Irena Hart

Irena Hart introduces a song from the stage. (Marc Ferris photo / July 24, 2013)

Songwriting is alive and well in Fairfield County. For proof, look to the growing popularity of the Singer/Songwriter Circle held at Two Boots in Bridgeport on Monday nights.

"Be careful what you wish for," joked hostess Irena Hart from the stage recently as she took in the big crowd that filled the dining room on what can often be a slow night.

The scene began on a lark when Hart appeared on WPKN and told host Bob D'Aprile about her experience at a successful songwriter showcase in New York City. He replied that Monday nights at Two Boots would be a perfect time to try it out.

"I said one thing to Bob and look what happened," she said.

At a recent gathering, a dozen performers took the stage, mostly on guitar, though Tim Payson set up an electronic keyboard and Hart performed a song on ukulele. The vibe is loose and supportive and the evening unfolds like an open mic, where performers take turns showcasing their work.

Hart strolled in a half hour after starting time, owing to her hippie nature, she said, though she is a trained engineer with ten patents to her name. She performed two songs, but joined in on a few numbers by other performers with a djembe in hand.

"I don't like to hog the stage," she said. "I want everyone to have fun."

Hart, who lives in Fairfield, retains a hint of an accent after moving here at age 12 from the Ukraine. Her relaxed, unhurried style derives from a rejection of conformity: "I lived in a communist country long enough; I want to have some freedom," she said.

All of the performers played with confidence and passion. Payson, from Milford, noticed a posting for the event on Facebook and after Hart reassured him that a keyboard would be welcome, he decided to stop in.

"Open mics can be jam-packed, but this is a good experience," he said. "I don't normally get a chance to play my originals and I credit anyone who performs solo. It takes guts because there's no one to hide behind."

One of his selections, "You Belong With Me," featured a talking blues delivery in the style of Bob Dylan.

After Buddy Valiante performed the song "Dead Flowers" by the Rolling Stones, Hart asked him why the band inspired him. She prefers that people play originals, but also encourages performers to discuss their influences and provide some backstory to their muse. Valiante obliged by explaining the origins of his melancholy song "Angel to Discover," which captures adolescent longing and features a plaintive melody along with well-placed minor chords.

Hart referred to Michelle Trefzger and Tony Regets as VIP performers.

The duo performed "Hit the Streets," which features a catchy chorus, creative chord patterns transitioning from the verse and a taut ending. Trefzger played bottleneck slide on another selection with an interesting bridge, and "The Eraser," a riff-rock tune, offered a few funk chords and interlocking guitar parts.

"This is an enjoyable, low-pressure scene," said Trefzger, who lives in Devon. "If you're doing an original and you mess up, no one's really going to know. I could be playing in my kitchen, but it's better to come out and get some experience before an audience."

KJ Hurley and Tony Legg harmonized well on the easy-listening song "Missing You," as Hart danced and clapped at the side of the stage. Jangly chords and staccato strumming brought a little variation to the catchy number "Cold Sunrise."

Shannon McMahon, a regular, channeled her inner Joni Mitchell on "The Sum of My Years," whose ringing open chords transitioned to a melodic interlude. Intricate fingerpicking elevated the song "Anyway," and "Emotional Vampire" featured a big sound and a pop hook before it ended on a minor chord.

Another serious performer, Greg Buzi, filled the room with his deep voice.

Two of his three selections, "Gabriel" and "Hymn to the Otokos," centered on biblical themes and made the most of simple chord progressions.

D'Aprile, who books Two Boots and works the sound, records many of the performances with an eye toward broadcasting them on his radio show, perhaps beginning in the fall.

In addition to the songwriter circle, Hart uses music to help local kids. After a chance encounter with a group of homeless teens in New York City, she founded Harmony4Kidz, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk youth through music and the arts. She has partnered with the Greater Bridgeport Area Prevention Program to sponsor after-school programs, and the organizations will hold a benefit concert at Fairfield Theatre Company in September.

On Monday nights, Hart will continue to serve as den mother to the region's singer-songwriters. "Something like this is really needed in Bridgeport," she said. "There are so many amazing and talented people here."