Taiwainese R&B Artist 9m88 Releases Cathartic Jazz-Influenced Sophomore LP 9m88 Radio

Photo Credit: Jac Chung Wan

One of the many miracles of music – good music – is its ability to transcend cultures, space, time and connect people from all walks of life. On her sophomore record, 9m88 (Joanne Tang) does just this. 9m88 (pronounced “Jo-m-baba”) is a Taiwanese artist who translates her love for jazz and R&B into her own iteration of the genre. Mixing Mandarin with English and traditional jazz with alternative R&B production, 9m88 Radio is kaleidoscope of sound, guided by Tang’s soft but confident vocals. 

Though Tang has been singing her entire life, she admits that songwriting – especially in English – is fairly new to her. After completing fashion school in Taiwan and moving to New York City to be closer to the industry, Tang realized she still felt called to pursue her love for singing and music. She was accepted to the New School as a jazz vocalist, and this is where her journey as a songwriter and artist began. “That was a really condensed moment of me trying to write some music, do some collaboration with people,” says Tang. “For me, songwriting is still really new. I’m still working on it, especially in English.” 

Influenced by icons like Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder and Ella Fitzgerald, Tang possesses a melodic sensibility that breaks through regardless of the language. In “Sleepwalking,” Tang paints a sultry and light-hearted depiction of infatuation with bouncy vocals that feel akin to Ariana Grande’s “R.E.M.” In the chorus, she sings, “I am too hysterical/Got nowhere to go/Am I sleepwalking?” Her unexpected phrasing and blunt lyricism are a refreshing take on the archetypical pop R&B track. 

While the record is sprinkled with whimsy and romance in songs like “A Merry Feeling,” Tang welcomes the listener into the darker, more intimate parts of her psyche as well. “With this album, I started to be more reflective,” Tang explains. “Last year, I went through some heartbreaks and personal stuff… I thought maybe I should just document the sad feeling through writing songs and make it a healing session for myself.”

“Star” beautifully describes the pain of heartache while leaving room for hope and humor. In her glassy croon, Tang sings, “I cannot feel myself/And I just cry a lot/Me being pessimistic is cute as fuck” – allowing herself to lament a loss while loving herself at the same time. In the same, the lead track and single, “Watchu Gonna…?” finds solace in packing up and moving on. “In Mandarin, I wrote a lot of verses about tidying dishes, mopping floors… to show my statement of wanting to get rid of this messy stuff,” says Tang. The video shows Tang in an empty room, packing up the last of her ex-lover’s clothes, surrounded by her friends. “By dancing together, it feels like we are accompanying each other to get through something,” Tang says. 

As a whole, 9m88 Radio takes the listener through all the stages of heartbreak – anger, euphoria, sadness, regret and release. Tang’s portrait of love lost is a story we can all relate to, regardless of our native tongue.

Follow 9m88 on Instagram for ongoing updates. 

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.

79.5 Tune In to “Club Level” and Do Double-Duty Vocal Support After a Year Without Tours

Photo Credit: Rosie Cohe

Throughout much of September, Kate Mattison and Lola Adanna have been working double-duty at concert venues across the U.S. The New York-based vocalists are the core of disco-soul group 79.5 and they’ve been opening for Durand Jones & the Indications since earlier in the month. Mattison and Adanna are also the headliner’s backup singers. 

“We manifest it,” says Adanna of the touring situation. “We put that bug in their ear. I don’t think they really thought about it until we approached them with the idea.”

For the eight shows that had transpired before this interview, Mattison and Adanna performed as 79.5, wearing a different outfit for each opening set. Then, as the band and crew struck the stage post-performance, the two singers would quickly change into their outfits for the Durand Jones set, warm up with that band and then return to the stage. “We are on every day for soundcheck starting at 4 and we’re not done until midnight,” says Mattison. When Audiofemme caught up with Mattison and Adanna, they were enjoying time off in Las Vegas, in between gigs in Salt Lake City and San Diego. After this stretch of the tour ends on the West Coast, they’ll continue on the road as backup singers when Durand Jones & the Indications joins My Morning Jacket

This is their first time 79.5 has been on the road since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Mattison and Adanna are in agreement that the chance to be able to work again has been a big opportunity. “We just feel really blessed and really lucky and we’re going to keep going with it,” says Mattison.

The crowds have been varied from city to city. “I feel like every single crowd, every single night, has been different,” says Mattison. “Sometimes we get young kids and other times we get the grown and sexy crowd.”

It’s also giving them a chance to introduce audiences from Boston to Los Angeles to the sound that’s been evolving within the band. Their recent single “Club Level” is a funky disco jam wrapped up dreamy psychedelia, an amalgam of staticky radio transmissions like the imaginary station the band is named for. “The band now kind of morphed into this psychedelic jazz girl group-y harmonic freakout sometimes,” says Mattison. “It’s super cool and there’s a lot of space for this band to grow and we get to show off what we do to an audience that has maybe never heard us before.”

“We still have the 79.5 sound, but we’re also experimenting with different sounds and different types of music,” says Adanna. “So, I think that’s really exiting too, getting people prepared for it.”

Mattison launched the 79.5 project in 2010 and it long had a revolving lineup. By the time the group released debut full-length Predictions in 2018, a lot of the songs had been around for years. She and Adanna met as backup singers for Durand Jones & the Indications. “We just loved singing together,” Mattison says, so they continued to do that in 79.5.

In the process, 79.5 has become a more collaborative project. “I think that our voices blend together,” says Adanna. “We don’t necessarily have the same timbre of voice, but we complement each other so well.”

“Honestly, it just felt so natural,” adds Mattison. 

“I also think that with the times that we’re going through right now— race, gender, all that— I think it’s beautiful to see two women, one Black and one white, come together and have really strong men back us up as well,” says Adanna.

Their influences are varied as well. Mattison, who is also a pianist, mentions Janet Jackson, Todd Rundgren and Alice Coltrane. Adanna says that, when it comes to both aesthetic and vocal influences, she’s drawn to Donna Summer and Diana Ross for this project. It’s a different vibe for the singer, who describes herself as “beltastic.” With 79.5, though, she has to take a more understated approach. “For me, it’s easy to belt,” she says. “To pull it back was a challenge and it was a welcome challenge.”

On the road, where they’re singing in two sets per gig, they’ve had to take it easy on their voices when they can. “We have lots of remedies,” says Adanna; tea, honey and lozenges are among them. “Anything that can protect the voice because we’re singing double-time and you want to give 100% at every show, so you definitely have to take care of your vocals,” she adds. Mattison brought along her mat to do some yoga too, but finding time to practice in the midst of tour has been a challenge.

It’s been an intense schedule for Mattison and Adanna, but they seem to welcome it after more than a year without tours. “It feels amazing because we get to work again,” says Mattison. “Who knows what’s going to happen after this with the entertainment industry, but right now, we’re just trying to live in the present.”

Follow 79.5 on Instagram and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Horatio Luna Trips on Jazz with his Psychedelic Freaks on Passing Through The Doorways of Your Mind

The Psychedelic Freaks take their own wild, whirling dervish-approach to jazz on their debut Passing Through The Doorways Of Your Mind, released on La Sape Records June 4. Like their name suggests, there’s a lot of adventurous, freak-out psych trips along a journey of the jazz spectrum. Vocals sound like they’ve bubbled up from deep underwater on the title track, which opens the record with its jubilant, eclectic sound centred around wah guitar.

The meeting of jazz with the tripped-out, mushrooms-and-disco biscuits world of psychedelic rock peaked in the late ‘60s as the same audience for Jimi Hendrix also spun Grateful Dead, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington on vinyl. The genre-melding made sense: neither jazz nor psychedelic rock follows strict rules, both were always open to interpretation, individualisation and liberation.

Liberation and freedom in music while respecting its sacred nature is a hallmark of Horatio Luna (a.k.a. Henry Hicks), the Melbourne-based composer, improviser, producer and chief Psychedelic Freak behind this glorious, glimmering musical delivery. Founder of 30/70 Collective, a hip-hop/soul community, Hicks decided to move on after six years in late 2018. He’s also had his finger in the pie of multiple live and recorded acts and recordings around Melbourne. He’s restless, prolific, dedicated and – obviously – never short on inspiration and ideas. Also a member of jazz-house band Lush Life and collaborating partner to afro-house purveyors Teymori, Hicks may also be recognised for his remixes and contributions to numerous jazz/soul/hip hop compilations. Last year, his full-length album Boom Boom riffed on the joyful, juicy big beats of house music (titles like “No Words, Big Party” and “Bush Doof” give you an idea).

“I just don’t think there’s anyone creating this kind of fun, funky music in Australia,” says Hicks. “It’s like a time warp from the 1970s but explored in a new way, I hope.”

Stuck at home, Hicks was inspired to re-form The Psychedelic Freaks after starting and resting the project a few years before. The fruitful reformation resulted in their first, glorious LP, which – despite sounding live – was fully written and composed by Hicks then recorded on multi-track.

“Being in a room full of tape machines, effects pedals and guitars during the Melbourne lockdown, that’s when it all happened,” relates Hicks. “I’ve been a bass player for many years, and I’m a bass player first and foremost, but I really wanted to explore the guitar. I also really wanted to push the envelope in terms of what I could do with different genres like deep house, psychedelic rock and hip hop.”

Dreams, Fourth Way, Charles Lloyd and Don Ellis paved the way for big jazz band improvs into psychedelic sound. Think of a saxophone, trumpets, multiple basses and drums all working on nigh-on-impossible 17/8 time signatures or incorporating African instruments and call-response style vocals atop Latin percussion and Indian ragas care of the sitar, as Gabor Szabo did in the 1960s on LP Jazz Raga Impulse. In fact, Szabo’s quirky, country-meets-raga “Paint It Black” from 1966 spins The Rolling Stones’ classic right into another realm.

The Psychedelic Freaks’ “Illuminated Waterfalls” recalls the Afro-jazz of Fela Kuti, as well as tropical Bossa Nova and samba beats of the Astrud Gilberto school of Brazilian jazz. The bass is so prominent you might trip over it, were it not for the cosmic stardust glittering overtop.

The post-punk, doo-wop, spaghetti western guitars and wailing, punk rock vocals of 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” lurks ghost-like in the wheels and cogs of this album – even if it’s only in rebellious, vivacious spirit. But it is not the wildmen of the ‘70s so much as multi-instrumentalist, rapper and producer Madlib who really inspired Hicks. Madvillain (Madlib’s collaborative project with MF Doom) is compulsory listening for anyone interested in melodic, adventurous hip hop.

“I was listening to, and informed by Madlib’s music, which is so inspiring to me because it’s multi-genre fluid,” says Hicks. “My own style of music is jazz house, or nu-jazz, jazztronic, whatever you want to call it. So, for me to get really deep on jazz house, I wanted to check out jazz fusion and all the derivatives of that, like acid jazz and things like that. By going really deep on jazz fusion, I learned a lot through the process and it gave me a better understanding of jazz house and the dance-floor sensibility.”

Hicks composed the album by himself, then sent the parts out to each artist with some basic directions. The multitrack recording was produced in Ableton. “I was working with some sample loops. I’d compose around the loop, then take the loop away at the end, and the result is what you hear on the record,” he explains. “That’s apparently how Madlib would make some of his music, except he’d jam with the DJ mix then take it away and hope he had something cool.”

The Psychedelic Freaks are spread across Australia, from Adelaide to Brisbane and Melbourne, they include Dufresne, Rohan The Intern, On-Ly, Billy Earwingz, and Felix Meredith. They’ll be playing a one-off live show at Melbourne’s The Evelyn in Fitzroy on June 11. Hicks will be playing with his own trio as Horatio Luna before The Psychedelic Freaks revel in their trippy, jazz fusion brilliance.

“It’s gonna be very psychedelic,” Hicks says with a laugh.

Naturally, he’s already working on other projects.

“I’ve always been a relentless creative,” admits Hicks. “I’m making a video clip for Lush Life at the moment… exploring my creativity in other ways, which is important to me. I do have the next couple of things coming up and ready to go. I’m always working on something because I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to do so.”

Follow Horatio Luna on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Lauren Lee Defies Vocal Jazz Tradition with The Queen of Cups LP

Photo by Gwendolyn Mercer Photography

In the jazz tradition, the objectification and underestimation of women jazz vocalists (and instrumentalists) is commonplace. It’s a persistent discrimination that was written into the fabric of the genre 100 years ago, as a result of the social conventions of the time, which, in particular, barred most women from the smoky, late-night bars and clubs where the style was born. Women were also kept from learning the instruments traditionally associated with jazz, like saxophone, because it was considered a “male” pursuit.

Within this early jazz context, only the occasional woman singer and/or pianist could exist, and usually only as a sexual object. Remarkably, though the genre and the world have (somewhat) expanded their views of women since, the trope of a crooning, lipsticked singer leaning on the grand piano in her sequined dress remains a time-honored box that many in jazz still want women jazz artists to fit into.

This is a box that New York-based jazz vocalist and pianist, Lauren Lee, would rather avoid completely. This courage is what makes her new piano-vocal jazz record, The Queen of Cups, so special.

“I do not do music like that. I refuse to look like that. I’m not butch, but I’m not a girlie girl at all. I don’t wear dresses. I don’t sit with my legs together half the time,” says Lee, who released The Queen of Cups on April 30th via Ears & Eyes Records. “When your primary instrument is voice… I feel like either people want you to fit into the type of feminized sort of tier or they don’t want you there at all.”

Left to her own devices, Lee creates a swirling dream-space of interlocking, layered vocal melodies supported by adventurous, forward-thinking harmony on The Queen of Cups. With ease and authenticity, Lee turns the typical piano-vocal jazz record on its head, while subtly highlighting how the typical view of women jazz vocalists—that they’re just “eye candy” and that they don’t really understand the intricacies of jazz music—is preposterous.

“I wanted to do something that was very different than that to make people think about what the future of what this type of record, or the future of jazz vocal stuff in general, could be like,” she says. “You’ve got textures, you’ve got bass, and you don’t have so many lyrics and you don’t have really busy, heavy piano solos with lots and lots of striding left hands and chord voicings and things like that.”

On each song of the solo album, she accompanies herself on piano with subtle chordal patterns, oftentimes singing and scatting in duet with her piano playing. Meanwhile, Lee approaches her voice like a saxophonist or trumpeter—singing complex, bebop-inspired lines, and rarely even bothering with lyrics. Her skillful vocal approach to scatting and phrasing is a nod to that of the first jazz artist she ever fell for, Ella Fitzgerald.

“I grew up in rural, like really rural, Illinois. I played piano starting from a very young age. I was in band, I played saxophone, but not jazz because we didn’t have that,” Lee remembers. “I was taking regular bel canto voice lessons – I started getting frustrated around 16, 17. My voice teacher, who was a classical singer was like, wow, I have no idea what to do with you. [She said] ‘Here is a CD of Ella Fitzgerald,’ and I took it and played it in the car on the way home and I was kind of like, what is this? To this day, if I’m learning a new standard, she’s the first person I’d want to hear sing it, if she sings it.”

Fascinated by Fitzgerald’s approach, Lee listened to her records over, and over, and over again until she could scat back every note verbatim. She also began writing out Fitzgerald’s solos, eventually going on to study jazz vocals in undergrad, which then led her to move to New York a year ago to continue her education at NYU.

Once in New York, Lee began to regularly play in trio and quartet settings, which is how she first envisioned the original music on The Queen of Cups would be presented. When the pandemic hit, shuttering venues, practice rooms, and recording studios along with it, she decided to go a route she’d never gone before—a solo record.

“In February of 2020 I recorded four of those tracks, the ones that are all layered, as an EP,” she says. These included “Another Reality,” “Cocoon,” “Boxes,” and “Up In the Air.” “I was writing the rest of the music that you hear on the record to do a trio record,” Lee continues. “I ended up getting a grant for recording [but] I didn’t want to expose anybody to anything and I didn’t know if studios would be down. I started revisiting some of the material that I originally wrote for the trio and I was like, you know, if I’m doing this totally by myself, I can really kind of mess with it a little more than I may have in a trio format.”

In the end, Lee found the process of making a solo recording unexpectedly rewarding and she hopes to do it again. As well, the solo format allows the listener to really understand the breadth of Lee’s creative voice—her whimsical melodic ideas, clean, unadorned vocal presentation, and strong sense of modern composition which shines through, even on her renditions of jazz standards like “Footprints.”

The record ends, poetically, with Lee’s original, “Cocoon,”—an eerie and poignant tune that lyrically chronicles Lee’s deepened sense of self-acceptance and awakening. As she sings, “I can come out of my cocoon,” there is sense of hope and comfort in Lauren’s becoming and in what The Queen of Cups says about who women in jazz can be 2021—a multitude.

Follow Lauren Lee on Facebook and Instagram 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.

PREMIERE: Time Keeps Moving On for Lilan Kane in her Mellow Visual for “TKMO”

For the last year, most of us have been stuck at homes, unable or afraid to venture outside due to COVID-19; looking back, the stagnant nature of the past twelve months creates a kind of time warp – a fuzzy, murky glass through which we remember the year. Oakland-based musician Lilan Kane turned the year’s frustration and angst into music, penning the aptly titled “TKMO” (Time Keeps Moving On).

“Searching for something to fix my frustration/sitting here seeing the lessons I’m facing/losing my mind in this situation, alone,” Kane cooly croons on the her latest single, which follows Kane’s 2020 EP Shadows album, a collaboration with Costa Nostra Strings and Jazz Mafia. “TKMO” is mellow in comparison to much of her catalogue, winding its way down a path without going anywhere in particular. Kane tells Audiofemme she enjoys its untraditional nature, saying, “I’m kinda glad it’s a little different, because we just got hit with something different.”

“TKMO” is all about easing into the unknown, feeling at peace with the uncomfortable. “Be hopeful while feeling hopeless,” Kane explains. “Feeling like there’s an end in sight when I don’t really know that there is. How am I going to spend my time? What am I supposed to do with myself right now, when everything feels so open-ended?” The music reflects a sense of wandering, but its tone is light, not venturing into the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world narratives of many 2021 singles. Likewise, the video focuses on the artsy doodlings of Ariel Wang, who creates a swirling abstract visual in time with the relaxed tune.

Kane gravitated toward music at a very early age, drawn to the piano in her kindergarten classroom, constantly finding herself plinking at the keys. “I begged my mom for lessons and I wanted to sing and I wanted to put on shows for my family,” she laughs, remembering the persistent nature of her childhood self. She spent hours on piano, learning the songs she wanted to sing. She ended up in her high school’s a cappella group and ultimately landed a spot at Berklee College of Music, majoring in music business. While she loved her time there, she often found herself in her own head, wondering why she wasn’t writing more on her own.

“I just didn’t know yet how to explore that part of myself,” she recalled. “I really started writing more once I was out of college. I felt a little insecure and stagnant in college, because I saw a lot of other people writing. For some reason, it just didn’t feel as natural to me. ”

After college she moved briefly to New York City, before landing in the Bay area. In the ten years she’s lived in Oakland, Lilan has opened local shows for musicians like vocalist Sharon Jones and percussionist Pete Escovedo. She found her place in the Oakland blues scene, building her skillset, meeting people, and getting her feet wet, but it wasn’t until quarantine hit that she tackled a mountain she’d been waiting to climb: writing a song completely on her own.

She built “TKMO” on her piano, creating a skeleton on her phone’s voice memo app. Normally, she would have taken that skeleton to a band and had them experiment with the parts, adding in their own personal flair. With “TKMO,” once the basic structure of the song was there, it was Kane herself tooling around in Logic, adding the drums in.

“Every other song, I’ve been in studio working with the band, working with the musicians, working with a producer. This, I wrote after quarantine started,” Kane explains. “I developed the whole demo track on my own, recording all the parts, and then I stared to send it out to other musicians: Hey can you play bass? Then I’m dropping them in, starting to slowly build my song in a totally different way.”

In the past, Kane has tweaked her songs via many live performances. “Some of the songs off my first album, I performed for like three years before we ever recorded it,” she says. With “TKMO,” live improvisation obviously wasn’t an option; instead, she had to reach a whole new level of trust with herself as a creator. “This is me concocting this idea without the feedback of anybody else. They just recorded the part I asked them to,” she says. “So even though it was collaborative, it was the most non-collaborative approach to writing a song for me than ever before. It made me feel very vulnerable because I realized I’m going to rely on myself for this.”

Kane credits much of the ease within the song to American funk, soul, and jazz legend Roy Ayers. She had planned to pay tribute to Ayers before COVID struck, and it was his music that she often turned to for peace and inspiration at the start of the pandemic. His notes helped her breathe and find the place where “TKMO” could come to life.

Kane has written eight full songs during quarantine, all with this newly found sense of space and creative authority. She’s hoping to release an album early next year, but for now she’s content to release each song in its own time. “It’s going where it’s going,” she says of her music. “It’s on its own journey.”

Follow Lilan Kane on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Toronto’s Bernice Mix Mindfulness and Imagination on New LP Eau De Bonjourno

Photo Credit: Colin Medley

On a small island just outside of Toronto in the summer of 2019, Robin Dann and her band, Bernice, unknowingly made a record that would be extremely relevant to the unforeseeable year ahead. On Eau De Bonjourno, Bernice covers themes of isolation, disconnecting self-worth from productivity and escaping into the imagination. Dann and her bandmates Thom Gill, Dan Fortin, Phil Melanson and Felicity Williams combine their deep knowledge of jazz and shared curiosity for experimentation to create an album that truly transports the listener. 

Dann says that this is the first time the band attempted songwriting as a group, a new challenge that proved to be worth the clunky learning curve. “Collaborative songwriting… I think it’s never easy until you land on a flow,” explains Dann, the band’s lead vocalist and (previously) primary songwriter. “Thankfully, Thom and I have been playing together for so long, we have almost like a psychic connection that works really well… I think the songs on this record are some of our best that we’ve ever written.” The band wrote all of the songs for Eau De Bonjourno in an old school container on Toronto Island. The way that Dann explains the residency – creating and relaxing with friends on a sunny island – sounds like a literal fairytale compared to the way most of us have been living our lives for the past year, more or less in complete isolation. 

Shortly after Bernice finished recording the album in late 2019, everything changed, including the meaning of some of their new songs. Take, for instance, “Bubble,” a song that Dann initially wrote about being uncomfortable in crowds; in 2020, crowds meant contracting more than just social anxiety. The song’s lyrics – “You’re not allowed in my personal bubble/Please step away from my personal bubble” – sound like they could be 2020’s catchphrase. “When we wrote that song… it was a lot more related to having mixed feelings about being social and being in crowded spaces and having a lot of friends that have anxiety around that,” says Dann. “Now, that’s not what it’s gonna be about. It’s gonna be about this year’s experience for anyone who listens to it now. I love that – I love how a song can just change identities when it needs to.”

Most of Dann’s lyric writing contains an innate universality, allowing the song to mold its meaning to the psyche of whoever’s listening. This elasticity is mimicked in the band’s instrumentation — a lush orchestra of experimental synths following syncopated rhythms. And while Dann’s crystal voice and intuitive melodies contain traces of R&B and pop, the band’s heavy jazz influence is evident in the improvisational nature of the music. This “play it as it comes” disposition is something Dann comes back to again and again in the record. Mindfulness and self-acceptance play a central role in this record – and in her everyday life. 

On “It’s Me, Robin,” Dann presents the idea that just being is enough. And in a time when so many of our lives have been put on pause, this idea is more than welcome. The song starts out with an unapologetic introduction: “It’s me Robin/You don’t really know me/I thought if I just expressed this/You might just let me be me and accept that/I’m here, still here/I am really here.” In this song, Dann is simply and elegantly stating that a person is not a list of their accomplishments, social connections or financial assets, that being yourself and being at peace with who that person is is as good a vocation as any. “I don’t agree with [the idea of] some lives having more or less value than other lives,” explains Dann. “It’s like, am I gonna accept myself just for who I am no matter what I do? Or am I gonna continuously try to better myself and do more for my community? And can you live with both somehow? I feel like I’m confronting that a lot.”

These existential questions are ones that seem to have been screamed into the ether for millions of years, and although Dann is still searching for the answers herself, she gives such succinct advice on that it feels she’s on the right track: “Give yourself the same love you receive, believe in your inner value,” she concludes.

Dann’s constant reminders to find worth from within and immerse yourself in the moment are therapeutic in nature, but even more so when sung in her translucent, soothing falsetto. Especially on “Lone Swan,” which was inspired by a swan who would follow her around Toronto Island. Dann explains that swans are creatures of wonder to her – that one day, when swans are extinct, humans will look back in disbelief that we shared the planet with them. “Swans are interesting to me because they have this horrible reputation, but you see them and you’re like, ‘You are not of this world,’” says Dann. “Like, how do people see swans and just accept that they’re real? I see a swan and I’m like, that’s an alien, like that is coming from another planet, it’s not a bird.” 

Simple, but awe-inspiring moments like this throughout Eau De Bonjourno remind the listener not to take our surroundings for granted, but not to take them too seriously either. This balance of playfulness, self-awareness and intention is what makes Bernice’s music so pleasant to listen to, and even heal to. Maybe, one day, we’ll be able to look back on pandemic times the way Dann predicts our predecessors will look at swans – in shock and awe that they ever existed. Until then, I suggest taking a page from Dann’s book on living: “If I did nothing but love myself and love one other person, that’s fine.”

Follow Bernice on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio Deliver on a Promise with Sophomore LP I Told You So

Photo Credit: Francis A. Willey

With the release of their newest album, I Told You So, which drops today on Colemine Records, Seattle’s simmering soul-jazz Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio deliver on a promise they made to their fans more than two years ago.

Shortly after the 2018 release of their debut album, Close But No Cigar, the trio’s long-time drummer, David McGraw, departed the band, leaving fans disappointed and worried that the trio would lose their quintessential in-the-pocket sound.

“David has such a distinct way of drumming. It was very pocket, very soul. It was like Motown-type soul drumming. And we’ve never really had anybody that played like that. So when David left the band it was a lot of people were worrying about well they’re not going to sound the same,” says bandleader Delvon Lamarr. “I told them, I will find the right drummer. The album is called I Told You So because I told you guys the album is still going to be good regardless of who’s on it.”

While the album’s title is tongue-in-cheek, it more than fulfills that prediction. Featuring Lamarr on organ, the incomparable Jimmy James on guitar, and their choice for solid “pocket” drummer on the recording, Grant Schroff—from another popular Seattle group, The Polyrhythmics—I Told You So has every bit the groovy throwback sound their debut had, with some fresh additions.

While I Told You So still has plenty of that nostalgic 60’s soul-jazz vibe they’re known for, the trio brings in more diverse influences that underscore and build on their unique sound. “I think we kind of broadened the musical spectrum, like our influences, into our newest album and it’s been progressing,” Lamarr says.

In fact, several of the tracks, including the notably more melancholic “From the Streets,” embraces a low-key hip hop feel and spacious guitar loop unlike other previously-released music. Turns out that was an intentional nod toward some other music Lamarr and company are into. “I love anything by J Dilla, stuff like that. Old hip hop, I listen to a lot of cats like Slum Village and Talib Kweli. That laid back, you know—way behind the beat stuff,—D’Angelo does that a lot. That’s my thing,” he explains.

As well, the trio lays down a cool version of “Careless Whipser,” a 1984 pop ballad written by George Michael that recently had a resurgence in 2011 after The Sexy Sax Man’s satirical performance of the song on YouTube became a viral sensation. In 2021, Lamarr and company reinvent the song yet again, making the schmaltzy pop anthem and internet meme into one of the album’s most impressive and listenable bangers. Funny, because Lamarr almost didn’t record it.

“It was a thing that we did at live shows and I thought, I don’t know if anybody wants to hear this on an album. But my wife Amy [Nova] was like, ‘Dude, you gotta record it man! I think it’s going to be a hit,'” says Lamarr.

This isn’t the first time Nova has had good instincts when it comes to her husband’s music. In fact, Lamarr credits Nova as the reason behind the trio’s formation in 2015. “She built this [trio] from the ground up,” Lamarr says. “She asked me for years to start my own band and I didn’t want to. She just watched me struggle so much as a musician and she was like, ‘You’re too good for this man. You get some guys together, write some music. I’ll take care of everything else.'”

Nova was also instrumental in getting the group signed to their Ohio-based label, Colemine Records, which has the perfect retro branding and roster to complement the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. “They’re great, man. What I really like about them is they’re two brothers that own it, Terry and Bob, and they have the same philosophy we have in this band – we always say we just play music we like to hear and when you do that people are going to love it,” Lamarr says.

Lamarr, James, and their new permanent drummer Dan Weiss, like most of the music industry, haven’t been able to perform live or tour since the onset of COVID-19. Being stationary doesn’t come easy for the trio, who usually tour throughout Europe and Japan for most the year and are so well-known in Europe they get called out in train stations. Hence, their biggest hope for 2021—aside from hoping that I Told You So is as well-received as their debut was—is to get back out there and see their fans.

“That’s our thing. That’s what we enjoy,” says Lamarr. “It’s great to be at a studio recording. But it is what it is. I got to be on the road, I got to be on the stage. That’s my dream and goal. It’s always been.”

Follow Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Subhi Searches for Silver Linings on “Wake Me Up”

When Indian-American singer-songwriter Subhi went to LA to record a new song in March, she’d just begun hearing news about COVID-19. Tasked with improvising a song in the studio, she began offloading her feelings about the rising pandemic. The result is “Wake Me Up,” a meditative, vocoder-enhanced single about coming to terms with a rapidly changing world.

“We were in these dark times where everyone was quarantined and we were going to have to wear masks,” she remembers. “I knew that would close things up for a bit, so that was a song about what was happening around us.”

Even though the chorus — “wake me up, wake me up, wake me now/pull me out from the dark” — may sound like a plea to escape the situation, she also considers it to be a hopeful message, anticipating the process of emerging from the COVID era. “‘Wake Me Up’ is really about how these are dark times, but I also am realizing that I will wake up,” she explains.

This mixture of darkness and hope characterizes the in-progress EP on which “Wake Me Up” will eventually appear. “They aren’t feel-good, happy songs, but they are songs with a silver lining,” she says. “I’d like to believe my goal is to create meaningful songs, but songs that also have hope and shed some light on good stuff happening in the future.”

Subhi’s 2017 debut, Shaitaan Dii, is very different from her recent work, incorporating elements of Indian folk music, American pop, and jazz. It was recorded in collaboration with a jazz band, and on it, you can hear an unlikely combination of scatting and Hindi.

During this phase of her career, Subhi was leading an all-male band, and she remembers dealing with a band member who was bullying her and bossing her around. “He would try to shut me down and discredit me and discredit my songs,” she remembers. “It took me two years to figure out what was going on. [Then] I got the courage to stand up and be like, ‘This is my band, and this is the way I want to do it, and everyone needs to respect everyone.'”

After that, she went through a period where she was reluctant to collaborate with anyone out of fear that the same thing would happen again. Though her combative band member was no longer in her way, she was getting in her own way — which inspired “In My Way,” a slow, synthy single about the effects of hanging on to past hurts. Once she came to that realization, she picked herself back up and collaborated with a variety of producers and other artists, which ultimately became corrective experiences that opened her up again.

She also considers “Wake Me Up,” which was recorded with producer Taylor Sparks, a testament to this transformation. In addition to waking up from the dark times of COVID, the song is about “waking me up as an artist,” she explains. “And really, these collaborations did pull me out of the dark, so it’s really symbolic of what was happening in the outer world and what was happening with me internally.”

Subhi’s path to becoming a musician has been long and winding. After growing up in India and attending high school in the U.S., she went to college for finance and minored in music, then began working on Wall Street by day and covering Indian entertainment as a TV news reporter by night. Through the latter job, she met Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, who was looking for a music intern, and ended up getting the position.

“After that whole project, I realized, ‘Oh, my god, this is what I could see myself doing my whole life — music is it,” she remembers. “So, I usually say it took me three careers to realize music is my true passion.” Her husband lived in Chicago, so for a while, she split her time between there and Mumbai, working on music for Bollywood films. Soon, she realized she wanted to be a full-time artist, so she planted herself in Chicago and forged ties with its jazz scene.

In the past, she’s experienced internal conflict between her Indian and American identities, especially with regard to her music. One of the upcoming songs on her EP, “Better,” is about reconciling these differences and choosing both sides of herself. “I was dealing with this whole conflict of ‘which one do I choose?'” she says. “And now, I’m more settled, it’s kind of resolved — I’m two sides of this coin.” She’s continued to sing in both English and Hindi, and even though her new EP is primarily inspired by American pop, she considers it Indian-influenced simply because it’s inspired by her life.

“Every song on my EP is very personal to me,” she says. “There’s a story behind every song, and everything written in the EP is an observation for my own personal life. Everything is something I have personally experienced. There are a lot of different themes in the EP, and I hope people resonate with it and can take something from it. The EP in general is not happy-go-lucky, but I’d like to believe it’s meaningful, and it’s an EP with hope, where there is a silver living to everything that I’ve written about.”

Follow Subhi on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: OKAN Bring Colorful Afro-Cuban Style to “Espiral” Video

Cuban-Canadian musicians Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne of the band OKAN
Cuban-Canadian musicians Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne of the band OKAN
Photo Credit: Ksenija Hotic

Jazz fusion duo OKAN (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne) are at the forefront of Canadian-Cuban musicians bringing kaleidoscopic island sounds to international music lovers.

OKAN (meaning heart in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria) formed when Savigne and Rodriguez—both new Canadians living in Toronto—met after joining the Grammy-winning ensemble Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, and the musical connection was undeniable. Since joining forces, they’ve earned a JUNO-nomination for their debut, Sombras, and the 2018 EP, Laberinto, won two Independent Music Awards. Their follow-up Espiral—out later this month— may be thier strongest thus far.

Combining “history, heritage, storytelling and spirituality,” Espiral relates stories around immigration, womanhood, and sacrifice. From the stunning “Aguila” to breathtaking cover of Consuelo Velázquez’ classic track, “Besame Mucho,” Espiral is full of pride and sparkling musicianship, taking its name from the swirl of genres at play.

“We wanted to let people know that there is more to Cuba than meets the eye or that is commonly known,” explains Savigne. “We are a product of the musical evolution that happened in Cuba when we were a more isolated island. We speak from our own experiences and reflect them through our music.” Rodriguez agrees, “This album is more vibrant and bolder in terms of arrangements,” she says. “But the idea behind it is the same as with Sombras: to present an OKAN that changes every time, with every song.”

To celebrate the exclusive premiere of the official video for the LP’s title track, the pair talked with Audiofemme about working with an all-women-identifying team, African fashion, and the dynamic sounds of Cuba.

AF: You made a wonderful choice to embrace the nearly extinct sound, Pilón on lead single “Mercedes” – why was that important?

MS: Pilón is a genre of Cuban music that started in my hometown (Santiago de Cuba). It was very popular in the ’60s and ’70s, especially the compositions by the renowned Cuban composer Pacho Alonso. Pretty much every genre in Cuba is directly connected to a dance. The dance steps of Pilón mimic the movement of grinding coffee. It has a really cool rhythm and the lyrics have many double entendres. That’s exactly what “Mercedes” is. We use the humour of the double meanings to address the struggles of the Cuban people. This strategy of making jokes to deal with difficulties has always been a part of Cuban culture.

ER: It is important to share with the world that Cuban music goes beyond Salsa and Reggaeton.

AF: Talk about working with video director Kathleen Ryan.

ER: She was an angel that fell from the sky for us. Kathleen put together an amazing team of extremely talented people and created this beautiful video for us. She also donated the space where we filmed it and the result is incredible. Some people have said that it’s hard to believe that we actually made it in Canada.

AF: How was it working on a video with an all women-based team?

MS: Well, this was our first video. I have to say that I thought it would be scary. Kathleen and her extremely professional team made us feel comfortable at all times. We had no idea there would be so many women involved — all talented. As a female artist, I feel deeply grateful for this opportunity. There were also some incredible men involved, so what I really liked was the balance and chemistry I saw with the team; it’s exactly what we look for when we work.

AF: Talk about how your style is becoming an OKAN signature.

ER: Nowadays, being a good musician is not enough. People expect a show, lights, images, dancing. We are not Beyoncé, but we believe style can be a way of making a statement as well. Honouring our ancestors from Africa is a way of feeling more connected to them, and to show people we are proud of our heritage. We have teamed up with Tracy Ekubor, an amazing stylist and seamstress from Nigeria and we love her work.

AF: How was it working in Jane Bunnett and Maqueque?

MS: Maqueque brought me to Canada and for that I’m deeply grateful and always will be. I had the chance to share the stage with amazing talented women despite their young age. It gave me the tools to survive and to learn to understand this new world – Canada. I got to share my compositions and have them nominated for a GRAMMY, and to win a JUNO. The opportunity opened a few doors in Toronto for me. I got many life lessons out of it, for sure.

ER: Working there was an experience that changed our lives in many ways. I was pushed to practice and learn more about improvisation. Traveling the world was fun and a great experience. Being able to perform at very prestigious festivals was a great opportunity to grow as a musician. We also learned how to drive all over the U.S., how to organize a tour, how to apply for travel visas and work permits, and many things that as a band member you don’t usually get to experience, but that we were responsible for.

We learned different ways one can lead a band, to support and respect the musicians that work with us and their independent projects. The biggest lesson of being in Maqueque was to understand that our freedom is more important to us than anything else.

We find that many music fans in the U.S. and Canada were first exposed to Cuban music by white North American musicians who incorporated Cuban or other Latin traditions and compositions into their own works. We’re really proud and excited that there are now many successful, Afro-Cuban-led jazz projects being embraced by those same listeners – and programmers – and that the Cuban musicians are taking charge of their own careers and freely expressing their own musical vision.

Follow OKAN on Facebook for ongoing updates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AF: What else are you currently working on?

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

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

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

PLAYING SEATTLE: The Pornadoes Carry on the PNW’s Longtime Ties to Surf Guitar

Along with rock, punk, jazz and a vibrant hip hop scene, Seattle has musicians who thrive in the in-between – who have a knack for suspending themselves between styles and bring in multiple influences, highlighting Seattle’s quirkiness and creativity. The Pornadoes, “The World’s Only Swingasurfajazzabilly Band,” are a perfect example of that ethos. Their cinematic music is an ingenious melting pot; think surf music legend Duane Eddy meets country legend Chet Atkins meets “Greased Lightning.”

The Pornadoes mesh the swelling excitement of ’60s early rock and surf guitar, country and rockabilly-style vocals, with the harmonic and rhythmic complexities of swing and jazz music. It’s all accented with clever, humorous lyrics (see: “Waiting on a Spring Divorce”) delivered with the sort of emphatic twang of early 1950’s rock n’ roll, underscoring both nostalgia and timeless relevance of their sound.

The local four-piece recently dropped their fourth release since 2011, Go Tiger, GO!, which they recorded at Seattle’s legendary Seattle London Bridge Studios. Lead vocalist Jasper McCann and lead guitarist Jason “Mr. Goessl” Goessl sat down with Audiofemme to talk about recording the new album, Seattle’s ties to surf guitar, their ties to each other, and the origins of their sexy sound.

AF: Hi guys! To start off, tell me what forces brought The Pornadoes together?

JG: I formed The Pornadoes in 2011 as a guitar-driven instrumental surfabilly trio. The name “Pornadoes” came from an episode of Bones. My partner at the time suggested that would be a great name for a surfabilly band. So, I called my fellow Midwest transplants Tom Zgonc (drums) and Ethan Sobotta (bass) to form the band. Ethan and I met at Shell Lake Jazz camp in Northern Wisconsin in the early ’90s. We went to University of Wisconsin Eau Claire together for a few years in the mid ’90s. We lost track of each other for about a decade and met up again at a show at the Tractor in Ballard that we were double billed at. At the time he was playing with Wages of Sin and I was in Sunday Evening Whiskey Club. Tom Zgonc grew up in Minnesota and also went to school at UWEC. However, he was there a couple years before Ethan and I and didn’t meet him until we were in Seattle. We figured it must have been fate that brought three UWEC music kids together in the PNW so we had to start a band. Also these cats can read my mind musically so we never really had to rehearse to much. Our first shows were pop-up BBQs for Jack’s BBQ before he had his restaurant. I wrote the tunes and scratched out the basic chord structure and they made the magic happen! We self-released Now Serving in 2012. We got our first dozen shows because of the name alone.

JM: I joined in early 2015. The Pornadoes did a gig for one of my burlesque shows that went on the road to Walla Walla in summer of 2014. We started rapping about jazz and music in general and we became friends. I started to sit in with the fellas on some gigs and sing standards, and then Goose and I had a fair amount of beers at the Sloop Tavern one fateful night and he asked me to join the band and be the frontman. The rest is… history?

AF: I’ve learned there is a legacy of some cool surf-rock/guitar music in Seattle—does that legacy inspire or guide your music?

JG: Nokie Edwards from the Ventures has always been one of my favorite guitarists. Though he was born in Oklahoma he grew up in Puyallup. The Pornadoes’ second instrumental album was recorded at Jack Straw for Sonarchy Radio, which aired on KEXP at Midnight on Sundays. I was heavily inspired by Ventures In Space. So I called the album In Space. Much like the Ventures, we recorded this album with live in-studio sound effects happening in real time. I had my good friend and audio guru Robb Davidson (Nel’s Motel studios) bring in samples and do real time audio sampling of the trio. We recorded this album from front to end with no breaks or stops and only one take, staying true to the In Space vibe.

JM: Apparently Walk Don’t Run was recorded in West Seattle, right down from Parliament Tavern. The first surf record I ever got was Surfing by The Ventures. Wailers and The Sonics are inspirations too.

AF: What was your first exposure to this sort of guitar sound, Jason? Is this where you started?

JG: I started playing guitar when I was nine because I wanted to be Slash from Guns N’ Roses. After going to a jazz camp when I was twelve I fell head over heels down the jazz rabbit hole. High school was a blur of Miles, Parker, and Coltrane. My first year in college a friend introduced me to Marc Ribot and suggested I get some effects pedals. His punk approach to jazz launched me out of my “jazz box” and into a whole new universe of sound. I got my first guitar with a bigsby and started to find my own sound in “jazz” by interjecting surf and country riffs with bends and swells into jazz standards. I have a group that plays out once in a while called Surf Monk—we play arrangements of [jazz pianist] Thelonious Monk over surf mash-ups.

AF: Tell me about this new album, Go Tiger, GO! Where did you record it? Is there a theme that pushes it forward?

JM: We recorded Go Tiger, GO! in two days in late January of 2019, at London Bridge Studios… you know, where Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and many others recorded. That was a trip. Jonathan Plum, one of the owners, engineered it. We had a killer time in the studio – the experience was really positive and some sounds came out of the session that we didn’t expect. It was a real honor to work with Jonathan. As to theme, if anything, our “theme” is variety. On both the albums I’ve been involved with, we shift styles a lot. The overall timbre of the songs remains pretty consistent throughout the record.

JG: I like to make albums that play out like a film. Go Tiger, GO! is a fun thematic listen, twisting and turning through surf, country, rockabilly, blues, and a little punk. I wanted to keep the raw energy of a live show so we tracked the whole album in one day. Most songs were two takes. On day two we added back-up vocals and mixed. The overall theme to me is life. Each song is inspired by a personal experience or a relatable adventure by a good friend. There are lots of ups and downs and twists and turns.

AF: This is rockabilly music, but how do you believe it transcends and innovates the rockabilly sound?

JM: Rockabilly music, historically, is pretty simple from a musical and lyrical standpoint, with lots of 1-4-5 blues or 1-5-1 country licks and a fair amount of lyrical repetition, and the content of the lyrics tends to be fairly simple thematically. Our sound is “thicker” than traditional rockabilly, more heavy rock n ‘ roll solos and distortion, more chordal and rhythmic diversity that stems from everyone’s background in jazz. The lyrics that I write are also fairly complex (by rockabilly standards), mostly with a narrative approach. Also, when Goose asked me to join, he said he specifically wanted to create music that rockabilly ladies would listen to. So, knowing that old-timey rockabilly (as well as a lot of psychobilly) has themes that we don’t dig (specifically physical and/or sexual violence toward women, demeaning language, the reinforcement of hyper-traditional gender roles, etc.), I/we have written songs that eschew these themes. We choose instead to write about strong female characters. Or going to Mars. Or meeting strong female characters on Mars.

JG:  Yep, what Jasper said!

AF: Most people assume that upbeat, surfy music comes out of a sunny place, but this is Seattle-born. What about Seattle finds its way into The Pornadoes sound?

JM: I think our sound is Seattle Surf. The popular California surf archetype, especially the vocal groups (Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, etc.) was pretty cheery. But the way we approach the “surf” style is darker and heavier. There have been a few times where Goose and I looked at each other and say “Joey (Santiago, lead guitarist of Pixies) would like this lick.” I was heavily influenced by the grunge scene and the DC post-punk scene, both of which are melodically beautiful while still being angular and heavy. I think the great surf bands of today that are pushing the genre all have an aspect of punk, or grunge, and a more brooding aesthetic, which is ultimately in line with bands like The Lively Ones or The Ventures.

JG: Seattle is a melting pot of musical styles and a very bustling city! The crazy traffic and the feeling of having to constantly be going and doing inspires my writing and playing to have more notes and harmony.

AF: Obviously, it’s more than surf rock – there are definitive strains of country, too. Do you guys have country music influences that you like to bring out?

JM: Apropos of nothing, I am distantly related to Carl Perkins. When I was a kid, country music was pretty much everywhere back home (Kansas City), but it was actually good, like Willie and Waylon and Dolly and Crystal there was the whole C.W. McCall thing, not all of this formulaic crossover stuff that’s happening now. I grew up watching Hee Haw with my Grandad, so I was hearing Johnny Cash and that sort of stuff from a pretty young age – let’s say I knew who Buck Owens was before I ever heard a Zeppelin song. The themes aren’t too foreign.
Ask Goose about the pickin’ and grinnin’ part.

JG: I love country music. Chet Atkins is one of my favorite guitarists. Danny Gatton is huge influences well as George Barnes. Lenny Breau is where I copied my thumb picking technique from. I use a plethora of Junior Barnard riffs made my own in the Pornadoes as well!

AF: Again, people wouldn’t consider Seattle to be a place for country/rockabilly. What’s the scene like for this specific sound?

JM: I think there’s a fair amount of it around, but the places in town where you can hear it live are limited.

JG: The country scene in Seattle seems to be pretty strong, especially in Ballard, and there is definitely a scene at the Little Red Hen. Over the last decade I’ve had the honor to play hundreds of country shows with great country acts in Seattle including Jessica Lynn, Knut Bell, Caleb Bue, Caitlin Sherman, Country Dave Harmonson, and the The Whiskey Club. As well an annual Patsy Cline tribute that Debra Heesch produces. Currently I play with Birch Pereira and The Gin Joints which blends old school rockabilly, country, and jazz. The Gin Joints have no lack of work in Seattle.

AF: On that note, are there other bands like you out there (Seattle and beyond) that you feel like you’re in conversation with?

JM: I don’t want to say that what we’re doing is unique, but I don’t really know any other band that’s doing what we’re doing. Maybe it’s because our approach to rockabilly/surf has so much jazz influence in it. We’re not metal enough to be psychobilly, too heavy in some cases to be traditional rockabilly, and too jazzy to be surf or country. I don’t know who else is doing what we’re doing. I mean, if Reverend Horton Heat wants to give us a call, that’d be pretty hep.

JG: No, not yet. hopefully we can meet more bands along the way.

AF: What’s your personal favorite song on this album? What’s the story behind it?

JM: “Robbin’ Hood” for sure. I ran into the sister of a dear friend of mine a year or so ago, she was working at a restaurant where I had stopped for a drink. She was wearing a green dress but no leggings (it was summer) and was clearly in command of the attention of everyone at the bar. So her attire led me to one of my favorite films, Errol Flynn’s Adventures Of Robin Hood, and the two ideas collided and the song idea appeared, where I imagined her to be not a thief of money, but a thief of hearts. There are lots of fun references in the song to the Robin Hood legend. If you want to read the lyrics you can, right here.

JG: “Waiting For a Spring Divorce” is my favorite song. Our drummer Tom’s western swing feel melts my heart and our bassist Ethan’s slap upright keeps it beating. Jasper’s lyrics, inspired by his dear friends’ trials and tribulations, get me every time.

AF: Tell me about the band’s songwriting process… who writes what?

JM: I write the lyrics and do most of the songwriting, now. Before I joined, Goose was the sole composer. On our previous album, Launchpad Omega, he and I did a fair amount of back and forth; I would come to him with a lyrical idea or he would come to me with a musical idea and we would bounce ideas and work toward a common goal, with him being the musical lead on a majority of the charts. I ended up doing the majority of the generative work on Go Tiger, GO!, and when I got a chart to a place where I thought it was ready we’d get together and he’d add his ideas. Then we work like a jazz ensemble; Ethan plays from chord charts and he and Tommy arrange their own parts, and we all craft the final work in rehearsal.

JG: I’m not much of a wordsmith. I also have never been inspired to sing and most of the music that moves me is instrumental. I feel like most of my songs write themselves. It generally happens in the morning – I’ll wake up and I’ll feel this odd feeling that a song is about to burst out of me. I pick up my guitar and in about two hours the song is done. It’s uncontrollable. I make a chord sheet and an iPhone recording and send it to the guys to come up with their parts.

AF: Are you touring with this album?

JM: Not as yet. Everyone in the band has a fair amount of commitments; Goose and his wife are touring musicians and I am a burlesque theater producer, so carving out time is not as easy as it would be if we were in our twenties.

JG: Yep, not yet. My tour schedule this year with my duo Sundae + Mr. Goessl and The Gin Joints has me booked up this year. The Pornadoes have a few shows booked this year that I will fly back from tour for and do when I’m in Seattle. We will be releasing a video and working to book festivals and some shows in 2020.

AF: What’s the future hold for the band?

JM: As we get more traction, we hope to do more opening slots for bigger acts (too bad Wanda Jackson just retired – that was a dream of mine). We’re also looking to play the large rockabilly festivals like Viva Las Vegas and Nashville Boogie, as well as hit the circuits in Europe and Japan where rockabilly is big. I’ve already got enough new material in the works for half an album… I don’t know why we wouldn’t keep recording. We have too much fun together. Big Dream: one of our songs makes it on to a Tarantino soundtrack. Why not?

PLAYING DETROIT: Tears of a Martian Share Debut Single “With You”

photo by Carmel Liburdi

Newcomers to the Detroit music scene, Tears of a Martian released their first single, “With You,” this week. The three-piece – Arianna Bardoni, Justin Reed, and Todd Watts – is hard to pin down genre-wise but brings a refreshing mix of indie-rock, soul and R&B to the table. Bardoni’s honey-smooth vocals seem like the result of a musician who grew up listening to both Aaliyah and Hole – clear, soulful, and tinged with grit.

“With You” is a straightforward almost-love song with an infectious melody that begs singing along. “Play by play we were like a parade/nothing better to do/with you with you with you with you/I was never with you,” Bardoni sings, describing the lull of half-romance that comes from two people who are settling for each other rather than being alone, and the weird fog that lingers in such a relationship’s aftermath. Listen to “With You” below and keep your ears peeled for more from this blossoming band.

PLAYING SEATTLE: Three Eclectic Releases for the New Year

For me, the new year signals a time to refresh, and that also goes for my music collection. This is when I dig through Bandcamp, attend shows with bands I’ve never heard of on the bill, and get recommendations from friends in the know. Here are three off-the-beaten path local releases I’ve discovered in the new year.

photo by Seth Halleran

SmackTalk – Servin’ It Hot (out March 7)

Saxophone-fronted collective SmackTalk is the brainchild of Sidney Hauser, a brilliant Seattle-bred saxophonist and songwriter whose funky, angular, and soulful compositions have, in the case of Seattle jazz, exploded expectations about what sort of music is made in Seattle and who can make it. Through songcraft, musicianship, and bold authenticity, Servin’ it Hot makes me single-handedly optimistic for the future of Seattle’s music scene.

Hauser, a graduate of the University of Washington, brings together a band of talented Seattle twentysomethings on the EP, proving that jazz isn’t just for baby boomers. But also, SmackTalk is far from purist about jazz – while Hauser definitely draws on her background in jazz harmony and improvisation, her compositions bring in funk energy, the tender sensuality of neo-soul, the exploratory nature of creative music, and the addictive quality of earworm pop melodies and digital effects.

On “Beams,” the album’s only vocal track, singer Emma Horton’s smooth, dexterous voice pours forth like honey, accented by soaring moments from the saxophone section – Hauser, Natalie Barry on alto and tenor— playing in artfully-arranged harmony.

“Tidal,” the third song on the five-song album, starts by featuring these saxophonists with a sort of cheerful, churning pattern that steadily swirls, bringing the rest of the band into its grasp. Interesting synth and saxophone moments add energy and excitement to the piece, which feels like a climbing wave, eventually cresting in a funky solo section that spotlights the solidity of the rhythm section’s interlocking groove.

Each song on Servin’ It Hot works this way—starting in familiar space and then pushing past expectations, offering some really new and fresh sounds for the city. Only SmackTalk’s second release, Servin’ It Hot is unabashedly brave, capturing Hauser’s growth as an improviser, songwriter, and band leader, and underscoring the work SmackTalk are doing to find their own voice as a band.

Servin’ It Hot drops in early March. For more details visit SmackTalk on Bandcamp.

photo by Jason Trinkle

Annie Ford Band – At Night (out February 8)

Annie Ford is the sort of artist one can literally stumble upon while walking the streets of Pike Place Market, where she has been a busker for a decade. But she’s no forgettable distraction for a passerby. She sings as if she’s having a candid conversation, and she draws her listener into a secret with humor, pep, and charm.

That’s how it goes with her newest release At Night, which drips with flavors of country, klezmer, folk, and even a little bit of psychedelia. It proves that Ford, and her co-songwriter Matt Manges, have further-honed their talent for original folk songs unlike any others found in the Seattle-area.

On this new album, it’s clear Ford and the band are feeling in limbo. On “Ain’t No Place,” she’s a woman leaving Mississippi for the unknown; on “Demon Lover,” she forsakes a husband and three children for a new man; on “Restless Dreams” she walks a tightrope into a world suspended from time. With this in mind, the album mirrors Seattle’s present crisis of identity, a product of the ripple effects it has on the individual identities of the people who live here.

This sort of tension comes up lyrically, as well as musically. Additions like the other-worldly whine of Olie Eshlemen’s pedal steel and the bestial rumble of Ivan Molton’s baritone sax imply the sort of strange, liminal state that the Annie Ford Band contends with.

Overall, Ford and the band have more of a fierceness than ever before on At Night. A big part of that is Ford’s crisp, resolute, and honest vocals, hanging in the foreground without facade or effect. Ford isn’t playing tricks on her audience – she’s bracing them for transit.

At Night drops February 8th. For more details visit Annie Ford Band on Bandcamp.

photo by Kyle Todaro

Antonioni – The Odds Were All Beating Me (out now)

Antonioni may as well be a meteor out of nowhere. The Odds Were All Beating Me, released January 12th, is Antonioni’s first in two years, and only their second EP ever—but it’s a formidable ball of indie-rock fire. While they exhibit that grunge-punk quality that lives inside much of the music from this area, lead singer Sarah Pasillas – whose lilting, ethereal voice recalls Sinead O’Connor, Bjork, and Enya – brings a dreamier vibe to their music.

“Snow Globe” features this aspect of Pasillas’ voice prominently, making her the foreground to a thunderhead of odd sounds – coins falling to the floor, a person talking into a seashell, a Tibetan singing bowl. Her voice arises from the controlled mess.

The EP’s first track, “Creature Feature,” designates Antonioni as part of the same contemporary scene that’s birthed other currently-popular indie bands like Great Grandpa and Dude York: taking the mumble-singing, a raw guitar sound, and feeling of encompassing dreariness that Nirvana made big, and invigorating it. Antionioni make it a bit lighter by adding more upbeat pop diversions and effects. “Old News,” on the other hand, almost sounds like the Cranberries—Pasillas sings assertively, with turns and inflections like Dolores O’Riordan, while the repetitious guitar pattern has the same sort of jangling, broken-sounding chords that Cranberries’ lead guitarist Noal Hogan mastered.

The album is an interesting snapshot of Seattle, torn as it is between so many different moments in the scene’s musical history and looking for a place to rest. With Antonioni, the city may have found a band with which they can sit and stay awhile.

PLAYING DETROIT: Saajtak Share Ethereal Live Performance of “Spokes”

Experimental art-punk band saajtak takes the most enticing aspects of free improvisation, opera, electronic and jazz music and melds them to create complex sonic narratives. The Detroit-based group – made up of Alex Koi (vocals), Simon Alexander-Adams (electronic artist), Jon Taylor (drums), and Ben Willis (bass) – prove to be just as compelling live as they are in their lush recordings. All virtuoso musicians in their own right, each band member lends their distinct musical style to the collective sound of gorgeous chaos. The band demonstrates their fluid improvisation and seamless transitions in this live video of their song “Spokes.”

Koi’s undulating vocals deliver weighted metaphors, creating a call and response between her and guest saxophonist Marcus Elliot. Koi’s voice serves as a compass for listeners, guiding them between bouts of stream-of-consciousness and smooth, calculated melodies. The directional nature of the song is appropriate, considering Koi says the song is a loose metaphor for a roadmap. “From a lyrical perspective, ‘Spokes’ is about getting lost in the chaos of everyday life to the point of becoming disconnected from yourself, other people, and particularly nature,” says Koi. “It explores the process of rediscovering connection through a walk in the woods.”

Sonically, the song shapeshifts and transforms throughout its lifespan, like watching a timelapse of a tadpole reaching its full form. Its meandering nature is likely due to saajtak’s fluid songwriting method. “I think ‘Spokes’ is pretty emblematic of our writing process,” says Willis. “I seem to remember Simon coming in with the initial groove idea, and then we played and improvised with it in rehearsal and in performance for months as we discovered other sections.” The group’s creative process doesn’t end after one burst of improvisation, however, but spans over months where the song is workshopped and analyzed, especially in this case. “’Spokes’ is probably our most complex song,” says Alexander-Adams, “and being so episodic in form, definitely came together slowly in sections before it reached its current state.”

Instead of one person having autonomy over the final structure of the song, saajtak works as a completely equal unit, each member creating their own piece of the puzzle. “It’s one of the great benefits and challenges of this band,” says Taylor. “Rather than one person writing the material and directing everyone’s individual roles, we all contribute in real time, but also have to be open to compromise and deconstructing our ideas in order to serve the bigger picture.” The result leads to episodic arrangements like “Spokes,” which feels like a natural marriage of stimulating segments telling a small piece of a larger story. The song comes from a 2017 EP of the same name; you can check that out, along with the the band’s latest EP, Hectic, via their bandcamp. Lyrics for “Spokes” are below.

Eulogies of compromise, how can one say goodbye when she’s walking out alone?
Wasted devotionals, way too emotional.
Dot in a box trynna push out and resurvey itself.
I’m flying highest tie the wools around me.
Farce, c’mon and out and pull me down to warm soil.

I’m falling. (Falls, falls, falls down)
When I get up the first thing I hear is,
“Time Will Pass Us Just Right Not Late This Quarter”.
Whipping around, who made that sound?, but no one lingers. Not a whispers.
Still, I’m lulled toward the forward of the woods.

My ring of marcasite shines in the sun like all my freckles, speckled cartography.
My lungs breathe easy here, hung upside down trees.
I don’t choose a spot, the spot it chooses me to find its tilted home, homey little alcove.
I will the wind, I will the wind. The breeze, to find me out – Guide me from outside in.
I will the wind, I will the wind, I will the wind.

So you’re divine? You think you can stand alone forever?
Refine and repeat, refine and repeat.
Desperately annulled, refusing the change
Refusing the nuance to clear the pathway.

My ring of marcasite shines in the sun like all my freckles, speckled cartography.
My lungs breathe easy here, hung upside down trees.
I don’t choose a spot, the spot it chooses me to find its tilted home, homey little alcove.
I will the wind, I will the wind. The breeze, to find me out – Guide me from outside in.
I will the wind, I will the wind, I will the wind.

I’m first. I can only imagine I’m first.

Surprise! It’s every moment of your life.
God spoke to you in a birch tree bark.

Take all of me. Well I’m sure I am offering it to you.
Take my lips I want to lose them, take my arms I’ll never use them.

Surprise! It’s every moment of your life.
God spoke to you in a birch tree bark but you weren’t there.

PLAYING DETROIT: Whateverfest Brings Detroit’s Disparate Music Scenes Together

When you think about music festivals, it’s easy to picture giant stages, overcrowded drink lines, and teenagers in various species of headwear. Whateverfest – an all-genre, all-ages DIY festival based in Detroit – is pretty much the opposite of that. Born from a “what if” conversation between friends in 2011, Whateverfest has grown from a few bands occupying every apartment in the Hyesta building to over 40 bands, spanning nearly every genre, playing at the Tangent Gallery. This Saturday, May 12th, the fest is returning for its eighth year and is set to go from 12 pm to 6 am the next day.

The fest’s lineup includes a vast array of Michigan bands as well as acts from Toronto (Rooftop Love Club), Chicago (Aathee Records), and Indianapolis (Gwendolyn Dot). One of the original festival organizers, Soph Sapounas, says that the event’s musical diversity comes from the laissez-faire ethos indicated by its moniker. “Whoever wants to play plays,” says Sapounas. “We’re all just trying to have a good time – it’s whatever. That [word] starts getting thrown around a little too much on the day of but it’s okay.”

Though the organizers strive to be as inclusive as possible, the festival’s popularity attracts a slew of submissions every year, which the team reviews in a democratic fashion. They host listening parties and make sure that the roster of artists performing represents the city as a whole. “We want to be a platform for artists and musicians in Detroit in general. Not just for rock, not just for techno – we want to include all of it,” says Sapounas. “That’s one of the things that keeps recurring, is people telling me that they think it’s really cool to see all the different scenes here and everyone having a good time together and not having that cool kid standoff.”

With groups like Spaceband (a nine-piece experimental funk collective), Ex American (new age electronic), and a handful of techno artists holding down the late-night sessions, the festival undoubtedly reps staple genres Detroit is known for and everything in between. If you’re in or around Detroit, this fest is more than worth checking out. If not, check out some of the amazing under-the-radar artists below – I’m betting they’re more eclectic than your Discover Weekly playlist.

ONLY NOISE: Marjorie’s

On Sunday, in a part of town I rarely get to visit, I sat on a hard wooden bench staring at a wall. From beyond that wall I could hear trumpet, bass, and a drum kit played by invisible musicians. Their presence was confirmed not only by the sound, but by the rows of people sitting in fold up chairs in front of me, who had a better view of the action. The only musician I could see was an elderly woman in a close-cut purple sheath dress, hunched over a piano. She sat framed by a doorway, and if I craned my head to the right, the discomfort in my neck was worth what I could see.

The woman in the purple dress was Marjorie Eliot, and she was playing in the Harlem apartment she’s lived in for 36 years. For 25 of those years, Eliot has hosted a weekly Sunday afternoon jazz concert in her parlor, free of charge and open to whoever can get there on time. This magnitude of kindness is unusual coming from anybody, but especially someone like Marjorie Eliot, who has endured more tragedy than most – even for a decades-long New Yorker. The concerts began as a way for her to ease the pain of losing her son Phil to kidney failure; fourteen years later she lost another son, Michael, to meningitis. Another son briefly went missing in 2011 – Shaun Eliot, who suffers from an undisclosed mental illness, boarded a bus en route to a transition house on Wards Island and wasn’t heard from for over a month, when a nurse at Metropolitan Hospital finally identified him and let Marjorie know he was safe.

I learned about Marjorie Eliot’s personal tragedies days after I left her home at 555 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. But I was already well aware of the events’ popularity, however. When my roommate brought me and a couple of friends to Harlem for Marjorie’s March 11th performance, he was somehow under the impression that her cover of obscurity had only recently been blown (isn’t it just like a white man to think they are the first to notice something special?). The fact of the matter is, The New York Times wrote about Marjorie’s in 1996, and NPR in 2006. Marjorie’s weekly shindig has pages on Yelp, My Secret NY, Facebook, and Place Matters. The cat is, as they say, “out of the bag,” and has been for quite a while. And that’s okay.

One of the most remarkable things about Marjorie’s was how gorgeous and unspoiled it was by the sheer volume of people in attendance. The apartment was packed like a sardine can. There were people crammed into the kitchen, peeking out from behind the doorjamb. Several rows of metal folding chairs held folks with far better views than mine, but this was the shared fruit of their punctuality. The sturdy wooden pew I perched on seemed to extend all the way down the hall, where more people simultaneously watched the band and waited to pee. And in the last grasp for a place to listen and maybe look, a string of guests lined the doorway and wrapped around into the outside hall, waiting for people to give up their seats. It was one of the few times in life I felt that the old saying, “the more, the merrier” actually applied. I occasionally wondered if the apartment was at capacity, or if Marjorie ever got hassled by the fire department, but not knowing only enhanced the experience – like there was some grain of mischief in music again.

Because Marjorie enlists a rotating cast of musicians on Sundays, the music is nonstop. She relinquishes the piano to a man in a fedora, so she can host and greet friends. Trumpet and sax players emerge from the parlor to rest, and beyond the wall another set of woodwinds and brass picks up. Most songs are instrumental, but Marjorie and a few male vocalists pepper in gospel and jazz standards here and there. I feel fortunate that these songs are rare, as it becomes increasingly difficult not to cry during them. For those of us who don’t do church, this is about as close as we get to seeing God.

Marjorie’s Parlor Jazz presented not only one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve had in my nine New York years, it was also one of the most wholesome, which is probably why the comparison to church springs up (not to mention the Lord-forward lyrics Marjorie sang). It felt so inexplicably wonderful to sit quietly for over an hour, not only not touching my phone, but witnessing dozens of phone-free people marveling at this exquisite music we were hearing, free of charge.

When I was in Paris last summer, my French friends and I ended up at a house party. Sadly, I can’t tell you which arrondissement we were in. By then I had imbibed two beers spiked with some kind of diabolical walnut liqueur, and all I remember is being invited to the party on the street. On the street is how most things begin in Paris, in my experience. Once inside the party, my friend told me that it was “nice luck” that we got invited, as seeing the inside of a Parisian’s apartment is a very rare thing. This moment rushed back to me as I sat in Marjorie’s home. It is just as special to see the inside of a New Yorker’s abode, given the premium put on personal space and privacy in this bustling burg.

While the Parisian soiree was fueled by cheep beer and menthol cigarettes, I was just as thrilled at Marjorie’s party favors. About an hour into my stay, an impeccably dressed woman in her 70s came around with a tray full of granola bars, and later one lined with Dixie cups of orange juice. In a city where the best stories are usually born in the wee drunken hours, it felt good to sit in an old woman’s home, drinking OJ in the middle of the day, accepting the enormous gift she gives the city, every week.

PLAYING COLUMBUS: Field Sleeper on His New LP, Musical Efficiency, and Collaboration

“This is a weird time,” Alex Paquet tells me as we sit down over coffee to talk about his musical project, Field Sleeper. “I’m not usually this bright of a person. There was a very long time – a good year and a half – where I was ultra-sensorially attentive and very, very calm. And it’s still all bursting out right now.”

I feel lucky to have caught Paquet during this period of his life. Throughout our interview, his thoughts, interests, and experiences really do seem like they are bursting out; though I try to wrap up the interview after 50 minutes, we keep talking long after, trading favorite contemporary artists, theory, and installations. We laugh over a picture I took at the Columbus Museum of Art, at an exhibit that Paquet found particularly moving. The photo is of a tag, written on by a museum passer-by, which reads: “I don’t often view creative professional men as creative types, so it’s nice to see a stern man softly.” Paquet says that he often feels stern-er than most, but when I apologize for keeping him so long, he reassures me that he’s happy to have made a new friend, which doesn’t feel stern at all. We part ways in the rain; Paquet catches the bus to get to a nail appointment, and I take a damp walk to the library, Field Sleeper’s upcoming record streaming through my ear buds.

That record, Better Grid, which is slated for release on Scioto Records on March 16, walks the line between stern and soft exceptionally well. A blend of pop, rock, drone, and even jazz-inspired elements, the album highlights Paquet’s gift for musical arrangement. And as compared to previous musical projects, Paquet tells me, Better Grid was “a lot more purposeful, and I was trying to use as few voices as possible in each. I’d also played the songs a lot more – the songs have a lot more personal attachment to me.” In order to give the album a feeling of “performance,” Paquet tracked each component as though he was giving a recital, playing all of the guitar parts at once, and then the vocals, and then the synths, and so on. “I was really inspired by jazz recordings,” he says. “It seemed like there were less tricks – it seemed so clear.” The level of clarity which Paquet perceives in jazz–which he also calls musical efficiency–was integral to the making of Better Grid. Paquet tells me that he focused on giving each component enough space for the audience to fully engage. “A big question that I had to ask a lot,” Paquet says, “is, if this is here, what isn’t someone paying attention to?”

Though Paquet approached the record with intent to strip songs down, handling each sound and “voice” with care, the actual recording process he tells me, “happened by feeling; it wasn’t by design.” Paquet was first approached about recording by Groove U, a music-career specialization program in Columbus, in the fall of 2016. That, Paquet tells me, got him thinking about recording a full album. He recorded the first five songs of what would become Better Grid in February of 2016, during a period of his life where, he tells me, he just wanted to get some songs down to learn more about them. Then, after an East Coast tour in June, Paquet came back to Better Grid, recording four more songs for the project (one song, out of the nine recorded, never made it on the album). “Maybe what the recording can represent is trying to learn what’s really going on with the set of songs,” Paquet says. He calls the period of time spent on Better Grid the “cognitive height” of Field Sleeper. It encompasses “a lot of tours,” he says, “and a lot of time spent making music and thinking about making music.”

After Paquet was done with his recording, the album was mixed by Mike Shiflet, a noise musician and avant-gardist who Paquet calls “the big time.” Shiflet “had a really big impact,” Paquet says, “on how the thing sounds. There are some tracks, like on ‘Shed,’ where the vocals are panned really hard to one side and the guitar is on the opposite – that was all him.”

Now that all of the recording and mixing is over, Paquet says that listening to Better Grid “can honestly calm me down sometimes.” Still, Paquet is conscious of how he wants the project to evolve onstage. “When I was recording it,” he says, “I think I took too much life out of it… Now, I’m trying to think [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][about] how much more life I can bring into it, and then I know that if push comes to shove I can rely on whatever it took to make.” Onstage, Paquet plays with a rotating cast of musicians and collaborators, including Felix O’Connor, Seth Daily, Kyle Kerley, and Dylan Reese. It’s a lot of people to juggle, but Paquet says that he relies on his collaborators to “bring different things out in me, and to learn more about the songs that I’ve written.” Bringing out something new in his songs, Paquet says, is part of the “joy” of collaboration. And he’s learning to let go a bit on stage by placing faith in his colleagues. “I need to, in some way, push myself or get myself feeling uncomfortable,” he says. “There’s excitement to that, and to seeing other people do that.”

It’s clear that Paquet brings just as much intentionality to the stage as he does to his bedroom recording. “There’s a very important way that performance can make someone feel better, and it’s not just all about me,” he explains. Beyond the audience, Paquet is also thinking more and more about what it means to be a band member. “I’m excited to write songs now because I can think more about what song would fit what group,” he tells me. “It still all just feels like a time to experiment I guess.”

all photos by Kaiya Gordon

With the making of Better Grid behind him, Paquet seems bursting with possibility. He tells me about the new approaches to lyrics he wants to try: spending hours chasing one image; focusing smaller scenes; writing about the world around him. “It’s really easy to become, I think, cyclically secure in yourself, if you write about yourself,” he says. “It’s important, I think, to keep reminding yourself how little you know.” He lays out plans for bringing his quantitative skills to the art world (the NEA, he reminds me, has whole sections of grants looking at how art impacts communities), and talks about the position he has as assistant to the maestro at Opera Project Columbus. For somebody who just told me he “took the life” out of his upcoming album, Paquet seems to have a lot of life left in him. “I’m just trying not to be so exhausted,” he says. “I want to be more personal, I want to be more relaxed. I want to see what comes out of that.” Recently, Paquet tells me, a friend made a basketball metaphor about creation that really stuck with him. “Toward the end of the game when you’re more fatigued you’re more likely to go for the first shot you can take,” he says, “whereas, if you weren’t fatigued, you might wait for one more pass back and forth before you do it.”

There are several upcoming passes that Paquet seems poised to make. Over the winter break he spent time writing with O’Connor and Reese, focusing on collaboration, rather than just practical skill. Paquet says the three of them spent time considering whether a musical piece felt good to them or not, often asking themselves “is there a better way to play this, rather than one that just fits into the grid of everything that is already presented?” Based on Paquet’s re-telling of the practices, it suited them all; Paquet felt able to change his parts to “let something else shine more,” resulting in “new songwriting and sonic possibilities.” They “felt like a band,” he says.

But Paquet isn’t done with solo songwriting, either. “I would also, before the end of this year, make a hard drone ambient album,” he tells me. “I’d like to give some performances of just classical guitar pieces too […] rather than trying to put all [styles] into one thing.” He pauses, thinking about the album. “I know it’s my thing,” he continues, “but, it’s pretty cool.”

Catch Field Sleeper in Columbus this Thursday, February 22nd at 9pm at Kafe Keroac, or at one of their upcoming stops on tour:

Mar 10 Philadelphia @ All Night Diner
Mar 11 NYC @ Lantern Hall
Mar 12 Providence @ TBA
Mar 13 Boston @ TBA
Mar 14 Portland ME @ TBA
Mar 15 Troy NY @ River Street Pub
Mar 16 Buffalo @ The Modeling Factory
Mar 17  Cleveland @ Mahall’s
Mar 29 Album Release @ Ace of Cups


Whether you think Columbus is as cold as I do (@ me, midwesterners) or not, shorter days and darker skies can drag at anyone’s energy. And for those estranged from family or friends, this time of year is especially hard.

If the holiday festivities are draining you, fear not! Check out our Playing Columbus-approved activity guide to have *actual* fun and beat the Christmas blues. In true testament to Columbus’ burgeoning music and art scene, we’ve chosen something to do for each day this week. Grab a cocoa, strap into a sled, and find something new.

Thursday, 12/21

The Columbus Queer Open Mic featuring Tatum Michelle Maura of TTUM

Wild Goose Creative’s last open mic of 2017 will feature TTUM, the musical project of Tatum Margot, a Columbus-based multi-instrumentalist, singer, song-writer, and producer. Margot’s first electronic album, Flawless Ruby, came out in October of 2017. Along with TTUM’s performance, the community is invited to bring art, music, poetry, comedy, and story-telling to share. Sign up for a 5 minute slot at the door to bring your act onstage.

8PM, 2491 Summit St., Columbus OH

Suggested donation $5

Friday, 12/22

Jingle Jam Skate

This event is clearly marketed towards children, but I love ice skating, and I love glow sticks. Plus – it’s early! Skate to some holiday tunes in the early evening, with plenty of time to catch a later event.

7pm, Skate Zone 71

$8 (this includes skate rental *and* a glowstick!)

Saturday, 12/23

Nina West Christmas Pageant

This Saturday, local drag superstar Nina West will present her “sassiest, singiest series ever” at the Gateway. The event begins with a mixer, and is followed by a sing-along program featuring West’s comedy and performances by the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus.

4:30pm mixer, 6pm show, Gateway Film Center

$20, including a $5 donation to Kaleidoscope Youth Center

Sunday, 12/24

Christmas Eve Karaoke

Honestly…who could miss this? Excess Karaoke is hosting their weekly Sunday karaoke at Ace of Cups (that means you get to perform on a real stage!) immediately after the 9th annual “gathering of people not celebrating xmas.” Ugly sweaters are optional.

10pm – 2am, Ace of Cups

FREE 21+

Monday, 12/25

Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) in 35mm

Well, my Gateway-employee roommate isn’t happy the film center is open on Christmas, but you might be! Check out their showing of Roger Waters’ 1982 film The Wall, showing in its original 35mm.

9:30pm, Gateway Film Center


Tuesday, 12/26

Jazz Jam

If you’re wiped out from the holiday festivities, recharge at Park Street Tavern’s Tuesday Jazz Jam, which features both their own house band and rotating local musicians.

8:30pm Park Street Tavern

FREE, 21+

Wednesday, 12/27

Sad Boyz “Sad Years Eve”

Dance to pop punk, emo, hardcore and alternative all night long at Skully’s to ring in the new year. If you’d like to get the night started early, head to Bodega from 6pm-9pm; $1 of every PBR purchased will be donated to mental health advocacy and suicide prevention organizations.

Skully’s Music Diner

FREE before 10pm, $5 after 10pm, 21+

Thursday, 12/28

Co-release show with Maza Blaska and Sweet Teeth


Local bands Maza Blaska and Sweet Teeth are both celebrating new releases on Thursday night at Ace of Cups. They’ll be joined by another Columbus favorite, Corbezzolo.

8pm, Ace of Cups

$5, 18+

PLAYING DETROIT: Rowan Niemisto Releases “Gradient” EP

Detroit artist Rowan Niemisto has only been producing solo work for a year or so, but he’s already got two EPs and a handful of stand-alone singles under his belt. His latest EP Gradient dropped November 30th, written, recorded and produced entirely on his own. Niemisto deserves some serious props for being able to do it all – and make it sound good. Gradient is an ethereal fusion of soul, jazz and electronica that brings a modern approach to ancient themes of love, loss and nostalgia.

The four-song EP starts with “Without Trying,” a catchy breakup anthem that combines soul and synths. Niemisto maintains the simplistic lyrics and hooky melodies found in classic soul while adding heavy electronic elements that bring the song to present-day. The track’s addictive beat and relatable lyrics can make even the most brokenhearted people feel blasé about losing the loves of their lives – at least for four minutes.

Next, Niemisto bares his jazz influence on “Behave,” a sexy plea to keep a loved one. “I don’t want nobody but you,” could easily trigger an eyeroll if received in the form of a text from the everyday playboy; however, delivered in Niemisto’s sultry vocals, the generally overused line feels genuine and somewhat irresistible. He’s not reinventing the wheel by any means, but paying sweet homage to old-school R&B and jazz with silky falsettos and bluesy electric guitar.

“Behave” is followed by “Flips,” a modern, dreamy track where the listener is invited into Niemisto’s stream of consciousness. Minimalist, vacillating guitar is accompanied by the distant laughter of children, suggesting Niemisto’s yearning for a simpler time. He repeats “Tell me you’ll stay/Say you love me,” in an almost ritualistic way, making his trance-like state contagious.

After these lofty heights, we fall back to earth with “Honeymoon,” the EP’s grounding final track. The song reflects on the inevitable end of infatuation – something that anyone who’s ever been in relationship longer than two months can relate to. Niemisto sings, “I keep hoping that time won’t change us/I liked it better when we were strangers” – an arrestingly honest to capture the loss of a spark. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like Niemisto’s passion for making music will fade anytime soon.

PLAYING DETROIT: Will Sessions Tease New Album, Deluxe

The word “fusion” doesn’t begin to skim the surface of the rich and diverse stylings of Detroit’s hardest working band, Will Sessions. Not easily categorized, Will Sessions’ influence spans decades and their accumulative sound swells with an authentically reimagined funk renaissance. Equal parts 70’s jazz, soul, hip-hop and yes, pure, sweet funk, the only thing this recipe calls for is more. The eight-piece, whose output modernizes and anthologizes Detroit’s sonic roots, celebrates the release of their first full length record, Deluxe, comprised of previously released, newly remastered tracks in addition to some fresh collaborations. The first single, “Run, Don’t Walk Away (feat. Coko)” is as sly as it is seductive and embodies what it means to strut. What is achieved here is a sense of empowerment. The marriage between growling funk beats that roll like patient hips and vocalist Coko’s insatiable determination makes “Run, Don’t Walk Away” less of a plea and more of a motivational command.

Deluxe drops 4/21 on Sessions Records. Get your groove on below:

EP REVIEW: Ex Reyes “Do Something”


Flowery and airy, carrying you away from the hellscape that our country has become in the last two weeks to instead deliver you to a place where beauty and comfort exists is Ex Reyes’ new EP Do Something.

The EP starts out with their single “Bad Timing,” which is a jazzy, upbeat track that showcases falsetto vocals from Ex Reyes, aka Mikey Hart. It’s epiphanic and revelatory, which is a perfect lead into the piece as a whole. It also flows smoothly into the next track, “If U Come Runnin,” which will tinkle around your head for days with its quirky synths that spiral away.

From there, you’ll experience “Keeping You in Line,” which will do anything but that. You’ll feel yourself floating this way and that throughout this track as the music washes over you and transports you to a different world. Following that is a sobering dose of reality from the brief interlude track “Hard to Stand,” which will ground you after your mysterious journey from the prior song. The EP closes out with “Where U Callin From,” which features Wild Belle. With brassy elements that recall ska days of yesteryear and tinkling keys that dance up and down your spine, it’s a fantastic note to end the album on. Plus, Wild Belle and Ex Reyes’ vocals seamlessly complement one another.

If you’re looking for a bit of music to help you realign and center your soul, then you’ve found the artist to follow.