I met Mario Sulaksana four years ago, in a Wayne State University practice room. He was the band leader of a fundraiser for the Artist Residency I was living in, and the residency coordinator suggested he accompany me for a song or two. When we first spoke on the phone, I remember preparing to meet a 40-something, well established jazz musician – he sounded so grown up and formal. I was shocked, then, to see a 20-something man in basketball shorts and a backpack greet me and let me into the practice building. “I actually graduated a few months ago but I can still get in here to practice,” he explained.
I was a bit skeptical at first. As someone with very limited formal music training, collaborating with the “music major” types always kind of intimidated me or rubbed me the wrong way. But there was something about Mario that felt different. His professional demeanor mixed with his college kid wardrobe was extremely endearing. After a few minutes of talking, it became clear that he is the kind of person that makes it feel like you’ve known him for years within a few minutes of meeting. And then he started playing the keys. I was floored by his intuition and ease on the keyboard. Within two hours, we had written three songs together, one of which we performed at the fundraiser.
As much as I’d like to think I’m special, Mario is the type of producer that brings out the best in every single musician he works with. That’s probably why, then, four years later, his debut album Conclusion features almost twenty different musicians (including me), all of whom could tell a similar story to mine. The record is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Mario’s last eight years in Detroit – absorbing inspiration from the greats like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, spending countless hours composing and performing, and making friends that naturally evolved into collaborators and vice versa.
Sulaksana explains that while writing the record, it became clear which of his friends would be the perfect fit for the parts he had in mind. “It’s just kinda how my brain works. I can only imagine the words coming from a certain voice, or the pocket grooving from a certain drummer,” says Sulaksana. “I think it reinforces the message to the musicians that I care about them as people first, and that everyone’s individual voice matters.”
Of course, wrangling so many musicians is extremely time consuming and difficult. Nonetheless, Sulaksana managed to record the entire album in a matter of six 12-hour days at Rust Belt Studios, a studio just outside of Detroit. Sulaksana says that over half of the songs were finished or written in the studio, speaking to his ability to improvise. “I remember writing the lyrics to ‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ the night before my session with Keyandra, but I had only completed the song halfway,” says Sulaksana. “I then finished the rest of the lyrics quite literally on the car ride to the studio.”
Part of his improvisational prowess comes from the years Mario spent as a band leader for live shows. Before recording Conclusion, Sulaksana worked any number of weddings, dive bar shows and gigs in Detroit’s mainstay jazz clubs, Cliff Bells and Willis Show Bar. And while he played thousands of covers in this time, there were a few that stuck out. Although most of Conclusion is entirely original music, he chose four of his favorite pop songs to record “Mario style” – which means complex chords, lush arrangements, and a killer band. The covers showcase his knack for transforming a universally recognizable song into one that feels like you’re hearing it for the first time.
The one that stands out to me is “Landslide,” sung by local artist Madelyn Grant. A departure from his normally intricate arrangements, this cover is stripped down, featuring just Sulaksana on the keys and Grant on vocals. The arrangement is a perfect example of Sulaksana’s wide-ranging influences, from gospel music to Fleetwood Mac. Grant’s ethereal vocals float over Sulaksana’s unexpected chords, a combination that is as satisfying as it is unordinary.
As far as his original work on Conclusion, Sulaksanapays homage to R&B and soul legends. One of the first songs he wrote on the record, “Always,” is his most obvious tribute to Stevie Wonder. Not only does the name nod at one of Stevie’s most beloved songs, but the jazz-infused chords and languid melodies are reminiscent of Songs in the Key of Life. In the chorus, Justin Showell sings Sulaksana’s lyrics, “Stevie always told us, love’s in need of love/I know that your love is in need of mine,” acknowledging the depth of Wonder’s influence on his musicianship.
Though Sulaksana cites Wonder as one of his heroes, he admits that the album’s eclectic sound pulls from a mosaic of different sources. “‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ had a lot of Floetry and D’angelo energy behind it. The Intro, ‘Love is Here to Stay,’ felt like a lost K-Ci & JoJo demo, and honestly a lot of the others just kinda happened,” says Sulaksana. “Each song had its own influences and I think it’s pretty evident when you juxtapose them individually and out of order from the album.”
As is the story for almost everyone, the past year has been one of shapeshifting, growth and change. For Sulaksana, it’s meant switching gears from band-directing live to producing in the studio, arranging other artists’ songs to writing his own, and stepping from the shadows into the spotlight. While he was itching to get into the studio to record songs he had been writing for years, he says he feels most at home working behind the scenes. “I wish I could be somewhere in between Chad Hugo and Mark Ronson,” Sulaksana muses. “Maybe leaning more toward Chad at the moment… I don’t really care to have my face on a bunch of things. It’s weird to promote myself. I work with so many beautiful stars who shine on stage and make it look easy. I want to lift them up as high as possible.”
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If you haven’t heard neo-soul artist Madelyn Grant’s name before, there’s a chance you’ve heard her voice. From being featured on tracks with huge EDM artists like Odesza and FKJ to a short stint on NBC’s The Voice back in 2019, Grant has been dipping her toes into the deep end of the music industry for at least half a decade. And although these experiences served as great learning opportunities for Grant, they didn’t allow her to do the one thing she felt was most important – telling her own story. On her bombshell of a debut EP, Purpose, Grant trades in catchy toplines for deeply personal, soulful songs focusing on growth, reflection and the meaning of life.
“Ultimately, the EP is about transformation,” explains Grant. “What I went through when I wrote and recorded all these songs was an immense period of change… it was a pretty tumultuous time.” She started writing some of these songs right after graduating from the University of Michigan and coming off of a nationwide tour with electronic artist Emancipator. She went from singing to crowds of up to three thousand people to being back in Michigan, broke and wondering what her next move was. And so the transformation began.
Grant’s experience with songwriting left her with mixed feelings about the music industry. Although she had been featured on songs that had hundreds of millions of streams, she didn’t feel that they represented who she was as an artist. She was getting dozens of emails a week from A&R reps asking her to write for other artists, when the real story she wanted to tell was her own. But she didn’t quite know what form it would take. “I wanted to figure out what my voice sounded like,” says Grant. “What does a Madelyn Grant melody sound like? What is my style? What am I trying to say?”
Sonically, Purpose is a mosaic of Grant’s most formative influences – Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. She refers to these artists as her “big three” in terms of the musical impact they had on her. Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, Grant says her dad was always playing the Motown greats around the house or in the car and that they played a huge role in her journey to finding her voice. It’s easy to hear remnants of Wonder in Grant’s buoyant melodies – especially in the opening line of the EP’s title track.
In perfectly controlled falsetto, Grant poses the question: “How do you measure/Happiness and pleasure?” And answers her own question with the refrain, “Let me take one guess/You base it off success.” Grant explains that her definition of success has changed over the years, molding to fit what makes her happy versus trying to match expectations set by others. “You have to forge your own path,” she says. “Every artist does it. No musician or artist has the same path to what they want to achieve and success isn’t determined around what other people say it is, it’s what you want it to be.”
Part of Grant’s path was a period of immense struggle and emotional turmoil, eventually manifesting itself in this body of work. “I’m thinking back to what I was going through when I wrote all these songs, and it was a lot of really heavy stuff,” Grant muses. “I was in my mid-twenties and I just felt like there were parts of adulthood that I wasn’t really equipped to face, or parts of me recognizing I was struggling with my mental health… it was a lot of struggle but in the end, there’s something beautiful.” She likens the process of writing the record to the journey of a caterpillar to a butterfly, which is why all of the album art contains butterfly imagery.
Grant’s metamorphosis is narrated throughout the record, from feeling cocooned and stationary in “Can’t Get Out,” to eventually breaking out of limiting mindsets and patterns in “Reasons.”And while there’s an apparent wanderlust to Grant’s lyrics in both of these songs, she explains that being in Detroit the past few years to record and release this EP has felt right. “It does really feel special to put out that music here,” says Grant, “because when I wrote it, that’s what I was really inspired by. It just feels like it’s at home here.”
Wherever Grant goes next, Purpose assures us that it will be on her terms, with her voice, telling her story. It’s a triumphant, uplifting EP centered on rebirth and self-reliance, reminding us that we are all the authors of our own fate.
With this absolute dumpster fire of a year coming to a close, the next few weeks are a time for reflection, rest and recuperation. That means a lot of things for a lot of people, but in the music world, it means year-end lists. I usually tend to stay away from this sort of thing because I don’t love the hierarchical nature of the practice. However, it has truly amazed me to see the amount of stellar music come out of Detroit in the midst of such a gut-wrenching year, and it feels important and cathartic to look back on some of the beauty that surfaced in the sea of chaos. I don’t pretend to be a curatorial genius or an authority of any sort, but here are some of my favorite releases from Detroit artists in 2020, in no particular order.
Jay Daniel – SSD (EP)
Detroit house mainstay Jay Daniels gives us fifteen minutes of percussion-driven, layered dance music. While his roots as a drummer remain evident on the EP, Daniels guides the listener through a vibrant forest of sound and space with ease. Shiny synths and deep bass embellishments wrap his complex rhythmic patterns into a pleasurable and meditative listening experience.
Zilched – DOOMPOP (LP)
Lead singer and songwriter of Zilched, Chloe Drallos, has the innate ability to immortalize potent emotions. Delivered with thrashing drums, distorted guitar and apathetic vocals, Drallos recounts moments of heartbreak, angst and boredom that are crushingly relatable. The record is reminiscent of the ’90s riot grrrl without being derivative and satiates the screaming late-teen, early twenty-year old in all of us.
Tammy Lakkis – “Get Up”/”Moon Rock” (single)
Tammy Lakkis makes irresistible electronic music with attention-grabbing percussion and melodic sensibility. “Get Up” feels like spinning out of control without worry or regard for where you’ll land, while “Moon Rock” captivates the listener with the pairing of Lakkis’ mesmerizing vocals and trippy synth layers.
Boldy James, Sterling Toles – Manger on McNichols (LP)
It’s hard to find the words to describe the gravity of this record. Detroit rapper Boldy James teams up with masterful producer Sterling Toles to blur the lines between hip-hop and jazz in a record that took nearly a decade to complete. Boldy’s often gutting depictions of the city and his experience therein are his most personal and potent verses to date, which he credits to Toles in “Mommy Dearest (A Eulogy).” Toles’ diverse sampling, intricate rhythmic patterns and orchestral arrangements are the perfect pair to Boldy’s visceral anecdotes, making for an undeniably timeless and legendary record.
Omar S – Simply (EP)
A true staple in the Detroit house realm, Omar S unsurprisingly delivers a trance-inducing, escapist EP. The perfect amount of dissonance mixed with bouncy up-tempo tracks gives the listener what they want without being over indulgent.
Milfie (feat. Supercoolwicked) – “From Milfie, With Love” (single)
In a year filled with so much uncertainty, there’s something ultra comforting in listening to an artist who knows exactly who she is, and that’s Milfie in a nutshell. In this two-part single, Milfie reminds us of her unshakable self worth, demanding flow and refreshing realness. Joined by ethereal R&B singer-songwriter, SUPERCOOLWICKED, on “Ain’t Got Time,” the two powerhouse artists reflect on the importance of loving yourself and blocking out the bullshit.
Jake Kmiecik – Horizons (EP)
Kmiecik – drummer of psychedelic-folk outfit Bonny Doon – shows his range in his solo ambient project, Horizons. Glimmering synths are the guiding force in this minimal and cerebral record. Soft and spacey moments intertwined with lush, cascading layers call to mind the ebbs and flows of nature. As a whole, the project feels like a much needed deep breath.
Maya Mereaux – Seauxl (LP)
Songstress Maya Mereaux makes the stream of consciousness melodic on her first full-length record, Seauxl – a ten-track journey to self-awareness. The album weaves a strong narrative via incredible vocals about losing oneself in a romance, only to come out the other end knowing yourself better than ever before.
White Bee – Psychedelic Flight Attendant (LP)
White Bee’s Shannon Barnes shares a soulful and transparent foray into her innermost thoughts on Psychedelic Flight Attendant. Barnes has spent the better part of the last decade not only teaching herself guitar, but creating her own unique sound along the way. Filled with syncopated rhythms, unexpected melodies and universal truths, this record is a shining time capsule for Barnes’ growth as an artist.
Zelooperz – Valley of Life (LP)
Part of Zelooperz’ allure is his ability to jump from character to character within a single project. Just as the title Valley of Life suggests, this body of work feels like a sample platter of all the people Zelooperz is, has been, or could be. That range extends into his seemingly effortless flow, which can fluctuate between sincere and satirical in eight bars.
Tiny Jag – Morph (EP)
Deviating from her former trap-hop style of writing, Tiny Jag “morphs” her sound into alternative power pop on this 2020 EP. Her cunning wordplay is still there, this time delivered with more blasé, controlled vocals and accompanied by booming 808s and shimmering synths. Though this music has all the elements of top-charting success, don’t be mistaken – this isn’t like anything you’ve heard before.
whiterosemoxie – white ceilings (LP)
People love a prodigy. And while many blogs focus on Moxie’s age – just 17 years old – it’s important not to gloss over the fact that no matter what age, the rapper is a talent that only comes around once in a while. His poetic flow is reminiscent of Long Beach’s Vince Staples, and though the two are an entire country apart, they share a penchant for repping their city and distilling their experience in a way that makes them charmingly relatable.
Moodymann – Taken Away (LP)
Detroit’s Godfather of house music – Kenny Dixon Jr. – is back with his legendary funk grooves and repetitions, but this time they’re paired with an undercurrent of pain and longing. After a tumultuous year which included being harassed by police in front of his own building, it would be impossible not to inject some of that frustration into the music. Taken Away isn’t a record that encourages you to forget the tears, but rather to dance through them.
Fred Thomas – Dream Erosion (Synthesizer Songs) (LP)
Thomas is known for his devastatingly honest, stream of consciousness style of writing. And although Dream Erosion is devoid of lyrics, the writing still feels like a magically unfiltered outpouring of emotion. This is especially true of “Kitchen,” a collaborative improvisation that was recorded entirely in Chuck Sipperly’s ‘synth kitchen.’ The record is as beautiful as it is somber and sounds like the amalgamation of collective despair, surrender and inevitable hope.
Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming (LP)
Burch’s second full length release is soaked with a nostalgia we didn’t know we’d have in 2020. “Party’s Over” reminds us of the times there were parties that we didn’t want to go to, where instrumentals like “Keep it Warm” and “Picture Show” emit a longing for something we can’t get back. Burch’s sweet voice glides over melancholy guitar strums and lackadaisical drums, leaving the listener with the feeling of waking up from a fever dream.
Cousin Mouth – “New Memories” (single)
Cousin Mouth’s songwriter and lead singer/guitarist Alex Burns gives us a glimpse into his forthcoming record MayflowerPeacemakerHolyredeemer with its premiere single, “New Memories.” Burns’ soulful falsetto and intricate guitar riffs are accompanied by the gorgeous voices of Detroit vocalists Supercoolwicked and Salakastar to create a sort of psychedelic R&B. Burns’ lyrics teeter between the ephemeral and the literal, weaving a story of self-doubt and redemption.
Jacob Sigman – Color Coded Heart (LP)
Prolific songwriter/artist Jacob Sigman gives us forty-five minutes of uplifting and earnest pop music. Sigman’s knack for earworm-type melodies paired with uncontrived optimism make his music inherently loveable – even “Get Your Love,” a song about losing a lover, is sprinkled with a carefree hope that has the power to momentarily release you from the gravity of heartbreak.
Black Noi$e – Oblivion (LP)
DJ and producer Rob Mansel, a.k.a Black Noi$e, enlists a star-studded roster of friends to complete his first full-length Oblivion. With appearances from Danny Brown to bbymutha, Mansel demonstrates that he has a well of talented peers to pull from. Despite the high-profile collabs, his dark, layered production style stands on its own throughout the record. He doesn’t bend his arrangements for any of the featured artists, but rather creates his own world of mangled percussion and ominous synths in which his collaborators can dwell with ease.
Madelyn Grant – “Purpose” (single)
Neo-soul singer-songwriter Madelyn Grant ponders life’s meaning on her debut solo single, “Purpose” – a song about blocking out the noise and expectations of society to find what truly moves you. Grant’s pristine vocals sit comfortably on a bed of horns, electric piano and steadfast drums. She pays homage to some of her Motown idols, like The Supremes and Marvin Gaye, with airtight harmonies and infectious melodies.
Meftah – Information Travels Through (LP)
A record that truly shows the vibrant and singular spirit of its creator, Information Travels Through is a breathtaking ode to finding a sense of self in a world that is so often telling us what we should be. Meftah shared a gorgeous statement along with the record that says it better than anything I could say, partially quoted below:
“So this is me creating my own context, beyond the one painted for us on Earth. Beyond just the music, and the record. It is a spiritual war going on. Mentally. Physically….Right now, in 2020, because we STILL exist within a system founded off of land and body theft from Africa, and all colonized lands, this work is dedicated to all my fellow soldiers. It is for all children of the Diaspora. We will always move together.”
Sasha Kashperko – “Can We Not Go to War, Please?” (single)
Kashperko displays his kinship with his instrument on his plea, “Can We Not Go to War, Please?” The track is urgent and erudite, showcasing Kashperko’s deep understanding of rhythmic structure and melodic phrasing. Asking a simple enough request that has clung to the minds of so many of us in the last few years, he doesn’t give any answers, but cries out in solidarity and frustration.
Salar Ansari – Sayeh E Nour (LP)
Spacious synths and watery percussion create a kaleidoscopic atmosphere in this lush ambient record. Ansari’s use of experimental instruments and uncanny sounds transport the listener to a different world with every track. Perfect for both blissful dissociation or centering mindfulness.
Mario Sulaksana – “For You” (single)
Producer, composer and pianist Mario Sulaksana’s first solo release is a glimmering ode to his most concrete influences – Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye. A true student of the craft, Sulaksana fuses his own cascading style with the formula of the greats – a simple but strong melody, the perfect balance of space and sound, and satisfying harmonies.
don’t – Lightning Slow (LP)
don’t finds a way to make their apathetic garage pop cozy and charming. Baked in warm and fuzzy guitars and steady but unexpected melodies, Lightning Slow feels like a first kiss in your parents basement; surprising, a little uncomfortable, but welcome and oddly familiar. Lead singer Frances Ma delivers poetic verses with angelic apathy, merging nostalgic feelings of teenage angst with more recent feelings of existential dread.
Eddie Logix – Placebo Palace (EP)
At any given moment, Eddie Logix likely has his hands in myriad different projects around the city or even country. The diverse producer, engineer and DJ is known for his elasticity when it comes to making and engineering music, but on Placebo Palace, it’s clear that his heart lies in dance music. The EP feels like a love letter to Detroit and is a welcome ray of light in this dark year.
Tearyeyed – “ForceField V4” (single)
Tearyeyed combines beautiful textures layered together to tell a story that the listener can mold into their own on “ForceField V4.” The song starts out like an afterthought – a simplistic tapping rhythm and guitar strums laced with tearyeyed’s pillowy vocals chase one another in circles. The song’s mantra stands out through the melodic mist: “My love is like a forcefield, I am there to protect you.” Slowly, his voice fades and the drums crescendo into an outpouring of unspoken emotion.
Double Winter – It’s About our Hearts
Beachy riffs, sentimental melodies, and charming honesty are the makings of the debut LP from psychedelic-surf rock outfit Double Winter. It’s About our Hearts has something for everyone – from goth wallflower anthem “Sad Girl at the Rave” to the ’80s drag racing soundtrack stylings of “Rodeo.” Their myriad influences range from doo-wop to Italo, and are what make their sound universally accessible and very much their own.
DonJuan – “Red Plum” (single)
DonJuan is a grossly underrated songwriter and producer based in Detroit. “Red Plum” is just an introduction to his catalogue of simplistically poignant material. This song in particular contains the type of intimacy that makes you feel like you were in the room when it was recorded. The lyrics are simple enough (“I never seem to say the things I mean, I never wanna ask for things I need”) but when repeated over and over they serve as both a reflection and a question to the listener.
2Lanes – “Baby’s Born to Fish” (single)
A strikingly influential group of musicians comes together on this pulsating meditation on change and resilience. Detroit’s Kesswa, Ian Finkelstein, Shigeto and John F.M. are all contributors to this atmospheric track. The result is haunting and unyielding dance track that could only be made in Detroit.
Billionaire Sophia – Ootgoat (LP)
Billionaire Sophia makes music that meets in the middle of pop, house and R&B. Her voice is as smooth as butter and floats perfectly over her self-produced, synth and percussion heavy beats. Her melodies are satisfying but not predictable, lyrics colloquial but not cliché. There’s a touch of glamour and fantasy to all of her songs, both sonically and thematically – it’s the type of music that makes you feel like anything is possible.
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