Homeless SLO jazz singer uses music to support herself
When Deborah Gilmore first fell into homelessness, it was a “shock” that threw her life into uncertainty.
“Have you ever been in a situation where you were traumatized by something or something that you didn’t expect?” asked the San Luis Obispo resident.
It was like coping with the daily reality of not having a roof over your head.
“You are present, but your mind is not in the present,” she said.
Gilmore, however, was not completely without options.
In fact, one skill in particular has served her well as she sees her way through what she calls her “distress”: music.
How singing helped get out of homelessness
Gilmore’s experience with homelessness began years ago in the Santa Ynez Valley following what she describes as a private family issue that resulted in her losing her home, after which she moved to SLO to get back on their feet.
Towards the start of her period of homelessness, Gilmore said she began to reconnect with her love of music by visiting a library in Santa Barbara. There she was able to listen to some of her favorite artists, including Nancy Wilson, Natalie Cole, Frank Sinatra and Al Jarreau, whom she called a “huge influence” on her performances.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what I was missing: the music,’ and it just popped into my head,” she said.
Several years ago, Gilmore said she used to host community events in her hometown of Santa Ynez, including hiring local musical acts and artists.
With this realization, Gilmore said she began developing a plan to come out in front of the public and stage herself.
She recruited Cal Poly music students and local musicians to complement her band, which provides live instrumentals to accompany her vocals. Gilmore, who does not read or write music, said working with professionals brings him “joy” because of their wide musical range.
“They say all this musical jargon (during rehearsals) and I just look at them and say, ‘So when do you want me home? “, She said. “I’m in heaven, because I sing everything I’ve always wanted to sing.
Now, Gilmore is beginning a series of promotional shows leading up to one of the biggest venues she’s had a chance to perform at: the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo on October 25 at 7:30 p.m.
“All of this work over the past two years has positioned me to now take on something like PAC,” Gilmore said. It just means more sponsors — I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing for two years, but the bill is a little higher. I need to increase my ticket sales and increase my sponsorships, but what a big step – the work will be worth it.
Community members and local businesses helped propel Gilmore’s performance
In a world that she says suffers from a “lack of compassion” for homeless people, Gilmore said the SLO community has accepted her and her aspirations as a musician.
When she became homeless in SLO, she was alone, without the structured life she had grown up with in a military family.
“At first I didn’t know how to ask you for help – I was too scared to ask,” Gilmore said. “You are the person who could provide me with the data and the person who could help me in some way. I didn’t know how to do that.”
Living hand to mouth in hotels and temporary living situations, Gilmore accumulated income by begging and working to promote her music career, calling herself a “homeless entrepreneur”.
During the day, Gilmore often travels around the community, hanging up flyers for her upcoming shows and connecting with local business owners to promote her performances.
Angela Arnold, manager of the Rocket Fizz candy store in downtown SLO, said she was happy to sponsor Gilmore, including allowing him to hang one of her promotional posters in the store window.
She said her company also helped Gilmore financially in exchange for advertising the company at his shows.
“It depends on each gig, but I think we donated $200 and she put our name on her flyer,” Arnold said.
Another local business owner, Josh Ashby of Mint & Craft, said he has been supporting the performance since first meeting Gilmore in 2021.
He said his company was “pleased” to sponsor Gilmore through donations, free meals and space for his performances.
“The way she always talks about it is, ‘Hey, let’s help each other,’ which I really appreciate,” Ashby said. “She looks at it like it’s not just about me, it’s also about you and your business.”
Gilmore performed from the Mint & Craft patio for patrons and passers-by, which Ashby said his patrons enjoyed.
“Everyone loves it,” Ashby said. “She’s amazing, and she has such a presence about her – I love that – just that kind of energy that she carries around music.”
Ashby said he was “amazed” by the number of people and businesses in the SLO community who supported Gilmore during his time as a performer.
All of its promotion, Gilmore said, is through word of mouth and help from community members; which has about thirty sponsors.
“The more I attend these events, the more people talk about them,” she said. “It’s a small community, so word will spread quickly. Instagram has been super powerful.
On Gilmore’s Instagram — named @mobettajazzmusic in honor of director Spike Lee’s 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues” – she has amassed over 600 followers, whom she keeps up to date with her work and new shows.
Leading up to his PAC performance, Gilmore is hosting a series of promotional shows at companies like Mint & Craft on Sept. 4 and Ragtag Wine Co. on Sept. 10 and Oct. 8, as well as a show at Antigua Brewing Company on Sept. 25.
Gilmore also said she is accepting donations on GoFundMe to fund her. upcoming event at PAC.
Music kept Gilmore’s spirit strong during the worst stresses of homelessness
Gilmore said the pressures of living in a state of constant instability caused her trauma and stress, enough to impact her physical health as much as her mental health.
Prior to his period of homelessness and his move to SLO, Gilmore had worked for approximately 30 years as a football referee at all levels of play, from high school to semi-professional men’s leagues in Santa Maria.
She said her experience in sports made her mind and body strong enough to face the worst of her homelessness experience.
“I don’t have a drug problem. I don’t have a mental problem, nor an alcohol problem,” she said. “I am educated and right-minded. It’s a blessing to be sane despite this trauma.
Since becoming homeless, Gilmore has found shelter at night in motels and with people who have opened their doors to her.
Now that her music has had more success, Gilmore said she has the option of moving into more permanent housing in SLO County.
“If a person can endure this type of life for years, it shows the strength we have as human beings, but that’s not what we should be fighting for,” Gilmore said. “This country can do better than that.”
She said that depending on the success of the PAC event, she has a chance of being noticed by people who could connect her with bigger opportunities. As these opportunities open up, travel to other cities, states and countries may also be possible.
In the short term, however, Gilmore has found accommodation in Atascadero, which she hopes to move into soon.
“That’s how I survive, making my music,” she said. “Music says to the world, ‘I’m not going to give up.'”