Outside in the 61-degree La Mesa cold, people huddle around fire pits, chomping on kettle corn and washing it down with hot cocoa. A large crowd is forming around a makeshift stage where a man talks to an animatronic Christmas tree, coming off as something akin to Blue's Clues without the stoner appeal.
It could be 34th Street, sans snow and miracles.
But if not miraculous, there certainly was an air of magic inside Cosmos Café, where Annie Bethancourt, after playfully conversing with the audience on the hypocrisy of "Chrismahanukwanzakah," slides into "We Three Kings." Everyone seems to know the song-after all, the night is called "Christmas in the Village," not "Holiday Festival" or something more secular. But they haven't heard it with Bethancourt's voice-a lucid mixture of Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple that goes from hushed whispers, operatic heights, and then coal-walking wails, all within the same song.
It makes me wonder, What is frankincense and why does it sound so appealing?
"I don't know what it is," Bethancourt explains after her set. "I think it's oil-no, it's incense! That's it!"
(It's actually oil.)
This kind of conversation is typical of Bethancourt. She has the look and humor of the girl next door, and talking to her is like chatting with an old friend. And while there certainly is no shortage of, much less demand for, another girl-with-guitar singer-songwriter, she has a rare combination of attributes: authenticity and approachability. Her attraction is not physical or visceral-you just believe what comes out of her mouth.
"I kinda feel like some people always want you to be pretty and perfect and pristine," she says. "I really learned that vulnerability and fragility in your voice and performance can be really powerful. You can be indier-than-thou, but you still have to have some level of approachability, some level of talent."
Whether she'll admit it or not, Bethancourt's affable nature has a lot to do with her Orange County childhood. Raised in the church, her father was an Episcopalian priest who met her mother when they performed in the Christian folk group, God Unlimited. Bethancourt fondly remembers singing in the choir and performing in some of her dad's original musicals ("Noah's Fabulous Floating Zoo was great," she says). She didn't pick up a guitar until college, where she discovered artists like Ben Harper and Elliott Smith, and says writing songs was like childbirth: painful, but ultimately rewarding.
"It'd be the last thing I said to people when they asked me what I did. "Oh, I'm a waitress, a surf instructor and I'm trying to do music,'" she explains. "It's cool because now I don't feel like an imposter. Now, it's a good day at work."
Her debut recording, The NorthNorthEast EP, blended standard singer-songwriter fare (mortal and spiritual love, losing both, etc.) with wit and wisdom. She says that it all came home for her, though, when she was nominated for "Best Local Recording" at the 2005 San Diego Music Awards. She didn't win, but to hear her tell it, she did.
"I always felt like I was the dorky kid in school that no one would sit with," she says. "And when I got the nomination, I was the prom queen."
As the people shuffle out of Cosmos Café and into the cold night, hardly anyone passes without approaching her. An adolescent skate punk buys a CD and a pin from her and as he walks off, Bethancourt delights at the fact that he attaches the pin to his hat.
"Oh, that is so awesome. Skater boys love me!"
Annie Bethancourt plays at Lestat's on Jan. 6. Check www.anniebeth.com.