his songs to the right people, Engberg prefers to perform them himself. He's also penning a Broadway-style musical with a central concept that he feels is too good to mention until the project is completed, and he's doing his part to bring more unity to the Denver music community.
"Okay, here's my philosophy," he says. "There doesn't need to be competition amongst us--not in the traditional business sense. I think musicians have to work a little bit on their attitudes toward one another. What you want to try to do as a musician is be good enough and original enough that people want to see you play and buy your CD. They don't have to hate everybody else. That's not part of it. I want the musicians in Denver to really encourage each other and support each other so we can have a really dynamic music scene here. Plus, I like the town. It's been good to me."
And if things go sour, he still knows where to find the gorilla suit.
Michael Engberg. Noon-3 p.m. Saturday, December 17, Little Bear, 28075 Highway 74, Evergreen, no cover, 674-9991; 8-11 p.m., Coffee Cache, 270 South Downing, no cover, 744-8522.