Adia Victoria Honors Her Roots on Powerful New LP A Southern Gothic

Photo Credit: Huy Nguyen

For Adia Victoria, creating A Southern Gothic was a demanding process physically, emotionally and spiritually. “I think that this was a record that walked with me through one of the most difficult periods of my life,” Victoria expresses to Audiofemme in a Zoom interview from the porch of her Nashville home. “It was a very physical process of writing this record.” 

Though the exquisite new album captures Victoria’s deep Southern roots, she had to travel across the globe in order to tap into them. In January 2020 – just before the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic – the South Carolina native jetted to Paris where she met with creative partners Jack Jones and Marcello Giuliani, equipped with another important travel companion: books. As a frequent traveler to the City of Light, Victoria often brings literature with her, this time immersing herself in the words of Southern writers, along with Alan Lomax’s famous recordings of field workers, absorbing the sounds of a pick ax hitting the ground to the breaths between members of a chain gang.

“Words hit different over there for me, and my relationship with speech and rhythm and words. I’m hearing spoken words differently there. You could walk for miles in the city and never run out of things to ponder. For me, that’s the perfect recipe to create art. Art just pours out of me there. I go to Paris in order to see more clearly. I think the distance gives you a little bit more of a boundary. It’s not so raw to write about over there. I get to tap into a different part of myself,” she observes.

“When I was writing the beginning portion of this record, I was far away from the South, but trying to root myself there,” she continues. “I needed to feel connected somehow to the dirt and the landscape of the South where so much of myself and stories I tell are created through that interaction of the land and the person. A lot of what guided me in the initial stages was wanting to pay reverence to the Black folk that came before me who created the blues while bent over crops and cotton.” 

After arriving back in Nashville from her trip abroad, Victoria got to work with creative partner and instrumentalist, Mason Hickman. While crafting the album, Victoria was working as an Amazon warehouse employee, lyrics naturally coming to her as she walked the aisles fulfilling orders. The singer recalls a particularly grueling shift, feeling depleted by the eighth hour and experiencing intense anxiety with the pandemic raging and many unanswered questions lingering. “It was in the thick of hell and I was walking and I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I felt so lost,’” she remembers.

But this painful moment turned into a source of refuge as a song began to form in her mind that manifested into “Carolina Bound,” pouring out the sense of desperation she felt for her home state of South Carolina. “I long for my mother brother and sister too/To see and smell the ocean turn my pain into blues,” she sings over a melody that strikingly blends the bluegrass nature of the banjo with the pain of the blues. “I mean to leave and not be found/Like a river run underground/I am Carolina bound.”

“I felt this homesickness, this primal need to go back home,” Victoria conveys of the song’s origins. “It literally came out of my body writing, walking, and working. The song definitely helped me transcend the dread of the present, and I feel like that’s something that the blues has always been for Black people. It’s been a transcendent art form for us, like a cultural heirloom that we’ve passed down,” she says. “There’s been so much drudgery done to our bodies that sometimes the blues of the mind, the poetics of the blues, have been our best means of escape and transcendence from the bullshit.” 

The singer-songwriter and poet brilliantly captures her roots and reverence for the history of her ancestors through her voice. Intentional about not wanting to make a record that was “strictly autobiographical,” Victoria takes into account the harmful traditions of the South from multiple angles across A Southern Gothic, asking as many rhetorical questions as she offers observations, stepping outside of her own perspective to see from the vantage point of many other compelling characters.

We meet a “Mean-Hearted Woman” who is coldly forced out of her home on Christmas morning by a husband who’s found another lover. Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and Kyshona lend supporting vocals on the standout “You Was Born to Die,” which finds Victoria flexing the dynamics of her voice, layered over a melody that’s as much a character in the story as the lyrics themselves. The sobering “The Whole World Knows” follows a struggling drug addict who feels like an outsider in her church-going community, while a young woman mourns the death of her sister in “My Oh My.” Victoria proves she has a fierce tongue and spirit to match on “Deep Water Blues,” undeterred in addressing white supremacy head on, proclaiming, “Now it’s been too many times I been put in a place/To have to wipe up a mess a white man made/Like my grandmama did and her mama did too/So I’ll be awful glad to get me clean of you/And let the water do what water do.”

“I wanted to almost have the record be a meditation on the way that perception is seen in the South. Who’s the narrator of one’s life? Is it you, or is it the way people perceive you? What does it cost a person who’s not able to live up to what it takes to belong in a group? What does belonging even mean? What are the ways that we’re asked to sacrifice ourselves in the name of Christianity and respectability and good manners?” she reflects. “I wanted some of the songs to be looking at this girl who can’t belong from an onlookers’ perspective and then some to let her speak and let us hear her prayers and her meditations. I don’t know which perception is accurate.”

Stepping outside of her own frame of mind didn’t come without its challenges. The singer cites “Far From Dixie” as the song she felt most vulnerable writing, a process that required time and patience. “I was in a troubled way and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say,” she admits. “I’ve learned never to write down what you don’t mean. Even if it’s not about you, if it’s not true to you coming out of your hands, I’d rather drive people crazy for a year than commit to something that I knew was not the heart of what I needed to say.” 

Always one to honor her word, Victoria reclaims the narrative of the phrase “Southern Gothic,” often defined in literature by flawed characters, darkness and a feeling of alienation. With this powerful body of work, Victoria owns her space as a prolific Southern storyteller like the ones who came before her. “Typically when people think of Southern Gothic, they’re thinking of a particular aesthetic of the South that is centered in whiteness and centered in white dread and white anxiety and white fear of ‘the other.’ But I wanted to reclaim that title to be used as a marker of a Southern Black girl’s experiences growing up doubly othered and skewered so far outside the dominant culture narrative that centered itself only by excluding you. I wanted to center the mythologies of a Black Southern girl. I wanted to center her experiences and place them shoulder to shoulder with other Southern writers who claim to speak for the South,” she explains. “It was my way of putting my work under that umbrella of Southern narrative and Southern storytelling. It’s my way of authorizing the experiences of girls that look like me, who grew up where I did.” 

Much like the respite the album-making process provided her, Victoria hopes that A Southern Gothic compels others to look inward. “A Southern Gothic, it’s a story. It’s a record that’s very much rooted in my body, rooted in the South, rooted in the dirt. It’s a record that kept me rooted when I wanted to float off into a cloud of anxiety last year. It’s kept me rooted to a true part of myself that exists audaciously independent of all the madness and the chaos. It showed me that there’s a part of me where art comes from that’s mine and it exists purely for itself and it can save your life, that part of you,” she professes of the album’s personal impact. “I would hope that it challenges [listeners] to engage with the lessons that the dominant narrative has imparted upon us to really question the particularities of the way that you walk through the world, the way the world walks through you, and consider the weight that is taken on by society’s eye upon you. How does that alter you? I would challenge them to listen more closely to their inner lives.” 

A Southern Gothic arrives on September 17. Victoria recently launched season two of her podcast, Call & Response. She’ll open for Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium on October 24 and appears on his upcoming covers album, Georgia Blue, set for release on October 15. 

Follow Adia Victoria on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Chapel Hart Build Sass and Soul into Sophomore LP The Girls Are Back in Town

Photo Courtesy of 2911 Media

Bold and unapologetic country queens Chapel Hart return with their swampy sophomore album, The Girls Are Back in Town. Equal parts sassy and heartfelt, the 12-track project finds the trio putting their most fearless foot forward, tackling topics ranging from bullying and cheaters to womanhood and independence, as told through the confident delivery and stellar three-part harmonies of Mississippi-born-and-raised sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle.

The album opens with “Nearly Over You,” a breakup ballad led with a crying fiddle that matches lead singer Danica’s aching vocals and lyrics. Blue tears pour from her brown eyes as she mourns the end of a relationship, lamenting at song’s end, “Just know I’m not nearly over you.” This leads into “4 Mississippi,” a raucous ode to a hard-working single mother of four children, setting the pace for an album that stands firmly in its country roots but leans more into rock than the pop sound ubiquitous on country radio. The family band then takes the edge off with the free-spirited, “I Will Follow,” an ode to following one’s heart over their head. With soft claps and glistening harmonies, the sweet song accentuates their lighter side as they profess, “When my heart leads the way, I will follow.”

But they get back to their feisty ways on “Grown Ass Woman,” the female country anthem we’ve been waiting for. Here, they’re unabashed backwoods women who are just as equipped to run a tractor as they are willing to let their emotions, and a curse word or two, fly. “I may not be politically correct, but I can say that I did things my way/I can cry when I want to/Fight when I need to…that’s what grown ass women do,” they shout over a bluesy, edgy melody, proudly telling the world exactly who they are on one of the album’s best and most defining moments. 

The Girls Are Back in Town also proves the CMT Next Women of Country 2021 inductees to be clever and witty lyricists who embrace word play, exemplified on “Tailgate Trophy” where they blatantly disavow the misogynistic tropes in modern country. Their cheeky personalities also shine through on the single that initially grabbed the public’s attention, “You Can Have Him Jolene,” Chapel Hart’s callback to Dolly Parton’s iconic track. Instead of begging the other woman to back down, these three throw a dirty cheater to the curb after catching on to his two-timing tricks. They gladly turn him over to his new lover, but not without warning to heed some advice and learn from that fateful experience.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans and Nashville-based group shares “Jacqui’s Song,” a loving tribute to the girlfriend of their former keyboard player who was tragically killed when the tent she was under at an outdoor festival got struck by lightning. Originally released on their 2019 album, Out the Mud, “Jacqui’s Song” does their late friend proud. Calling on the tried-and-true “three chords and the truth” model, they take the invaluable lessons learned from Jacqui and turn them into lyrics that demonstrate country storytelling at its finest, singing over a honeyed melody, “When you live this little thing called life/I hope you take it by the reigns/You ain’t promised no tomorrows/And you can’t take back yesterdays.”

The singers round out the album with back-to-back-to-back rockers, calling on “Jesus & Alcohol” in a bluesy breakup anthem that features ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on guitar, then sends their enduring harmonies as high as the Georgia pines they sing of with “That’s a Redneck Summer Night” before closing out the project with the fiery title track. Through The Girls Are Back in Town, Chapel Hart carve out a place for themselves in the modern landscape of country music. With their strong harmonies, killer hooks, and compelling lyrics, Chapel Hart lives and breathes their defining proclamation: “We’re the next women of country and it’s our town now.”

Follow Chapel Hart on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Maggie Rose Brings Understanding to the Table with Timely Have a Seat LP

Photo Credit: Ford Fairchild

“Who I am inherently as a person is someone who wants to change and push the envelope,” Maggie Rose professes on a phone call with Audiofemme. “I really think that sustainability in any career, but especially in music, can only be achieved if you’re switching it up and changing it and pushing yourself and exploring your capabilities further.” 

Rose lives and breathes this proclamation. Having had her fair share of experiences trying to find her identity in the music industry, it’s not hard to see how much she’s evolved from the 21-year-old who made an impression in Nashville under the name Margaret Durante with a countrified cover of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” Under independent Emrose Records, her back-to-back singles “I Ain’t Your Mama” and “Better” landed inside the Top 30 on country radio. More than a decade later, she’s donning a bold pixie cut and a fierce look in her eye to match, putting forth a brazen sound that continues to showcase her powerful voice.

She shed her mainstream country image with 2018’s Change the Whole Thing, a live album that further proved her superb vocal chops while introducing her undeniable soul sensibility. “It left everything on the table and laid it bare. I realized what I could do as a singer and the beauty and urgency of live music, how important that was to me. That led me to realize that I’m a soul singer too,” she describes of the organic project. “That really unlocked a huge thing for me.” 

The album came at a time when the Maryland native felt she had nothing to lose, “untethered” from the confines that gated her creativity in the past. Asking herself what kind of music she really wanted to make, her response was to bring all the players in one room, writing songs with Larry Florman and Alex Haddad of Nashville-based rock band, Them Vibes, and recruited Bobby Holland to produce.

“It turned out to be so magical. The experience itself was so enjoyable and educating for me and freeing, but also the product was beautiful. It was really something that was genuinely new, and I said, ‘Okay, we have to make the whole LP this way,’” she recalls. “It felt like 10 years or more into my career, a rebirth of sorts.”

Change the Whole Thing proved to be an imperative step in Rose’s artistic journey, leading to the bluesy, jazz-infused sound that defines her latest album, Have a Seat, out Friday, August 20. Recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the album reflects the music she was raised on, Rose calling on the iconic voices that came before her in the studio including Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Bobbie Gentry.

“I know I don’t I know everything/But you’ll never know what I can bring/
To the table if you don’t have a seat with me,” Rose wisely sings on album opener “What Are We Fighting For,” a reminder to set aside differences to foster real communication. The album’s titular phrase here has the effect of a warm welcome to the listener to sit at a table where there’s always a place for them. 

Though recorded primarily before the pandemic, the album is arriving at a time when the U.S. is seeing a surge in cases of COVID-19 due to the Delta variant, and follows a year of civil unrest and rallies around the world for social equity in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “I realized that these themes of inclusivity, a little frustration with the social and political contention of the world, and wanting to be heard and to hear other people and be an individual, all of those were themes that were even more resonant with me after what we’re all going through,” she contemplates of the album’s title. “It is about making room for everybody at the table and giving each other the space to speak our minds, even if we don’t agree with each other. I think having the empathy and compassion to do that is the most loving thing that we can do to our fellow man, stranger, or people that we know very well.”

“On a specific individual level, for me, it was having had this conversation for so many years of where I belong on the musical landscape,” Rose adds. “This is my way of being like, ‘this is my seat right here. I belong here and only I can fill it and only this person can fill that seat,’ and having pride and power in claiming it.” 

Throughout the album, gritty, yet subtle electric guitar compliments Rose’s smooth voice, neither one overpowering the other on songs like “For Your Consideration” and “Saint” that simmer like a slow burn, while “Are We There Yet” and “Do It” capture the throwback funk, soul and R&B melodies driven toward the goal of giving a live audience a night they’ll never forget (along with lyrical depth).

During a time of forced pause in 2020, Rose also tapped into the art of listening. “That was a period of time for me where I was home and really taking in the world around me and doing some self-reflection and dealing with how isolation can magnify our own internal struggles and voices that negate our efforts,” she says. She launched the Salute the Songbird  podcast where she engages in deep, honest discussions with fellow artists ranging from Valerie June and Amythyst Kiah to This Is Us star Chrissy Metz, Rose absorbing their knowledge while listening to her inner voice. “I’ve always thought of development as grinding and rehearsing and playing shows and being out there and staying out there, and we did in many ways, but this was also a huge state of development for me that I probably wouldn’t have undergone in this short of a time if we hadn’t had this crisis fall in all of our laps.”

Her personal reflections go deep on the album, particularly on “Saint.” The smoldering, blues-leaning number finds her confronting a false sense of perfection projected onto her by others that she’s also made a habit out of accepting for herself. “I’m only human/I’ve made my mistakes/It’s hard to feel high when you’re falling from grace,” she states point blank in the lyrics while owning her “restless heart,” promising to “keep falling” as she watches her halo fade. It’s perhaps the most human song on an album filled with them. “Masterfully written” by Charlotte Sands, Jon Santana, and Brett and Brigetta Truitt, Rose says she felt an immediate connection to the song. “That one really floored me and made me feel seen and give myself a break. I’m not a saint; why are you expecting that of me? Why am I expecting it of myself?”

Then there’s “For Your Consideration,” a song that blends empathy with anger. The swampy, bluesy melody caters to the lyrics that encourage those on opposing sides to put down their egos and access compassion to see from one another’s perspective. “Just look at all the room I’m making for your consideration,” she sings in the defining line. “I really love that song for this moment,” Rose observes. “It’s really quite dynamic in the range of emotions that we’re going through in that song. [It] feels to me at this moment, even if it’s loud and overwhelming, expression has to happen right now, because I think that we’ve all been sitting in our own corners. Isolation can create paranoia, can make us feel misunderstood, and we start having these narratives in our head that aren’t true and maybe we wanted to duke it out.”

Meanwhile, “What Makes You Tick,” featuring Marcus King, ponders what compels us to do what we do, while “Telephone” addresses the toxicity of social media and the “erosion of information” as it passes from one person to the next, like the childhood whispering game. But “Help Myself” is where Rose gets most candid. The playful melody doesn’t distract from the clever lyricism as she takes aim at Instagram culture and its endless supply of self-help remedies to numb the pain, the lyrics addressing how our culture has adopted the habit of nursing our wounds with internet tips as opposed to doing the deep work that leads to true healing.

While in the writers’ room with Whissell and Kyle Dreaden, Rose says the trio had countless examples of “dodging unsolicited advice,” offering a dose of humor in the chorus where she nods to “pills and candy” as self-medication, eventually delivering the punchline with the admission “Despite what the experts said/I’m only here to help/I just can’t help myself.”

“We’re in a minefield of ‘here’s this quick fix to solve all your problems,’ and then we implement them and we’re still dealing with the same problems,” Rose says. “I think there are a lot of things that we can do to help ourselves, but it seems like we’re wading through a sea of tips and quick fix solutions when we really should be doing the harder work of looking inward and figuring out what the root of the problem is.” 

Looking inward is at the core of Rose’s process, hoping that the intention she poured into Have a Seat will be felt by those who need to hear its messages. “Songs always change for me. I think they are these beautiful things that start to absorb meaning as they live longer. I don’t think that they really start their lives until you give them away, so that’s why we released this music,” she shares. “I want it to be an experience. I don’t want people to think that I have the answers, but I hope it’s thought-provoking. I hope people have fun and there’s a huge level of escapism. It was really awesome to be so intentional about this project. It feels like a triumph.” 

Follow Maggie Rose on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates. 

At Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music, Culture is an Immersive Experience

Photo credit: National Museum of African American Music

“Music is a part of someone’s identity.” This message is one of the first to greet visitors upon entering the Roots Theatre inside the National Museum of African American Music in downtown Nashville. It’s a message that can be felt throughout the museum, beginning with a film introduction that explores the deep roots of music from its origins in Africa, tracing its evolution to present day as part of the museum’s purpose to “tell the story of how a distinct group of people used their artistry to impact and change the world.” At video’s end, the doors to the theatre magically open, inviting visitors into a vast world of music and culture that lives behind its walls.

Inside the “Rivers of Rhythm Pathways,” interactive tables allow you to explore Black music by decade, learning how music was used as a tool by slaves to communicate with one another, as demonstrated by “Wade in the Water,” a spiritual that Harriet Tubman would sing as she helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. Music acts as a thread, connecting generations to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s through the hip-hop movement of the 1990s; patrons can even take the music home with them via a digital bracelet that compiles the songs you listened to into a playlist.

At any given moment, music will start bouncing off the walls – literally. A video displaying live footage of an incredible blues guitarist performing at B.B. King’s Blues Club guided us from “Rivers of Rhythm Pathways” into the other exhibits covering their own piece of history, ranging from “Crossroads,” which chronicles the history of blues music born in the Mississippi Delta, to the music of the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights Movement, completing the journey to modern day hip-hop and rap. While exploring these individual moments in history, as a country music reporter by trade, I couldn’t help but notice the cross-genre connections, particularly when seeing a photo of Academy Award nominated actress and hit blues singer Ethel Waters in one of her extravagant outfits, calling to mind the lavish ball gowns later worn by Loretta Lynn and flashy costumes Dolly Parton is famous for. 

The “Rivers of Rhythm Pathways” exhibit at NMAAM. Photo credit: National Museum of African American Music

What makes NMAAM particularly compelling is the interactive element of the exhibits. In the “Crossroads” gallery, visitors have the chance to play a choose-your-own adventure game where you’re presented with a story of a woman living in rural Mississippi who must make a fight-or-flight decision as a flood threatens to destroy her home, or you can choose to follow the blossoming love story of a young couple in Chicago in the mid-20th century, the power lying in the user’s hands as to what decisions the characters make, with music guiding the story along all the while.

One interactive feature that became a personal favorite was a digital wheel displaying prominent artists throughout history including Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Elvis Presley among several others, revealing what musicians they were influenced by and how they inspired other artists. It’s here I got to take pause and absorb the haunting melody and words of Holiday’s powerful “Strange Fruit,” yet feel a sense of calming and peace hearing King Cole’s soothing “Smile” and “Unforgettable,” becoming fully immersed in their timeless voices. 

While NMAAM mostly focuses on the brilliance of Black artists and how the music they created moved culture forward, there are still glimmers of the pain and strife inflicted upon Black Americans, as told through a photo of a young woman screaming in terror as she escapes a riot in NYC in the ’60s, while another picture of a threatening sign that reads “we want Whites in this Whites only community” with an American flag perched next to it was particularly chilling, serving as a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go as a country when it comes to racial healing and equity.

But perhaps the best part of NMAAM is the makeshift dance club that’s at the heart of the museum. One can’t help but stop and join the crowd gathered around the room where patrons inside are dancing to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” and “Love On Top” by Beyoncé, their digital profiles projected onto a screen so they can see their moves on playback in real time. A few steps away, guests can keep their creative juices flowing in a music studio where they have the opportunity to become an artist themselves, creating their own beats and raps in a mock recording booth. It’s these types of feel-good elements that makes NMAAM stand out from other museums. Going beyond the typical format of objects displayed behind glass, instead bringing the history of the artifacts to life, all while creating a sense of community, elevates the experience. The soul of music can be felt inside this institution that conveys how Black music is not only an integral part of America’s identity, but that of the world at large.

Follow the National Museum of African American Music on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Cristina Vane Reclaims American Identity on Debut LP Nowhere Sounds Lovely

Photo Credit: Oceana Colgan

A nomad since birth, crossing borders from France, Italy, England and finally overseas to America, home was not so easy to define for Cristina Vane. On her debut LP Nowhere Sounds Lovely, released April 2nd, the Nashville singer-songwriter documents her experiences on a road tripacross the United States, rediscovering her roots and exploring her own questions of identity, both personally and musically. A wholly unique venture from her typical realm of folk rock, Vane fleshes out picturesque and anecdotal ballads with added doses ofthe Western styles of music she stumbled upon and came to love on her journey.

Born to a Sicilian-American father and Guatemalan mother, the family’s constant migration around Europe paved the way for the singer’s unique style, owing to a diverse exposure of manifold international music markets. In her adolescence, Vane resonated with the sounds of electronica, ‘90s British indie bands and classic rock ‘n’ roll groups predominant in the eclectic European music scene of the time. Influenced by artists like Alanis Morissette, The Cranberries, Dire Straits and Depeche Mode, Vane felt compelled to siphon her disposition into angsty tones of folk and blues rock. Belting out full-bodied vocals and intimate guitar vibrations on her previously released tracks and EPs was only the beginning of an evolutionary road for her musical career.

After moving to the U.S. at the age of 18, Vane chewed over matters of identity and her position in the world as a musician as well as the physical and emotional idea of home. Drawn to the music scene and sense of community in LA, she migrated to the West Coast, employing her passion and knowledge of music by working in a folk guitar shop. While attempting to settle in a city she had hoped to call home, Vane felt lost in the overwhelming crowd of other locals. On “Will I Ever Be Satisfied”the musician ardently expresses her longing in a beautifully sung melody on top of an old hymn-like tune: “I have asked too many questions/Andonly echo no reply/Into these voices I have listened/They cannot know me or my strife.”

With pondering thoughts and a desire to pursue music more seriously, the artist packed up her instruments, gave up her apartment and set out on a five-month tour across the U.S. arranged entirely on her own. “Traveling Blues” sets the scene of what the trek was like on the road – sleeping in tents at campsites and on strangers’ couches, playing gigs in tiny bars and backyards, aimlessly moving along without knowing the road ahead. It wasn’t all glitz and glamour. “Sometimes you’ve got to get lost to get your feet back on the ground,” she sings, followed by, “This path leads to nowhere/Nowhere sounds lovely/Well I’d sure like to go there.” Craving the thrill of adventure rather than a fancy vacation, the musician rolled along an unfamiliar path that would change her life forever.

Encountering the great American sights from Utah to Texas to Louisiana, Vane had the chance to reclaim her identity as an American in a country she had roots in, but never fully explored. “Badlands” and “Dreaming of Utah” gives listeners insight into the awe of experiencing the wonders of these sights for the first time. Embroidered with grungy electric guitar riffs and gliding notes, “Blueberry Hill” provides a snapshot of the Western desert landscapes, “high on that mountain” in Taos, New Mexico, a spot frequented by the musician on her route.

Visually satiated with the picturesque landscapes of the American plains, Vane also had a chance to develop an infatuation with the historical music of the South. By then, the idea that she had to leave LA for Tennessee had crystalized in Vane’s mind. “[The trip] was totally inspiring,” she tells Audiofemme. “I came back and realized that I needed to move to the South to get closer to the history that’s still alive.” Vane set off for Nashville, picking up the banjo, pedal steel guitar and even a little fiddle along the way, with the intention of writing an album more reflective of her cherished memories of the American South.

The musician soon began piecing together songs blended with elements of Appalachian mountain, old-time and bluegrass music. “Over my journey I started to learn more about Hank Williams, The Carter Family and [other] country music,” she explains. “When I got into the studio five months laterI had some songs I had written from last summer; in my head I was referencing a country waltz, and I said ‘let’s put pedal steel on it.’ I never played with those things in my life, but I knew that was the vibe I wanted for that song.” With the guidance of Cactus Moser, a Grammy Award-winning producer known for his work with Wynonna Judd, Vane crafted a well-rounded album packed with lush melodies, heartfelt lyrics and musical memories she acquired on her trip.

As a foreigner for most of her life, Vane was moved by the culture of community in the South, deeply rooted in its music. “Family is important,” she says. “It’s Southern culture. If you think of some of the roots of its musical genres, family has a really deep meaning for a lot of people.”

With her travel stories, her experiences, and the Southern music she unearthed, Vane was able to satisfy her thirst for community and belonging, confidently calling Tennessee home. Embellished with the slow wails of the electric guitar intertwined with the fiddle, “Satisfied Soul” encapsulates the delightful afterglow of her travels and the comforting bliss of finding home.

A vibrant compilation of documented travel stories, Nowhere Sounds Lovely commands attention with its impressive mash-up of blues, rock, bluegrass and old-time music. With each song telling a different story (as Vane puts it, like “an ice cream cabinet where you can choose any of the flavors,”) the album evokes the wonder and exhilaration of being lost in unfamiliar places and in the search for a deeper meaning of belonging. Through her album, Cristina Vane hopes to promote acceptance between those with deep cultural roots and those lost wanderers or nomads, like herself, without any roots at all. “There’s nothing wrong with being proud of where you’re from, but there is something wrong with alienating people because they’re not born and raised somewhere,” she says. “Some of us don’t have that luxury.”

Follow Cristina Vane on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Shannon Clark & the Sugar Triumph Over Loss on “Let It Ride”

Shannon Clark & the Sugar hail from Greenville, Ohio, home of the American sharpshooter Annie Oakley. It’s a connection that feels natural when listening to their upcoming album Marks on the Wall, a collection of what lead singer Shannon Clark often calls “Midwest Americana Soul.” The record (out May 14, 2021), twists and turns in terms of genre, but their latest single “Let it Ride” may be the most personal, a shot to the heart. It’s a diary entry straight from Shannon’s past and a call to action for the future.

“I’ve buried a daughter way before her time/I’d take her place a million, million times/but I let it ride,” Shannon sings, his eldest daughter Navie Clark’s husky voice vibrating slightly as it echoes his own. The pace of the drums, played by Shannon’s wife Brittany Clark, is steady, acting as a form of meditation throughout. It’s a song that could easily play in the back of a nouveau western film, the story behind the lyrics lost in moving images. But once a listener’s ear tunes in, the story can’t help but move into focus.

“Everything in that song, every line that I sing in that song is real,” Shannon explains. “I do have a sister that lives in Modesto, I don’t ever get to see her. She’s my half sister. My dad, who I didn’t meet ’til I was 24, I found him, he didn’t find me. My mom went through a lot of abusive relationships when she was younger.” For Shannon, the journey of this particular blues song is exploring the negative elements of his past before shrugging them off triumphantly – leaving them not in the dust, but as a carefully placed notch in the belt of existence.

Shannon’s love of music started from a childhood soundtracked by classic country and rock ‘n’ roll acts, from Patsy Cline to Queen. His mom was a radio disc jockey for fifteen years, working at a few major stations in Dayton, Ohio. “She was really well known around the area,” Shannon says. “She was a single mom, so I would go to the radio station – she got to drag me along because she didn’t always have a sitter. She’d work the late shift, I’d be coloring on the floor of the radio station while she was spinning records. That’s kind of where I got my start I guess, my love of music. She’d drag me to concerts, make me sit in the press box with her until it was over.” Shannon even met Reba McEntire and Vince Gill, but remembers his 6th grade self being impatient, angsty, and less-than-impressed.

Shannon and Brittany grew up in the same small town, even went to the same church, but ultimately met playing music. “I was playing in a band and we had a big show coming up. Our band broke up and I needed a drummer to fill in,” Shannon remembers. “I asked her because someone said she was playing drums, and she did, and we became really good friends. That grew into more; 16 years later and we’ve got these guys running around.”

It was a moment of kismet that mirrored Brittany’s newly found passion for drumming. She had been practicing for a few years before she joined the band, but performing was never top of mind – her first show was the one she performed with Shannon. “It was kind of an accident because my uncle had this old drum set that he’d had when he was in high school,” Brittany recalls. “It was from the sixties. Just this old piece of crap, full of dust. He was like ‘Hey if you want this, take it. Otherwise it’s going to the trash’ right? So I took it, drug it home, cleaned it up and put new heads on it.”

She practiced by playing along with her CD collection, particularly Sheryl Crow. “I would listen to these Sheryl Crow albums and I would learn every single song,” she says. “I would just play religiously. I would come home from school, I wouldn’t even do my homework, I would just go down and play drums for two hours. I know I drove my parents crazy… There wasn’t really a motivation to be in a band. I just loved playing. It was an itch I had to scratch. No lessons – Sheryl Crow taught me.”

The band started out as a pop punk group called Everybody Else Wins. Brittany was 16 when they recorded their first record. “I always kind of wrote the same way, but I put it behind heavy guitar riffs and catchy melodies,” Shannon said of the time period. “My love for music was always deeper than what I was doing then. That was what was popular. When you’re young you don’t always have a lot of depth of knowledge. It took me ’til later to realize that wasn’t the kind of music I really loved.”

The band was on the move, touring and performing at Warped Tour in 2006 and 2007 on the Ernie Ball Stage. Then Shannon and Brittany’s second daughter passed away, and their hearts just weren’t into touring. The Clark family kept creating music, but kept it at home, teaching eldest daughter Navie how to sing harmonies to Ryan Adams songs.

“I started playing guitar when I was younger,” Navie Clark tells Audiofemme. “My dad bought me a guitar and I was maybe four or five, and I kinda always had one lying around. But I didn’t really get serious about playing ’til about a year ago, year and half. I think I was getting into new music, my taste was expanding and I wanted to be able to play this music I was hearing. And I think piano, we just had this gap in the band. We needed someone to play.”

“I’m proud of her because she has a record player and she plays good records, but she does like Harry Styles,” Shannon says. “It’s my guilty pleasure music,” Navie responds with a grin.

For the last three years, the family has performed as Shannon Clark & the Sugar, bringing together Shannon’s love of Glen Hansard and Amos Lee, Brittany’s love of John Prine, Bob Dylan and Brandi Carlile, and Navie’s love of old-school Dolly Parton.

Their upcoming album Marks on the Wall is the first album Shannon and Brittany have sat down in a studio and written together; previously, Shannon took the lead on songwriting. “[Brittany’s] always felt self-conscious about writing,” Shannon explains. “She didn’t think she could be a writer – she didn’t have that creative spark, she told me. These are her words, not mine. As we progressed, I’m coming in constantly, she’s doing dishes, taking care of the kids, and I’m like ‘Hey check this out, listen to this song, listen to this riff,’ and she’d always give me ideas and pointers. Our whole marriage she’s done this, so she’s really been writing with me since we were first together.”

As the album progressed, Navie also began finding her place in the band, taking the harmonies her parents wrote and rearranging them. The resulting music is layered: a father’s voice speaking his truth, his daughter’s voice echoing it back to him.

Navie has also had to step up in a big way for a sixteen-year-old musician. Michael Chavez, John Mayer’s former touring guitar player, played guitar on the record. Navie takes his spot in the band’s live performances, singing not only the harmonies she’s written, but also the guitar licks Chavez created during the recording process.

The band worked with Grammy award-winning producer, Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, U2, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, Willie Nelson) on the record. It was Howard who insisted on a recording rule: three takes, we’re done. “This record’s not perfect; it’s not supposed to be,” Shannon says. “We wanted to capture moments so the performances are raw and they’re emotional and they’re live. We sang together in the room instead of separate tracks. I feel like you can feel that on this record and that’s what I wanted.”

Brittany was behind the idea of an imperfect recording, too, adding, “If you go to a live performance you’re going to hear chairs squeak or something off. [The record has] that live feeling.”

Much of the record is deeply personal to the Clark family, touching on personal histories and deep-seated pain. It’s the reaction to the pain they’re interested in exploring in songs like “Let It Ride.”

“It doesn’t matter when the rain comes, as long as you get dry,” Shannon says of the song. “Everyone’s gonna have something that happens to them. I think a lot people can hold on to those things their whole life and it effects their lives. Those people hold power and those situations hold power over that person. They can never be who they were meant to be, they can never develop into a regular beautiful person because they’ve got all this baggage they bring with them constantly. And I think that it’s important to let it go.”

“Let it ride,” Brittany and Navie echo in unison.

“Once you can commit it to a recording, that’s therapeutic too,” Brittany says. “You can get it off your chest, it’s concrete somewhere and you don’t have to carry that.”

The Clark family is disturbingly well-adjusted, easily joking with one another, poking each other about a recent fight they had just before the interview (Brittany spent the majority of the conflict banging on her drum set). They speak a common language: music, the driving force in their lives. It’s the medium in which they speak to one another and to their audience. For now, with COVID-19 still raging throughout the country, live shows are at a standstill, but the band is chomping at the bit to perform some mini-tours, just as they did when they were starting out. In the early days, they’d leave their young children with a family member.

“We would try to go play three or four shows, and come back,” Shannon recalls. “We never wanted to be bad parents – that was more important than the music to us.” Now that Navie is in the band, they don’t have to worry about that too much – and Shannon Clark & the Sugar have never sounded so sweet.

Follow Shannon Clark & the Sugar on Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING THE BAY: Fantastic Negrito on his New LP and the “Amazing Garden” of Black Roots Music

“I’m a busker at heart,” says Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito. “I started this [project] five years ago, busking — and I wanted to talk to people. The one thing I realized [is] that we need each other as people living on this planet…and if we don’t talk to each other, we don’t have anything.” Fantastic Negrito — birth name Xavier Dphrepaulezz —grew up on the very same streets he ended up busking on, and it is indeed with a palpable sense of place that he presents his new album Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

Even his performance name has roots in his hometown. “I grew up in the hood,” he explains. “I was in close proximity to people who spoke Spanish, so [Negrito was] the name that I heard all the time.” Basically, it means “little black one.” “It’s a very endearing word in the Spanish language,” he assures me. And it came with an added bonus: “The name makes white people uncomfortable… the thing is, no one should be uncomfortable. They should just know more Latino people,” he laughs.

Drenched in old-school soul and rock influences, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? may sound outwardly celebratory with its proliferation of heavy riffs and layered percussion, but in fact, Fantastic Negrito has taken on somewhat of a Herculean task with this album’s creation. “This record was all about mental health,” he says. “[But] not the people we see walking down the street talking to themselves, ’cause that’s easy. It was about myself, my cousins, my friends, my bandmates, my sisters, my brothers, my people, my teachers, my soldiers. It was about how are we everyday people dealing with this proliferation of information that we’re fed every day — especially in the United States — about these mass shootings, mass killings.”

Track three, “How Long?” takes on a particularly arduous challenge — getting into the mind of a shooter. “I’m like, ‘I need to get into their head. The shooter could be me. It could be the bass player.’ It’s the guy who killed George Floyd. Did he wake up that morning, wanting to take someone’s life? How do we dehumanize people to the point where we can easily take their lives?” It’s a dark question to inform a song, and the end result seems to be largely internal on Fantastic Negrito’s part, one that reflects the aesthetic of the album’s cover: bombast, theatricality. “To all my baby Al Capones/out there screaming all alone,” he croons on the opening line. The choice of Capone, a historical figure so cartoonized that he is almost a caricature at this point, is notable; Fantastic Negrito deals in colorful tableau as opposed to visceral grit. Not that this renders the imagery ineffective — his perspective is unassailable, informed as it is by lived experiences.

“There was so many tough guys in my neighborhood. But no one held the fabric of society together more than the strong mothers who had to bury their children because we have gun violence problems in this country that we haven’t addressed,” he says. He saw this firsthand, as well — his mother lost his brother to gun violence when his brother was only fourteen. Fantastic Negrito is happy to reflect upon and affirm his own masculinity —“self-reflection, and openness and kindness, and gentleness” are some of his key markers — but the undeserved burden of social responsibility placed on women is a thread that shows up in his work, especially on the LP’s fifth track, “Searching for Captain Save a Hoe.”

While the music video for his cinematic take on folk song “In the Pines,” from on his 2017 album, The Last Days of Oakland, looks to to peel away the layers of martyrdom and “exquisite suffering” that we place on mothers of murdered children (largely due to an excellent acting job by Renee Moncada McElroy), in “Searching for Captain Save a Hoe,” Fantastic Negrito takes another opportunity to slip into the mind of someone else — albeit this time, a different version of himself. “I’m writing [as if] I’m the whore — the so-called whore,” he explains, noting that the goal was to unpack “a lot of my hypocrisy about women.”

The song opens with a nerve-jangling riff that sounds like the theme music for the world’s funkiest closet monster. We get to hear the range of Fantastic Negrito’s voice over the course of the song, as well as the rap stylings of Bay Area rap legend E-40 (the man behind the 2006 hyphy-movement hit “Tell Me When to Go”). The choice to include the rapper apparently inspired some confusion. “People are like, ‘oh, man, you put rap on there?’ Well, I didn’t put it on there — it put itself on,” he says. “I embrace Black roots music. That’s an amazing garden. And I’m happy that people recognize me in the blues category. That’s fine — I just don’t think in those terms. I don’t like labels.”

For Fantastic Negrito, Black roots music — also the name of his excellent Juneteenth 2020 compilation EP — is more like an ever-shifting, multi-dimensional conversation than a genre. The key is, as he puts it, “be conscious in the spiritual world” during the creative process. And yet, this project seems too close to the chest — Fantastic Negrito produced every song— that the auteurship seems much more grounded that that. He is the man behind each hand clap, almost every lyric. Inspiration may be a vast and fathomless pool (he cites Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, and Little Richard as some of the artists he holds in high esteem), but the end results still leave us with traceable threads, from the choral background vocals on the excellent and affirming “I’m So Happy I Cry” to the shades of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the opening notes of “King Frustration.”

One of Fantastic Negrito’s key strengths is the malleability of his vocals — he can sound like multiple different people on the same song, delivering even anxiety-inducing lines with a hint of humor and a palpable sense of movement. This comes to mind in the interlude “Shigamabu Blues,” which repeats the chant “All kinds of things can happen/in the world” to almost hypnotic effect. “Hasn’t the last six months told us that?” he asks. “Doesn’t matter who you are: rich, poor, movie star, conservative, liberal. Anything can happen to any of us at any time, and that’s very good.”

Follow Fantastic Negrito on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Larkin Poe Tell Empowered Stories on New Album ‘Self Made Man’

Photo Credit: Bree Marie Fish

Contemporary blues duo Larkin Poe channel stories of self-empowerment and community into their fierce new album, Self Made Man.

Describing themselves as “first generation music makers” of their family, the sister duo of Rebecca and Megan Lovell were originally part of the acoustic family band The Lovell Sisters in 2003 alongside younger sister Jessica. The group disbanded in 2010, leading Rebecca and Megan to join forces as duo Larkin Poe, built on a foundation of blues and soul with gritty melodies and slick harmonies.

Though their parents worked in the medical field, they instilled a love of music into their daughters by encouraging them to play instruments like classical violin and piano. But it wasn’t long before the Atlanta-raised siblings discovered a passion for bluegrass music. Becoming enamored with the “power” and “energy” of roots Americana in their early teens, they picked up instruments fundamental to the genre, like guitar, banjo and mandolin. Rebecca became the youngest and first female to win the MerleFest mandolin contest in 2006 at the age of 15, while Megan mastered the lap steel guitar, referring to it as her “real voice.”

Their Georgia roots come to life on Self Made Man. The album takes their stories from the road and turns them into 11 bold and brash songs, including the fiery “Keep Diggin’,” inspired by the people of their hometown who made a habit out of feeding the rumor mill. “We have a collection of really eccentric, strong-willed gossiping Southern women in our family, and if there’s one thing that Southern women know how to do, it is stick their nose precisely where it doesn’t belong,” Rebecca tells Audiofemme. “But they stick it in such a fashion that it’s very polite and they’re blessing your heart the entire time.” The track is filled with foot stomps and hand claps while the lyrics advise listeners to believe actions over words, exemplifying the duo’s ability to wrap the truth around clever phrasing.

This sense of humor is also reflected in the album’s title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the outdated stereotype that the key to success is being a white male. The Nashville-based duo defied this suppressive norm by founding their own record label, Tricki-Woo Records, in 2017, and self-producing their own albums, including Self Made Man. “We’re real do it yourself-ers,” Megan professes. “It felt like the right title for now, considering how much control we’ve taken into our own hands and that we’re feeling very empowered as artists and as producers.”

Part of this empowerment comes from the years Larkin Poe spent touring. Their 2019 trek took them across Europe and Canada, in addition to opening for a range of acts including Bob Seger and Keith Urban throughout the U.S. in 2018. Their appreciation for cultures around the world has instilled the artists with a profound sense of community that they manifested into their fifth studio project. “We’ve felt a huge groundswell underneath us,” Megan proclaims. “I think that’s why this record, even more than our previous projects, has a feeling of positivity and optimism and empowerment.” While writing for Self Made Man, the sisters aimed to encapsulate the deep connection they felt performing for global audiences, discovering the commonality that exists between the artist and fans during live shows. “While we are incredibly different, from place to place, there are so many more similarities about humans than there are differences,” Rebecca observes. “There really was this overwhelming sense of unity. That sense of human connection was really pure and unadulterated.”

Writing for Self Made Man also held a mirror up to how the sisters have evolved as songwriters, making a conscious effort to pivot from writing from a solely personal state to an all-encompassing perspective. “When you’re writing as a young person, you tend to write very introspective. I think the older we’ve gotten, the more important it’s been to think about us as a community,” Rebecca explains. “At a certain point, you do have this shift where empathy can play a larger part in your songwriting, this widening of focus where you’re able to think about other people’s perspective and what might we need as a group, what’s going to feel good for us to share together.”

The sisters hope that fans take away the feeling of self-empowerment and unity that they poured into the record and carry it to their own journeys as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. “This album was really meant for this time. There are a handful of songs that really do seem to apply and the sense of coming together in spite of being worlds apart,” Rebecca says. “Hopefully these songs will be good companions to people in this uncertain time.”

Follow Larkin Poe on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Aubrie Sellers is Close to Her Identity on ‘Far From Home’

Aubrie Sellers’ sophomore album “Far From Home” will be released on February 7. Photo courtesy of Aubrie Sellers

When Aubrie Sellers’ new album, Far From Home, is released, you’ll notice a distinct message etched into the vinyl: “We are traveling through this wild, wild land.”

It’s a line from the title track that sets the pace for Sellers’ journey of self-discovery she poured into Far From Home. “This album was really about ‘I’ve got to make sure I’m embracing who I really am,’” Sellers shares with Audiofemme. “It’s a lot about me finding my place in the world as a person.”

Solidifying her place is something the singer has long been adamant about. Though the daughter of Grammy winning songstress Lee Ann Womack and hit country songwriter Jason Sellers, the young starlet established a distinct sound with her 2016 debut record New City Blues that strikes a delicate balance between grunge and blues that’s layered with an angelic voice much like her mother’s; a style Sellers has dubbed “garage country.” She carries this unique sonic identity into Far From Home, a 12-track display into the mind of an introverted artist who doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

 The 29-year-old notes more than once that the sophomore project feels “grown up,” a result of the past several years she’s spent touring. Being a front woman on the road made her feel exposed to the world, while powering through the grind of tour life and constant interactions with people caused her to break through her shell. She says being onstage was a “serious challenge” when she first began touring, especially as someone who lives with anxiety. As a self-described “intuitive being” who feels other people’s energy, Sellers compares life on the road to throwing herself into the deep end, knowing the only way she could become comfortable in the craft was to go through the uncomfortable growing pains. But the self-proclaimed perfectionist recognizes the importance of embracing imperfection, particularly in music. “It doesn’t feel human to be that way. I think it’s more important that we express ourselves vulnerably,” she says.

Sellers defines vulnerability in Far From Home, particularly as she conveys what it’s like to have anxiety in “Worried Mind.” “Change is the only way we move forward and we grow, but for somebody who’s anxiety prone, you constantly feel like you’re fighting battles because it’s so difficult to make that change,” she explains. “Something I’ve learned about myself is that all change, it’s going to be hard for me, and you cannot move forward or grow without it and the only way to learn whether it’s right for you is to do it until you feel like it’s wrong for you to be doing it.”

She cites the ethereal “Haven’t Even Kissed Me Yet” as one of the album’s most potent moments, comparing to a journal entry that captures the feeling of going against one’s intuition. “Drag You Down” is an edgy, guitar-heavy rocker that’s more about empathy and less about dragging someone into the depths of depravity, while “One Town’s Trash” is a tribute to all the outliers looking for sanctuary in like-minded people, something Sellers has experienced first-hand. “I definitely feel a lot of the time like I don’t quite align with the people around me,” she chuckles. “[It’s] about realizing that maybe if you find yourself constantly in a situation where you feel like the people around you don’t get you, that you can go continue your journey to search and find the people who do.”

Sellers intentionally opens the album with its namesake song, one that symbolizes her personal self-discovery and hopes it inspires others to do the same. And just as purposefully as she begins the album with such an ode, she completes it with “One Town’s Trash,” a symbol of venturing on one’s own path to find their place in the world. “We’re all here together and part of this human experience and it’s challenging and it feels like we’re in the jungle half of the time. I think that message and that song are the embodiment of this album and how I feel and where I am as a person,” she observes of “Far From Home.”

“It’s almost like you’re looking at your reflection in a way because you’re imprinting your own life on to these songs,” she continues about the album. “I hope they listen to the record and it’s a self-discovery process for them and they can hear themselves in it.”

 Far From Home will be released on February 7. Sellers will join Robert Earl Keen for several tour dates throughout January and February. She’ll also support Tanya Tucker on the CMT Next Women of Country: Bring My Flowers Now Tour during select dates in February and June.

PREMIERE: Studio Session “Audience of One” by GKCB ft. Elliott Skinner

Gideon King & City Blog, the critically-acclaimed New York jazz/ rock fusion act, teamed up with Elliott Skinner of Thirdstory to release the beautifully painful single “Audience of One.” Skinner’s trademark wince and emotive vocals loom delicately over King’s grounded jazz guitar. In their video premiering today, a live studio session captures the pair’s passion and chemistry heard within the textured track.

Here, King talks about recording the song, working with Elliott Skinner and what’s up next for Gideon King & City Blog.

AF: How did you link up with Elliott Skinner for “Audience of One”?

GK: A great singer I’ve worked with, Grace Weber, said she thought Elliott had this beautiful and soulful style of singing. So I checked him out. Grace was right. The guy is unique in the way he approaches singing. [The] talented cat he is, he ended up singing on my first CD and I hit him up again to do this tune. He can always sing my stuff – makes me look better.

AF: You’re gearing up to release some new music. Will it be a full project or singles?

GK: Yeah, I have written a bunch of new stuff. I will probably release some singles. On the other hand, this paradigm of releasing singles sometimes feels empty to me, as there seems to be less of a premium placed on creating a full expression, a full album. Not sure what to do.

AF: With this video, we get to see an intimate live session of the song. What was recording it like?

GK: Just as you see it. The tune just flows. It’s not meant to be “in time” or perfect or anything. Just a passing declaration of some form of desperation.

AF: What else are you currently working on?

GK: Well, we are working harder and harder at becoming a unique live act, a differentiated kind of crossover music presentation. I’m certain what I just said means nothing. This is our problem – we lack meaning.

AF: You’ve created music with several acclaimed acts. What’s one thing you’ve learned from working with a variety of talented people?

GK: To listen to their suggestions and incorporate at the very least a touch of their bent into my bent.

PLAYING CINCY: Meet Lauren Eylise, the Vocal Powerhouse Who Will Soothe Your Soul

photo by Kevin J. Watkins (@ohthatsdubs)

“Peace and blessings onto you,” Lauren Eylise says to the barista bringing over her dirty chai, seated in a crowded cafe surrounded by people escaping the chilly January afternoon. I don’t know if it’s her smile, her voice, or the bourbon in her latte, but this soulful Cincinnati singer exudes enough warmth to counteract the snowstorm going on outside.

Lauren Eylise is all about truth, transparency, and love. Her latest album, Life / Death / Life, is the perfect showcase of her ability to weave storytelling, openness, and unapologetic authenticity with hypnotic vocals over bluesy-R&B-soulful vibes.

The album was born from Lauren’s fearless post-grad decision to move to New York for an internship and the new challenges she faced coming home with less money, a baby on the way, and a million stories to sing.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Lauren about motherhood, spirituality, the healing power of her music, and more. Her next show is March 1st at The Woodward Theater.

AF: Tell me about your latest album Life / Death / Life?

LE: Life / Death / Life was my healing project. Between the time that project dropped and when I began it, a lot of shit went down in my life. I had a big breakup with a guy I was with for like two and a half years through college. We broke up like a week before I found out I was pregnant. I had just moved to New York two years before, living my best life, and then just had to drop all of that. The events leading up to me going to New York weren’t the brightest. I graduated from University of Dayton, which was a PWI—predominantly white institution—and there is a great deal of struggles therein. I mean, the African American percentage was like 2 percent, so that speaks volumes, and we were the highest percentage of minorities. It was a very heartbreaking reality-check – things that you would believe happened in the 1930’s or something, but to live it and have those things happen to me.

I went to New York when I graduated because I couldn’t find a job – I double majored in public relations and women and gender studies. Life was great. I got pregnant, and I moved back with less money than I went out there with. So, long story short, Life / Death / Life was all of that. All of my wounds and experiences and my release that I never really gave myself an adequate amount of time to process. And some of that healing wasn’t even finished with that, it was just the beginning. Life / Death / Life was for me, and holding up a mirror to myself and a lot of women who have had similar experiences, even if they’ve manifested in different ways. It was the catalyst for my healing, in a very open and raw way. For that, I’ll always love Life / Death / Life. It was inspired by a book—my bible—Women Who Run with the Wolves. That book is an exploration of the female spirit, and the concepts she was presenting I was finding within myself.

AF: Do you have a couple favorite songs off that record?

LE: Right now, “The Most (Madonna-Whore Interlude).” It’s still one of my favorites.

AF: What made you choose that title?

LE: I’ll tell ya! That has always been something I’ve struggled with. I grew up in a very loving household. We didn’t have much money, but I was spoiled in love. My parents didn’t talk to us about sex so I never really had any real communication about sex. All I knew about it was very religious—don’t have sex until marriage. My mom, she’s a nurse mind you, she tried to teach me when it came to my period about all that—but that’s not really sex, that’s not what it’s about and what it means. And I have problems with that, how women are taught about sex at a young age. Because what it does, is stifle a very natural instinct and makes it dirty and we, as women, have that experience while our counterparts, men, have a whole different experience.

So in life there’s just this natural-ass drama because you’ve been taught about it in your own toxic way, as a man, and we’ve been taught about it in our own toxic way, as a woman. That concept, in “The Most (Madonna-Whore Interlude),” is the idea that women are either pure virgins or just prostitutes, extreme, there’s noting in the middle—it’s just crazy. The song is about the amazing expression of female sexuality. I just got into my own world and let the words create a canvas of beauty—because it’s a beautiful thing. I mean, we are the gateway to life, how dare they tell us these lies! I really wanted to drive my point that I’m going to talk about sex how I want to, and I want every woman to do that. And it is okay for women to express themselves anyway they want to.

I also love ”Voodoo,” that’s my baby. I’m in the process of re-recording it at Gwynne Sound, best studio in Cincinnati. Great artists like John Legend, CeeLo Green, have come here to record there. Long story short, I’m re-recording “Voodoo” and it is a moment, sis. “Voodoo” is an ode to the women before me, women I don’t even know personally, but to my lineage, to my bloodline, because blood has memory. Sometimes things present themselves in our lives, which we don’t understand. The spirit world is real. So that being said, “Voodoo” was my song where I was like how do I give remembrance to the gift that I was given to those who paved the way for me to be here? I do believe that in our society today, black women, especially, are not always presented in the most eclectic and diverse of lights. There are these very concrete stereotypes and I don’t fuck with that because women of all colors come in all shapes, sizes and beliefs. We don’t all move the same and I think that really has to be respected and spoken about. I like the pun, because when people say voodoo they have certain things in mind.

AF: I love how you did that because it’s commenting on society’s labeling of something it doesn’t understand as scary.

LE: Exactly! The same is said to black women. When you think ‘black woman,’ these images come up that aren’t always the best. So, I was thinking voodoo, black magic, black girl magic—I thought it was very clever.

AF: How are you changing it in the re-recording?

LE: I wanted it to feel like a tribal thing, like we are a tribe of women. This is our anthem. Wake up in the morning and sing it everyday, it’s an affirmation. I feel like on Life / Death / Life, it’s a suggestion. Now, it’s an affirmation. It’s gonna move you. You don’t even have to be black for it, I feel like you hear it in your heart: who am I? Who am I. I love it.

Lauren Eylise
photo by Kevin J. Watkins (@ohthatsdubs)

AF: How did your time in New York affect your music and career?

LE: New York is my second home. I always say, Cincinnati raised me, New York made me. It brought me into my womanhood in a whole different way. I go back often – the city always welcomes me back. So much of my growth happened there, it’s all of my music, it’s all of me. I play a lot of shows in New York, it’s like home.

AF: Tell me a little bit about healing people with your music.

LE: The concept of healing, it wasn’t an intentional thing for me. I want to sing; it’s a natural instinct, its like breathing. My energy, I’m aware of, is very infectious. I became aware of the healing power of my music from people telling me. People messaging me, like, ‘I just want you to know your performance really got me through my day,’ or ‘I’m going through some shit, this helped,’ or ‘you healed me tonight,’ and I can’t judge your truth. I get chills about it. In that respect, it’s serious. And all I can do is walk in my truth and if walking in my truth heals you, then I guess I’m a healer and that’s that. I’m grateful to have the opportunity. And the same way that I affected you, somebody else has affected me. It’s an honor; I don’t take it lightly, I don’t take it for granted. I hesitate to call myself a healer, but I can’t argue with your truth.

AF: So you’ve been playing instruments and singing almost your whole life – what’s the first instrument you learned to play?

LE: My first instrument was my voice. I’ve been singing since I was two. I went my whole life, no lessons. I couldn’t afford them. My mom sang in a choir, my dad just loves music. He can’t sing but he loves it. When I got to college and I got the money I did take lessons for a year, a lot of classical training. I had to drop out of those because of money. I would like to be trained, if anything, for vocal maintenance. I’m seeing that now. You’ve got to keep maintenance for your instruments. I picked up the guitar summer of 2009. I was working at Coney Island. My friend taught me like three chords and I taught myself the rest. When I was 13, I started playing the piano, self-taught with that as well. Songwriting is what helped me learn those instruments. I hear a chord, find it. That’s how I built my knowledge.

Lauren Eylise
Photo by Laura Kinney.

AF: Who are some artists you’re inspired by?

LE: I love the Isley Brothers. I currently am listening to a lot of Steely Dan. Some new artists like Jacob Banks, Jordan Smith. I love Rihanna and Beyoncé, more so as entertainers and the kind of career I want. I love Rihanna because her authenticity is undeniable. She’s so unapologetically herself. Bishop Briggs—that girl is bad! She can sing her ass off.

AF: So what’re you working on right now?

LE: I’m so glad you asked! I am working on my next project. I don’t know if it’s gonna be an EP, a full album, I don’t know. All I know is I’m waist deep in emotions, in lyrics, working with some new writers. I really want to stretch myself, dabble in different genres. I’m going to be doing a lot of touring. But my focus right now, is this.

AF: Will this be a continuation of Life / Death / Life?

LE: I would say so. There’s one song called “Peaks and Valleys” that I wrote as the conclusion of New York. “Peaks and Valleys” is like, this is happening, this isn’t happening to me, I made a choice, how am I going to act like a responsible grownup about this. So, it’s a transition form Life / Death / Life. It connects the two. I might call that shit Life / Death / Life

AF: Part 2!

LE: [Laughing] We’ll see!

AF: Do you think you’re going to be done with it this year?

LE: Yes. I don’t know if we’ll release it this year. But it’s definitely going to be done this year. By the end of this year, I’m probably going to have like three projects under my belt.

AF: Tell me a little bit about how being a mother has impacted your art, your career, and your life?

LE: Aeon Ezra is a force. He’s three now. He is a part of me. It’s like I do things without even having it consciously in my brain. The moment my body detected life in me, I started moving differently. I knew I wasn’t ready for a baby when I got pregnant. I’m never gonna lie about that. I spit on shame. I don’t think women should ever feel ashamed of how they feel, especially during motherhood. Some of us do not want children, and that’s okay. Some of us get children and we do not want children, and that’s okay. I was one of them. I was living my best life by my goddamn self. I struggled. I wanted to get an abortion—part of me. And the other part, didn’t. The other part that was just like, I know this baby will be loved. If I was from a different family and I thought that he wouldn’t be, or I knew myself and thought I’d resent him, then maybe that decision would’ve been different. But I knew he’d be loved, and that’s what’s most important to me. I know my family, I know myself, and I was right—he’s loved as fuck.

When I talk about my early stages of motherhood, I’m unashamed and I’m unapologetic about how that felt. It was hard. But he was loved through it all, and that love grows everyday and some of that love was learned, and that’s okay. Every woman is different. I applaud women who come forward and speak about their experience because awareness is key, you can’t lie to yourself. The way I nurture and care for my son, I try to treat the world that way now. My lover, I choose to forgive him, love him, and nurture him—as long as it doesn’t sacrifice my own peace or self-love, because that’s something else. You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself and I think you should love yourself first and most of all. When you’re on an airplane, they tell you to put the mask on before your child. My son has taught me how to love. He’s made me a better person. A better warrior.

AF: Beautiful! Final thoughts?

LE: Know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, learn yourself, because in learning yourself, you learn love.

Lauren Eylise
photo by Kevin J. Watkins (@ohthatsdubs)

ALBUM REVIEW: Common Holly “Playing House”

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photo by Sean Mundy

Playing house is one of the earliest and most innate forms of childhood emulation. It is how we pantomime maturity, and begin to learn self-preservation, domestic upkeep, and the treatment of others. From pretending to prepare a meal, to sweeping the tree house, this form of child’s play is our first expression of wanting to “grow up.” For Canadian artist Common Holly, Playing House is an expression of consciously entering adulthood. It is also the name of her debut record.

Helmed by songwriter Brigitte Naggar, Common Holly greets us with a tender and sophisticated meditation on the end of a formative relationship, and the importance of purposeful decision-making. Of Playing House, Naggar said in a press release that the record “is my first real effort to create something that is entirely deliberate—the beginning of my journey of thoughtful action, and of daring to express myself outside of my bedroom.”

“Deliberate” is the perfect word for Playing House – its stunning arrangements and artful production reflect intent and restraint. Opening track “If After All” is expertly composed, commencing with a font of liquid before breaking down into a multifaceted pop gem, somehow incorporating finger-plucked guitar, swelling strings, and minimalist drums without sounding overwrought. Naggar’s girlish voice carries the same melody throughout the song, but the instrumentation blooms from indie folk to sweeping ballad before culminating in hard rock distortion and busy electric guitar. “If After All” is such a strong composition, I almost wish it was buried deeper in the record, as it’s a tough act to follow.

Though less musically intricate, “Nothing” speaks to Naggar’s ability to contrast form with concept. The dulcet vocals and bedroom rock delivery of “Nothing” portray innocence, while Naggar’s lyrics are anything but. Naggar sings of a crumbling, codependent relationship in which every attempt to problem-solve results in suffocation: “If I got you in a room/ if I got you to hold still/it would probably too soon/to hold you there against your will.”

This level of self-awareness is palpable throughout Playing House. Naggar deconstructs a banal yet dysfunctional relationship throughout the album, holding herself accountable as much as possible. Discussing this theme in a press release, she said, “Especially at the end of a relationship, there comes a time when the best thing you can do for someone is to leave them alone even though it might feel like you’re abandoning them. Sometimes trying to resolve things and being over-present is an act influenced more by guilt than by empathy.”

“In My Heart” is yet another manifestation of that concept. A quietly complex country number, it employs pedal steel and neatly placed piano. The song’s softness negates its harsh message of letting someone go: “Don’t try/In my mind, in my mind I can’t help it/With my heart, with my heart I can’t help you.”

Resting midway through the record is the gorgeous “Lullaby” featuring Montreal pianist Jean-Michel Blais. “Lullaby” depicts Naggar at her thematic pinnacle – the anatomy of the song is true to lullabies, indeed, while Blais’ creeping keys suggest the twinkling of a nursery mobile rotating above a crib. Naggar’s lyrics, however, are biting and brutal despite this naïve melody. “If you’re busy undermining all the things I had to say,” she sings, “I know it would have been wrong for me to try to stay.” The track’s closing coda plays on a familiar children’s game, but turns that on its head for a darker finish: “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Naggar intones, before promising: “I will keep away.”

The weighty blues of “The Rose” finds Naggar nodding at The Black Keys. The song is soft to start, but builds up and breaks down into Auerbach-worthy guitar, eventually spinning out with grunge distortion. In keeping with this dark turn, “The Desert” is a painterly narrative with sparse string arrangements evoking The Dirty Three. Hand drums and piano crawl behind scant guitar and Naggar’s reverb-heavy croons, weaving a soundscape strong enough to close the record. Though it seems that Naggar didn’t want to end things on such a heavy note. Playing House’s final cuts resort to sweet and weightless melodies instead.

The title track exudes a singsong, sonic innocence. Its melody is full of childlike “doo doo doos” and lyrics that are one word away from being playful: “I’ll play mama, you’ll play daddy and we’ll ruin us beyond repair/at the cabin, on the lakeside, if we take things too far.” It is a song you can almost skip or swing to, until it dissolves into a foreboding vibration fit for Twin Peaks.

Closing track “New Bed” is Common Holly’s most stripped-down offering on Playing House, and perhaps its most optimistic. It is the song that finalizes the breakup; the hopeful closure and calm after the storm. Naggar is vulnerable and resigned when she sings, “I feel that we will get along just fine/if everything goes the way I have in mind.” The song fades out with rain and faint sirens, but what they’re chasing, we do not know.

Playing House is out now on Solitaire Recordings. Don’t miss Common Holly on her upcoming tour.

September 28 – Nomad Folk Fest
November 2 – Brooklyn Bazaar, New York, NY w/ The Hotelier, Oso Oso & Alex Napping
November 3 – Songbyrd Music House, Washington DC, w/ The Hotelier, Oso Oso & Alex Napping
December 5 –  Communion Showcase,  Rockwood Music Hall,  New York, NY
December 8 –  Theatre Fairmount, Montreal, QC w/ Chad VanGaalen[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

ALBUM REVIEW: Shilpa Ray Triumphs Over NYC With ‘Door Girl’

New York, the city that never sleeps, takes an especially hard toll on those who make its endless nights possible: the waiters, the bartenders, the ticket takers who silently put up with endless shit from drunken idiots. The service industry is favored by artists who need to pay their bills, but at what cost? Shilpa Ray provides insight into this experience on Door Girl, an album that recognizes the soul crushing realities of working in the nightlife industry while ultimately overcoming them. A longtime New Yorker whose “day job” inspired the title of her latest release, Ray is more than qualified to expound on the topic.

Door Girl contains moments that are both beautiful and brutal, sometimes at the same time. Songs such as “Morning Terrors Nights of Dread” and “Add Value Add Time” use comforting, doo-wop vibe to gloss over topics such as anxiety over work, broken dreams and the isolation that comes with city life. Ray has a rich, deep voice that can create a dreamy atmosphere, even if she’s singing about creeps in Manhattan who prey on drunk women. But on “EMT Police And The Fire Department” she switches to a snarl in an instant. The song explodes with rage after a monologue that sets the scene for a night of disaster: “The air was so thick you could cut it with a knife/The sweating crowds so thick it could make you want to cut them with a knife.” From her post, she’s both an innocent bystander and complicit in the madness, screaming, “I’m charging eight dollars to go to hell, it’s right upstairs.”

“Revelations Of A Stamp Monkey” takes a completely different approach, with weary spoken lyrics over a hip-hop beat and a verse of rapping by Skurt Vonnegut. The humor of a repeated line – “Popped collar, who popped the collar/Muffin top” creates a stark contrast to one of the album’s most poignant lines, “You wanna know where my heart went? It went straight to making the rent.” 

There was no better venue to debut Door Girl than Pianos, the very place that inspired “EMT Police And The Fire Department.” Located right in the middle of the Lower East Side’s infamous Hell Square, the area explodes with rambunctious crowds on the weekend. But last Wednesday it was calm, the venue packed but politely focused on Ray’s performance. The audience seemed drawn completely into her world, her commanding presence casting a show-tunes glow over the whole affair. The touristy Statue of Liberty crown she wore made the whole thing even more endearing. Maybe it was a reminder of how someone feels when they first move to the city, when it seems romantic and exciting; before the frustrations of the MTA, the high rent and dread of a dead end job grind them down. Maybe it was a symbol of perseverance, that it’s worth it to live in such a demanding place. Or maybe it was just an ironic prop. Either way, it was a perfect accessory for an album that exposes both sides – the magic and the mayhem – of of New York’s hustle and bustle.

PLAYING DETROIT: The Gories Return!


Forged from the weightiness of post-war blues and the primally riotous audacity of 60’s garage punk, Detroit‘s scuzz rockers the Gories return to their hometown his Friday. Mick Collins, Danny Kroha and Peggy O’Neill formed the Gories (sans bass) back in 1986 and released three records between 1989 and their tumultuous break-up in ’92. During their undisclosed reign as underground groove-punk royalty, their influence was more wide reaching than their dismal record sales or crusty notoriety. Like true punks, the Gories’ reputation was marred with scowls and “wtf is this shit” variety, mostly due to their raunchy, primitive approach to rock. It’s an attitude that would later have Detroit’s prodigal son and father of Third Man Records, Jack White, exclaiming that the Gories “made people with Les Pauls and Marshall amps look like idiots.”

After a 17 year hiatus (during which punk died, was reincarnated into radio-friendly sewage, died again and is only now beginning to wear its old skin) the Gories reunited in 2009 for a European tour and again in 2010 to hustle their grime across North America. Since then they have played a handful of shows, though sparingly, but enough to remind us that true punk never really dies and what the Gories have given us is more than half-assed nostalgia on life support; it’s a tantrum.

Oozing with sexual deviance, masked by the hip-shaking, beer-bottle smashing juxtaposition of aggravated shimmy and shake, “Nitroglycerine,” from the band’s sophomore record, I Know You Fine, But How You Doin’ manages to box the un-boxable sticky, sweaty, no-fucks-given tale of Detroit’s premier garage punk pioneers.  A perplexing mix of John Lee Hooker and the Cramps, the Gories hoot and howl while channeling some Velvet Underground-level chaos as the guitars suffer battling seizures, and the drums find home in a constituent heartbeat-beat reminding us that the band’s homeostasis, although compromised, is far from expired. The lyrics “She’s volatile/she’s my baby”  are delivered with some 1950’s innocence or doo-wop cadence but is quickly dismantled by a rapid-fire sex-beat that keeps us guessing even 26 years later.

Get weird with the Gories 1990 video for “Nitroglycerine” below and catch the Gories with Pretty Ghouls, Mexican Knives and Trash DJ’s at El Club Friday August 5th, 2016 | Tickets $20

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EP REVIEW: Chrystyna Marie “Loaded Gun”

Chrystyna Marie

At first click, I saw visions of Janis Joplin singing “Loaded Gun,” the single off Chrystyna Marie‘s upcoming EP (also named Loaded Gun). She’s a Toronto-native chick and sultry vocalist—also super stunning. She’s no alien to performing and making music; she has won the Kiwanis Music Festival a couple times. When she’s not seeing Infected Mushroom, she’s writing and releasing her own material. Now, her next feat—the EP is definitely grungy, but melodically so. Her voice compliments lyrics like “Yeah, your love is a loaded gun. You shoot me down, just for fun. But tonight, you better run.” Loaded Gun is a brief ensemble of tracks, yet shows the different sides of her blues-y style. In “Down The Road,” she croons like a pre-swing jazz musician, although the track is very much gritty and grungy. Then she tunes down in “No More” and “The Tower,” to a more personal struggle. Adding more piano than guitar riffs in “The Tower,” Chrystyna Marie delivers a more haunting tone. “There will be no breaking down, just breaking through. When it all falls down, who will wear the crown,” she sings. The EP finishes on a poetic note. Look out for the release of Loaded Gun on February 29.

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EP REVIEW: Ruen Brothers “Point Dume”


Sometimes when I listen to a band, I make a judgement: Are they Beatles or Stones fans? The Ruen Brothers answer that question in their bio, stating that, like I suspected, they prefer the Rolling Stones. Generally, a band that likes the Beatles is a little more delicate, concerned with love and peace. A band influenced by the Rolling Stones is usually more brash, aggressive, and more likely to be at least indirectly influenced by the American blues musicians that the Rolling Stones idolized.

That seems to be the case with the Ruen Brothers, who are Henry and Rupert Stansall from the UK. Their first two songs, the bluesy “Aces” and “Walk Like a Man,” earned them the attention of  BBC Radio 1 host Zane Lowe and led to the brothers landing a record deal with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and Republic Records. Rubin then produced their four-song EP Point Dume, enlisting Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Matt Sweeney (Chavez), and Ian McLagen (Faces) to contribute drums, guitar and keyboards.

Though their sound strays farther away from the blues and into pop on Point Dume, you can still hear their influences – which also include Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker – in each song. Henry has a deep, powerful voice that comes from a place of true sincerity, though a little muffled and rough, as if he’s singing between drags on a cigarette. “Motor City”  is a vintage shuffle that breaks into a pop chorus while exploring familiar topics like not being able to catch a flight home and name-dropping highways. “Vendetta” has a bongo heavy intro reminiscent of the British blues group The Yardbirds, and builds into a dramatic tale about the end of a love affair.

For such a short release, Point Dume is surprisingly solid. The EP’s best moments appear on the opener “Summer Sun,” a love song for summer with chilling background vocals. Henry’s acoustic guitar and his brother’s lead create a solid rhythmic background for the dreamy lyrics. True to the song, which is about waiting for the warmth of summer to return, there is little action in its video: Henry, Rupert, and an unknown woman are stuck inside their separate homes by bad weather, as glimpses of the outside world are shown on TV screens. Check it out below:



XNY have been making classic, bluesy rock’n’roll in the tradition of the White Stripes since 2010. This Brooklyn band originally met at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and like Jack and Meg, the two are a duo, but with reversed gender roles: Pam Autuori contributes sultry, smoky vocals and guitar over Jacob Schrieber’s drums. They released their debut album, Orange, in August 2013, and now they’re back with a new song, and an upcoming EP, Should I. 

Check out their new single, “White Wire,” below!

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Bryan Ramos, Benni Aragbaye, Josh "Quick" Ivey and Sir Izik of FRTNK rocking out at UC Riverside.
Bryan Ramos, Benni Aragbaye, Josh “Quick” Ivey and Sir Izik of FRTNK rocking out at UC Riverside.

I stumbled upon FRTNK [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][pronounced “FourteenK”] in the Voodoo Lounge at the House of Blues on Sunset. Their eclectic style (not to mention bare feet) caught my eye, and I was intrigued when the eight men took their places on stage. They were absolutely mesmerizing once the beats began flowing. Floating harmonies, beautifully on pitch with their vocals and instruments; I was hooked. It wasn’t a common venue space for them to play in with a small stage in the corner next to a blues bar, and the show itself was performed almost exclusively acoustic. In fact it was a happy coincidence that we ran into each other at all, and they encouraged me to attend their next concert at Seven Points in Downtown Los Angeles, a venue more typical for them so that I could truly understand their energy and sound.

I took their advice and there I stood, surrounded by fashionistas and men with beards wearing ironic t-shirts. I found myself speechless at the complex music resounding from the makeshift stage. Truly with a little more space FRTNK rocked the house. With so many exuberant members in FRTNK it is impossible not to be caught up in their positive energetic performances.

At the front stood the original members – Benni Aragbaye, B.J. and Bryan Ramos. They met in “The Gates,” which is their nickname for the cookie cutter gated community they grew up in. Boredom motivated them towards artistic expression and creating the grooving harmonies that is truly FRTNK. These three began developing their sound as early as 2009 and make up the core vocalists of FRNTK. The tenor-alto harmonization is stunning, and the in sync raps layered on top ties their sound together.

The rest of the band didn’t join until later in their career and the addition of the five musicians elevate FRTNK’s sound with style. Sir Izik was the first band member added as he joined three years ago. He plays bass, adding a consistent and creative backbeat, and with his relaxed island vibe it’s hard not to move with the beat. The other band members joined just one year ago, although they are so in step with each other it seems as if the entire group has been playing with each other for years. Along with Bryan there’s Raven Michael on guitar, both adding melodic tune (reminding me of beach rock) to each song. Not only are there two guitar players there are two keyboardists, Josh O’Connell and Caleb Ivey. These two create a sound just as synchronized as the vocals, they are also responsible for both the electronic and blues elements added into FRTNK’s sound. Finally there’s Josh “Quick” Ivey (yes, he’s Caleb’s brother) on the drums. Quick brings the concluding tone to the music, an ever changing jazz style drum beat. Normally I would attempt to name their genre but according to them it’s “undetectable” so I’ll leave it at that. Plus, with all these elements added together they are on the way to becoming one of the most unique and amazing group of sounds I’ve heard from an up and coming band.

Quirkily they divide their audience into “robots” (a.k.a. the people that just stand nodding their heads with their feet planted) and “aliens” (those who dance as hard as the performers) and interact with each group throughout the entire show. Working hard everyday on their sound, to them “music is a lifestyle” and that dedication shines through in their tight performance and deep sound. They produce their music in a homemade studio, which is simultaneously cheap and brings a “down to earth” element to their music.

As I stood on the wooden floorboards at Seven Points I was enchanted by FRTNK, a group that believes in the avoidance of perfection, represented by their slogan “live life impure.” To them the name FRTNK doesn’t just reference gold, it tells a story of a group of men bonded as tightly as brothers (some quite literally) who refuse to conform to the norms of society.

As said by B.J., “This is a time when impressive, magnificent things are occurring” and with the lyrical and musical depth presented by FRTNK I believe they are one of those magnificent things. The men of FRTNK are weird, loud, a little crazy and absolutely brilliant. They have a bright future to look forward to as more people are as lucky as I am and stumble upon one of their shows. Bringing a unique perspective and sound to the music industry, I am eager to follow FRTNK’s path and implore you to do the same. And you don’t have to wait long, if you don’t have plans for New Years Eve these wild dudes are hosting an all ages show at 9onVine in Downtown Los Angeles that should definitely make it on to your party-hopping list.

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EP REVIEW: The Peach Kings “Mojo Thunder”


No one could accuse LA outfit The Peach Kings of making records that are too long or boring. Since 2011, the group–cornerstone members Paige Wood and Steven Dies, along with a revolving assortment of friends and drummers–have put out three releases, the longest of which is six tracks. The most recent release, the Mojo Thunder EP, stays true to the template: it’s a brisk listen at five tracks, though this is the first Peach Kings release  that hasn’t left me wanting more.

The group’s discography is filled with tiny masterpieces of carefully crafted simplicity. The Kings marinate doo-wop in the loneliness blues of Wood’s voice, then fleck it with surprising dub step highlights; they make meaty, complex songs crammed with different influences and nods to various eras. Who wouldn’t want a full-length album of that hotness? . But Mojo Thunder concentrates on developing one sound–a cinematic, glamourpuss groove–instead of spinning through the band’s wheelhouse. The single “Be Around” is all electric guitar riffs and cymbal shimmers as Wood sings the first verse, “Every silver lining’s got a razor’s edge/ We are victorious, now off with their heads,” at the high end of her register. The drama continues with the rockabilly-tinged title track and the understated but lust-driven “Say What.” The tunes are good–groovy and infectious on first listen–but if you’ve listened to Handsome Moves, you can’t be satisfied with Mojo Thunder. There isn’t a single example on this EP of the sort of stripped-down track that, on both the previous records, gave Wood a chance to stretch and flex her shape-shifting, powerhouse voice. Consider “Lonely,” off Handsome Moves: when The Peach Kings play to the more vulnerable end of their spectrum, they make some of their best songs. Though Mojo Thunder is fun to listen to, the EP focuses on being hooky and theatrical at the expense of bearing soul.

Check out “Hold On,” my favorite track off the Mojo Thunder EP, below!

ALBUM REVIEW: Guy Blakeslee “Ophelia Slowly”


Whether performing with a trio or a quartet or semi-solo, whether in full psychedelic mode or reinterpreting the blues, Guy Blakeslee has a fantastic knack for making music that sounds haunted and doomed. June 10th marks the release of Ophelia Slowly, which, though not Blakeslee’s first solo release, is the first to come out under his real name instead of some permutation of the stage name Entrance. It hasn’t been long since Blakeslee released a record–The Entrance Band’s Face The Sun came out last November–and both that album and Ophelia Slowly chronicle a journey out of darkness and tumult, and into the proverbial light. Blakeslee has a history of substance abuse and was struggling to get clean when he wrote many of the songs on both these albums, so it’s natural that they would share a preoccupation with the material, but Blakeslee manages not to repeat himself at all with the release of Ophelia Slowly. Face The Sun was a rock album, heady and guitar-driven, with watery melody lines and psychedelic wah-wahing that trafficked in symbol and metaphor more than it did straightforward storytelling.

But on Ophelia Slowly, Blakeslee’s voice and lyrics become the focal point of the music. In the interest of holding the spotlight on the story line, Blakeslee keeps the music very simple, and many of the songs–“Smile On” and “Ophelia Brown,” notably–maintain a straight, sing-song-y structure that recalls elements of his early work, back when Entrance was a solo project and Blakeslee liked to reconfigure the blues and give it a psychedelic twist. However, despite the simple rhythms and emphasis on narrative, there’s little on Ophelia Slowly that’s musically reminiscent of the blues–the album’s foundation consists primarily of looped synth lines and an unassuming drum machine track.

Blakeslee has long been fascinated by states of trance. This album–which is, essentially, his version of an introspective, songwriter-y project–concocts swirling, circular guitar parts and a tightly rhyming vocal line that escalates, like a spiral staircase, as it moves from phrase to phrase. For Blakeslee, the music tells a story best once it’s in this hypnotic state. This concept is familiar turf–in the twenty years he’s been making music, Blakeslee has perfected the trick of creating a whirlpool inside a song–but Ophelia Slowly manages to maintain this churning, circular state for almost the full length of the album. That’s not a complaint. Actually, it’s impressive that the record’s repetition never wears out its welcome. “Told Myself” is a great example: with quiet, whining anguish, Blakeslee plays with the phrase “You were true and a liar too,” shifting meaning and replacing a word occasionally as he relentlessly repeats the lyric. “You were clean and a junkie too,” the song finally concludes, in the same stretched-out, high pitched melody, over a strummed acoustic guitar. They’ve got potential for melodrama, but in Blakeslee’s hands, the songs are beautifully ragged. As a collection, Ophelia Slowly is foreboding, not too optimistic, and full of compelling grit and fatigue.

You can check out “Kneel & Pray,” off Ophelia Slowly, below. The full album will be out June 10th.

ALBUM REVIEW: crash “Hardly Criminal”


Awww yeah.

That’s my initial and abiding reaction to “Motion Animal,” the first single off Chris Richard aka crash‘s solo debut, Hardly Criminal. Crash, backup singer for the Magnetic Zeros and frontman for Deadly Syndromefinally gets to spotlight his tenor at its sultry finest on this dressed-down soul track, and the motown gods are surely pleased.

Anyone familiar with the singer’s work would be surprised to see him stick fully in one genre for a full album, though, and Hardly Criminal expands satisfyingly from soul outward. Crash grew up in Louisiana, imbibing a country-fied blend of Americana, folk, and New Orleans street-performer blues, and he can do all those styles with equally endearing swagger. “Motion Animal” comes two tracks in and holds its title as the catchiest number through the end of this record, but we hear plenty of that danceability on the down-homier “If God Was A Cajun” and the string-happy “All My Friends.” What’s especially impressive about Hardly Criminal, though, is how well crash pulls off the slower, sweeter stuff. On the succinct “Song For The Birds,” crash keeps his oddball charm in the lyrics (“Was feeding you worms/but I forgot that you don’t eat them”) but strums introspective layers of round-like, repetitive acoustic guitar, angling his voice away from soul flourish and towards a simpler, more vulnerable croon. “Britches Catch Fire,” one of the album’s most impressive demonstrations of crash’s sheer power to sustain a high note, hints at gospel in the harmonies. His versatility looms large, and surprises again and again on this record.

All told, the quieter tracks add up to a majority of Hardly Criminal, and I would have liked to see the album filled out with a couple more swingers – “Motion Animal” left me jonesing for more groove – but both in terms of songwriting and vocals, crash skillfully pulls off every style he ambles into on this collection. No matter the flavor, every single track on Hardly Criminal is worth a replay. This cat is it.

Hardly Criminal drops May 6th. You can preorder it here, and check the “Motion Animal” music video below for a soulful blast of groovy get-down:



You’re probably wondering why I’m so happy today. I’ll tell you. It’s because Brooklyn Folk Fest is this weekend at The Bell House and I CANNOT WAIT. I am so excited and I just can’t hide it.

Six years ago, Eli Smith of the Down Home Radio Show partnered with The Jalopy Theatre, a Brooklyn-based venue and music school, to create the Brooklyn Folk Festival. With its rigorous schedule of live performances and music classes, the Jalopy has long been a beacon of folk music within New York City, particularly folk music played live, and the festival quickly became a way to expand and showcase the scene in New York. This weekend, the annual three-day event returns for its sixth year with an exciting lineup of string music and Americana as well as traditional music from other parts of the world–Balken traditional singer Eva Salina, for instance, is a returning performer who will join the festival again in 2014.

This year, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has also boldly scheduled itself to coincide not only with Easter but also with Record Store Day. That makes this weekend the BEST WEEKEND EVER–after you’ve picked up your rare, new, or limited edition vinyl, come down to The Bell House and settle in for one of the most spectacular offerings of the city’s live folk music scene. Attend a mandolin workshop! See a screening of John Cohen’s films! And hey–you might even win a free banjo.

I’ll be hanging out there all this weekend, trying not to suck at square dancing. The full schedule is listed down at the bottom of this page, but before I get there, here’s a list of the things I’m most excited to check out this year. They range from performances I’m anticipating in particular to promising reading and talks to festival traditions, because Brooklyn Folk Fest is more than a three-day hootenanny–it’s a celebration of where folk music is today, in New York City as well as out of it, in all its incarnations.

Okay, here goes:

1.  The Pete Seeger Tribute Singalong at 6:30 PM on Sunday, April 20th.

Pete Seeger was not only among the most beloved musicians and song collectors of the folk revival, he was also an environmental activist who made a special impact on New York state by helping clean up the Hudson River and founding the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization. It’s difficult to imagine the folk scene in New York without Seeger, who died this January. I can’t imagine a better way to pay tribute to him, though–every time I saw Seeger play, the best parts of the show, and the parts of the show that he seemed to enjoy playing the most, were singalongs. Seeger may be gone, but the momentum he created for community folk singing is alive and well.

There’s Pete Seeger leading a sold-out arena in “Amazing Grace” on his 90th birthday. Yeah, just try to stay dry-eyed.

2. Tahuantinsuyo

This pioneering Andean folk music group emphasizes preservation of their roots, using regional instruments and costumes in their performances. Tahuantinsuyo performs on guitars, flutes and panpipes, deliberately keeping the sound and rhythms authentic to their origins. While it’s a rare treat to have the chance to hear music from the Andes performed in New York at all, I’m especially excited to see these guys in the context of this festival–with so many traditions and cultures operating side by side, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a spontaneous jam session or two. Check them out here

3. The Downhill Strugglers with John Cohen

The ass-kicking, rip-roaring Downhill Strugglers come straight out of the old-time string band tradition, but they’re very much in the business of bringing old music into the present day. They’re based out of Brooklyn and contributed to the ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ soundtrack, and their live shows are way too much fun for anyone watching to call them preservationists. On Saturday they’re playing with John Cohen, founding New Lost City Rambler and folk music collector.

4. The Banjo Toss

What is the Banjo Toss? This is the Banjo Toss. It’s a time-honored Brooklyn Folk Fest tradition, and it’s an excellent opportunity to throw a musical instrument into the Gowanus Canal while a riled up crowd of folk fans cheers you on. If you throw the banjo farther than anyone else, this happens:

5. Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton

Known for his intimate performance style (so intimate, apparently, that he won’t mind if you call him Blind Boy), Jerron Paxton is a versatile blues songster who flips easily between the guitar and the banjo and plays a slew of different styles: hokum, old-time, and cajun tunes, to name a few. Though Paxton’s only in his mid-twenties, he speaks and acts like an old-timer, with a baldly honest approach to the music he plays. “Old music is the least sucky thing of any type of music you can run across,” he told festival organizer and radio host Eli Smith on Down Home Radio in 2010. Paxton’s playing doesn’t suck, either, and neither does his broad-smiling energy on stage.

Those are the acts and activities that I’m anticipating most about this weekend’s festival, but they are MERELY THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG. Check out the full schedule here.  All this weekends’ events will take place at The Bell House in Brooklyn, between Friday, April 18th and Sunday, April 20th, and you can still pick up tickets here (a three-day pass is $75, and a one-day pass is a steal at $20). And while you’re dusting off your overalls and warming up your banjo-chucking arm, tell me what you’re most excited for at Brooklyn Folk Fest! The party kicks off this Friday, April 18th, with Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues at 8 PM.


FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Elvis Joins The Army

410059As 1957 wound to a close, Elvis Presley was twenty-two and a mega-star. He’d taken several steps during that year towards becoming the icon he’s remembered as today: earlier in 1957, he began dying his hair black and made his third appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show There he was filmed from the waist up, per censors, although by that time the sex appeal ship had sailed for Presley: already he’d been dubbed “Elvis the Pelvis.” He bought Graceland, his iconic Memphis mansion, and moved in with his parents in time for Christmas.

On December 20, Presley received the draft summons that sent him to Germany the following year. Though Presley apparently feared that the notice would sabotage his career, his image as soldier only bolstered his appeal, particularly because he’d been given the choice to enlist as Special Services and perform for troops. He chose to be a foot soldier instead. His time spent in the army was fateful in several ways. Presley grew dependent on barbiturates while serving–a habit which triggered later drug use and contributed to his early demise. But more positive, less personal changes ensued, too—the army made Presley a more flexible icon. Already established as smooth-talking, sharply-dressed rock ‘n’ roll royalty, Presley’s army career added ruggedness to his public image. News crews filmed Presley being sworn in and, three years later, discharged. Subsequently, stories about this time in his life figured him an American hero—not just a pop star.

When he was drafted, Presley’s single at the time, “Jailhouse Rock,”  moved the singer away from his golden boy image into grittier territory. “Jailhouse Rock,” featured in one of his most successful movies, achieved fanatical acclaim in the second half of 1957. Aside from the generally seedy aesthetic the song cultivates to go along with its subject matter, it’s a miracle that “Jailhouse Rock” ever snuck by the censors at all—famously homoerotic lyric “Number 47 said to number 3/You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see/I sure would be delighted with your company/Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me” made Presley’s unwholesome side exciting and sexy, and not in a “Love Me Tender” kind of way. The army similarly expanded the reach of Presley’s reign, confirming the heroism his deep bass and dance moves had always posited.

Check out the original video for “Jailhouse Rock” below:

FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John HurtFlash way, way back to February 14th, 1928: John Hurt, soon to be better known as Mississippi John Hurt, recorded a two-track 78 rpm in Memphis. The songs, the first two Hurt ever recorded, were “Frankie” and “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” and they won Hurt an invitation to come record in New York City. Hurt was a sharecropper who’d taught himself to play guitar when he was nine years old, and played for barn dances in his neighborhood, though he’d never made money off the instrument.

Hurt had opinions about the way the guitar should be played—his melody-heavy, understated method and sparse vocals resembled no other blues musician playing at the time. “Frankie,” side A of his 1928 release, was a subdued and uncommonly mournful take on the classic New Orleans murder ballad “Frankie and Johnny.” “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” side B, had been recorded for the first time only about ten years prior, by Bert Williams. Hurt changed the lyrics, once again downplaying the rambling, gambling, wheeling and dealing party music that often accompanied popular songs. Hurt’s versions tended to be more somber and introspective, though the guitar line stayed danceable and syncopated—Hurt played the blues, after all.

The recordings Hurt put out in the twenties and thirties were largely commercial failures, and he returned to his labor job. Forty years later, after “Frankie” was included on a collection of old-time Americana songs put out by Smithsonian Folkways in 1962. Around the same time, a Virginian ethnomusicologist by the name of Tom Hoskins decided to make it his mission to find Mississippi John Hurt, whose old recordings were enjoying a renaissance after the Smithsonian Folkways release. Allegedly, Hoskins found Hurt’s hometown by chancing a trip to Avalon, Mississippi after Hurt’s “Avalon Blues.”

Hurt died four years later, in 1966, but the last era of his life saw dramatic change. Hoskins arranged for Hurt to record and perform voraciously, and his career rose rapidly to extraordinary acclaim. The blues movement was making a comeback, and Mississippi John Hurt was its forerunner.

Like Lomax, like the Seegers, like John Cohen, Hoskins assumed the role of cultivating and editing Mississippi John Hurt’s work. Even the term “rediscovery,” commonly applied to Hurt’s rise to fame, implies ownership and—albeit well-intentioned—bigotry. Hurt’s image remains a mystery, co-opted and shaped by a curator. Without Hoskins, though, Hurt would certainly have died lost to listeners outside of Mississippi.

Listen to “Nobody’s Dirty Business” below: