PLAYING DETROIT: Virginia Violet & The Rays Modernize Motown with ‘On the Fringe’

Born from a chance meeting in 2016, Virginia Violet and The Rays is the brainchild of musicians Virginia Nastase and Joe Myers. When the two met two years ago, the musical chemistry was incendiary. “We started cranking out songs like it was our last day on earth,” says Myers. Since then, the duo has grown to a nine-piece band, boasting a full horn section and some of the most soulful players in town. They’ve just released their first full-length LP, On the Fringe.

The record is an ode to the indelible sounds of Motown, tinged with a darker twist than you’ll find on most ‘60s soul records. Unlike some of the band’s totems of inspiration – Erma Franklin’s “Gotta Find Me a Lover” and Lou Pride’s “I’m Coming Home in the Morning” – VV and The Rays depart from the traditional topics of love and heartbreak covered in most soul music and offer portraits of tragedy, danger, and sass. From “Chompin’ at the Bit,” which tackles economic disparity in the America, to “Terminal,” a song exploring the relationship between a child and their dying mother, these are certainly not your run of the mill “shoo-bee-doo-bop I wanna love you” tunes.

“I have always found it easier to write about darker topics because that’s when I write the most for therapy,” says Nastase. “Happiness is an experience that is easy to enjoy but tragedy needs to be interpreted and sorted through for me. I think that process allows me to write about those things.” But Nastase isn’t on an island when it comes to songwriting. The pair says they find a balance in their complementary writing styles; Nastase keeps things even keel while Myers prefers the brain dump method.

Although some of their songs lean towards the dark side thematically, the blustering band keeps spirits up with their bouncy, soul-infused arrangements. The four-piece horn section, filled out by Garrett Gaina (baritone saxophone), Adam Dib (alto saxophone), Chris Kendall (trombone), and Dave Vessella (trumpet), adds a layer of brightness that can make even singing about death seem less dim. The brass blowers even go above and beyond on “Muscle Milk,” adding call-and-response background vocals to Nastase’s strong and cheeky delivery.

Recorded in only a few live sessions, On the Fringe feels like stepping into the hottest Motown bar of the 1960s with the angst and unrest that screams 2018. The stellar musicianship is nearly on par with session players from the Muscle Shoals and Motown eras and adds a warmth and authenticity to the record that’s hard to find on any albums recorded post-ProTools. Just as the record would suggest, VV and The Rays’ live performances are even more flooring than the record itself. Though the band doesn’t have any national dates on the book yet, they’re plotting for a tour in the near future and can be seen and heard at scattered shows in the Detroit area.

Listen to On the Fringe and watch their video for “Where I Belong” below.


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

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

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

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

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

PLAYING DETROIT: April Releases Flaunt Detroit’s Musical Depth

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Photo by Landon Speers

The past week has been a prolific one for Detroit artists, with singles being released from all sides of the genre spectrum. Instead of highlighting just one, I decided to choose a few of my favorites. From Virginia Violet and the Rays’ punchy “Modern Motown” to Tunde Olaniran’s “soft femme trap anthem,” these songs model the deep talent and vast diversity of Detroit’s music scene.

“Vulnerable” – Tunde Olaniran

Flint, Michigan native Tunde Olaniran has proven himself to be an absolute force of nature over the last few years, and “Vulnerable” is no exception. Following in the vein of 2017 releases “Hunger” and “Symbol,” the newest track is an empathetic, empowering ode to self-love, delivered with a sharp tongue and set to a dreamy, danceable beat. Repeating the mantra “What love can I give if I can’t love myself / Go in and go out of this world by ourselves / I just wanna be vulnerable,” Olaniran harps on the importance on discovering your true self and sharing it with the world. And with a voice like Olaniran’s, it’s hard not to be convinced.

“Apartment Fire” – Moon King

Moon King, a.k.a Daniel Benjamin, adds to his euphoric, funk-infused body of work with “Apartment Fire.” Combining ‘80s inspired deep synths with ‘70s funk guitar patterns and a silky sweet falsetto, Benjamin creates a languid, decade-defying sound. The song’s infectious beat and mesmerizing vocals can persuade anyone to move their hips, whether they can understand the song or not. This is a plus for Benjamin, who’ll be heading out on a lengthy European tour this spring.


 “Go on Without Me” – Virginia Violet and the Rays

Virginia Violet and the Rays’ high-charged single “Go on Without Me” puts a soulful spin on the classic Bonnie and Clyde narrative. Virginia Violet uses her robust vocals to tell the story of a lovers’ heist that goes from enthralling to fatal. Her blustering eight-piece band plays an equal hand in spinning the narrative, with Tommy Porter’s apprehensive guitar riffs and a screeching four-piece horn section (Garrett Gaina, Adam Dib, Chris Kendall and Dave Vasella). It’s the perfect song to blast when you’re stuck in rush hour traffic but pretending you’re involved in a high-speed chase. 

“Haunt” – Alexander Lynch

Detroit via Grand Rapids via Norway, Michigan artist Alexander Lynch has a penchant for making sultry songs that make you want to text your ex at 11:00 am on a Tuesday. “Haunt” is one such of those songs. Co-produced with Jon Zott, “Haunt” is a weighty, synth-driven track that accurately captures the feelings of longing and infatuation. While the song’s heavy bass and synth elements recall Flume and Chet Faker, Lynch’s strong, emotive vocals place him on the border of electro-pop and R&B.



PLAYING DETROIT: Will Sessions Tease New Album, Deluxe

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

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

PLAYING DETROIT the Mourning After: Martha and The Vandellas “Dancing in the Street”


If you were like me, you likely stayed in bed this morning a little too long wanting nothing more than to wake up but without ever having to open your eyes. The future we collectively rallied behind, hoped for, and deserved became a hungover breach in clarity. “Did this happen? How did this happen?” Where am I?”

This morning, however, was remarkably similar to many of my mornings. Cats pawing at my chest and the sound of children’s laughter, squeals, and declarations of play invited itself to wake me, through closed doors and windows. The Ellen Thompson preparatory academy located in the backyard of my apartment building holds recess sometime around 11am. The school is at least 95% African American and at least 5% of the children have hollered at me through the chain link fence “Are you Taylor Swift?” while I take my trash out. Playing along, I say yes but promise them to secrecy. This drives them wild and they frantically disperse in fits of excitement, laughter and the belief that maybe I am telling the truth. Today I stood with my face against the fence, trash in hand, watching the recently emptied tire swing sway like an uneasy and haunted pendulum. I watched it slow to a stop as the last of the tiny jackets disappeared behind the school doors. In the deafening silence, I hummed to myself a familiar song about dancing and the need for sweet, sweet music.

“Dancing in the Street” by Martha and The Vandellas was innocently inspired by Detroit residents who resorted to fire hydrant water to cool themselves from scorching the Summer heat. Released during the summer of 1964 in the thick of the Civil Rights crisis and in the midst of the Vietnam War, the upbeat chart-topper became an unexpected anthem of freedom for the disenfranchised and a nightmare feared by those who trembled in the shadows of social progress. Banned from radio stations for allegedly eliciting riot behavior and rebellious violence from the African-American community across the country and most notably in Detroit, the pop song about a party urgently ushered a call for change, unity and yes, even 52 years later, the power of sweet, sweet music.

This morning was remarkably similar to many of my mornings. Except today was different. I have more hope than I did yesterday. Not because of what has happened but because of what will happen. Recess will resume tomorrow and so will the future; the daily sea of toothless grins and bouncing pigtail braids promise this.

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PLAYING DETROIT: Mayer Hawthorne “Cosmic Love”


Detroit-adopted Ann Arborite and premier Motown revivalist, Mayer Hawthorne, returned this week with another funk infused groove, “Cosmic Love” from his fourth solo studio LP (his first in three years) due out this spring. If you’re unfamiliar, you might think Hawthorne is just another white boy relying on soulful affectation. What you should know is that Hawthorne has built his reputation on authentically modernizing funk, soul and Detroit’s signature Motown sound in a way that has always felt fresh and fun but with a soothing melancholy that speaks to what Hawthorne does best: croon and groove.

This time around, however, I feel as though Hawthorne missed an opportunity. “Cosmic Love”, for me, is borderline comical. It could fit into a shaky Shaft-esque 1970’s amateur porn or a montage scene from an Anchorman movie with equal fluidity. It’s satirical in its literal interpretation using galactic twinkling synths, Hawthorne’s spacey echoed vocals, and the breathy female background chorus, all of which makes “Cosmic Love” feel more like a store-bought Halloween costume than a reinvention of your parent’s vintage wardrobe.

Am I a jerk for longing for heartbroken, lovelorn Hawthorne circa 2009’s A Strange Arrangement? Or story driven, assertively dreamy Hawthorne from 2013’s Where Does This Door Go? Considering Hawthorne is an artist who begs us to turn the clocks back, isn’t it natural for me to want to do the same? It should be said that I like “Cosmic Love.” I do. I can appreciate its playful, candied kitsch. The single opens with the lyrics “If I had a dollar/For every dream of you and me/I’d buy myself a rocket/And shoot into your galaxy” and by the end all I can think is that I wished he would have shot a little further.

Listen to “Cosmic Love” for yourself below:

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