Iowa City Songwriter Collective creates space for singer-songwriters

The Iowa City Songwriter Collective provides a space where local singer-songwriters can come to perform at Elray’s Live and Dive, creating a community of artists and viewers.


Larry Phan

Solo musician Cam Dukes is shown performing at El Ray’s Live & Dive on Sept. 20, 2021. He has came a long way from his first performance, now moving around the stage more and being more expressive. “My first time, I was standing in one spot, covering over the mic.”

Delaney Orewiler, Arts Reporter

On a Saturday night, Iowa City overflows with artistic talent. Saxophone players saturate the streets with lilting notes, photographers position themselves to snap photos of new murals, and live music floats from the bars.

Weeknights downtown often aren’t as populated as the weekends. But on Monday night, the artistic prowess continues within one particular bar on Iowa Avenue — Elray’s Live and Dive, where an entire conglomeration of local artists can be found performing their wide range of musical styles.

This group of (officially) 30 musicians plus a number of others who aren’t officially signed up is known as the Iowa City Songwriters Collective. The group is led by Iowa-raised singer-songwriter James Tutson.

Bringing artists together

The goal of the collective is fourfold, he said. The first three seem simple: find local artists to join, make some good music, and have fun.

Finding talent and offering them a space to grow and learn, Tutson said, is the first step.

“The university has 35,000 students, and that’s all separate from how many people live in Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, or just outside of the area,” Tutson said. “You’re not going to tell me that there’s not 100-200 really good songwriters in this area with all of those thousands of people. But we don’t know that if we don’t have a space for them to play, develop, and feel like they have a community.”

The collective exists as a place for all musicians to improve their writing, singing, and performing skills, Tutson said. It was created with the hope that people will come to the collective and see incredible music that they did not expect.

For Trevor Polk, an indie pop-rock artist who grew up in Cedar Rapids, the collective offers a space that he would’ve loved to have had when he was a new musician trying to get his feet off the ground.

“It’s about falling in love with the process, and this allows artists to share the process together,” Polk said. “Having this exist where people can be there together, hear each other’s stories, and feel the energy — the goal is realized in and of itself.”

The collective’s fourth and final goal comes from the existence of the venue itself. Elray’s Live and Dive is based in Nashville, Tennessee, where songwriter nights are very common.

Elray’s books artists from all over the nation, but Elray’s general manager Bret Lanser — affectionately known as “Mr. Elray” in the Iowa City community — said the business would love to book more local artists on a weekly basis.

Lanser said he wants to show that Elray’s is the home for live music in Iowa City.

“We can have local artists as openers, or if they have bands, we can have them play instead of having a band from out of town. We get that local connection with our community,” Lanser said. “We want to be able to build that music community here in Iowa City, and we want to be the home for that.”

Forming the collective

The Collective has been in the process of forming for a year and a half. Bob Franklin, the owner of Iowa City Elray’s, said he reached out to Tutson at the beginning of the pandemic and asked if he would be interested in playing at his venue.

The offer was put on hold during the pandemic, but eventually, Tutson began performing every other week at Elray’s, Franklin said. Soon after, he reached out again and asked Tutson if he would be interested in helping him to bring a songwriter’s night to Iowa City.

Tutson said he thought about the proposition throughout the summer, and eventually came to the conclusion that a songwriters night is exactly what Iowa City needed.

“I realized that this is a thing that could change the landscape of music in Iowa City. In two to three years, this could be something that people know when they come to Iowa City,” Tutson said. “People would come to Iowa City to see that — even students who may not want to major in music but want to be songwriters would know that this thing happens in Iowa, and come here for that reason.”

Right now, there are two main components to the Iowa City Songwriters Collective: Half-hour long “Song Sessions” for more established local artists to perform their early or signature works, and “Collective nights,” which are composed of nine to 10 performances from artists at any level who are serious about songwriting and music, Tutson said.

The next Collective performance will be a Song Sessions performance on Sep. 27, which is open to the public and runs from 9 p.m. until midnight.

Tutson said the Iowa City Songwriters Collective is hungry to find musicians. He emphasized that the level of musicianship isn’t important, musicians can range from new artists writing songs from their dorm room to older individuals seeking an opportunity to get back into performing.

The only important requirement for people to join is to be passionate about music, Tutson said.

“Our goal is to find as many artists as we possibly can and create a space for them,” he said. “Any genre, any age, any background, any race, any orientation, it does not matter. We are going to bond over music and create a space where we can thrive.”