mBtheLight Let Intuition Guide Her Solo Debut, How to Dress Well in the Dark

Photo Credit: James Adams

Some people spend their lives trying to make music happen, while others tend to let the music happen to them. It seems that Monica Blaire exists in the realm of the blessed few that experience the latter – acting as a vessel for the words, melodies and rhythms that seems to flow freely through her like a river. That’s not to say she hasn’t spent countless days and years writing music and continually growing in her craft, but that the way she does it is led by intuition and experience rather than any forced or external motivation. Her latest record, How to Dress Well in the Dark (H2DWITD), (released via Moodymann – founded record label, Mahogani Music) proves to be no different. 

“All of the full songs you hear are one takes, three at most. Nothing was written down, they’re all improv,” explains Blaire, who is releasing the project under the moniker mBtheLight. “I’m kinda slowly getting people into the idea that I can be called whatever I wanna be called,” says Blaire. “And that, yeah, Monica Blaire is the foundation, but don’t be surprised if I put out an album and I just called it Blaire or if I put out an album and I don’t wanna be called anything.” This languid approach to her moniker reflects the shapeshifting and transformative themes in H2DWITD.  

The record – which has been three years in the making – unfolds like a sonic diary, giving the listener glimpses into the external and internal conflicts that the artist faced over the last few years. Blaire explains that, after moving back to Detroit from Atlanta in 2018, life didn’t exactly go the way that she planned. She had returned to Michigan with the intention of making a record with Andres – aka legendary DJ and producer DJ Dez (of Slum Village) – and acting as a Creative Director for one of her friends’ projects. But, as she recounts, the process was slow moving and she felt like she had things she needed to get off her chest now. So, Dez and Mahogani Music founder and house music legend, Moodymann, gave Blaire the green light to embark on her solo record. 

Blaire explains that her writing process – for these songs and most of her songs in the past – is a very quick and spiritual process. “We sat in the studio and Moody just played me the tracks,” Blaire says. “This is how it happened –  Moody would play a track and I’d be like, ‘This is dope’ and we would start recording.” She says that she relies on instinct when it comes to writing and doesn’t allow herself to overthink or ruminate on a song. “Whatever the first idea I get is gonna be the one,” Blaire muses. “They normally come fully flushed, like ‘This is the song.’ Maybe not the words, but definitely the melodies and the placement.”

This direct method of writing probably explains the vulnerable and forthright nature of Blaire’s music. H2DWITD pieces together the more produced, fleshed out tracks that Blaire worked on with Andres, Moodymann and Nick Speed, with poignantly fleeting memories, composed solely by Blaire on her iPhone. She says that after sitting with the longer tracks for a while, she started to understand the story she wanted to tell, and wrote the interludes from there. But, although she had an idea of what she wanted to say, Blaire says a lot of the songs on her record told her things that she didn’t know yet herself. “My music tends to be very predictive because of my tap in,” Blaire states. “Sometimes, I’m feeling something and I don’t know why I’m feeling it and I express it through song and later it makes sense.”

Take the album’s lead track, “samesong.” Blaire says she wrote this track on her way home from a tour that was canceled due to COVID, and was surprised by how accurate it was listening back a few years later. “It kinda predicted all the sadness that was coming… and even some of the relationship things… some of it were things I was trying to get closure from, but it also ended up being predictive in some other ways too.”

This foreboding track sets the tone for the rest of the record, leading the listener through the peaks and valleys of Blaire’s self-discovery, acceptance and growth. “This is the darkest I get generally, in terms of what I put out and the things that I do,” observes Blaire. But in that darkness are heaps of hopefulness and clarity. Like in “release,” a cathartic meditation on realizing your needs and letting go of people and things that don’t fulfill them. Blaire begins the song with a reminder of the humanity in all of us – (“Be kind/A heart is still a heart/And a mind is still a mind”) while also maintaining her strength and sending a message to anyone who wants to get close to her (“Fuck with me if you wanna/Know that I’m different, though/I don’t take shit for granted/I dive in deep toes first”). The last minute or so of the song demonstrates Blaire’s unflinching vocal talent in an outpouring of emotional vocal runs that say just as much, if not more, than the words preceding them. 

Each song on the record packs in an equal amount of emotion, whether it’s five minutes or thirty seconds. The interludes, especially, encapsulate Blaire’s complex and genuine spirit, along with glimmers of the turmoil that she experienced while making this record. From her car breaking down and computer dying to going through a complicated breakup and delaying plans to move across the country, Blaire has been through a lot the last few years. From that came this unfiltered, vivacious body of work that yields proof of the beauty in chaos. “When that kind of chaos starts happening, I just know the universe is mixing stuff up and it’s about to be a real good time,” says Blaire.

Follow mBtheLight on Twitter for ongoing updates.

Detroit R&B Duo Aint Afraid Showcase Latest Singles With Cradle to the Grave Short Film

Photo Credit: Sajjad-Uddin Muhammed

Speaking with Sakinah (Straignth) and Zakiyyah (wiZdumb) Rahman of pop/R&B duo, Aint Afraid is an experience in itself. Even through a Zoom screen, the identical twins light up the room with their magnetic personalities, speaking confidently and swiftly and finishing each other’s sentences more times than not. Though they only started releasing music last year, the metro-Detroit based artists’ messages of positivity, love, and life’s fleeting nature have resonated with the masses. Last week, they released a short film, Cradle to the Grave, which includes three of their recent singles, “Crimson,” “Rock Bottom,” and “Basics,” and pays homage to pop icons like Missy Elliot while staying true to their wholesome and uplifting message. 

“It’s clear as day when you see me that I’m a Muslim,” says Zakiyyah, pointing to her hijab. “And people will say, ‘I love your music but I’m not Muslim,’” adds Sakinah. “We’re always going to have to fight through our identities to reach people.” In a world that likes to put people in boxes, the girls explain that a lot of opportunities that are offered to them have to do with their identity. “We feel like that’s not the only realm we can reach… you don’t need to get us only for Muslim-related opportunities.” And while their faith serves as a thematic compass, Aint Afraid’s music is universally relatable. 

Take, “Crimson,” the first song in Cradle to the Grave, a song that reflects on life’s inevitable end and what we do with our time here. The scene is set with the twins in costumes that nod at Missy’s iconic space-suit outfit from “The Rain” video.  They’re looking down on an elderly man in a mansion who’s surrounded by fine things, but not a loved one in sight. The lyrics warn listeners of the danger of material things and the lust and ruin that often accompanies them: “Tell me will it be worth it in the end/We’ll be hurting/Probably screaming and bursting in tears/Can’t believe we waited ‘til the end to think/Can’t believe we never even changed our ways.”

“‘Crimson’ is all about; We’re all gonna die, and nothing except your skeleton is gonna come with you, so what are you prioritizing?” says Zakiyyah. For the girls, it’s clear that their priorities lie with family, spreading their message, and creating a space in the media for young people that look like them. They explain that, growing up, they didn’t have a role model – aside from their mother – who they could look up to and see themselves in. “I think that’s why it took us so long to begin this journey,” says Sakinah. “We felt like there was no space for us… until we realized we can make the space for ourselves.” 

Making that space has been anything but easy. Throughout their lives, Sakinah and Zakiyyah have been told – in a variety of ways – that they can’t do what they want to do. Among these voices have been their college guidance counselor who said they can’t always be together and an opportunistic record label that told them they won’t be able to achieve what they want to achieve without them. “We don’t like that,” says Zakiyyah. “You can’t say that to me. People told us that we can’t ever work together in our life, we’re working together. They say you can’t be a Muslim artist, [we’re] Muslim artists. Then we have this label coming and saying ‘You can’t make it without us?’ Now I’m gonna absolutely go and do it without you.” 

This sentiment is echoed in “Rock Bottom,” the second song in Cradle to the Grave. They repeat one simple line that exemplifies the duo’s approach to adversity: “Rock bottom might be hard but that’s where I got my start up/People let me down but I got me regardless.” Perched atop a rock on the California coast in monochromatic costumes, the pair look like they are made for this moment. They see-saw seamlessly between melody and harmony, evidence of a lifetime spent singing together. In so many ways, this video and this chapter of their career is just an extension of what the sisters have been doing their entire lives. 

With a mother who grew up in a time where stars were discovered at gas stations and local diners, the girls say they have always been ready to perform anywhere and everywhere. “Performance came easy – it all came so easy,” says Zakiyyah. “We would perform in the middle of a Kroger or Walmart, we would just bust out.” These years of practice – improvised and otherwise – are realized in the pair’s ability to sing together without overpowering each other and move together as one fluid unit. This synchronicity is shown on “Basics,” a song that reminisces on the simplicity of childhood while reminding the listener that they can find that same peace at any age. 

At the young age of 22, Aint Afraid’s journey is just beginning. But, even at the start of their careers, they possess a wisdom and patience that some people don’t find at any point in their lifetime. Their endless positivity and unwavering sense of direction will take them as far as they wish to go – and they’ll continue to inspire and uplift others on the way. “We know that we’re different, and [want to use] that as a way to show other people who are different – not only that look like us but are different in other ways – to know that there’s room for [all of] us,” says Zakiyyah.

Follow Aint Afraid on Instagram for ongoing updates.  

Wing Vilma Lets Nature Guide Self-Discovery on Spirit Practice LP

Photo Credit: Sidd Finch

Milly Coleman of Wing Vilma has never been one to fight with nature. Instead, from early on in their life, they found themselves tuning into the complex and ever-present rhythms that nature has to offer – branches of a tree tapping a window, waves crashing to shore, their own footsteps brushing the ground as they walked home from school. On their sophomore LP Spirit Practice – released Friday, August 13th via Young Heavy Souls – Coleman explores how their own connection to nature has acted as a guiding force in both music and shaping their identity. 

Where most people see technology and nature as opposing forces, Coleman has spent much of their life fusing the two to make something beautiful. “I’m just obsessed with synthesizing organic sounds,” Coleman explains. “It’s almost like ASMR for me…I feel like there’s a really physical, tactile sense of pleasure and dopamine release that I have when I take the sounds of a forest and I run it through a loop so that the footsteps become the rhythm or whatever it might be.” Samples of nature can be heard throughout Spirit Practice in nearly every song, whether it’s a heavy rain or the cushion of a soft breeze. 

“Astrology Cup” offers the most outright sampling of nature, with its intermittent sounds of water flowing. The gentle reminder of one of Mother Nature’s most powerful elements builds a tension throughout the song, inviting the listener to meditate on this essential life source. Coleman explains that they approached much of making this record in the same way. “I truly don’t remember writing some of the things that came to define these songs,” Coleman says. “I feel like I’m just very meditative in these moments and I’m channeling something beyond myself.” 

The video, which premieres exclusively on Audiofemme today, gives a visual explanation of Coleman’s subconscious and conscious inspirations, and includes lyrics to a spoken word piece that was instigated by the song. It was filmed, directed and edited entirely by Coleman and encapsulates their DIY approach to making music and art.

A record three years in the making, Coleman says that time was as vital as any other instrument on the album. Giving the music space and coming back to it allowed them to reinterpret and build upon what they had started days, weeks, even months before. The time also allowed them to view their work and what it was saying from a bird’s eye view. “This record… before I even had a conscious realization… was about discovering myself,” Coleman says. “When I started some of these songs, I hadn’t even come out to myself as trans. I was in the deep, deep beginnings of understanding my own identity.” 

They explain that this body of work, more than any other, marked a significant time stamp in their life. They see a continuum of the same person they have always been, but also a marked difference in the identities and stages of their life. Spirit Practice tells this story through an ebb and flow of intensity and calm. The record’s title track welcomes the listener – and its creator – to look deep inside themselves, allowing all the noise to come and go, leaving one’s inner truth at the forefront of the mind. 

Moments of doubt and apprehension are communicated through booming percussion and dissonant tones – most noticeably in “You Don’t Know Arts” and “Thunder” – while effervescent melodies and buoyant rhythms signal lightness and peace in “GO!” and “I Wish.” Coleman uses what feels like thousands of different textures throughout Spirit Practice to tell a story of fluidity, change and self-assurance. And while each song contains a different palette of found sounds and meticulously manipulated synths, they are all tied together by Coleman’s masterful production. 

Though they started taking piano lessons at age six and are proficient on a range of instruments, Coleman has always felt most at home sitting at a drum set or constructing intricate rhythms on their laptop. “I think there’s always been a very strong, innate sense of rhythm in my body,” they say.The more I realized I could just appreciate the rhythms around me, [that] I didn’t have to fight them, I could just take them in… and create with them, that was liberating for sure.”

For this particular project, Coleman didn’t have access to their normal kit set up, and ended up sampling the sounds from their kit – and elsewhere – to create the kaleidoscopic beats you hear on the record. They admit that this method has made it especially challenging to repeat in a live setting, but that it has only pushed them to further expand their skillset as a drummer. “I’m really surprising myself with how far I’ve come as a percussionist,” says Coleman. “I really think I’m doing my best work ever now.”

It doesn’t hurt that Coleman also comes from a long line of musicians. They remember riding in the car with their grandma while she played orchestral music and quizzed them on which instrument was playing and in what key. She was the one to give Coleman their first synthesizer, a Roland Juno-106. “It’s a synth that I’ve heard used on some of my favorite records throughout my whole life, and for her to have been the person to [gift that to me]… is profound. I’m really grateful,” though Coleman says they are just as likely to improvise on pots and pans as they are on a legendary synth. 

This innate ability to merge worlds – artificial and organic, acoustic and electronic – is what gives Wing Vilma limitless depth and accessibility. And while the story Coleman tells through it is completely and wholly their own, their music invites the listener to impose their own life’s arcs and challenges onto it and view them from a meditative lens. After all, who doesn’t want to be the main character?

Follow Wing Vilma on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

How a Woodsy Retreat Led to Debut EP from Detroit Indie Pop Outfit Lady

Some of the best music happens when you least expect it. Detroit indie pop outfit, Lady (Indira Edwards, Paris from Tokyo, Brian Castillo, Jacob Waymaster, Jojo Diaz-Orsi, Armand Boisvenue IV a.k.a Sleepyboiiii) found this to be true when they went to the woods together with no expectations and came out of it with an EP and what producer and songwriter Paris describes as some of the best music they’ve ever made. “I was like, let’s just make four songs – that shouldn’t be hard,” says Paris. “Then we ended up making the best four songs.” A short documentary edited by Paris and Tyler Jenkins goes into more detail on making the EP.

The band’s lead songwriters, Paris and Edwards, have been friends for years, but this was their first time working on a project together. They went into collaboration with only one thing in mind – fluidity. The result is in the woods, a cascading collection of songs that flow into each other with ease, premiering today on Audiofemme. 

“I feel like the name ‘Lady’ encapsulates everything that the band is,” says Edwards. “Sort of, like, this blanket feminine energy: there’s grace but also a hardness to it.” That dichotomy is found in the first single off the EP, “u and i.” Over a background of lush synths and smooth guitar, Edwards’ cutting vocals paint a picture of someone they used to know driving right past them as they hitchhike on the side of the road. A metaphor for loss and abandonment, the song hits hard for anyone who has seen someone they love turn into a stranger. Edwards begs the familiar question –  “Do you even really know I’m there?/‘Cuz I don’t think you even really care.” Whether it’s watching that someone drive away without acknowledging you or scrolling on their IG feed and seeing them look unbothered, Edwards captures the pain caused by apathy from a former loved one. 

Edwards explains that the songwriting process for “u and i” – and all of the songs on the record – was a deeply collaborative experience. Paris first wrote the chorus on a ukulele and brought it to the band, who then transformed it into something completely different. This improvisational energy carried itself through the entire process. “It really felt like a pass the torch experience,” says Edwards. “For the intro, ‘cudi hum,’ Indira made this beautiful composition,” says Paris. “I was fucking around and started humming like Kid Cudi because I thought it was funny and it would make everyone laugh. Then it became a song.” 

The band shifts effortlessly from loose instrumentals like “cudi hum” and “audio hypnosis” to a gorgeous cover of Charlotte Dos Santos song “Red Clay.” Edwards’ vocals shimmer over distorted bass and waves of sparkling synths pays homage to Dos Santos while shaping the song to match the band’s watery, ethereal sound. Where “Red Clay” and “u and i” give the listener a chance to ruminate on love lost, songs like “limeade” offer an avenue to escape altogether. 

Layered, distant vocals guide scintillating bells and synths along a river of calm and escape. Lush swells are followed by a sparse melody, allowing us to ease back into whatever reality surrounds us. Throughout the EP, there’s room for anger, longing, contemplation and rest. The music’s liquidity reassures us that these feelings are fleeting; that they can happen all at the same time or completely vanish for a moment. “Lady, in itself, represents fluidity and constant change,” says Paris. 

Follow Lady on Instagram for ongoing updates.

313 Acid Queen and SickBoy Create Soundscapes from Skyscrapers on Buildings EP

Over the last ten years, Rebecca Goldberg – a.k.a 313 Acid Queen – has completely immersed herself in the city of Detroit. Unlike some transplants who come to the city to take, Goldberg, born and raised just outside of Detroit, came to learn, appreciate and contribute when the time felt right. Starting out as a student of Detroit house under the tutelage of legendary DJ Bruce Bailey, Goldberg cut her teeth spinning all around the city and slowly training her ear as a producer. Nearly a decade and five albums later, Goldberg pays homage to the city that has shaped her on her collaborative EP with Sardinia-based producer SickBoy (Stefano Piseddu), Buildings, out June 20 on limited-edition vinyl pressed at Archer Record Pressing. The record serves as a sonic map of the structures that portray Detroit’s beauty, oppression and resilience.

Today, Audiofemme premieres a video for EP opener “Guardian,” a bold and expansive track encapsulating the depth and complexity of the stunning, hundred-year old Art Deco-inspired skyscraper for which it is named, with its vast vaulted ceilings and tediously crafted mosaics. Goldberg and Piseddu use booming percussion to reflect the sturdy stone foundation and tie a rainbow of synth textures to symbolize the kaleidoscopic designs that gawkers can get lost in for hours. 

The project began to take shape when Goldberg responded to a call from Detroit Underground label founder Kero for producers to work on a “Detroit Map Series.” The series includes three other parts – highways, roadblocks and rivers – and prompts producers to make sonic representations of these staples in the form of Detroit house music. As a member of Detroit Underground, someone who spends a good amount of time sneaking into abandoned buildings to take photographs, and regularly takes friends on tours of the Guardian Building, Goldberg already had an intimate connection with the sights and sounds that accompany Detroit architecture. She says when she was assigned “buildings,” it was a no-brainer.

“There’s just something about Detroit and the creativity that comes out of here and it’s either in the water or the landscape or the people or all of it together,” says Goldberg. The main challenge was to communicate this magic across space and time to her Italy-based collaborator. Goldberg spent hours taking photos and videos of buildings that inspire her and sending them to Piseddu, who was deeply moved by the imagery. Though the two never met in person, they bonded over a shared obsession with Detroit techno. While the language barrier was considerable, the producers were able to communicate through Google-translate and an innate, shared sense for beats and textures. 

This wasn’t the first time that Goldberg made an unlikely connection through her passion for music. She explains that her foray into DJing was based solely on a love for the music and a desire to be around it as much as possible. “Like many people who are into stuff like this, I’m just a fan of this music. I’m a fan of dancing,” says Goldberg. She got her foot in the door by using her graphic design chops to create flyers and merch for Bruce Bailey, then later took matters into her own hands. “I was like, ‘Listen, if I’m gonna keep doing your flyers, I wanna be on the flyer. I also wanna play and I think you should put me on and give me a chance.’”

Then began what Goldberg describes as an apprenticeship of sorts, learning from Bailey and other well established Detroit DJs. “It would be me and all these house heads that had been in the game forever, and they loved me,” says Goldberg. “We loved each other, those people are my family. They wanted to teach me about the music and the culture of it and the history.” After years of collecting records, Goldberg decided it was time to contribute her own soundprint. “Eventually, you start hearing things that don’t exist yet, and that’s how music production started for me,” explains Goldberg. “I’ve tuned my ears now so well with DJing that I think I can play things that I would want to DJ and dance too, and that’s a whole ‘nother wormhole of obsession.” 

Buildings speaks to Goldberg’s years of soaking in sounds and stories from Detroit techno legends, while adding her own inspirations into the mix. After cascading through a series of dreamy soundscapes, the EP ends on “Renaissance,” a track that distills the futuristic aura that surrounds Detroit’s architectural centerpiece. “The Ren Cen is so crazy if you look at it,” says Goldberg. “It looks like a spaceship from the ’80s that’s supposed to be the future about to just take off.” The building’s corresponding track is full of laser-sharp synth sounds and swells of air, making it easy to imagine the entire structure blasting into space. 

The EP is as much of a love letter to the city as it is a testament to music’s power to transcend across oceans and bring people together. Just as techno has brought the people of Detroit together for years, it allowed Goldberg and Piseddu to make an entire EP together, even separated by an ocean.

Follow 313 Acid Queen on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Jacob Sigman Delivers Existential Power Pop on Latest EP

Photo Credit: Nate Sturley

“Doesn’t it hurt to be/The one they always point and laugh about?” Jacob Sigman asks on the first line of his new record, Why Do I Die in My Dreams, a surprisingly uplifting body of work considering the intro. In six songs, the Detroit-based pop artist and producer unpacks the last year of his life, which was framed by themes of mortality, aging and nostalgia – you know, all the fun stuff. But Sigman packages these heavy reflections in satisfying melodies and bubbly production that leaves the listener feeling comforted instead of morose. 

“I think I’m always trying to be hooky and have [the music] feel good to listen to even if it’s sad,” says Sigman. “I try to say something profound but in a way that will make people want to listen to it again.” He does that well on “When We Were Still Young,” a track that longs for simpler times – something that felt extra prescient in the days of lockdown. He compares the innocent, blind belief of childhood to the existential crisis most 20-somethings experience: “Back when I was seven/I believed in heaven/Hell and everything in between/Now I’m twenty-five living just to stay alive/And I don’t even know what it means.” Ditto, honestly.

But instead of giving us a reason to sulk, Sigman reminds us that it’s not that serious. The chorus brings a wave of positivity that washes over the preceding feelings of doom as he self-soothes with major chords and calming mantras – “What’s within the shadow of a doubt?/Shine a little light and we’ll figure it out/Lately we’ve been coming around.” It’s a refreshing and comforting response to the listlessness we all feel from time to time, without feeling too much like that self-help book your mom gave you after your last breakup. 

Sigman shifts from internal panic to reacting to his environment on the EP’s title track. He explains how the feeling of being surrounded by death on a daily basis caused him to grapple with his own sense of mortality. “It’s one of those things that oftentimes would come into my head and I would just quickly move onto the next thing because I don’t want to think about it,” he says. “But this year, there was no avoiding it.” The song explores his own subconscious fears about death and losing loved ones. Again, he finds words to comfort himself and others through the uncertainty, repeating: “I won’t let darkness take you/I’ll hold you ‘till you wake/Nobody leaves forever/At least that’s what they say.” 

That’s the note that Sigman leaves us on with this project, undoubtedly a time capsule of being unexpectedly stuck in his 700-square-foot apartment (with a roommate), forced to figure out how to process the world around him and coming away with feelings of loss, hope, nostalgia, longing and peace. The vulnerability is palpable in his lyrics and his willingness to admit universal truths that a lot of people tend to shy away from. And doing this without falling into the quicksand of despair is his gift to his fans and himself. “Music has always been a really powerful creative outlet,” says Sigman. “But I don’t think it’s ever been quite as powerful as it was last year making some of those songs.”

Follow Jacob Sigman on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Tiny Jag Keeps Her Circle Small and Her Spirit Rich in New Single “How It Was”

Tiny Jag has never been one to mince words. Ever since her first EP Polly debuted in 2018, Jag has been known for her no-bullshit lyricism and cutting delivery. Though her sound has grown and shifted since then, the heart of it remains the same: an uncompromising sense of self that’s easy to sing along to. In the video for her new song, “How It Was,” Jag emphasizes the importance of keeping your circle small and supported. 

“When I made this song I was dead in the center of thinking about what relationships were working for me and which ones weren’t,” Jag explains. She says that the last year has been a time of not only looking inward, but looking around her and tempering expectations around friendships and relationships. What she discovered was that supporting herself first and foremost yielded the ability to show up for others in the way that she wants to. “I feel clearer over the last few months since that song has been created,” she says. “Just being comfortable in exactly where I am at any moment… and finding a way to have my own back… makes it easier to figure out what you expect out of the souls and spirits around you.” 


This realization led Jag to write the ultimate ride-or-die anthem that mirrors the relationships in her own life. She explains that her tendency to keep her circle tight in her personal life bleeds into her creative process. In an industry that is built off of multiple people – sometimes strangers – co-writing songs and cranking them out like an assembly line, Jag takes a more intimate approach to songwriting. She says that 99% of the time, she’s going into the studio with someone she has a prior connection and strong basis of trust with, and if not, that bond is made before the session even starts. “Any producer that I went into the studio with blindly, we probably talked for like two hours before we started working,” says Jag. “I think that for my peace of mind, and the way that my anxiety is set up, I need to focus on the people that feel the pull… some type of law of attraction has brought us together and here we are vibing the fuck out.”

The video follows Jag and her besties (Jag’s long-time DJ and friend Wah Wah and local musician Shannon Barnes of White Bee) as they devise a plan to rob their douchey corporate boss. At some point, we’ve all probably fantasized about tying up our boss and taking all of their money, which makes sense, considering that the average CEO in the United States makes up to 320 times more than a typical worker. The visual shows Jag and her posse enduring various morbid circumstances like domestic abuse, a messy breakup, and debilitating debt. The three decide that in order to escape their current situations, they’ll team up and take down their superior, Robin Hood-style. 

While the video was inspired by fantastical scenes like the Joker walking away from a burning hospital in Dark Knight and the grocery store heist in Good Girls, Jag says her vision was one step closer to reality. “I wanted it to be something that you could see some mother fuckers fuckin’ around and doing,” she says. And that’s how a Tiny Jag song usually makes the listener feel – like you could rob your boss and get away with it. An indestructible aura surrounds her music, permeating through the speakers and touching whoever is listening. It’s fitting, then, that Jag’s ultimate goal as a creative is to be an entity rather than solely a musician. 

“Even when I started doing music, I knew it was going to be a leg of something bigger. I always wanted to be a force more than any one designated thing,” she says. “I would rather be a reminder of something that reminds you to be yourself, or don’t be wasteful, or don’t throw your trash on the ground or whatever the fuck.” She lives out this intention not only through her music, but, more recently, through repurposing old fabrics to make her own merch. She explains that having multiple outlets allows her to nurture her creative self and shift focus from output to being present with herself and her art. 

Jag’s unending quest towards self-discovery is what keeps her music so authentic, and inspires listeners to do the same. “It feels like every time I talk to you, I talk about how I’m being my most authentic self and that’s the best thing that’s going right now,” Jag muses. “But, every time, I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to that most internal piece of myself, that highest self.” 

Follow Tiny Jag on Instagram for ongoing updates.

The Stools Press Energy of In-Person Shows to 12″ Vinyl on Live at Outer Limits

Photo Credit: Noah Elliot Morrison

The last time I attended a Stools show was on February 14th, 2020 at Outer Limits Lounge. Somebody in the audience passed out after their first song and I left because it was stressing me out. People were freaking out, but turns out the guy just had low blood sugar or something – he was fine. That being said though, if you’re gonna pass out at a show, it’s probably gonna be at a Stools show. The Detroit-based garage rock revival band is known for their high-octane performances that feel like having a front row seat to a drag race. These invigorating shows are what drive people to see bands live in the first place, and are undoubtedly what fans have been missing the last fifteen months of shut downs. Luckily, The Stools – Will Lorenz, Charles Stahl and Krystian Quint –  have just released their first 12” Live At Outer Limits, which brilliantly captures their rapturous performance and is almost as good as the real thing. 

The album was recorded on December 28th, 2019, and released digitally in May 2020; the vinyl came out a few days ago and has already sold out on their Bandcamp, but you can still grab a copy via Big Neck Records. The band seems genuinely surprised by this success. “I am always surprised when I see so many orders come in, because I really don’t know what to expect,” says Lorenz. “Without playing shows all the time, it’s easy to forget that people outside of our little bubble exist and buy records too! I hope some of the success is due to the snapshot in time aspect of it, a little more than we originally intended though since you can’t see us play for now.” 

Lorenz says that the choice to press their live show wasn’t exactly scientific, but simply due to the fact that it was their longest release to date; the band has favored releasing their songs four or five at a time on small runs of 7″ EPs, including 2019’s When I Left (via Third Man Records), as well as Car Port (via Goodbye Boozy Records) and Feelin’ Fine (via Drunken Sailor Records), both from this year.

He also credits the band’s endearment to local punk bar Outer Limits as a driving force. “As a band we share a love for live albums as well as Outer Limits Lounge in general,” says Lorenz. “Everybody who works there is great and the sound is always perfect. We just waited until we had a chance to fully book our own show there [to record], but we had had the idea for a while.” 

For a band that started out as a manic idea between Lorenz and Stahl, the Stools have reached many milestones faster than some bands ever do. You could make any number of assumptions of why this is, but if I had to guess, it would be because of the band’s genuine chaotic energy. At a time when it felt like garage rock was giving way to shoegaze and “indie rock” (whatever that means), three young guys from Grosse Pointe, Michigan bonded over a shared love of the White Stripes and Black Flag. These influences (as well as youthful angst and energy) are palpable in the band’s live performance. 

The record encapsulates the punk microcosm that resides within Outer Limits Lounge. Nested on the outskirts of Hamtramck, MI – a tiny city that lies within Detroit City Limits – the bar literally and figuratively emits the “outcast” vibe that is historically associated with punk rock music. But, once inside, the humble digs serve as an oasis for “music nerds,” fringers, or pretty much everyone. It’s cool but not exclusive, messy but unthreatening. The Stools’ baby-faced frontmen encapsulate these dichotomies and their music serves as an allegorical safe space welcoming rejects of all kinds – or anybody who wants to scream along in their car. 

Follow The Stools on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING DETROIT: decliner Set Expectations Ablaze on Debut EP Remember

Photo Credit: Sidd Finch

The members of brand-new Detroit trio decliner can’t decide if they’re a punk band or not. “I don’t consider decliner punk,” says bassist and beat-maker Steve Stravropoulous. “I think there’s a difference between Tim and I because Tim thinks it’s a punk band and I don’t… the more he thinks it’s punk the more I try to make it not that.” Genre label aside, the group – made up of Stavropoulous, Rob Luzynski (vocals), and Tim Barret (guitar) – certainly embodied the punk lifestyle whilst making their debut EP, Remember, out today on FXHE records.

The recording process, which is generally known to be long and arduous, took decliner about four hours and was produced and engineered by notable Detroit producer and techno artist Omar S, aka Alexander Omar Smith. The experience boiled down to two distinct lenses for the members of decliner. “I was drunk and having fun so I wasn’t stressed,” says Luzynski. “I was drunk and stressed,” adds Stavropoulous. The stress element was mostly due to the shock of the fact that the band was actually recording. They went into the session with the idea that they were going to show Smith a couple songs, see if he liked them, and leave. Instead, they went in, recorded one track of each song live to a Tascam 16-track recorder, and had an EP. “I was like, ‘damn, I’m not sure how I feel about this,’ because it’s just not how Steve and I usually work,” says Barret.

Without the ability to add overdubs or edit the tracks after the fact, the band had one shot to get it right, and they laid everything on the line. “You can hear in some of the tracks that my voice is giving out basically,” says Luzynski. “Like, in ‘Know,’ that’s me almost passed out…like I almost passed out from doing that.” For someone whose entire musical career up to this point has been making rap music, it makes sense that Luzynski felt winded after a few hours straight of deep, guttural singing. But despite that it was his first time dabbling in this uncharted vocal register, Luzynski’s disquieting vocals sound like they’ve been brewing in the depths of his soul all along, waiting for the right time to come out. 

On “Burn,” the first and only single from the EP, decliner encapsulates the isolation of dead winter and the destructive paths we can go down to try and escape it. Barret’s whirring guitar and Stavropoulous’s unabating bass-line paint a vivid picture of quotidian mundanity. January in Detroit, when this EP was recorded, is always one of the most desolate months, especially during a pandemic. Plagued with iced over streets and sparse sunlight, a stillness sweeps over the city, making it easy for loneliness to make its bed in your home. Luzynski captures this bleakness with his blunt lyricism: “Man this weather’s really something/I can barely feel my face/I keep falling, someone catch me/Before I go up in flames.” 

Luzynski explains that the song is a capsule for how he was feeling at the time they recorded, and also serves as a vague warning for the things that lure us in at times of darkness. “It’s thinking about the moth to the flame… things that can save you but also be your demise,” says Luzynski.

The video for “burn,” out exclusively via Playground Detroit last Friday, personifies this sentiment without allowing the band to fall too deep into despair. It starts by introducing the band hanging out in an attic, getting ready to record. Luzynski drinks a mysterious liquid and is transported into another realm, presumably by the UFO that makes frequent appearances. In this barren realm, Luzynski is found alone and desperate, climbing to nowhere and constantly being set ablaze. It honestly just kind of seems like an acid trip gone terribly wrong. But we find moments of levity when the camera pans back to the attic, watching the band play while Luzynski sits in a trance state, or finding the friends clinking beers on a sunny day. These brief moments of reprieve serve as a reminder that the dark times don’t last forever. 

In that same vein, decliner don’t aim to take themselves too seriously. As musicians with multiple projects, the artists started decliner more or less on a whim, prompted by a few texts from Omar S. “Omar was texting me like, ‘I wanna record your band,’” says Stavropoulous, “and was simultaneously texting Rob, ‘I wanna record your band.’” Luzynski adds, “We didn’t have a band yet.” So, the two thought it was the perfect opportunity to join creative forces, because when Omar S. says he wants to record your band, you show up with a band. The preparation for the actual session was minimal. Stavropoulous and Barret had skeletons for the tracks and thought that Luzynski’s energetic stage presence would be a good match. Again, having only used his voice for rapping previously, it was a bit of a process for Luzynski to finalize his vocal style. But he had Smith to guide him in the right direction. “He said ‘I want you to sing like you’re watching your house burn down or someone just put out a cigarette in your eye,’” remembers Luzynski.  

Up to the challenge, Luzynski said he used his trademark method of “kush and push” – smoking a joint and doing some push ups – before recording, and it more or less worked out. “I totally did push ups in Conant Gardens party store to get ready as I was relatively inebriated on PBRs,” says Luzynski. His straining vocals make a novel pair to the undulating instrumentation and four on the floor techno beats, marrying the sensation of dissociating at a basement rave with the relentless energy of moshing at a hardcore show. The group describes the project as an “exploration of sound” that pulls from their varied musical backgrounds. Put simply, Stavropoulous adds, “We’re just dumb boys doing our thing. We’re doing our best and we’re gonna try.” Sounds pretty punk to me. 

Follow decliner on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Vespre Breathes Life into Spring on New Single “Back to Me”

Photo Credit: Abigail Lynch

For some artists, the last year of increased solitude offered an opportunity to step into their craft and be more prolific and creative than ever before. For others, it presented a debilitating pit of emotional and physical quicksand, making it nearly impossible to get through the day, much less create anything. Kaylan Waterman, aka Vespre, landed somewhere in between the two. Her latest single and first solo release in almost three years comes after a long period of collaborating, resting, reflecting and rediscovering her muse. “Back to Me” is a buoyant reunion with Spring, self and love lost and found; and one that Waterman worked damn hard to get to.

“I know a lot of people who are like, ‘I made my magnum opus during COVID!’ That was not me, at all,” says Waterman. “I tried a couple of times and my body, my spirit just told me: Don’t even stress about it, but this isn’t it for you… focus on other stuff.” So, that’s what she did. Waterman, who works full time at local label, artist management and sync company Assemble Sound, already has enough on her plate to tire anyone out. But, on top of working full time and collaborating with her brother Kaleb the Intern, Moon King, and others in 2020, she started a sharing table in her neighborhood to provide food and other necessities to folks in the community. 

While Waterman devoted her time and energy to filling other people’s plates, her’s was running low. “I just did not have it in me to create. I was too stressed, I was too sad, I was grieving, I was just like in survival mode,” Waterman explains. “I felt very depleted and music was the only thing I knew that would help fill me up.” So she started writing for herself, meeting at the cross-section of heartbreak and healing. 

Waterman explains that the idea for “Back to Me” started almost as a clapback to peoples’ responses to her breakup. She says that although she’s the one who walked away from her relationship, everyone assumed she was dumped. “I would tell people, and they’d be like, ‘I’m so sorry, he’s the worst!’” Waterman says. “And I’m like, ‘umm, maybe I’m the worst…What are you talking about? I ended this.’” 

The song allowed Waterman to reclaim her narrative and communicate the complex array of emotions that can accompany a breakup. She wanted to portray the duality of being resolute in her decision but still feeling loss and grief. “I just wanted people to know that women – especially independent, very self aware women – can make difficult decisions and still be soft and longing and wanting. We hold both of those things at the same.”

Waterman embodies this duality in “Back to Me.” Though her poetic lyrics focus on nostalgia and longing for a former lover, the music that accompanies them is upbeat, driven by shiny synths and ebullient percussion. The video (co-directed by herself and Andrew Miller) mixes the ethereal and the mundane, showing Waterman as both a serene nature goddess and a forlorn bodega shopper. Though she’s feeling the ripple effects of heartbreak, Waterman refuses to hide from her complicated emotions, and is determined to dance through it all. 

“I think I did accidentally write a pop song but I don’t really gravitate towards pop in that way,” she says. The songwriter, pianist and producer grew up listening to Detroit house and attending the jazz festival as early as age 9. She says that she feels most inspired by female artists like Patrice Rushen – whom she lovingly named her Subaru after – who sit somewhere in between house music and jazz, disco and R&B. “I want people to be able to dance to the music I make, because Detroit is such a dancing town,” says Waterman. “I wanna speak to that culture more. I wanna write for us more. For my friends that go out dancing like me.”

Dancing in the middle seems to be where Waterman finds her stride. In the middle of heartbreak and happiness, rest and resilience, triumph and tears. Her music finds its strength in vulnerability and suggests that the listener do the same. “I feel like I’m coming back to life and I wanted people to hear it in that way,” she says. “Maybe it’s your creativity coming back or maybe it’s a person or maybe it’s just spring. Maybe you’re happy that this horrible winter is over… I wanted people to listen to it and hear however they wanted to hear it.”

Follow Vespre on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Mario Sulaksana Showcases Detroit Artists and Friends on Debut LP Conclusion

I met Mario Sulaksana four years ago, in a Wayne State University practice room. He was the band leader of a fundraiser for the Artist Residency I was living in, and the residency coordinator suggested he accompany me for a song or two. When we first spoke on the phone, I remember preparing to meet a 40-something, well established jazz musician – he sounded so grown up and formal. I was shocked, then, to see a 20-something man in basketball shorts and a backpack greet me and let me into the practice building. “I actually graduated a few months ago but I can still get in here to practice,” he explained.

I was a bit skeptical at first. As someone with very limited formal music training, collaborating with the “music major” types always kind of intimidated me or rubbed me the wrong way. But there was something about Mario that felt different. His professional demeanor mixed with his college kid wardrobe was extremely endearing. After a few minutes of talking, it became clear that he is the kind of person that makes it feel like you’ve known him for years within a few minutes of meeting. And then he started playing the keys. I was floored by his intuition and ease on the keyboard. Within two hours, we had written three songs together, one of which we performed at the fundraiser. 

As much as I’d like to think I’m special, Mario is the type of producer that brings out the best in every single musician he works with. That’s probably why, then, four years later, his debut album Conclusion features almost twenty different musicians (including me), all of whom could tell a similar story to mine. The record is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Mario’s last eight years in Detroit – absorbing inspiration from the greats like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, spending countless hours composing and performing, and making friends that naturally evolved into collaborators and vice versa. 

Sulaksana explains that while writing the record, it became clear which of his friends would be the perfect fit for the parts he had in mind. “It’s just kinda how my brain works. I can only imagine the words coming from a certain voice, or the pocket grooving from a certain drummer,” says Sulaksana. “I think it reinforces the message to the musicians that I care about them as people first, and that everyone’s individual voice matters.”

Of course, wrangling so many musicians is extremely time consuming and difficult. Nonetheless, Sulaksana managed to record the entire album in a matter of six 12-hour days at Rust Belt Studios, a studio just outside of Detroit. Sulaksana says that over half of the songs were finished or written in the studio, speaking to his ability to improvise. “I remember writing the lyrics to ‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ the night before my session with Keyandra, but I had only completed the song halfway,” says Sulaksana. “I then finished the rest of the lyrics quite literally on the car ride to the studio.” 

Part of his improvisational prowess comes from the years Mario spent as a band leader for live shows. Before recording Conclusion, Sulaksana worked any number of weddings, dive bar shows and gigs in Detroit’s mainstay jazz clubs, Cliff Bells and Willis Show Bar. And while he played thousands of covers in this time, there were a few that stuck out. Although most of Conclusion is entirely original music, he chose four of his favorite pop songs to record “Mario style” – which means complex chords, lush arrangements, and a killer band. The covers showcase his knack for transforming a universally recognizable song into one that feels like you’re hearing it for the first time. 

The one that stands out to me is “Landslide,” sung by local artist Madelyn Grant. A departure from his normally intricate arrangements, this cover is stripped down, featuring just Sulaksana on the keys and Grant on vocals. The arrangement is a perfect example of Sulaksana’s wide-ranging influences, from gospel music to Fleetwood Mac. Grant’s ethereal vocals float over Sulaksana’s unexpected chords, a combination that is as satisfying as it is unordinary.

As far as his original work on Conclusion, Sulaksana pays homage to R&B and soul legends. One of the first songs he wrote on the record, “Always,” is his most obvious tribute to Stevie Wonder. Not only does the name nod at one of Stevie’s most beloved songs, but the jazz-infused chords and languid melodies are reminiscent of Songs in the Key of Life. In the chorus, Justin Showell sings Sulaksana’s lyrics, “Stevie always told us, love’s in need of love/I know that your love is in need of mine,” acknowledging the depth of Wonder’s influence on his musicianship. 

Though Sulaksana cites Wonder as one of his heroes, he admits that the album’s eclectic sound pulls from a mosaic of different sources. “‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ had a lot of Floetry and D’angelo energy behind it. The Intro, ‘Love is Here to Stay,’ felt like a lost K-Ci & JoJo demo, and honestly a lot of the others just kinda happened,” says Sulaksana. “Each song had its own influences and I think it’s pretty evident when you juxtapose them individually and out of order from the album.”

As is the story for almost everyone, the past year has been one of shapeshifting, growth and change. For Sulaksana, it’s meant switching gears from band-directing live to producing in the studio, arranging other artists’ songs to writing his own, and stepping from the shadows into the spotlight. While he was itching to get into the studio to record songs he had been writing for years, he says he feels most at home working behind the scenes. “I wish I could be somewhere in between Chad Hugo and Mark Ronson,” Sulaksana muses. “Maybe leaning more toward Chad at the moment… I don’t really care to have my face on a bunch of things. It’s weird to promote myself. I work with so many beautiful stars who shine on stage and make it look easy. I want to lift them up as high as possible.”

Follow Mario Sulaksana on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Harpist Ahya Simone Highlights Humor and Joy in Her Black Trans-Centered Webseries Femme Queen Chronicles

Photo Credit: Jayne Lies

Ahya Simone had no intention of being a harpist. From the minute her high school counselor added the novel elective to her schedule in ninth grade, she wanted nothing to do with the class or the instrument. But, like many impactful experiences in her life, this opportunity that seemingly fell into her lap became one of the most important aspects of her life. “I always say that some of the greatest things or the most pivotal things in my life happen to me through things that I didn’t even necessarily set out to do,” says Simone. “And how I got into the harp was one of those things.” 

Though Simone grew up in the Baptist church where she nurtured her love of singing, the Detroit born-and-bred harpist, singer and filmmaker says the harp changed her life in ways she could have never anticipated. She explains that learning the harp was an integral part of embracing and understanding her femininity. As a self-described “5’4″ cunty little gender expansive child,” Simone admits that she was hesitant to embrace the harp at first because of its association to femininity. “It’s like the thing that people do when they’re so obsessed with something, but then they’re like, “I’m gonna be the total opposite of that.”  

But come the end of the semester, Simone was the star pupil of her class and was encouraged by her teacher to continue. Besides giving her a creative outlet and a chance to learn how to read music, the harp acted as a safe space for Simone to access her femme side. “It was a way for me to be feminine in public space in a way that felt safer than trying to outwardly express femininity in ways like dressing in feminine clothes – it was more so a caveat to my actual transition,” says Simone. “Honestly, it was lifesaving to me, just like transitioning was life saving to me. I probably wouldn’t have transitioned when I did if I didn’t play the harp.”

Simone continued to excel at the harp, which led her to continue her studies at Detroit’s Wayne State University. And while her relationship with the harp grew, she felt stifled by the confines of the orchestra pit. As someone who grew up with a love of singing and listening to Earth, Wind and Fire, Anita Baker and Beyoncé, there was a part of Simone’s artistry that was waiting to be tapped into. “I had to play… 300 year old dead people music in a goddamn pit and I was like ‘Oh my god I can’t do this anymore,’” Simone remembers. “I can’t sit in this pit with all these white people that don’t understand me and I’m the only harpist.” So, by the time graduation came around, Simone decided she wouldn’t waste her time clawing her way to the rare harp chair in an orchestra. She would take her own path, one that paid homage to the R&B and electronic music that raised her and the groundbreaking jazz harpists that paved the way for her.

“I am so floored at how underrated Dorothy Ashby is and how many jazz greats have no idea who Dorothy Ashby is,” says Simone of one of her greatest influences. She explains how discovering jazz harpists like Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane and her teacher Brandee Younger has expanded her theoretical knowledge of the harp. Aside from inspiring her to delve deeper into her improvisational impulses, these artists reaffirmed Simone’s belief that the harp was not only destined for those content to play Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” for the rest of their lives.

“Western thought and culture kind of siphoned off the cultural vastness of what the harp represents,” says Simone. “Because now, it’s associated with like, delicate white women. And, you know, I’m not a delicate white woman… But one thing I do feel like it represented to me was a sense of boldness, a sense of elegance that I had hoped to embody as a young person. And also it was cool. It wasn’t the violin, it wasn’t the piano. Pianists were a dime a dozen. But the harp was just like – this is some bad bitch shit actually.” 

Since being cajoled into trying the harp her freshman year, Simone has forged her own path as a musician, ranging from being the Principal Harpist for the Wayne State University Symphony to collaborating with electro R&B artist Kelela, scoring Louis Vuitton’s Fall/Winter 2021/2022 digital runway show, and releasing a video for her debut single “Frostbite” in October 2020.

She’s also written and starred in the critically acclaimed web series Femme Queen Chroniclesthe story of four Black trans women navigating life in Detroit. Much like Simone’s experience with the harp, her foray into filmmaking happened organically and unexpectedly, as a result of an impromptu meeting with friends at KFC. 

In 2017, Simone attended a community meeting with other trans women to address the acts of violence that were affecting trans women of color in Detroit. After what was understatedly an extremely heavy couple of hours, Simone and a few of her friends decided to go get some food and decompress. “One of my co-creators wanted KFC and everyone else wanted Wendy’s, so of course we went to KFC because she wanted some potato wedges,” Simone says. “We were just talking shit, talking about growing up Black and trans in Detroit…and, like, I just pulled over from laughing so hard about our funny ass stories. I was like, this is what I wanna see on my screen… something quirky and funny and joyous… that’s not always at the expense of trans women in front of these cis audiences.” And just like that, Femme Queen Chronicles was born.

Simone’s intrinsic musicality permeates the cadence of FQC’s first episode, The Clock.” “If you notice… it’s very rhythmic,” Simone explains. “It’s almost like a jazz song. It’s just this really dope rhyme. It has a beat to it, a pacing that felt really musical to me.” With just this first episode out, FQC has already garnered recognition from Blackstar Film Festival, the Sundance Institute, Cinetopia Film Festival and more. The series is an amalgamation of lived experience blended with nostalgic sitcom inspiration. “It’s kind of like, Chewing Gum meets Living Single,” says Simone. “It’s like, weird, quirky comedy with Black trans women from Detroit.” 

Created by Simone and her friends Paige Wood and Bre Campbell, the first ten minute episode proved to be a daunting task for such a small team. “I think it all came together really well even though I was kicking and screaming and crying the whole way through,” says Simone. “It took six months from the idea to writing the script to shooting and editing and doing the music. It was crazy. It was just buck wild.” 

Though the team had a small budget for the first episode, they’ve been in an incubation period for the last few years, trying to raise enough funds to continue the series. Aside from production costs, Simone and her team have implemented an impact plan that ensures anyone involved in the production has access to emergency funds, as well as hiring trans interns to assist on set. And while the team has been in talks with production companies and networks about future partnerships, there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of developing Season One. “In 2019, we did a nearly all Black, trans writers room,” says Simone. “We didn’t get to finish, but we managed to get some very fleshed out episodic outlines… So any support monetarily that could support us in being able to sit our ass at home and actually write the script [would be helpful].” FQC accepts donations on an ongoing basis via CashApp.

It’s clear that whatever the next steps are for Simone and Femme Queen Chronicles are, they will be on her terms and rooted in bolstering her community.

Follow Ahya Simone on Instagram for ongoing updates. 

Reginald Hawkins Celebrates Queer Liberation with “Tricks in the City” Video

Photo Credit: Hailey Kasper

Reginald Hawkins has always wanted to be a pop star. As far back as he can recall, he remembers going by “Popstar Reg” to anyone who knew him and performing at any chance he could. However, it wasn’t until February of 2019 that Popstar Reg was introduced to the world-at-large with his debut single, “Playing for Keeps.” Since then, Hawkins has expanded on his brazen electropop with “FRESH” in 2020 and his latest single and video “Tricks in the City,” released on March 26th. In “Tricks in the City,” Hawkins embraces his sensuality, addresses systems of oppression, and pays homage to Black queer culture. 

“Every time I release a song, it’s like a different era,” explains Hawkins, “it’s just really a reflection of who I am right in that moment.” And right now, for Hawkins, that person is an artist in the midst of immense transformation and learning. Growing up in a small suburb of Detroit, Hawkins attended a primarily white high school and didn’t have any friends who were Black and gay like him. As part of two marginalized communities, Hawkins felt himself assimilating to his environment as a means of survival. But since moving to Detroit in 2018, Hawkins has surrounded himself with artists and friends with shared identities and values and created his own community – the Tricks in the City – which catalyzed a period of vast growth. 

“This is the first time that I’ve been in an environment that is gay and Black all the time,” says Hawkins. “Being able to talk openly about the shit that we’ve gone through, as gay Black people…that helps me to break it down and just learn more about myself.” The “Tricks” are Hawkins and his roommates, who are all creative forces of their own. The video opens with Hawkins surrounded by his best friends in formation around a sleek Range Rover. With icy glares and impeccable style, the Tricks embody glamor at its purest form. With his crew in tow, Hawkins goes on to outline his ideal man, sparing no declaration of self worth: “If you wanna chance with me you better fly me overseas boy/Take me on a shopping spree/I got some big designer needs boy/Front row at fashion week London to Paris boy.” 

Hawkins explains that while this song is, in part, about knowing your worth and trying to find a good man in a small city, it’s also about breaking down oppressive structures and finding his true self. “It’s about understanding how I am being impacted by these systemic issues of colorism and racism and homophobia – internalized and external. And how can I not be an active factor in continuing to make those things happen to myself?” he says. “As you let go of those things that weigh on you, you inherently become a more confident person and learn about yourself and love those parts of yourself more.” 

Tackling systematic oppression within the confines of a pop song sounds like a daunting task, but Hawkins does it with ease, weaving cries for freedom between silky synths and pulsating drums – “Decolonize my mind, I am focusing on gettin’ paper/I’m all for that generational freedom that’s all I’m sayin’/I’m here on the right track just a Black man with some education.” His delivery is as fierce as his fine-tuned Voguing that follows in the breakdown. Hawkins explains that it was important to him to incorporate such an iconic part of queer culture into a visual that celebrates his identity. 

“I wanted to really highlight gay culture and show this really queer expression of ballroom and voguing,” says Hawkins. “That is our culture – especially as Black gay people in the United States… If this track is about freedom and decolonization and accepting my gayness and my blackness intersectionally, I need to really include that part of what that means.” 

In peeling back stifling layers of oppression and connecting with the history of his queer community, Hawkins has begun the journey to becoming his highest self. “As I slowly began to shed those layers, it revealed this more real and truer version of who I am,” says Hawkins. “I’ll never forget the person who I was. That person still defines me and is still in me in a certain way. But that person is freed now.”

Follow Reginald Hawkins on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Tammy Lakkis Puts Listeners on ‘Notice’ With House Beats and Poetic Lyrics

Photo Credit: Chloe Sells

Places can have a way of rubbing off on people. The longer you’re in an environment, the more likely you are to soak in its sounds, energy and rhythms. At least that’s what happened to Tammy Lakkis. On her debut EP, Notice (out Friday, March 26 via Portage Garage Sounds), Lakkis meshes her background in more traditional songwriting with her last four years as a DJ, where she spent most of her time expanding her knowledge of Detroit’s deep electronic music history and dancing or spinning at Detroit’s hotbed for underground electronic, Motor City Wine (MCW). The result is a richly diverse set of songs, ranging from a gentle conversation with the void in “Hello?” to a forlorn Arabic love song, “Wen Rayeh,” all set to pulsing synths and complex rhythms. 

“I feel like I’ve been living in different worlds genre wise for a while,” says Lakkis, “and instead of choosing one or the other, I just thought, ‘why not do it all?’”

Though the songwriter, producer and DJ has always been interested in expanding her musical skills and influences, her in-depth study of DJing and producing began about four years ago. Lakkis says her main method of learning was just listening to a song – or part of a song – over and over again until she could crack the code on why it made her want to dance. But the best way to learn is by doing, and Lakkis spent many nights at MCW’s “Monday is the New Monday” DJ night, hosted by DJ and producer, Shigeto. Before the lockdown, Monday nights at MCW were a house music lover’s oasis. Untouched by the stain of over-attendance, listeners could go there, bring a glass of wine onto the dancefloor without spilling it, and listen to some of the best DJ sets in the world. This essence of freedom and anonymity bleeds into Lakkis’s music, who both danced and DJed at MCW.

She spent the last two or so years refining her live set, where all of the songs on Notice originated. “I guess this EP is like a snapshot of the best parts of my live set that I was doing,” she says. She also cites DJing as an integral tool in her learning process as a producer. “I think they go hand in hand,” says Lakkis. “A lot of learning to be a producer was just through listening and taking a little bit from different tracks that I was finding when I was DJing and learning from them.” 

It makes sense, then, that Notice immediately transports the listener to a dimly lit dance floor, filled with bodies engrossed in their own escapism. The EP’s title track starts with a vibrating, four-on-the-floor beat that introduces the setting and immediately invites movement. Lakkis’s voice cascades over the synths and polyrhythms beckoning the listener into the here and now: “Oh when you walked this way before/I didn’t notice but now I notice/And when the wind howled its song/I didn’t notice/but the destruction I notice.” The simple but poetic lyricism focuses on the importance in being present and the positivity that a mindful existence can bring. Whether it’s really seeing a person who’s been in your orbit for a while or taking the time to appreciate nature, being present can bring about peace or unexpected connection. 

Poetry lies at the heart of Lakkis’s lyricism in “Wen Rayeh” as well. The english translation of the first few lyrics reads, “My heart has dried/Under a strong sun/Like the dried mint on the towel,” a strong opener to a sprawling song meditating on the uncertainty of falling in love. Lakkis says writing this song in Arabic was a refreshing experience for her, as her conversations in Arabic with family generally don’t contain poetic vocabulary. “I speak [Arabic] very brokenly but it was my first language I knew before I knew English,” she says. “I thought it would be a cool opportunity to connect with that part of myself that I feel I’m disconnected with here, just speaking in English all the time and not being around my community.”

Lakkis, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon, explains that the pressure to assimilate to “American” culture robs many first-generation folks of a connection to their own. “There’s definitely a disconnect you feel when you’re first gen,” she explains, “and a sense of not really belonging anywhere.” But Lakkis sounds at home on “Wen Rayeh,” her celestial vocals floating over singular, Detroit house-infused production. It’s a pairing you won’t hear anywhere else, and part of what makes Lakkis’s music so enticing and pleasing to the ear. 

All of the songs on Notice show the artist at her core – a storyteller, producer and student of Detroit house, weaving the best of her influences together to create something entirely her own.

Follow Tammy Lakkis on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Madelyn Grant Finds Her “Purpose” on Motown-Indebted Debut EP

Photo Credit: Nomadic Madam

If you haven’t heard neo-soul artist Madelyn Grant’s name before, there’s a chance you’ve heard her voice. From being featured on tracks with huge EDM artists like Odesza and FKJ to a short stint on NBC’s The Voice back in 2019, Grant has been dipping her toes into the deep end of the music industry for at least half a decade. And although these experiences served as great learning opportunities for Grant, they didn’t allow her to do the one thing she felt was most important – telling her own story. On her bombshell of a debut EP, Purpose, Grant trades in catchy toplines for deeply personal, soulful songs focusing on growth, reflection and the meaning of life. 

“Ultimately, the EP is about transformation,” explains Grant. “What I went through when I wrote and recorded all these songs was an immense period of change… it was a pretty tumultuous time.” She started writing some of these songs right after graduating from the University of Michigan and coming off of a nationwide tour with electronic artist Emancipator. She went from singing to crowds of up to three thousand people to being back in Michigan, broke and wondering what her next move was. And so the transformation began. 

Grant’s experience with songwriting left her with mixed feelings about the music industry. Although she had been featured on songs that had hundreds of millions of streams, she didn’t feel that they represented who she was as an artist. She was getting dozens of emails a week from A&R reps asking her to write for other artists, when the real story she wanted to tell was her own. But she didn’t quite know what form it would take. “I wanted to figure out what my voice sounded like,” says Grant. “What does a Madelyn Grant melody sound like? What is my style? What am I trying to say?”

Sonically, Purpose is a mosaic of Grant’s most formative influences – Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. She refers to these artists as her “big three” in terms of the musical impact they had on her. Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, Grant says her dad was always playing the Motown greats around the house or in the car and that they played a huge role in her journey to finding her voice. It’s easy to hear remnants of Wonder in Grant’s buoyant melodies – especially in the opening line of the EP’s title track.

In perfectly controlled falsetto, Grant poses the question: “How do you measure/Happiness and pleasure?” And answers her own question with the refrain, “Let me take one guess/You base it off success.” Grant explains that her definition of success has changed over the years, molding to fit what makes her happy versus trying to match expectations set by others. “You have to forge your own path,” she says. “Every artist does it. No musician or artist has the same path to what they want to achieve and success isn’t determined around what other people say it is, it’s what you want it to be.” 

Part of Grant’s path was a period of immense struggle and emotional turmoil, eventually manifesting itself in this body of work. “I’m thinking back to what I was going through when I wrote all these songs, and it was a lot of really heavy stuff,” Grant muses. “I was in my mid-twenties and I just felt like there were parts of adulthood that I wasn’t really equipped to face, or parts of me recognizing I was struggling with my mental health… it was a lot of struggle but in the end, there’s something beautiful.” She likens the process of writing the record to the journey of a caterpillar to a butterfly, which is why all of the album art contains butterfly imagery. 

Grant’s metamorphosis is narrated throughout the record, from feeling cocooned and stationary in “Can’t Get Out,” to eventually breaking out of limiting mindsets and patterns in “Reasons.” And while there’s an apparent wanderlust to Grant’s lyrics in both of these songs, she explains that being in Detroit the past few years to record and release this EP has felt right. “It does really feel special to put out that music here,” says Grant, “because when I wrote it, that’s what I was really inspired by. It just feels like it’s at home here.”

Wherever Grant goes next, Purpose assures us that it will be on her terms, with her voice, telling her story. It’s a triumphant, uplifting EP centered on rebirth and self-reliance, reminding us that we are all the authors of our own fate.

Follow Madelyn Grant on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING DETROIT: Blow Pop Finds Escape in ’80s Sounds with “Friendly” Premiere

Before the pandemic, Keaton Butler and Avery Reidy were just friends. They were also living the hodge-podge lifestyles that most working musicians end up scraping together to make ends meet. Butler was bartending, engineering sound for live shows, and performing in three different bands. Reidy was traveling around the country every week, Monday through Thursday, working as an acoustics consultant. Since the pandemic hit, their lives have changed drastically: they went from performing on stage to performing on screen; Butler transformed from country queen to bubble gum goddess; and the duo went from being friends to becoming lovers. Blow Pop is the amalgamation of years and friendship between Butler and Reidy, a shared love of Prince and Donna Summers, and a need to escape into something light during these heavy times. 

“It’s sort of like a break to us,” Reidy says. “Just fun and easily digestible… no frills. It felt like we needed it for ourselves, and we thought maybe people would enjoy it.” Last year, they released three songs – “Put You Down” in June, with “So Right” and “Nobody” following in November. But Blow Pop is just getting started.

Like the 7″ singles of decades past, Just Friends – out digitally this Friday – is comprised of two songs: A-side “Friendly” premieres today, exclusively via Audiofemme. The couple recorded both tracks while staying with family in Florida; traveling there meant they had to trade in their usual array of instruments for a single midi keyboard and a mic. This change in medium opened new doors of creativity for the pair, who wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered the songs on their own. Instead of acoustic guitar, they layered synths and booming percussion to create a wall of sound that supports Butler’s impermeable vocals. 

On “Friendly,” Butler tells the familiar tale of reconciling with an ex. The song opens with sparse electric piano and Butler singing, “Won’t you treat me again like you did back in the old days/Cuz I want nothing more than for us like before to be friendly/I’ve heard through our friends that you’d rather pretend you don’t know me/But I’ve spent way too long feeling like I did wrong/That’s the old me.” The percussion comes cascading in as Butler vows not to let hard feelings get in the way of her happiness. Her unapologetic lyrics and nostalgic melodies are reminiscent of ’80s pop queens, which is fitting considering she has Debbie Harry’s face tattooed on her arm. “She’s like my idol,” says Butler. “My biggest influence writing for this project is probably Blondie.” 

Aside from Blondie, Butler says Dua Lipa has had a big influence on her effervescent songwriting. “Over the summer, I just wanted [to listen to] something really happy,” says Butler. “So I was just listening to Dua Lipa a lot.” Like so many of us over the last year, Butler and Reidy have been searching for ways to escape, to pretend reality is anything other than being in the same apartment everyday, doing the same thing. Blow Pop is not only a sonic escape, but also a complete role play – an opportunity to immerse themselves in different characters that live far outside of constricting reality. 

Both Reidy and Butler are well accustomed to performing; whether it’s for Butler’s pre-pandemic country night, charading as Missy Mae at Trixie’s Bar, or Reidy’s proclivity for acting out random scenarios with strangers, it’s clear that both of them get a high from taking on various identities. “It’s a big mental escape for me,” explains Reidy. “Even doing mundane things when I was working a nine to five felt like performing to me. I used to… do these noise surveys where I’d just have to talk to like a million people and it was like a character – like I turn this different person on. It’s kind of always how I’ve looked at life.” The world’s a stage, so they say.

The couple definitely harness their inner glam rockers as Blow Pop. Both “Friendly” and its B-side “Got the Moves” inspire the listener to put on some pink tights and red lipstick and dance like they’re at the disco. “Whenever we do a photoshoot, I only wear her clothes,” says Reidy. “That’s been the norm at this point, which is why we’re so colorful and fun.”

Just Friends is yet another beautiful, bright piece of music to come out of the rubble of this year, speaking to the buoyancy of pop music and the resilience of people who make it.

Follow Blow Pop on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Ally Evenson Talks Back to Trauma on New Single “Bite My Tongue”

Photo by Carrigan Drallos

There are some things in life that are impossible to see clearly until after they’ve already happened. Like a bad sunburn in the shower, trauma is often one of those things that doesn’t present its full pain until something seemingly ordinary magnifies it. On her newest single “Bite My Tongue,” Detroit-based songwriter Ally Evenson unpacks this phenomenon and recounts a traumatic experience she endured four years ago. The song is unfortunately all too relatable for anyone who’s been in a relationship ruled by a poisonous power dynamic. 

In the first verse, Evenson sings, “Do I still remind you of yourself/Wide-eyed and hopeful through this living hell/You put me through for loving you?” It’s a tale as old as time: the older, seemingly wiser or “worldly” character lures the naïve, young artist into a relationship where there’s no chance of being equals. Without getting into too much detail, Evenson explains that the song was inspired by a power imbalance in her own life. “I had been wanting to write about this specific experience I had when I was nineteen. I kind of got involved with this person who abused power in the relationship,” she says. “I think I needed four years of complete space from the situation… to realize how truly messed up it was and to write about it.” 

This period of self-reflection is described perfectly in the chorus when Evenson sings, “The way it feels to cry at nineteen/Hurts a lot more when you understand it/Now I bite my tongue and hold my breath/And for what, I don’t know I guess/Maybe I failed at something you did right.” And while this song’s verses are about one specific relationship, Evenson says the chorus is about trauma as a whole – accepting it, learning how to heal from it, and understanding how it can shape you as a person. She explains that the last couple years of her life have been especially trauma-filled and she’s just now figuring out how to process it all. 

Evenson’s 2020 EP Not So Pretty was all about overcoming self-hatred and insecurity. “I went through some pretty tough shit in 2019,” she says. “A person that I knew, we went through a really rough time and they kind of went out of their way to make my life hell for a while for just no reason. I think that gave me a lot of PTSD about things.” Evenson says this experience led her to question everything about herself – whether she was a good person, a good musician, or if anyone even liked her. Obviously, that’s a pretty terrible way to feel, but she says that time and space away from her insular college community during quarantine has helped her heal.

Before the March 2020 shutdown, Evenson was in her senior year at the Detroit Institute of Music Education (or DIME) – picture Camp Rock, but year-round and for college-age students. As fun and educational as it can be, it’s small enough to foster some high school-style cattiness, which deeply affected Evenson. “I just couldn’t perform in my last semester of college before COVID,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything. Every day I would go to school and I was just like, ‘I hate it here. And I didn’t hate it here before.’ And it wasn’t because of the school, it was just because of these people I was coming into contact with. Not seeing those people and knowing that I don’t have to see them ever again is super nice and made my mental health get so much better.” 

Evenson’s newfound freedom re-ignited her ability to write without feeling constantly judged. That’s probably why “Bite My Tongue” feels like it can fit the shoe of so many different relational complexities. Whether it’s realizing your ex was trash, grieving a lost friend, or learning to love yourself again, Evenson captures the essence of self-reflection and forgiveness, coming out the other end exhausted, but exalted.

Follow Ally Evenson on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Supercoolwicked Subverts Pop Paradigm With Shakespearean Self-love Jam “Juliet”

In her new video for “Juliet,” Detroit multidisciplinary artist, singer, and songwriter Morgan Hutson (aka Supercoolwicked) creates a fantasy world of her own – an Afrocentric, baroque daydream that meshes the Shakespearian with the contemporary, the traditional with the subversive. Those who’ve given SCW’s 2019 debut LP High Gloss a spin know that this particular cocktail of familiar and foreign is what makes her music so memorable. And in “Juliet,” she perfects her brand of soliloquiel storytelling both visually and lyrically to deliver a fantasy world full of self-love and artistic actualization. 

Hutson explains that she wrote the lyrics to this song a few years back, when she was going through a breakup, dating through the all-too-familiar string of slacker suitors that seem to follow. “I was just out here swangin’ and just dealing with these men that were not shit and I knew it… but people can be beautiful Band-Aids,” she says. This transition period led her to reflect on what it means to love yourself; she realized she was looking for validation in others instead of within, like so many of us tend to do. “I started to kind of ruminate on it and be like, ‘Girl, you’re everything I need – stop trying with these people, be your own Romeo. Don’t look for romance where it’s not. Or love in general.’”

That realization blossomed into a lavish poetic love letter to the self, released last Friday, just in time for Valentine’s Day. The video for “Juliet” starts out with SCW walking into a medieval-looking church and opening a storybook; as the pages turn, we’re transported into the artist’s shimmering psyche, a romantic realm meshing two of her favorite cinematic inspirations: 1996 Baz Luhrmann classic adaptation William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Hutson pays homage to the films throughout, singing lines like “a rose by any other name just wouldn’t be as sweet,” while gazing at herself in a royal-looking hand mirror and, later, framed lying in a bed of roses, all the while embedding her own artistic vision. With a background in musical theatre and a lifetime of acting on her resume, Hutson has a more intimate relationship than most with the Shakespearean. “Anytime I can be dramatic, I love it,” she says. 

But make no mistake – SCW’s creative choices are driven less by vanity or fandom, and more by self-worth, lived experience, and a love for her culture. By inserting herself into the Shakespearean narrative that has historically been dominated by white/European voices and faces, SCW carves out space for herself and her ancestors to be uplifted and celebrated. “It’s Black history month and I’m very proud of my heritage,” she says. “I know that we’ve been through a lot of things, but I wanted to bring the world of this Afrocentric, baroque idea to life…to meet those two [worlds] because I think that’s kind of where I dwell.”

Aside from realizing her aesthetic aspirations in the video, SCW finds a way to squeeze sophisticated couplets into a tight pop/R&B song framework. She credits trailblazers like Mariah Carey for inspiring her to incorporate her expansive vocabulary into her songwriting. “It’s like, how does she fit all that in there and make it sound so cute? I feel like that’s the ultimate flex,” she muses. “I don’t think that we have to mold ourselves into what people think things are because we create the paradigm as artists. So one of my underlying, subconscious things that I have going on is to subvert the pop paradigm.” 

Supercoolwicked does just that without removing the escapism that makes pop music so attractive to begin with – she creates an entire world for the listener to dwell in and make their own. “I feel like pretend is something we’ve forgotten as adults,” says Hutson. “We can really lean into that part of our inner child, especially during this time, because that’s the way through it.” 

Follow Supercoolwicked on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Rowan Niemisto Returns with Relatable Sadboy Anthems on Once Again EP

It’s been three and a half years since Rowan Niemisto released his electro R&B masterpiece Gradient. In those three years, Niemisto says he was preoccupied with his first “big boy” job at Detroit’s NPR station, WDET, where he works as a sound engineer and the occasional cameo as a voice actor for various underwriter advertisements. The Rowan Niemisto who voices ads for the local pet daycare and arts university feels like a completely different person than the sultry singer-songwriter that authors and performs his latest EP, Once Again. But maybe that’s part of what makes him so appealing. Besides his universally loveable voice, relatable lyrics and nostalgic/soulful arrangements, Niemisto is just like us. He’s a regular adult with a nine-to-five job who doesn’t have any dreams of grandeur, but picks up the pen whenever he feels moved. 

“I just like making music and putting it out,” Niemisto puts it plainly. “I’m not trying to be the guy that makes it if that makes sense.” And it would, if his voice and guitar playing weren’t so goddamn angelic. Your everyday casual guitar strummer just can’t write the kind of music that Niemisto creates. With Once Again, he builds a world of hurt and healing, love and loss. His voice careens over a bed of masterful guitar playing and effortless live arrangements, which were recorded in a single studio session. 

After three years of writing and ripping up forgotten songs, pandemic downtime fueled Niemisto’s latest body of work. “I had an excuse to dig my heels in and get it done,” says Niemisto. “I had no real excuse about time commitments or whatever.” And while collaborating felt impossible to most of us during the pandemic, he says that recording with a few of his friends was surprisingly easy. 

They set up some glass walls so they could see each other, went into the studio, slapped on masks, and pretty much improvised the entire EP. Niemisto came in with skeletons of songs already written, but he credits the band – Jacob Sigman (keys), Junho Kim (bass), Huntley Chamberlain (drums) and Jonah Grey (synth on “Once Again”) – for helping shape the sound of the record. “I’ve been playing with these guys for years,” explains Niemisto, “so I kind of know their style and I had trust that they’d be able to put their own spice on it and have it come out the way I wanted more or less.” 

If the way he wanted it was Isley Brothers meets badbadnotgood, then they definitely succeeded. Once Again serves the listener an all-too-familiar cocktail of unrequited love, longing, and heartbreak. But there’s something about Niemisto’s soothing voice and nonchalant melodies that makes lost love feel it’s not the end of the road, but the beginning of a new one. It’s not that he’s constantly suffering from a broken heart, but more that the morose melodies are the ones that come most naturally to him when it comes to songwriting. 

“For some reason, I find it easier to write songs in minor or songs with melancholy feels,” Niemisto muses. “Especially with lyricism, if I try to write something uplifting… it always just feels a little tacky or forced to me.” Fair enough, especially seeing as warm fuzzy feelings were definitely in short supply this year. And even though Niemisto admits he’s “sticking to the clichés,” he has a way of writing about them that feels new. 

Like in the first few words of the record – “Tell me how long, how long has it been?/Since that night we took each other in?” – reflecting on a fleeting night of a romance as an act of care and compassion instead of a flippant act on desire. Especially during a pandemic, the idea of a “one night stand” can feel careless at best and guttingly consequential at worst. To think of a night of random romance as “taking each other in” is a refreshingly tender outlook, and one we can all daydream about in these solitary times.

Whether you’re ruminating on love lost or longing for that Tinder crush that you’re too scared to meet IRL, Once Again gives us plenty of possibilities to ponder, and reassurance that we’re not alone.

Follow Rowan Niemisto on Bandcamp and Soundcloud for ongoing updates.

Lynn The Singer Breaks Up with the Worst Year Ever on new EP ‘2020sucked’

Like many women, Lynn the Singer had to make her way through countless roadblocks and gatekeepers on her journey to finding her sound. Playing harp and singing from a young age, Lynn remembers recording her first single – which she describes as “way ahead of its time” – only to have it deleted from existence by her then-boyfriend. After experiencing that loss, Lynn wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue music anymore. Luckily, the universe had other plans. “It kept following me around,” says Lynn. “I kept meeting these artists and being put in studios… 2015 was when I was like, ‘okay I’m gonna take this seriously.’”

Lynn went on to release her debut full length Endless Weekends in 2018, and recently followed it with a new EP, candidly titled 2020sucked – a brief but beautiful time capsule of a year that has gone down in history as universally awful. The all-too-relatable title is not only a nod at the collective misery the masses have felt as a result of pandemic and beyond, but also a glimpse into Lynn’s personal life. For Lynn, the EP was an opportunity to package up all the negativity, sadness and loss she experienced last year and send it into the ether. “2020sucked is about one person and… I’m over it now,” says Lynn. “That was my way of putting my feelings out there and being done with a situation.” 

Like many songwriters, Lynn describes her music as a way of communicating things that are too hard to put into words and a vehicle for letting those things go. Though the EP is deeply personal, it hits home for anyone experiencing the bittersweet feelings that come with moving on. In “Time Machine – Social Distancing,” Lynn sings, “If I could press rewind then I would, I don’t know if I should,” explaining the nostalgia that inevitably comes with a breakup and the power it has to lure us back to the person we left. Though the lyrics are melancholy, Lynn’s voice soars over 808’s and dreamy synth waves, coaxing the listener out of their rut and on to bigger, better things. 

Though most of the songs on 2020sucked deal with loss and heartbreak, Lynn is more of a social butterfly by default. “I love a good time and I love people who wanna have a good time. I’m down with trying to make the best of everything,” she says. “It’s kinda ironic that I really like sad songs. It’s like that meme that says ‘why do girls listen to sad music when they’re sad? It just makes them sadder’…because it kinda feels good!” And she’s right! There’s even science behind the reason that listening to sad songs can actually make us feel better. And whatever Lynn is doing, it’s working. 

Whether it’s the blatant relatability of it all, or the ability of Lynn’s serene voice to lull the listener into a trance, 2020sucked doesn’t feel like a self-indulgent pity-party but a triumphant stop on the road to independence – like, somehow, admitting that someone once had power over you makes them easier to let go of. In “Forget You out My Mind,” Lynn comes to terms with the fact that reconciling is not an option, but holds on to those dopamine-releasing memories that make the pain worthwhile. She opens with, “I don’t think you’ll ever forgive me/But darling I won’t forget all the times I let you get in my mind.”

All of the songs on the EP are short, bittersweet and straight to the point, just like an ideal breakup should be. But Lynn explains that 2020sucked is only a prequel to her next project Reckless, which will include extended versions of all of the songs. Until then, we have this gem of an eulogy to 2020 to remind us of all the bullshit we survived, and give us hope for whatever comes tomorrow. Lynn puts it best: “Being happy is the goal, having fun is the goal, finding the light in all things is the goal.”

Follow Lynn the Singer on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Kesswa Collabs with Shigeto on MOCAD-Commissioned Short Film “Is My Mind A Machine Gun?”

Photo Credit: Ian Solomon // Makeup: Jay Orellana

Is My Mind a Machine Gun? This is the question vocalist, songwriter and producer Kesiena “Kesswa” Wanogho asks on her latest collaboration with interdisciplinary artist and musician Zach Saginaw, a.k.a Shigeto. The audio/visual experience exemplifies two artists in their rawest, most honest forms, willing to experiment. Released exclusively on January 1st via The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s (MOCAD) brand new media platform, Daily Rush, the film gives the viewer a look inside the minds of the artists and finds chaos, introspection and growth. 

Mantra is at the center of Kesswa’s work. Highlighted by her 2019 EP, Soften, Kesswa has an inherent ability for distilling the most complicated of dreams, desires and anxieties into only a few simple words. Is My Mind a Machine Gun? starts with her chanting, “Oh my love, tell me now if you want me.” Slowly, she builds an entire world around those words, layering her voice to present a sense of urgency. It’s not immediately clear who “my love” is, which leaves space for the listener to reflect and insert themselves. Maybe it’s the voice of an artistic self left behind, coming now to reclaim its vessel. Maybe it’s our own voice, calling out in uncertainty to a love we’re afraid to lose. 

Whomever Kesswa is speaking to, she responds to her own question with calming reassurance – There’s no doubt about it – all while flashing lights, street view vignettes, and Kesswa’s body language suggest forward motion. The visual echoes Kesswa’s centering message: as long as you are true to yourself, you are on the right path. 

The ephemeral visual is accentuated with soothing waves of harp played by Ahya Simone; its sedative sounds contrast with the disorienting flashes of light, replicating the feelings of dissociation and anxiety that can accompany a dream. Slowly, the harp fades and is replaced by deliberate percussion. This sonic change seems to signal clarity and determination, as Kesswa transitions from repetitive chants to a string of crystal clear affirmations: “I’ve got a creeping intuition/I’m on a mission, clearly/It’s in my heartbeat and my eyes gleam/The stillness inside of me/I’m impulsive but I’m brave/Insisting on myself/I’m determined but I’m earnest/I am kind, I am worthy/Inherently.”

I caught up with Kesswa to find out more about the creative process behind this project. 

AF: Can you tell me a bit about the writing/recording process? What’s the flow of collaboration between you and Shigeto?

KW: The process with Zach and I has been really experimental and grounding. In the beginning of our collaboration, I was thinking a lot about finding my voice, which I think comes out in the composition of the track. A lot of our collaboration has been us just going with the flow of our lives and bringing our influences and emotional needs to the work. Sometimes, we jam. Sometimes we create structures to work within. 

AF: How did this piece in particular come to be? Is there a story behind the music and lyrics? The title?

KW: This piece has been evolving and still kind of is. The version in the video was made specifically for this particular commission. When we were working on the track, Zach felt it would be really awesome to incorporate a narrative, and I’m always writing. The title is an excerpt from Assata Shakur’s “What is left?” poem. This line really stood out to me, because I often feel like thoughts are things we can weaponize against ourselves without close attention. As a person who exists at the center of many intersections of identity, I find myself internalizing and reacting to the projections of the outside world on my body, my creative potential and my values. If my mind is in fact a machine gun, I want to point it towards the projections.

AF: The visual feels just as important to the story as the music does in this piece – did you have a visual in mind when writing the music? Which came first?

KW: The process of creating the visual component of the work was as free flowing as the soundscape. Zach was the director and camera operator, and Vinnie and Robert did assemblage and animation. Zach and I knew that we wanted to give some insight into the world we’ve been building. We wanted to create a visual language, and things kind of unfolded organically.

AF: Do the two of you have more projects like this one up your sleeve/in process? 

KW: It’s a surprise! But things are in process.

AF: I know a lot of your music focuses on mantra – is there a certain mantra you repeat everyday, or one you’re feeling specifically lately? 

KW: Great question! I’ve been sitting with the fact that my body is finite and paying attention to what feels draining and what feels invigorating. Using that awareness to free up some extra energy and let stale things [and] conversations go. Times are too heavy to be stressed about things within my control!

Follow Kesswa on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Salakastar Pays Homage to Basquiat and Honors Her Own Voice with “December 22 (for Jean-Michel)”

Photo Credit: Christian Najjar 

A few years ago, actress, songwriter and vocalist Aja Salakastar Dier was going to quit singing. After a slew of studio sessions where she was undermined, gaslit, and, as she puts it, “artistically abused,” she decided it wasn’t worth the grief. The problem was, she had an audition with the esteemed Detroit Opera Theatre lined up. “I was like, okay, I’m gonna go to the audition, but I’m not an opera singer,” Salakastar says. She ended up landing the role. And the next day, sitting in a room with four other professional, classically trained opera singers, she decided that maybe this was a sign that she should keep singing after all. That was one of the many steps along Salakastar’s journey to finding the strong, soulful and ephemeral voice heard on her first solo release, “December 22 (for Jean-Michel).” 

The song was written after a particularly grueling experience in the studio. “I wrote this song after being in a really horrible studio session where I was being criticized in a way that made me shut down,” Salakastar remembers. “I couldn’t stand up for myself in that moment – I kind of just froze… so I wrote the first part of this song as a mantra to remind myself that I’m worthy… It was like me standing up for myself after the fact.” 

Her lyrics serve not only as a mantra, but an armor and a warning to anyone – including her inner voice – that dares to criticize her. The mantra is introduced in fragments, alongside lush layers of Salakastar’s voice that sound almost Gregorian. For two minutes, the artist chants softly, indiscriminately to her higher power – herself – easing out the core message. Finally, Salakastar’s voice breaks through the hymnal ocean, delivering the mantra as sharp and clear as a diamond: “Watch your tone/When you call on God/Watch the throne/When I step on earth/Calling out her name!”

In a way, the song’s gradual progression mirrors Salakastar’s journey to finding her voice. Though she always loved singing, inner and outer criticism forced her to bury that part of herself deep within. “I felt shame around my voice and I’m not sure why,” she explains. “Maybe it was someone telling me when I was younger, ‘you can’t sing’ or being a Black girl from Detroit – there are a lot of girls like me who can really sing in a particular way, and I’ve always felt outside of that.” So, although singing and songwriting was a deep desire that Salakastar always held close, her younger years were more focused on her talent in acting. She went to SUNY Purchase in New York for acting and returned to Detroit with an index of Shakespearian language and an even deeper desire for self expression. That’s when she began writing songs. 

“I moved back to Detroit and I started meeting musicians and writing more and it just happened from there,” explains Salakastar. “With my music… I’m not playing a person, I’m writing my own story. I’m used to telling other peoples’ stories. The process of telling my own has been incredibly scary but freeing.” Part of the story she tells in “December 22 (for Jean-Michel)” is of two of her greatest loves – the color blue, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

Salakastar was re-introduced to the color blue very suddenly and all-consumingly. “I was hanging out with a friend psychedelically and I just all of a sudden I looked around and I just kept seeing the color blue so vibrantly.” says Salakastar. “It connected with me physically, like deep down within, in my heart and in my gut.” After that experience, Salakastar started studying how the color blue corresponds with the chakra system and found it represented speaking your truth, purification, using your voice, and transformation. All of this resonated deeply with Salakastar, who was dealing with depression at the time; she says that once she embraced blue, it was like a switch flipped. “Blue symbolizes the possibility of healing and coming out of that,” she says. “Not even being on the other side of it, but the possibility of being able to heal. And that’s really all you need.”

From then on, Salakastar only wrote or created from a space of blue. She painted her walls and doors blue, got a blue light, adorned her space with blue totems. The color became her creative safe space and eventually birthed an entire project: All Blue Part One: Majorelle. “December 22 (for Jean-Michel)” is the first single from this project, an introduction to her healing world of blue, and an ode to one of her other core muses, Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

She remembers a distinct moment about three years ago at the Detroit Institute of Arts when she was deeply moved by one of Basquiat’s works. “I was taken in by this painting and I just felt so free and I was just thinking, if I could get to this place artistically, I could be okay,” says Salakastar. She explains how his paintings in particular have the power to draw her in, make her feel that she’s with him, or in the space he was in when he made the painting. The connection is not only artistic but cosmic. The two share a birthday – December 22nd. The song serves not only as a pledge to her own artistic freedom and worth, but an incantation for a kindred artist gone too soon. Bold strokes of piano, complex vocal melodies and distant percussion echo the complex makings of a Basquiat painting, where angelic harp, comforting horns and Salakastar’s sacral vocals aim to reach him where he is now. “I just think about how he never got the chance to fully heal because he lost his life so early and tragically,” she says. “I wonder what he would create today if he had the opportunity to heal.”

This song in itself presents an opportunity for healing, for sitting with emotions or words left unsaid, for reclaiming self-worth and warding off self-doubt. And it’s only the first chapter in the story of Salakastar. 

Follow Salakastar on Instagram for ongoing updates.


With this absolute dumpster fire of a year coming to a close, the next few weeks are a time for reflection, rest and recuperation. That means a lot of things for a lot of people, but in the music world, it means year-end lists. I usually tend to stay away from this sort of thing because I don’t love the hierarchical nature of the practice. However, it has truly amazed me to see the amount of stellar music come out of Detroit in the midst of such a gut-wrenching year, and it feels important and cathartic to look back on some of the beauty that surfaced in the sea of chaos. I don’t pretend to be a curatorial genius or an authority of any sort, but here are some of my favorite releases from Detroit artists in 2020, in no particular order.

Jay Daniel – SSD (EP)

Detroit house mainstay Jay Daniels gives us fifteen minutes of percussion-driven, layered dance music. While his roots as a drummer remain evident on the EP, Daniels guides the listener through a vibrant forest of sound and space with ease. Shiny synths and deep bass embellishments wrap his complex rhythmic patterns into a pleasurable and meditative listening experience.


Lead singer and songwriter of Zilched, Chloe Drallos, has the innate ability to immortalize potent emotions. Delivered with thrashing drums, distorted guitar and apathetic vocals, Drallos recounts moments of heartbreak, angst and boredom that are crushingly relatable. The record is reminiscent of the ’90s riot grrrl without being derivative and satiates the screaming late-teen, early twenty-year old in all of us.

Tammy Lakkis – “Get Up”/”Moon Rock” (single)

Tammy Lakkis makes irresistible electronic music with attention-grabbing percussion and melodic sensibility. “Get Up” feels like spinning out of control without worry or regard for where you’ll land, while “Moon Rock” captivates the listener with the pairing of Lakkis’ mesmerizing vocals and trippy synth layers.

Boldy James, Sterling TolesManger on McNichols (LP)

It’s hard to find the words to describe the gravity of this record. Detroit rapper Boldy James teams up with masterful producer Sterling Toles to blur the lines between hip-hop and jazz in a record that took nearly a decade to complete. Boldy’s often gutting depictions of the city and his experience therein are his most personal and potent verses to date, which he credits to Toles in “Mommy Dearest (A Eulogy).” Toles’ diverse sampling, intricate rhythmic patterns and orchestral arrangements are the perfect pair to Boldy’s visceral anecdotes, making for an undeniably timeless and legendary record.

Omar SSimply (EP)

A true staple in the Detroit house realm, Omar S unsurprisingly delivers a trance-inducing, escapist EP. The perfect amount of dissonance mixed with bouncy up-tempo tracks gives the listener what they want without being over indulgent.

Milfie (feat. Supercoolwicked) – “From Milfie, With Love” (single)

In a year filled with so much uncertainty, there’s something ultra comforting in listening to an artist who knows exactly who she is, and that’s Milfie in a nutshell. In this two-part single, Milfie reminds us of her unshakable self worth, demanding flow and refreshing realness. Joined by ethereal R&B singer-songwriter, SUPERCOOLWICKED, on “Ain’t Got Time,” the two powerhouse artists reflect on the importance of loving yourself and blocking out the bullshit.

Jake KmiecikHorizons (EP)

Kmiecik – drummer of psychedelic-folk outfit Bonny Doon – shows his range in his solo ambient project, Horizons. Glimmering synths are the guiding force in this minimal and cerebral record. Soft and spacey moments intertwined with lush, cascading layers call to mind the ebbs and flows of nature. As a whole, the project feels like a much needed deep breath.

Maya MereauxSeauxl (LP)

Songstress Maya Mereaux makes the stream of consciousness melodic on her first full-length record, Seauxl – a ten-track journey to self-awareness. The album weaves a strong narrative via incredible vocals about losing oneself in a romance, only to come out the other end knowing yourself better than ever before.

White BeePsychedelic Flight Attendant (LP)

White Bee’s Shannon Barnes shares a soulful and transparent foray into her innermost thoughts on Psychedelic Flight Attendant. Barnes has spent the better part of the last decade not only teaching herself guitar, but creating her own unique sound along the way. Filled with syncopated rhythms, unexpected melodies and universal truths, this record is a shining time capsule for Barnes’ growth as an artist.

ZelooperzValley of Life (LP)

Part of Zelooperz’ allure is his ability to jump from character to character within a single project. Just as the title Valley of Life suggests, this body of work feels like a sample platter of all the people Zelooperz is, has been, or could be. That range extends into his seemingly effortless flow, which can fluctuate between sincere and satirical in eight bars.

Tiny JagMorph (EP)

Deviating from her former trap-hop style of writing, Tiny Jag “morphs” her sound into alternative power pop on this 2020 EP. Her cunning wordplay is still there, this time delivered with more blasé, controlled vocals and accompanied by booming 808s and shimmering synths. Though this music has all the elements of top-charting success, don’t be mistaken – this isn’t like anything you’ve heard before. 

whiterosemoxie – white ceilings (LP)

People love a prodigy. And while many blogs focus on Moxie’s age –  just 17 years old – it’s important not to gloss over the fact that no matter what age, the rapper is a talent that only comes around once in a while. His poetic flow is reminiscent of Long Beach’s Vince Staples, and though the two are an entire country apart, they share a penchant for repping their city and distilling their experience in a way that makes them charmingly relatable.

MoodymannTaken Away (LP)

Detroit’s Godfather of house music – Kenny Dixon Jr. – is back with his legendary funk grooves and repetitions, but this time they’re paired with an undercurrent of pain and longing. After a tumultuous year which included being harassed by police in front of his own building, it would be impossible not to inject some of that frustration into the music. Taken Away isn’t a record that encourages you to forget the tears, but rather to dance through them.

Fred ThomasDream Erosion (Synthesizer Songs) (LP)

Thomas is known for his devastatingly honest, stream of consciousness style of writing. And although Dream Erosion is devoid of lyrics, the writing still feels like a magically unfiltered outpouring of emotion. This is especially true of “Kitchen,” a collaborative improvisation that was recorded entirely in Chuck Sipperly’s ‘synth kitchen.’ The record is as beautiful as it is somber and sounds like the amalgamation of collective despair, surrender and inevitable hope.

Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming (LP)

Burch’s second full length release is soaked with a nostalgia we didn’t know we’d have in 2020. “Party’s Over” reminds us of the times there were parties that we didn’t want to go to, where instrumentals like “Keep it Warm” and “Picture Show” emit a longing for something we can’t get back. Burch’s sweet voice glides over melancholy guitar strums and lackadaisical drums, leaving the listener with the feeling of waking up from a fever dream.

Cousin Mouth – “New Memories” (single)

Cousin Mouth’s songwriter and lead singer/guitarist Alex Burns gives us a glimpse into his forthcoming record MayflowerPeacemakerHolyredeemer with its premiere single, “New Memories.” Burns’ soulful falsetto and intricate guitar riffs are accompanied by the gorgeous voices of Detroit vocalists Supercoolwicked and Salakastar to create a sort of psychedelic R&B. Burns’ lyrics teeter between the ephemeral and the literal, weaving a story of self-doubt and redemption.

Jacob SigmanColor Coded Heart (LP)

Prolific songwriter/artist Jacob Sigman gives us forty-five minutes of uplifting and earnest pop music. Sigman’s knack for earworm-type melodies paired with uncontrived optimism make his music inherently loveable – even “Get Your Love,” a song about losing a lover, is sprinkled with a carefree hope that has the power to momentarily release you from the gravity of heartbreak.

Black Noi$eOblivion (LP)

DJ and producer Rob Mansel, a.k.a Black Noi$e, enlists a star-studded roster of friends to complete his first full-length Oblivion. With appearances from Danny Brown to bbymutha, Mansel demonstrates that he has a well of talented peers to pull from. Despite the high-profile collabs, his dark, layered production style stands on its own throughout the record. He doesn’t bend his arrangements for any of the featured artists, but rather creates his own world of mangled percussion and ominous synths in which his collaborators can dwell with ease.

Madelyn Grant – “Purpose” (single)

Neo-soul singer-songwriter Madelyn Grant ponders life’s meaning on her debut solo single, “Purpose” – a song about blocking out the noise and expectations of society to find what truly moves you. Grant’s pristine vocals sit comfortably on a bed of horns, electric piano and steadfast drums.  She pays homage to some of her Motown idols, like The Supremes and Marvin Gaye, with airtight harmonies and infectious melodies.

MeftahInformation Travels Through (LP)

A record that truly shows the vibrant and singular spirit of its creator, Information Travels Through is a breathtaking ode to finding a sense of self in a world that is so often telling us what we should be. Meftah shared a gorgeous statement along with the record that says it better than anything I could say, partially quoted below:

“So this is me creating my own context, beyond the one painted for us on Earth. Beyond just the music, and the record. It is a spiritual war going on. Mentally. Physically….Right now, in 2020, because we STILL exist within a system founded off of land and body theft from Africa, and all colonized lands, this work is dedicated to all my fellow soldiers. It is for all children of the Diaspora. We will always move together.”

Sasha Kashperko – “Can We Not Go to War, Please?” (single)

Kashperko displays his kinship with his instrument on his plea, “Can We Not Go to War, Please?” The track is urgent and erudite, showcasing Kashperko’s deep understanding of rhythmic structure and melodic phrasing. Asking a simple enough request that has clung to the minds of so many of us in the last few years, he doesn’t give any answers, but cries out in solidarity and frustration.

Salar AnsariSayeh E Nour (LP)

Spacious synths and watery percussion create a kaleidoscopic atmosphere in this lush ambient record. Ansari’s use of experimental instruments and uncanny sounds transport the listener to a different world with every track. Perfect for both blissful dissociation or centering mindfulness.

Mario Sulaksana – “For You” (single)

Producer, composer and pianist Mario Sulaksana’s first solo release is a glimmering ode to his most concrete influences – Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye. A true student of the craft, Sulaksana fuses his own cascading style with the formula of the greats – a simple but strong melody, the perfect balance of space and sound, and satisfying harmonies.

don’tLightning Slow (LP)

don’t finds a way to make their apathetic garage pop cozy and charming. Baked in warm and fuzzy guitars and steady but unexpected melodies, Lightning Slow feels like a first kiss in your parents basement; surprising, a little uncomfortable, but welcome and oddly familiar. Lead singer Frances Ma delivers poetic verses with angelic apathy, merging nostalgic feelings of teenage angst with more recent feelings of existential dread.

Eddie LogixPlacebo Palace (EP)

At any given moment, Eddie Logix likely has his hands in myriad different projects around the city or even country. The diverse producer, engineer and DJ is known for his elasticity when it comes to making and engineering music, but on Placebo Palace, it’s clear that his heart lies in dance music. The EP feels like a love letter to Detroit and is a welcome ray of light in this dark year.

Tearyeyed – “ForceField V4” (single)

Tearyeyed combines beautiful textures layered together to tell a story that the listener can mold into their own on “ForceField V4.”  The song starts out like an afterthought – a simplistic tapping rhythm and guitar strums laced with tearyeyed’s pillowy vocals chase one another in circles. The song’s mantra stands out through the melodic mist: “My love is like a forcefield, I am there to protect you.” Slowly, his voice fades and the drums crescendo into an outpouring of unspoken emotion.

Double WinterIt’s About our Hearts

Beachy riffs, sentimental melodies, and charming honesty are the makings of the debut LP from psychedelic-surf rock outfit Double Winter. It’s About our Hearts has something for everyone – from goth wallflower anthem “Sad Girl at the Rave” to the ’80s drag racing soundtrack stylings of “Rodeo.” Their myriad influences range from doo-wop to Italo, and are what make their sound universally accessible and very much their own.

DonJuan – “Red Plum” (single)

DonJuan is a grossly underrated songwriter and producer based in Detroit. “Red Plum” is just an introduction to his catalogue of simplistically poignant material. This song in particular contains the type of intimacy that makes you feel like you were in the room when it was recorded. The lyrics are simple enough (“I never seem to say the things I mean, I never wanna ask for things I need”) but when repeated over and over they serve as both a reflection and a question to the listener.

2Lanes“Baby’s Born to Fish” (single)

A strikingly influential group of musicians comes together on this pulsating meditation on change and resilience. Detroit’s Kesswa, Ian Finkelstein, Shigeto and John F.M. are all contributors to this atmospheric track. The result is haunting and unyielding dance track that could only be made in Detroit. 

Billionaire SophiaOotgoat (LP)

Billionaire Sophia makes music that meets in the middle of pop, house and R&B. Her voice is as smooth as butter and floats perfectly over her self-produced, synth and percussion heavy beats. Her melodies are satisfying but not predictable, lyrics colloquial but not cliché. There’s a touch of glamour and fantasy to all of her songs, both sonically and thematically – it’s the type of music that makes you feel like anything is possible.

PREMIERE: Stephie James “Where the Sage Grows”

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Stephie James’ musical career began when she was just 15 years old, at a Detroit coffee shop she and her brother opened together. “There was really nowhere for younger people to perform; we were too young to play in bars,” she remembers. Almost every night, she’d get on stage and play her own music as well as covers of songs by artists like Bob Dylan and Carole King. Then, one night, R&B icon Anita Baker walked in and watched her play. In what felt like a dream, they talked for the whole evening, and eventually, Baker invited James to tour with her. Before long, she was regularly opening for her shows.

Since then, James has provided backup vocals and guitar for country singer Nikki Lane, toured with rock band Clear Plastic Masks, and worked on production at The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach’s studio. Clear Plastic Masks’ Matt Menold — who also happened to be James’ favorite guitarist — encouraged her to make her own record and even offered to be involved in it. She dug up songs she’d been writing over the past few years and recorded what would become her debut EP THESE DAYS, out September 18, with Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic.

“I’m just really excited to put something out that I created,” says James, who is currently based in Nashville. “It’s weird being an artist and not having had anything out for so long. It was frustrating to have songs and things we’d been working on over the years but not really putting them out, and it was nice to finally show something we’d been working on for so long and be like, ‘This is kind of what we do.'”

James considers THESE DAYS something of a heartbreak record, focused on navigating relationships and sexuality. Her first single off the EP, “Sin City,” gives off blues vibes as James sings of a romance with an archetypal bad boy. She followed it up by releasing the title track, a slow, dreamy, reverb-filled ode to the magic of new love, and “Lost With You,” a deceptively sanguine-sounding ballad about a dysfunctional relationship. “West of Juarez,” which has not yet been released, incorporates strings and western influences.

James’ latest single, “Where the Sage Grows,” is more cheerful, with folk and country influences as well as a bit of old Americana. She and Menold played a dual guitar part together, then he overdubbed organ and pedal steel parts on it. James’ spirited singing produces a carefree mood, with vivid lyrics about her experiences as she toured the West and Southwest. The song also has a deeper symbolic meaning about “leaving your past behind and starting fresh, allowing yourself to let go of things that hinder you,” she says.

James has a diverse array of musical influences, including Billie Holliday, David Bowie, The Kinks, and Roy Orbison, and all of these are evident on the EP. James’ smokey voice gives off a jazzy vibe, and the instrumentals carry hints of country as well as classic rock. The band was recorded live in the studio, giving the music a sound true to James’ roots as a performer.

She chalks up her unique musical style to growing up in Detroit. “I wasn’t listening to the same things as most people,” she says. “I had so many influences, different sights and sounds around me. Everything from those Motown records to the Detroit rock ‘n’ roll stuff, to the more recent garage rock sounds coming from that area — everything coming out of Detroit had a kind of grittiness to it, and I’ve always been really intrigued by that.”

For her part, the artist has left her own mark on the city: the coffee shop she started, Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters, still exists and now has three locations. They’re mainly run by her brother now, but she still manages bookings. During quarantine, she’s taken a break from this endeavor as well as her live shows in favor of watching “every single Scorsese movie.”

“Putting singles out in the pandemic is interesting,” she says. “Everybody’s home and maybe consuming media and content, so it’s kind of a cool time but also very weird that we haven’t been able to tour them.”

Even after all the varied things she’s accomplished, they’re just the first of many — the next goal on her bucket list is to write music for film. “Pairing audio with visual has always been really interesting to me,” she says, elaborating that her ultimate dream is to create music for a David Lynch movie. “If that’s too far fetched, I would settle for Tarantino.”

Follow Stephie James on Facebook for ongoing updates.