By Portia Medina
Across from the football field at Granada Hills Charter High School, three wiry teenage boys assemble the marquee at the First Presbyterian Church to read “The Breathing Room.” Inside the fellowship hall, a youthful man with a kind face covered in a short scruffy golden beard with warm brown eyes directs the boys. 29-year-old Justin Souza is the founder and heart behind The Breathing Room.
In November 2009, The Breathing Room became the newest addition to the list of all-ages music venues in the LA area. This is a dream come true for Souza, who has had the desire to open up an all-ages venue since he was a youngster. The closest all-ages spot to catch a show where he grew up was 45 minutes away.
Souza often found himself isolated in his interest in independent music as a young man growing up in a small town in Central California. “It was the coolest thing ever if I could find a ride to Fresno and get to a show,” says Souza. “The best time of my life as a teenager was being at a show, that feeling of excitement and experiencing live music as a young person.” The importance of that has stuck with him his entire life.
The San Fernando Valley lacked a place for young people to hang out where they feel a sense of belonging and community, according to Souza. “Music brings people together and there is a human need to connect tangibly and in person with people,” says Souza. Social networking and texting has taken away many young people’s abilities to interact on a human level. Souza’s passion drove him to create a space in the valley for young people.
The Breathing Room’s name comes from the idea of being a breath of fresh air in a community that is saturated in billboards, traffic, streetlights and strip malls. “Sometimes you just need to escape that environment, and we are that breath of fresh air,” says Souza. His personal beliefs are consistent with that of The Breathing Room.
As a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Granada Hills, Souza volunteered as a youth advisor for six years with junior high and high school kids. The youth facility started to develop over the years with sound and lighting equipment, so Souza teamed up with the youth director and used the resources available after making a proposal to the church that they embraced with enthusiasm.
“They think it’s one of the most exciting things that the church has ever been able to be a part of,” says Souza. In the fellowship hall of the church, brown carpet crawls halfway up the walls to meet the stucco that lines the vaulted ceiling. Once a month, the volunteer crew transforms this room into The Breathing Room.
The sound engineering, ticketing and concessions are all volunteer run. In fact, the only paid personnel are the professional security guards who also provide security at the House of Blues. Five high school kids, who are also musicians, serve as the stage crew every month. The warmhearted feeling that Souza gets from the smiles on young patrons’ faces is more than enough compensation for him. He is a mentor and a friend to the kids.
Isaiah Tejada, 18, has become a fixture at The Breathing Room since the first time he stepped through the door. He was surprised when Souza contacted him directly after he sent an e-mail to see if his band, Broad Awake, could open a show at The Breathing Room more than a year ago.
He is now a volunteer that assists with sound checks and getting the bands’ equipment set up in the afternoon before the show. “Justin and I got to know each other through The Breathing Room, and we are really good friends now,” says Tejada. “The Breathing Room is a safe and cool place to play your music for your friends.” The care and attention that bands receive at The Breathing Room is uncommon to most LA venues, according to Isaiah.
There are two rooms set up specifically for the bands in the backstage area of The Breathing Room. One door leads to the catering room with a safari themed paint job, complete with zebras, elephants and gorillas. This is where they set up the catered meal that is brought in for the bands before each show. The second door leads to the green room equipped with plush couches, a TV and a foosball table where the bands can chill. This is the kind of unique environment that Souza provides at The Breathing Room.
Souza has reached out to Kevin Erickson, director of the All-Ages Movement Project (AMP), to offer himself up as a resource for the cause. The Breathing Room is right in line with AMP’s philosophy. “I love what they are doing, and if there’s any way that I can get more involved or if they have any job openings, I’m down,” says Souza. He feels a sense of responsibility to young people in his community and everywhere.
“Every kid deserves a place where they can go and participate in live music regardless of whether they’re in a big or small city, whether your community is well resourced or impoverished,” says 30-year-old Erickson. This has become the foundation for many all-ages venues that have cropped up across the nation in recent years and registered with the AMP.
Nestled in downtown Seattle, right around the corner from the Space Needle, is where you will find AMP. It is a social network designed specifically by young people and for young people to connect through music and art in their communities, but they offer much more than a hub to find all-ages music venues nearest you. AMP encourages young people to get involved in their own community’s live music and art culture; they also give you the tools to do so.
A collection of nine writers from different youth arts and music organizations put their knowledge and experience together in a book called, “In Every Town: An All-Ages Music Manualfesto.” This book has helped ignite and propel all-ages music and arts venues across the nation. The majority of these are run on a volunteer basis by and for young people. “Community organizations are uniquely built to serve their locales and are shaped by their founders,” according to chapter one. No one knows this better than Souza.
A wealth of knowledge is available in Souza with his professional background. Having interned with the director of tour development at the House of Blues, assisted a booking agent at International Creative Management, and now managing tour merchandise at Bands Merch for the past five years. “I try to help out bands that are touring professionally and still trying to figure out how to be a business,” says Souza. He also provides an invaluable service to young people interested in getting involved in the music industry.
Souza and Tejada share ideas now about how to make The Breathing Room better for the bands that play there and the people in the community. “Sometimes we share bands with each other to figure out new possibilities for the next month’s show,” says Tejada. “I guess he is a mentor, but he’s also a really good friend.” Souza is deliberate in cultivating a positive atmosphere for young people at The Breathing Room.
Every all-ages venue is designed specifically to fit the needs of the community and the environment in which it’s established. The Breathing Room is an example of the type of innovation and radical thinking that AMP fosters. “When you’re invested in the community you’re in, you want to dig your heels in and protect it,” says Erickson. The Breathing Room has given many young people in the San Fernando Valley a place to call home.
For more info on the breathing room: http://www.facebook.com/thebreathingroomallages