ST. PETERSBURG — Nestled in St. Petersburg’s Historic Kenwood neighborhood is a beige-paneled house with music leaking out of its crevices and an abundance of cars parked in the yard.
“That one’s a band member’s. That one, too. That one belongs to someone who actually lives here,” said Brendon Porter, bassist and vocalist for local band Speak Easy. He’s wearing aviator sunglasses with colored lenses and pointing to the vehicles surrounding the house.
It’s a Wednesday in February, and preparations for Speak Easy’s next show are underway. In a cramped living room bathed in late-afternoon light, another band member, Jack Clements, sits at his drum set. A keyboard, a guitar, a bass, bongo drums with chimes and a saxophone fill the practice space, wires and amps weaved in between.
The room is divided by two mismatched couches, the back half home to random items: a medieval knight’s suit of armor, a mattress, a vaccuum, a cluttered desk. The band started hosting their own shows here, a house they’ve dubbed Historic Jack’s House, in 2020, inviting other bands from the area and around Florida to join in. Guitarist and vocalist Eric Yoder tells me the name is a nod to the band’s sense of humor and is partly inspired by an episode of “South Park.”
The band sits on a long couch, Porter, Clements and Yoder plus keyboard player and vocalist K Sahagian. Yoder talks about how they got started, meeting at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg around 2014-15 and doing open mics at the on-campus bar.
Each member’s musical influences overlap and complement each other: The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, The Eagles, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd.
“A lot of us have a lot of love and reverence for the ’70s and the late ’60s,” Clements said.
As for their own sound? That’s a little harder to define.
“We’ve been called indie funk,” Porter said. “Soul. Stuff like that. Indie. Indie indie indie.”
“As far as yeah, independent artist, we’re definitely indie,” Clements added, “but I think ‘indie’ kind of has a new definition over time. Like a harder rock kind of feel to it.”
The band’s hard-to-nail-down sound is part of a larger music industry trend of melding styles and crossing genres. Their music reflects the free-flowing creativity of a group constantly trying out new things.
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The band’s earliest release on Spotify is a 2018 EP called “Living Room.” Listening to it, you can almost imagine the living room of mismatched furniture and heads bent over notes and lyrics. The groovy bass lines and Sahagian’s unmistakable vocal stylings carry through to their 2019 EP “Bloom,” which has added maturity and storytelling (particularly on “Cecilia”).
The band really hit their stride with “Grapefruit,” a 2020 single that is their most-listened-to track on Spotify, with nearly 200,000 streams. Be careful, or “can you tell a drug like mine from a cheap wine” will circle your head for days. Speak Easy’s most recent release, a 2022 single called “Moving Up/Breaking Through,” is similarly catchy with nicely paired falsettos and a foot-tapping melody.
A few days after that practice session, on a night with perfect Florida weather, the band welcomed around 150 people to float in and out of the house’s spacious backyard, illuminated with blue and pink lights. A makeshift floor served as the stage as MADWOMAN, a Gainesville-based band, kicked off the night with their own jazzy vibe. Glass House Point, an alt-rock band out of Lakeland, would finish out the night later, after Speak Easy’s set.
At five bucks a head, the show drew a range of 20-somethings in hip outfits and even a few older St. Pete residents still connected to their alternative roots. It was the first house show Speak Easy charged a cover for — they usually ask for donations — and given the turnout, they’ll be able to pay the other bands and still have money to help with their own future endeavors, Porter said.
It’s Tommy Smith’s fourth show at Historic Jack’s House. His girlfriend, who knows Speak Easy, turned him on to their music about a year ago and he’s been coming ever since. Smith is a musician living in Tampa, and he comes to St. Pete often for shows because the scene isn’t as “buttoned-up.”
“It brings the right kind of people and type of music,” he said. “Musicians appreciate good music and [Speak Easy is] very talented. They know good music and they’re very humble.”
For a band without a self-proclaimed sound, their discography is a map of well-fitting pieces that tells the story of musicians only growing in skill.
“We just want to make music that feels good,” Porter said.
The band has been hard at work the past couple of years spreading that music through live shows. They’ve played nearly every venue in town, including starring at the Gasparilla Music Festival. Porter estimates they’ve played over 400 shows at more than 50 venues in the past five years. They started hosting shows at Historic Jack’s House when they craved more control over the process.
But there’s a ceiling for a band like Speak Easy in Tampa Bay, and they feel like they’ve hit it.
“There’s a lot of growth right now and there’s a lot of really exciting genre mixing,” Porter said. “There’s a good future ahead, but we’re currently pigeonholed a little bit.”
“You can try to get bigger crowds at these same venues, but at the same time you have to start branching out,” Yoder added.
For Speak Easy, that means playing their way up the East Coast. They’re starting with two tours this year in April and May, hoping to capture new audiences in cities like Atlanta, Asheville, Charlotte, Charleston and Nashville. That also means scoping out new cities that may have the music infrastructure, like labels and managers, that Tampa Bay doesn’t have. Another perk of touring: meeting new people who can help them reach greater heights.
“The more friends you make in these places, the better it goes for you,” Yoder said.
Yoder explains part of the strategy is to meet other, bigger bands who might invite them to do a tour run, exposing Speak Easy to even more people and continuing to grow the fan base in measured but impactful ways.
“I feel like there’s some sort of barrier here where even if we find success, it doesn’t branch out to other areas of Florida as easily,” Clements said.
But they are definitely making new music, as a debut album hovers on the horizon.
“I think the whole project is more fun than a lot of stuff that we’ve done in the past. The songs are way more upbeat,” Sahagian said. “We have a theme song on there, and some of the other tracks are a little silly.”
Their plan is to release a single within the next month or so and host another house show later this month or in April. They’ve also got Tampa Bay venue shows coming up, too.
When Speak Easy takes the “stage” at their recent show at Historic Jack’s House, there’s a visible shift. People who were chatting inside amble onto a wooden porch. The line for the food vendor selling nachos in a bag dwindles. Clapping scatters around the crowd, now alert and captivated. The band starts playing and people instantly jibe.
They weave well-known covers between new songs and some of their most popular originals. The crowd sings along to all of it. Their rendition of Harry Styles’ “As It Was” is a particular favorite. The power blinks out poetically at the end of a song and the band rushes to reset the breaker as the audience illuminates the space with phone flashlights and cheers them on. Yoder tells everyone it happens at least once every show.
They finish up their set, taking much longer than would be afforded to bands playing a venue show, and bow to whoops and hollers.