OTR couple transforms home into music venue

At first glance, 213 Orchard St. is simply a beautiful, two-story brick home nestled in historic Over-The-Rhine. But a few nights throughout the year, music lovers Liz and John McEwan transform the first-floor library of that home into a private venue—213 Listening Room. The 15-by-27-foot space accommodates up to 40 people to enjoy intimate events ranging from house concerts and film screenings to poetry readings.
The McEwans, who have been together eight years, live a busy life. John works as a construction manager for Habitat for Humanity and Liz as a part-time event coordinator for Keep Cincinnati Beautiful. When they’re not entertaining strangers, they’re spending time with their children—aged 5, 3 and 10 months.
Here, the McEwans share how the 213 Listening Room got started, the enjoyment of inviting strangers into their home and what to expect in the future.

Tell me a little bit about how this all got started. How did you two meet?

John: About 10 years ago, I had a house full of college guys I mentored in Clifton. We had several shows at that house; it had a large living space—sort of a big great room. I was a musician then and had a lot of musician friends. They could feed me some of the small-name people they really liked, and it was easy to throw, say, 30 people together to just hang out, drink wine and listen to good music. Then I met Liz, who’s also a musician. She started to play around here, and I would go hear her because I was really into her. That’s when we were courting and getting to know each other.

Liz: I’m originally from the Chicago area. Nine years ago, when I first moved here, I lived in Northside. I was dating someone who lived here, but that relationship ended. I was an AmeriCorps volunteer at the time, so I couldn’t just leave. I stuck it out for that year, and, about midway through the year, I met John. He’s always been a real champion for Cincinnati, in my mind. I was very skeptical, but he introduced me to all his favorite places and his friends. I fell in love with the city and, really, our relationship hinges on this neighborhood. We met while I was working at Kaldi’s on Main Street, and we got married downtown. Our first apartment is six blocks away from here. Then we landed this fantastic house on this amazing street. And, when we saw this space, we could tell it would be a good space for entertaining people.

Was a big space like this a requirement for you when looking to buy a house?
Liz: It wasn’t necessarily a requirement. We didn’t have an official list.
John: If we didn’t do something here, we would do something somewhere else. We’d rent a space big enough for entertaining. 

How long have you been hosting events here, and how did you choose the name?

Liz: We started hosting events soon after we moved in, and we’ve been in this house four years. We’d been hosting similar events in our previous places, and it’s just sort of moved with us, I guess. We didn’t ever name it before. But when I was trying to find a way to promote the things we were doing, I had to choose something. I started using our address as the recognizable and easy way to find us.

John: We also had to finalize a venue specifically for certain types of artists. As the scale of the artists increased, so did their contracts that demanded that you have a little more formality.

Liz: And we chose to call it the Listening Room to make sure both the artists and the guests know what to expect. 

You both seem pretty comfortable with inviting strangers into your home. Tell me what that’s like. 
Liz: It’s amazing how many times people have told me, ‘I could never have so many people—especially strangers—in my house like that.’ And my response is usually to ask, ‘But then why do you have so much space? Why have a big house that you’re only using for yourself?’ This house isn’t huge, but I would feel like we’re wasting it if we didn’t invite other people to come share it with us. We don’t see our home as our own private kingdom.
How often do you host events? Is there a set schedule? 
Liz: No, we don’t have a set schedule. We’ve hosted about four or five events a year. This past spring, we were really busy; we had artists every two weeks. Some things are booked last-minute, but it really depends on who’s coming. We’re kind of particular about who we have. But if one of our favorite artists was coming through next week, we would make sure we were available.
John: Because we don’t keep a consistent schedule, we don’t book artists just because they’re available or because someone wants to play here. Most of the time it’s people we’re interested in, who we have a relationship with, and who we know can sell a show.
Do you make any money made from ticket sales?
Liz: All of the money goes directly to the artist. We don’t take any money for rental costs or the food and drinks we provide. Usually the artist handles the costs—selling tickets—by themselves. We’ve done a few fundraisers where the artists have donated the money to somewhere. Part of the legality of what we do is that we don’t sell anything. We are not a licensed venue.
What is your favorite part about hosting these kind of events in your home?
John: I think that sense of hospitality is what really draws it out for me. I think all I ever wanted in my life, period, was for all of my friends to be in one room at the same time. I don’t want stuff. I don’t want some big vacation. I want all my friends in the same room, because there’s this magic that happens where organic connections are made. I love that. When you begin to do those same things with people you don’t know at all, I think that’s the real sort of genuine, honest nature of hospitality. We’re recovering the old way to get to know people and to care for them. With kids, we don’t have the ability to get out and meet people. This really does draw in people who are not necessarily in the same stage of their life as us.
Liz: If we are going to choose a way to spend our money and time, we’d rather choose to invest it in something like this. I’m not naturally a very extroverted or social person, so this is sort of a healthy outlet for me to interact with people in a way that is more natural for me than going out and small talking. Everyone loves food, and everyone loves music. If you can get a little bit of food, wine and music all in one place, everybody can enjoy it. I also love the fact that we get to be a part of the Cincinnati music scene in this phase of our life where it’s hard to get out and participate the way we used to. This may not be the most creative stage in my life, but when we get to sit in the back of the room and listen to some of our favorite music with 40 strangers, with everyone singing along and enjoying themselves, it’s very fulfilling as an artist.

Are there any big plans in the future for 213 Listening Room? 
Liz: I’m a part of local co-op called Blue Jordan Records. We’ve been talking about doing a concert or series together here. There are a few artists, like Mandolin Orange from North Carolina, who have talked about coming back. And we, of course, have a wish list of our favorite songwriters and musicians. We did a film screening, which was cool, and I’d be interested in doing that again. John is also a painter and sculptor, so he would be interested in turning the room into a gallery space for a local artist. In a perfect world, I would love more space and more people. If we live here long-term, which is the plan, my hope is that we can always maintain this space for hospitality. But even if the Listening Room is just a season of our lives, we’ll always be looking for ways to use our house so we’re not holed up inside by ourselves.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Soapbox readers?
John: One of the things I feel passionate about is that anyone can do this. The end goal is not for us to create our own enclave of artists. We have a bigger thing going on, which is helping people get better at creating culture. I believe that hospitality is really important, but it’s a lost art. We need to re-learn how to do things like make food and have music and philosophy and art in our homes, and then invite both friends and strangers to join us.
Liz: And one of the things I always make sure to tell the people who come here from outside the city is that this is a great neighborhood. If you come, don’t just come for the show. Come early, go get dinner, watch the show, then go out and try to get the whole neighborhood experience. We are one small piece of something really fantastic.
For a list of the artists who have played at 213, visit 213 Listening Room’s website