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

Photo Credit: Jac Chung Wan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow 9m88 on Instagram for ongoing updates. 

Bush Tetras Celebrate Four Decades of Fuzzy-Guitared Funkiness On “Best Of” Boxset

Photo Credit: Bob Krasner

New York City in the early 1980s was a jungle of musical genres. No wave, hip hop, R&B, soul, jazz and punk informed the sound of the streets, clubs, parks and gyms, escaping from headphones and pumped from car stereos. Patti Smith had arrived a decade earlier, traipsing bookstores and vinyl shops during the day and riveting audiences at night with her unique spoken word-freewheelin’ rock, jazz performances at night. Madonna was wearing scrunchies, cropped shirts, fishnets and high tops, Debbie Harry was seducing CBGBs, and Talking Heads were pulling strange geometric shapes on stage. Afrobeat was emerging in the clubs and making its way into the percussive drive of punk and dance with street press reviewing Beastie Boys alongside Afrika Bambaataa. MTV was in its infancy, but there was no doubt the city was the place to be for music lovers, whether they wanted to thrash about wildly on dancefloors in the early hours of morning or pick up an instrument of some type and form a ramshackle band.

Out of this melting pot came post-punk progenitors Bush Tetras, who released their debut single “Too Many Creeps” in 1980. Splitting up in 1983 before their first studio LP was released, they’ve formed and reformed over the years, having evolved their sound through various iterations. Three album boxset Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras, released in early November via Wharf Cat Records, finally compiles their musical output, showcasing 29 songs (plus some live versions) from their catalogue stretching back to their formation in 1979.

Bush Tetras are practically synonymous with New York City, though Dee Pop (Dimitri Papadopolous), born in Queens, was the only New York native in the original lineup. With an intoxicating allure for outsiders, and a ‘weirder-the-better’ attitude towards its eclectic residents, the Big Apple’s siren call lured Cynthia Sley from Cleveland, Pat Place from Chicago, and their original bassist Laura Kennedy from Detroit.

“I had been designing clothes,” recalls Sley, who has lived in NYC for 42 years now. “I had just made all these stage clothes for Lydia Lunch for her tour on ZE Records. I was a visual artist, but I was really into fashion and film, and New York was like a Mecca. I just wanted to do something creative and I felt like Cleveland was limited… I felt like it was really happening in New York, everybody knew it was the hub.”

Originally an aspiring visual artist, Place had dance-punk cred already as a founding member of no-wave act Contortions, which was memorably featured on Brian Eno’s 1978 compilation No New York. She had also starred in feminist Vivienne Dick’s experimental films. Kennedy and Place were lovers who’d been living together for a year before Sley made the move. Sley recalls being cajoled into joining Bush Tetras, since she’d known Kennedy at art school in Cleveland.

“I met Pat through Laura… Pat had quit the Contortions and started up a band with Laura and Dee Pop. They started playing with Adele Bertei as a singer, but it didn’t quite work out. So then they strong handed me into doing that,” Sley says. “I was, believe it or not, a bit shy, so I had to be talked into it.”

The sense of community offered by music and art that rebelliously avoided pigeon-holing, gentrification and commercial motives was born of the scrappy, DIY attitude of young New Yorkers living downtown at a time when it was cheap, but dingy and dangerous. Still, women making music outside of the safe confines of folk, pop ballads or R&B was a novelty, and women wielding guitars they’d taught themselves how to play sent ripples of fear and excitement through the live music scene at the time.

“There was definitely a lack of women in music, absolutely, but I think because of no wave and Tina Weymouth on bass and Patti Smith, there were some new women coming on the scene that were really standing out and it made it a possibility for little punk girls like us to get involved in music,” Sley says. “We just thought, why not? You didn’t really need to be proficient at your instrument. I didn’t have to take vocal lessons. You just had to have the right chemistry.”

Bush Tetras with Clash drummer Topper Headon in 1982 // Photo Credit: Bob Gruen

There’s a lean, rangy swagger to Bush Tetras’ guitar riffs, a menacing rumble of fuzz escaping into distortion every so often. Sley elegantly enunciates every loving, brutal word in her sing-song/spoken word signature style, daring you to piss her off.

On “Sucker Is Born,” the somnific, languid strum of Place’s spangly guitar oozes with cosmically-charged atmosphere. Sley’s sultry croon emerges organically, an additional instrument: “Did you care at all when they found you out, or did you make it out…?” she asks. Minutes later, the drums wake up as if shaken wildly, the guitar emits furied distortion, and Sley wails, “A sucker is born!”

The pace is all go on the determined gallop of drums and sprawling guitar on the live version of “Run Run Run.” It’s a far cry from the Talking Heads-style smudged bass lines, high-pitched guitar tuning, synthesizer claps, deeply funky dance-punk of ironically titled “You Can’t Be Funky.” The clatter of odd percussion in some alien rhythm on “Moonlite” sounds like each band member recorded their parts to their own individual timing and somehow it just manages to hold together. The early influence of Afrobeat emerges in the eclectic, celebratory drums and deep, funky bass rhythms. Guitars chug along like revving engines on “Cowboys In Africa,” a cymbal punctuating the frenzy of angular, serrated-edge guitar and a drumbeat like hot heels running down New York pavement.

The pagan magic of “Rituals” is all-consuming in its gothic, baroque oddity: Nico-style droning vocals, dissonant, creepy guitars, the shake of tambourines, and the repeated mantra “I love you, but I love you, but I love you, but I love yoooouuuuu.” I admit to Sley that it’s a favourite, but immediately apologise for picking favourites from such a rich body of work. The song was founded on lyrics and a rhythm that Dee Pop had devised, Sley explains.

“That song to me has guitar and bass weaved together to form this kind of fabric for the vocals on top of it,” she adds. “The songs were very un-self-conscious. I don’t think we were really thinking of what was it going to sound like. We just kind of did what came naturally. We wrote ‘[You Can’t Be] Funky’ and ‘Cowboys [In Africa]’ all around the same time as ‘Rituals.’ ‘Rituals’ was Dee’s idea of that vocal line almost like percussion; it was very rhythmic, and we wrote it around that. It’s one of my favourites too!”

“I like ‘Stare,’ I like ‘Nails,’ I like ‘Page 18,’ I like one that we really don’t play anymore and it’s on the original Boom In The Night [LP],” says Place. “It’s weird listening to your own stuff, and I don’t do it that often… but there’s definitely tracks I listen to and think, ‘Hey, I really like that!’”

On Rhythm and Paranoia, the previously-unreleased “Cutting Room” finally gets an outing. Dee Pop had kept an archive and until his passing in early October this year, he was heavily involved in choosing and collating the boxset collection.

“Dee kept everything, so he found ‘Cutting Floor’ and that was a song we recorded with Henry Rollins,” recalls Sley. “Pat and I had completely forgotten about it. I don’t even remember singing that. I had no idea, so some things were really a surprise because I really did not remember that song.”

Really? She forgot working with the heavyweight Black Flag front man, Henry Rollins?

“Oh no! There’s not enough drugs in the world for that,” laughs Sley. “I definitely remember recording with him, but that song, ironically, ended up on the cutting floor. We recorded it but never released that song, and we’d do that. We’d have songs that we would play for a while and then we would discard them.”

As far as recording, Place and Sley have been prolific during the last two years. While they typically write in the same room, jamming and trading lyrics and riffs, their chemistry has remained potent even while co-creating via email along with new bassist R.B. Korbet (Pussy Galore, Missing Foundation). To date, they have ten songs as yet unrecorded, with a planned release in 2022.

“We were able to keep writing,” concludes Sley. “It’s a joyful thing to write in a very dark time.”

Follow Bush Tetras on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Premiere: Mimi Oz Goes Under the Microscope In “Hate” Video

Photo courtesy of artist

Mimi Oz wrote her song “Hate” as a way to deal with conflicting feelings of being an outsider. The Toronto-based singer-songwriter thrives on “being alone,” she says, as a “highly creative” person. With a strong support system, she adds, “I can’t say that loneliness is a regular feeling that I experience.” And yet, when she was living in New York City from 2018-19, pangs of loneliness continuously ripped right through her psyche, inspiring her to write “Hate.” A visual for the track, directed by Dylan Mars Greenberg, premieres today via Audiofemme.

“I was hit hard by a lot of things that were adding up, one of them being that it didn’t matter where I went, I just kind of felt like people didn’t like me,” she tells Audiofemme. “That was a hard truth that wore on my mental health. Not fitting into my community was also part of it, and that was every area of NY that I lived in.”

The song appears on Oz’s third studio record, Growing Pains, released October 22. “All my life, I tried to live outside the hate,” she huffs in almost a dream state, then caterwauls, “I see the hate you feel for me,” as electric guitar intensifies into a rolling boil. Oz reaches her hand through space and time to appeal to our collective sadness and the pressures of modern living and dying. With drums played by Miles Gibbons and guitar from David Celia, Oz conjures up a “perfect hollow space where you can feel the intensity of the lyrics, and everything hits hard and together and pulls you along. There is also a sense of violence, and I wanted to somehow explore that in the video but it didn’t end up turning out that way.”

Instead, the accompanying visual plants Oz smack dab in the middle of a bustling NYC subway. Trains whizz by, and preoccupied people in suits shuffle off to their 9-to-5, desperation hanging in the background like gnawed-up cork board. Within this setting, Oz and Greenberg accentuate the heavy sorrow woven into everyday existence. “It’s true millions of people feel that sadness. I’ve seen a number of people pushed off the edge in New York, mentally,” says Oz. “Sharing my experience and writing music that is relevant is key. If I was living without passion or purpose, that would be a cause for concern.”

Reality-rooted imagery mingles with absurdism like floating heads and oversized eyeballs, a creative idea Greenberg brought to the table to illustrate “the world inside my mind and the real world, the physical world,” Oz explains. “I’m isolated and alone, telling the story with menacing floating heads above me. I think the CGI helps the viewer really clue into the storyline and focus on the lyrics more.”

“Dylan has this really renegade, hands-on approach to film-making that I admire,” she continues. “The original artwork I released for this single was a watercolor that I had painted of a black sheep with a psychedelic coat of fur. I recreated this by tying together bright pieces of scrap fabric into a long boa that I wore across my neck. The character is someone that people don’t understand, but are fascinated with.”

While her journey to acceptance “probably doesn’t matter,” Oz says frankly, the experiences that lead her to write “Hate” have at least given her some perspective. “Life is confusing, so just try to be a good person,” she says. “I think now I care less, and also try to have as much compassion as I can, while also taking care of myself.”

Follow Mimi Oz on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Amy Jay Readies New LP Awake Sleeper With “Monster” Single

Photo Credit: Katrina Sorrentino

Amy Jay hates being the center of attention. An indie-folk musician based in New York, Jay finds that “everything leading up to the stage” sends jitters throughout her body. It’s only once she’s planted firmly centerstage that those rattling nerves dissipate, and she loses herself in the music. With her new song “Monster,” premiering today via Audiofemme, the singer-songwriter manifests her anxiety in tangible form, a driving tick-tock base mimicking her own mental war.

“Monster,” sampling her forthcoming new LP Awake Sleeper, out February 4, 2022, clocks in at nearly six minutes. Its structure is quite unconventional, containing two very different songs pieced together with a spacey instrumental in between. “I wrote these two ideas, kind of in the same headspace. I can’t remember if it was actually the same day or same week or something, but it was around the same time,” she says. “I love the tuning and the chords. It felt like something when I was playing it, and I experimented with finger picking and strumming.”

Over the coming months, she tried editing and expanding each separate idea but nothing ever worked. “What I had was a couple verses and a chorus. If I tried adding something else to one idea, it just didn’t feel right. I was not in that space anymore,” she shares.

With both ideas in the same tuning, she decided to “smash them together” into a towering, cathartic epic about anxiety. “Practically speaking, I was given a 10-song cap by my producer John [Seal],” Jay says with a laugh. “Then, there’s a beautiful freeform instrumental interlude between the two that I feel glues them perfectly together and ended up being exactly what I intended to say.”

“Keep at bay all the worries/About the impression I’m making,” she sings, the clock striking like lightning through her vocal cords. “In this half-empty attempt at small talk/Due to internal dialogue.”

Pianist Andrew Freeman supplied the interlude, a drifting, mind-melting piano part that assists in quieting the harsh, combustible tick-tock of the first half. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted the clock ticking sound, because it actually did evoke anxiety in me,” she admits. Ultimately, Jay and Seal “ended up going with it” to hammer home the message of suffocating anxiety and its outward ripple effects. “I hope that it helps us face it – and helps me face it – in a way that’s constructive, so we left it in.”

Jay’s artistic career began five years ago with the release of an EP titled Supposed to Be in 2016. Her follow-up, So It Is, arrived two years later. Both projects indicated a knack for stirring together the synthetic with the organic, and her forthcoming Awake Sleeper continues the work with equally creamy, ethereal blends.

“Monster” is, if nothing else, an ambitious musical piece, haunting and torrential. In “trying to capture the emotions in a sonic way,” Jay beckons the listener into a front-row seat to her mental anguish. “That’s where I struggle with my anxiety. I’m very melancholic, naturally, inside my head, so trying to put that into the album, in creative ways, was really fun and interesting,” she explains.

Jay utilized analog synths, heard with resounding effect in the mid-section of “Monster,” and doubled up on vocals to create an immersive soundscape. “I wanted to use repetitive elements of instrumentation to portray a sort of emotional dissonance. I might look calm on the outside, and I might be sleepy, walking on the street and kind of half awake, half asleep in this weird state, but what’s going on inside is a very different experience.”

In the studio, she recorded live drums and bass guitar in the same weekend to “establish that foundation in a traditional way and set the framework to build upon all of these other elements,” she adds. Her vocals were simply the “cherries on top. I remember coming around every weekend during the recording process, having dove deep that weekend prior, with fresh eyes and ears and intensity.”

“Monster” and the previously released “Reliance” serve contrasting purposes for the album. She explains: “Lyrically, ‘Monster’ is capturing an underlying theme for the rest of the album (introspective anxiousness), and subsequently contains the lyrics to the album title. On the other hand, ‘Reliance’ is a manifestation of that theme played out in my relationship, portrayed in a lighthearted way.”

“I am still trapped in my mind like in all the other tracks, but ‘Reliance’ felt like it eased the listener into the idea in a relatable way before things get too overwhelming,” she adds, noting the song as the second track in the lineup. “[It’s] still very much an introduction but coming off the heels of [album opener] ‘Lucid Dreaming,’ helping the metaphorical heart rate go down and relax a bit. And still, it ends with heavy questions: ‘Do I rely too much on you? Take and withhold love from you?'”

Where the first half of the album possesses “a more forward sound overall, where lyrically and production-wise I feel my voice has value and I am wrestling with how to handle that,” the second half settles into a particular tempo, paired against a more visceral sort of lyrical vulnerability. Yet both “Monster” and “Reliance” are connected in their brawny use of “repetitive background melodies to portray the feeling of time. “

As Awake Sleeper will be Jay’s first-ever vinyl release, she chose “Monster” as the second-half fire starter. “Interestingly enough it’s also the second single — I didn’t realize the connection until now. In classical music, there’s the idea of a tonic expansion where you are building and building on top of the base key throughout the piece,” she says, “and this is kind of like that, if you think of the album as one piece. We are in the middle, and we are nowhere near done. What follows is a series of melancholic ballads, a lamenting plot twist, and the final capping off of the album with an unresolved layer of doubt.”

To celebrate the record announcement, Amy Jay will perform her first full band show since pre-pandemic on Stage 3 at the Rockwood Music Hall this coming Tuesday, November 16.

Follow Amy Jay on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Poetry Provides Creative Spark Behind Latest Gemma Laurence Single “Adrienne”

Photo Credit: Beatrice Helman

On a recent Zoom call, Gemma Laurence reads an excerpt from “Poem II,” part of the late poet Adrienne Rich’s series, “Twenty-One Love Poems.” She then comments on the line “and I laugh and fall dreaming again/of the desire to show you to everyone I love.”

“I just read that and was like, oh man, how lovely and magical is it to just realize that you like somebody and also like them so much that you want to show them to everybody you know,” she says. “I love that comparison.” 

In the midst of the pandemic, when Laurence was back at her childhood home in Brunswick, Maine, passing the time by reading books, she stumbled across the poem inside Rich’s collection, The Dream of a Common Language. Years ago, a date had introduced her to the poet’s work and to this book. It was a significant event in Laurence’s life. “That was one of my first queer dates, where I realized that I was bi or queer,” she explains. “It changed my entire perspective, reading that book of poetry and also meeting that person.” 

Rereading Rich reminded her of that moment and inspired her single, “Adrienne.” It’s Laurence’s first release since her 2019 debut album, Crooked Heart, and the first song where the folk singer, now based in Brooklyn, has opened up about her sexuality. “It’s funny because it’s not an explicitly celebratory ‘I’m out’ song,” says Laurence. “It’s just a song that happens to be about a girl and that, in itself, feels important for me.”

“Adrienne” marks a turning point in Laurence’s growing body of work for more than the subject matter. Her 2019 LP Crooked Heart, which takes its title from WH Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,” was comprised of songs that Laurence wrote roughly between the ages of 15 and 20. “They felt a little bit more reactive. Something would happen and I would write a song about it,” she says. Conversely, she describes “Adrienne” as “more nostalgic and retrospective and reflective.” 

Laurence attended Middlebury College in Vermont, where she wrote her thesis on representations of Sappho in poetry of the 19th century. While she considered going onto graduate studies in Victorian literature (and still may do that someday), her immediate goal after graduating in February 2020 was to move to New York. The COVID-19 pandemic, though, temporarily changed her course. Laurence headed back to Maine, where she would live for the next seventeen months, assuming that her musical pursuits would be on hold until the situation improved. However, her time back in Brunswick proved to be creatively inspiring. “Just letting myself sit and take care of myself and my family, given everything that was going on, actually gave me more space to be creative,” she says. Laurence wrote more and kept up with her journal, all of which led to songs. 

She also developed a practice of going for morning walks and making field recordings. “I live in this really lush tree-lined area on the coast and so I’d walk down to the water, past all these farms and through all these forests,” she says. Laurence would use her phone to record the sounds of rainfall and what she describes as the “morning choir” of birds, which she then used on demo recordings. Bits of the field recordings used in the demo of “Adrienne” remain in the song. 

Meanwhile, Laurence had connected with a few musicians online who would become pivotal in helping her hone her sound. She took banjo lessons during the pandemic with Steve Varney, who plays in Gregory Alan Isakov’s band, and workshopped “Adrienne” with him. She met Charlie Dahlke, of the band The Brazen Youth, who recorded, produced and mixed the song. 

“I wrote it alone and I thought that I was going to record it on my laptop,” says Laurence of “Adrienne.” But she had the opportunity to work with Dahlke, as well as Jess Kerber, who sings backup on the track, and Matt Phillips (pedal steel) and Will Orchard. “I had never worked with that many musicians before. On my previous album, I recorded with just one other person in a live take and put it out on the internet,” she says. “This felt like a really big step for me to break it down, make it more of a process, bring people on board, be very intentional about the arrangement.”

Still, when Laurence was working on her latest batch of songs, more of which she hopes to release in 2022, she took some alone time to perform “Adrienne.” 

“I wrote the song initially alone, and it’s a very introspective, nostalgic, tender, intimate, quiet, personal song, so everyone kind of left the studio when I recorded it,” she says. “It felt really quiet and lovely to put all these blankets around me when I recorded it, to make it super cozy and have more of a soft, muted effect from the nylon string guitar that I was recording on.”

In June, after she was vaccinated, Laurence moved to Brooklyn and, so far, things have been going well for her. She’s debuting “Adrienne” live at Piano’s this Saturday, October 16 with a brand-new band, and has a show lined up at at The Broadway on November 19th as well. She says, “Everything feels like it’s finally starting to happen.” 

Follow Gemma Laurence on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Multi-Cultural R&B Sister Duo Bebi Monsuta Find Divine Purpose with “Deuses Falsos” Premiere

Photo Credit: Tamara

Bebi Monsuta are one of the most exciting and fresh emerging acts to rise from New York City’s cross-genre hip hop scene. Blood sisters Manami and Akira share a kinetic bond, an intrinsic psychic connection embodying strength, vulnerability, and grace as they pay homage to their melting pot heritage. The literal translation of Bebi Monsuta (“ヘヒ モンスタ”) is “baby monster” and highlights the duo’s Japanese ancestry on their maternal side, while their newest bi-lingual single “Deuses Falsos” – premiering via Audiofemme – references their Portuguese-Brazilian roots.

Produced by Xavi (Ariana Grande, Megan Thee Stallion, Flo Milli), the track weaves together elements of Brazilian funk and recalls the sisters’ coming of age experiences in life and music. We met up at Japanese ice cream shop Taiyaki NYC on Baxter street; as we inhaled mochi and vanilla heaven, we made our way over to the Elizabeth Street sculpture garden to get better acquainted and dive deeper into their musical project.

Akira explains, “We named the song ‘Deuses Falsos’ (False Gods) because a God has foresight to know when something is great in the making even though it sometimes takes numbers to see that in this world.” Manami adds, “The song is intended to motivate people that have been in a place of feeling unseen for who you are, and your talents. Yes, we are broke girls, but this talent is rich AF.”

It won’t be long before the world recognizes those talents, too. Though “Deuses Falsos” is only Bebi Monsuta’s fourth single (they debuted with ABRONCA collab “Brazilian Sound” in 2019), they’re about to drop their first EP on November 11 via +1 Records. Titled 11.11, the EP draws numerological reference to synchronicity and cosmic enlightenment, representing a time when our consciousness may be uniquely open to the universe. 

Sonically, the alternative R&B duo pulls inspiration from Vanity 6, Gwen Stefani, and Brazilian Funk. They’re self proclaimed music-makers for the outcasts, nerds, nomads, the condemned, the abandoned, and all those who don’t quite fit into society. Taking stylistic influence from graphic novels, comic books, and drag culture – these sisters are a sonic and visual force to be reckoned with. 

Their fiercely confident breakout singles “RäkStär” and “808” are high-energy empowering anthems of self love and living a life guided by the power of intuition. The tracks are deeply infused with Afro-American and Caribbean beats; “RäkStär” plays with ancient wisdom and extraterrestrial clairvoyance, departing from “the generic ‘rockstar’ aesthetic” in favor of “someone aligned with astrology, crystals, stars and planets.” They wear white contacts in the Purty Pat-directed video to reference the idea of expanding deeper into the consciousness. Reflecting empowerment and tapping into the divine through fierce improvisational dance moves, Bebi Monsuta embody an ethereal, all-knowing feminine agency. 

“We definitely put a lot of intention behind our music. Whenever we go into the studio to record a song, we always think about first and foremost, how it’s going to make people feel, and affect their lives,” Akira expresses. “Even in the song ‘RäkStär,’ it’s very much about outcasts, being afraid that this person’s family might not accept you. There are hidden elements that relate to people and their deepest vulnerabilities. I think that’s the first place that healing takes place, you know, tapping into those instincts.”

Manami takes a moment to pause and analyze the duality of being a recording artist. “Something that a lot of people don’t understand about being in music, yes it’s glitz, and glam, it’s about the hair, the makeup, and the costuming. And we do approach our project like drag. We visually step into and embody a whole new person,” she says. “It’s because we grew up on comic books and video games. Our dad read us comic books to bed, and we played a lot of video games. Beyond the costumes, the most important thing to us is being relatable. It’s common people only see the façade. They don’t know that you come back home, and you may have other deeper issues, and problems. We just want to craft this new celebrity that really talks to people about real things going on in your life.”

Akira adds that they think of their audience like they would their closest friends, and their songs represent the intimate and real conversations they might have together. “Our last show at Elsewhere, Manami opened up about her eating disorder on stage. She felt safe and comfortable with talking about it, and so many people in the audience could relate on that level of vulnerability. There wasn’t a person that hugged us after the performance who wasn’t in tears,” she remembers; the duo had been performing their song “Me Yamu,” about self love. “That meant a lot to us, because it was our intention. We wanted to create a safe space for our audience to really connect with us.”

Manami adds, “I’m not afraid to talk about it anymore. I was naturally a very slim child and then I developed Hypothyroidism through diet. It caused me depression and extreme mood swings. Self-healing, meditation, and music has really helped me.”

The sisters are also interested in epigenetics, the study and awareness of how your behaviors and environment can affect how your genes work. A recent Instagram post detailed the power and the pain that have been passed onto them via their ancestors; during our conversation Manami insists that the best thing one can pass down through family lineage can be a “light-hearted spirit, and peaceful and loving genetics.” The sisters shared anecdotes of their hyper-intuitive grandmother, an empath and a healer. They take tremendous influence from her ability to tap into her inner world for self-reflective wisdom. 

“We want people to feel motivated and worthy. We want those who listen to this project to feel that the truth is and will always be better than a lie. Stand in it, own it and be brave,” they say.

That’s something they put into every performance, too. Manami explains their traditions of a pre-show mindfulness meditation. “We take a little shot, we smoke a little bit, and then we just try to connect with the audience, because through song is the best way we know how,” she says.

Bebi Monsuta’s music may sound like turn up songs simply meant to get a party going, and they certainly achieve that. But don’t be fooled – they’re also deeply rooted in personal experiences. “We look out in the crowd, we see the expressions on people’s faces and let our hearts and souls speak. We don’t know why we’re here on this planet, or what the earth is actually about, but the best thing you can do is love each other.”

Follow Bebi Monsuta on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Alex Orange Drink Comes to Terms with Brokenness on Most Candid LP Yet

As a pioneer in New York City’s DIY all-ages scene over the past decade, alongside his brothers in the The So So Glos, Alex Zarou Levine – better known by his solo moniker Alex Orange Drink – represents a millennial shift in pop punk. Today’s punks hold space for complexity, they go to therapy, and they unabashedly share their souls with the intention of healing, ushering a new era of emotional maturity for the genre at large. Once, at a Desaparecidos show, Conor Oberst’s nephew told Alex that he seemed to be aging backwards, with the spontaneity and direct nature of a little boy, and the compassion and wisdom of an old man. The observation struck a chord, and feels even truer listening to his recent work.

After releasing his debut solo LP Babel On in 2018, Alex Orange Drink returns with his most intimate musical project to date, Everything Is Broken Maybe That’s Ok. A powerful autobiographical body of work, he throws shade to stereotypical white men whining about high school (of course there’s a sprinkle of flat rim caps, Dickies, and wallet chains) that characterized late ’90s and early aughts pop punk. Instead, Alex Orange Drink candidly explores his experiences with love and loss, getting arrested, and his life-threatening battle with rare genetic disorder Homocystinuria. Tapping into narratives of broken political systems woven together with universal themes of heartbreak, the record stays true to his never-ending teenage angst. Released digitally in July, pre-orders for vinyl will ship this month via Freeman Street Records.

“Half of the album was recorded before the pandemic in a party-like atmosphere – with basic tracking captured live among friends, family and lovers – while the other half was completed by a heartbroken protagonist reflecting in isolation,” Alex tells Audiofemme over a long, impromptu car ride to the beach in rush hour traffic. As we inched through Bay Ridge – the infamous setting of Saturday Night Fever, and also the neighborhood where Alex grew up – he broke the album down song by song to offer a window into its unique and autobiographical depth.

“Brooklyn Central Booking”

“[I’ve been arrested] three times. This song is a combination of all of them. I had an outstanding warrant for pissing in the street. One time we got arrested as a full band, coming from our practice space and smoking a joint. Everyone made it through the system and got out except me. After 15 hours I was tripping out from not having my orange drink (which I drink for my Homocystinuria). I was malnourished and going crazy. They say if you have diabetes or any kind of genetic disease, you’re supposed to tell them. But they just take you to the hospital, then it takes 20 hours before you go back to the jail. I was trying to get a glass of water but they wouldn’t let me. They took me out of the first cell, which is the worst one – and called my name. One cop was standing on one side of the hallway and the other was standing on the other. The cop on the other side said, ‘Did I tell you to move?’ I sat down on the floor, then a cop threw me against the wall by my head and threw my file at the bottom of the pile. I was there for two days in the first cell. Two days without my orange drink.”

“Homocystinuria Pt. 1 (1987-1994)”

“Homocystinyria is a super rare genetic disease that I was born with, and it’s pretty life threatening if it’s uncontrolled. Luckily I’ve been controlled since birth. It’s an extremely restrictive diet where I can’t break down protein. It’s this medicine I have to take with all of the amino acids, with the one I can’t have taken out. It’s like my rapper name that’s like my super power. The song is about growing up with that, and feeling really isolated and alone because I didn’t know anyone else who really had it or was living with it. The song is about bringing my music friends to the hospital for my check ups – I list all of the artists I listened to that got me through it. I wasn’t affected yet so much but I was clinging to music and making it a survival instinct. Later I realized it was anxiety. You don’t know what anxiety is when you’re a kid. You grow up and begin to realize what it is. I had a lot of panic attacks in my teenage years. The mental things that come with having a restrictive diet, the psychological effects of that are interesting – it’s what makes me an artist. Part of it is very physical. You feel like you’re dying and you attribute it to physical things. Racing thoughts – it’s very crazy real anxiety in your head. I felt uniquely crazy. I kept it very private until this project. I very consciously didn’t think about it.”

“Oxytocin (Love Buzz)”

“The song was inspired by extreme and perpetual heartbreak. The feeling of someone falling out of love, and looking to science to try to understand something emotional. I did a lot of research on limerence and oxytocin. The world shows you Disney love, but not five years later when it gets hard. That’s what this song is about. Wanting to believe that there is a magic thing that is love, that it’s not just some kind of scientific chemical to procreate. It’s a hopelessly romantic song at the same time, like you’re addicted to desperation.”

“How High?”

“This song is about the urgency and desperation of feeling powerless at 3AM. The only thing you can do is run away and disappear. The first line is ‘Julia’s hanging in the corner,’ and that’s a real person. She was 99 years old. She’s just a really special person and I always wanted to put her in a song. She’s the oldest person I’ve met in New York. She was telling me about the elevated 2nd Avenue line in Manhattan. I met her when I was doing construction at a pizza place. This song is about that feeling of knowing I’ll do whatever you want; when you fall into love like that you lose power. It becomes a struggle. I think you can lose yourself very easily and it’s scary. It’s complicated. Fiona Apple and Bob Dylan are really good at giving the 12-sided die to relationships. I love to write about multiple interpretations of a relationship. I’m obsessed with double meanings, double entendre rooted into really deep emotion.”

“It’s Only Drugz (Limerence)”

“I’m just playing an acoustic guitar on this one, and Adam [Reich] did the string arrangement. He’s also playing bass, and Johnny [Spencer] is playing drums. Adam and I went in a year and a half later after we finished this track and went crazy with overdubs. I was in a heartbroken state of mind when I recorded the vocals. Emmerson [Pierson] is singing vocals. She’s doing that little hook. Her music is really good. The song feels inspired by the Zombies or the Kinks. Maybe a little Serge Gainsbourg or Leonard Cohen. I didn’t really think about the influences consciously on any of them but it’s fun to analyze them now. If I had to say it, it has a psychedelic ’60s kind of crooner energy. It’s a similar concept to the ‘Oxytocin’ theme.” 

“Click Bait, Click Me” 

“It’s always a subject, internet obsession. I think the least about this song, but I think that it’s the feeling of voyeurism, watching someone behind a screen. It’s about the celebrated narcissism in our society. The feeling of being sold something that’s a lie, that’s empty, not fulfillment. The lab rat in the pellet experiment where they keep pressing the button and they just want more – I forget the name of the experiment. Instagram feeds off of our insecurities, and then if you add a human relationship to it, and all of the things that come with that, it’s like a love song through a screen, with the addictive thing of what you see in someone else, and what you see in yourself through someone else and how they see you. That sense of hyper voyeurism, like the film We Live in Public.

“Homocystinuria Pt. 2 (1995-1999)”

“The sequel to ‘Homocystinuria Pt. 1,’ the infant stages of becoming a superhero. There’s this bully named AJ who’s bullying me, and the feeling of being a total outcast and growing into your teenage years. Feeling different from people, not totally connecting it and not understanding why. The feeling of being an outsider, and finding my way towards high-energy rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why it’s the most punk song. It’s a metaphor for the kind of punk I was listening to as a teenager. I still like that music. Part two is more suburban. My parents split up around that age, and my mom moved to the suburbs. It has the feeling of teenage angst, but it’s wordy, like hip hop. I think about it like a Biggie Smalls song – he’s just talking about himself in middle school, and the struggle. This is my rap song.”

“I L​.​U​.​V​.​I​.​O​.​U.”

“It sounds happy, almost like an American Beatles circus. I tried to make it like a carousel. The protagonist is trying to be in love and have someone all the time. All I want is an i.o.u, you owe me! It’s the feeling of when you’re just looking for acknowledgement. It’s about unrequited love, and it’s the simplest song on the record.”

“Teenage Angst Forever”

“This wasn’t as much a personal song, but a story song. In one half of the song I’m a little boy and in the other I’m an old man. Shilpa Ray plays the harmonium on that and the mellotron. It’s a live recording, just me and acoustic guitar and then Shilpa doing her stuff. This is the only one that’s separately recorded. This was recorded during the blizzard the day before Christmas Eve. My parents get sad when they hear that, but I did have feelings like that [when they divorced]. Once you express them they’re not even about me, they’re about whoever hears them. Cystadane is a medicine I take for Homocystinuria, that’s my only “cysta.” We all have these dreams as a kid of a better utopian kind of place and we’re forced to think that ambition isn’t real. That cynicism that we’re supposed to grow up with and accept the racist sexist capitalist bullshit that makes us all pawns. It’s not teenage to say that, it’s just true. Teenagers can be brats and they don’t know everything about the world, but a lot of them know their truth and I was one of the kids who did. You don’t die at 27, you grow up and you’re a certain breed – teenage angst forever. I think a lot of people are like that.” 

“Sun is Only Shining (Everything is Broken)”

“This song was written really organically with my friend Karla [Nath]. We have a really good energy together. We wrote it on a bench and then I went home and put the verse down really quickly. I knew it was going to be the name of the album when I was listening to my friend’s band Bueno – there’s a reference to a So So Glos song, and so it’s a reference to a reference. I thought it was a really cool concept and feeling for the record. The system that I knew was broken, my heart was broken, everything was broken. The broken glass from the protests in May. You saw the fabric of everything these last couple of years. Maybe that’s okay – we gotta smash everything and rebuild it better, to solve the problems. Or maybe we just leave it broken, I don’t know. It’s a dark statement and then a surrender to that. It’s acceptance. The album is like the seven stages of grief, and this is just acceptance. It goes through all of it. It’s denial, then anger comes in the middle, then sadness. This entire record is about loss and also about finding something. It’s a grand finale that the sun’s only shining on me even though everything is broken.”

Follow Alex Orange Drink on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

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

Photo Credit: Rosie Cohe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow 79.5 on Instagram and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Brooklyn Grunge Upstarts Hello Mary Shine on Latest Single “Evicted”

Photo Credit: Nikki Burnett

As any houseplant enthusiast will tell you, growing things indoors can be tricky – it takes just the right amount of sunlight, moisture, and fertile soil to make that monstera deliciosa flourish, but the joy and wonder that comes from watching it grow is well worth the effort. On their latest single, “Evicted,” NYC-based grunge revivalists Hello Mary twist intoxicating vocal harmonies around the phrase “I’ve been evicted from the sun,” lamenting the pandemic lockdown (and later, with the line “Now everyone is taking sides/I can’t decide which one is right,” the political divide widened by a crisis that should have united us). But despite an apparent lack of Vitamin D, it’s clear that the trio – consisting of Helena Straight on guitar, Mikaela Oppenheimer on bass, and Stella Branstool on drums – have been growing by leaps and bounds as musicians. “Evicted” is the second single following the band’s DIY debut Ginger, released via Bandcamp in December 2019, and it showcases the group’s burgeoning potential as New York’s next huge rock band.

“The songs are getting better and us playing together is getting better,” says Branstool, who mentions more than once during a Zoom call with Audiofemme that the only thing she had to look forward to during the height of the pandemic was playing drums and writing songs with her bandmates. “Evicted” came out of those practice sessions, as did “Take Something,” released in May this year. Both were recorded with veteran producer Bryce Goggin (who has worked with Pavement, Luna, The Lemonheads, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Kim Deal side-project The Amps, and more), and Hello Mary spent last week in the studio recording twelve new tracks with him as well.

“You have to work with the right person and Bryce is the most perfect person that I could think of – we’re kind of obsessed with him,” says Straight, who characterizes “Evicted” as a pop-driven song more in the vein of Dinosaur Jr. “He definitely values the raw, real, live sound, so we’re on the same page.” For a band that’s arrived at a gritty ’90s alternative sound by way of playing sold-out shows across New York, retaining that raw energy is important. While Ginger accomplished this well enough, a professional studio setting with a seasoned engineer elevates their latest material significantly.

“I’m excited to be moving on to a process of recording that fits us better. The way that it’s gonna sound is just gonna be a lot more true to how we actually sound – both on our part, like how we’re playing our instruments and how we’re singing and how we’re writing songs, but also how we’re being recorded and how we’re being mixed,” says Branstool. “It’s raw, but then still produced enough where it’s fun to listen to in headphones, not painfully raw. We’re adding a shaker or a tambourine, or just other elements that kind of beef it up.”

What’s especially remarkable about Hello Mary’s latest songs is not only how tight they are, but that they’re coming from a band who hasn’t been together all that long – and whose members are all under 21. Straight and Oppenheimer are still in high school, while Branstool is about to enter her senior year of college. They met Goggin via Branstool’s mother, Christy Davis, who plays drums in the CFR with Luna guitarist Sean Eden. Straight’s father also played drums in bands throughout his college years and maintains the practice space where Hello Mary worked out these songs.

Age is relative, anyway – each member of Hello Mary brings lifelong musical experience to the table. “Mikaela and I met in middle school – we were in the same homeroom. I played guitar a little bit but I was mostly singing. Mikaela was playing bass in jazz band and we started writing music together,” recalls Straight. By ninth grade, they’d released a few songs on Soundcloud, all while delving into ’90s alt-rock history. Around this time, they were asked to play a show highlighting young women musicians, but didn’t have a drummer, so the program coordinator introduced them to Branstool, who mainly played in bands with guys.

“When I joined the band it very much felt like I was just the drummer. It didn’t feel like my band; I just felt like I was kind of subbing in to help them make music, and I actually was totally fine with that. At that point they were fifteen and I was eighteen and it felt like a much bigger difference than it does now,” remembers Branstool, who played piano and sang as a child before discovering her natural talent behind the kit in high school. “The more that we’ve played together and the more that we’ve grown closer as friends, becoming better musicians and writing songs better together and all that stuff, I just can’t picture my life without it at this point.”

Oppenheimer is still heavily involved in jazz band, and though Hello Mary’s unique vocal harmonizing or jangly guitar might stand out most on first listen, it’s her springy, thick bass tones that give the band its throwback sound. “I try not to think about theory or jazz stuff when I’m writing but I’m sure it inevitably does [affect] my technique,” she says. An archive of a livestreamed Baby TV set reveals just how essential her playing is to the band.

Still, as young musicians, they’re heading for some big changes. While they’re mostly keen to stay in the city, Oppenheimer and Straight will be applying to college this year, just as Branstool finishes up. “It feels like a crucial time right now, at least in my eyes, because it’s my last year of college. More importantly, they’re going into their last year of high school. With our band and the dynamic… I want to make sure that we have a solid thing going before it becomes challenged or compromised by outside factors,” she says. To that end, Hello Mary have scheduled four West Coast dates for September, as well as a smattering of NYC appearances, including a show tonight at The Broadway in Brooklyn. “We don’t see any other way – it’s necessary for us to practice and to play shows and to keep going.”

With respected musician mentors – including other young women who have been in Hello Mary’s position before, like Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean, once the “babies” of Brooklyn’s DIY scene – the band possesses both the drive and the talent to garner critical praise and fans well beyond the five boroughs. The days when women playing music – especially teenagers – might have been met with condescension or derision seem far away. “I don’t know how many naysayers we run into. Very few. Maybe none,” says Oppenheimer, when asked how the band combats negative stereotypes.

“Inevitably we’re all gonna get older, that’s what’s happening,” Branstool says, steadfast in her belief that soon enough, like Sunflower Bean, they’ll be mentoring the next crop of young rockers. “Yeah,” Straight laughs. “That’s not gonna happen for like ten years.” In the meantime, the rewards of watching Hello Mary come into their own will more than suffice – and “Evicted” feels like a new leaf on a carefully cultivated plant, just about to blossom.

Follow Hello Mary on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Poise Offers Compassionate Blueprint for Resilience with “New Kind of Love” Premiere

Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen

On Vestiges, her debut solo LP as Poise, Lucie Murphy spends a lot of time self-soothing, pumping herself up to face challenges head on, and generally standing her ground with integrity. When we spoke on the phone, she said that the overarching theme that ties Vestiges together is “resilience.” Early singles “Walked Through Fire” and “Show Me Your Love” see the Manhattan-raised, Brooklyn-based musician demand positive recognition outright, and with her fiery swagger, it’s certainly easy to pile on much-deserved praise. But on “New Kind Of Love,” the album’s third and latest single, premiering exclusively via Audiofemme, Murphy turns her affirmations toward a friend in a dire situation, counter-balancing self-assured guidance with sensitivity and grace.

“I wrote it at a time that a friend of mine was in this abusive relationship and a few of my friends and I were trying to figure out the best course of action, because it felt like any intervention would just exacerbate the problem,” Murphy recalls. “It was sort of all I could do for this person – offer my friendship and a place to stay. I could only offer what I had and I couldn’t really do much more and that was very frustrating and heartbreaking.”

What’s especially remarkable about the track is Murphy’s sensitivity to the fact that leaving can be complicated – and sometimes dangerous. “I wanted them to understand that I didn’t think that they were crazy for staying. Of course I can’t exactly understand, but I have sympathy,” she explains. “I tried to say it as succinctly as possible, and get across everything I was feeling.”

Because the situation “New Kind Of Love” describes is sadly all too common, Murphy says she’s been approached by those who can relate, either to her position as the empathic friend whose hands are tied, or as the person to which she originally addressed the song. In both cases, the track provides strength and comfort, and for those that don’t have firsthand experience with scenarios like these, the song is an excellent blueprint for approaching with nuance and compassion. “I’m really proud of that song,” Murphy says. She’s shared it with the person she wrote it about, too. “Thankfully they’re no longer I this relationship so I think they’re doing a lot better. I didn’t say that it was about them, and if they picked up on it they didn’t tell me. But they said they loved the song so that made me really happy.”

For the song’s lyric video, Murphy digitally collaged pictures of her femme friends from her teenage years, when she was first taking an interest in photography. She ended up studying photography and art history in college, seeing it as a more likely career path than making it as a musician (though her first official musical project, a three-piece called Bruise, was rather active, it fizzled before she was out of school). “I think it was a really nice way to repurpose the photos in service to my music, and it’s really nice to have my photo life work with my music life in that way,” Murphy says.

“A big theme of the song is childhood and people changing and growing up and patterns repeating,” she adds. “The person who was in this abusive relationship was someone I’d known for a long time and had a pretty tough childhood also, and I’d known them through all of it. It’s wild looking back at this time; we’ve changed so much but also we haven’t.”

Not only did Murphy edit the lyric video for “New Kind of Love,” she also directed videos for her two previous Poise singles, and is self-releasing Vestiges. “Labels were hit really hard obviously, in this pandemic, and it was honestly really hard to find someone who was willing to start a new relationship at this point,” Murphy says. “I think the next one will probably get a proper label home, but I’ve also learned so much in the process. It’s been cool. I’m excited to learn more and to get it out there.”

As for directing, Murphy says she “had never edited a video before. I just learned Premiere Pro by myself… I’m probably doing everything wrong because I’m not properly trained or whatever. I thought it was gonna be a lot harder than it was honestly, but it was a ton of work.” She has the added benefit of coming from a family who works in film, and growing up close to the industry. Her father, an avid record collector, guitarist, and East Village punk aficionado, made a huge impression on her.

“He was always playing at home and I think seeing him play guitar was like oh I wanna do that, that seems cool,” Murphy recalls. She started playing around the age of 12, and even formed an “after school band” in middle school with her current drummer, Theo Munger. “I started going to DIY shows when I was like 16 or 17 at Silent Barn and Shea Stadium. I heard about Frankie Cosmos and that was really kind of the catalyst that made me be like, oh, I can do this – it just seemed really accessible and inclusive and inviting to me at that time.”

Poise took on a life of its own as Murphy finished up college, with the addition of Munger and guitarist Sam Skinner, who were set to play in her backing band on her first tour under that moniker. But a year of grief, tragedy, and loss almost sidelined the project – Murphy’s father passed away, and just as she was about to get Poise going again, the pandemic hit. Murphy only became more determined and focused – and her resiliency allowed her to complete Vestiges, which is out July 30. “I came to realize this is really what I care about and this is where my community is, and this is really what I love to do and what I think about all the time,” Murphy says. “All of a sudden, having all this time for myself to write, I just kind of birthed this album. I wrote it really quickly because I felt really focused, like, okay, things are not gonna go the way I want them to maybe, so I’m just going to work really hard, be resilient and make this happen somehow, even though it seems kind of impossible.”

With the “impossible” accomplished, Poise blazes their way into the Brooklyn music scene, and are hoping to be able to play Vestiges live soon. The album is a stunning introduction to the person at the very heart of the project; Murphy doesn’t shy away from heavy topics, but remains devoid of self-pity. “I did feel like I needed to make a statement in some way. I think a lot of indie rock can be melodramatic in a way that I totally love sometimes, but is not very ‘me.’” she says. “I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I feel like, especially when you’re a teenager that’s a lot of what you do. I was like, okay, I’m adult, I don’t wanna do that anymore. That was a big part of the statement – yes, bad things happen, but ultimately things are okay, I’m doing alright, and I’m lucky for that.”

Follow Poise on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

WOMAN OF INTEREST: Laura June Kirsch Captures a Specific Era of NYC Nightlife with Romantic Lowlife Fantasies

Photo Credit: Victoria Stevens

“I didn’t know anybody like the people I met in my 20s growing up,” says Laura June Kirsch. This statement neatly sums up Kirsch’s oeuvre of work, the irony being that her photographs capture anything but neatness. A consistent fixture in NYC nightlife for the better part of the 21st century, the photographer and writer has documented the city’s ever-evolving culture through the lens of shows and parties. She captured a very specific spot of time – the Brooklyn music scene in the post-Recession Obama years – and in doing so, carved a niche for herself as a young female photographer in an otherwise male-dominated field. She’s preparing for the release of her first book, Romantic Lowlife Fantasies: Emerging Adults in the Age of Hope, on Hat & Beard Press this fall.

The photo retrospective aims to articulate the concept of “emerging adulthood” as it pertains to the millennial lifestyle. The phrase began to pop up, according to Kirsch, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, as a way to comprehend the growing trend of delaying the traditional milestones of adulthood – getting married, having a family, buying a house. “Around the turn of the century, people started doing different stuff in their twenties,” Kirsch explains. “They weren’t getting married, they weren’t sticking to one job, there started to be this second adolescence.” As any millennial knows, these delays are fraught with nuance. We came of age in an era of endless war and economic crises, high interest student loans and the impending doom of climate change. 


Kirsch manages to get right to the heart of this subterranean angst with her photography. One image that stands out in particular is a girl wearing a purple bob hairdo and Doc Martens tucked in the corner of a party, clutching a desperate (and presumably cheap) can of Budweiser while she sobs. She says she wanted to capture the unique moment of the Recession, “what that was like, being a grown up trying to get by in a world where there was no opportunity,” because with the weight of this type of economic uncertainty comes an unexpected freedom – if there are no jobs, who’s to say you can’t start that band, or open that music venue with your friends? Her photos bring to life an era of NYC nightlife that’s been lost to the skyrocketing cost of living in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, where iconic venues like Glasslands, 285 Kent and Death By Audio fell victim to corporate development. 

“The scene we were in was a very special moment in time, and I think we all kind of knew that, catching a little bit of magic in the Brooklyn music community right after the economy crashed,” she says. “There was just a great artistic community we were all part of, and it was really fun.” She notes another important nuance of this time period – no smartphones. “This was the last time before everyone became completely glued to their phones constantly. So this was the last era of that real, uninterrupted human connection.”

Photo by Laura June Kirsch

It comes through in the photographs. She sets herself apart from a sea of concert photographers with her images of the crowd – couples embrace for what could be the first, or hundredth, time; friends dance into the early morning hours on what might be a Tuesday, ready to head to their underpaid “creative” 9-to-5s in just a few hours more. “I shot a lot of live music, but I was more interested in the people who were there,” she explains. “I had this great collection of pictures and I realized it was really just about millennials, and what lifestyle was like at this time, and what life looked like in these communities.”

A “great collection” is an understatement, as she goes on to say that Romantic Lowlife Fantasies is literally bursting at the seams: “I just had a big conversation with how page count works when you’re printing a photo book and we are out of pages.” Kirsch describes the book as a longstanding goal, “a labor of love,” something she aspired to ever since her early photography classes in high school. She’s been shooting this collection since 2008, beginning to sift through the content and piece it together in 2016. She began pitching it in 2018, and found Hat & Beard Press somewhere along the way. 

Photo by Laura June Kirsch

In addition to the photographs, the book will contain original essays from influential figures of that era, among them Darlene “Dee Nasty” Demorizi, Allyson Toy, Brooke Burt, Caitlin McCarry, and Jessica Amodeo. “They just tell their stories,” she explains. “I wanted a bunch of female writers to write about their experiences working in male dominated fields at the time.”

This is a theme that pervades much of the book, and Kirsch’s work in general. In the late-aughts era when she cut her teeth as an events photographer, there weren’t a lot of women out there with her. Surely it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that her unique perspective as a female photographer at this time is what allowed her to find the layers of emotional complexity that emerge from her photographs. 

Photo by Laura June Kirsch

The future of NYC nightlife remains uncertain, battered as it were by the pandemic. The problems that underscore much of Kirsch’s photography remain problems, some of them worse. But it’s because of artists like Kirsch, ones that capture a bit of magic for us to look back on, that we find the hope that maybe, just maybe, history will live up to the adage and repeat itself.

Follow Laura June Kirsch on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Breanna Barbara Grapples With Creative Burnout on Latest Single “New Moon”

Photo Credit: Joel Arbaje

On the night of a new moon, NYC-based singer-songwriter Breanna Barbara looked up at the dark sky with teary eyes and an occupied mind distracted by confusion. Several successful years behind her as an artist, thoughts of never being able to write music again suddenly began to flood her thoughts; unsure of her future, she set out under the stars as the harsh realities of the music business threatened to wreak havoc on her greatest passion in life. An ethereal deliverance of her inner monologue, Barbara plays out the moment she felt her artistic purpose slipping through her fingers in her latest single, “New Moon,” released June 28.

“I was going through a lot personally,” she says. “I think I was just confused if I wanted to share my music any more and keep hustling in this business.” Sinking under the pressure of maintaining a presence in a competitive, cutthroat industry, practically robbing her of the joy musical creativity once brought her, Barbara throws a plea to heavens: “Dear muse/Why don’t you let me sing/Out there?”

“I am definitely very influenced by the moon. New moons represent new beginnings, and it’s good to set new habits and intentions on those days,” Barbara says. “Looking back at when I first wrote the demo, I was feeling kind of sad. There was something in the air that night, and I felt like I wanted to just think it out until I felt better.”

Upon moving to NYC to pursue theatre school years ago, Barbara continued to gravitate toward the guitar, naturally choosing music as a means for creative expression. As early as 2013, she began releasing self-produced tracks recorded on her iPhone, eventually sending the demos to producer Andrija Tokic at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville. This resulted in Barbara’s first record, Mirage Dreams, independently released in 2016. This was, of course, a significant milestone for a developing artist, but it brought new anxiety, too – that of keeping audiences coming back for more.

Following the momentum of her first record, Barbara hit a wall. “I was attempting to get back to that place of – I just want to play because I have to play, not because I have to write another record,” she says, nostalgic for the time when she wrote freely and recorded as she pleased. “I just wear it because I must. Getting higher and higher on social media, being in this whole new world of it and having to promote yourself – I think I got a little lost.”

Although the hustle of the business presented a roadblock for the artist, most of that anxiety was self-induced. “It was almost like I was putting pressure on myself. I saw that people had listened to my first record, so I knew that people were going to listen to my second record and judge or compare it to the first one,” the singer-songwriter describes. “I feel like there [was] a ghost of the past surrounding me.”

Breanna Barbara expresses her feelings on “New Moon” through the dreamy, whimsical effects of the omnichord, an ‘80s electronic instrument she hadn’t used before. The slow tempo adds intimacy to the track, giving listeners a window into Barbara’s inner thoughts and deep longing for the past. She draws in listeners with straight-forward, stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“Holdin’ on to old memories/Down inside, through all of me/I’m just trying to get to where I’m going/Without falling on the floor”), her impeccable talent for capturing and evoking emotion stemming from her affinity for soul-wrenching talents like Jessie Mae Hemphill and Bessie Smith. 

“New Moon” follows two other recently-released singles: the languid “Big Bang Blues” (available on 45RPM 7″ from Freeman Street Records) and the smoldering, minimal “The Way Out.” She will debut her newest material live with a rooftop show at Our Wicked Lady in Brooklyn on July 18 – evidently, calling out to the moon for healing and inspiration proved to be helpful in moving past her mental blocks.

Barbara also cites Rainer Maria Rilke as a huge inspiration, particularly Letters to a Young Poet, which famously details the dilemma of deciding between a path as an artist or following “less-creative” pursuits. Rilke concludes in his correspondence with aspiring poet Franz Xaver Kappus that art is only worth pursuing if the would-be artist feels an intense pull to do so – if they cannot live without creating, if there’s a void in the soul that can only be fulfilled by making art. “It’s something that I’ve always taken with me as an artist,” she explains, having picked up the book in theater school. “It’s like the lid is going to pop if I don’t get it out somehow.”

Moreover, her urge to write music, coupled with her gravitation toward spirituality, keeps her going through tough times. “In those times of desperation when nothing’s really clicking for you, it’s really good to sit down and do the things that make you come back to yourself,” she says. “For me, that’s definitely tapping into that spiritual side of myself. That seems to be a theme in my philosophy: learning what I believe in, questioning why I’m here and how complex human beings with all these emotions can be.”

Follow Breanna Barbara on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for ongoing updates.

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

Photo by Gwendolyn Mercer Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Lauren Lee on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Gianna Alessi Meets Herself in Intimate Spaces on “From Within”

Among the hordes of New Yorkers who took a hiatus from the city for the last year is singer-songwriter Gianna Alessi. Having spent the last seven years bouncing around Brooklyn and Manhattan and growing her live show at venues like Bowery Electric and Arlene’s Grocery, she gave up her apartment and headed back to her hometown of Nyack, New York. She found the time creatively fruitful, honing her skills as an at-home producer with a microphone and a laptop and leaning into the feelings of anxiety and defeatedness to ultimately produce single “From Within,” which premieres on Audiofemme today. 

Alessi is a classically trained theater singer, studying at the Boston Conservatory Berklee School of music, but her training as a musician began much younger. With two classical musicians for parents and the granddaughter of Maria Leone, a soprano in the Metropolitan Opera, Alessi had her first voice lesson with her grandmother at age 9. “I was always kind of nervous to sing around her, because she was very strict and opera is such an amazing art form that takes such control,” she explains. “But from there I started studying, and… just went down that rabbit hole.” Though her grandmother and she sing in very different styles, she says her family calls her the “reincarnation” of her, and often refers back to old photos and recordings for inspiration. 

She eventually made the journey from theater to the soulful, R&B-flecked electro-pop she favors today after taking a songwriting class at Berklee and picking up a guitar. “I always loved theater,” Alessi says, “but the part I loved most about it was the music, so once I started learning guitar I just kind of blossomed and I began to write all the time.” Upon graduation she moved to New York City, where she began working as an actor and putting together a live show with background vocalists and a band, sharpening a sound that meets somewhere at the intersection of India Arie and Morcheeba.

“From Within” is a departure from her normal practice, however. Like many musicians lacking their usual resources due to the pandemic – like their band or proper recording equipment – Alessi improvised, setting up a small studio of sorts in her childhood bedroom and ultimately working to finish the song remotely with producer Joey Auch. Alessi turned the disquietude of the moment into lyrics like, “Waking up late/I pull the shades/Oh, did I miss the day?” The verses simmer in a sultry, dark space, and then burst open into a more positive, pop-driven chorus about finding herself amidst all the uncertainty of the present.

Overall though, the track was an experiment in exploring a more quiet place artistically. As a theater student, Alessi says, “I was always taught singing louder means more power, loud is good in performing… but with this song, I was like, ‘What if I make something really intimate?’” That intimacy leant itself to a more honest reflection of the “very dark place” she says she and many other creatives have been suspended in, but that “From Within” helped her meet herself “within this kind of sadness.”

“From Within” is Alessi’s sixth single, and though she doesn’t know if it will end up on a larger collection of her work, she hopes to jump into the studio in the spring or summer to record more tracks, with an EP or album in mind. “I’m just going to keep creating,” she says.

After her self-imposed creative retreat, Alessi feels she’s at a “crossroads,” having considered both moving back to New York City and heading out to Los Angeles. But the themes on “From Within” resonate with the age-old adage, wherever you go, there you are.

“I think the song is like, I’m going to find myself again, and I have – I was always here,” she says. “If I lost myself, it was only for a second, because everything that was still remains, and it’s all kind of within me anyways.” Wherever Gianna Alessi winds up, we’ll be listening.

Follow Gianna Alessi on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Lindsay Ellyn Finds Magic in Low Moments on “Queen of Nothing”

Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

Lindsay Ellyn can describe in detail the moment she became devoted to music. She was a college student working at Satya Jewelry on Bleecker Street in New York City when the store’s curated playlist turned to Lucinda Williams’ Grammy-nominated album, Essence. As a self-professed music lover who played guitar and piano, Ellyn’s perspective changed when Williams’ voice poured through the speakers, prompting her to study Williams’ catalogue and begin “listening to her obsessively.” “I remember this moment because it really changed my life,” Ellyn recalls in a wide-ranging Zoom interview with Audiofemme. “That album inspired me so deeply to the point where I was like ‘I don’t want to do anything else, I just want to write songs.’ That is what really made me want to start picking up the pen and paper and sitting down with my guitar and being like, ‘what do I have to say?’”

After moving to New York to attend Fashion Institute of Technology where she majored in advertising and communications, Ellyn spent years hustling in the city, working in the editorial and advertising departments for major companies ranging from Conde Nast to Bloomingdale’s. In the midst of her demanding career, Ellyn tapped into her love for music in her mid-20s, performing around the East Village and learning to write songs, leading to the release of her single “Gone” in 2010 and debut EP, Shores, in 2012. “It was around that time that I started thinking ‘I want to do this more. I really love this,’” she reflects. As she became “increasingly disgruntled” with New York, coupled with her desire to actively pursue music, Ellyn made the move to Nashville in April 2014, quickly connecting with songwriters who became friends and meeting her future husband while playing a gig, in addition to releasing her second EP, Out of Road, in 2015. 

All roads lead to “Queen of Nothing,” the title track to her upcoming full-length album where she reimagines some of her previously released work. “When I wrote the song, I was in a place in my life where things weren’t going that great,” Ellyn describes of the acoustic number. A music career she was struggling to get off the ground, a day job that was detracting time from the music, and complicated relationships with family members were among the struggles Ellyn was facing at the time of the song’s conception. “I was having fun playing with this idea of, what’s the polar opposite to having it all and ‘yasss queening’ in your life? It’s losing across the board or feeling like, I’m going to surrender this feeling. I’m not going to be here forever and it’s going to keep going,” she explains. “I think when you are in the down moments of your life and you sit there and you run the diagnostic: why am I here? What’s my ownership for feeling like this? How did I get here? How can I change? That’s when the change starts to happen and that’s when you can get your life on the track to do the things you want to do and celebrate the things you want to celebrate and have the highs. But you have to sit in the lows.” 

Ellyn finds herself embracing those low moments in the song’s opening lines as she professes, “I know about making mistakes/I know how it feels to miss your shot/So close I could feel it burning/And blowin’ out the flame was as far as I got.” “It’s really for better or worse, acknowledging some of my self-sabotaging behavior. I’ve definitely been in a place in my life where I’ve made decisions that didn’t pan out, and you’ve got to make those mistakes to understand that,” Ellyn says. “I think you learn more from the things that go wrong than you do from the things that go right in your life. Those things inform your way forward, so I’m trying to be grateful for that too.” 

Nodding to the “self-deprecating” and “cheeky” nature of the song that paints an image of her donning a paper crown and proudly claiming the title of “the queen of nothing,” Ellyn also sees the magic in life’s darker hours that serve as the catalyst for healing and growth. “There’s this magic moment where you feel like you have absolutely nothing to lose, and that’s when you can just go for it,” she declares. “That’s why I think there’s such value in your down moments, because I feel like that’s when a lot of magic can happen. When you can embrace the times when you’re not killing it, that’s when I think you can rise up. That’s what this song is about.” 

The album, out May 14 via Hail Mary Records/Queue Records, explores a variety of themes – toxic love, failure, and womanhood among them. Ellyn describes it as a journey of “self-discovery;” songs like “Helpless” capture the feeling of being stuck in a relationship she knew she needed to let go of, while “Mercy Drum” finds her reflecting on the past regrets and painful memories that continue to haunt her.

Ellyn cites the album’s creation as the “last memory” before the world came crumbling down, as a bulk of the project was recorded three days before a tornado ripped through Nashville in March 2020, destroying the office of marketing agency Red Pepper where she works as a senior copywriter, and just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic altered life as we know it. The singer and her producer Brendan St. Gelais were able to safely finish the project throughout the year.

“I feel like the stars aligned,” Ellyn says of completing the album amidst the chaos. “I had more fun in those three days than I’ve had in a very long time making music. I think it reiterated, ‘I can do this. I love this. I’m having fun. I feel like I’m supposed to be here.’ It felt very validating for me, especially as someone who has a full-time job that takes so much of my life. It felt really nice to make the record.” 

The open-minded creator views Queen of Nothing as an re-introduction to herself, and hopes that listeners find their own story in the way that she crafts hers. “I think the hard things in life are the deep canyons that you find yourself in. When people can relate on those levels, I feel like that’s what really bonds you with someone,” she observes. “I think the record overall is really a reflection of a human experience. All of those themes feel very human. I would hope that people could listen to them and relate to these human experiences I feel like we all experience at some point. I hope people enjoy it and can identify with it in some way.” 

Follow Lindsay Ellyn on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Mary Akpa Offers Love Letter to the African Diaspora with “A hurum gi n’anya”

Photo by Pedro Cesario

On YouTube, Nigerian-born, California-raised, and Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Mary Akpa leads a virtual language lesson, teaching her community how to say the name of her latest single “A hurum gi n’anya.” Those unfamiliar with Akpa’s native Nigerian language Igbo may struggle with the title at first, but when Akpa sings the words, they slip fluidly from her lips, as easy as water from a glass.

“I feel such reverence towards music for that reason,” Akpa says on a Skype call with Audiofemme. “You don’t have to understand what someone’s saying, but you can feel something. You may not be able to speak a language, but you can sing it. You can catch it so much faster. Music just has a power. It’s a spiritual or magical force or something.” There’s an Igbo term for kind of power, too: iko nsi oma.

Akpa had originally intended to translate the title to English; she worried the phrase would alienate listeners if they couldn’t speak Igbo. But the meaning behind the phrase wouldn’t leave her. “When I think about Igbo and the etymology of the Igbo language and ‘A hurum gi n’anya’ specifically, it actually means more like, ‘I see you eye to eye, and I carry you in my [heart],'” she explains. “It’s like a deeper kind of love. And when I started learning about that, I’m like, oh, that’s why ‘I love you’ always felt basic to me.”

“Don’t look away/The more I see, the more I wanna see you/Never thought I’d find beauty in the mole/Above the right side of your face/These little scars are roadmaps/Cheat codes/Only you and I know/The more I’m letting go, it’s you I wanna know,” Akpa sings in a gently beckoning tone. The line was freestyled during the writing process and Akpa was certain she’d change it during production, until a friend asked why she wanted to do so. “I didn’t realize I was betraying myself that much,” Akpa says, remembering the shame of the moment, realizing how much she disliked this very intimate part of herself. The song became a personal affirmation: “Mary, you need to see yourself. Remember to love yourself first.”

“A hurum gi n’anya” also serves as a love letter to the Black community in the U.S. that she grew up with. “There’s this beautiful awakening that I’m seeing across the diaspora, where Black people are really coming closer to African culture and traditions and really beginning to see themselves reflected – and it’s like, ‘Yes, it’s yours,'” Akpa explains. “And so I’m like, well maybe this is an opportunity for me to create some bridge. It’s the reason I wanted it to be mostly Black Americans in the video – because I wanted to sort of say, ‘Hey, this is as much your culture as it is mine.'”

To some extent, Akpa has always felt the tension of being stuck between two worlds, familiar with the oppression of growing up in a low-income, over-policed community, but also teased about her ties to Nigeria by those who mainly saw Africans depicted negatively. “I just remember seeing commercials and things about Africans and how Africans were portrayed, with flies on their face, impoverished, with animals, and just looking very not the way Africans are in normal life,” she says. Her family’s own emigration was not driven by need; her mother left a successful printing business behind to bring Akpa, aged two-and-a half, and her siblings to California at her biological father’s insistence (he was a pastor, allowed entry to do missionary work in the States).

“My mom wasn’t too keen on coming to the U.S…. So she had a really interesting love/hate relationship with America for a while,” Akpa recalls. “And I say that because I think it really impacted the way that she immersed us in Nigerian culture. We listened to Nigerian music most of the time, almost like in place of nostalgia. She was missing home.” 

Akpa and her four siblings grew up eating Nigerian food, lingering on long-distance calls to their grandparents, and listening to King Sunny Adé, Jùjú music, Fela Kuti, and the Lijadu Sisters. Contemporary Christian music was also a staple due to her mother’s religious fervor, and Dolly Parton made the Akpa Top 40, too. “Apparently in the ’70s, country music was big in Nigeria,” Akpa says with a laugh. She sang in the church choir and made up little songs she would sing at home, eventually studying ethnomusicology and jazz at UCLA. Though she toured domestically and internationally and independently released her Brave EP in 2012 and followed it with 2016’s Unseen, she never felt like the term “songwriter” applied to her.

This was partly because Akpa’s writing process always begins with a guitar melody, which she dictates vocally to her collaborators in the studio. “I just found out that my grandfather, my mom’s dad, played guitar and had his own musical gifts,” Akpa says. “I’m carrying his baton. I felt that so deeply because I hear guitar melodies first – not even vocal melodies – but I can’t play them.”

Akpa has only begun to acknowledge recently that, instrument to instrument, she’s the one leading the creation of each layer, sculpting the sounds with her voice and listening closely to musicians repeat verbatim. The challenge of working in a male-dominated industry has been that her creative ideas – and the way she expresses them – often get bogged down by technical suggestions, even from those who are simply there to “hit record.” This is ultimately distracting for Akpa, who says, “I need to be able to get my thoughts out without questions.” The musicians she works with in Nigeria, while just as technically versed, can pick up on the sounds and moods she wants to convey without putting her on the spot about it, which is why she recorded “A hurum gi n’anya” there, along with several other tracks that will comprise her forthcoming LP Nnoo, expected this spring.

Nnoo represents a full-circle moment creatively. “I’m just now, as in last year, considering myself a real songwriter. I always felt like I’m aspiring to be a great songwriter,” Akpa confesses. “I felt very insecure because I don’t play instruments well. I’m still trying to teach myself rhythm guitar and it doesn’t come easy to me.” The album is a culmination of many trips Akpa has taken to Nigeria in her adulthood, the first of which was with her sister, who was in law school at the time and working with a Nigerian organization. It was an experience she’s never forgotten.

“When I went home for the first time, I distinctly remember feeling like [I was] remembering parts of myself that I’d forgotten. It was weird – it was just like ‘Oh. Right. This is why I do this,’ and just sort of seeing myself reflected so much,” Akpa says. “Nigerians are a very intense people. I always felt like I was a lot, like, why am I so expressive? When I went to Nigeria I was like, oh, okay. I understood myself for the first time.”

Each time Akpa stepped on a plane and flew back home, the reality of her experience as a Black woman became crystallized; in the U.S., she says she “felt the oppression” even in subtle ways, like how Black New Yorkers shift slightly on the subway when a police officer enters the train car. “It does infiltrate every aspect of life when you’re a Black person. People do not recognize that’s such a reality. I think it was going home that took me outside of that, to feel how unfair that reality is,” Akpa says. In Nigeria, on the other hand, she says she “didn’t feel like I had to watch what I was doing all the time. I felt free. I felt like I could just exist for the first time in my life.”

This was part of what inspired last year’s stand-alone single “Black Body,” an opus on the Black experience in America set atop Akpa’s signature guitar sounds; it’s a striking piece that showcases her unique ability to weave thoughts together, speaking almost in the style of a beat poet, while instruments play in and out of frame. The trumpet acts as an echo, sweetly repeating her as she sings, “You call me angry/Say I pull the race card/Shaming me with stigma/But you take it too far.”

She had recorded the song in 2015 but shelved it, and it looked like the same would happen to Nnoo; despite feeling inspired and in charge during the recording of the album, Akpa was flooded with doubts afterward – those old feelings of being caught between two worlds resurfaced, and she was worried the no one else would be able to relate to her songs, or even understand where she was coming from. She had left New York City and returned to California, closing the door on the album to find clarity.

But in February 2020, after 25-year old Ahmaud Arbery was murdered for “jogging while Black,” Akpa suddenly found her email full of requests, asking about “Black Body.” It wasn’t long before she was digging back into her music files, revisiting “A hurum gi n’anya” and the rest of Nnoo.

Listening back, Akpa realized that “A hurum gi n’anya” held the message she needed to hear most to push through her self-doubt. “I’m such a lover. I love love. And I’m always like ‘I wanna show you all this love,’ but I wasn’t showing myself love,” she says. “Even just thinking I wasn’t a good songwriter. Even just not acknowledging myself as a producer. All the ways I wasn’t showing up for myself because I wasn’t really giving myself the love that I try to give other people. And that was a huge wake up call for me.” As she prepares to release Nnoo, she says the album “brought me closer to myself… it showed me me.”

Akpa brought back more than music from her trips to Nigeria. In 2015, she met up with her mother, who was also visiting Nigeria – the first time they’d been there together since Akpa was a toddler. They walked the same path her mother walked while in labor with her, thirty minutes from her business (where she had just closed another deal) to the midwives’ compound where she was born. They visited her mother’s old school and met a group of girls who would alter Akpa’s life permanently. While her mother spoke with the principal, Akpa found herself surrounded by girls on break, inundated with questions (“Why isn’t your hair plaited?” “Why aren’t you married?”). The principal asked her to speak at the morning assembly the next day; for two weeks after, she went back to the school daily to have one-on-one meetings with each of the girls. She talked with them about going to college, her life as a musician, her experience with sexual assault, and more. “I’m just like hyperventilating, crying after [each session], just realizing these girls are so bright,” Akpa says. “When you really get them talking they have so many ideas and it felt like I couldn’t just be like, ‘Okay, bye!’ after that.” 

Akpa partnered with singer-songwriter Ayo Awosika to found Naija Girl Tribe, a nonprofit working toward a brighter future for Nigerian girls. Their first workshop was held in October 2016, and since then, Naija Girl Tribe has mentored over 500 girls so far, and is “truly the best thing I’ve done with my life, these last four years,” Akpa says. “Our long term goal is to create resource centers around Nigeria so girls have access to computers, to libraries, to mentor matching, any resources that they might need so they can host their own workshops and programs. We want to create a space for them to activate to do whatever they want to do.”

The next step will be setting up internships or some equivalent, so the girls can “start getting their hands on whatever work they wanna do, so they can see that it’s actually possible for them to do it,” Akpa says. “Honestly, these girls are brilliant. One of them wrote out this plan for how she would restructure the Nigerian government when she was fourteen.” Due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions, Akpa is working alongside Awosika on a series of virtual workshops tackling tough subjects like rape, alongside lighter events like an IGTV LIVE event with singer Kaline.

Right now, Akpa is stuck at home in New York City, still dreaming of Nigeria lingering off in the distance. Today, she’s shared a playlist of songs that evoke the mood of “A hurum gi n’anya” – great for those who need a boost, or need to feel seen and loved. Soon, she hopes to return to Nigeria to tape a live recording of Nnoo with the original musicians who worked on the album. It’s just one of many bridges she plans to build between the two cultures that have shaped her.

Follow Mary Akpa on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

TOLEDO Foster Empathy via New EP Jockeys of Love

Photo Credit: Nick Ventura

TOLEDO didn’t plan on recording a new EP. “It just happened,” admits band member Jordan Dunn-Pilz. “It kept us busy, and we were able to have fun together. I’m thankful for this opportunity to come back into our own.” He is speaking about their recently-released project Jockeys of Love, on which he and collaborator Daniel Alvarez tackle themes of anxiety, depression, and alcoholism.

“We would have written music no matter what. The reason the songs turned out the way they did is I got hit with the breakup and pandemic double-whammy,” Dunn-Pilz tells Audiofemme. Unsure of their future, the NYC-based duo returned to their shared hometown, the seaport community of Newburyport, Massachusetts, to re-center and re-prioritize their lives. That’s when a batch of new music poured out.

“Compared with the social life in New York, I had a lot of alone time to think about things,” Dunn-Pilz continues. He began sifting through his life, picking apart existential queries, like why it was so hard to be “present in the moment” (which turned into “FOMO,” an EP precursor). “We had written a bunch of other songs with similar themes,” he says, “and that served as the foundation for the EP.”

Opener “It’s Alive!” is among their boldest songs yet, thematically calling to such gothic setpieces as Frankenstein and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and gives them room to wallow in the pain as a way to let it slide off their skin. “I’ll never be what you want me to be,” they sing. Delicate guitar mists around them, as spooky percussion peeks in and out of the arrangement, directly mirroring the onscreen imagery of someone as merely “a collection of parts and scraps that someone else put together.” 

Even the song itself was “very much stitched” in place, Dunn-Pilz explains. “Everything you hear in the foundation of drums, bass, and acoustic guitar existed already; Daniel had made a demo out of that.” Alvarez constructed the backbone like a Big Thief song, and Dunn-Pilz added the topline and electric guitar, much later cutting and pasting various drum sections “to change the structure” completely.

Such intricacies are strung together across all six songs, co-produced with Jorge Elbrecht, known for working with Ariel Pink and Wild Nothing. “Sunday Funday” testifies to the power of “finding empathy” in the world by examining alcoholism from the point of view of “being there for someone who’s dealing with something you’ve never experienced.” “Challenger” teeters between cosmic shimmer and rootsy banger, as TOLEDO envisions a not-so-distant dystopian future in which art is actually an act of rebellion against the state.

Dunn-Pilz is in a unique position; he’s a theatre geek at heart, having studied acting at Ithaca College in upstate New York, and has seen arts programs ravaged by defunding first hand. Pack on the pandemic, and you’ve got “a wild year” during which he’s questioned the very validity of making art.

“I was feeling very down on myself about being a musician in comparison to all the much more important things happening on a global scale,” he reflects. “It’s a dark path to go down because maybe I don’t wanna know what’s on the other side. I was having a lot of conversations with people.”

In the pandemic’s early days, Dunn-Pilz and Alvarez were both collecting unemployment while witnessing their “friends working their asses off from home,” he continues. “They would say things like, ‘Oh, all you guys do is sit around, get government money, and make music all day.’” 

That unfeeling, perhaps even cruel, way of thinking is exactly what perpetuates this peculiar idea that art has no value. It pierced Dunn-Pilz to the core. “Imagine a world where people got paid to do what they love and what they’re good at doing. That lit a fire under me,” he admits. He soon shed any and all doubts and began writing songs as a “‘fuck you’ to everyone that tells me that what I do is being wasted,” he adds. “Everyone wants to consume it, but no one wants to pay for it.”

Fire spills off his tongue as he speaks ─ and those flames grow to a thunderous roar on songs like “Dog Has Its Day” and “Needer,” the closing track peeling back layers of his pandemic-wrought anxieties. “There’s no way this song would exist if the pandemic hadn’t happened ─ not that it was worth it for this one stupid song,” he says, only half-joking.

Over skin-pricking guitar, and a tortured ambiance that seems to puddle beneath him, he invites the listener right into his clouded headspace. “I worry about my apartment in New York/And picture it molding/My backyard’s a blessing, but I don’t need it,” he laments. 

Jockeys of Love serves as the follow-up to 2019’s Hotstuff, feeling profoundly more accomplished, raw, and musically adept. For two musicians who’ve known each other since childhood, it’s the kind of statement piece that lays the foundation for a long career ─ as hyperbolic as that is, their work here is exemplary.

Alvarez and Dunn-Pilz met through a mutual friend in middle school. Straight away, they felt like “kindred spirits,” as Dunn-Pilz remembers it. “Pretty much as soon as we met, we were inseparable,” he says. He was already playing guitar, while Alvarez demonstrated a knack for piano. They set about busking along the market square in downtown Newburyport; the community celebrated and fostered the arts, so they never worried about getting booed or having to dodge insults.

Several years later, after some time apart during their college days, they got an apartment together in Washington Heights. Thinking the pandemic might be course-correcting last summer, they returned to the city life in August ─ and have, of course, realized that was a bit premature. Left to their creative devices, they built a home studio and have become newly-minted vinyl collectors, which Dunn-Pilz says has been a great way “to reconnect with music.” Feeling a disconnect with streaming playlists, he begins every day “by putting on a record and listening to the whole thing. I now have time reserved for just listening to music.”

Among his collection? Hovvdy’s 2018 Cranberry, Stephen Steinbrink’s Utopia Teased, the soundtrack to “Once More With Feeling” (the cult-hit musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and a Greatest Country Hits of the ‘70s compilation. He’s spun the latter so frequently that the duo have even been writing some country songs lately, finding great inspiration from Dolly Parton and Ronnie Milsap.

Jockeys of Love hinges on their personal emotional excavations, subverting the long-standing belief that men should never show emotions. Through his theatre and musical work, Dunn-Pilz has learned how to “get emotions out in the open and face them,” he says. “I’m sure I would be much worse off if I wasn’t as in touch with my emotions. I’m proud of being comfortable with emotions, in general.”

Music has been a catalyst for catharsis, whether he’s creating it with TOLEDO or simply listening. “When I have something that’s troubling me, my first instinct is to get a guitar out and speak into the open and see what comes out. I’ll usually learn something about myself in the process,” he says. “Listening to music can give people a similar experience. There might be some macho Chad listening to Phoebe Bridgers, and he hears her touch on something he can relate to.” That rings true for Jockeys of Love, too – and in times like these, we can all use a little empathy.

Follow TOLEDO on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Paulina Vo Premieres Video Valentine for “Sweetie”

They say that home is where the heart is, and after a year of sheltering in place, singer-songwriter Paulina Vo is starting 2021 with a fresh-faced ode to her partner of 10 years. Her new single “Sweetie,” premiering today via Audiofemme, follows her 2020 EP Call You After; it continues Vo’s journey from guitar-slinging solo musician to electronic singer-producer. Her process is simple: “Find the chords, get the vibe, then lyrics,” she says of the straightforward approach that has served her blend of pop, R&B, and indie rather well.

“I’m generally a happy person, but my music is so sad,” Vo says with a smile. But “Sweetie” runs counter to much of Vo’s back catalogue, with its emphasis on satisfaction and ease. Like a cat curling up in a sunny spot, Vo revels in pleasure of an everyday love. In a year in which our daily domestic pursuits have taken center stage, “Sweetie” is a valentine to those people in our lives who are holding it down.

Vo wrote the song on a trip away from her partner; it brings to mind the bittersweet delight of scrolling through happy photos, of missing someone that’s usually there to touch, but is currently too far to reach out to. The accompanying music video, which features Vo as a Little Mermaid-like character, continues the wholesome narrative of two people finding each other in spite of their differences and coming together happily ever after in the end.

That transitory longing is partly a hold-over from her nomadic childhood. As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who fled their country following the Vietnam war, she was born in New Orleans but spent time in New Mexico, Los Angeles, Florida, Arizona, and New York. Vietnamese was Vo’s first language; she says she “hated it back then, but I appreciate it now.” Her family struggled financially during her childhood – their many moves were due to “a mixture of jobs and little bit of family drama,” Vo explains. “My mom is a gambling addict; I can laugh about it now, cause it’s a past thing. We Bonnie and Clyded it as a family sometimes.”

By age 10, that had decided she wanted to become a musician, and asked her father for a guitar. “He was like, ‘No, do you see us? We are broke,'” Vo remembers. Her dad promised to buy her a guitar if she still wanted it in a year’s time. “In my tiny child brain, I do not know if it was a year or a few months, maybe a few weeks. But a ‘year’ later, I was like ‘Dad! I still want a guitar, can I get one?'” Vo says. Though her dad reacted with surprise, he followed through, teaching her the first few chords. During those early lessons, she learned that her dad had been in a Beatles cover band in the 1960s – a little piece of the mystery that is her family’s past in Vietnam.

Vo’s first songs were inspired by her ’90s idols: Michelle Branch, Christina Aguilera, and The Spice Girls. She joined choir in middle school because she “kinda identified that I could belt at an early age, probably because of Christina’s album,” she says. In high school she began listening to indie rock, a genre she had complicated feelings about from the start. “Back then I was a very angsty sad Asian girl in a very white neighborhood,” Vo remembers; the music inspired her, yet didn’t feel like it spoke directly to her. She didn’t feel as though she fit the mold of indie singer-songwriter, but in 2011, she moved to New York City and began playing gigs. Her first albums feature many of the attributes that make Vo stand out from the crowd: her voice is direct and strong, with little vibrato tomfoolery, while her lyrics twist in delightful ways.

In spite of that raw potential, Vo wasn’t pleased with how all of her early albums turned out. That dissatisfaction led her to begin producing her music on all fronts, from the writing to the stage to the sound booth. “I did an album and it pissed me off because it was nothing like I wanted it to be,” Vo recalls. “At that point in time I was like, I guess I have to do this myself.” From 2016 on, Vo took the wheel on her records and she’s been driving ever since.

Lately, Paulina Vo has noticed contentment seeping into her work, which may be why her next project tackles a harder subject: she’s planning a series of concept albums investigating the complicated feelings of displacement she’s experienced around her family’s journey to the U.S. and her trip back to Vietnam in 2018, some 25 years since she’d last visited. “I had that moment: you go back, you hear your language, you just feel like you’re home kind of – not in that way, cause I’m not from there,” she says. “You’re sitting on this line. I don’t really have a home like that. There’s no old high school bedroom. That doesn’t exist anymore. So it’s that weird feeling of, I feel really at home here, but I’m just a stranger, just a tourist.”

It’s strange to imagine bedroom pop with no bedroom. For now, Paulina Vo is content to plot her future journey from the confines of her NYC apartment – and her sweetie holds it down beside her as she dives into uncharted waters.

Follow Paulina Vo on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Miss Grit Shreds Guitar (and Self-Doubt) on Imposter EP

Photo Credit: Natasha Wilson

Listening to Margaret Sohn’s virtuosic, inventive guitarwork and incisive lyrics, it’s hard to believe she’s ever doubted her talents. But Imposter, her second EP under the moniker Miss Grit, explores those pervasive feelings of inadequacy as a means of exorcising them, drawing on her experiences as an emerging musician charting genre-defying new territory. It also interrogates social norms from a variety of angles – pressure to fit in, the repetition of the daily grind, arrogance-laced small talk – a dense six songs that never feels like a slog thanks to Sohn’s bold sonic palette.

“I’m definitely an introvert. I think I wrote about social norms a lot on this EP because I started to resent them a good bit – they were really digging into social anxiety and imposter syndrome for me, kind of inflating that in my mind,” Sohn tells Audiofemme. “I was trying to overcome that; the EP was a way to release some of that resentment.”

Sohn grew up in Michigan and started playing guitar in first grade; her father bought she and her sisters a microphone and Cubase software so they could record songs at home. “That was actually my first experience working with a DAW and engineering, at like a really basic level,” Sohn remembers. She headed off to NYU to study music technology – a program that encompasses everything from video game sound design to engineering to electronic composition – though she took a leave of absence around the time she released her debut 4-song EP, Talk Talk, “basically just to focus on music,” she says. She also had a growing interest in building pedals. “That was kind of like, my other dream, I guess. But I started contemplating what a degree from music school would really get me, especially for the price tag,” she adds. “I decided just to take a break and see what I could do in the meantime until I needed to go back.”

Sohn had recorded Talk Talk in a nearly abandoned dorm while the other students were on winter break, but with NME touting it as an “essential listen” upon its release, the bubble in which the project existed had been popped. For Sohn, familiar self-doubt started to creep in. “The Talk Talk EP gave me confidence to keep on writing and gave me the boost to start Impostor, but impostor syndrome is something I have always felt my whole life in everything I do, basically,” Sohn admits. “I think that period of time just highlighted it a lot and made it more present than it’s been in my life. Writing the Impostor EP was kind of a way for me to recognize that it’s there, and be able to identify and put a name to it and try to move on.”

“There’s no more reward for winning/There’s a bigger toll for missing/Reaching out, reaching out for your own hand/But how can you trust where you stand?” she asks on opening track “Don’t Wander” over meditative synth, before the first muscular riffs of “Buy the Banter” interrupt. “If they think you’re somebody/You’ll have to prove you’ve got what they want/And they want,” she warns, in a slow-burning critique of music industry sycophants.

“Not that I wrote this about any specific situation, but I was getting frustrated with certain surface-level conversations, and how music is talked about in different settings and different circumstances,” Sohn says. “I feel like recently, I’ve been getting so many comparisons to St. Vincent, and I can’t help but feel it’s like maybe they just can’t think of another woman-identifying guitarist.” Sohn admits that Annie Clark – and other early-aughts indie acts like LCD Soundsystem – were formative influences, but Miss Grit feels like a different beast altogether, hinging on the build up and release that plays out across each track, while Sohn’s monotone provides bracing commentary. Fuzzed-out effects lend another layer of ’90s alt moodiness – think Elastica, Garbage, and other acts that skirted the line between grunge, industrial, and electronic sounds.

However cool the delivery, Sohn’s minimalist lyrics pack unexpected punch. “Blonde” offers an apathetic glance at the shallowness of conformity (“I’ve got nothing to say,” she repeats), but viewed from her perspective as a half-Korean girl growing up in a predominantly white suburb, it becomes a poignant impression of Sohn’s fatigue at working harder to fit in; expansive reverb illuminates the emptiness of the gulf between herself and her peers.

“[It’s] not that I literally wanted to be blonde, I just had some of those wishes, like, oh I just wanna fit into this white space that I’m surrounded by, I just want to be able to relate to these people and not be seen as an outsider to them,” she explains. “The song ends with ‘I’ve got nothing to say’ because you get to a point where you realize that people will end up seeing you how they want to see you and there’s nothing you can do. Trying to adapt to them isn’t gonna really help change their minds.”

Now, Sohn stands out it another way – her guitar and synth textures truly shine, their interplay communicating turbulent emotions the way a siren singer might belt out an emotional line. “The pushes and pulls, the tensions that build up and the releases, are the most gratifying parts for me. They can be more powerful to me than any lyric or riff. This EP was really focused on [that] energy,” she says, adding that she makes mood boards for each song that include color, fashion, architecture, and photography. “It helps me get into an environment and place the sound to a visual.”

In particular, “Grow Up To” crackles with the electricity of a triumphant guitar melody and booming percussion, which builds and bounces over Miss Grit’s stop-start nursery rhyme: “When I fall dead/I’ll still crave/The next place/All the same/And in the morning/I will wait/’Til it’s late/For my fate/Resuscitate.” Its repetition is meant to resemble being stuck in a rut, while the riffs are always reaching. Release from it comes not in the form of soothing lyrical retort, but jittery distortion that clatters to an abrupt halt. “The song is about never being satisfied, and the guitar is kind of the like tantrum that I have at the end that just collapses and falls off the edge,” Sohn says.

Miss Grit’s sound is so big, it’s hard to imagine Sohn composing music in a Brooklyn apartment, headphones on. She did write Impostor with a live backing band in mind – the album includes bass contributions from Zoltan Sindhu and drumming courtesy Gregory Tock, Sohn’s schoolmates from her NYU program – but the pandemic has provided her with the time and isolation she had when creating Talk Talk as she continues to write. The difference, she says, is that she’s grown as a songwriter.

The album’s final tracks represent that growth best – exuberant early single “Dark Side of the Party” zeroes in on over-confident shmoozers while Sohn wonders why she can’t have it that easy, and the title track closes the album with a note of disbelief: “They’re clapping awfully loud/For no tribulations or trials.” While her words express hesitation and anxiety, there’s no mistaking the unbridled wail of her guitar and the fearless decisions she makes with it.

“I think with anything, there’s a balance – being able to have those insecurities in imposter syndrome is sometimes a good thing, because it can ground you to a certain extent,” Sohn says. “But at the same time, being able to be confident in your decisions and your abilities is definitely helpful.”

On the last minute of the EP, Sohn finally lets all that tension unspool; her guitar settles into quiet strumming over twinkling, dreamy synth. But far from resolving the issues that inspired it, Impostor is really about acceptance. “Imposter syndrome is kind of a ghost that keeps following me around. I can’t always see it or know that it’s there. I think writing the EP and ending with ‘Impostor,’ they’re all just ways to help me see the ghost a little bit better,” Sohn says. “Being able to put a name on certain thoughts and feelings, and understand that some doubts in my abilities might be my imagination, just tied the bow on the box. Now I’m able to leave it and move on to the next thing… the most important part is contextualizing it and realizing how to move on from it, grow from it, shine a different light on it.”

Follow Miss Grit on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Anya Marina Preps Live Album and Premieres Video Loveletter to Leaving NYC with “Pretty Vacant”

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Adulthood doesn’t mean that an acquaintance can’t manage to make you feel like shit. Anya Marina is an accomplished singer-songwriter, known for an expansive catalogue, including “Satellite Heart” (from the platinum-selling soundtrack to Twilight: New Moon) and her bomb-ass cover of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” (6 million YouTube views and counting). Her latest single, “Pretty Vacant,” off 2020’s Queen of the Night album, strips away the resume and showcases the raw pain of adult friendships.

“I wrote that song in Nashville and I was really hurt, at the time, by this famous girl,” Marina remembers. “I thought we were friends and I heard through the grapevine that she didn’t like me – it was like junior high school all over again. She showed an email that I wrote to a group of other people who I respected and I was just like: I am too old for this bullshit. It was so wild to me that adult women could act this way. Of course they can – we can all get that way. She had her reasons for being threatened by me or not liking me, but it really took me by surprise.”

The resulting song is a gel-penned hate note for the modern era, its pleasant guitar strumming and gentle vocals mocking the reader: “Darling, I don’t want your money or fame/Darling, I don’t want the keys to your place/Don’t you see I’m happier, too?/So happy without you.” From Marina’s point of view, the unnamed celebrity was only interested in an entourage, not a real friendship (with real sparring and emotions). And while she could understand not being liked, it was this woman’s approach that turned her stomach. “I was really shocked by the gossiping. I can’t believe that a 35-year-old woman who’s so strong and powerful and revered would say this stuff about little old me,” Marina says with a shrug. “I’m nobody to her.”

The video for the single, premiering today via Audiofemme, strays from the original plot of the song and focuses on Marina’s real-life move from her longtime hometown, New York City. In a series of cutaways, Marina cleans her apartment, carefully sweeping dust bunnies from the corner of her living room; the city looms outside the window, as static and ever-permanent as it could be. The move was a difficult, but necessary turning point for her. “I know the Buddhists say you suffer when you resist things, but it was hard,” Marina confesses. “I did not want to move. I loved my apartment. It was my little Shangri-La. But you know, when I started to move I was ready to do it.”

The album Queen of the Night was written as an ode to her time in NYC. “I had a really fruitful time in the city – going through heartache and living with a comedian, Nikki Glaser, who I love,” Marina says with a smile. “We were talking about our respective heartbreaks a lot as roommates. We’d come home for the night and discuss: ‘Who did you talk to?’ ‘Who did you see?’ ‘What’s the status of your love life?’ She would write jokes and I would write songs.” During this time, Marina and Glaser began co-producing a podcast called We Know Nothing (which she continued with comedians Phil Hanley and Sam Morril after Glaser’s other projects took precedence), chronicling their wild adventures in Chelsea and beyond.

With the whirl of daily life, Marina hit a creative wall, and put off writing for months despite her prolific run of albums spanning from 2005 debut Miss Halfway to 2019 EP Over You. “I was getting angry at myself for being such a bad singer-songwriter and being so undisciplined,” she remembers. “And then I was like: Just play one note. You always tell yourself just take baby steps with everything and then you’re not doing it with your music.” She grabbed her guitar and hummed what became the opening lyric for the album’s title track: “Maybe I’m a fool in love/But I don’t care/I won’t play their games.”

Anya Marina loves pulling vignettes from her life to use in her music. Like an expert in collage, her albums tend to capture and reinterpret a moment. She was raised on the drama and improvisation of jazz; her father was an amateur jazz musician and her grandmother a jazz pianist. “She was in bands up until the day she died [at the age of] 99,” Marina says. “Her last week of her life, she had three gigs with her big band and the other big band in her convalescent home. I come from some good genes I guess.”

While she’s now living in upstate New York with boyfriend and fellow musician Matt Pond (of Matt Pond PA), she is grateful for every moment spent in NYC. She’s incredibly thankful for her final performance there, which will be released as a career-spanning compilation, Live and Alone in New York. Her good friend, collaborator, and tour mate Eric Hutchinson convinced her to do the live album, not knowing it would be her final performance in the city for the foreseeable future. “I don’t think I would have done it if it were not for him pushing me to do it, which is how most of my projects get done – somebody pushing me to do it,” she remarks. The album was recorded over two nights at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side in December 2019, then Marina and Hutchinson handpicked each intro and song. “It’s a good snapshot of the time,” Marina says of the experience.

Anya Marina isn’t resting on her laurels. She recently started her own Patreon and is busy sharing demos, unreleased songs, blog entries and private live stream shows with subscribers. As she looks forward to a new jazz ensemble project and ongoing collaborations with Matt Pond PA, New York City – and the failed friendship that inspired “Pretty Vacant” – are now in her rear view mirror.

Follow Anya Marina on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Jillette Johnson Encourages Understanding with “Forgive Her”

Photo Credit: Betsy Phillips

Forgiveness is one of those concepts that sounds great in theory but is difficult to practice, especially when someone wrongs us in a way that feels unforgivable. But whatever grudges you’re hanging on to, Jillette Johnson makes a compelling case for letting them go with her latest single, “Forgive Her” — not just through its sage lyrics but also through Johnson’s soothing voice and a sweet melody that spreads a message of love.

The Nashville-based singer-songwriter penned the song after reflecting on times she had trouble forgiving other people, as well as herself. “I feel myself put up walls and hold on to little shards of glass all the time and find myself having to remember that someone else is probably in pain, that there’s probably some insecurity happening or story that I don’t know,” she says. “Or, opposite to that, I’m certainly not immune to being hurtful to the ones that I love. And instead of doing what I usually do — get mad at myself, which then makes me do it again — it’s a process of trying to be compassionate to myself and understand what, maybe, is driving that.” 

The song opens with gentle chanting and piano chords that pull at your heartstrings, then escalates into angelic singing reminiscent of a parent teaching a child: “Forgive her, she becomes a little kid/you never should have been treated that way.” The refrain, “It’s not okay but you’ll forgive her anyway,” speaks to the difference between excusing a behavior and forgiving it: forgiveness is a choice we make to free ourselves from the consequences of another’s actions, regardless of how inexcusable those actions are.

“‘Forgive Her’ is about compassion,” Johnson explains. “It’s about being able to see in yourself — or in this case myself, and in other people — that there are wounded children in all of us, and those wounded children usually need nurturing and can come out in ways that are hurtful to others. The song is about being able to find compassion in those moments where you realize you’ve hurt someone or someone else has hurt you, as a means to be liberated from the cycle of perpetuating that hurt and of putting up walls.”

A visualizer for “Forgive Her” repeats soft-focus shots of Johnson’s recording process, adding to the track’s soothing vibe. The song will appear on her third album, It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You (out February 12), which was recorded live in the studio, aside from background vocals she layered over herself. Working with producer Joe Pisapia, she played piano and had other musicians come in for the guitar, bass, and drums. “It was very natural,” she says. “I made a record with some incredibly talented musicians who I really trust, and I just started playing, and everybody else started playing along, and it all kind of fit together pretty seamlessly without much intellectualizing of it.”

The rest of the album covers other poignant lessons Johnson has learned, like finding gratitude and joy in the little things and not comparing oneself to others. Four of the songs — “Graveyard Boyfriend,” “Annie,” “I Shouldn’t Go Anywhere,” and “What Would Jesus Do” — are available on Spotify already.

Johnson has been busy with one-off singles as well: “Cancel Christmas,” a somber holiday song that makes no effort to sugarcoat the sadness implicated by the pandemic; and a laid-back, minimalistic cover of 1995 Oasis classic “Champagne Supernova,” a song she listened to growing up that also seemed appropriate for these times. “To, me that song has always been about a loss of control and a reflection on mortality – how what we think we understand, we don’t really understand,” she says. “I know that the band has said in interviews that they don’t really know what the song’s about, but that’s been my interpretation of it.”

Johnson grew up in New York City and played her first live show at age 12, then moved to Nashville after releasing her first two albums Water in a Whale (2013) and All I Ever See in You is Me (2017). “I think I wrote my first song at eight, and that has kind of been my main coping mechanism/passion ever since,” Johnson explains. “In Nashville, it’s a different vibe than making music in New York, in a beautiful way – there’s a lot of community.”

At the moment, Johnson is focused on making DIY music videos – in her own backyard. The video for the defiant, country-influenced “What Would Jesus Do” features her singing on top of a friend’s car, and the candid, heartfelt “Annie” video shows her playfully strumming on guitar, playing a tiny piano, and hitting drums against a bright backdrop.

“I had the constraints of the pandemic work in my favor,” she says. “It was super DIY, but that was really liberating for me. I’ve come from being at a record label for ten years and doing things in a particular way, and being indie and scrappy about it was really exciting. It’s fun to release them into the world because people are connecting with that spirit of just trying to make art out of whatever you have.”

Follow Jillette Johnson on Facebook for ongoing updates.

WOMAN OF INTEREST: Marina Granger is the Guidance Counselor to New York’s Art World

As founder of The Artist Advisory, Marina Granger has pioneered a company to demystify the art market and offer support, guidance, and honest answers to enable artists to take their careers to the next level. Based in New York City, she works with artists by teaching them the backbone of the art market through digital sales, networking tips, and even art world politics. Canning the old-world starving artist cliché, Granger consults with a grassroots business approach to guide artists into their full potential.

Coming to the U.S. as a child with her Soviet Jewish refugee parents, Granger is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of building a career from the ground up. “I say I’ve been doing studio visits since I was born in 1984 – my parents collected a lot of art in the Soviet Union. We were able to bring some over with us, but we completely started over from an economic standpoint,” Granger remembers. “Instead of studio visits for collecting, my mother began taking me to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I remember being a curious little critic, and looking around and thinking, well why is this here? Who decides what has enough value to go on these walls? This seed of curiosity that was planted inside of me as a young girl kept me going through college, and into a graduate degree in art history. That’s how I got into art. Now I’m working with artists, helping them realize how they can get on those walls. I haven’t figured out everything, but figured out a lot after working in the New York art world for fifteen years.”

Imbued with an inexorable work ethic, Granger certainly put in the effort, finding herself in the seemingly unending professional maze that so many creative and ambitious New Yorkers have had to navigate. In order to succeed in the New York Art World, she had to sacrifice work-life balance. “I would go above and beyond and overextend myself, working for people who wanted me to do fifteen jobs at once,” Granger says. “I noticed a lot of people in positions of power were not only giving me, but the artists we were working with, the major run-around.” Granger felt disenchanted and frustrated by the hierarchical nature of the industry, and felt it needed a major cultural power and perception shift. The power needed to return to the artists fueling the industry.

Granger ventured into unchartered territory and directly and independently began consulting and advising artists based on her education and extensive art world experience. “I thought, I’m going to offer a different kind of service for artists breaking into the art world, like an art world guidance counselor. I wasn’t thinking of The Artist Advisory as a business; it was a service I knew I needed to do, and it came from my heart,” Granger explains. “I was a bit overwhelmed at the idea of overhead, so I thought, the internet will be my office space – sky is the limit.” As she started this business, she realized an even greater demand for guidance and practical marketing skills than she had first imagined. “All of a sudden, everyone was contacting me, and it was very much word of mouth. I was known for teaching artists how to get connected on the internet, but really, my first batch of clients came from my connections, from people in real life,” she says.

During her gallery girl days, before it was standard, Granger started utilizing Facebook as a platform for online sales. While working in a museum she noticed major budgets were being allocated for Social Media Marketing. At her next stint at a smaller gallery she brought this awareness to her manager. “I convinced a gallery owner I was working with to let me create a Facebook page for our gallery,” she says. “I said, everyone’s staring at Facebook, so why not? We’re a business. That week, he sold a painting that he posted, and was enthralled!”

Through the power of mindset and perception, Marina Granger firmly believes the lingering trope of the “starving artist” will vanish. “In realms of creativity, we live the reality we tell ourselves. There are artists out there – they don’t have to be as famous as Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, you may not even know their names – but they’re making multiple six figures selling their work. There are plenty of homes out there, plenty of collectors looking for work,” Granger says. “You don’t need to be a starving artist – it’s okay to be an artist and make a living. And also, you don’t need to be extremely famous to make a living as an artist. If you want to be, you can be. But those people are just people too, they’re not superhuman. Ultimately what stands between you and them is your mindset, your vision of possibility.”

Granger says the first step is changing your perception. “Our brain believes whatever it is that we’re saying to it,” she explains. “So if you’re reading this, look for a heavy object. I have this giant Amethyst crystal; if I tell myself I’m going to try to pick up this heavy object, and then I pick it up, I can feel its weight. But if I say, ‘I’m going to pick it up with no problem,’ I don’t feel the weight. It’s an interesting experiment you can try.”

It takes a specific kind of grounded person with a firm vision and sense of self to actively work as a business strategist; Granger believes that to grow in your business, or in your life, you need to make sure you have a growth mindset. Her infectious warmth and passion aids in her work as a creative mentor and community organizer. Aside from The Artist Advisory, Granger leads regular Art Walks and Studio Visits for members of Soho House in the Lower East Side. Her innate sense of community plays hand in hand with her optimistic art world philosophy that orbits around the power of mindset. Granger has rituals and practices that enable her to refuel – and consistently offer this critical backbone of support to guide artists. “To ensure I’m present for my clients, I make sure that I’m happy, and I’m growing,” she says. 

This understanding stems from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, synthesized in her remarkably insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The book offers a window into the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have a profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives. A fixed mindset sabotages or stunts by creating obstacles, and focuses on feeling threatened by the success of others, rather than finding lessons and inspiration. 

Aside from her lovable, fluffy cloud of a puppy, Odette The Pom, Granger enjoys personal development podcasts (Oprah’s SuperSoul, Natalia Benson’s podcast, Chakra Girl Co., anything Gala Darling does, and Manifestation Babe). She also helms her own, The Artist Advisory Hotline (tailored specifically for artists, of course), with honest answers from leading experts in the art world. “A lot of people shy away from saying that they like to do personal development, or, ‘self-help.’ I really enjoy listening to podcasts that are going to help me remove blocks that I’ve put on myself, because of the context of my backstory,” Granger says. “My family came here as refugees with zero money, and that feeling of scarcity, anxiety, and lack, I deeply understand. It’s a high priority on my personal list of blocks and triggers. I work actively every day to remove that money block. In turn, it helps me remove that from other artists that I work with, whether they’re struggling from the context of their upbringing, or mental setbacks they’ve inflicted upon themselves.”

Granger also has a daily gratitude ritual: the first thing she does when she sits down at her desk is acknowledge what she is grateful for, and says her daily goals out loud. “It takes two minutes, but boy, let me tell you, if you talk for even one minute about everything you’re grateful for, you are going to feel good,” she gushes. “I’m not gonna lie, meditating is very hard for me because I am a busy body, but I always make time to practice gratitude. The vibrations of the words are powerful.”

Granger has a four-part method she walks through with artists. The first step is gaining an understanding of the intention behind their work, and what their goals are. The artist needs to know what they want, and how to communicate it. The second part is mindset, because each artist needs to build their confidence in communicating what they want (and to whom). The third thing is developing the presentation of the work through building, or revamping, their online presence. She often tells artists to approach marketing their work as though they’re the merchandise. “It sounds clinical, and I hate to say that, because it’s a living, breathing thing,” she says. “When you think of merchandise, do you want to put yourself in Neiman Marcus, or Target? Both of those are fine, they just need to be presented in a different way.”

The fourth part of Granger’s method is the actionable steps artists need to take once their presentation is down. “In my method, there are three steps that are very tangible, but one is not, and that is mindset,” she says, adding that she always recommends artists read The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks, which posits that our ego operates between two parallels: a baseline (making sure your rent or mortgage is paid, you’re able to eat, essentially the non-negotiables) and an upper limit (giving a TEDtalk, becoming the next Oprah, having a solo show at MoMA). Fear comes from not knowing what’s beyond these extremes, and ego kicks in – sometimes to protect us from dipping below our baseline, but also to sabotage us as we approach our upper limit.

“When we want to reach a big goal, and oftentimes artists really do, they have an upper limit that’s kind of low, because of their societal conditioning,” Granger explains. “When we want to reach that big goal, it’s so important to figure out how you can take the ego out of it. Try to give instead of wanting to receive. When you take the ego out of it, it can no longer sabotage these big goals.” Recently, she put this into practice when giving a talk to over a hundred artists. Having never spoken to that many people at once, she felt her ego kick in. “I was terrified… and I squished my ego by saying, ‘I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing it for them. I’m giving them something.’ I ended up giving away three free sessions to really scorch my ego, but it really helped. Next time you’re thinking about a big project you want to finish, think about how you can take the ego out of it.”

There’s a shift happening in the art world, with power returning to the artists. Granger’s guidance rides the new wave of artists gaining agency and learning to manage elements of their practice as digitally-based creative entrepreneurs. She offers interesting strategies for driving sales, too. “Don’t tell people that you’re selling stuff in your stories on Instagram – a really cool way to do that would be to just say, ‘Hey, here’s a picture of my work of art in [someone’s] collection.’ And then people’s gears start turning. They’re like, ‘Oh my god, we can buy this!'” she advises. “Put it on your grid already installed in somebody’s home. Tell us every time you’re selling something, instead of when you want to sell something.” 

Granger says Instagram is doing for art what radio did for music. “Listening to a song on the radio, you get a taste of it, but you can still buy it. The same thing is happening on Instagram – you get a taste of the artwork, but you can still buy it,” she points out. “I worked in galleries before social media and this is a profound change that’s happening in our culture. And I’m really curious as to how it’s going to play out in the economy of the art industry.”

Due to the pandemic, a lot of exhibitions have moved online, as part of the ‘online viewing room’ trend. Granger strongly feels this showcasing format should stay relevant in the art world ecosystem post-pandemic. “We have a taste of super globalization right now. By living our lives online, you can connect with people from all over the world,” she says. “It’s important not to limit yourself by only having an exhibition in person – put it online, do a virtual viewing room. It’s what a lot of really high-end galleries were doing before COVID. Now, because there’s such a demand for it, virtual viewing rooms are so much more accessible to everyone.”

Next month, Granger launches her sixth online summer course, The Artist’s Academy. The program entices artists interested in joining a community that helps them navigate the art world (it’s a close knit group of about 20 artists) and also helps individuals present their work in the best possible light online. “If you have 10 works of art, you can sign up for this, and if you don’t have that yet, you can still sign up. I love to have a variety of different levels of artists in this course, because even mid-career artists who take this course learn something from the emerging artists, and vice versa.”

Marina Granger says that she’s always listening to and learning from her clients, as well. “Since there aren’t many businesses like mine, there isn’t really an example of what a business like mine should provide,” she says. “I couldn’t have this business without the inquisitiveness of my clients. They teach me everyday about new ways I can help them develop their careers.”

Follow The Artist Advisory on Instagram for ongoing updates.

CF Watkins Finds Beauty in Longing with “Come Around” Video Premiere

Photo Credit: Griffin Hart Davis

For pop-Americana singer-songwriter Cf Watkins, 2020 has been a catalyst for big changes. She left New York, where she’d lived for nine years, to ride out the pandemic in her North Carolina hometown with her parents. Six months into the ordeal, her relationship began to unravel – but Watkins quickly met someone else: her dog, Clara. “The day after he left North Carolina, Clara just kind of showed up,” she says with a smile. “I was sitting on the porch, you know, post-breakup crying. [My parents] live in the middle of nowhere and she just appeared out of the woods and sat next to me and, long story short, never left.” Clara was the perfect sign – it was time to move forward. She headed to Nashville, where she’s currently holed up with her pup and a guitar, contemplating her next moves.

In the midst of it all, Cf Watkins released her latest album, Babygirl, in October. She worked with producer and multi-instrumentalist Max Hart (The War On Drugs, Katy Perry, Melissa Etheridge) on the record for three years, over many trips back and forth from New York to LA, where Hart lives. They met through friends in Brooklyn; Max wanted to record some country covers and was looking for a singer. Watkins jokes that she wasn’t the brash, brassy Southern voice he’d originally envisioned, but during recording, her more subtle approach grew on him.

“That kind of connection with someone, it is almost as mystical as a romantic connection,” she says. “It’s just as rare to have a creative partnership where it just feels like you get each other. You get how to challenge each other and you get how to bring out the best in each other. We are so different in the way we think and create but it just works.”

Babygirl is all about personal connections, particularly those outside of romantic relationships, which are rarely examined in song. But there’s one outlier – “Come Around.” The song digs into feelings of inadequacy, something Watkins hesitated to bring to this album. “I felt really conflicted about putting it on the record, only because it didn’t feel like it fit with my vision for what I wanted the record to be; which was empowered,” she confesses. “That song was coming from not feeling in my power.”

The video, shot in a warehouse in North Carolina, echoes the sentiment of powerlessness. Watkins drops, seemingly from a dark sky, into nothingness. She roams quietly through empty white voids, which echo her words back at her. Griffin Hart Davis produced the music video, pulling Watkins into his world of ethereal spaces, where lighting grabs focus, allowing the audience to meditate almost solely on the focal point: Watkins herself.

“How do you feel about trampolines?” Griffin asked her before the shoot; the video was planned as a production “extra,” created in between snapping Babygirl press photos. Watkins says the challenge was to “make something beautiful with a short amount of time and a short amount of funds,” and they didn’t waste time on set. “Come Around” reveals a feeling of tenderness, a soreness to the touch; the delicate, complicated nature that anchors Cf Watkins’ music.

“I write songs when I am longing for something, for better or for worse,” she says of her work. While those themes remain pretty subtle on Babygirl, “Come Around” is more overt in its examination of love gone awry. “Come around, come around/I been to all my friends and I think things could be different if you come around, come around,” Watkins croons. “Tell me baby, what can I do?”

Her music is seemingly autobiographical, but she doesn’t agree with the label. “What is autobiographical?” Watkins muses. “It is coming through me, it’s my perspective of it. It is how it made me feel. When are you playing a character and when are you not playing a character? Sometimes I feel like in my day-to-day life I’m playing more of a character than when I’m performing. I definitely play certain roles in my friend group, at my day job. It’s almost harder to divorce yourself from the characters we play in our daily life so that you can actually be more honest in the music.”

Watkins grew up running around back woods in North Carolina, humming music to herself as she whizzed past pine trees. The landscape, wild and rural, shaped her personality, and allowed her to explore identities beyond any one defined character. “A name is given to you and you put on your personality. You create a personality throughout your life to find your place in the world and in a conversation and in a friend group and in school. I’ve never really loved my name: Caitlin. I’ve never fully connected with it. I don’t feel like it reflects how I feel about myself,” Watkins says candidly. “I think, for me, Cf Watkins got be who I am when I’m, as cheesy as it sounds, my more pure self, who I am when I’m alone.”

Watkins says there’s a hidden benefit to using her initials, too. “I did appreciate the androgyny of it. I appreciated that if someone heard, ‘Have you listened to Cf Watkins?’ they wouldn’t immediately know what my gender was,” she explains. “[It] takes away that unconscious bias – which may be a reflection of my own insecurities – but I think it was also helpful to separate who I am in my day-to-day life from who I am as an artist and as a performer. It does allow me to let go of some of my insecurities and to think of it as who I am to be, rather than just who I am every day. I don’t know why names make a difference, but it does feel different.”

Watkins has been performing since her mid-teens, finally releasing her debut album, I Am New, in 2016. Though New York’s city streets inspired her, she was surprised at how much her writing bent back toward home, particularly songs on Babygirl like “Changeable,” “Dogwood,” and “Westville.” “A lot of the album came from a place of homesickness,” Watkins said. “I love New York so much – I’m so grateful for it, and it’s magical – but I do feel like a visitor in it in a lot of ways. And I think that is what makes it so beautiful. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there – it doesn’t belong to you. It’s something that’s constantly changing and there is a comfort in that as well, but I think that moving to New York made me feel more connected to North Carolina in a way. You don’t realize that connection stays with you.”

Watkins’ songs almost never start with words. “It’s too cerebral for me then – I get too in my head and it becomes a puzzle,” she says. “Most of my songs start with a feeling.” She plays guitar until she finds something that naturally matches that feeling; she hums, recording variations of sound on the voice memos app on her phone. “Come Around” is the oldest song on the record, something Watkins feels is a reminder of progress. “It is this piece of my past. Maybe it’s helpful to see the growth – going from a person who wrote ‘Come Around’ to writing ‘Baby Girl’, the last song on the record,” she says.

She and Hart are already discussing a new record, but it’s hard to pinpoint when they’ll be able to get to work on one. For now, Watkins is trying to write without an end goal in mind; she’s returned to writing for herself, like she did when she was a young girl humming to herself in the backwoods of Carolina. Back then, the songs were just a part of intuitive therapy, a way of working through emotions. They didn’t have a finish line. She feels much the same about her current home, set in a strange city where she knows no one.

“I am here because everything else sort of just fell apart and [Nashville] is where I landed,” Watkins says. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I think the beautiful thing about the pandemic is, you have to be in the present moment. I feel a little anxious that [I’m] completely unable to plan for my future or to know what I want… if I want to live in Nashville or if I want to go back to New York or if I want to go to LA… I don’t know. But for now I feel grateful to have a backyard.”

Follow Cf Watkins on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Nora Lei Takes a Stand for Love in Fun, Danceable Single “Together”

Photo Credit: Philip Tabak

Relationships all have their ups and downs, but when you’re in it for the long haul, you stick around despite the challenges. NYC-based pop artist Nora Lei, a self-described “hopeless romantic” who’s been in a relationship for six years, channeled this sense of unrelenting faith and loyalty into her latest single, “Together,” an ode to unbreakable love.

The verses describe the difficulties a relationship may pose — “I can tell you’re tired/It’s alright because I am too/Been so much tension/Could cut it with a knife” — while the chorus nevertheless returns to a hopeful note: “We know we’re supposed to be together.” The production, full of electronic effects, makes the song fun and danceable, adding to the sense of optimism that overrides the hardship described in the lyrics.

Lei cites Halsey as an influence, which is audible in the way she belts the bridge, “You said it’s gonna get better/But we lost our way/Didn’t you say/So I think it’s time to go/Watch me fly away, wait.”

“I feel like everyone can relate to that,” she says. “You’re so in love with the person, they’re so in love with you, but you feel like you’re hitting this wall. But in the end, you guys are putting the wall up, and you have to kind of let that down and erase the societal norms if you’re in love with each other and be like, ‘Let’s do this and enjoy each other.'”

Though her partner is her muse, Lei also tends to imagine fictional situations that become the basis for songs, and “Together” was born from a combination of these two sources. “I create so many different scenarios in my head, so many different relationships from chatting with girlfriends and understanding what everyone goes through,” she says. “It kind of fell out of me, just holding everyone’s different experience in me, and it just bled out on paper that way.” 

She first found the Polar Beats online, then wrote the lyrics around it, and producer Joe Laporta worked with her to fine-tune and mix it. The contrast between the lighthearted sound and the deep lyrics was intentional. “I imagine people dancing to it and enjoying it, even though the words are relating to a relationship in those tough times,” she says.

The 28-year-old began posting covers of songs by artists like Michelle Branch and Demi Lovato to her YouTube channel as a teenager but just began releasing music this year, having been a fashion designer and creator of the swimwear brand Perfect Peach. For a while, she’d record lines that came to her on her phone but didn’t do anything with them. Then, during quarantine, she began to get serious about turning her ideas into songs.

“As terrible as that was, it gave me so much ability to sit down and get inspired and turn all those thoughts and notes I had written down into music, so this year kicked off everything for me,” she remembers. “It’s amazing for me that I’m doing it. It’s a big passion of mine, and it’s been in my life forever. One year down, lots to go.”

While she’s still creating made-to-order pieces for her fashion brand, her focus has shifted to her music, which has already garnered a following; she has over 50,000 followers on Instagram and hundreds of thousands of streams on Spotify. To improve her songwriting, she’s begun learning piano and guitar. She’s working toward an EP but is focused on releasing singles for now.

Her very first single, the slow, rhythmic “Heroine,” is an empowerment anthem about “being your own heroine, your own inner goddess, and just doing what makes you feel great and being strong and confident,” she says. She then released the moody, atmospheric “Chemistry” and the wistful “Never Knew Why,” a reflection on the times relationships don’t go as planned.

“All my music is exactly what I’m going through and internally processing, so it can be quite emotional and relatable,” she says. “Some of my songs, I will have purely a melody and will work off of that. Other times, it’s something I absolutely have to get out of me, and I will sit down and write the song in 15 minutes, and I will build the melody around those lyrics.”

When she thinks about the future of her music career, her fans are her priority. “I really just want to be in this for the long run,” she says. “It would be great to win some awards and get more streams, but I really just want to grow a fan base and have my music really resonate with people and have them feel something. If I can keep doing that and have that happen for me, that’s my biggest goal.”

Follow Nora Lei on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.