PREMIERE: Sweetlove Grapples with Grief on Goodnight, Lover EP

Photo Credit: Anna Azarov

Life has put Sweetlove through the wringer. In the span of a year, she lost three of the most important people in her life; with her new EP, Goodnight, Lover, out Friday March 26, she sifts through the craggy, ashy rubble of death and tragedy to rediscover hope and what it means to truly live. Finding closure is never easy, and it often comes with a heavy price.

“I think just by being alive and human we are bound to experience hardship, suffering, and heartache. It’s the price of being human in the world,” the singer-songwriter tells Audiofemme. “And I think it’s a hard lesson to learn, especially for Americans. I’ve had the good fortune to travel quite a bit, and I’ve come to realize it’s a very particularly American idea to believe that somehow you can avoid suffering or bad things happening to you by doing all the ‘right’ things.”

Living in Los Angeles has been particularly enlightening in this regard. “There’s a lot going on, and everyone is beautiful, and there’s a great driving energy to it. It’s easy to think that if you do everything right, then everything should go right for you,” she continues. “But I think the price of being alive is that there is always another side to the coin, and no matter how brightly the sun shines on you, it always goes down eventually. There is a great deal of value in allowing yourself to be fully in the moment, even if it’s a bad moment. Let the rain fall, and let yourself grieve what you lost or what you never had in the first place.”

Sweetlove learned this lesson the hard way, beginning with the 2017 death of her oldest friend Matt; he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s, and untreated pneumonia claimed his life on Christmas Day. Less than a year later, family friend and former love David, who’d served as a medic in Iraq, took his own life on Thanksgiving 2018. The final blow came in January 2019, on David’s birthday, when Sweetlove’s cousin Teddy passed away after a long, arduous battle with alcoholism. Knowing all this heightens the brutal emotional pendulum of Goodnight, Lover, swinging between relentless and cathartic as Sweetlove clusters these stories – and every ounce of pain – into six songs, a compact portrayal of some of the darkest times she’s endured in life.

“Honestly, I don’t know that I will ever let go of all of it as long as I’m alive. I think it may be something that lives with me, like a shadow,” she muses. “Not necessarily in a debilitating way, or like I’m always living in the past, but just something that’s always with me, maybe more like a companion. “

Sometimes, you have to step into your misery and write it out before you can move on. As most songwriters can attest, there’s really no other option. “I found my calling as a songwriter, a healer, and a storyteller. I’ve always loved to write, and I’ve always loved songwriting, but as I turned to it out of necessity and grief, I discovered how much I love it too, and that I have an affinity for it. And how incredibly healing it is,” she reflects.

A long-time songwriter by nature, frequently turning to pen and paper “for solace and as a way to make sense of what I was feeling,” something drastically shifted following David’s death. Songwriting became something “that I needed to do,” she says. “It was a place of solace and comfort, and a place where I could not only dive deep into what I was going through in a dedicated and supportive space, but where I could make something beautiful that could move and hopefully connect to others.”

During the creative process, her collaborators — which include such notable songwriters as Jay Stoler (Selena Gomez) and Zach Berkman (Ron Pope) — would toss out lines, and she would soak them in to “decide if it really resonated with how I was feeling.  And then I could get really clear about what was true. It was such a gift,” she says. “When you write songs, part of the process is saying things out loud to see if they feel or sound right, not just musically but personally.”

Sweetlove’s deep emotional and psychological work feeds directly into the EP’s fresh vocal approach, as well. Goodnight, Lover, produced by Justin Glasco (The Lone Bellow), contains songs which are “somewhat of a softer, more conversational singing style than I’ve ever used before, and I really like it,” she says. “I feel like I can let the songs tell their stories instead of having to do some impressive vocal performance all the time. And I hope that honesty comes through in the songs.”

Where the title cut sways with a smoldering, ballroom-like quality, “Did You Even Know” gallops and lurches ahead with a sturdy, rhythmic gait. “When your days are numbered, you count them slower,” she unravels, setting up the tremendous guilt and regret still coursing in her brain.

Suicide, as Sweetlove found out, fosters a different kind of grief, one that rips and shreds you into ribbons. “You really spend a lot of time going back and wondering if you could have made a difference in some way.  There’s a lot of looking back,” she says. “I don’t know if I will ever shake that off, entirely — that ache of losing what could have been, and the regret of knowing that someone that was so beloved was so tortured and felt so alone. But I do hope that every day I live my life in such a way that I honor his memory and keep it alive. He was one of the most alive people I ever knew; I’d like to embody that more and more.”

“I hope that I can honor David’s memory by trying to live my life every day going forward so that I have no more regrets,” she continues. “I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s a very David thing to do, and I like to think that he’s out there soaring around me reminding me not to take myself so seriously.”

Though the losses in her life left her feeling “unmoored,” Sweetlove gained some perspective, too. “Things that used to matter to me didn’t matter much anymore. I stopped wearing makeup most days because at first I didn’t have the energy and then I just didn’t care that much,” she says. “I didn’t do anything or see anyone that I didn’t want to. And there’s a freedom in that – in letting go of a lot of the things you used to worry about that just don’t seem that big any more in the face of real loss.”

With talk of death, there comes an inevitable discussion on the afterlife. What’s next? “Oh man, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Sweetlove shoots back. Having grown up in a religious home, most people in her life “were very certain about what comes next and how you have to watch your step in this life to make sure you get to the right place in the next one,” she recalls. “The more I learned and studied, the less I was certain about any of it.”

To deepen that understanding, she attended Azusa Pacific University, graduating Magna Cum Laude as a Biblical scholar, “not because I was certain about a specific kind of theology, but because I was fascinated with the conversations around life and death and meaning — and making sense of what I was taught and how it ended up feeling so small and fear-based to me,” she says. “I was taught that the world was a certain way, and once I allowed myself to invite other ideas in, the world opened up for me. Maybe that’s the afterlife.”

Her favorite description of the afterlife comes from The Great Divorce, by Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis, whose works she studied in college as well. “The Great Divorce is an envisioning of the afterlife where once you die, the person you most loved comes down from some version of heaven and tries to get you to let go of anything you were holding on to in your life,” she describes. “If you can do that, you become larger and more solid and a more vibrant version of yourself, and you move into a joyful space.” But if you can’t, well then you simply “shrink down and become very small, and you can’t go any further. In fact, you even have to return to an even smaller space.” 

“That seems like a pretty good metaphor for life, no? The great offenses in life and your ideas of yourself that you can’t let go of end up making you smaller and less alive,” Sweetlove says. “I want to be more alive. How that looks when I shuffle off this body is anyone’s guess. I personally suspect it’s more abstract than our minds can imagine, but I’m very curious to see how it turns out. I sometimes wonder what Matt and David and Teddy know now that I don’t know yet.”

Taking a moment, she collects herself. As she reassesses her life, putting her pain on full display, she considers what she’s learned most through her grief. “Beauty and pain come in equal measure,” she offers. “Grief is the great leveler. We should always be kinder than we think we need to be, because we never know what someone else is going through. “

“Life is short — not just because your own passes more quickly than you think, but because you never know how long you will have with the people that you love,” she adds. “If I could see Matt or David or Teddy again, would I care what I was wearing, or if I wasn’t at whatever weight or beauty standard I thought I was supposed to attain, or how many followers I had on Instagram? There’s nothing wrong with finding joy in these things, but they don’t have to define you. These days all that matters to me is love — to be with my friends and family, my nephews, and fellow artists. I just want to be with the people I love, as much as I can.  And to make music, which to me is a form of love.”

Follow Sweetlove on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

IAN SWEET Unfolds Roadmap to Recovery on Show Me How You Disappear

Photo Credit: Lucy Sandler

If you were to come across IAN SWEET – a.k.a. Jillian Medford – on the internet, what you would see is a free-spirited, hilarious and talented artist who has recently taken up the hobby of hat-making. This, however, is not the Jillian that we meet on IAN SWEET’s sophomore record, Show Me How You Disappear, released March 5 via Polyvinyl. The record is a sullen but triumphant archive of Medford’s road to recovery after severing ties with an abusive partner and experiencing an all-consuming mental health crisis in 2020.

We hear it all the time, from every angle – 2020 fucking sucked. And the response to that is a resounding and unanimous – yes it did. But outside of a global pandemic, nightmarish election season and countless other tragedies this infamous year contributed to the history of humankind, try adding a massive heartbreak to the list. As you can imagine, this catastrophic cocktail would be too much for anyone to handle, but Medford did – with devastating doses of self-awareness and honesty. In Show Me How You Disappear, Medford creates a meandering but genuine road map to finding herself again, all while letting go of the person that led her off track. 

Medford sets the scene with “My Favorite Cloud,” introducing us to the mindset she was in while writing the record – scattered, dark and disoriented and relying on an external force to keep her afloat. It’s unclear what Medford is referencing when she sings, “Oh at the end of the earth/There’s an endless supply of it/I don’t fuck with this stuff/I don’t even care/What it does for me/How it keeps me living/In suspended bliss without even asking.” But, that’s probably the point. We all have things that keep us going, whether it’s a Xanax prescription or those couple extra glasses of wine after dinner – the habitual coping mechanisms that we find comfort in can shape up to be our enemies when we’re at our lowest, not wanting to exist at all. Medford’s suspended vocals are surrounded by lush, chaotic guitar strums and distant bells and extra-terrestrial synth waves, perhaps suggesting her foot already in the next world. 

But as the album progresses, the fog lifts and we follow Medford on her journey back to herself. In “Get Better,” Medford uses a mantra to will herself into healing, and try to stop falling back into thought patterns that deepen her heartbreak: “I wanna get better, better, better/But in my mind I’m still laying in your bed/I wanna get better, better, better/But I just get you well instead.” We’ve all been there, promising ourselves that today we’ll block our ex on social media, or stop picking up the phone. But if there’s one thing that’s ever-true about heartbreak, it’s that it’s not linear. It’s a lumpy ass sidewalk with cracks and broken glass and wet cement. But Medford is self-aware enough on “Get Better” to know that the only one she’s helping is the one who hurt her when she lets her mind or heart wander back to them. 

The record closes with “I See Everything,” a cleansing ode to mindfulness and recovery. “I know it now I know/What they’re talking about/I’m not afraid anymore/I see it now I see/So much more than before/I see everything.” It’s as if the smoke from the dumpster fire of a relationship has cleared and Medford can finally breathe again – finally take in her surroundings and enjoy them instead of being weighed down by trauma. She leaves any heartbroken or lost listener with the hope that they’ll recover, and a few tools to use along the way. We spoke with Medford about writing the record and the inpatient therapy program that prompted it. Read the interview and listen to Show Me How You Disappear below.

AF: There’s an emphasis on healing in this record — did you take a break from writing music before this record? If yes, what brought you to writing that first song? Did you enter the writing process with a different mentality for this record your previous releases, ? 

JM: I don’t think I’ve ever fully taken a break from writing music – it’s always happening in some capacity but I wasn’t pushing myself to make a full record or compilation of songs at the time. The first song I wrote for this record was “Dumb Driver” and soon after that was “Power.” The writing process for this record was completely different than before because I started writing lyrics first – I would journal for 30 minutes every morning in my outpatient therapy program. 

AF: I read that mantra is a big part of your life/songwriting. When were you first introduced to mantra and is there a certain one that you constantly come back to? 

JM: I’ve never been big on meditation, mantras or mindfulness until I checked myself into an intensive therapy program where I was taught something called “tapping” which is a big mantra-based practice where you simultaneously tap the pressure points on your body as you repeat a mantra of your liking or an intention for the day. This was eye-opening for me and allowed me to find pieces of myself I had not yet been introduced to.

AF: While the record definitely feels self-reflective, I do hear loss and heartbreak in there as well. Was that part of your experience when you were writing? 

JM: Big time heartbreak, heartache and healing.

AF: You handpicked different producers for each song on the album. What was that process like? Do you write an entire song then recruit folks to add the missing pieces or is it a “from the start” situation?

JM: I don’t think I’ve ever done a song from scratch with a producer before. I always bring an outline (guitar, lyrics, drum demo, synth ideas) to the table. It is so fun to see a song transform though through the collaborative process.

AF: If I’m reading the timeline right, a lot of these songs were written during the pandemic in LA – what was that like? Do you think it influenced your sound at all?

JM: Definitely! The pandemic (in a strange way) has allowed me to have space to breathe and make music that is truly representative of what I had been through. At the beginning of the pandemic I was writing like a madman because I had just finished my intensive therapy (that I was in for 2 months) and I was seeing things in a whole new light. I had the time to try to utilize the tools and practices I learned while in the program and see if I could help myself through another dark period.

AF: What’s the story behind the title track?

JM: That track is deep-rooted in an abusive relationship and the vicious cycle of trauma that follows. “Show Me How You Disappear” came from a conversation I had in my head with my abuser – I wanted them gone, I was tired of trying to get rid of the memories myself, it was exhausting… and I wanted them to do the leg work, I wanted them to be the one to remove themselves and their actions from my memory. This song is a plea, almost like a cry out to my abuser to help me in a sense. The least they can do after putting me through such agony would be disappearing from my life so that I could return to the happy, bright, loving person I once was.

IAN SWEET plays Show Me How You Disappear live from Los Angeles’ Lodge Room for an Audiotree STAGED livestream performance on March 26th at 7pm PT/9pm CT. Tickets are $13 adv/$15 DOS and are available here.

Follow IAN SWEET on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Emlyn Wants to Throw “a thousand parties” For True Love

Photo Credit: Joey Wasilewski

Los Angeles-based pop singer Emlyn is set to have a big year; with two singles (“Had Me At Hello” and “cruel world“) under her belt, she’s prepping an EP to be released this Spring. There’s just one problem: the 24-year-old Nashville native needed a love song to really complete the EP, and she’s never been in love. “A piece of the project that felt like it was missing was a love story. I have never been in love, so it’s like ‘how am I going to accomplish this?’ I want to have this element of love in the whole project,” Emlyn tells Audiofemme.

Luckily, Emlyn’s a practiced songwriter who’s had a hand in co-writes with Kiiara, Stela Cole, Hailey Knox, Eben, and more. And for her latest single, “a thousand parties,” she took a cue from none other than Taylor Swift; after seeing an interview in which Swift discusses her chart-topping album evermore and how she was creatively challenged by writing from other people’s perspectives, Emlyn felt inspired to do the same, though she writes solely first-person narratives.

To that end, Emlyn has crafted her version of a love story with “a thousand parties” (premiering today exclusively on Audiofemme) by drawing from several sources. For one thing, she’s made a habit of putting pen to paper when friends and family share their love stories with her; one that stood out in particular is that of a close friend who told his story of meeting the love of his life, which Emlyn transformed into a rock-infused pop banger.

Additionally, Emlyn became obsessed with the grandiose galas in The Great Gatsby, which the title character would throw at his lavish mansion each night in hopes that his long lost love Daisy would return. Co-written with producer Mike Robinson over Zoom, Emlyn combined elements of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel with the reality of her friend’s love story. “The feeling of being in love, from what I’ve heard, feels like magic, and I’ve never felt [that] magic before,” she says. “[But] there’s something that I feel is really special about this song and this love – there was something when we were writing this song that felt really magical.” 

Though writing from a different viewpoint, Emlyn still manages to infuse her personality into the song by artfully blending wailing electric guitar and slick drums to establish an infectious pop beat that slowly builds to a catchy chorus, the melody juxtaposing the sweetness of the lyrics with the singer’s internal angst. “In any regard, when I’m writing a song, I’m going to implement my own personal touches into it,” Emlyn says. “I think the angst comes from me, because while I’m trying to write from someone else’s perspective, I’m also imagining my own feelings about this. Love is so scary and I’m kind of a tough girl, I have a tough edge to me. I feel like there’s a little bit of fear surrounding love. I have to grunge it up so it’s not too vulnerable.” 

The singer embraces vulnerability by confronting the root of that fear in the song’s haunting third verse, recalling a moment of strife in her friend’s relationship as she sings with smoldering vocals, “I’ll never forget/The night that you cried/Your tears fell too softly to hide/You didn’t need to tell me I hurt you love/‘Cause hearing that hurt me enough.”

The lyrics establish the same pattern Emlyn has noticed in on-screen love stories: the couple meets and falls in love, as told through a series of joyful, laughter-filled sequences. “But then you get to the part in the movie or the TV show where you have to overcome an obstacle, which makes the main characters’ love even stronger, because that’s what life is,” Emlyn analyzes.

She wanted to be intentional about capturing the whole experience of being in a relationship. “The truth of my friend’s love story is that there’s been moments that have not been great. But those moments… stuck out to him, and to me, as moments that were really pivotal in their relationship and building to what they have now,” she observes. “I wanted that moment, both sonically, musically and lyrically to take you out of ‘it’s so great and it’s joyful and it’s love’ to ‘sometimes it’s hard.’ But those moments are when you choose to show up for this person and love them and tell them that you’ve got their back, or run away from it.” 

For Emlyn, the second verse is where she feels most connected to the story, as she admits to not being a fan of crowds nor the type to “lose my mind,” yet would “throw a thousands parties if you’d go” in an effort to “try to love you like hell.” The lyrics capture Emlyn’s personal fantasy of what falling in love will be like for her: letting her guard down, doing “all these stupid, mushy things – spinning me under street lights and locking eyes and just feeling at home with somebody, just having somebody there to be like ‘I’m right here.’” she says. “It’s being able to soften some of the parts of me that are a little tough and hard.” 

The bright-spirited artist is confident that she’ll find that kind of love when the time is right, and she knows exactly what she wants. “I used to think that love was about comfortability in a sense, and I realized over time that some of the things that I am familiar and comfortable with are actually not necessarily what I want,” she says. “I’ve had to really challenge myself to look for relationships that are not necessarily settling into things that I’m familiar with. True love to me is about every day, the consistency of showing up for the person that you’re with, even on the worst days, and vice versa.”

Emlyn theorizes that she’s never been in love because she’s extremely independent, and extra careful about who she lets into her life or shows vulnerability with. She’s looking for someone who will challenge her, and she’s content to wait for it. “I want to feel not just supported, but uplifted. I’ve never wanted to settle because I feel like I’ve learned how to be by myself and thrive by myself. If somebody is going to come into my life, I want to feel like they’re actually making me better, adding something that I can’t provide for myself in some way,” she reflects, while looking toward a hopeful future. “I’m definitely still looking. I definitely am a hopeless romantic – you can hear it through all my songs.”

Follow Emlyn on Instagram and TikTok for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Nicky Egan Returns with a Slice of Cali Soul in “Back To You” Video

Photo Credit: Luke Perine

Sometimes, a well-planned getaway is just what we need to discover the strength within. That was certainly true for Los Angeles-based soul singer Nicky Egan, who relocated to the West Coast after seven years living and playing music in New York City, mainly with funk ensemble Turkuaz. Egan also made a name for herself, releasing The Homestead 45 Project via Ropeadope Records, a compilation of numerous ‘digital 45’s’ that she had put out independently under her own name. She built up an impressive rolodex of like-minded musicians, but wasn’t sure where to take things next, and the day-to-day hustle of New York was beginning to feel exhausting.

But opportunity came knocking in the form of psychedelic soul band Chicano Batman, who needed someone to play keys on tour; the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and off Egan went. The change of scenery – not to mention the chance to hone her keyboard craft – was just what she needed. This experience informs the bulk of her forthcoming record and proper debut, due this summer via Transistor Sounds Records; it’s a slice of easy-going Cali soul driven by Egan’s powerhouse vocals and a backing band composed mainly of Daptone Records family musicians (Homer Steinweiss, Victor Axelrod, Brian Wolfe and Elizabeth Pupo-Walker among others) and helmed by guitarist/producer Joe Crispiano of the Dap-Kings.

Egan sings of life on the road, honoring her intuition, and finding ease within her life, and nowhere does this come together better than on the album’s fitting first single “Back to You,” which will be released as a 7″ single with B-side “Run Run” on March 19. “When you’ve spoken your words/And you feel like nothing’s heard/Don’t forget number one,” she croons, a lovely reminder of self-sufficiency as she searches for her place in the sun. We chatted with Egan about her forthcoming record, the move to LA, and living with intention; check out the exclusive premiere of her video for “Back to You” and read our interview below.

AF: When did you realize you wanted to pursue music as a career, and why? What were some of your most significant inspirations early on?

NE: Growing up, music was something I always chose to do on my own, and never quite felt totally fulfilled unless I was doing something musically, so going down a more ‘serious’ musical path in terms of a career felt pretty organic. I went to college for music, so I suppose that was when I really decided to focus entirely on it. As a kid, my grandfather was a musician, so he showed me singers like Sarah Vaughn and Jackie Wilson. My parents were definitely music enthusiasts. The cantor I studied under at my Temple was an amazing vocalist and definitely had a great impact on me early on. I also studied voice with a teacher who was the epitome of a crazy cat lady but she really encouraged and inspired me to use my voice.

AF: How did the ensuing decisions – studying at Berklee, touring with Turkuaz, releasing The 45 Homestead Project, and touring with Chicano Batman – help you develop your sound for this forthcoming record?

NE: Well, those are all substantial chapters in my life, that have no doubt added to the development of my musical approach, all in so many different ways. As for Berklee, I studied Contemporary Writing & Production, so I tried to focus on getting a wide general knowledge of many instruments and aspects of the musical world, which I think has definitely paid off, especially being a mostly independent artist.

Touring with Turkuaz was my first go on the road, learning to be a road warrior. I was lucky they were my great friends and a fantastic group of musicians. That band is pretty meticulous musically, so I really value having had that experience.

The 45 Homestead Project was my first go at releasing a record independently. It was distributed through an indie label, but completely funded by myself, so I had to get pretty creative and just learn the ropes of every part of the team… manager, booker, PR, content creation, etc… shoutout to my artistic director Dani (Barbieri) Brandwein on that project, she was my right hand woman!

Touring with CB has been pretty intertwined with this record because I was on the road with them the entire time I was recording and writing it. They’ve been having me play more keyboards/synths live than I had before so that’s been really cool expanding my horizons there and integrating that into my own music.

AF: Was it written in sessions, or while on tour over the years? What is your process like in terms of songwriting generally?

NE: This particular record was written both in sessions and while on tour! I was essentially flying back to Brooklyn any chance I got between Chicano Batman tours and would just hibernate with my writing partner/producer Joe Crispiano, and we’d write and record. A couple songs I wrote or started to write while on the road, like in the back of the van, super quiet into my voice memos… Haha. My writing process changes and sort of depends on my circumstances, but I do generally try to be consistently creating. For me, experiencing life, and changing scenery is all part of the process though. For example, sitting on a train surrounded by people with my headphones on, listening to a demo of a verse/chorus I wrote the night before is an important part of the editing process for me.

AF: You made a pretty big move to the West Coast after living in Brooklyn for seven years; what was behind that decision? How did that affect the making (or the overall vibe) of this record? How has the change of scenery affected you as a person and as a musician?

NE: The initial move was because I got the call to play on tour with Chicano Batman; I’d hit a bit of a wall with my project at the time. I thought a steady touring gig would be nice for a bit, as I was on the multiple side hustle/frontwoman train for a while in Brooklyn and that gets really exhausting, so it felt like a window of opportunity to reset and learn. I started writing and recording these songs right after I made the move, without the intention of it necessarily being my next album, and it just started to be a normal cycle… tour a few weeks with CB, come back to NY, hibernate/make music, rinse, repeat, where the making of the album was really organic and exciting, and in a strange way, focused. Sometimes the universe has its own plans for you, and I think if you can be open to exploring those plans, it can be pretty magical.

California’s got a bit of a slower pace. It drove me nuts at first, and sometimes still does, haha, but I’ve also learned to really appreciate slowing down a bit, and feel like I’m able to be more focused and intentional both in life and musically. I’ve met and played with so many new people, and that’s always exciting and inspiring!

AF: How did you come to work with Joe Crispiano on the record? What does he bring to the table?

NE: Joe was playing guitar for me in Brooklyn for a while in my band at the time. I left to tour, but he and I really enjoyed playing music together so we just started to try and write some songs. Our writing flow seemed to click really easily, so we kept at it. Joe’s firstly, an incredible guitar player. He was on the road with the Dap-Kings, playing behind Sharon Jones for 10 years, and they’re the baddest in the land, so him coming from that school in and of itself is impressive to watch. He’s also a multi-instrumentalist and has a great ear. Production wise, he really tries to serve the song in the most tasteful ways, and I really appreciate that. If I’d had it my way, there’d be way more guitar solos on the record!

AF: How did so many Daptone-affiliated musicians become involved in this recording? Was that something you sought out, and what was the intention there?

NE: That’s the world Joe comes from. He plays guitar for the Dap-Kings, so when he and I started to record our demos and call in other people, he put some feelers out. Homer Steinweiss dug our first couple demos and invited us to come to Diamond Mine Studios, and from there we were fortunate to have some of the Dap-King family in and out throughout the recording process. When I moved to NY in my early 20’s I was a huge fan of Sharon and the Dap-Kings, and that scene was definitely a big appeal for me to move to NY, so to have worked with a lot of those musicians on this record feels pretty amazing. I’m really grateful.

AF: Overall, what was the process of recording this record like? Did it happen before or after the pandemic set in, and what difficulties did that present, if any?

NE: The album was recorded pre-pandemic, so recording wise it didn’t really have an effect on this particular record. The whole record is recorded analog to 8-track, which was a really amazing way to make a record. I’m not a purist, but I enjoyed the experience of recording a record top to bottom to tape, with only 8 tracks. It challenges you to be more thoughtful and hone your craft in some ways. We began recording in Joe’s Staten Island apartment, really quietly so the neighbor wouldn’t get upset, and then recorded some basics in Diamond Mine Studios in Queens, and finished what was the majority of the record in a studio Joe had moved his equipment to and was working out of in Dumbo.

AF: What about the distance – did your bi-coastal status create any obstacles or pleasant surprises?

NE: We recorded everything in NY. The bi-coastal and touring situation in this case actually created what I feel was a pleasant surprise. It allowed me to be really focused in specific time chunks and sort of gave us deadlines which can be helpful when you’re setting your own timeframes. Joe took the reins on a few sessions and recorded some instruments here and there while I was on the road, but for the most part it was all recorded together in little chunks of off-time for me. Also, Piya Malik was on tour singing with Chicano Batman at the time, but was NY based. We became super close and she is an angel unicorn and would let me crash with her in between tours a lot of the time in NY (after sharing hotel rooms for weeks on end nonetheless).

AF: What about teaming up with Kelly Finnigan/Transistor Sound Records? How did that come about and what’s been your experience in working with them?

NE: I was actually set to release the album independently, and had run a successful Indiegogo campaign with that intention, when Chris Edwards at Transistor approached me about putting the record out. Chris and Joe go way back, having worked with Sharon together, and he, Kelly and Vivek at the label had heard the record from a couple different people. They’re all great humans, super hard-working and there’s a lot of crossover in our worlds, so it all felt pretty organic, not to mention Kelly is an incredible artist himself. It’s really nice to have a small team behind me who believe in the record and are excited about putting it out!

AF: Let’s talk about “Back to You” specifically – it functions as a personal reminder to go with the flow and reconnect with the self. How has following this advice played out in your own life, either as it relates to making music, the West Coast move, or some other situation entirely?

NE: Well, this song I wrote right after having moved, so it definitely reflects that immediate feeling of not being quite grounded yet, but trusting that the universe has a plan for you. I got the phone call for the CB gig, and made the decision to relocate pretty quickly, with the intention of getting out of a toxic situation and sort of reset. I’d say learning to trust myself and my instincts, which is an ongoing practice, has been incredibly rewarding. I feel the most clarity and grounded than I have in a while. I think that also comes with just living life a little, experiencing things and of course having a year like this last one where you can reflect A LOT, but lately I’ve found, the more vulnerable I’ve made myself, the more my world expands and grows in a positive way.

AF: Was there a particular reason you chose this as the first single from the album?

NE: I think the timing just felt right – it’s relatable and I think generally has a hopeful message, which felt like the right way to kick off the release. I want people to feel good listening to it.

AF: What about the B-side? What was the intention behind presenting these two tracks together?

NE: The B-side, “Run Run,” is super vibey, for lack of a better word, haha. I love this song. It was one of the first tracks Joe and I wrote. It’s got a more cinematic feel and the vocals are really sultry. Sometimes people sleep on B-sides and they’re the best tracks. This song just felt like it needed to live somewhere on its own, so I wanted it to be out on the 7”… don’t sleep!!

AF: What can you tell me about the making of the video for “Back to You”?

NE: It was so fun to create! I made it during quarantine, with my good friend Pia Vinson. I had an idea of what I wanted it to look and feel like…just super LA, really. It’s a song about my journey getting here, in a way, so I wanted to just show the beauty of the landscape, and have fun with the melodies and lyrics in the song. Pia shot and edited the whole video. She’s an incredible dancer and choreographer, which I think gives her a unique quality and perspective in terms of movement and making you feel comfortable. We went really DIY with it because of COVID restrictions and me having a very small budget. I found some cool locations behind my house in Mount Washington, and we cruised up the PCH a little. It was fun venturing around the neighborhood and discovering how beautiful my own backyard is. My friend, Future Shock, who’s doing the artwork for the album, then added some animation and VFX. It was so fun to work with two amazing creators and just have a good time, especially right now!

AF: You also dispense some wisdom on “Godchild” – can you tell me more about what inspired that track?

NE: “Godchild” I wrote after getting back from visiting one of my best friends. Her son is my Godchild, and her and I have been friends for about 20 years. We’ve been through most of our lives together and her path hasn’t been easy to say the least. She’s managed to build this wonderful life and beautiful family. I just have a lot of respect for her, and her family holds a really special place in my heart. Anyway, I’d just gotten back from visiting them and the chorus of this song kind of just came out of me while sitting at the wurlitzer in the studio and Joe was like, ‘What’s that?!’ and we recorded the whole song, just he and I.

AF: So much of the record is about transience, touring life, etc. – “Funny Feeling” talks about this especially well. As someone who is used to touring pretty consistently, what’s the past year been like with the music industry basically at a standstill?

NE: Woowee! That’s a loaded question! This year has been insane for so many people, but I think I speak for many when I say it’s been really tough as a musician, specifically one who spent a lot of time touring. It’s the financial AND spiritual combo for me. The financial aspect is a whole conversation. I think this country needs to do a serious readjustment in how we treat artists, creators, and 1099 workers in general, and I think a small light has been shed there. Hopefully the door to that conversation continues to open into real change.

I think what a lot of people don’t realize is, aside from touring being a (whole) source of income for people, it’s also our livelihood in a non-financial way. The visceral experience of connecting with your bandmates, creating together, learning together, growing together and bringing something you love so deeply to audiences to connect with them… That’s someone’s spirit. That’s their mental health. That’s their craft that they’ve spent years perfecting, usually at a cost. So to have that spiritual outlet, let alone career, stripped away is really hard. I’m generally a pretty optimistic and rational person, and I’m fortunate to not have experienced debilitating depression really in the past like I know a lot of my peers have. So to think about how hard it’s been for me personally and how dark it’s felt this last year, I can only imagine how it’s been for many of my peers. Music is the fucking best, I really miss playing for people!

AF: When you’re eventually able to tour again, how do you plan to translate these songs to a live setting?

NE: Hopefully with a super amazing band of humans behind me!!

AF: What are you hoping listeners take away from this record, and what do you want them to understand most about who you are?

NE: I hope listeners feel a connection. I hope they find joy, lightness, sadness, strength, peace of mind and understanding from these songs and can grab onto something and feel whatever it is they need to feel at that moment. I’m trying to live and create with intention and genuinity and be here for the journey.

Follow Nicky Egan on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

How Mia Doi Todd Built Her Music Life, Song by Song

Photo Credit: Azul Amaral

With more than two decades of experience in the industry, Los Angeles folk singer Mia Doi Todd can certainly wax poetic about dedicating her life to music. She dispenses those gems freely on “Music Life,” the title track to her stunning 12th album, depicting the lifestyle as both a blessing and curse: while it “opens up the path” to friendship and collaboration that transcends borders, it can also be a lonely endeavor that fosters self-destructive tendencies. As the track shifts from celebratory to something more like a cautionary tale, the chords darken; these shifts in tone and narrative arc play out again and again over the eight tracks that make up Music Life, Todd’s first collection of original songs since 2011’s Cosmic Ocean Ship.

Motherhood was partly responsible for the slowing of the once prolific musician’s output. “I had the work ethic and drive, but my daughter really didn’t like me to play guitar and hold her. It was like holding another baby – she was jealous of that guitar,” Todd says with a laugh. “She was much less competitive with the piano.” That’s part of the reason so many of the songs on Music Life are piano-driven – and certainly the reason why motherhood emerges as one of the album’s strongest themes.

In the interim, Todd has been navigating the practical side of how to live a music life, becoming adept at making the business of it somewhat sustainable, at least. She’s gradually taken control of all her independently released masters, making licensing that much easier (and more lucrative), and since 2001’s Zeroone has operated her own label, City Zen Records. While she’s produced records with Columbia (2002’s The Golden State) and various indies since founding it, everything she’s put out since 2008’s GEA has been on her own terms. She says this has been invaluable to her creative process, allowing her to take on pet projects like Floresta (an album of Brazilian covers released in 2014), Songbook (her 2016 album of covers revealing surprising influences, from Prince to The Cure to Elliott Smith) and the original soundtrack to Casey Wilder Mott’s 2017 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she played Titania alongside Saul Williams’ Oberon.

She’s also co-owner of eclectic Los Angeles venue Zebulon, part of a group responsible for bringing the club’s ethos to the West Coast from its original iteration in Brooklyn. “Because of Zebulon, I started producing shows and putting together bills,” she says. “I’ve very much been like a community organizer in music, so Zebulon opened up even more avenues to bringing together musicians.” Those connections form the backbone of Music Life, and tell Todd’s personal story – if not always obvious in the lyrical details, which borrow from mythology as much as personal experience, then certainly in the album’s guest appearances, which illustrate the rich and beautiful journey Todd has been on.

That journey began in Silver Lake, where Todd grew up – her father is a sculptor, and her mother (who lived in a Japanese internment camp as an infant) was the first female Asian American judge in the United States. A young Mia Doi Todd took lessons from an opera singer neighbor, then attempted to study astronomy and Asian Studies before songwriting for weekly open mic nights and residencies at now-defunct indie club Spaceland possessed her soul. Eventually she landed in a loft space in then-desolate Frogtown known as a reliable spot for touring musicians to crash, where parties and jam sessions could go uninterrupted late into the night. Money Mark, who had a hand in nearly every song on Music Life, also lived in the building.

“He’s like my cousin – for almost 15 years, he’s been a part of our family,” Todd says. “We’ve worked together and played together a lot, but this maybe was the first time he played on something that actually came out. Mark is amazing at making the hook – he did that for Beck and The Beastie Boys. Mark helped set up the studio time where we did the basic tracks for this whole record and a couple extra songs. It was very ambitious, time-wise.”

Recorded over a week-long session at Hollywood’s Barefoot Studios (formerly and perhaps more famously known as Crystal Sounds), Todd played the same grand piano Stevie Wonder recorded on. Instagram posts from that period, before COVID upended the music industry, show Todd laughing and smiling, arms around a cast of dear friends who’ve meant so much to her career and her life, and happen to be some of LA’s most impeccable musicians. Like her relationship with Money Mark, these connections forged over her entire adulthood lend special touches to each of the songs on Music Life.

For instance, “Mohinder and the Maharani” brings together Syrian-Jewish oud/bazuki prodigy Asher Levy (who’s played at Zebulon), drummer Will Logan and Todd’s longtime percussionists Alberto Lopez, Allakoi Peete, and Andres Renteria; Money Mark not only plays keys, but arranged the bright Middle Eastern horn section led by Tracy Wannomae, with Sam Gendel on saxophone, Sean Okaguchi on trumpet, and Jon Hatamiya on trombone.

In fact, the brass and woodwind sounds throughout the album are incredibly diverse, adding an incredible variety to the songs. On “Take Me To the Mountain,” a soaring lament for city dwellers that picks up where “All My City” leaves off, Wannomae’s flute flutters woozily over the whole composition; the orchestral arrangements lend a mystical power across nearly ten plus minutes on “Daughter of Hope.”

Notably, many of the album’s most prominent players are of Japanese descent, like Todd herself. “You don’t think of Japanese Americans as being musicians – Asians get stereotyped for being mathematicians, or doctors,” she says. “I really wanted to show the beautiful faces of these Japanese American musicians playing the songs.” Perhaps most poignant of these was non-album stand-alone single “Take What You Can Carry,” released last year but recorded in the same session. While the song centers the experiences of Todd’s family during World War II, it also hints at the plight of Central American immigrants caught up in the border crisis, the panic of the California fires, and backlash toward Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.

Todd is particularly adept at transforming trauma into triumph; on Music Life track “Little Bird,” a breezy samba overtone – leant some Brazilian authenticity by Fabiano do Nascimento’s nylon guitar and feathery strings courtesy Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – belie darker themes of escaping childhood abuse. Lines like “Martyr, you suffered more than your share/Your mother, said he wouldn’t dare/Doors closed; it happened all the time” are juxtaposed with carefree responses like “Why not go live in London?/Go out and see the world! Come on, you’ve never left LA!” and “Little Bird, our nest was all broken/But spread your wings and know that you can fly!” Todd says the light-hearted samba represents “the feeling that on the surface everything’s okay… you’re managing, you’re keeping it light, you’ve got it under control. But then underneath and in the belly of the song there’s this change, and that’s the secret hidden in the song.”

She says that watching her daughter grow up, and wanting to protect her, has made her reflect on memories she’d buried within. “You reconsider all the stuff that happened when you were young,” she says. “My daughter is closer now to the age I was when I started songwriting, so I see everything through a different lens. You see how things that happen in your youth have such a long-term effect.”

“Daughter of Hope” ends the record with the a promise – Todd traverses an ocean of tears, pain, fear, life, death, time, and breath, layered with swooning strings and choral vocal rhythms almost reminiscent of the techniques pregnant women learn in Lamaze class. “I haven’t done that on many of my records – I usually just concentrate on the lead vocal. But some of this Steve Reichian [repetition], I’m into that,” Todd says. “Live, it is a Herculean effort vocally to get through that song – there’s hardly a place to breathe, it just keeps going and going. It was such an ode to my daughter, and all my hopes, really acknowledging limitations. That one was so epic – I wrote such a long song and I just could not edit out any of the words. I had a lot to say!”

Todd says she got in the habit of writing longer compositions when she was studying abroad in Japan during her college years. “I didn’t have much outlet for English language conversation so I made a lot of really long songs. It developed my style a lot, ’cause I was in such a vacuum,” Todd remembers. “Being in this last ten years of motherhood and [having] a big shift in my life, there’s something that called me back to those early years of myself, and [this album] was kind of a return [to] some of the long songwriting that I did in my early work.”

She recently experimented with a similar style of vocal layering on a remix of Laraaji’s “Ocean Flow Zither.” Todd became acquainted with the ambient legend as his rediscovery by industry tastemakers led to multiple California tours. He and his partner “prefer to stay in a cozy family environment,” says Todd, so a mutual friend introduced them; the couple eventually became godparents to Todd’s daughter. “They just came to stay with us over and over again on their tours, and I had a bunch of events here introducing him to young musicians, and having jam sessions in the studio, him playing the piano and singing for everybody,” she says fondly. Laraaji had a chance to return the favor by playing zither on “Waniha Valley,” the oldest of Todd’s songs on Music Life, written when he daughter was still an infant.

“Laraaji was coming through and we were trying to figure out what which song might be in the key of his zither – he has to tune it up to a certain key and doesn’t want to detune it too much on tour, it takes a long time to tune it. That’s the most ethereal track on the album, so that one was perfect for the zither,” Todd says. “I remember writing that song on the ukulele – I had like half of an hour where [my daughter] was taking a nap. I remember singing to the waves, just working it out.”

Soon after, she wrote “My Fisherman,” based on Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s novel Sea of Death. In the song, she takes on the persona of Yoruba ocean deity Yemanjá, who has been an ongoing muse. Both “Waniha Valley” and “My Fisherman” retain Todd’s folkloric sonic sensibilities. But Todd’s attraction to mythologies from all cultures – referenced quite clearly in the cover art for Music Life, a self-portrait of Todd rendered in Grecian amphora style – isn’t just about storytelling. “I always just have this in my framework, that we’re living these archetypes, they’re operating around us,” she explains. She says she’s drawn to the way Ancient Greeks viewed music and dance not as entertainment, but as spiritual practice. “I can see the greater things in motion, even though I live a very mundane, simple life. I like to feel connected to the spiritual world and the ancient world, and we’re not so far from that in the great scheme of things.”

Todd’s next burst of creativity came when her daughter entered kindergarten, attending the same school as Tortoise alum Jeff Parker’s daughter; he also plays on Music Life, his jazzy guitar unravelling through the title track. Another significant contribution came from Brandon Owens, who plays bass throughout the record; “Music Life” was partly inspired by the untimely death of Owens’ brother, Mars Volta keyboardist Ikey Owens, “so it was nice to have Ikey’s brother Brandon playing bass on the track,” Todd says.

But perhaps the most significant of Todd’s contributors is her husband, Jesse Peterson, who plays guitar on the songs and painstakingly co-produced the album in their home studio, a converted two-car garage. “We did a lot of the other overdubs here at home. This is probably one of the more orchestrated albums I’ve made,” Todd says. “You do a bunch of passes [in the recording session] and then you have to go back and find the little bits and edit them all together into a seamless, natural sequence, so that takes a long time. I did some of the editing; one thing I learned in those early producing sessions was that you have to edit what you do before you start recording the next instrument, so you can base one decision off of the last. If you wait to sort it out at the end it’s just a mess. You really need to have some arc in mind; it doesn’t just magically fall into place. [It] took a lot of crafting, and that was on my husband’s part. He is very good at that – I don’t like mixing.”

The ability to fit everything together like a puzzle, to envision that narrative arc – these are strengths than not only inform Music Life, but the principals by which Mia Doi Todd has operated in LA these last few decades. Like the remix album that followed 2005 LP Manzanita – remarkably featuring the inaugural track from none other than a young Flying Lotus – Todd’s planning a remix album for Music Life for later this year. “That’s another way that I’ve collaborated, where I do my part first and then somebody else takes it in a totally different direction, making an entirely new environment for it,” she says. No matter what shape her collaborations take, she says they always help her get outside her songwriting structure and explore.

“I have these tiny hands and I don’t have a lot of actual formal music training on the piano or the guitar – I feel my musical limitations. So working with other people breaks those down and there’s all different sorts of possibilities. It just opens up so much,” she says. “I really like getting outside of my genre, so if I’m invited to sing on like, some hip-hop song I embrace the chance. I’m thought of very much like a songwriter folk artist, but in an improvising, kind of casual jam sessions type of musical sense, I’m very open – that is where I feel most comfortable, really. Collaboration is just so natural among musicians, and I relish that.” She says she’d love to make a reggae record, and even covers Gregory Issacs classic “If I Don’t Have You” on Music Life, her way of adding one “true love song” to the album.

While she says that her folky path has, in many ways, given her a long-term viability that many pop artists don’t have, she’s come to appreciate the songcraft of her daughter’s personal favorite: Taylor Swift. “I’m not a pop music person but I can really appreciate Taylor Swift’s songwriting, and I appreciate the genius of a pop hit. I’ve never listened to as much pop music as I have the last two years,” she laughs, noting that she thinks the closest she’s personally come to writing something perfect is “Summer Lover.”

“Music Life” ought to be a close second though, and it’s resonated with many of her peers. “It definitely captures some feeling about being so grateful for this rich life that we have – it’s like living with the sacred, but there are a lot of sacrifices,” Todd says. “I don’t really encourage my daughter to take up the artist life. For me, I think there was not so much alternative. So if you can do anything else, I think it’s a wise choice. But if you cannot, like, the urge is just all-powerful, then you’ve got to try and answer the call. And I’m glad I did; I’m in it for the long haul… I feel like I keep growing. It’s a path. And I have all these things to show for the path along the way.”

Follow Mia Doi Todd on Instagram for ongoing updates.

NYIKO Unveils Details of New ’80s-Inspired LP with Premiere of “Make You Feel”

Photo Credit: Niles Gregory

The experience of burgeoning love is bittersweet, and nothing captures that feeling like “Make You Feel,” the latest single from LA-based singer-songwriter/producer NYIKO. Chock full of twinkly synths, falsetto interludes, 100 percent digital drum sounds, and ’80s nostalgia, the song musically illustrates the manic thrill of falling in love, as well as the longing and anxiousness.

“I will kiss you as if/You and I/were the only ones left,” he sings in a voice that conjures up bands like The Cure and The Smiths. “I want to love you as if/We had been together/Since we were kids.”

“It’s essentially the beginning of a narrative of someone who is a little impatient to fall in love,” he says. “The tentpole of the song is that we could be the last two people on Earth, so it’s that feeling of, when you’re with that person, nothing else exists or matters.”

Given the nostalgic feel of the song, it’s unsurprising that NYIKO wrote it with ’80s movies like The Breakfast Club in mind. “When you watch these classic coming-of-age films, there’s this feeling of joy, but there’s also a pain in nostalgia,” he says.

The final post-chorus, where he repeats, “I just want to make you feel alright” in a gentle, high voice, particularly captures this wistful feeling. “When I did that and played it back, it really gave me chills, which is great — that’s something you don’t always get from your own work,” he says.

“One thing I do and one thing I want to normalize for people is to be proud of themselves and to say it out loud — to tell themselves that they did a great job,” he says. “It’s so often that artists, or just people in general, are modest or sell themselves short more often than not, but when you do something you’re really proud of, it’s good to say, I’m really proud of this — I did a good job. And that’s how I felt when I finished ‘Make You Feel.’ I got so inspired and excited.”

“Make You Feel” is the first track on NYIKO’s upcoming debut solo album, Honesty, which comes out on April 9. The LP explores the titular theme not only in regards to relationships but also with oneself, which includes “being honest with what your goals are, with what your desires are, and checking yourself when you might be dishonest because you’ve tricked yourself into thinking there’s this idea of a relationship that you want or this idea of success that you have,” he explains.

The album also includes NYIKO’s previous single “Call the Boys,” which was written in 2018 in reaction to a series of news stories about school shootings. “Call the boys inside/Tell them it’s alright/There’s no use for abuse,” he sings in long, powerful notes against similarly ’80s-inspired synth and guitar.

“It just seemed like, at that time, there was another school shooting every week, and most if not all the cases these shootings were carried out by young white men, and I was kind of just grappling with this,” he remembers. “It made me start thinking about just how outdated so many of the stereotypes are, gender roles and gender stereotypes and this idea of what masculinity means. It made me really inspired to write a song that crystalizes that we are able to redefine this for this generation and the next generation of male-identifying kids.”

He wrote, produced, and recorded everything on Honesty, and also played synths, enlisting the instrumental skills of guitarist Niles Gregory and bassist Stone Irr as well as the feedback of producer Kyler Hurley. The process began with 30 demos he had written and produced on his laptop in his room with one keyboard, then selected his favorites to finalize.

“I was still learning how to be a better producer, how to be a better mixer, so it was almost like the production process was a practice of teaching myself and growing as a producer,” he says. “I think it’s really exciting to have a project that I can look at now and see as this place and this time that I was learning.”

NYIKO, who also works as a music licensing manager, played in several folk bands before beginning the solo electro-pop project that evolved into his current act, taking inspiration from post-punk, synth-pop, and new wave music. He’s also produced music for Hasbro, Amazon, and Disney — he produced and raps in the six-episode Oh My Disney series “Disney Raps,” in which re-imagines Disney classics like Winnie the Pooh and Hocus Pocus through rap songs.

Through the emotional vulnerability in his music as well as his everyday actions, NYIKO hopes to model “ideas of masculinity that are not about toughness and not about being loud or angry, but instead showing an example of masculinity that really emphasizes empathy, raising other people’s voices up and being sensitive,” he says. “I hope people can listen to a song like ‘Call the Boys’ or my work in general and feel understood or feel like they are learning or having space to think about something differently, like how they play a part in the world and how they play a part in the expectations that they set for themselves or other people in their lives.”

Follow NYIKO on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Chel Duets with Stan Genius on Sweet New Single “By My Side”

It’s easy to get lost in the sea of highlight reels on social media. I’ll sometimes find myself scrolling and wondering if I’m living to the fullest. Then I get on a video call with blonde bombshell Chel, who excels in singing, modeling, and is an empowering force in the industry. Her demeanor is confident, strong, and sweet. I’m immediately thinking she’s got it all figured out. As we talked, I got to know who she is beneath the surface – a deeply considerate, non-judgmental, and sensitive human being. Though she’s walked the runways of New York Fashion Week and garnered tons of brand endorsements, she wasn’t always pouring out confidence.

In the beginning of her music career she was bullied by peers, while button mashers would leave negative comments on her videos. Fast forward to last year: Chel released “Nasty Woman,” a song where she subverted the infamous insult into a rallying call. The Los Angeles-based artist celebrated “nasty” women as sexy, fearless, and unbothered by hateful onlookers. Since the song went viral, she has become an advocate for mental health, racial justice, and body positivity while emphasizing self-love, proving to industry naysayers that she was more than a hunched-over girl in oversized tees.

As a songwriter, Chel typically leans toward atypical narratives – especially on topics she’s passionate about. “When it comes to mental health, we only show our best sides on social media, not the down days,” Chel points out. “I struggled with my own mental health. I find an importance in all these things, so I make it a part of what I do.” She admits that she’s had difficulty with relationships, tending to run away from them, so it was only natural for her to also steer away from writing love songs. “With writing breakup songs, I never wanted to be a ‘woe is me’ type,” she tells Audiofemme. But then, she found herself writing a song with friend and collaborator Stan Genius. His sentimental piano parts worked well in the context of a love song, so Chel went with it, though not without hesitation. “We were writing the melody and after I was singing the hook, I was ready to trash it,” Chel reveals. “He said, ‘No, you’re going to go for that!’”

Solo piano carries both voices through “By My Side.” With Chel’s powerful vocal harmonizing flawlessly with Stan Genius, the message comes alive: “You don’t need money to make me love you more/All of the reasons that people need to survive, I just need you by my side.” Chel says she’s never been a material person, or believed in money solidifying love. She tells Audiofemme, “The sentiment in the hook is one-hundred percent what I believe in. I was tapping into the media and what is projected on us – that we should be looking for financial security, somebody who can give us all these things. At the end of the day all that matters is the love you share.”

The single looks back not only at romantic relationships, but at experiences Chel has had with others close to her. Really putting her heart into “By My Side” was uncomfortable, but necessary. For Chel, it was not just a love song, but a way to share her bad days too. She understood the importance of her platform. “If you have people listening, you have a responsibility to be a voice. If I can influence one person and make them feel supported, I give them a voice,” Chel says.

While being an advocate for the voiceless around the world, her time is split between her brand partnerships and modeling, though her first and strongest love is creating songs; she recently stumbled over an old tape of herself singing in front of her second-grade class. “My parents joke that I came out signing. I always make time for it. If I don’t, I get depressed and need to re-adjust my life,” Chel says. “That’s part of why I struggle with relationships – I always choose music first.” 

Follow Chel on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Buzzy Lee Won’t Cry Over “Spoiled Love”

Photo Credit: Julia Brokaw

Growing up as Hollywood royalty, Los Angeles musician Sasha Spielberg has always been able to indulge her creative streak, from playing bit parts in her dad’s movies to forming bands, like Wardell with brother Theo and Just Friends with fellow Brown University alum and longtime collaborator Nicolas Jaar. But since she’s stepped into her solo persona as Buzzy Lee, Spielberg has come to embody her truest form – beyond the caricatures and cameos in blockbusters – speaking the raw language of lost love and discovery of self. Her much-delayed debut LP Spoiled Love arrived last Friday via Future Classic, like a ray of warm sunshine or a timid coastal zephyr as the East Coast braced for a foot of snow.

At its heart, Spoiled Love is an authentic chronicle of past relationships. It opens up with three articulate, melodic vocal ballads. Tracks like “Strange Town” have Southern influences. And as the album progresses, “Circles” and “High On You” are more synth-heavy, not unlike Buzzy Lee’s 2018 EP, Facepaint, which Jaar also had a hand in producing. With all the different elements in the album, it comes together surprisingly well. Started in a café in Paris, then assembled throughout three seasons with Jaar (whom Spielberg affectionately refers to as Nico), Spoiled Love delivers all of the above.

First came the lyrics, entirely written in the City of Light. “I was on this European tour. I was also dating a French guy, which is very Emily In Paris. I was a complete parody of myself sitting in a café writing lyrics, holding a baguette,” Spielberg jokes. A couple days later, she headed home to Los Angeles to play the songs for Jaar. “The whole album started with just piano and vocals. The first one we started with in the studio was ‘Circles.’ We created a beat and I was playing keys, and then I came up with a melody in the room,” Spielberg recalls. “That was how we got started; this is how we always do it. We record a synth-heavy song with drums, and then we get into the deeper stuff.” 

After working with Spielberg on Facepaint, Jaar had moved to Europe, leaving her to search for another producer, but eventually she came to terms with the fact that no one else could help bring her songs to life the way he could. “When we get into a room together – I know this is so cheesy – it feels very magical,” Spielberg admits. She leaned on Jaar’s motivating guidance as much as his production ideas, particularly for the album’s title track, which Spielberg says she had been hasty about writing lyrics for.

“He was like, ‘Will you just read me the lyrics without the music?’ I knew that he was going to catch me in my bullshitting procrastination, like classic high-school, Sasha; I really plowed through and did not think about the meaning at all. I just was like, ‘The melody will do the work,’” Spielberg recalls. “Nico’s whole thing is like, ‘No. The melody can’t just do the work. The lyrics have to mean something, or else none of this is going to work.’ He put [‘Spoiled Love’] on a loop and left for a walk. For an hour and a half, I rewrote all the lyrics. After I read them back to him, he goes, ‘That’s it.’ Then we recorded ‘Spoiled Love.’”

Two tracks tie together the middle of the album. While “Mendonoma” is only instrumental, it reprises the nostalgic stomp of “Strange Town” like a ghostly, lingering memory; both bring listeners back to the salty air where Spielberg once knew love, or what seemed to be love, anyway. “‘Strange Town’ is about a Northern California coastal town, a place I would go with my ex. It was a place I could be exactly who he wanted me to be, without the distractions of my daily routine in L.A., which he did not approve of,” Spielberg remembers. “He really loved the person I was in Gualala, because we were walking all day, we weren’t on our phones. We were on the beach, we were in the forest, we were by the river. It was just so haunting there.” Even though it was a turbulent relationship, Spielberg stayed in it for four years, justifying her lack of resolve by revisiting these empyrean moments – a behavior anyone who’s suffered silently in a toxic relationships can relate to.

Leaving one harmful cycle, Spielberg found herself in a new relationship where she felt like she was trying on a different costume. “I entered this relationship with someone who I just felt just did not approve of me. I felt like I was working so hard for his validation,” Spielberg says. “I wanted him to love me the way he loved his other girlfriend. I wanted to be this dark, mysterious person for him. We got into a fight and I went to the keyboard – very, very 16-year-old me – and just started writing.” In a moment of swearing off men forever, the single “What Has A Man Done” was born. 

The release of Spoiled Love was pushed due to the pandemic – Spielberg had been hoping she’d be able to tour and humanely connect with her fans – but as time went on, she felt the album could not be delayed much longer. “I’ve had one breakup since, and I’ve fallen in love again. It’s just a different world, though the songs still mean so much to me,” she says. She’s already set to record her next album in the middle of February, and though it’s been a struggle to write new material while anticipating the release of Spoiled Love, she’s been playing around with songs and resurrecting old voice notes.

Spielberg has also been busy with her hilarious Twitch series, Gearhead. Streaming once a week, she interviews musicians on their favorite instruments, gear technology, mics, and more. “I do a lot of different genres. I’m trying everything. I want to do country at some point. I want to just interview everyone,” she says. “It is so fun being the interviewer. My whole character is that I know nothing about gear, but I make it seem like I know everything. And then once I’m challenged, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m someone who’s learning about gear through these interviews.”

She easily rattles off the vintage synths she’d love to add to her own collection: “I really want an OB-6, Oberheim. Dear Wishlist, I want a Prophet. Udo, U-D-O, super sick synthesizer. I want that too.” She plans to continue the series throughout the year, and has exciting guests joining at the end of February. To complete her gifted trifecta, you can also get an original Sasha Spielberg watercolor painting of your pet

With these multiple avenues for her unbridled creativity, she has found some internal validation. Many lessons were learned from her sequence of heartaches, her songs reading like a diary of deliverance. While writing the album was not a cure-all, these past relationships made her reflect on why she was doing the same dance. The time spent spinning her wheels cannot be taken back, but she doesn’t grieve over it.

There is still one thing she feels robbed of, though – live performances. “I do need that fix. There is something so exciting about going on stage,” she says. “There’s an adrenaline rush, and then if people are into it, it just fills you with so much. I can get lost in a performance – which again sounds so cheesy – but if I can get lost and I’m completely present, there’s no better feeling.”

Follow Buzzy Lee on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

L.A. Duo Midnight Sister Marry Film and Music on Cinematic Sophomore LP Painting the Roses

Photo Credit: Nicky Giraffe

It was around the release of Midnight Sister’s 2017 debut album, Saturn Over Sunset, that Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian began working on the follow-up. They wrote and demoed material on their own time before heading into the studio with a band to record. Though the duo had worked with a band live, this was the first time that they would bring one into the studio with them. The initial recording came together quickly – over a period of about two weeks – but it would take another couple years of honing arrangements and heading back to the studio when possible to add more instruments. The result is an eclectic and lively 12-song sophomore album, Painting the Roses, which came out January 15th.

“For myself, it’s tough when you overdo stuff, redo stuff too many times. I don’t think you can get it as well as, sometimes, when the idea is fresh,” says Balouzian on a recent video call from his home in Burbank. “We tried to keep that as much as we could.”

“I do tend to like the first take of my vocals usually, at least lead vocals,” says Giraffe, on the same call from her home in North Hollywood. “I get really attached to the rawness of whatever comes out first, so we try to capture that.” 

The time that lapsed over the course of making the album, though, was helpful. “We were going on tours and playing shows in L.A. through the time of writing Painting the Roses,” says Giraffe. “I think that helped and informed the vibe of what the actual record sounds like.” 

Painting the Roses effortlessly bridges styles – a little modern indie, a good dose of ’70s glam rock and a helping of funk and disco – with Giraffe’s chameleon-like vocals evoking a variety of characters. On opening cut, “Doctor Says,” she recalls Kate Bush on “Waking the Witch.” With “Foxes,” she takes a turn towards Marc Boland and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. 

Giraffe and Balouzian met back when they were attending high school in Los Angeles; the latter was friends with the former’s sister. Later on, they began collaborating. Both work in film. Giraffe and her sister Nicky run “all-inclusive imagination emporium” Giraffe Studios, which encompasses commercial video and photography, production design, and costume design. Balouzian is a composer, recently scoring 2020 Pepe the Frog documentary Feels Good Man. Initially, they came together to work on a short film. Then, over email, the future bandmates shared bits of music they were making for fun. “Something about it seemed to click,” says Balouzian. 

Their musical and visual influences come together in Midnight Sister’s videos. The clip for “Doctor Says” is a particularly personal one for Giraffe. She had visited Argentina, where her mother was born, for the first time, and that influenced the video, which Giraffe co-directed with her sister. “We were exploring our heritage,” she says of the clip. 

“Doctor Says” also gave Giraffe an opportunity to flex her special effects makeup skills. “I have always been a huge special effects make up fan and one of my idols is Rick Baker,” she says, referring to the artist best known for his work on films ranging from Videodrome to Maleficent. For the video, Giraffe wears her own prosthetics as she plays different characters in the video, made from live casts of her sister, mom and dad. “That video is very close to home and ties with that song being about change and letting things go and evolution as being and growing and shedding, maybe, old characters of yourself,” she explains. 

Midnight Sister has already released three more videos for songs from Painting the Roses – “Wednesday Baby,” “Foxes,” and most recently, “Satellite.” The duo’s mutual background in film shines through in the songs as well. “Creating images is where my creative brain feels most comfortable,” says Giraffe, who studied cinematography. She adds that her visual art side impacts her lyrics and singing, in that she’s expressing characters and stories. “I think there’s a little bit of a crossover in my process and my approach and that way,” she says.

“When you’re writing instrumental music, sometimes it is interesting to have an emotional context of something that’s going on,” Balouzian adds, noting that working with Giraffe lends context to the music. “She’s writing based on film or visual things, so it came together in a way that made sense.” There are echoes of French composer Alain Goraguer’s La Planète Sauvage score in “Satellite.” Meanwhile, “Sirens” begins with the screeching strings of a horror film before the disco beat kicks listeners into a dance floor tale.

“That’s what we like,” says Balouzian of incorporating elements more common in film music. “I always was interested in stuff that related to function or related to real life in some sort of way, as opposed to just being purely about music.” On Painting the Roses, that approach makes for an imaginative, captivating listen.

Follow Midnight Sister on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Pearl Charles Reflects on the Making of Magic Mirror

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I found myself playing a song over and over, taking its melodic guitar tones and feeling some sort of warmth. I’m not religious, but something about the song instilled in me a sense of faith, or belief… something. Last year was filled with the opposite – unimaginable, stagnant, and emptier than the last. But then I heard Pearl Charles, paired with lover and fellow musician Michael Rault, covering The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” in her comforting Stevie Nicks-esque way. And just like all the virtual, intangible consolation we had to settle for last year, the song, in a sense, embraced me. I won’t remember this song as somber or sad, but hopeful. 

As I was retiring holiday songs with 2020 in my rear-view, I was then stuck on Magic Mirror, Pearl Charles’ latest album, which came out January 15 via Kanine Records. These ten tracks became my quintessential feel-good dance-country-ballad welcome-to-2021 record. Album opener “Only For Tonight” immediately offers listeners upbeat ABBA boogie vibes, cemented by the “disco wonderland” created by director Bobbi Rich for the music video.

As the album progresses, it skips through various folk and soft rock influences, like dialing through a ’70s radio station – Carly Simon, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy, Judy Collins – and reveals Charles’ West Coast roots. But it also exposes the layers beneath her shimmering sonic reflections. She has always gifted us with honest songwriting, but Magic Mirror is more introspective than her 2018 debut, Sleepless Dreamer, which dealt more with dating and relationships. “There definitely is still some of that on this record, but I spent a lot more time looking inward,” Charles says. “[I asked myself,] ‘How does what happen to me externally actually make me feel?’ I spent a lot of time searching for myself and my own identity. I think [that’s] ever-present in my writing, but I really leaned into it on this album – that’s why it’s called Magic Mirror,” she shares. 

Not all discoveries come from some grand event leading to an epiphany. It’s more of a state of mind, a feeling, being open to new ideas. Similarly to “Christmas Must Be Tonight” bringing out a hopefulness I didn’t know I had, Charles found a spiritual solace through “taking psychedelics as a creative inspiration and therapeutic sort of thing, she says. “When you do that, you have extreme highs and lows… but it’s a mental shake up every time.” she says. “It can really reveal things to yourself, that were in your subconscious. I think taking the psychedelics helped me address some of those deeper questions within myself and who I was.”

That’s most obvious on the bluesy “Imposter,” which Charles says was fully written on a mushroom trip; its opening lines stem from the age-old advice that you shouldn’t look in a mirror while tripping, but delve further into disassociation that culminates on the next two tracks, “Don’t Even Feel Like Myself” and “Magic Mirror.” For someone who has come of age in the spotlight, forming The Driftwood Singers with Christian Lee Hutson at age 18 and drumming with garage rock band The Blank Tapes by 22, it makes sense that Charles’ solo work would dive so deep into her psyche.

“Sometimes the words and music just flows out of you; you don’t even know what you’re saying until you say it. And you’re like, wow, that’s really how I felt, that’s where I was coming from,” she says, adding that establishing a strong sense of self is a lifelong journey. “I’d like to think we all reach enlightenment, but there is always going to be room for improvement and growth,” she states. Luckily, those feelings make great fodder for a record.

The consummation came with the help of Daniel McNeil at the studio of one of Rault’s childhood friends – none other than Mac DeMarco. “Loved working with Dan, he’s so talented,” Charles gushes. “It was my first experience recording straight to tape. So, that was something new for me, and required a level of confidence that I had to find within myself. This is one vocal tape from start to finish. There’s no editing. There’s no punching in. My albums aren’t highly edited anyway… but you know you have that option in the back of your mind. If you make a mistake, you can fix it. With [Magic Mirror] it was like, this is the recording.” 

Maybe because Charles writes from personal experience, with the understanding that no human is going to have a flawless story, she was able to appreciate the beauty in McNeil’s embrace of imperfection. “Not every performance is going to be 100% perfect. It’s more of the attitude,” Charles says. “Dan was able to bring that out and be like, ‘It’s less about perfection and more about the moment in time – bands playing in a room and capturing that.’ In the same way the band embodied these beautiful and honest imperfections, I found a calming solace in my own reflection this past year.”

While we cannot dance to Magic Mirror at a desert festival or NYC speakeasy, Charles has been able to assemble a phenomenal band for some livestreamed performances, including Rough Trade Transmissions set via Instagram. With some kind of normalcy hopefully on the horizon, Charles looks to a Wings-inspired side project with Rault and has a whole new album written up. But even if we may want to forget this past year, she says, “Let’s get through this one first.”

Follow Pearl Charles on Instagram for ongoing updates.

How Latest Single “Swim Test” Took on New Meaning for Cassandra Violet Amid L.A.’s Dire COVID Outbreak

Photo Credit: Anna Azarov Photography

“Swim Test” – the latest single from Cassandra Violet Wolken McGrath (the L.A.-based singer-songwriter better known simply as Cassandra Violet) – was inspired by her father, but as the COVID-19 pandemic took a deadly turn in Los Angeles, the song has taken on a new meaning.

By day, McGrath is an English teacher at a high school in Boyle Heights, an L.A. neighborhood that’s been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. “My students are the most resilient people I know. They’re amazing. I know that we’ll get through it, but it’s very hard,” she says. “Everyone needs a little morale boost right now… as the pandemic is dragging on further and further, it’s feels like we keep sinking.”

In that respect, “Swim Test” is a way of cheering on people as they try to move forward through incredibly challenging times; it was inspired by McGrath’s father. “Sometimes dads can be kind of a mystery, and there’s just a few memories that you hear from them that become etched into your mind,” she says. “One one of the memories that he told me was that he can’t swim, and when he was applying to college, he had to pass a swim test. He just faked it and doggy paddled and passed it.” It was an anecdote that McGrath’s dad shared in passing, but it stuck with her. “I always thought that was completely insane,” she says. “Even the idea of taking a swim test to go to college is insane to me.” 

But there was something inspiring about the story too, a underlying theme of figuring out what you’re doing when you’re in the midst of it and getting to the other side alright. “That’s all that’s all anyone ever does, figure it out,” she says. “No one knows, but you hack away at it and you survive.”

That story became the basis for McGrath’s new single and video, “Swim Test,” out today, January 15. The single is a precursor to her debut full-length album, Maybe It’s Not Too Late, scheduled for release in May. Two other songs from the forthcoming album, “Superbloom” and “Nobody But You,” have already been released. 

McGrath worked on Maybe It’s Not Too Late with her friend Joe Berry, a synthesizer player and saxophonist who plays with M83. About half of the album was recorded prior to the pandemic. After COVID-19 hit, McGrath turned her closet into a makeshift recording booth and continued work. It was challenging, she says, but the process also helped her stay in contact with people while at home. “To hear your drummer playing to your song that you’ve recorded in a closet, it’s still cool,” she says. “It steel feels, in a way, like you’re together.”

McGrath, who also plays guitar, clarinet and is a “prodigious whistler” has had songs featured on TV series like Ozark and Undercover and has released several singles and EPs since 2014. She wrote “Swim Test” in late 2019 – “I wrote it plucking two strings on the guitar over and over again,” she says – and was able to debut it on stage a few times before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Los Angeles venues. “I played it live in several venues and never told my dad that I wrote a song about him,” McGrath says. “I guess I felt sort of shy.” Though she told her dad about the song recently, she said he probably wouldn’t hear it until its release.

McGrath hadn’t initially intended to release “Swim Test” prior to the album, but as the months at home dragged on and the pandemic grew more intense in Los Angeles, it’s one that became more poignant; a post-holiday surge has left hospitals short on beds and deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. In a less expected twist of events, the song also arrives a week and a half after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “It’s stunning, the events that have transpired, it’s truly jaw-dropping,” says McGrath, adding that it’s important to be kind to ourselves in this moment. “Even if we feel like we don’t have everything together, it’s okay. If we’re alive and breathing, we’re doing okay.”  

At its core, “Swim Test” is about persistence, about pushing forward even when you’re on the verge of giving up. “That is how I think a lot of people, including myself, are feeling right now,” McGrath says. “I just wanted to remind everyone to stay strong and to not drown.” 

It’s a message that couldn’t be more timely for the U.S., especially in McGrath’s hometown. “My heart is breaking for L.A.,” she says. “I wish I could sent love to everyone.” With “Swim Test,” she may have done just that.

Follow Cassandra Violet on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Anie Delgado Embodies Venus in “Daydream” Video Premiere

If you’re sick of the winter weather and want to be transported to a summery beach, look no further than LA-based pop artist Anie Delgado’s “Daydream” video, which is as ethereal as the song’s title promises. In the spirit of the New Year, Delgado sings about “new love, new life/no pain, no life/new you and I” in an infectious, uplifting melody with Studio 54 vibes as she dances and poses beside the ocean.

The song is, paradoxically, about “staying grounded and rooted in your daydreams,” says Delgado. It was inspired by an experience where she wanted a relationship to work out but also knew she’d be fine if it didn’t. “Got everything I needed/whether you take it or leave it/honey, I’ll be on my way,” she sings with sassy, R&B-inspired attitude. “I’m always dreaming/my open heart is beaming/when the skies are turning gray.” Delgado aimed to show vulnerability in her voice in the song, while the production made it sparkly and twinkly.

For the video, she took on the persona of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, whom she felt fit the spirit of the song. “I feel like she’s underrated in that people think she’s just the pretty goddess, but I think there’s a lot of power to being poised, being graceful, and that beauty she possesses,” she says. “Venus energy is being really confident in what you have going on.”

The video opens with Delgado emerging from beneath churning waves and stepping out onto the sand, the same way Venus was born out of sea foam. In a reference to the famous Botticelli painting “The Birth of Venus,” she stands in a giant pink shell in several shots. In others, she looks into a mirror and combs her hair, plays with pearl jewelry, and lies besides artfully arranged grapes, another reference to Roman mythology.

Aside from the goddess imagery, the image of the sea itself is an ode to the divine feminine. “I think the ocean is powerful and mysterious and similar to women,” she says. “It has that kind of silent power; it’s there, it’s beautiful, it’s sparkling, it’s powerful, and it doesn’t immediately scream its power to you.”

Because it was shot during the pandemic, the video was intentionally simple, with no additional actors. With just Delgado, the director, the director of photography, and her manager on set, she picked out her outfits and did her own hair and makeup. “We had to go on the highest tide and make sure it would be okay to shoot,” she remembers. “It was one of the more fun shoots I’d done because I was playing in the ocean most of the day.”

“Daydream” is the first single from a four-song EP coming out in April. The next track on the EP, “Dancing When the World is on Fire” — which she describes as a commercial pop song with world vibes — comes out in February, followed by an EDM-inspired song called “Cloud Nine” in March and then “Something Beautiful,” which she wrote by herself on her guitar in her room. “Each song is so different,” she says. “We wanted to give them their own life and give them each a vibe.”

Raised in Florida, Delgado went to a performing arts conservatory in New York City, then got into acting before deciding to dedicate herself to music and moving to LA. In 2019, she released her first single, “Galaxy,” which is based on a talk her friend gave her after a breakup about how a whole galaxy of everything you need is right within you. The song’s heavy production provides an otherworldly, almost trippy sound, and her friend Bass Savage created a remix that gives it a dark edge.

“It was kind of fun to just let him be creative,” she says. “I gave him the stems and said ‘do what you want with them,’ and when he stent back the song, I loved it and thought it could give ‘Galaxy’ a life in a club.”

In 2020, she released “Kaleidoscope,” a poppy song that compares falling in love to looking into a kaleidoscope: “The more you look at it, you get details and imperfections and good qualities; you find more and more things you love about the person,” she explains.

Her voice is sweet and angelic but also confident and self-assured in the vein of pop princesses like Ariana Grande, whose production has inspired her, along with Taylor Swift’s lyrics and Tame Impala’s floaty soundscapes. Her earliest idol, though, was Gloria Estefan, who used to buy dresses from her great aunt. “Being Cuban-American and seeing another Cuban-American take mainstream pop by storm has always been really inspiring to me,” she says.

Though she can’t go on tour now, she’s currently working with a company called ColorTV to create a virtual tour, which will feature her singing against the backdrop of different locations, where residents will get discounted tickets. “It’s all from my home — basically, I’ll be turning my living room into a stage — but the company has technology they developed to create these virtual locations,” she says. “As much as it can’t be a large, fully produced show like I could do if I were to go on a physical tour, I’m going to make it as visually exciting as I can.”

Follow Anie Delgado on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Cheekface Assert Boundaries with Cultural Critique on Sophomore LP ‘Emphatically No.’

“Listen to your heart (no)/keep on keeping on (no)/just say no to drugs (no)/eat a healthy lunch (no),” goes the chorus of “‘Listen To Your Heart.’ ‘No.'” It’s the first song on Emphatically No., the sophomore LP from LA-based indie rock trio Cheekface, out today via New Professor. Guitarist/singer Greg Katz half-sings, half-speaks in an almost monotone voice, his deadpan delivery amplifying the humor of the lyrics, which encapsulate the spirit of the album: quirky comedy, rejection of conventional wisdom, and defiance, sometimes for its own sake.

The fun, upbeat song, like much of the album, was written partly in earnest and partly as a joke. The earnest aspect was borne from bassist/singer Amanda Tannen’s difficulties saying “no” and drawing boundaries. “‘Listen to Your Heart.’ ‘No.’ came about from feeling this rise in self-care and all these people just telling you what to do, what’s best for you, and it’s actually okay to say ‘no’ to those things if you’re not feeling that,” she says.

The title of the song, however, first came from Katz. It had been lingering in his notebook for a while, then he blurted it out while working on guitar chords with Tannen, and she immediately identified it as the foundation of a song. “That response of ‘no’ just to this generic good advice that you would give anyone, and then the automatic impulse of disgust and refusal even though you know the advice is pretty good — it just has that spark of truth and humor that we try to find to build a song around,” he says.

It’s a silly yet oddly empowering message: no matter how reasonable, even irrefutable someone’s advice is, you still don’t have to take it. This is also the attitude behind the album title and much of the music on it. “We’re all always trying to be better about boundaries,” says drummer Mark “Echo” Edwards. “I have a hard time telling people no, and so it’s a reminder, it’s like a little mantra to repeat to yourself that it’s okay to say no, and a lot of times, it’s better to say no.”

The next song on the album, “Best Life,” has a similar theme of rejecting self-care culture, taking the listener through various scenes as the narrator laughs through therapy, declines to smile because it may be contagious (but “so is yawning”), and gets a Gucci logo stick-and-poke because “it’s cheaper than therapy,” melodically concluding, “it’s your best life if it’s the life that you’re living right now.”

“The concept of living your best life is something that I have always thought was sort of funny because there is no other life than the one you are now living — there’s no better or worse version of it; it just is,” says Katz. “The whole memeification of mental health and self-help by our generation, which distilled it down to meaningless drivel like ‘best life’ that has literally no meaning when you think about it, was sort of the jumping-off point for the concept of the song.”

Other songs on the LP examine heavier cultural and political issues, but still with the same absurdist humor: “Original Composition” addresses humans’ indifference to environmental collapse, “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Calabasas” calls attention to the hypocrisy of political discourse, and “Big Big Friend” mocks male privilege with lines like “I earned a dude’s degree/by buying a notebook and sneezing on my things/I come from a long line of people/a long line of people who procreated.”

Most of Emphatically No. was recorded and mixed by Greg Cortez at LA’s New Monkey Studio (which was formerly owned by Elliott Smith) between 2019 and 2020. The album incorporates electronic instruments like the Mellotron and eccentric sound bites like a dog barking, aggressive banging on a keyboard, and repetitive, chanted words like “everything is normal.”

“My goal musically is to make things feel good and make people want to move in a way that lines up with the larger philosophical approach,” says Edwards. “Despite the sometimes bleak subject matter, there’s still humor, there’s still joy.”

Katz considers Cheekface a mix of punk rock, power pop, and proto punk, citing the “great American talk-singers,” like Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman, as influences – you can hear it the way Katz sings the lines “we are writers! creatives! we work remotely!/I am furiously Juuling™ on the coffee shop patio!” in “Best Life.” The Talking Heads are also a band favorite; “Emotional Rent Control” incorporates the bass line and drum parts from “Psycho Killer,” an idea the members got after hearing these familiar sounds sampled in Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar.”

Cheekface originated in 2017, drawing its early inspiration from Trump’s inauguration. After attending the Women’s March together, Katz and Tannen wrote their second single and most streamed song on Spotify, “Dry Heat/Nice Town,” about coming to grips with rising authoritarianism and violence in society. The band released its first album, Therapy Island, in 2019, and released an Audiotree live session in 2020. They’ve already written the bulk of their next album, though Katz warns his fans: “Just like everyone’s favorite band, we’re gonna get worse.”

Follow Cheekface on Twitter for ongoing updates.

FeM Synth Lab Los Angeles Makes Expensive Gear Accessible to Marginalized Genders & BIPOC

FeM Synth Lab’s Art of Synthesis Workshop, a collaboration with Femme House and Moog, in January 2020. Photo: Lex Ryan

Have you ever wanted to borrow a synthesizer for a few weeks, just to see if it’s the right one for you? In Los Angeles, FeM Synth Lab offers just that, with a focus on making otherwise prohibitively expensive synths available to people of marginalized genders.

Three years ago, Natalie Robehmed founded FeM Synth Lab with two people she met through Women’s Center for Creative Work. The new group held their first workshop in 2017. From there, the project expanded to monthly meet-ups where people of various skill levels could learn new techniques and familiarize themselves with various gear. 

Sabrina Ketel, who had been teaching herself Ableton, saw a notice of that first event on Facebook. “Everybody’s just really willing to help each other learn or help each other experiment and just share what they know,” she says of her first impressions of the group. A little over a year ago, Ketel came on board to help Robehmed run the group. 

A synthesizer lending library is something that had been on their minds for a while. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to put ideas on hold, it actually pushed FeM Synth Lab to make theirs a reality. After a few years of in-person workshops, FeM Synth Lab wanted to provide a useful, hands-on experience for people at a time when they couldn’t get together in person. They also had some gear available to make that happen. 

“We had access to some instruments that were just sitting there,” says Robehmed. The project came together in collaboration with Felisha Ledesma, who founded the program Resource Residency and helped launch Portland’s Synth Library. 

Though people may have had more time on their hands to work on creative projects this year, the multitude of financial blows that Americans have endured also makes music equipment potentially more inaccessible. “Our aim is 100% to make it affordable and accessible to learn how to produce electronic music by giving access to all these instruments,” says Robehmed. They ask for a deposit when you check out a piece of equipment – anything from $1 to $20 – but you get it back when you return your piece (there’s an option to donate the deposit, but that’s completely up to the user). 

Robehmed and Ketel are the only two people running the library, so it’s open one week out of the month. They typically open for orders on a Monday and the first two days are the BIPOC Priority Restock. Everyone else places reservations beginning on Wednesday of that week. “Our aim is to bring more people into electronic music, and into music production, who aren’t white, cis, and male,” says Robehmed. The BIPOC priority window for orders is part of the mission and Robehmed says that it has worked well. The following Sunday, everyone can check out the gear that they’ve reserved at Women’s Center for Creative Work’s office in Highland Park in a pandemic-safe way. All of the equipment is sanitized as well. “I spend most of the drop off days sanitizing gear,” says Ketel.

In the few months since it opened, FeM Synth Lab’s lending library has already gained a following. Farre Nixon has checked out multiple synths from the library. She’s a longtime fan of electronic music had been wanting to experiment with synths and production for a while. “I had no idea where to start,” she says. Then she started pricing synths. “It’s just so insanely prohibitive,” says Nixon, an architect who finished school last year. 

Nixon moved to Los Angeles in early March and found out about FeM Synth Lab through a friend. When the library opened, she checked out the Moog DFAM (Drummer from Another Mother). A couple other Moogs, a Make Noise piece and a Korg followed. “It’s amazing because you can actually really feel the difference between each of these machines,” she says. 

Now that she has tried out a few different synths, Nixon has an idea of what she will want to buy for herself in the future. “That’s given me a ton of direction,” she says. “I feel like now I’m able to turn a dream into a small, growing reality.” Plus, through the FeM Synth Lab, she’s gotten to know other people in her new city. “I’m building community,” she says, “and I feel like that’s the most important thing.”

A lot of the synths FeM Synth Lab has on hand were donated by musicians, mostly people in the Los Angeles area. Resource Residency donated a few Moogs. They’ve also worked with a couple different companies, notably Make Noise and 4MS, who have donated to FeM Synth Lab. You can even check out modular synths as well. “They’re the final frontier of inaccessibility,” says Robehmed. Through the partnership with 4MS, they have two rows of modules for users to play with. “That’s an amazing, beginner way to learn, or a great place to start because you can just experiment and it’s not too daunting,” says Robehmed. “It’s not an entire wall.” 

They have effects pedals, mixers and interfaces too, but Ketel notes that they want to beef up the inventory of accessories. “We’d love to get monitors up there,” she says, “Stuff that will help you set up your studio, because that’s also something that can be really expensive to do.” FeM Synth Lab does accept both monetary and gear donations. They’re also looking to building up enough of a stockpile in the library so that people can check out more than one item at a time.

Robehmed mentions that Women’s Center for Creative Work has a motto: We’re a process, not a product. “I think about that all the time,” she says, “especially with regards to this project. It’s not perfect. It’s going to be iterative. We’re going to learn and grow and add.” For now, FeM Synth Lab remains open during that process, allowing future synth whizzes to grow alongside its expanding Lending Library.

Follow FeM Synth Lab on Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Elisia Savoca Celebrates Singlehood with “Do Re Mi”

Breakups are difficult — some more than others. But often, even after the hardest breakups, we realize we’re better off without our exes. In hindsight, we see problems we’d overlooked in the relationship, and we start to enjoy our newfound freedom. That’s how LA-based singer-songwriter Elisia Savoca came to feel after her last relationship, which she channeled into her latest single, “Do Re Mi.”

The sassy, danceable, R&B-inspired song is an ode to new singlehood, encapsulating both the ups and downs of a breakup in poetic, fleeting vignettes: “Speaking words with our tongues/Let go of what we just won/Plans of lovers commit/Damn you make feel shit/Paradise and city on bliss/Nah, don’t wanna forget this/Sunset on my lips high and lows with this.”

“It’s definitely about somebody getting out of a relationship – that freedom when you leave a relationship, just doing what you want and saying what you want. That’s what my message is,” she says. “When I write a song, I say whatever’s on my mind, and it’s like a diary to me. I was trying to get the point across that I don’t need anybody, I can do this myself, and ‘Do Re Mi’ is about that liberation of speaking your mind and saying what you want.”

Savoca and her producer and co-writer Maestro wrote the song in just 10 minutes. “I will never forget the producers working with me that day — we were all so happy to be working together, and the synergy there was just amazing,” she remembers. With Rihanna as its inspiration, the track includes classical piano, guitar, bass, and synths.

Savoca made the video herself during quarantine, using footage of herself singing in a black outfit against a black backdrop. “I just wanted to create this sexy, dark, mysterious vibe,” she says. “It was just a sensual little video I made in like an hour.”

The song will appear on an EP she plans to release next year called Act 1: Manifesto, much of which is about “coming into being a woman and learning responsibility and looking back on my past,” she says. “Every time you kind of leave something in your past, you grow into this more developed being, and it’s so interesting to see these records symbolize that.” In “Falling,” her last single off the EP and the subject of another quarantine video — she sassily tells someone off in a catchy chorus: “Sit down with your ass/You’re gonna get smashed.”

Manifesto is the first of three upcoming EPs, followed by Act 2: Fiasco and Act 3: Vendetta — names inspired by Italian operas. “I really wanted to tap into my Italian side,” she explains. “I was getting into the movie side of things, so I thought it would be interesting to have this medieval times 1700s vibe, incorporating some Latin-rooted words into a project.” Each act represents a different side of her and stage of her life: Manifesto centers on the wide-eyed version of her that first moved to LA; Fiasco portrays her “going through a hard time, smiling through the pain, just kind of hiding it all;” and Vendetta depicts “a really strong, independent woman who is not letting anybody mess with her.”

All the EPs are finished, along with a number of videos — Savoca channeled her quarantine boredom into making 12 videos in a month. “Quarantine really gave me that time to be as creative as I wanted to be and direct my own music videos,” she says. “I never would have been able to do that before, so I’m definitely so happy that I was able to create all these videos during that time and had the chance to figure that part of myself out.”

The 19-year-old was born to a Sicilian family in San Diego. Inspired by the local punk and ska scenes, she taught herself piano and guitar and began singing with local bands. She started playing at talent shows in San Diego when she was 15, working up to a spot in the large punk and alt-rock venue SOMA, then moved to LA and began appearing at more big venues. She released her first EP, One of You, in 2018, following it up her second, Glitch, in 2019.

Even with three EPs on the way, she’s as prolific as ever in making new music. “I’m the kind of person that pumps out five songs in one day — I got to get it out,” she says. “I’m an emotional human being. It gets to the point where I can’t let this go, I’ve got to get this on paper. As a writer, your job never stops. You’re continuously trying to do better than the last song you made. So for me, it’s not a job. I’m trying to do what’s in me. I could never stop making music every day.”

Follow Elisia Savoca on Instagram for ongoing updates.

INTERVIEW: Alaska Reid Goes Solo on Big Bunny EP

Photo Credit: Audrey Hall

Alaska Reid is already an industry pro. By 14, she was performing her songs in clubs on the Sunset Strip, and by 20, she’d released Crush with her band Alyeska and veteran producer John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth). Three years later, she’s stepping back into performing solo. Big Bunny, the singer-songwriter’s first solo EP, drops today, December 11, from Los Angeles imprint Terrible Records.

Infused with a free-spirited sense of whimsy and wisdom beyond Reid’s years, Big Bunny transcends genre labeling. Reid brings elements of her childhood listening—narrative-driven country—into her songwriting, and combines it with tender folk-pop melodies and raw, electronic-influenced indie rock production.

In anticipation of the EP she calls a diary of her life so far, Reid had a chat with Audiofemme about growing up splitting her time between small-town Montana and bustling L.A., her feelings about leaving the band to perform solo again, and how it’s all shaped her ever-evolving musical vision.

AF: I read that you grew up in Park County, Montana, with an approximate population of 15,000, and that you went to a one-room schoolhouse and took lessons from one of the only music teachers in town. What was it like growing up this way?

AR: Yeah, it was interesting. I actually think the most interesting thing about it is that I feel often like I grew up in between two places. [I felt] like an outsider in cities and here, too, because I grew up here and spent so long here and yet I was also away from here during high school and I didn’t go to the high school in town. I think that provided [me] a [different] perspective. If you just grew up in one place and you didn’t leave, you don’t really question it all that much. 

AF: So you were able to get perspective by moving away? Tell me more about that.

AR: Yeah, because I started going back and forth to L.A., sometime in the end of middle school through high school. So, I really got that shift. I have these really distinct memories of leaving the school I went to and going to school in L.A. and feeling sick because I couldn’t even fathom the fact that the schools [in L.A.] I went to kind of looked like a prison and it [had] a lot of students. I mean, it was a nice school but it’s just the way big cities look. If you look at the schoolhouse I went to in comparison it looks like a little red and white church and it has a steeple with a bell on top. 

AF: What pre-empted your going back and forth to L.A.?

AR: I’m from a really big family and my dad, he just needed to start working another job so he went to L.A. and then my mom had twins. My parents were still together, but it was winter, and this is one of the moments when my mom was like, “We need to go to L.A. and be with your dad.” Then she fell outside on the ice, it was really bleak out and she fractured her arm, and she was like, “I can’t handle it, it’s too much.” So we started going to see my dad. There’s a lot of us kids – I’m one of five. 

AF: Do you still live in Montana? 

AR: You know, because of COVID everything is pretty scrambled. I’m living here now but before I was living and working in L.A. and going to Montana to see family and friends and stuff and for breaks. Now I’m just here, which is pretty funny. 

AF: Can you remember some of the contrasts you noticed after being in L.A. and coming back to Montana? 

AR: First of all, I think L.A., no matter where you come from, grows on you. I don’t think you’re immediately hit with love for it, at least in my experience. Montana has such pristine nature and hiking is totally different here. I think when I went to L.A. I was really shocked by the grittiness of it—the city grittiness—and the strip malls. I was living way far out on the outskirts of L.A. so I wasn’t in like the Hollywood parts, but so many things were different.

Another thing: I missed a lot of cultural references – not because people in Montana aren’t informed, but because of the proximity L.A. has to the movie business and movie stars. That was really different. Everything is just bigger. I really love L.A. now though, it grew on me. I think just the broadness of L.A. makes it so different to me. 

AF: Do you remember when you first realized you liked to sing and write music? 

AR: I’ve been singing since I was really young so I never really thought about it. There was one voice teacher in town and she was like an angel to me. She taught me from when I was I think 5 or 6 until I was 20 maybe. I started singing with her and I sang classical music and opera-y stuff and I wanted to be an opera singer when I was really young. I performed here in town, did a lot of community things. It was so natural, the singing thing. I really didn’t second-guess it.

Plus, my dad listened to a bunch of music so that was always in my life. I remember the first time hearing The Breeders going to school and Dinosaur Jr., and being infatuated. And then the guitar – I honestly think my parents were just like, “Why don’t you play guitar because you constantly are listening and remarking on the guitar in songs?” I was forced to practice and then fell in love with it and I started writing. I didn’t know that people covered songs really. I thought if you were going to play you were going to write your own songs, so that’s why I started doing it.

AF: You knew from that young that you wanted to do music full time? 

AR: Oh yeah, I was gigging on the Sunset Strip when I was 14. My parents got me my first guitars and drove me to gigs and waited outside with me when I couldn’t go in because I was too young. 

AF: What are some of the clubs you played on the Sunset Strip when you were really young? Where did you cut your teeth?

AR: Oh my god, I played all over L.A. I played the Pig & Whistle, I played the House of Blues, and the small rooms, like during bar nights.

AF: I read that you were kind of frustrated in L.A. because of the way you were perceived as a woman songwriter or a young girl songwriter. Can you elaborate on that? 

AR: Oh yeah. I don’t know. I can’t speak for everyone, but being a woman is really important in my music and I love writing about young women and women in general. I grew up in a kind of matriarchy as a household. I don’t like people labeling people first by their gender and then secondly as their art. That really irritated me – I was like, I just want to be taken seriously. It’s gotten so much better but it was really hard to be taken seriously and when I was playing all those clubs as a 14-year-old girl. I got a lot of support, but I also did get a lot of people that were assholes to me because I was a girl, like sound guys and stuff like that. Or creepy people. That’s kind of why I started the band, because it was like, I don’t feel like I can be alone out there because people don’t take me seriously. That’s changed a lot. 

AF: Tell me about how that’s changed for you. 

AR: Well, A) I’ve gotten older, B) the world has realized a lot of things and C) I think you’re just seeing a lot of women now playing music and kicking ass. Not that they weren’t before. 

AF: Was your music back then like the music you write now? How has your music changed? 

AR: To be honest, I really think all the pieces were there and it’s just me actually sanding them down and putting them together in the right way, where I am right now. At that point in time I wasn’t playing electric. I was really into country music because I grew up on Americana, and I’d wear Patsy Cline dresses, stuff like that. I love Merle Haggard, I love George Jones, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Guy Clark. A modern country person I love [is] Miranda Lambert. I think she’s so cool. I love Lyle Lovett too. He’s a mentor of mine, he’s the greatest. 

AF: You know him personally? 

AR: Yeah, I do actually. He’s been a sort of angel in my life. He’s an amazing songwriter. I met him through my dad’s work.

AF: Does country influence your new EP? I can definitely hear the influence; is that intentional? Or just something that pours out of you because you were around it when you were young? 

AR: The thing I absolutely adore about country music is that it’s narrative-based songwriting, and that’s really important to me. I think that’s the biggest thing I take from country. Also I love the guitars, and I love the musicianship. To me that’s really rock ‘n’ roll, just how dexterous everyone is both in narrative songwriting and in the musicianship. 

AF: How did connect with producer/engineer John Agnello for that first Alyeska release? 

AR: I always loved Dinosaur Jr., one of my favorite bands—I cry at the shows. I started getting really interested in electric guitar and whatnot. That kind of started my band and, you know, the early iterations of it. Then I had this manager, I said I wanted to connect with Agnello to him, and he was like, “You’re not going to be able to contact John Agnello.” Yeah. So I was kind of like, “Fuck you,” and actually went on Facebook and found John and messaged him and was like, “Hi John, I love all of your work, let’s meet up, I want to play you songs, I’m going to be in New York at this time.” And he wrote me back, like “Come hang out at the mixing studio, I’m mixing this record.” I went there with my mom, and he thought I was a guy, which is really funny. Like he didn’t look at my Facebook profile, I don’t think.

AF: What then prompted you to go solo for this EP? Have you parted ways from your band, or is that still existing in the background and you just decided to do a solo project? 

AR: I parted ways with my band. I was the band, but I had people play with me and it was too messy. I was so grateful because again, I’m going on about John, but John is also another angel in my life, he’s amazing, and doing that record with him, I wouldn’t have changed anything. I just felt so proud and so happy and so supported by him and he taught me so much with songwriting and everything, so I was really grateful for that experience. 

AF: Zooming in more on your EP, what does the name Big Bunny come from?

AR: I just love bunnies. I used to chase rabbits when I was younger, when I lived out in what we call “The Valley” in Montana. We had a little bit more property and a field, and the title track of the EP is about me and my sister and our childhood. You know, when you don’t have anything to do and you run around… I always wanted to find this big bunny and stuff like that so it kind of comes from that. I think it’s just been a theme in my life. 

AF: It’s kind of whimsical too! Another song I loved on the album was “Warm” – the production is slightly different and it seems to be more of a pop song so I’m wondering what the story is – how did it come to life? 

AR: That song is really funny because I had never written with anyone else before a year or two ago, maybe, and that was one of the songs I wrote with my friend Max Hershenow, and he also did some of the production on it. He’s been an amazing part of my life too because he has really taught me about pop song writing, and not being afraid of that. I was afraid of stuff. I had so many rules.

AF: Where did the rules come from? 

AR: I had rules that I hated pop. At one point—now I own so many fucking guitar pedals—but at one point I was like, “If you have a guitar pedal, you’re an asshole.” I just made rules. I think too, it comes from the fact that I’ve had to be really tough in indie rock so [with Max] I relaxed a little bit. Max is really sweet; we wrote that song together, so the pop sensibility comes from him. 

AF: Is your songwriting autobiographical, usually? A lot of your songs are from the perspective of a young woman, or young women – do you usually draw on your own perspective or do you think about characters? How do you write? 

AR: I definitely write about myself but it’s really hard to write honestly about yourself and be okay with singing that every night to strangers. So, I think I also kind of combine bits of myself with fictionalized characters or people around me. It makes it more of a blend, it’s less close to home in that way.  

AF: What are some silver linings that have come out of quarantine for you? Where is your music career right now?

AR: I think it’s been really productive. I’ve learned Logic and it’s blown my mind, because I thought I couldn’t do that. So now, because I produced two of the songs—”City Sadness” and “Big Bunny.” That’s a really big thing.

AF: Were a lot of these songs written during COVID, or prior to the pandemic?

AR: A couple of the songs are from my band days. “Oblivion” actually has the chords to the first song I ever wrote and then I re-wrote it. So this EP is really a comprehensive picture of my music in general. I either had pieces of the songs or ideas of the songs since I was younger and then ones I did with people, excluding “Oblivion,” I wrote as I was recording and the others have been songs I’ve written on my own. Big Bunny is really the diary of my life up until this moment.

Follow Alaska Reid on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Emily Edrosa Dives Deep on Another Wave is Coming LP

Photo Credit: Alea Balzer

When Emily Edrosa moved to Los Angeles 2016, she left a lot behind in New Zealand: a partner in a committed relationship; the early acclaim she’d enjoyed with Street Chant, a band she’d started as a teenager; government-subsidised healthcare. “I could just see the rest of my life. I don’t know if you’re into astrology, but I was about to go through my return of Saturn,” Edrosa says, when she began to feel inexplicably drawn to the American West Coast by some force larger than herself, like a current, or a wave. The force of that feeling inspired the title of her debut solo LP Another Wave Is Coming, and eventually – once her green card came through – she rode it to LA, where she dedicated herself more fully than ever to her career as a solo musician, despite the immense challenges the change of scenery posed.

That new emotional and physical terrain is fully explored on Another Wave, which whips through eleven fuzzily punk-inflected garage-rock tracks, a stream-of-conscious meditation on queerness, adulting, culture shock, and the general absurdity of human behavior. Edrosa began writing while still in New Zealand, after breaking up with her then-partner and moving in with her mom to save money for the move. “I was just kind of sitting there going, What the hell am I doing, have I just destroyed my life? That was when I started writing and I just didn’t really stop until I had a record,” she explains.

“It’s a bookmark for this period of my life. The last few songs I wrote were about the difficulty of suddenly being in LA, the culture shock… missing my community at home. I just felt so out of place. I was basically having an anxiety attack the whole time. I can’t drive, and the political anxiety [of Trump’s 2016 win] got to me. It was definitely overwhelming,” she adds. “I go on Twitter all the time so I think that probably informed it because I feel like that’s what a lot of people [tweet about]: I’m in the supermarket, and I am having a meltdown. Everybody’s having a fucking episode.”

That being said, Another Wave is Coming only sounds dramatic on paper. Frenetic album standout “Action” starts off, “No time to walk around or find a heartlands sound, singing poverty and mental health” to ultimately conclude, “Should we feel so bad getting up in the evening, when there isn’t a lot that we can do? Sometimes it’s not enough, but we’re in love.” Her deadpan delivery and audible accent won’t easily avoid comparisons to Aussie Courtney Barnett, but Edrosa’s lyrics have a diaristic specificity that communicates both their heartfelt origins as well as a wry surreality.

“I walked the streets and they walked me,” she sings on “Springtime’s Stranger in a Strange Place,” her dreamy post-punk ode to arriving in LA. “A fresh start into the blue/I’m loose and chewed and out of tunes…It’s best to never look them in the eye in a strange place.” On “A New Career,” one of several songs on the album that subtly explore the nuances of long-term relationships once the dopamine wears off, she sings, “Like ghosts that just won’t leave this town/We were born upon our burial ground/So what did we expect?”

Nowhere is Edrosa more straightforward than on album opener “She Agreed,” which recounts the true story of her first love, whose homophobic parents broke up the relationship because their daughter was “not allowed to be gay.” The first three verses sprawl out over sparse guitar, laden with bitterness and nonchalance in equal measure until distorted feedback obliterates both. “It was nerve wracking to put it first, because I feel like people could get the wrong idea about the record,” Edrosa admits. “Some people really love it, but some people could be put off by how open it is. I had mixed feelings about that experience for a lot of years. But after I wrote that song I was like, okay, I don’t care anymore. It was cathartic.”

She still sees the person it was written about around Auckland from time to time, and knows they don’t appreciate the song. “I feel bad about that,” she says. “But as far as my being shy… I’ve never hid my sexuality and I can be quite brash about what I’m feeling or who I am.” In part, she says, that’s because of the experience she depicts in the song. “It is formative for you to feel really happy and then for quote-unquote society to tell you that the way you’re feeling is wrong. Maybe I need more therapy, but… I guess, in a way, it sort of made me be like, well fuck it, here I am.”

Coming to terms with who she is included owning up to the fact that she’s meant to be a musician. She tackles feeling left behind by schoolmates with normal lives on power-poppy single “NCEA” (named for a New Zealand program similar to the United States GED). “I lost, but at least I never had a boss,” she snarls, pitting herself against those with “cell phone plans” and “university common sense.”

“I wrote it about five or six years ago, I guess maybe because I was more fresh out of high school. I would go on Facebook and see people with business degrees or whatever,” she recalls. “I think being an artist, you’re always going to wonder if you should quit, because it is difficult. So I guess that was me [asking], am I barking up the wrong tree here? But now that I’m older I’m just like, oh well, who cares? I’m just gonna be an artist until I die. I couldn’t not be an artist, that would be like asking me to not be myself.”

Edrosa leans fully into that identity on Another Wave – not just with clever observations and personal storytelling in the lyrics, but by writing, playing, and producing almost every part of the album. “I wanted to do everything, but I can’t physically play the drums that well, so I did all the drums in midi and sent them to drummers and said, can you learn this?” she says, getting some initial help from Bosh Rothman (Kim Gordon, Santigold). “I would take the drum stems back and overdub the guitars and the bass and the vocals, and I did it all in my home studio.”

This meticulous approach is one of Edrosa’s trademarks. “A lot of artists write and have throwaway songs, but I work on a song until it’s done and it’s good,” she says. “I really like working in the DAW – I used ProTools at the time and now I use Logic – cause it’s fun; you open up your computer and it’s like, a project you’re working on and you can just mess around with it forever.” Unfortunately, working on a record forever means it never sees the light of day, so she set a deadline with producer John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.), working remotely to mix the record in a five-day long-distance session.

Still, she wasn’t completely happy. “You get demo-it is, which is when you like really like the demos you’re listening to unmixed, and then suddenly there’s all this compression and reverb on them and you’re like woah, that sounds so overdone, I can’t handle it,” she says. “I wanted to make a record that sounds like a band, but it’s just me on my computer. That was the end goal – I was like, I’ll make an album and I’ll put it out really quickly, and it just took forever, cause I go deep.”

Though she wanted the album to be lighter and more rhythmic than Street Chant’s grungy, heavier vibes, Another Wave ended up being relatively “dense” as Edrosa pushed herself into new territory. “I tried to be a shredder in Street Chant just to prove that I could, and then on this one I kind of stepped back and was like, I already proved it,” she says with a laugh, noting how much fun she had playing bass and “tapping away on those midi drums.” Her confidence and joy in playing music is hard fought; Edrosa confides that she was bullied in school for being the odd “girl with a guitar.”

“Every year I would play in the talent quest, and every year they would laugh at me. And every year I would come back,” she remembers. “It was my moment to be like, well fuck you. I mean, they laughed the first year, they laughed the second year, you know, they kept laughing. But eventually, I did win it. You just keep going.” That’s part of the reason she gravitated toward mentoring young women in New Zealand’s Girls Rock Camp.

“Since I was like sixteen, I’ve always been a guitar teacher. I can’t read music, but I can teach someone how to play their favorite song and how to read tablature. Working with teenage girls is cool cause I feel like I perpetually am one,” she says, noting that her teenage years were formative in that it’s when she fell in love with music, learned to play guitar, and realized she was queer. “I was so painfully shy, and so unsure of myself… I wish I’d had [Girls Rock Camp] for myself because when I was bullied, music became something that I did in my bedroom alone, and played really quietly; it wasn’t really like a community thing and it wasn’t something to be proud of.”

Like the Carrie-referencing character in her video for “NCEA,” Edrosa got her particular revenge when Street Chant took off. “I just wanted to be in a band cause I was watching other people do it, but I didn’t think that I could do it and it kind of made me annoyed,” she admits. “It’s not like I started music for the sonic experience – it was just about songwriting and getting out there and doing it. The first Street Chant record, we went into a studio and just sort of banged it out; that was more of a live-sounding one.”

Released in 2010, Means won the inaugural Critics Choice Prize at the 2010 New Zealand Music Awards, was shortlisted for the Taite Music Prize, and nominated for “Best Alternative Album” at the 2011 New Zealand Music Awards; a tour opening for The Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray 20th anniversary American tour commenced the following year, and in 2013, they released a follow up EP, Isthmus of One-Thousand Lovers.

By then, Edrosa had bought her own recording gear and started making songs at home. She wrote a solo EP “really quickly, cause I just wanted to learn how to record better” and released the lo-fi DIY affair in 2014 as Street Chant was finishing up its second LP Hauora; it wasn’t released until 2016, and by then Edrosa had already started planning her move. “Not to sound arrogant, but Street Chant did kind of hit a ceiling here where the critics really liked us. But to get three people to tour around America or England or Europe several times a year was quite expensive. So I was like, I’ll just move to America.”

Four years later, a different wave – the second spike in the ongoing COVID crisis – has returned her to the blissfully pandemic-free Auckland, where Edrosa’s planning real, live shows, which she confesses was difficult at first, having gotten used to people in the States keeping their distance. “When I first came back I really just wanted to go straight back into it which I think was a mistake, because I was going to bars, and people were standing really close to me, and it was really strange. I do sort of miss not hanging out with people, as strange as that might be, because people are so lonely… I can be a bit of a hermit,” she says. She hunkered down, putting the finishing touches on her record – Liz Stokes of the Beths engineered additional drum sessions with Alex Freer behind the kit, and Edrosa got a friend to mix the album one more time before Another Wave is Coming finally washed ashore in late November.

“I feel like when you’re working on a record you love listening to it, and then once it’s done, you need to give it like, two to five years before you can listen to it [again],” she says, noting how bizarre the concept of a career in music really is. “If you’re writing a song that you want people to hear, it’s silly. It’s silly to get up on stage and sing a song about your feelings, and expect that other people are gonna want to hear it. I try and add a little bit of my sense of humor – silly and dark, yet relatable.”

Follow Emily Edrosa on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

The Little Miss Breaks the Cycle of Capitalist Consumption with “Spring Cleaning” Premiere

Photo Credit: Jayden Becker

Los Angeles-based indie folk artist Hayley Johnson used to go on shopping sprees to numb her insecurities, always chasing the next item that might help her feel good about herself. It took a lot of therapy — and a lot of time spent poring through feminist Instagrams — to break this cycle of self-loathing and consumption. Ultimately, she arrived at the conclusion that she already had everything she needed to enjoy self-confidence and happiness; she didn’t need to purchase anything.

Under the stage name The Little Miss, Johnson articulates this revelation in her latest single, “Spring Cleaning.” A very folky, almost country song condemning patriarchal consumer culture with incisive lyrics against dynamic guitar, steady tambourine, old-fashioned piano, and choir-like backup harmonies, the bridge builds to a climax where “all of that self-loathing is channeled into anger that is no longer directed inwards but rather outwards,” she explains.

The verses provide a cutting critique not only of consumerism but also of conventional definitions of success, her Americana style contrasting with her denunciation of stereotypically American values. “Oh, maybe we’ve all just got it tough/but we’ve all been told the same dumb stuff/like if we just get one more success/we’ll stop feeling less and less/and maybe if we all just do our best/we’ll finally get that week of rest,” she sings. “Maybe we’re all just falling down/on our way up to some made up crown/oh, I don’t know nothin’, no I don’t know much/but if there’s one thing I do, it’s that you are enough.”

This is what Johnson hopes listeners take away from the song: that they are enough, intrinsically, just by existing. “We’re all deserving of good lives,” she says. “We’re all deserving of love. We’re all deserving of basic rights, protection, shelter, etcetera, without needing to be perfect first, without needing to be at a particular place on some ladder first. We don’t need to improve ourselves to be deserving of love or any fundamental sort of rights or necessities. We deserve those things, now, as we are.”

In keeping with the song’s theme of self-worth, Johnson affirmed that her own voice deserved to be heard by singing for a full seven minutes. “I’ve listened to dudes doing really long guitar solos my whole life,” she says. “It makes me a little happy that I made such a long song. I’m like, hell yeah, if you can listen to a guy wail on the guitar for twelve minutes, you can listen to a woman talk about her feelings about society for seven.”

The song will appear on the upcoming debut album from The Little Miss, Best Self, which uses this phrase ironically to critique capitalist definitions of self-improvement and self-worth. The album was recorded in her bassist and producer Daniel Grimsland’s living room with her band, the Cactus Kissers. “It all felt really just like play and experimentation, so that was a lot of the recording process, us tinkering with stuff,” she says. “You think recording would be really serious, and everyone has to get their take perfect, but it was more loose than that.”

In the first single off the album, “A Week Into New Year’s Resolutions,” for example, they largely winged the backup vocals. The song, which recounts buying running shoes, books, and other items then never using them, was intended to sound silly, and backup vocals with redundant phrases like “she buys books, so many books” contributed to this tone, as did the bottles clanking in the background, conjuring up a New Year’s party.

Growing up in San Diego, Johnson started her first band back in high school with her dad, then got burnt out on music until she picked up a guitar in college and became excited by the prospect of learning to play her favorite folk songs. After graduation, she moved to LA to give her music career a shot, dubbing herself The Little Miss based on a nickname her dad gave her for being “really prim and proper from a really early age.” She released her first EP American Dream in 2018, followed by Jam in the Van — The Little Miss and the Cactus Kissers, a collection of live recordings released earlier this year.

Outside of her music career, she does administrative work and is studying to become a high school history teacher, which has given her music more universal themes. “I have been up my own butt for a long time, looking at my own life, and I’m really happy to be studying history and working toward teaching history because I want that perspective and long view on my role in the universe and in human history,” she says. “I feel like it’s easy to feel really self-important, especially in today’s age where we all have a platform, and it makes me unhappy to put so much focus on myself. I’m really excited to learn about how insignificant I am.”

Follow The Little Miss on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Lavender Diamond Returns With First New Album in Eight Years, Now is the Time

Photo Credit: Rachael Pony Cassells

In the ’00s, Los Angeles-based band Lavender Diamond earned fans and critical acclaim for their folk-tinged indie pop. They toured with The Decembrists and played events like ArthurFest in Los Angeles and SirenFest in New York. On December 4, the beloved band returns with its first album in eight years. Now Is the Time is a stunning collection of baroque pop that delves into issues of healing both nature and humanity. 

The album’s evolution came as a result of singer Becky Stark’s work on environmental projects. Following the release of the band’s sophomore full-length, Incorruptible Heart, in 2012, she turned her attention towards the crises facing Earth. 

“I didn’t want to keep giving concerts in the same way,” says Stark on a recent phone call from her home in Los Angeles. Instead, she wanted to bring the enthusiasm that people have for music and cultural events to gatherings where the planet took center stage. “There’s so much energy, always, for concerts and people gathering and ideas being shared and magnified through music,” she says. “And, I felt like, where is the energy for healing our relationship to the earth?”

Stark says that she wanted to build “a new system” to show that you could bring together people for an event like a concert and also encourage people to work on projects like habitat restoration. And she did get involved in efforts around Los Angeles, like soil restoration and building a habitat for monarch butterflies. Stark explains, “It also came out of my desire to heal my own femininity and my own relationship to elemental femininity.”

In the late ’00s, the singer co-founded Los Angeles Ladies Choir with Aska Matsumiya, which brought together singers from various creative worlds in the city for performances and released a now sold-out EP Sing Joyfully in 2010. “It was for the purpose of creating community, and healing our femininity,” says Stark of the project, “and I realized that I really wanted to combine that with actually healing our relationship to the actual Earth, which is the actual feminine elements.”

But, in this work, particularly when raising awareness about Los Angeles’ dying trees and the impact of that phenomenon on the city, Stark grew frustrated. She was also taking note of the city’s racial segregation and growing wealth disparity. “I’ve always felt like Los Angeles has the possibility of being the greatest city in the world,” says Stark, who was born in L.A. and returned to the city in 1999. Yet, she says, “it started to feel very heartbreaking to me that there was this huge influx of prosperity that was not moving in connection with building a city of peace and justice.”

It became clear to Stark that she needed to sing with Lavender Diamond again. “Lavender Diamond has always been this channel, this really clear channel, for songs that are like prayers, like healing codes, like anthems for healing, for the revolution,” she says. So, Stark reunited with bandmates Steve Gregoropoulos (piano) and Ron Rege, Jr. (drums). 

“It was a great relief for me to let the music sing and let it resound in my heart,” Stark says. She and Gregoropoulos wrote together with what Stark describes as a kind of spontaneity. “When we write for Lavender Diamond, it really is like a channel and it pours in pretty instantly,” she says. 

The ensuing songs speak with an urgency for social and environmental justice. On “Please Plant the Seeds,” she calls for listeners to “please plant the seeds of peace with me.” In “New Religion,” she looks to the future, singing, “This is our new creation/the world responds to imagination.” 

“Ocean and Ground,” a song that Stark initially wrote years ago, is particularly poignant in its reference to the Greek myth of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades and whose life split between the Underworld to Earth’s surface represents the seasons. “This is the moment like in the myth of Persephone in the Underworld. We’re in the Underworld also,” says Stark. And, like in the myth, there’s hope of brighter days ahead. 

Now Is the Time was made prior to the pandemic, but its messages have become all the more relatable in light of COVID-19. Says Stark, “I think that the cruelty of this moment, of not caring for our most vulnerable, is heartbreaking.” But, perhaps there is something to learn in the darkness of 2020. “I really hope that we that we can proceed now with a different consciousness,” says Stark. 

And if listeners do take away something from Now Is the Time, Stark says she hopes it’s that “it is entirely possible for us to heal our world and entirely possible for us to heal our hearts and our communities and our society.”

She adds, “And I hope that the record gives people strength to continue in that path, and to understand that what every person does is valuable and sacred and everyone’s experience and everyone’s healing is in perfect relation to the whole.”

Follow Lavender Diamond on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Yarin Glam Shares Eating Disorder Recovery Story on “Free”

A few years ago, Israeli-born, LA-based pop artist Yarin Glam was battling an eating disorder. Now, she’s singing about her experience to help others who are in the same dark place she once was.

Glam’s latest single, “Free,” is a catchy, upbeat, motivational song about battling your demons and making peace with yourself. “I used to change my shape so that I could feel some power/I thought I killed that voice, but it’s trying to come back louder,” she sings powerfully in the poppy chorus against playful guitar and snappy percussion.

“I suffered from anorexia for years, and I was in denial for a long time; I didn’t get the right help for my whole life, basically,” she remembers. “And last year, I went into recovery at the same time that I started working on this project, so both have been extremely therapeutic for me.”

She was afraid to talk about this with her writers and producers when she went into the studio, but she wanted to be as real and vulnerable as she could be. “A lot of the time, people go into recovery, and it’s not a smooth and straight path. There’s a lot of ups and downs, and people relapse and go back into their disorder. You reminisce about the stuff you used to have and think, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad,’ and you go back to the old, dark patterns,” she says. “I told them how my whole life, I wanted to be free of the disorder and free in my own head of the self-doubt and the bully in my head.”

Visually representing the inner freedom she describes, the video shows her singing from mountaintops, destroying a pillow, and dancing as feathers fall around her.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the sound is intentionally fun. “I was like, how do I talk about the struggle I have and have deep and meaningful lyrics but, at the same time, if you don’t look at the lyrics, you’re just having fun with the song and jamming to it?” she explains. “Sometimes, people can steer away from songs that are too dark-sounding.”

Glam met her first producer at age 17 and released her first three singles in 2017: “Mr. Calvin Klein,” a flirty ode to a budding love interest; “Before I Go,” a song mourning the end of a relationship; and most recently “Alright” featuring Kodie Shane, a sassy breakup song incorporating EDM and hip-hop elements. After that, she took a step back and rethought how she wanted to present herself as an artist, realizing she wanted to put out deeper, more meaningful music.

“Free” is the first single off an upcoming four-song EP out early next year, whose tracks all deal in different ways with embracing who you are and shutting down self-criticism. The project functioned almost like a diary for Glam. “I was in a dark place still when I was writing those songs and was struggling, and I felt like it was very therapeutic for me to open up about stuff I’d never talked about before to my own family,” she says. Some of the songs make use of Middle Eastern instruments, drawing from her Israeli roots.

Through the openness and vulnerability in her new music, she wants to show people they’re not alone and inspire them to share their stories as well. Eating disorders in particular can be very isolating experiences, since survivors face a lot of judgment and misunderstanding, so she hopes “Free” can provide a compassionate voice for these people. “I talked about that in hopes to get more people talking about it and have more people going through it feel less alone,” she says. “I wanted to be that voice for others who may be suffering and feel scared to talk about it and feel misunderstood.”

She also wants to show others that recovering from an eating disorder is possible. For her, the key was recognizing that the part of her that engaged in disordered eating patterns was not really her. “When you get your team behind you to remind you you’re more than a number on a scale, you get to get out of your head and be like, it’s not me. What am I doing this for? It’s not worth it. It’s not the life I want to live. It’s not the life I would want for my loved ones,” she explains.

Having music to focus on gave her another, healthier identity – and she aims to inspire others through her career, as well. After moving to the U.S. at age 14 from a small town in Israel where people doubted she could make it big, she’s now realized what once felt like an unrealistic childhood dream. “I always tell people to dream big,” she says. “I don’t feel like any dream is too big. And if I came from such a small town in Israel to LA to make music, I feel like I can give hope to others who may be doubting themselves to chase their dreams.”

Follow Yarin Glam on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Falcon Premieres Nostalgic Piano Performance of “The Good Stuff”

Photo Credit: Ashley Mae Wright

If you’ve been through a difficult breakup, you may have been advised to think about what wasn’t working in the relationship so you could move on without regrets. But on her single “The Good Stuff,” LA-based pop artist Amanda Lindsey Cook, known by her stage name Falcon, advocates the opposite: remembering and cherishing all the gifts the relationship gave you.

Her voice is warm and comforting as she sings about the process of getting over a breakup and eventually feeling good about both the relationship and its ending, concluding, “The pictures hold the memories/I’ll keep them close, and I’ll set you free.”

Today, she’s releasing a video of herself performing an acoustic version of the song live. In contrast to the original recording, which is full of harmonies and electronic percussion, this version is stripped down and heartfelt, with Cook sitting alone at the piano and singing. She performed the song on her own piano to provide an intimate glimpse into her life and a feeling of “my home to yours,” she says.

The song is based on Cook “searching for and finding the gold shimmery thread that very runs through all these different life experiences that we can have with people,” she says. “I wanted to create a soundtrack to the feeling of bright sadness, like nostalgia. We wanted a song that felt bright but was able to be honest about both the beauty and the brokenness of a relationship.”

The new video was a way to give people the experience of live music in an era when live performances aren’t always feasible. “I think the immediacy of live performance is still such a beautiful, precious thing,” she says. “I wanted to be able to communicate it in a way that felt immediate and felt connected, and I think that’s what live performance does — it creates a space for music to happen in a way that feels like we’re all in the room for it.”

The original version of “The Good Stuff” opens Falcon’s most recent album Nova. The title references the astronomical phenomena in which the gravitational pull between two stars causes a sudden increase in energy that we perceive on Earth as a burst of light; it can last anywhere from a few days to centuries, reflecting the album’s theme of appreciating relationships regardless of their length, as well as being honest about why they might not last. The vocoder-filled songs range from the dreamy, upbeat “Young Love” and the dramatic, string-enhanced “Grateful” to the slow, sad “Closure” and the wistful, nostalgic “The Way You Do.”

Cook collaborated with her friend and producer Jason Ingram, bringing him ideas and working together to turn them into full-fleshed songs. “I wanted to have songs that felt like poems set to music, and I wanted to have songs that I could move to and dance to and move through different emotions with,” she says. “Musically, we went after a contemplative pop sound.”

Cook is an avid reader and says books often influence her music more than musical artists themselves; her favorite authors lately are Anne Lamott and Mary Karr. “A lot of the music I end up writing is an ode to whoever I’m reading at the time or a ‘thank you’ note to them,” she says. “I’ll sit down at the piano and let it digest and let myself interpret what they say and be affected by that.” She’s currently at work on some creative writing projects herself, along with more piano compositions.

Growing up in Canada, Cook was first discovered by a producer while playing piano at a church in her hometown. She began releasing music at age 19 and now has three albums under her belt. Nova is the first she’s released as Falcon, a moniker based on a maiden name in her family. This change of identity “felt free, and it felt like a clean canvas, and it maybe felt a little bit like reclaiming a piece of family history in my own way,” she says.

She’s been playing piano since she was five, though, and has always viewed music as therapeutic. “Music became my way of expressing things that I didn’t know how to express,” she says. “Music became the energy and the outlet to be able to find what I’d repressed and what I was feeling, so music has been a bit of a guide to me. I’ve never considered not making music. I’ve made music and played music whether anyone is listening. I play a lot for my own sanity and my own expression and healing as much as I do for anyone else.”

Follow Falcon on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING MELBOURNE: Woodes Builds Playful Fantasy-Inspired Pop Universe with Crystal Ball

Photo Credit: Jordan Drysdale

Elle Graham is a Melbourne transplant, having moved with her piano from Townsville, in regional Queensland, to the hub of Australian indie music. Best known as Woodes, she released her debut album Crystal Ball on November 13 – an ethereal, hypnotic, meditative exploration of inner and external landscapes.

The album was a balm for Graham’s soul after relentless touring off the back of her Golden Hour EP. She teamed up with producer Danny Harley (aka The Kite String Tangle) to co-write “Close,” a combination of flute, saxophone and anthemic vocals. Written in just three hours, Graham took the ease of its coming together as a sign that she’d write a full-length album just as quickly.

And she did – “Close” was such a powerful instigator that Graham wrote 40 songs for the album, much of it done during a three-week period in Los Angeles with Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer Scott Effman. Effman built his reputation as a producer who can defy genre boundaries to craft earworm pop music by working his magic with Akon, Kelly Clarkson, Mike Posner, Dean Lewis and Tiesto; Graham had worked with him previously for one of her favorite Golden Hour cuts, “Dots.”

“It was my first ever writing trip. I went over to play Canadian Music Week and then my publishers and management arranged for me to do a day with Scott Effman. In only two days, we were immediately on the same wavelength,” she remembers. “We work very well together, so I reached out to him to do an extended period of writing for Crystal Ball. That was a lot of fun, sometimes spending 15-hour days where all we were doing was writing and working on music and only breaking to get food.”

It was also during this period in LA that Graham wrote “Crystal Ball” with collaborator Jason Hahs. The song is inflected with Graham’s sonic tribute to the sci-fi and fantasy aesthetic and vibe that she’s long been in love with. “We both really love Game of Thrones and sci-fi,” she admits, which makes it into the playful song. “There’s lots of weird spells and sound effects, like wizards dueling. There’s about 100 layers of mandolins, vocoders and different sounds in it.”

“Writing about 40 songs for the record, there’s a lot of variety,” she adds. Electric guitar soars over Graham’s romantic promises on “How Long I’d Wait,” “Queen of The Night” reveals a dreamlike imaginary world in its curious instrumentation, and Graham revels in the melancholy sweetness of “This Is My Year.”

The last song on the album, “Distant Places” was a collaborative consequence of working with US producer Alex Somers, who had also worked on one of Graham’s favorite records, Valtari by Sigur Ros.

Between those first and last songs, “Staring At The Fire” was her paean to home. Graham was raised in Townsville, a northern Australian town where the heat and humidity are well-suited to the dreamily perfect beaches and lush mangroves. Graham’s mum is a marine biologist and her father, a park ranger. For Graham, music was as much of an obsession as nature and her childhood was immersed in both. She wrote “Staring At The Fire” on the old piano she’d brought from Townsville. It now resides in her home studio in Brunswick, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner north.

“I’ve lived in Melbourne now for seven years,” says Graham. “It’s been rough this year [with COVID19], but I love it here. All my family are American and they’re living on the West Coast. I’m an American citizen so I got to vote in the recent election. It was surreal.”

Graham moved to Melbourne to study music composition at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), one of Austalia’s leading arts colleges. “I worked hard to build a folio to apply there to study Interactive Composition. You’re right next to dancers, visual artists and musicians. It’s a lot about creating your own Melbourne groove,” she explains. “It’s very special because my band are all from VCA too. The students who attend VCA are dedicated to turning their practice into a job. I actually mentor and teach students there now. It brings me a lot of joy to be able to share the things I wish I’d been taught.”

While at school, Graham kickstarted her career by releasing a string of singles warmly received by radio audiences. “The Thaw” was added to full rotation on Triple J, and “Rise” received over 3.1 million streams on Spotify; they would eventually land on her self-titled debut EP. Stand-alone single “Change My Mind” was featured on fifteen international New Music Friday playlists, including from France, the UK and Vietnam, and the subsequent release of Golden Hour in 2018 officially made Woodes an artist worth watching.

Graham wanted Crystal Ball to bring fantasy into the everyday, so walking through her suburb in armor felt like the ideal way to do this. “It takes a while to find community when you move to a new place. Brunswick is a perfect place for that… I’ve lived in a bunch of sharehouses around Melbourne and Brunswick is very close to the city, but sort of in the suburbs still,” she says. “A lot of my musician friends live around the corner. We have board game nights, dinners and gathering around the fireplace. There’s a lot of co-working spaces and studios around here.” Suffice to say, her neighbors didn’t bat an eye to see her traipsing about dressed like a Medieval warrior.

Her community provided creative connections, too. “During lockdown, Nick Mckk, who lives just down the road, dropped off camera equipment on my veranda, then he takes it away and edits it. We worked on the ‘Crystal Ball’ music video and a bunch of making of videos too,” Graham says.

But perhaps her biggest break through to date has been in a well-known virtual community – Minecraft. “All of my work has a visual element, so I’d work with directors and game developers, including with the Minecraft project. Minecraft is a very creative game, almost like The Sims; you can create your own dream house, so in mine there’s a giant train and a crystal ball in the middle of the town. You can visit each of the songs on the album via this train network,” Graham explains. “I’ve played a lot more Minecraft than I ever expected! I thought it was so cool to allow access to this place if you bought my album, so you could hear my songs for the first time in the world and interact with me by asking questions about how I made them.”

Graham is excited to finally allow the world beyond Minecraft to enter her auditory universe. From Townsville to Melbourne, via Los Angeles, the album is an amalgam of all her worlds. Now it can be ours.

Follow Woodes on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Fancy Hagood Finds Freedom in Being “Fancy”

Photo Credit: Natalie Osborne

When Fancy Hagood moved to Nashville at the age of 17, he traveled across state lines with a dream. A native of Arkansas raised by parents who followed the Nazarene faith, Hagood convinced them to allow him to attend Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville after dropping out of high school and earning his GED at 16, using it as a bartering tool for his true goal of becoming an singer. “I came here to go to college, but I had an agenda,” Hagood says.  

When he arrived in Music City, Hagood began pounding the pavement, turning his dream of being an artist into reality by attending every singer-songwriter round he could find and forging connections with each person in the music industry who crossed his path. But the seedling for his artistic identity was planted almost by accident, two years into his Nashville journey, while working at Forever 21. His lavish appearance – complete with full makeup, manicures and a new hair color each day – inspired his manager to dub him “Fancy” after the popular Drake song of the same name. “It was the first time someone was calling me something while also kind of making fun of me that I actually felt empowered by,” Hagood recalls. “I was like ‘I am that, you’re exactly right.’”

The nickname stuck, not only on the floor at Forever 21, but as part of Hagood’s blossoming career. But as a young, queer artist in the South, Hagood was met with challenges. In an attempt to dissuade people from focusing solely on his sexual identity, he began billing himself under the name “Fancy,” with his first show under the alias selling out. Soon, Hagood was equipped with a record deal under Big Machine Label Group and former manager Scooter Braun and relocated to Los Angeles. Operating in an industry that was still tepid in marketing a queer artist, it didn’t take long for the mysterious name to generate buzz. Hagood built a following that included famous fans Tori Kelly and Kacey Musgraves, gaining notoriety with his debut single “Goodbye” and the follow-up bop “Boys Like You” featuring pop superstars Meghan Trainor and Ariana Grande.

While the songs captured who Hagood was in his early 20s, when he was focused on chasing chart success, his cartoonish secret identity recalled a dark time he had put behind him. “It was a weird thing where I felt hidden again,” he explains of the pseudonym. “When you come out of the closet, you don’t really ever feel like that’s going to be your life again. It was damaging to me because I felt hidden and I felt like who I was as a person and as an artist wasn’t good enough to be shown to the world. That’s something I never want to go back to.”

Staying true to this proclamation, Hagood parted ways with Braun and Big Machine, returning to Nashville with the mission of sharing his story truthfully through song. “When I was on a major label, I was told me being queer, being from the South [were obstacles]. I think leaning into those things that make me unique and make me different and finding the sounds that no one else is really experimenting with, I call that queer Southern pop,” Hagood explains. “I’m tired of apologizing for being exactly what I am, and I am queer and I am Southern and I’m a pop artist. So why not make my own lane and celebrate all these things that in my career have been obstacles.”

His newfound liberation begins with “Don’t Blink.” A stark contrast from his LA-produced work, the soothing song backed by a guitar melody was born after Hagood sparked a romance with someone an ocean away in London. Though the relationship didn’t last, it did teach Hagood about the kind of love he desires, as conveyed in the lyrics, “Oh, when you’re looking at the sky/Oh, so am I/Don’t blink or you could miss it/Oh, when you’re wishing on a star/Know I’m there in your heart.” Meanwhile, “Another Lover Says” finds him in the “difficult” position of breaking someone’s heart for the first time, serving as an anthem for moving on. The tracks symbolize a fresh start for the eclectic singer-songwriter, one forged from honesty and ingenuity that he channels into his upcoming album, Southern Curiosity.

“It felt like the first time in years I was creating something that actually made me feel fulfilled,” he says of the “candid” album. “This record and this chapter in my life is more about telling a story and showing up completely, wholly myself and allowing people to learn who I am and what my journey has been like and share my stories. Before I think I was just chasing success. When you realize you’re not chasing anything and you’re finally just creating from the heart, I feel like that is when dots start to connect and things start to move in place and it feels a little bit more free. That’s what I’m all about – feeling free.”

Freedom is the cornerstone of Hagood’s identity not only as an artist, but as a human, with “Fancy” serving as the symbol for his ever-evolving artistry. With the forthcoming arrival of Southern Curiosity, Hagood hopes that listeners find freedom in his work and view it as a “bridge” and “unifier” to change hearts and open minds. “I hope that people can hear it and be set free by anything that’s holding them back from being their true self. I’m hoping it can be liberating for people who haven’t yet been set free,” he says.

“For me, ‘Fancy’ is a state of being. It’s where my confidence comes from, knowing that no one can make the rules for me. I make the rules for myself and I show up every day as myself,” he adds, noting that there’s “shame” and “rejection” attached to birth name. “With Fancy, I don’t have that. I don’t carry that shame. I’m not worried about the things I used to worry about,” he continues. “Fancy really set me free and it helped me find who I am as a person. It’s not just a name for me, it is a lifestyle, and I’m super thankful to have been able to take a little bit of a jab and turn it into a mantra. Being fancy has nothing to do with the way I look. It has everything to do with the way I feel.”

Follow Fancy Hagood on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

There’s No Better Time to Listen to Kacey Johansing’s Soothing New Album

LA-based indie pop singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kacey Johansing’s latest album No Better Time is mellow and soothing, a much-needed mood at the moment. Even though the songs weren’t written about the current state of the world, many of the lyrics read as words of comfort in uncertain times. “Let’s fall backwards/I need not know what comes after,” she softly sings in the delicate, calm “Fall Backwards.”

The record also includes a number of love songs, both happy — e.g. the airy, floaty opener “Make Love” — and solemn, e.g. the wistful “I Try,” a single about “feeling like you’ve tried everything to make relationships work, or to feel like you belong in a relationship, and that it’s not so straightforward for everyone based on their upbringing or past experiences,” she explains. In the video, she wanders through flowery fields, conveying a sense of “waking up from a dream and seeing something you don’t have anymore.”

The jazzy, romantic “All of Me,” another single off the album, is about overcoming issues with body image and self-esteem; it was written during a moment when Johansing was feeling insecure. “I give you my heart and my soul/and only feel big boned/Cuz they don’t make it in my size/I have no disguise,” she sings candidly. In a dream-like video incorporating holographic visuals, she looks into shimmery mirrors out in the mountains, on the beach, and amid fluorescent flowers.

“It felt cathartic working through a low point and writing an anthem about loving myself and loving and accepting my body wherever it’s at,” she says. “[When people listen to it, I hope] that they feel less alone or that they can practice self-love too. Or even, if it’s in a moment of feeling shitty about themselves, they just know they’re not the only ones and we just can pause and give ourselves a break.”

“Even a Lot Feels Like Nothing,” a simple but emotive piano-driven song that Johansing considers her favorite track on the LP, also deals with self-acceptance, as well as asking another to accept oneself. “[It’s about] asking whoever you’re with for patience as you figure it out — maybe you’ve been hurt before, your heart’s closed up, but you don’t want to give up on love,” she explains.

“I tend to really love the songs I write on piano, which I don’t write many on,” she adds. “I guess it just taps into my musical theater roots or something, and I love the string arrangements on it. I just love the arrangement all around. It feels like kind of a classic song. I worked really hard on it — its a song that took me a long time to finish, so it’s meaningful to me.” 

The title No Better Time is meant to be ironic but also true, referencing the album’s release in the middle of a pandemic. “We need more music and beauty and art in our lives, even though it’s not ideal,” she says. The title track has almost an oldies vibe to it, with a cheery tune but serious lyrics about drawing boundaries within toxic relationships.

The album was recorded live in the studio with a number of instruments — among them electric and acoustic guitars, synthesizer, cello, viola, violin, flute, piano, drums bass, and even sleigh bells — and produced by Johansing and multi-instrumentalist Tim Ramsey (Vetiver, Fruit Bats) without much editing other than mixing it and layering some overdubs.

“I just wanted it to be really true to myself where I was at that time musically and with the musicians that I was collaborating with,” says Johansing, who played the guitar, piano, and synthesizer herself. “I just wanted it to feel authentic and pure and lush.”

No Better Time is Johansing’s fourth album, following 2017’s The Hiding. It utilized a different band than her past work, but she still considers it “very me,” she explains. “I always am drawn to similar ways of arranging and similar instruments.” She’s written a number of new songs recently that she hopes to record in the winter.

Johansing also runs a record label, Nightbloom Records, with her friends Jeff Manson and Alex Bleeker, representing such artists as Suzanne Vallie and Mariee Sioux. “That’s a really nice way for me to stay engaged with the musical community during COVID times,” she says.

She considers her music a way to explore questions like how to love when one’s past is full of pain, though she has by no means arrived at an answer. “The album isn’t ‘I figured it out,'” she says, “but it was part of the journey toward figuring it out.”

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