MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Natalia King, Bitch, and Songs of Yoko Ono

Welcome to Audiofemme’s record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. The last Monday of each month, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

“Well, they call me a hard-headed woman/I tell ‘em ‘I work at it every day’” is the proud, take-no-prisoners opening line from the title track of Natalia King’s latest album, Woman Mind of My Own (DixieFrog Records). It’s an album reverberating with the unvarnished power of the blues — despite most of it being recorded in Paris, where the Brooklyn-born King is now based.

At its heart, the blues is an expression of profound human emotions, and King’s album resonates with deep feeling. “AKA Chosen” is a stirring song of self-empowerment. “Once was part/but now I’m whole,” King sings, as the simple guitar opening gives way to a stomping beat and lively backing chorus. “Forget Yourself” seduces with an insinuating tenor sax solo. “So Far Away” is a compelling portrait of estrangement in a relationship. “Play On” cleverly uses gambling metaphors in its dissection of the game of love, as a moaning slide guitar hints of the danger that may lie ahead. Along with her own songs, there’s also an interesting selection of covers; a reflective rendition of John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” and a wonderfully intimate version of George Michael’s “One More Try.”

State of the world got you down? A little Bitchcraft (Kill Rock Stars) will lift those spirits. “You’re the man, you’re the man, you’re the man,” Bitch sings in the song of that name, ending the litany with the telling reminder, “Well, I’m the woman.” Yes, she certainly is. The artist, formerly one half of queercore duo Bitch and Animal, has created an album that delights and dazzles, from the bright pop of “You’re the Man” (with its rallying cry “In the underground, the most amazing sound/We sing through everything that tries to cut us down”) to the stark, brittle sounds that percolate in “Easy Target,” to the soothing harmonies of “Polar Bear,” which imagines the natural beauty of a world without humanity.

She’s as much a visual artist as a musician. Check out the eye-popping video for “Hello Meadow!” – the explosive color and rapid-fire editing match its pointed lyrics attacking the corporate greed that’s destroying the natural beauty of our delicate planet. The more somber “Nothing in My Pockets” dissects the nature of heartbreak with the liberal use of black light and streaks of day-glo paint. Aurally and visually, Bitchcraft casts an enticing spell.

This month marked Yoko Ono’s 89th birthday, on February 18, and in celebration of that event comes a new tribute to her work, Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono (Canvasback Music/Atlantic Records/Chimera Music). The various artists compilation was conceived and curated by Ben Gibbard, lead singer/guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie, in hopes of generating new appreciation for her work.

Ono was originally a visual artist, and, more enigmatically a “conceptual artist,” as demonstrated by such “instructional poems” as this — “Painting To Be Constructed In Your Head: Observe three paintings carefully. Mix them well in your head” (from her book Grapefruit). Not coming from a traditional rock or conventional pop music background gives Ono’s music its unique quality; she’s made up her own rules about how she wants to make music. Hence the nursery rhyme in the middle of “Dogtown,” a song that benefits greatly from Sudan Archives’ cool delivery.

There’s also an undercurrent of sadness in much of her work. It’s understandable in a track like the haunting ballad “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” (a beautiful performance by Japanese Breakfast), which was written in the wake of the murder of her husband, John Lennon. But it’s also there in “Run, Run, Run,” which predated that tragic event, in which a “run to the light” becomes a “run for your life;” Amber Coffman’s rendition has a decided Americana vibe. Other contributors include U.S. Girls, Thao Nguyen, Sharon Van Etten, and The Flaming Lips, making for an imaginative collection honoring an equally creative artist.  

MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Tele Novella, Lael Neale, Lau & Dusty Springfield

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

Tele Novella hails from Lockhart, Texas (33 miles south of Austin), and their music is so multi-faceted it almost defies description. “Coin-operated medieval pop songs through a 1960s western lens” is how their Twitter bio puts it, which gives you some idea. They take country, pop, indie, and folk, and twist it all into delightfully unexpected shapes.

“Words That Stay” is the striking opening number of the duo’s new album, Merylnn Belle (Kill Rock Stars). On the surface, it sounds like a song about a lost love. But Natalie Ribbons’ dry, husky voice has enough bite in it that you’re left unsettled. Something’s not quite right here. Something’s a little off-center. And that’s the hook that draws you in.

The album’s homespun sound is the result of recording on an 8-track cassette deck. Neither Ribbons or her co-collaborator Jason Chronis were keen on doing many overdubs, so minor mistakes were left in, and the use of vintage microphones adds further atmosphere. This record takes you into another realm. “Paper Crown” is a surreal nursery rhyme. “Crystal Witch” is a spooky fairy tale. The soft-shoe shuffle of “Technicolor Town” is the closing lullaby that sends you off to sleep with Ribbons howling like a wolf. Imaginative, captivating and intriguing.

Lael Neale also opted for simplicity in making Acquainted With Night (Sub Pop), recording on 4-track cassette, accompanied only by an Omnichord (an electronic instrument that produces both chiming music notes and pre-programmed beats, and is smaller than a keyboard). There’s a delicate gracefulness to the songs, even as they touch on sadness and longing. The beautifully-titled “Every Star Shivers in the Dark” is a song of aching vulnerability, with such haunting images as Neale waving to a man in a prison tower, though there’s a glimmer of hope by the end.

“How Far Is It to the Grave” is another evocative song; mortality, as seen from the perspective of a child, a lover, a banker, a slave owner. Neale’s empathetic, crystal-clear voice makes the song sound like a prayer, lifting it from despondency. The title track is a shimmering, seductive number about how very different things become under the “cold, white shape of the moon.” And “Some Sunny Day” is a song of farewell, of looking back and having no regrets as the sands run out. Neale’s lyrics also have the elegance of poetry: “I’ve known the sand that made the pearl inside my mind.”

Anyone whose tastes run to synthpop/synthwave has likely crossed paths with Lau (aka Laura Fares) over the past decade. The Argentinian-born musician relocated to the UK at the age of 17. After years of working as a session drummer, DJ, and teaming up with Nina Boldt on the albums Sleepwalking and Synthian (credited to “Nina featuring Lau”), she’s now stepped out on her own as a solo artist, with her debut album, Believer, released on her own Aztec Records label.

The album kicks off with “Stunning,” an instantly catchy track that’s one of the most effervescent breakup songs you’ll ever hear; it’s a smooth, streamlined, fuel-injected ride to freedom, an “I Will Survive” for the 21st century. The deluxe version of the album also features a “Popcorn Kid Nocturnal mix” of the track, reworking it into a slower paced, sultry ballad. There are remixes of four other album tracks as well. The soulful “True” is presented in three versions; an original, ethereal mix, a decidedly poppier “Luke Million Remix,” and a more dance-oriented “Austin Apologue Remix.” Indeed, Lau conjures up such a mesmerizing groove, it’s easy to forget that the album’s theme is the fallout generated by the end of a relationship. The rock-steady, electronic beats of “Recognise,” “Unable,” and the cover of HAIM’s “Now I’m in It” are sparkling sweet treats.

From 1969 to 1971, Dusty Springfield recorded some of her best work for Atlantic Records, moving from the pop songs that had made her a star to the soul music she’d always loved. On Dusty in Memphis (1969) she was backed by the legendary “Memphis Boys,” an informal group of studio musicians who played on hit records by Neil Diamond, Merilee Rush, and Wilson Pickett, among others, and the equally acclaimed Sweet Inspirations, the all-female backing group who recorded with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison, and toured with Elvis Presley in the 1970s. On A Brand New Me (1970), she worked with noted songwriting/production team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (“Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Love Train,” and “When Will I See You Again,” to name a few). The best-known song from those years is of course Springfield’s classic rendition of “Son of Preacher Man,” with “The Windmills of Your Mind” running a close second. Now all of Springfield’s Atlantic 7-inchers have been compiled on The Complete Atlantic Singles 1968-1971 (Real Gone Music). Only eight of the 24 tracks have appeared on CD before, in their original mono mixes. It’s wonderful to hear sterling non-album tracks like “I Believe in You” and “Haunted” in such suburb quality.

TeaMarrr Lets Loose With Candid Lyrics and Crossover Appeal on Before I Spill Myself EP

Haitian-American R&B artist TeaMarrr‘s latest EP Before I Spill Myself began as a humorous and candid exploration of sex and love – but somehow, the songs turned into something more than that. For instance, “Doin It Wrong” rips into a bad lover, but after releasing the music, she realized it was healing people in more ways than she anticipated. “At first, I felt guilty or ashamed that I was like ‘look at me, look at me,'” she says of promoting the release. “But people are actually using this to find themselves and escape and find a little break form the madness.” In the same spirit, “One Job” describes a man who gets “emotional” when she only signed up for “the dick;” on social media, activists began re-appropriating the lyrics in service of social justice, writing statements like “they only have one job: arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” and “they only have one job: protest,” says the singer.

When she recorded Before I Spill Myself, TeaMarrr was “trying to put a beginning, middle, and end to the feeling of meeting somebody and falling for them and realizing they weren’t it,” she says. “I wanted it to be through my heartbreak and betrayal. I just wanted to put something out that’s relatable and medicinal for people that are going through it in the same way that I was, when it comes to being unsure of yourself.”

With her brazen lyrics and crossover appeal, TeaMarrr is to the Haitian diaspora what Nicki Minaj is to Trinidad or Rihanna is to Barbados. TeaMarrr doesn’t typically write her songs before she gets to the studio — she finds a beat then freestyles over it until she finds something she likes, a style borne from her early days recording her voice over beats she found on YouTube. This method gives her lyrics a conversational tone that makes you feel like a friend is giving you advice. In “Done,” for instance, she speaks the words, “Just calm the fuck down/K, you don’t need this human/You don’t need any human/OK, I lied, but/Just understand that you are enough.” On opening track, “Chasing Amy,” she warns a new love interest about herself: “I kinda bite.” In “Whorey Heart,” she complains about a partner who can’t help but sleep around: “You don’t want walks in the park/You just want everyone sucking you off.”

The Boston-born, LA-based artist is intentionally open about sexuality, which she considers a form of empowerment. “A lot of my lyrics, even more emotional ones, stem from the empowerment I feel not from getting fucked but fucking someone,” she explains. That’s what she sings about in “Tick” ft. SiR: “I ain’t had it in a long time, but while we’re on time, let me fuck you/Love me from moon shine ’til your morning wood/Give it to me for the one time ’cause you dumb fine and I want you.”

TeaMarrr’s sexual candidness also shines in her latest video, for “Doin’ It Wrong.” In the James Bland-directed clip, she and a group of women dance in front of Insecure actor Jean Elie and other men, addressing lyrics to them like,”Please slow down/Too much tongue/Don’t fuck up the rhythm/Are you done?” The video was inspired by musical theater, with the women performing on a stage and venting about bad lovers in a backstage area while they’re doing their makeup.

TeaMarrr’s ties to Insecure don’t end there – she was the first artist signed to Issa Rae’s joint venture with Atlantic Records, Raedio, which encompasses publishing, live events, music supervision, and artist development. TeaMarrr says she saw herself in Rae’s Awkward Black Girl series, and making that connection felt manifested. Rae, for her part, told Billboard in February, “I want her to succeed. I am listening to everything and I am giving my opinion about everything.”

All in all, different listeners can take very different meanings from the EP, but TeaMarrr hopes that in some way, it helps them all to heal themselves and reflect on their lives. “We’re in quarantine, so what are we here to do besides look in the mirror?” she points out. “This is the perfect time for the music to come out because people are trying to reinvent themselves. We’re in a new dimension in 2020, music-wise, historic-wise, so I’m excited to see what comes about.”

Follow TeaMarrr on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Nikki Vianna Juggles Vulnerability & Strength on Latest Single “One by One”

Photo Credit: Jimmy Fontaine

Nikki Vianna will always speak her truth. Her new song “One by One,” a soul-baring, genre-bending confessional, asserts both strength and vulnerability. “One by one, I show you how / I used to break the others down,” she snaps on the hook.

Her lyrics are razors, slicing and dicing, but her vocal deceives her. There is an incredible amount of pain seeping in her inflection in equal measure. “It’s okay to be vulnerable at times, but you should never, ever let someone mistake your kindness for weakness, like I’ve done in the past,” she tells Audiofemme. “I’ve learned from my past experiences. Hopefully, you don’t have to go through something I have, and I can save someone from some pain.”

She doesn’t need to get specific about her experiences, opting for her music to speak louder than she possibly could. But she does take a moment to speak candidly. “I’ve been making music since I was super young, and it’s been a long road in my musical journey. It was hard to find the right team, especially a team where everyone was on the same page, working towards the same goal,” she admits. “I mean, no matter how long the road is to find it, when you do, it’s magical. The hard work is never done but when everyone gets it, gets who you are as a person, artist, and all that… it brings an aura of peace that my voice is being heard.”

With more than one million loyal monthly Spotify listeners, and millions of streams, Vianni’s voice is finally being heard. Previous endeavors in the rearview mirror, including an early record deal she signed instead of attending Juilliard, Vianna hooked up with Atlantic Records in late 2018. Her first offering was the slow-boiling “Done,” setting a new artistic standard later embodied with the Matoma-produced “When You Leave.”

Eighteen months later, she has already witnessed steady, marked growth to her artistry, as well as in her personal journey. “I would describe my growth as an artist and a person as soulful and meaningful. Don’t ever get caught up in the hype of something,” she advises. “Always continue to stay true to who you really are and always be grateful.”

Vianna tipped her hat to her Italian roots earlier this year with a song called “Mambo,” which samples “Mambo Italiano” ─ written by Bob Merrill and released by Rosemary Clooney in 1954. Since its release, it has been remixed by GATTÜSO, Herve Pagez, and Leandro Da Silva.

Such adeptness, sliding between genres like a chameleon, runs in her blood. Vianna’s great grandmother Christina Agostinelli was a prolific classical singer back in Italy, and those gifts can be traced to Vianna’s mother and then to her. One could argue musical talents are certainly hereditary, or at least, “God gives us our gifts for a reason,” as Vianna puts it.

Vianna, also classically trained herself, celebrates her heritage and upbringing while also continuing to push boundaries every step of the way. She could have very easily pursued a similar career trajectory, but she found herself entranced by pop music instead. “The training gives such a great foundation for a musician, but I always gravitated towards the music I am doing now,” she says, noting such artists as Whitney Houston being vital to her work.

She continues sharpening her songwriting and honing her particular brand of pop, finding great creative freedom through her many collaborations. To date, she has worked with the likes of Cash Cash, Flo Rida, and Poo Bear, among others, and each meet-up gives her further agency to express and be free. “My favorite times in the studio are when I’ve been going through something, and then your friend will play a chord and the melody and lyrics just flow from my lips so easily and you make the beautiful record so fast,” she says. “I feel like my favorite songs I’ve made came super easy and quick like we were not trying. It was natural and not forced.”

With songs like “Mambo” and “One by One” in her arsenal, Vianna eyes a body of work to come. “[These] two records show [my] many sides and the many things I’ve been through. I am not a cookie cutter kinda girl, so my music will show that. My records will always have something that ties them back to who I am as an artist but I don’t like to be put in a box.”

Trials and tribulations tested her, but she is not broken. She is more self-assured today than ever. “I’ll never give up. I will always stay true to who I am, always work hard, and always be grateful. With God’s grace, I believe things that are meant to be will be.”

Follow Nikki Vianna on Instagram for ongoing updates.