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. 

Bren Joy and Jake Wesley Rogers Step Out of Creative Comfort Zones For Red Bull SoundClash

Photo credit: Se Oh / Lamont Roberson

Nashville is called Music City for a reason. From the country music capital of the world to the home of the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers, Nashville is brimming with creative talent. Red Bull is working to elevate that creativity with SoundClash, its long-running event that sees two artists face off in a musical competition where the winner is decided by the audience. The artists entering the musical octagon must be willing to step outside of their creative comfort zones and adapt to new situations. Willing to step up to that challenge are two of Nashville’s rising stars: Bren Joy and Jake Wesley Rogers, who will take over Marathon Music Works on December 9 at 9pm EST.

Bren Joy, an R&B artist influenced by ’70s Motown and California culture, has credits that include writing “Dynasties & Dystopia” for Netflix’s hit animated series Arcane: League of Legends and opening for Megan Thee Stallion; Jake Wesley Rogers, a former America’s Got Talent contestant turned glam pop artist was featured on the Happiest Season soundtrack and has made fans in Hollywood ranging from Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds to Madonna and Elton John. 

“I love companies that really invest in upcoming artists. That’s very important for me,” Joy shares with Audiofemme about what drew him to SoundClash. “I intentionally wrote these songs in a way that I can flip them and interchange them. I want to show people versatility.”

“It’s also a fun creative challenge too because it’s so different than a normal show,” observes Rogers. “I do like a challenge. I do like to be put out of my comfort zone because I think that’s when interesting things happen and this feels like a good way to do that.”

Part of that challenge stems from the fact that the artists are tasked not only with reimagining their own songs, but working together on performing collaborative renditions of each other’s music, along with a cover song.

Rogers says he worked closely with his music director to reinvent his sound for the occasion, adding a barbershop quartet to an a cappella version of one of his songs, with Joy teasing a “big surprise” for his performance of “Insecure,” his collaboration with R&B-soul singer Pink Sweat$, and even took himself by surprise with his new rendition of “Twenties,” the title track of his 2019 EP. He also hints at a special appearance by a female artist whose 2020 album he’s been listening to “nonstop,” teasing that they’re sharing a “beautiful moment onstage.”  

”My music’s very special to me and it’s very close to my heart, so I think it’s going to be good for me hearing different versions of my music that I write. I’m very intrigued and I’m very excited for that. It’s a very unique opportunity,” Joy expresses, adding, “there’s so many surprises.”

As a Nashville native, this opportunity is especially meaningful for Joy, who asserts that he’s going to stick to his roots and “follow my gut” in presenting his music as an example of the diverse talent born and bred in Music City. “I’m so stoked for the opportunity to do something special in my city. Nashville’s very important to me and live music is a very special part of the city’s culture and I think whenever we can take live music and go a step further and really push the envelope and push the norm, that’s what I want to do,” he asserts. “It means a lot being able to do something like this that’s very original that I don’t know if I’d get another chance to do.”

Meanwhile, Rogers plans to take what he’s learned performing other live shows, going back to his theatre days growing up in Missouri and singing in a rock band in church. There, he learned about the value of transitions in maintaining the natural flow of the songs, skills he intends on channeling on the SoundClash stage. “You have to serve the moment and the live environment, what is going to serve this show and what is going to sound the best, feel the best, look the best,” Rogers describes of his approach, hinting that he’s had several new costumes made for the show, draped in sparkles and sequins. “I feel the most me when I’m performing. There is something so different about performing live when it’s a very intimate connection with people and it feels so cathartic.”

And while they’re poised to be competitors, Joy and Rogers are approaching it with a healthy mindset. Having met as students at Belmont University in Nashville, the two artists were already familiar with each other’s music coming into the competition, offering nothing but praise for one another’s gifts.

“Our styles are quite different, but I think we’re both inspired by each other, so that’s helpful,” Rogers laughs, citing Joy as a “sweetheart” and “stupid talented.” He adds, “It’s nice to talk to someone that gets it and understands how fun and wild this career is.”

For Joy, SoundClash has allowed him to connect with an artist whose style is vastly different from his own, the common ground allowing them to build a unique sense of trust needed to perform in such an event. “I love Jake, I love his music, and I think what’s important that people don’t realize in a SoundClash is trust. These songs are very vulnerable and special to me, so I have to really trust the other artist. I trust Jake to do my songs justice and also to be sensitive to the topics,” Joy remarks, calling Rogers “visually stunning.” “It’s definitely been interesting trying to keep the same motive and intention that Jake had in the song and be respectful, but also give it different legs. It’s been really cool.” 

Part of building that trust is understanding who one another is as an artist. Rogers, who identifies as gender-fluid, is intentional about telling his story in a genuine way. Deeply observant, Rogers harbors a unique ability to capture the “friction of life,” pointing to the song “Pluto” as a metaphor for how many people feel like outsiders, and our lifelong quest to find love.

“Anytime anyone is able to be themselves, it inspires somebody else to be themselves, and that’s really important to me. My mission as an artist is to find freedom in myself and talk about it and hopefully some other people find it too,” says Rogers.

As for Joy, he reveals that 2020 allowed him to view life through a new lens, learning more about who he is at the core and leaning into it, that personal growth shining through “fully” in his music. “I think over the past year, I’ve fell so much deeper in love with my culture and my background and I have stood up for things in the past that I had been quiet about. I think that I’ve learned to be a badass, give no fucks,” he professes. “I feel like that’s where I really had this disconnect with my art in the past; I was coming from a very insecure place. I feel like now I’ve grown in my art and grown to love what I do and to stop caring so much about what people are going to think or what’s going to happen and really trust in my taste and the taste of the people that listen to my music. I feel like I’ve grown up. I’m a little more open, everything’s a little more queer, everything’s a little more cool. I feel like I am very zen at the moment.” 

While the two singers have differing perspectives on how they want the audience to perceive them, the common thread is to feel a sense of connection and community. Rogers hopes fans feel the wonder of escapism in his presentation, while Joy encourages people see the vast range his music has to offer. “I hope they take away my versatility. I think versatility is something that’s very important to me and I have grown so much. I think we all have grown over the past year, we’ve all learned a lot, we’ve all been educated, so I am very excited for people to hopefully take away not only my versatility, but my ability to write songs,” Joy declares.

“I hope that they forget about their life for a minute and forget about their brain. Music is one of the most magical things in this world and I hope that’s a moment. I hope it’s cathartic. I hope it’s surprising,” Rogers reflects with a smile. “I hope they see themselves in me.”

Follow Jake Wesley Rogers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook , and Bren Joy on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates. 

Cincy R&B Singer Tori Helene Chronicles Dating Downfalls on Moonchild EP

Tori Helene
Tori Helene
Photo Credit: Lunsford Photography

Tori Helene combines earworm pop production and glimmering vocals on her first project of the year, Moonchild. Teaming up with frequent collaborator and producer Natown, the Cincinnati-based songstress breezes through feelings of longing, lust and dissatisfaction in relationships on the seven-song EP.

Helene asserts her expectations on songs like “Figure it Out” and “Passion,” where she laments lackluster romance. However, she also shows self-awareness on songs like “Moody,” where she acknowledges her own shortcomings in relationships. Besides her direct and vulnerable lyrics, Helene’s music stands out for her glossy vocal range, which is complimented especially on Moonchild by Natown and others’ production.

So far, Helene has released visuals for Moonchild cuts “Little Black Dress” and “Sleepwalking,” the former of which ended with a teaser for “Moody.” The singer-songwriter is now working on filming live video performances for “Passion” and “Sleepwalking.”

Below, Helene answers questions about Moonchild, getting vulnerable in her songwriting, upcoming videos and what else she’s working on, including a new EP slated for release in 2022. Read her Q&A with Audiofemme below.

AF: Congratulations on releasing Moonchild! When did you start working on this project?

TH: Thank you so much! I started working on Moonchild in August of 2020. I was DoorDashing one day and listening to beats in the car, and I started writing some songs and felt it was time to start working on the EP. Those car rides really helped my inspiration for writing the project. 

AF: What producers did you work with for Moonchild?

TH: I worked with Natown – like always, and I also started working with a producer named VSHY from the Netherlands. He’s really dope. I found him online and started reaching out to him and getting beats. 

AF: The video for “Sleepwalking” was super fun and cute. What was filming that like?

TH: The “Sleepwalking” video shoot was a good time! I asked two girls that I know from the music scene here – a very talented artist name Sahara and dope engineer Ihlana [Niayla] from Timeless Recording Studio, where I record my music – to be a part of the video. I wanted it to have a mini girls night/kickback vibe and they did amazing and had great energy. The overall energy on-set was so fun, which is what I wanted since the song is so upbeat and light-hearted. 

AF: If you had to pick one, what is your favorite Moonchild song and why?

TH: I love all the songs on Moonchild with all of my heart, but, if I had to choose, my favorite one would be “Moody.” That one is produced by VSHY, and I fell in love with the beat instantly. It actually made me cry, it moved me that much. Some records are just so effortless for me to make, and “Moody” was one of them. The song is about me getting into my moods, where I can be clingy or have an attitude when I don’t get my way, and it was very freeing to write. I’m basically admitting a flaw that I have, which I felt was growth. I love that song so much! I’ll never ever get tired of it. 

AF: “Passion” has to be one of my favorites off the project. What was your inspiration behind that song? 

TH: I love “Passion” so much. What inspired me to write “Passion” was my dating life! I get very unsatisfied and bored with men and relationships. I’m sick of the boring conversations and the lack of depth. When I wrote “Passion,” I was visualizing having a romantic dinner, going on trips, being wined-and-dined. It was literally me asking, ‘Where is the passion?’ I need that in my life!

AF: Do most of your songwriting ideas come from personal experiences, or from other people in your life?

TH: All of my writing comes from personal experiences and my feelings. That’s why I love making music so much. It’s like my diary – it’s therapy for me. 

AF: What’s up next for you?

TH: I’m planning on pushing Moonchild for several months, and I’m trying to get out and perform at more shows out of town. Also, I am writing and working on my next EP for 2022! The grind doesn’t stop.

Follow Tori Helene on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Meagan Hickman Offers Hope and Redemption with “One Day” Premiere

Photo Credit: Petya Shalamanova

Meagan Hickman has always been intentional about creating uplifting music, a trend she continues with her new song, “One Day.” 

Born and raised in Chicago, the singer-songwriter was trained classically, falling in love with songwriting after discovering acts ranging from John Mayer to Bonnie Raitt. Adapting the craft as her own, Hickman began journaling as a teenager, her thoughts soon turning into song. Raised on the sounds of Motown and listening to India.Arie and Jill Scott as a teenager helped her develop a palette for soul music that she incorporates into her own sound. “I feel like soulful music is always where my heart’s been. Vocally too, it’s challenging, and I always wanted to sing. Soulful music was always that outlet,” Hickman tells Audiofemme

The Nashville-based artist carries this sound into “One Day,” premiering exclusively with Audiofemme. ahead of its official October 8 release date. The spirit of the song is as bright and sunny as the yellow dress she dons on the single’s cover art, while the instrumentation is as multilayered as the lyrics. A sparkling piano adds color in the background as syncopated drums shine alongside Hickman’s radiant vocals. The song was inspired by the singer’s friends who expressed regret choosing one life path over another, believing they neglected their calling and had run out of time to pursue it. That’s where Hickman steps in to be a light at the end of the tunnel, encouraging them that dreams are never out of reach. “One day you’re gonna find a way to see/One day you’re gonna find a way to breathe/One day you’re gonna find what you need/One day you’re gonna find a way to sing,” she cheers in the chorus. 

“‘One Day’ is about coming back to those roots. Even if you’ve done all these other things and you feel like your time is up or you missed the boat, you still have it within you. It’s not gone. It may feel like it because of all these detours, but this is not the end,” she explains of the song’s meaning. “You’re going to find your song – that is your calling. You’re going to find your voice. You’re going to find whatever that calling is again, because it’s who you are. You’ll find your way back to that voice or that calling and you’re going to find that sense of peace.” 

Inner trust is an integral theme to the song. Giving it a modern twist, Hickman tackles the toxicity of self comparison in the second verse: “Foreign languages of endless data/You’ve got to decipher what matters/Deciding should you step away/Or dive head first and stake your claim.” Hickman acknowledges the “comparison factor” that plays out as we scroll, reminding herself as much as the listener that it’s up to each individual to react with a positive or negative mindset. “That moment in time is the most crucial to your success and your mental health. For me, even though it could be negative, it’s like, ‘How are you going to react to that?’ and that in turn I think affects the way that you move forward,” she analyzes. 

Alongside this critical thinking, “One Day” is a redemption anthem, Hickman serving as the listener’s cheerleader in times of self doubt. It’s a message she’s proud to share with the masses in hopes that it offers listeners a sense of reassurance and peace. “I really hope it’s like a big hug. I hope someone knows if you’re going through that crisis – whether it’s mental, physical, family, whatever – it’s all perspective,” she expresses. “Circumstances can be really bad sometimes, but my hope is to be like, ‘Here’s that hug, it’s okay. You can do it.’”

Hickman says she’s needed that same encouragement plenty of times. “I so badly want to receive what I give; I think all of us do. We hope that we give enough and we get it back. With my music, I hope that I get that same hug or that same love back. If I can put goodness into the world as best as I can, that’s my goal,” she says.

After a fraught year and times of crises that never seem to end, Hickman continues to display bravery and caring. “This world is isolating and we have so much stuff that can mess someone up,” she points out. “If there’s anything that I can do with my music, it’s to lend that hand and be like, ‘I see you. I feel you. I hear you. I go through what you go through. You’re not alone.’ That’s my hope.” 

Follow Meagan Hickman on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Vespre Breathes Life into Spring on New Single “Back to Me”

Photo Credit: Abigail Lynch

For some artists, the last year of increased solitude offered an opportunity to step into their craft and be more prolific and creative than ever before. For others, it presented a debilitating pit of emotional and physical quicksand, making it nearly impossible to get through the day, much less create anything. Kaylan Waterman, aka Vespre, landed somewhere in between the two. Her latest single and first solo release in almost three years comes after a long period of collaborating, resting, reflecting and rediscovering her muse. “Back to Me” is a buoyant reunion with Spring, self and love lost and found; and one that Waterman worked damn hard to get to.

“I know a lot of people who are like, ‘I made my magnum opus during COVID!’ That was not me, at all,” says Waterman. “I tried a couple of times and my body, my spirit just told me: Don’t even stress about it, but this isn’t it for you… focus on other stuff.” So, that’s what she did. Waterman, who works full time at local label, artist management and sync company Assemble Sound, already has enough on her plate to tire anyone out. But, on top of working full time and collaborating with her brother Kaleb the Intern, Moon King, and others in 2020, she started a sharing table in her neighborhood to provide food and other necessities to folks in the community. 

While Waterman devoted her time and energy to filling other people’s plates, her’s was running low. “I just did not have it in me to create. I was too stressed, I was too sad, I was grieving, I was just like in survival mode,” Waterman explains. “I felt very depleted and music was the only thing I knew that would help fill me up.” So she started writing for herself, meeting at the cross-section of heartbreak and healing. 

Waterman explains that the idea for “Back to Me” started almost as a clapback to peoples’ responses to her breakup. She says that although she’s the one who walked away from her relationship, everyone assumed she was dumped. “I would tell people, and they’d be like, ‘I’m so sorry, he’s the worst!’” Waterman says. “And I’m like, ‘umm, maybe I’m the worst…What are you talking about? I ended this.’” 

The song allowed Waterman to reclaim her narrative and communicate the complex array of emotions that can accompany a breakup. She wanted to portray the duality of being resolute in her decision but still feeling loss and grief. “I just wanted people to know that women – especially independent, very self aware women – can make difficult decisions and still be soft and longing and wanting. We hold both of those things at the same.”

Waterman embodies this duality in “Back to Me.” Though her poetic lyrics focus on nostalgia and longing for a former lover, the music that accompanies them is upbeat, driven by shiny synths and ebullient percussion. The video (co-directed by herself and Andrew Miller) mixes the ethereal and the mundane, showing Waterman as both a serene nature goddess and a forlorn bodega shopper. Though she’s feeling the ripple effects of heartbreak, Waterman refuses to hide from her complicated emotions, and is determined to dance through it all. 

“I think I did accidentally write a pop song but I don’t really gravitate towards pop in that way,” she says. The songwriter, pianist and producer grew up listening to Detroit house and attending the jazz festival as early as age 9. She says that she feels most inspired by female artists like Patrice Rushen – whom she lovingly named her Subaru after – who sit somewhere in between house music and jazz, disco and R&B. “I want people to be able to dance to the music I make, because Detroit is such a dancing town,” says Waterman. “I wanna speak to that culture more. I wanna write for us more. For my friends that go out dancing like me.”

Dancing in the middle seems to be where Waterman finds her stride. In the middle of heartbreak and happiness, rest and resilience, triumph and tears. Her music finds its strength in vulnerability and suggests that the listener do the same. “I feel like I’m coming back to life and I wanted people to hear it in that way,” she says. “Maybe it’s your creativity coming back or maybe it’s a person or maybe it’s just spring. Maybe you’re happy that this horrible winter is over… I wanted people to listen to it and hear however they wanted to hear it.”

Follow Vespre on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Mario Sulaksana Showcases Detroit Artists and Friends on Debut LP Conclusion

I met Mario Sulaksana four years ago, in a Wayne State University practice room. He was the band leader of a fundraiser for the Artist Residency I was living in, and the residency coordinator suggested he accompany me for a song or two. When we first spoke on the phone, I remember preparing to meet a 40-something, well established jazz musician – he sounded so grown up and formal. I was shocked, then, to see a 20-something man in basketball shorts and a backpack greet me and let me into the practice building. “I actually graduated a few months ago but I can still get in here to practice,” he explained.

I was a bit skeptical at first. As someone with very limited formal music training, collaborating with the “music major” types always kind of intimidated me or rubbed me the wrong way. But there was something about Mario that felt different. His professional demeanor mixed with his college kid wardrobe was extremely endearing. After a few minutes of talking, it became clear that he is the kind of person that makes it feel like you’ve known him for years within a few minutes of meeting. And then he started playing the keys. I was floored by his intuition and ease on the keyboard. Within two hours, we had written three songs together, one of which we performed at the fundraiser. 

As much as I’d like to think I’m special, Mario is the type of producer that brings out the best in every single musician he works with. That’s probably why, then, four years later, his debut album Conclusion features almost twenty different musicians (including me), all of whom could tell a similar story to mine. The record is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Mario’s last eight years in Detroit – absorbing inspiration from the greats like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, spending countless hours composing and performing, and making friends that naturally evolved into collaborators and vice versa. 

Sulaksana explains that while writing the record, it became clear which of his friends would be the perfect fit for the parts he had in mind. “It’s just kinda how my brain works. I can only imagine the words coming from a certain voice, or the pocket grooving from a certain drummer,” says Sulaksana. “I think it reinforces the message to the musicians that I care about them as people first, and that everyone’s individual voice matters.”

Of course, wrangling so many musicians is extremely time consuming and difficult. Nonetheless, Sulaksana managed to record the entire album in a matter of six 12-hour days at Rust Belt Studios, a studio just outside of Detroit. Sulaksana says that over half of the songs were finished or written in the studio, speaking to his ability to improvise. “I remember writing the lyrics to ‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ the night before my session with Keyandra, but I had only completed the song halfway,” says Sulaksana. “I then finished the rest of the lyrics quite literally on the car ride to the studio.” 

Part of his improvisational prowess comes from the years Mario spent as a band leader for live shows. Before recording Conclusion, Sulaksana worked any number of weddings, dive bar shows and gigs in Detroit’s mainstay jazz clubs, Cliff Bells and Willis Show Bar. And while he played thousands of covers in this time, there were a few that stuck out. Although most of Conclusion is entirely original music, he chose four of his favorite pop songs to record “Mario style” – which means complex chords, lush arrangements, and a killer band. The covers showcase his knack for transforming a universally recognizable song into one that feels like you’re hearing it for the first time. 

The one that stands out to me is “Landslide,” sung by local artist Madelyn Grant. A departure from his normally intricate arrangements, this cover is stripped down, featuring just Sulaksana on the keys and Grant on vocals. The arrangement is a perfect example of Sulaksana’s wide-ranging influences, from gospel music to Fleetwood Mac. Grant’s ethereal vocals float over Sulaksana’s unexpected chords, a combination that is as satisfying as it is unordinary.

As far as his original work on Conclusion, Sulaksana pays homage to R&B and soul legends. One of the first songs he wrote on the record, “Always,” is his most obvious tribute to Stevie Wonder. Not only does the name nod at one of Stevie’s most beloved songs, but the jazz-infused chords and languid melodies are reminiscent of Songs in the Key of Life. In the chorus, Justin Showell sings Sulaksana’s lyrics, “Stevie always told us, love’s in need of love/I know that your love is in need of mine,” acknowledging the depth of Wonder’s influence on his musicianship. 

Though Sulaksana cites Wonder as one of his heroes, he admits that the album’s eclectic sound pulls from a mosaic of different sources. “‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ had a lot of Floetry and D’angelo energy behind it. The Intro, ‘Love is Here to Stay,’ felt like a lost K-Ci & JoJo demo, and honestly a lot of the others just kinda happened,” says Sulaksana. “Each song had its own influences and I think it’s pretty evident when you juxtapose them individually and out of order from the album.”

As is the story for almost everyone, the past year has been one of shapeshifting, growth and change. For Sulaksana, it’s meant switching gears from band-directing live to producing in the studio, arranging other artists’ songs to writing his own, and stepping from the shadows into the spotlight. While he was itching to get into the studio to record songs he had been writing for years, he says he feels most at home working behind the scenes. “I wish I could be somewhere in between Chad Hugo and Mark Ronson,” Sulaksana muses. “Maybe leaning more toward Chad at the moment… I don’t really care to have my face on a bunch of things. It’s weird to promote myself. I work with so many beautiful stars who shine on stage and make it look easy. I want to lift them up as high as possible.”

Follow Mario Sulaksana on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Harpist Ahya Simone Highlights Humor and Joy in Her Black Trans-Centered Webseries Femme Queen Chronicles

Photo Credit: Jayne Lies

Ahya Simone had no intention of being a harpist. From the minute her high school counselor added the novel elective to her schedule in ninth grade, she wanted nothing to do with the class or the instrument. But, like many impactful experiences in her life, this opportunity that seemingly fell into her lap became one of the most important aspects of her life. “I always say that some of the greatest things or the most pivotal things in my life happen to me through things that I didn’t even necessarily set out to do,” says Simone. “And how I got into the harp was one of those things.” 

Though Simone grew up in the Baptist church where she nurtured her love of singing, the Detroit born-and-bred harpist, singer and filmmaker says the harp changed her life in ways she could have never anticipated. She explains that learning the harp was an integral part of embracing and understanding her femininity. As a self-described “5’4″ cunty little gender expansive child,” Simone admits that she was hesitant to embrace the harp at first because of its association to femininity. “It’s like the thing that people do when they’re so obsessed with something, but then they’re like, “I’m gonna be the total opposite of that.”  

But come the end of the semester, Simone was the star pupil of her class and was encouraged by her teacher to continue. Besides giving her a creative outlet and a chance to learn how to read music, the harp acted as a safe space for Simone to access her femme side. “It was a way for me to be feminine in public space in a way that felt safer than trying to outwardly express femininity in ways like dressing in feminine clothes – it was more so a caveat to my actual transition,” says Simone. “Honestly, it was lifesaving to me, just like transitioning was life saving to me. I probably wouldn’t have transitioned when I did if I didn’t play the harp.”

Simone continued to excel at the harp, which led her to continue her studies at Detroit’s Wayne State University. And while her relationship with the harp grew, she felt stifled by the confines of the orchestra pit. As someone who grew up with a love of singing and listening to Earth, Wind and Fire, Anita Baker and Beyoncé, there was a part of Simone’s artistry that was waiting to be tapped into. “I had to play… 300 year old dead people music in a goddamn pit and I was like ‘Oh my god I can’t do this anymore,’” Simone remembers. “I can’t sit in this pit with all these white people that don’t understand me and I’m the only harpist.” So, by the time graduation came around, Simone decided she wouldn’t waste her time clawing her way to the rare harp chair in an orchestra. She would take her own path, one that paid homage to the R&B and electronic music that raised her and the groundbreaking jazz harpists that paved the way for her.

“I am so floored at how underrated Dorothy Ashby is and how many jazz greats have no idea who Dorothy Ashby is,” says Simone of one of her greatest influences. She explains how discovering jazz harpists like Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane and her teacher Brandee Younger has expanded her theoretical knowledge of the harp. Aside from inspiring her to delve deeper into her improvisational impulses, these artists reaffirmed Simone’s belief that the harp was not only destined for those content to play Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” for the rest of their lives.

“Western thought and culture kind of siphoned off the cultural vastness of what the harp represents,” says Simone. “Because now, it’s associated with like, delicate white women. And, you know, I’m not a delicate white woman… But one thing I do feel like it represented to me was a sense of boldness, a sense of elegance that I had hoped to embody as a young person. And also it was cool. It wasn’t the violin, it wasn’t the piano. Pianists were a dime a dozen. But the harp was just like – this is some bad bitch shit actually.” 

Since being cajoled into trying the harp her freshman year, Simone has forged her own path as a musician, ranging from being the Principal Harpist for the Wayne State University Symphony to collaborating with electro R&B artist Kelela, scoring Louis Vuitton’s Fall/Winter 2021/2022 digital runway show, and releasing a video for her debut single “Frostbite” in October 2020.

She’s also written and starred in the critically acclaimed web series Femme Queen Chroniclesthe story of four Black trans women navigating life in Detroit. Much like Simone’s experience with the harp, her foray into filmmaking happened organically and unexpectedly, as a result of an impromptu meeting with friends at KFC. 

In 2017, Simone attended a community meeting with other trans women to address the acts of violence that were affecting trans women of color in Detroit. After what was understatedly an extremely heavy couple of hours, Simone and a few of her friends decided to go get some food and decompress. “One of my co-creators wanted KFC and everyone else wanted Wendy’s, so of course we went to KFC because she wanted some potato wedges,” Simone says. “We were just talking shit, talking about growing up Black and trans in Detroit…and, like, I just pulled over from laughing so hard about our funny ass stories. I was like, this is what I wanna see on my screen… something quirky and funny and joyous… that’s not always at the expense of trans women in front of these cis audiences.” And just like that, Femme Queen Chronicles was born.

Simone’s intrinsic musicality permeates the cadence of FQC’s first episode, The Clock.” “If you notice… it’s very rhythmic,” Simone explains. “It’s almost like a jazz song. It’s just this really dope rhyme. It has a beat to it, a pacing that felt really musical to me.” With just this first episode out, FQC has already garnered recognition from Blackstar Film Festival, the Sundance Institute, Cinetopia Film Festival and more. The series is an amalgamation of lived experience blended with nostalgic sitcom inspiration. “It’s kind of like, Chewing Gum meets Living Single,” says Simone. “It’s like, weird, quirky comedy with Black trans women from Detroit.” 

Created by Simone and her friends Paige Wood and Bre Campbell, the first ten minute episode proved to be a daunting task for such a small team. “I think it all came together really well even though I was kicking and screaming and crying the whole way through,” says Simone. “It took six months from the idea to writing the script to shooting and editing and doing the music. It was crazy. It was just buck wild.” 

Though the team had a small budget for the first episode, they’ve been in an incubation period for the last few years, trying to raise enough funds to continue the series. Aside from production costs, Simone and her team have implemented an impact plan that ensures anyone involved in the production has access to emergency funds, as well as hiring trans interns to assist on set. And while the team has been in talks with production companies and networks about future partnerships, there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of developing Season One. “In 2019, we did a nearly all Black, trans writers room,” says Simone. “We didn’t get to finish, but we managed to get some very fleshed out episodic outlines… So any support monetarily that could support us in being able to sit our ass at home and actually write the script [would be helpful].” FQC accepts donations on an ongoing basis via CashApp.

It’s clear that whatever the next steps are for Simone and Femme Queen Chronicles are, they will be on her terms and rooted in bolstering her community.

Follow Ahya Simone on Instagram for ongoing updates. 

Madelyn Grant Finds Her “Purpose” on Motown-Indebted Debut EP

Photo Credit: Nomadic Madam

If you haven’t heard neo-soul artist Madelyn Grant’s name before, there’s a chance you’ve heard her voice. From being featured on tracks with huge EDM artists like Odesza and FKJ to a short stint on NBC’s The Voice back in 2019, Grant has been dipping her toes into the deep end of the music industry for at least half a decade. And although these experiences served as great learning opportunities for Grant, they didn’t allow her to do the one thing she felt was most important – telling her own story. On her bombshell of a debut EP, Purpose, Grant trades in catchy toplines for deeply personal, soulful songs focusing on growth, reflection and the meaning of life. 

“Ultimately, the EP is about transformation,” explains Grant. “What I went through when I wrote and recorded all these songs was an immense period of change… it was a pretty tumultuous time.” She started writing some of these songs right after graduating from the University of Michigan and coming off of a nationwide tour with electronic artist Emancipator. She went from singing to crowds of up to three thousand people to being back in Michigan, broke and wondering what her next move was. And so the transformation began. 

Grant’s experience with songwriting left her with mixed feelings about the music industry. Although she had been featured on songs that had hundreds of millions of streams, she didn’t feel that they represented who she was as an artist. She was getting dozens of emails a week from A&R reps asking her to write for other artists, when the real story she wanted to tell was her own. But she didn’t quite know what form it would take. “I wanted to figure out what my voice sounded like,” says Grant. “What does a Madelyn Grant melody sound like? What is my style? What am I trying to say?”

Sonically, Purpose is a mosaic of Grant’s most formative influences – Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. She refers to these artists as her “big three” in terms of the musical impact they had on her. Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, Grant says her dad was always playing the Motown greats around the house or in the car and that they played a huge role in her journey to finding her voice. It’s easy to hear remnants of Wonder in Grant’s buoyant melodies – especially in the opening line of the EP’s title track.

In perfectly controlled falsetto, Grant poses the question: “How do you measure/Happiness and pleasure?” And answers her own question with the refrain, “Let me take one guess/You base it off success.” Grant explains that her definition of success has changed over the years, molding to fit what makes her happy versus trying to match expectations set by others. “You have to forge your own path,” she says. “Every artist does it. No musician or artist has the same path to what they want to achieve and success isn’t determined around what other people say it is, it’s what you want it to be.” 

Part of Grant’s path was a period of immense struggle and emotional turmoil, eventually manifesting itself in this body of work. “I’m thinking back to what I was going through when I wrote all these songs, and it was a lot of really heavy stuff,” Grant muses. “I was in my mid-twenties and I just felt like there were parts of adulthood that I wasn’t really equipped to face, or parts of me recognizing I was struggling with my mental health… it was a lot of struggle but in the end, there’s something beautiful.” She likens the process of writing the record to the journey of a caterpillar to a butterfly, which is why all of the album art contains butterfly imagery. 

Grant’s metamorphosis is narrated throughout the record, from feeling cocooned and stationary in “Can’t Get Out,” to eventually breaking out of limiting mindsets and patterns in “Reasons.” And while there’s an apparent wanderlust to Grant’s lyrics in both of these songs, she explains that being in Detroit the past few years to record and release this EP has felt right. “It does really feel special to put out that music here,” says Grant, “because when I wrote it, that’s what I was really inspired by. It just feels like it’s at home here.”

Wherever Grant goes next, Purpose assures us that it will be on her terms, with her voice, telling her story. It’s a triumphant, uplifting EP centered on rebirth and self-reliance, reminding us that we are all the authors of our own fate.

Follow Madelyn Grant on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Tori Helene Teams Up with Natown on Latest Single “Detached”

Cincinnati-based singer/ songwriter Tori Helene has joined forces with frequent collaborator and producer Natown for her first single of the year, “Detached.” Helene says it’s one of her “most empowering” songs yet. “At the time when I was writing this song, I was feeling emotional and dealing with this specific situation that felt pretty one-sided,” she tells Audiofemme. “So, [‘Detached’] was me speaking my truth and my feelings to that person and the situation.”

Helene, who’s made atmospheric vocals and relationship drama her melodic bread and butter, shines on Natown’s minimalistic production. “It’s clear that you just come around only when you get bored/I go along with it though I don’t know what I’m staying for,” she sings, about feeling overlooked by a lover and refusing to settle for less. “You won’t put no time in it/So I won’t put no hope in it.”

Helene finds the courage to walk away from the relationship on the track’s earworm chorus. “Don’t stop me when I leave, ‘cause I ain’t doin’ nothing wrong/And baby I just wanna do me, so I ain’t doin’ nothing wrong,” she croons. 

“Detached” is an accurate sampling of what Helene does best. She consistently serves up the self-assuredness and unapologetic confidence we all want to have, while never losing a relatable sense of vulnerability. “I was really feeling [this song] when I was recording it,” she says of the track.

Helene says that “Detached” was actually written and recorded during sessions for a project that was supposed to come out in 2020 called Chainless. “I decided to start a new project instead,” she explains simply. “[‘Detached’] was one of my favorite songs on there, so I had to release it as a single.” Although she ended up scrapping Chainless, Helene says she may release one other song made during the recording sessions as a future single, and is planning to release her next EP this summer. 

“[It] has a whole different sound and vibe that I’m pretty excited about,” she says of the project. “I’m releasing it in early summer and there are two features on it. That’s all I can say for right now.”

The currently untitled effort will mark Helene’s first project since her 2019 EP, Delusional, which featured Cincinnati rapper D-Eight. Helene followed up the effort with three singles last year, “Get It Right,” “If You’re Lucky” and “Sitting Pretty,” the latter two of which arrived with videos that did not disappoint. Helene says fans can be on the lookout for a “Detached” visual soon.

Turning the conversation over to Women’s History Month and female representation in Cincinnati’s music scene, Helene says the city could be doing better. While Cincy has enjoyed vibrant blooms in hip hop, pop and R&B music the past few years, it’s remained, unfortunately, a bit one-sided. 

“I feel like [women] should be represented more,” Helene says, recommending Elle and LXXS. “I feel like the female artists are overlooked a lot of the time, especially female singers.” With her commanding presence, Tori Helene is certain to be among the Cincinnati artists who will change that.

Follow Tori Helene on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Piwa Brings the ‘Bass Down’ to Take Her Next Steps as an Artist

Photo Credit: Gracie Hammond Photography

A week-long bootcamp for The Voice was Piwa’s window to the music industry – and its cruelty. 

At age 17, the singer-songwriter, then known as Tapiwa, was in California with her mom for rounds of auditions after a successful submission tape for the Snapchat edition of the NBC singing competition garnered recognition from judges Miley Cyrus and Adam Levine. 

As part of a group told after a round of cuts that they were moving on to the national show, she and the other participants went home to prepare to leave their real lives behind for Hollywood. A few days later, after Piwa had coordinated her schedule with her high school to fit with the show’s timeline, the phone rang.

“I got a call from someone saying ‘Unfortunately, you’re unable to go to the next round at this time.’ I was just like, oh my gosh. It was so heartbreaking. Like you told me, you told me!” she recalls. “But it’s all good. The Voice, with all the auditions and meetings, taught me how the business side really works. It’s very much not an easy game. It’s gonna hurt sometimes, you’re not always gonna get that win.”

Luckily, Piwa didn’t take the missed opportunity to heart. “Them telling me that moment wasn’t my time on that show doesn’t mean I’m not a good singer or exclude me from opportunities after that,” she reconciles. “It’s about learning that things will come.”

While she didn’t make the final cut for the live show, the experience was a catalyst for her creativity upon her return home to Plano, Texas. Taking control, she built her presence on YouTube – crafting unique covers of songs from artists including Arctic Monkeys, Drake, and Hozier. Looking to pursue a degree applicable to her musical pursuits, her path then brought her to Columbia College Chicago.

Now 20, with several singles under her belt as the reinvigorated Piwa, she’s riding high on a wave of renewed artistic momentum. 

After a year of delay due to the pandemic, she’s returned with “Bass Down.” Released Friday, February 26, the new single is a seductive, slinky call for an inconsistent lover to keep up, with an undercurrent of reggae flavoring its rhythms. But the antagonist “lover,” according to the artist, is her own anxiety and fears threatening her work. “It’s basically saying, ‘Step up.’ You’re here to show what you can do; what’s up,” she describes. 

Show up, she did. Showcasing both her powerful low ends and playful higher register, her vocal experimentation is arguably her biggest evolution compared to previous tracks “Love Letters,” “Hundreds” and “Wave.”

“I really feel like [‘Bass Down’] is that song for me,” Piwa continues. “I’m here now. I took a whole year to just fucking work. I want to put myself out there for people to hear.” 

As far as how it was written, she says the verse came in a freestyle as she sang over the instrumental she received one night from producer Sam Pontililo. To his surprise, she emailed him a quick vocal recording in the early hours of the following morning. It all came together with ease, she remembers, and was unlike any process the typically meticulous Piwa had been part of. “It was so nice to have that moment where it just flows,” she laughs, extending the roundness of the “o” sound. “It was really exciting.”

Most inspired lyrically by her own journey, her songs serve as confident reminders of the power of perseverance and preservation. “Love Letters,” the first song she ever produced, details the ways we try to rationalize arguments, red flags and our post-break up peace in intimate relationships, while “Hundreds” doubles-down on affirmations and self-actualization. The atmosphere created by “Wave,” a minimalist, afro-futuristic slow-burner of a R&B track, feels as if you’re being entranced to be kept in her witch’s bottle. 

At just three months old, Piwa emigrated from Zimbabwe to the United States with her parents and older sister. Settling in the Bronx for eight years before moving to Texas, she got involved in the performing arts in middle school and caught the bug quickly. Though she sang in the church choir, she was in and out of school singing groups and orchestra, due to not being able to afford her school’s rental fee for instruments. Her phone, as for most young people, became the center of her world. Different apps served as resources for her do-it-yourself approach, providing the tools she needed to expand her musical education.

“When I was younger, I just wanted to be able to record videos for myself. I started seeing I could be capable of doing more. I had all these big sounds and ideas in my head – I wanted to be able to make those ideas come to life,” the singer says of those early phone app experiments. “It wasn’t pressure; it’s that pull that just grabs you and makes you really want to make music.” 

Then, there was GarageBand. Tinkering with the free version of the app during her spare time, she learned how to build a song from the base beat and up. She’s since graduated to analog instruments, but has a soft spot for songs created entirely digitally. “Love Letters,” she cites – referring to the song as her “baby” – was made solely using her cellphone. 

“It really got me into wanting to do that for myself, and learn and educate myself,” Piwa says excitedly. “Then it was like, I can actually learn with the chance I have of going to college. I can do this and put real time into trying to do what I actually feel like I’m supposed to do.” 

While her family persisted with their own visions for her life (being a doctor, mainly) despite being supportive of her talent show appearances and smaller, local performances for the public, she eventually made headway. Her mom, especially, became her number one fan, helping embolden that soulful, clever voice that brims with assuredness. 

“We’ve had our battles,” she confesses. “She really came through. My mom was like ‘If you want to do this, you do it. Put yourself into it and show them. Tell them, you’ve done this before.'” 

As for many up-and-coming artists, Piwa’s work never stops. After the pandemic shut down music venues, recording studios, festivals and more lifelines for travelling musicians and industry workers, Piwa – like countless others – lost what could have been breakthrough gigs at South by Southwest in Austin and at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. But she hopes the buzz around “Bass Down” will entice more listeners to visit past projects and keep an eye on her and her still-in-the-works EP, while opening doors to new opportunities in 2021. 

“[The pandemic shutdown] opened up a lot of time for everyone to just sit there in their own space and their own company, and it changed a lot for me as far as what I’d hoped for 2020 and what I envisioned would be happening now,” she says. “I know I want my music to be my force. I want to show my force through my music. That’s the main point I grasped out of the fear and sadness of 2020. Now, as I go through this forever process, I feel like I’ve got a good grasp on my game plan.”

Follow Piwa on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Supercoolwicked Subverts Pop Paradigm With Shakespearean Self-love Jam “Juliet”

In her new video for “Juliet,” Detroit multidisciplinary artist, singer, and songwriter Morgan Hutson (aka Supercoolwicked) creates a fantasy world of her own – an Afrocentric, baroque daydream that meshes the Shakespearian with the contemporary, the traditional with the subversive. Those who’ve given SCW’s 2019 debut LP High Gloss a spin know that this particular cocktail of familiar and foreign is what makes her music so memorable. And in “Juliet,” she perfects her brand of soliloquiel storytelling both visually and lyrically to deliver a fantasy world full of self-love and artistic actualization. 

Hutson explains that she wrote the lyrics to this song a few years back, when she was going through a breakup, dating through the all-too-familiar string of slacker suitors that seem to follow. “I was just out here swangin’ and just dealing with these men that were not shit and I knew it… but people can be beautiful Band-Aids,” she says. This transition period led her to reflect on what it means to love yourself; she realized she was looking for validation in others instead of within, like so many of us tend to do. “I started to kind of ruminate on it and be like, ‘Girl, you’re everything I need – stop trying with these people, be your own Romeo. Don’t look for romance where it’s not. Or love in general.’”

That realization blossomed into a lavish poetic love letter to the self, released last Friday, just in time for Valentine’s Day. The video for “Juliet” starts out with SCW walking into a medieval-looking church and opening a storybook; as the pages turn, we’re transported into the artist’s shimmering psyche, a romantic realm meshing two of her favorite cinematic inspirations: 1996 Baz Luhrmann classic adaptation William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Hutson pays homage to the films throughout, singing lines like “a rose by any other name just wouldn’t be as sweet,” while gazing at herself in a royal-looking hand mirror and, later, framed lying in a bed of roses, all the while embedding her own artistic vision. With a background in musical theatre and a lifetime of acting on her resume, Hutson has a more intimate relationship than most with the Shakespearean. “Anytime I can be dramatic, I love it,” she says. 

But make no mistake – SCW’s creative choices are driven less by vanity or fandom, and more by self-worth, lived experience, and a love for her culture. By inserting herself into the Shakespearean narrative that has historically been dominated by white/European voices and faces, SCW carves out space for herself and her ancestors to be uplifted and celebrated. “It’s Black history month and I’m very proud of my heritage,” she says. “I know that we’ve been through a lot of things, but I wanted to bring the world of this Afrocentric, baroque idea to life…to meet those two [worlds] because I think that’s kind of where I dwell.”

Aside from realizing her aesthetic aspirations in the video, SCW finds a way to squeeze sophisticated couplets into a tight pop/R&B song framework. She credits trailblazers like Mariah Carey for inspiring her to incorporate her expansive vocabulary into her songwriting. “It’s like, how does she fit all that in there and make it sound so cute? I feel like that’s the ultimate flex,” she muses. “I don’t think that we have to mold ourselves into what people think things are because we create the paradigm as artists. So one of my underlying, subconscious things that I have going on is to subvert the pop paradigm.” 

Supercoolwicked does just that without removing the escapism that makes pop music so attractive to begin with – she creates an entire world for the listener to dwell in and make their own. “I feel like pretend is something we’ve forgotten as adults,” says Hutson. “We can really lean into that part of our inner child, especially during this time, because that’s the way through it.” 

Follow Supercoolwicked on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Rowan Niemisto Returns with Relatable Sadboy Anthems on Once Again EP

It’s been three and a half years since Rowan Niemisto released his electro R&B masterpiece Gradient. In those three years, Niemisto says he was preoccupied with his first “big boy” job at Detroit’s NPR station, WDET, where he works as a sound engineer and the occasional cameo as a voice actor for various underwriter advertisements. The Rowan Niemisto who voices ads for the local pet daycare and arts university feels like a completely different person than the sultry singer-songwriter that authors and performs his latest EP, Once Again. But maybe that’s part of what makes him so appealing. Besides his universally loveable voice, relatable lyrics and nostalgic/soulful arrangements, Niemisto is just like us. He’s a regular adult with a nine-to-five job who doesn’t have any dreams of grandeur, but picks up the pen whenever he feels moved. 

“I just like making music and putting it out,” Niemisto puts it plainly. “I’m not trying to be the guy that makes it if that makes sense.” And it would, if his voice and guitar playing weren’t so goddamn angelic. Your everyday casual guitar strummer just can’t write the kind of music that Niemisto creates. With Once Again, he builds a world of hurt and healing, love and loss. His voice careens over a bed of masterful guitar playing and effortless live arrangements, which were recorded in a single studio session. 

After three years of writing and ripping up forgotten songs, pandemic downtime fueled Niemisto’s latest body of work. “I had an excuse to dig my heels in and get it done,” says Niemisto. “I had no real excuse about time commitments or whatever.” And while collaborating felt impossible to most of us during the pandemic, he says that recording with a few of his friends was surprisingly easy. 

They set up some glass walls so they could see each other, went into the studio, slapped on masks, and pretty much improvised the entire EP. Niemisto came in with skeletons of songs already written, but he credits the band – Jacob Sigman (keys), Junho Kim (bass), Huntley Chamberlain (drums) and Jonah Grey (synth on “Once Again”) – for helping shape the sound of the record. “I’ve been playing with these guys for years,” explains Niemisto, “so I kind of know their style and I had trust that they’d be able to put their own spice on it and have it come out the way I wanted more or less.” 

If the way he wanted it was Isley Brothers meets badbadnotgood, then they definitely succeeded. Once Again serves the listener an all-too-familiar cocktail of unrequited love, longing, and heartbreak. But there’s something about Niemisto’s soothing voice and nonchalant melodies that makes lost love feel it’s not the end of the road, but the beginning of a new one. It’s not that he’s constantly suffering from a broken heart, but more that the morose melodies are the ones that come most naturally to him when it comes to songwriting. 

“For some reason, I find it easier to write songs in minor or songs with melancholy feels,” Niemisto muses. “Especially with lyricism, if I try to write something uplifting… it always just feels a little tacky or forced to me.” Fair enough, especially seeing as warm fuzzy feelings were definitely in short supply this year. And even though Niemisto admits he’s “sticking to the clichés,” he has a way of writing about them that feels new. 

Like in the first few words of the record – “Tell me how long, how long has it been?/Since that night we took each other in?” – reflecting on a fleeting night of a romance as an act of care and compassion instead of a flippant act on desire. Especially during a pandemic, the idea of a “one night stand” can feel careless at best and guttingly consequential at worst. To think of a night of random romance as “taking each other in” is a refreshingly tender outlook, and one we can all daydream about in these solitary times.

Whether you’re ruminating on love lost or longing for that Tinder crush that you’re too scared to meet IRL, Once Again gives us plenty of possibilities to ponder, and reassurance that we’re not alone.

Follow Rowan Niemisto on Bandcamp and Soundcloud for ongoing updates.

Kesswa Collabs with Shigeto on MOCAD-Commissioned Short Film “Is My Mind A Machine Gun?”

Photo Credit: Ian Solomon // Makeup: Jay Orellana

Is My Mind a Machine Gun? This is the question vocalist, songwriter and producer Kesiena “Kesswa” Wanogho asks on her latest collaboration with interdisciplinary artist and musician Zach Saginaw, a.k.a Shigeto. The audio/visual experience exemplifies two artists in their rawest, most honest forms, willing to experiment. Released exclusively on January 1st via The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s (MOCAD) brand new media platform, Daily Rush, the film gives the viewer a look inside the minds of the artists and finds chaos, introspection and growth. 

Mantra is at the center of Kesswa’s work. Highlighted by her 2019 EP, Soften, Kesswa has an inherent ability for distilling the most complicated of dreams, desires and anxieties into only a few simple words. Is My Mind a Machine Gun? starts with her chanting, “Oh my love, tell me now if you want me.” Slowly, she builds an entire world around those words, layering her voice to present a sense of urgency. It’s not immediately clear who “my love” is, which leaves space for the listener to reflect and insert themselves. Maybe it’s the voice of an artistic self left behind, coming now to reclaim its vessel. Maybe it’s our own voice, calling out in uncertainty to a love we’re afraid to lose. 

Whomever Kesswa is speaking to, she responds to her own question with calming reassurance – There’s no doubt about it – all while flashing lights, street view vignettes, and Kesswa’s body language suggest forward motion. The visual echoes Kesswa’s centering message: as long as you are true to yourself, you are on the right path. 

The ephemeral visual is accentuated with soothing waves of harp played by Ahya Simone; its sedative sounds contrast with the disorienting flashes of light, replicating the feelings of dissociation and anxiety that can accompany a dream. Slowly, the harp fades and is replaced by deliberate percussion. This sonic change seems to signal clarity and determination, as Kesswa transitions from repetitive chants to a string of crystal clear affirmations: “I’ve got a creeping intuition/I’m on a mission, clearly/It’s in my heartbeat and my eyes gleam/The stillness inside of me/I’m impulsive but I’m brave/Insisting on myself/I’m determined but I’m earnest/I am kind, I am worthy/Inherently.”

I caught up with Kesswa to find out more about the creative process behind this project. 

AF: Can you tell me a bit about the writing/recording process? What’s the flow of collaboration between you and Shigeto?

KW: The process with Zach and I has been really experimental and grounding. In the beginning of our collaboration, I was thinking a lot about finding my voice, which I think comes out in the composition of the track. A lot of our collaboration has been us just going with the flow of our lives and bringing our influences and emotional needs to the work. Sometimes, we jam. Sometimes we create structures to work within. 

AF: How did this piece in particular come to be? Is there a story behind the music and lyrics? The title?

KW: This piece has been evolving and still kind of is. The version in the video was made specifically for this particular commission. When we were working on the track, Zach felt it would be really awesome to incorporate a narrative, and I’m always writing. The title is an excerpt from Assata Shakur’s “What is left?” poem. This line really stood out to me, because I often feel like thoughts are things we can weaponize against ourselves without close attention. As a person who exists at the center of many intersections of identity, I find myself internalizing and reacting to the projections of the outside world on my body, my creative potential and my values. If my mind is in fact a machine gun, I want to point it towards the projections.

AF: The visual feels just as important to the story as the music does in this piece – did you have a visual in mind when writing the music? Which came first?

KW: The process of creating the visual component of the work was as free flowing as the soundscape. Zach was the director and camera operator, and Vinnie and Robert did assemblage and animation. Zach and I knew that we wanted to give some insight into the world we’ve been building. We wanted to create a visual language, and things kind of unfolded organically.

AF: Do the two of you have more projects like this one up your sleeve/in process? 

KW: It’s a surprise! But things are in process.

AF: I know a lot of your music focuses on mantra – is there a certain mantra you repeat everyday, or one you’re feeling specifically lately? 

KW: Great question! I’ve been sitting with the fact that my body is finite and paying attention to what feels draining and what feels invigorating. Using that awareness to free up some extra energy and let stale things [and] conversations go. Times are too heavy to be stressed about things within my control!

Follow Kesswa on Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING MELBOURNE: NOE Wants to Make You “Sweat”

Noelani Petero is on a mission to bring back early the iconic 2000s R&B sound. The Melbourne-based singer-songwriter is unabashedly old-school in her approach to hip-hop and super-smooth R&B in the vein of Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah. Under the stage name NOE (pronounced “Noii”), which includes a loose collective of beat-makers and producers, Petero just released debut single “Sweat.” With a string of new tracks set to drop in 2021 in the lead-up to her debut EP, NOE’s bold sensuality fairly oozes out of the speakers, even while the beats threaten to blow the bass.

NOE stands for New Old Experiment, and in its clever channeling of ’90s hip hop, funk and R&B into the 2020 world of streaming 24/7, where only the catchiest tunes will survive, it does indeed combine the Old and New.

“I’m a ’90s kid, so I always revisit artists like Ashanti, Ja Rule, Aaliyah and Janet. R&B from the early 2000s was so dominant, but it was only three or four years before it became really poppy with artists like Britney Spears,” says Petero. “After Aaliyah died – and she was meant to be the future of R&B – it stopped with her. That’s my motivation, to bring that back. That early 2000s R&B has such a drive and energy to it. I feel like it’s much more chilled and relaxed, the R&B these days.”

Over the years, Petero has been working as a producer, an artist, a dancer and a writer within the Melbourne improvisational hip hop and R&B community. She was vocalist of Killah Hurtz, an early vocalist of acid jazz collective Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange (now based in Berlin), and a singer with LOGO.

Her emergence as a solo artist happened along with her new role as a mother. Petero has a 18-month old son who is “going through the annoying toddler phase early, but [is] the most fun.” Even so, becoming a mother has posed challenges to NOE as an artist. “My content is very sexually driven. I like to be very empowered in my sexuality, but I kind of lost that with having a child and not going to gigs anymore,” she confesses. “I reached out to Michael Cooper, also known as Mikki From Preston, and producer 2Point0, and said I feel like I’m stuck, I need something to drive me to write.”

2Point0 (aka Myawae Tarwo Sonkarlay) sent NOE some beats, which she listened to for weeks while at home or walking. “When I heard the bass beat for ‘Sweat,’ I went ‘yep!’” she remembers. It mattered very little to Petero that 2Point0 is still in high school.

“He’s so beyond-his-years as a producer and an artist. He’s very shy, he’s very quiet. He’s one of those kids who can just absorb so much knowledge. I was sending him opera, classical and country samples and he just absorbs it and puts it into his bass beats,” Petero gushes. “We were giving him a lot of information, so I’m really excited to see what he does. Mikki and I were just like, ‘We have got to keep working with him.’ It’s a collaboration. That’s why [we call it] NOE: it’s a New Old Experiment with a whole bunch of collaborators.”

Growing up, Petero was able to pick up music very easily. Her mother was a classically trained in piano, her brother played cello, and her sister played clarinet. She attended various band camps, though her school wasn’t strong in its musical offerings (to this day she says she feels let down by how boring their curriculum was).

After graduating from high school, NOE modeled in Queensland for a couple of years; she moved to Melbourne when she was 21, and modeling took a back seat to musical theatre, songwriting and performance. “It was an overwhelming feeling when the plane landed in Melbourne. It’s hard to explain,” she recalls. She knew this was home, though, and the arts scene embraced her as enthusiastically as she embraced it.

Ten years later, the arts scene is looking much different – certainly quieter under pandemic conditions. “The arts sector really got hard done by. After the bushfires, a lot of artists donated their time and funds towards the victims, and then COVID-19 hit. A lot of artists were left behind when they really needed it,” NOE points out. “A lot of musicians I’m around weren’t able to get government support because of all the red tape involved with being sole traders. A lot of artists slipped through the cracks in the system designed to support the arts.” Though more than $250 million worth of emergency funding to arts and culture in Australia was announced over the summer, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has yet to disburse much of the money. “We just haven’t seen it. I’m concerned about how artists and venues will continue their work to the same standard,” Petero says. “Not one dime has been spent. They couldn’t even answer public questions about it. The arts, especially in Victoria, is relied upon for revenue, so it’s disappointing that this has happened.”

Though the Australian government has left many artists and musicians unaided, artists in Melbourne are resourceful. They’ve embraced online performance and collaboration across genres. Like many other projects this year, “Sweat” was recorded at home, mixed and finished all within the space of a month during the pandemic. NOE usually has an early dinner with her husband, then heads up to the studio for two hours to “smash out” lyrics and vocals.

“I get the bass beats from 2Point0, then I record the vocals at home,” she says. “When I realised we were going into lockdown, I got some really good equipment. After recording the vocals and backup vocals, I clean it up and send it to Mikki. Then, Mikki adds the synths, fine tunes the vocals – which he’s really good at – and then we send it to another producer and good friend, Amin Payne. Amin Payne is a DJ and makes his own music. He can hear things Mikki and I can’t necessarily hear through the speakers when a song is turned right up, but Amin does his own little mix on it to tweak it. Then we send it to Choi Productions to do the mastering.”

NOE intends to do a music video for “Sweat,” but at the moment her focus is on putting music out regularly – and promoting it on her own. She hopes to release a song every two to three months, with the debut EP slated for July 2021. “At the moment, I want to get my songs out to prove to myself that I’ve been productive in lockdown,” she says. “I want to come out on the other side showing I’ve been busy.”

Follow NOE on Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING CINCY: Audley Talks ‘ROY,’ Poetry And His Colorful World


Photo Credit: Annie Noelker

Audley’s world is colorful, honest and full of possibilities. The 27-year-old singer/rapper just released his new album ROY—a glittery yet deeply personal offering that shifts between pop, R&B and hip hop sounds and combines introspective tales of love, pain and moving on.

Since Audley released Pink – his debut effort and ROY’s predecessor – in 2018, a lot has changed. The artist swapped an unhealthy environment in Cincinnati with a move to Dayton; left a high-intensity job in digital media after suffering burnout; and has spent the past few months flourishing in sobriety.

“It was such an organic movement, getting this album done, and I think it happened so fast because I’ve been holding in this expression for so long,” he told me over coffee in our socially-distanced interview. “These last three years, I was not confident enough in my art to finish it, and once I moved, slowed down and found my true colors, I became so confident in who I was, that no matter what I created – I wanted to share it.”

Color is everything to Audley. It began with Pink – a rosy love album that sent him on the path to streaming personal-bests, media attention and two Cincinnati Entertainment Award nominations.

“With Pink, we created this beautiful explosion,” he reflected fondly.

The artist admits he set out to create a kind of Pink 2.0 for his sophomore effort, but felt that colors – which were once a door to his emotional expression – were now boxing him in. He scrapped two potential albums rooted in other hues: Chrome, which was going to be an electronic album, and john. – a self-produced indie-rock album that made him think of the color brown.

Poetry became a new creative outlet for Audley, where he could put pen to paper without the limiting self-doubt that encumbered songwriting. After jotting down dozens of free-flowing poems, he decided to try them out against beats.

“I had hundreds of beats, all from people I really admire,” he said. “I decided one day that it’s a cop-out for me to think that I can’t write music right now. I would put a pack of about 40 beats from [producer] Luna (aka internetboy) on shuffle and just sing in the shower – every day.”

When verses turned into songs, Audley started recording three new projects inspired by the colors green, black and mustard yellow.

“They were all sonically so sporadic that none of those songs made it on to ROY,” he explained. “But, I think it’s really interesting that I wanted to do three colors, and then now ROYRed Orange Yellow – is three colors. The vision was there, but it didn’t let me tap into it because it knew I need to do some more work before I was ready to receive that blessing.”

ROY first took form with “Right Now,” which is track No. 3 on the album and the first song he recorded.

“I was at the point where I was writing half-songs and thinking, ‘This is trash. This is trash,’” he said. “So, with track No. 3, I was like, ‘Just finish it and then sit on it.’ And it was like, the moment I finished that song, I recorded myself performing it and I sent it to Luna and I was like, ‘We’re gonna make an album.’”

“Right Now” opened the floodgates. As he began writing and recording his way through ROY, Audley also launched a campaign on Instagram, where he posted a new verse and video every day for two months.

“I’ve been creating so much and now it’s even bigger than that. I’m making clothes, I have my own LLC – it’s so much bigger than music,” he gushed. “It’s one medium of me, vomiting my truth into the universe.”

Photo Credit: Alexa Gallo

That truth found a home in ROY. Sonically, the album sees Audley deviating from his past hard-hitting raps and swimming to warmer pop and R&B shores – although he knows he won’t stay away from hip hop for long. A competitive yet tender voice in Cincinnati’s rap scene, he forewarns other emcees of his return with: “Let me flex on you by spreading love.”

“Utilizing hip hop sonics with the message being finding yourself and loving everyone around you is powerful,” he said. Laughing, he described his rap style as “so pristine that a 70-year-old woman is gonna listen to a good trap beat about spreading love” and say, “This is fire.”

ROY helped Audley find his way back to his world of color, too. Hues became a way for the artist to visualize his emotions and – when he allowed himself the freedom – he realized he could push the boundaries of that expression by showcasing more than one feeling; more than one side; and more than one shade.

“I realized that Pink was a piece of me, and all the colors of the spectrum are me,” he said. “If you look on the album’s cover art, you’ll see a pink gemstone. It is a visual representation that I proudly wear Pink as a magical gem right on my head; right in front of my mind. Pink is a part of me, but it’s not all of me. It’s just a beautiful tip of the hat to say, ‘We’re not disowning 2018 Audley,’ because you’re gonna hear that on the album, but it’s just so much bigger.”

Even after our hour-long chat, Audley is still buzzing with ideas. ROY is just one universe in his mind; he’s currently working on an experimental synth record, a rap album and two other projects, all of which he aims to release next year. As for their thematic hues – that remains to be decided.

“The next album, obviously, is gonna be rooted in color, but I don’t think it’s gonna be named a color because we’ve established the game we’re playing at this point,” he said. “Now it’s just, ok cool, what’s the next level?”

Follow Audley on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING CINCY: Tori Helene Is “Sitting Pretty” In Her Vibrant New Clip

Sitting Pretty

Sitting Pretty
Photo by 12 AM Media

Tori Helene has dropped a vibrant new video for her latest single, “Sitting Pretty.” The Natown-produced earworm finds Helene unapolgetically feeling herself, as she weaves cocky lines with messages of self-love and independence. “Lookin’ real good but what’s the catch?/If you know better, you won’t get attached,” the Cincinnati mainstay croons.

The bold new visual catches the “2 Legit” singer gazing lovingly at herself in a mirror as she stretches out on a luxurious chaise lounge. Meanwhile, an onslaught of admirers vie for her affection. “Anything I want/Anything goes/You want me bad/Well, so does your bros,” she teases.

“I wanted the message to be about being pretty, confident and flirty. Not really needing a man but wanting to flirt a little bit – something that I know girls can relate and sing along to,” Helene tells Audiofemme. “[It’s] definitely one of my favorite records I’ve ever made.”

“Sitting Pretty” follows Helene’s single “If You’re Lucky,” which the singer released in May. She says the two tracks will be followed by a full-length project in 2021. “I actually was in the process of releasing a new project, but there’s been a change of plans,” she explains. “I want to go a different direction with my artistry, and I feel that right now isn’t the best time to release another project.” Instead, Helene plans to share a few more loosies from her scrapped effort later this fall, while she prepares to release her next project in the new year. “Right now, I’m finishing up the writing process and will be recording and getting everything ready for that release,” she says. “But new music and content is still on the way!”

Helene’s upcoming project will follow her 2019 EP, Delusional. The six-song debut offering saw an appearance from local rapper D-Eight and introduced Helene as not only a powerhouse vocalist, but also a compelling songwriter.

Follow Tori Helene on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Freddie is Ready for Their Closeup with Melanin Monroe EP


You know you are in for something good the moment that Oakland singer Freddie’s voice comes in on their EP opener “Oblivion.” Later in the song, their rich, evocative voice moves to deliver that ever-elusive diva wish: “I wanna be adored by ya/I wanna be adored by everyone.” It almost sounds slurred, or mumbled into a collar. But nothing is truly that sloppy in the world of Melanin Monroe, where songs switch from rap to R&B to soul with the gleeful precision of a gymnast changing grip on the uneven bars. “Oblivion” retains its glam, R&B sensuality, even as Freddie runs through rapid, breathless bars in the rap outro. The enunciation may not be perfection, but I don’t think that’s the goal here – Freddie’s aim is to keep the listener on their toes at every turn.

The R&B and soul genres easily lend themselves to expand into adjacent styles, whether rap or something else, but rarely is the mix ever this playful or deft in balance, and Freddie manages a feat on Melanin Monroe by honoring each new element without letting one overshadow any of the others. This could be due to the power of Freddie’s voice alone, which sounds natural in each of its many iterations, but the transitions are especially smooth on “Oblivion” and “Banjee.” “Banjee” is — and there’s really no other way to say this — a fucking bop. “If you a bad faggot with some bad habits let me hear you sang/let me hear you sang!” Freddie drawls at the apex of the chorus, as a tropical-adjacent beat tumbles down after their vocals. It sounds like a church organ that had one too many Mai Tais, and it’s a choice that turns a good song into a great one, one that deserves to be blasted out of car windows all across the Bay when it gets to hot to to keep them shut.

“I’m lookin’ hella five to the one-oh,” Freddie announces pre-chorus (the area code for the Bay is 510 for you out-of-towners). What does it mean to look 510, to embody the Bay Area? For Freddie, this means, in part, to be Black, to be queer, to be gender non-conforming, and to make music about all these experiences with tenderness and precision. Of course it’s not that simple; there are a million different answers to what it means to “be” the Bay Area, and they can be seen on the streets of every town and city as people protest, as people try to smile through their masks, as people go on their daily walks with their hand hovering over the pause button.

And yet! It is brave, still, to make music as a Black, queer, gender non-conforming person in the year 2020, especially taking into account the danger people of those identities face, daily, unfairly, without respite. Despite genre shifts, despite welcome levity with lines like “slim thick like a grown bambi,” Melanin Monroe represents a desire to be seen. Not just in terms of love or sexual desirability — though that is important too, as noted in “Weak,” where Freddie bemoans the shifting attentions of a lover — but in terms of personal autonomy. Instances of having to declare the self are sprinkled throughout the EP: “Banjee” has a little chanted “I’m Benjee/I’m Banjee”  backing the chorus, while “Y D K M N,” a rework of the 1999 Destiny’ Child hit, “Say My Name,” is more literal about the power of putting a name to something, whether it be a person or a relationship. Freddie lets it be known that they look 510, if you will, because sometimes there is no other choice but to make a declaration of the self and the right of said self to exist in place, free from (or at least defiant of) the panicked oscillations of fear.

Not that getting to that place of declaration is easy. “Fitness” is atmospheric and has some fun ’90s throwback vocal stylings, but below the basic sentiment of the chorus (“I’ve been putting in some hard, hard work”) is a sense that it took Freddie a long time to get to the place where they could confidently sing the opening line (“click, kaboom/everybody knows when I step in the room”) with authentic bravado. But the work, whatever it was, paid off: Freddie has a voice worth listening to, both literally and figuratively.

Follow Freddie on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Bay Area artists who would like to be featured in this column can reach out to @carmakout on Instagram.

Detroit Artists Keep the Music Coming During Quarantine

courtesy of Vinny Moonshine

As we move deeper into the quarantine vortex, Detroit musicians continue to use their open schedules to release new songs. While most things are still up in the air, it is a simple comfort to know that there will always be a steady stream of more music. From Saajtak’s experimental jazz stylings to Zilched’s apathetic noise pop, this smattering of releases shows the breadth of Detroit’s creative well. I’m at a bit of a loss for words this week, so I reached out to the artists to give us a little insight into what the music means to them. Enjoy!

“Unknown Landscape” – Vinny Moonshine

“’Unknown Landscape’ is Vinny Moonshine’s first collaboration with the group Future Trash and was recorded at Medieval Times studio in Detroit a couple months before the pandemic. The song is a deranged lounge mantra for a failing world – as the title suggests, it describes the confusion of living in strange territory, tearing away from the past, moving forward into an uncertain future. The individual often feels tethered to preconditioned states of being; in the song, the ground breaks apart. The road ahead is paved in gold.” – Vinny Moonshine

“Hectic” by Saajtak

“Hectic” is the first music video of Detroit art rock band saajtak (pronounced “sahge-talk”), whose music has been described as an impressive, explosive combination of electronic music, free jazz, opera, noise, and chamber music. The video, composed of iPhone footage and 35mm stills, was shot, edited, and directed by Pittsburgh filmmaker and crooner Elliot Sheedy with additional visual processing by saajtak’s own keyboardist, the multimedia artist Polyhop. You can find the members of saajtak working on their debut album or recently collaborating/sharing stages with the likes of My Brightest Diamond, Deadmau5, Meshell Ndegeocello, Xiu Xiu, John Maus, Toshi Reagon and more.

white ceilings – whiterosemoxie

“I’m surrounded by white ceilings. Every room, every studio, every basement that I have grown in, created in, partied in… they all have white ceilings. My life has been full of people putting limits on me, constantly putting a ceiling on my potential. This project is about those ceilings and how they don’t actually exist. The only ceiling I allow in my life is white. A white ceiling is a ceiling undefined, a ceiling whose limits have no definition.” – Moxie 

“Sleeper” – Zilched 

“’Sleeper’ is basically about biting your tongue in conversations that make your eye twitch. I wanted the music to reflect that repetitive, performative communication where you’re internally screaming or rolling your eyes but outwardly you just go along with it. Maybe you tell yourself you won’t put up with it again but chances are you will.” – Chloë Drallos (Zilched)

“Get Your Love” – Jacob Sigman  

“‘Get Your Love’ was one of those songs that happened all at once. It’s about falling for someone you’re not supposed to, like someone who’s already seeing someone else. I was in that situation and just needed to vent and the whole song just kind of came out that one night. I spent the next month trying to re-track the vocals because I had recorded them on a shitty sm58 but, couldn’t recapture the emotion from that night, so I kept them the same.” – Jacob Sigman

“Last Money” – Sam Austins

“I wrote ‘Last Money’ about times when I wasn’t able to have shit. My money was so low, my back was against the wall so I had to find a way to make the bread. The song and visual takes you through the journey of the bottom, the quick come up, and how fast it can all turn. The inspiration behind these different scenes is that I wanted to take scenarios from TV shows, movies like The Wire & The Dark Knight, and use it for the narrative of ‘Last Money.’ I turned my seemingly normal life into a visual experience, based on the media we used to watch as kids… plus getting away from the feds in my joker fit was fucking amazing.” – Sam Austins

Quarantine – Ytl77232 (Prada Leary)

“This project ‘Quarantine’ is the first under my new artist name YTL77232 (formerly Prada Leary). It’s a newer sound that I’ve grown into over time with smooth and aggressive beats throughout. I made half of this project in Cali and the other half in Detroit. Changing my name is an evolution for me. The YTL means young Timmy Leary and the 77232 means Prada in T9 text. I hope you all enjoy the growth.” – YTL77232

Bri Mari Drops “Lost With You” Video Ahead Of Debut EP

Lost with you

Lost with you
Photo Credit: William Jones

Bri Mari goes all in for her new “Lost With You” visual. The Cincinnati-bred songstress dials up her sultry verses, as she and her love interest find some alone time during a house party. Bri’s sound is dazzlingly reminiscent of R&B’s golden era, as she wields her far-reaching vocal range to lather up passionately romantic lyrics. In “Lost With You,” which was initially released as a single last year, the R&B upstart professes her loyalty and asks that her man do the same.

“We could talk for hours at a time/ Laying there just gazing at the sky/ We’d be the greatest story you and I,” she croons. “I’m feeling you and it ain’t hard to tell / I just wanna get lost with you.”

Helmed by Dre Shot This, the song’s visual plays off the duality of Bri’s lyrics. In some scenes, she’s seen laughing and flirting with her lover, whereas in others, the couple is distant and cold-shouldered.

“I had someone I was talking to and we vibed really well and I just felt like he was slipping away and I didn’t want him to at the time,” she tells AudioFemme about her inspiration for the record. “It was a reflection of the good times, and then how people can kind of switch up on you out of nowhere.”

“Lost With You” follows Bri’s two other 2019 singles, “I’m Yours” and “Drinking.” In “I’m Yours,” she professes her love with feathery vocals over a pulsing acoustic instrumental, while “Drinking” serves up a liquor-fueled breakup anthem. Later this year, Bri plans to follow-up all three songs with her debut EP.

“I’m really looking forward to when that project will be done,” she says. “I’m aiming for mid to late-summer.”

Watch Bri Mari’s “Lost With You” video below and stay tuned for more details on her forthcoming debut EP. Also, find the clip’s behind the scenes footage on her YouTube page.

Breaks and Swells To Debut New Songs Friday at Belltown Yacht Club

Seattle-based singer Marquetta Miller met most of her fellow bandmates in blistering soul fusion band Breaks and Swells while working a cocktail bar in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s in this same neighborhood, at a dive-y karaoke bar, that Miller met legendary Seattle producer, Erik Blood, who ended up sculpting their last release, We Will Not Despair. 

We Will Not Despair, which dropped in July 2018, was an album that captured Breaks and Swells’ renewed focus after almost 8 years on the scene—and the election of Donald Trump. As Miller puts it, they decided to drift a little further from mimicking the influences that brought them together—throwback soul and R&B and the contemporary success of groups like Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings—toward more of their own sound. This also entailed getting more political than they had before, particularly with the title track. As KEXP said, the song was “a subversive act of joy in a situation that seems to feed on sucking away hope on a daily (okay, maybe hourly) basis.”

A year and half since sharing their subversive enthusiasm, Breaks and Swells are hard at work on their next batch of songs. Their forthcoming release promises to build on contemporary themes of news burn-out and desperation in the face of the Trump regime. The seven-piece group, which blends soul, funk, pop, and R&B, will be playing this Friday at Belltown Yacht Club. Miller sat down with Audiofemme this week to talk about the origins of her buzzy, mellow vocals, the new forces that have been moving Breaks and Swells creatively, and to tease the selection of new songs they’ll play on Friday.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

AF: Have you always been musical? Tell me about early influences that sculpted you into a singer.

MM: I just kind of always been that kid who wouldn’t stop singing. I always wanted to have the solos when I was little. I didn’t take voice lessons until I was quite a bit older, but I grew up  in Fairbanks, Alaska in a time when school districts actually spent money on music education. I had a comprehensive music education from Pre-K through third grade. So, I knew how to do music already and I did band and choir.

AF: When did you move to Seattle? What about the music scene in Seattle was alluring to you?

MM: I moved to Seattle 14 years ago. I came down here to be mostly around the music scene. I did sort of have aspirations of going to Cornish and then I started one year at UAS in Fairbanks going to school for music and just decided I didn’t actually like it. I already had some friends who were down here doing music in some capacity—whether they were doing engineering work or also playing in bands—so I talked with some people who liked being here. Obviously, there are a lot of really cool bands. That was one thing that I really tripped out on in moving here like, those are the Blood Brothers and there’s Ben Gibbard at the breakfast stop. I was tickled by that.

Plus, I’ve been in the Central District for many years. I mean, there really is a history of R&B music here—obviously, Quincy Jones, but also Ray Charles lived here for quite some time and Stevie Wonder did as well.

AF: Do you still feel like that is part of Seattle?

MM: I mean, I do. If anything, I think that the scene has rallied around itself a little bit. I really feel I’m seeing an increase of really intentional support. People really making an effort to go to other people’s shows, promoting other people’s shows, making sure they’re posting pictures. If you can gas somebody up, then you do. I feel like this is a really supportive scene—and across genre too. I have lots of friends who are in other bands who aren’t necessarily of a similar genre to Breaks and Swells, but they come out to our shows and I go to theirs.

AF: Tell me how Breaks and Swells became a group.

MM: We’ll have been together for eight years this summer. I worked at Liberty, a cocktail bar at 15th and Republican, and our original bass-player Kevin was also working there. He lived with our drummer Derrick. Dylan, our guitar player, started working there at some point and I actually trained him, and that day all we did was talk about the playlist I was listening to and talk about music.

AF: Breaks and Swells has a very different sound as compared to other Seattle bands. There’s funk and jazz—and the sort of face-melting power of Tower of Power and Funkadelic that is not all that common from Seattle. What inspired your sound?

MM: I think, for the most part, we all grew up with an appreciation with some area of funk or soul, R&B. I grew up listening to a lot of Motown, eighties R&B and New Jack Swing stuff like Bobby Brown and Janet Jackson, obviously Boys II Men. I’m personally a massive Stevie Wonder fan (I saw him at Key Arena when he had the Songs in the Key of Life Tour, and it was amazing. I literally cried for three hours without stopping). But, we all love the Allman Brothers, Blood Sweat and Tears. We all have a lot of different influences. Our drummer is in a math rock band and listens to a lot of hard core and emo, and everyone is into everything.

I think with our first record and early on [we played off the heyday of] Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Charles Bradly, Lee Fields—there was a lot of throwback going on. All of those artists have that authenticity. We tried too hard to be throwback [at first] without really thinking about what kind of music we really wanted to make. So, I think We Will Not Despair, our last record, was really an attempt to figure out where those classic old-school influences meet a newer, more R&B-pop kind of sound.

AF: I know you’re not primarily a funk band, but you draw in so much of that influence I have to ask: every band that plays funk seems to have some sort of philosophical funky saying or catch-phrase. Does Breaks and Swells have one?

MM: There is a song on We Will Not Despair called “Bomb,” and we repeat “That bomb shit!” That kind of started as a joke but we realized it’s perfect. So, it’s like, at some shows we can really get people into yelling it with us, which is pretty fun.

On the recording of the song, there’s a whole section in the background of clapping, stomping, talking, laughing and Erik Blood literally running back and forth across the doors and windows of the booth trying to get us hyped. That was the last day of recording, and everyone was super loopy after six days of recording. Blood’s got that magic.

AF: So, tell me more about working with local producer Erik Blood. What does he bring to Breaks and Swells?

MM: We did a single with Erik about two years before we did We Will Not Despair, called “Wonderful.” I met Erik at an old Capitol Hill bar called The Bus Stop—this great divey gay bar—doing karaoke there like a million years ago and one of my friends insisted that we had to meet. We talked and we knew we would work together at some point. I ran into him every once in a while and then we [reached out to him] when we had that single to record.

Erik Blood has great bedside manner. He’s not necessarily nice in the studio, but he’ll tell you what you need to do and when you’re fucking up. This whole last record, I never got to hear my vocals in the bounce mixes. I think Erik didn’t want me to be neurotic about it. He really cracks me up. I like working with him a lot.

AF: I know your most recent album was a sort of a statement against the 2016 election. What was it you wanted to say?

MM: I wanted to say, “Hold on, guys.” Like, “This might suck, but we’re going to get there.” That attitude can be about many different things—like your relationship or the state of the world. I feel like in particular that title track, people seemed to really like it. It was one of those things where I got to have a couple little digs at the man in office without being super over the top. At the end of the day, if we can stick together and focus and not be burnt out, maybe we can get through this.

AF: Has the process of making and performing the album helped you cope with Trump’s presidency?

MM: Oh yeah. It’s funny [when I wrote the] first line of the song it started out as a love song, this obsessive idea of like you’re always on my mind, I can’t get you out of my head. And then I realized, oh, I’m doing this with the news right now. I’m like what’s on HuffPo, what’s on Politico, what’s on Slate? It’s a vicious feedback loop of freaking out but also not really doing anything but being stoned on the couch and being really upset. So, I thought, I can’t do this for four years.

I think [breaking that feedback loop] requires me to refocus a bit. I mean, like, Donald Trump is not the beginning or the end of the problems that are going on right now. I mean certainly, I think he’s exacerbating a lot of them and creating many unique moments on his own, but you know, it’s like, you have to decide what you’re going to focus on and where you can actually have some impact. Is it fighting with people on Facebook? I don’t think so.

I know people don’t like to talk about politics—I don’t know what that is. But I always thought that was weird that we don’t talk about politics. The government has a big impact on [how] our day-to-day lives operate. It seems odd to me to make it taboo to discuss that. I think it’s also why we can’t discuss it in a functional, rational way. We can’t separate it from emotion. Honestly, one of the big things too, is having sensitivity and care for myself. There are things that honestly aren’t worth arguing about. I don’t think it’s an argument worth having to say its okay to take children from their families and put them in cages and potentially lose them. There’s not justifiable argument for that. I’m not going to argue about it because I think it ultimately says something about your morality, not your intelligence.

AF: So does your work in Breaks and Swells feel more productive than your eyes than engaging in these sorts of arguments?

MM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that [using music for discussion] has really driven the writing on this next batch of songs—“Ladybugs” and “Bot Fly,” are already out in the world through live sessions we did with Adam Audio at Bob Lang’s. So, we’re getting into this idea: what are these simple ways that we can care for ourselves and also care for each other? How do we find ways to chill and connect [in the current context] and how do we know that it’s OK to do that?

“Ladybugs,” explores anxiety—where you just can’t leave the house, you can’t make the effort to put on pants. I think it also struggles with the idea of wasted potential. And then the other song, “Bot Fly,” is a comment on the bro-grammer culture that’s growing up around here, toxic masculinity. It’s this idea that a dude builds a robot girlfriend and she’s exactly what he wanted—which is the worst.

AF: So, the new album builds on the previous. When do you foresee it’ll come out?

MM: We’re just now talking with Erik Blood right now about recording in May. We think it’s going to be an EP.

AF: Tell me about the show on Friday at Belltown Yacht Club. Will you play those new songs and will there be anything special for fans to expect?

MM: Yeah, so “Ladybugs” and “Bot Fly” have been in our set for about the last six months—maybe longer. We actually are going to be playing two brand new, never heard before songs on Friday as well. And, because I’ve been teaching more, I’ve been playing a lot more guitar—because I don’t play piano. So, I’ve been playing guitar a lot more than I have in so long, so I’ve been trying to write on guitar for the first time since I was 20. So, one of the new songs we’re playing this weekend is a song that I wrote. It’s been a minute since there was a full Marquetta Miller original.

Aziza Love Set to ‘Bare Soul’ On Solo Debut

Following up her debut solo EP, Views From The Cut, Aziza Love will release her debut solo album, Bare Soul, later this month.

“Over these years I’ve watched myself choose everything and everyone else first… from people I’ve worked with, intimate relationships, family, friends, lovers,” the former TRIIIBE songstress wrote in an Instagram post announcing the upcoming project. “I lost myself in the search for their happiness. Lost myself in the promises of reciprocity. No more.”

Along with the album’s cover art and release date, Aziza has also shared Bare Soul‘s tracklist. The 10-song album, which is expected to drop on Friday, December 13, will include her previously released song “Smooth Criminal.”

Bare Soul is a call to action, a reminder to be authentic… Bare Soul is me,” Aziza wrote in another post, calling the project a “declaration of heart thoughts” and her “story, raw and uninhibited.”

Aziza has previously teased snippets of “Baby Steps” via Instagram, which will also land on the upcoming album. Former collaborator Josh Jessen is featured in the record on “True Love,” which was used in Aziza’s short film, Phoenix Rising: Ashes To Ashes.

“Without any formal background in filmmaking, but a relentless need to express my experience, I took on the challenge to learn how to navigate Adobe software to make my visions come to life,” she wrote of the visual on YouTube. “My hope is to create space for black and brown members of the LGBTQA+ community to express genuine emotion, express love, to dance and smile and frown and be free and angry and joyful all in a beautiful way.”

The announcement of the album follows Aziza’s short film and her appearance in standout track “Anytime,” from earlier this year.

TRIIIBE recently won Hip Hop Artist of the Year and Artist of the Year at the 2019 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. Aziza contributed to the Cincinnati-based group’s latest album, III AM What III AM, and performed at Bunbury Music Festival. Aziza also made a guest appearance on “Anytime,” the standout track from Oski Isaiah’s recent album F*ck A Job.

Find the tracklist and cover art for Aziza Love’s upcoming album, Bare Soul, below.

Aziza Love Bare Soul

Aziza Love Bare Soul

INTERVIEW: Maryze Talks Her Gorgeous Debut Video For “Soft”

Maryze Soft

Last month, pop-tinged R&B artist Maryze released her first-ever music video – a dreamy visual for her tender single, “Soft.” The Montreal-bred singer teamed up with Paris-based director Amanda Louise Macchia for the beach-set clip.

“’Soft’ is about abandoning insecurities, reconnecting with your sensuality, and allowing yourself to be with someone entirely,” Maryze explained. “For me, truly connecting with another person, both physically and on a deeper spiritual level, has to begin in a place of self-love. As many womxn do, I have a complicated relationship with my body and sexuality, largely because of the societal shame around expressing those parts of ourselves.”

“This song was inspired by a relationship that really helped me regain a sense of trust, and embrace the softness and strength it takes to be vulnerable,” she continued. “It feels powerful, and a little magical, to reclaim our bodies and sensuality in whatever way we choose for ourselves. I also don’t often play with my softer, feminine side, so I had a lot of fun exploring that in this video.”

The cinematic clip opens up on Maryze holding flowers on the beach. Shadowed by billowy pink clouds, the visual’s soft editing and lush scenery perfectly capture the serene sensuality of Maryze’s voice.

Produced by Jordan Esau, “Soft” served as the leading track for Maryze’s bilingual debut EP, Like Moons, which she released this spring. The 5-track project included production from Solomon K-I, Ulysses, BrotherNature, and Jordan Esau, as well as French single, “Dis-Moi.”

The new “Soft” video also ushers in a series of upcoming new music and videos from Maryze, which she will be blessing fans with later this year.

Watch her beautiful debut visual for Like Moons track, “Soft,” below.


PLAYING SEATTLE: SassyBlack Returns With Latest Solo LP Ancient Mahogany Gold

SassyBlack, a.k.a. Catherine Harris-White, has spent years making lunar-inflected R&B and sending Seattle audiences on a funky galactic journey—both as a member several Seattle-based groups, like rap duo THEESatisfaction, and now as a formidably innovative and prolific solo artist. With a production vibe reminiscent of Roy Ayers and Pharrell, and an expressive vocal style that recalls jazz great Ella Fitzgerald and neo-soul legend Erykah Badu, SassyBlack’s  music transcends era and defies linear notions of time.

With fifteen releases since 2015, sixteen counting her forthcoming full-length solo album Ancient Mahogany Gold, out September 13th, Sassy is a master of the slow simmer. Ancient Mahogany Gold is a fresh 11 tracks—the optimum length for Sassy to lyrically explore the many dimensions of pain and love, while building her jazz-tinged melodic motifs and nimble, entrancing soundscapes to their climax.

SassyBlack chatted with Audiofemme about the details of the new full-length, her complicated Seattle roots, and about self-worth in song.

AF: What got you into music? Was there a particular artist or person in your life that encouraged you to listen, or perform?

I have always been very into music and performing. I come from a household where there was always music playing and typically a lot of dancing/relaxing/planning/studying to music. Music has been a special space where I can heal and just be. No judgement. I can’t tell who the first artist I wanted to be like was but right now, off the top of my head I can say Michael Jackson, Brandy, Miles Davis, Morris Day and Chaka Khan have played big parts in my life. So many musicians and artists have impacted me that I could write a series of books about it.

AF: Where in Seattle did you grow up? How does Seattle serve as a context to your music? An inspiration? A boundary?

I grew up in Hawaii until I moved to Seattle in ‘97. In Seattle I lived near the University of Washington which was always moving and changing as the school year would start and let out. In terms of inspiration & boundaries, I don’t know. Seattle is special to me. It’s what I have known and although I have seen some of the world in my travels, no place feels like Seattle – it’s my sweet spot.

AF: In what way has the Seattle scene served you and lifted you as a musician? In what ways has it failed you, or introduced challenges?

Being from Seattle and having parents from New York makes me different in a way that Seattleites could smell it on me. I act differently, make differently, love differently. I am different. I’m from space. I often call myself a woman of the world and Universe for that reason. The music scene is like any other scene or community I’ve experienced in the world. It can be open and freeing and accepting or hate you, ignore you, think you are undeserving or not known what you are or what to make of you so kind of hands off until it’s time to make a hard fast decision. Seattle can see me for what it has the capacity to and that sight fluctuates so I try not to rely on it for anything that I need to survive. But I do enjoy the love.

AF: Your music is often referred to as intergalactic and space-aged. Do you consider your music to be Afrofuturist? If so, how and why are you in conversation with this movement? 

I deem my music psychedelic soul and hologram funk. It feels right for the time being. I’ve been called an Afrofurutist before, but honestly I am a Black woman and just by being I live in the future. I’ll leave that at that for now. My music speaks to it loudly and I find more clearly than I can phrase right now. Another book to be written.

AF: What were the biggest lessons you learned from your time in THEESatisfaction, that you bring to your solo work?

I’ve been in several bands and groups and one of my biggest takeaways from all of them is that I love working alone. Collaborations are golden when shaped from positive interactions and loving intentions.

AF: Tell me about the process of making your new album, Ancient Mahogany Gold. Did it begin with a theme, a lyric, a conversation?

This album began with a thought. A thought that came about while I was making a beat. It grew over several years. Lyrics, themes, music all kind of came simultaneously. It’s hard to track because I don’t take notes of how my spirits and ancestors encourage me to express myself.

AF: Both “Depression,” and especially “Antidote,” on Ancient Mahogany Gold, seem to deal with themes of self-love. Why is this a topic that’s important to you?

This whole album is about self worth and self love and appreciation in all the ways that it comes to mind. It is in every song. I think “Antidote” and “Depression” exude those feelings more because the lyrical content, or even the titles, are more apparently speaking to what is associated with self love. This topic is life and important to everyone whether they know it or not. I just don’t think most people know the best way to approach self love in a healthy loving manner. I’m not even sure how to do it for myself but it manifests through craft, creation, conversation and song.

Follow SassyBlack on Facebook for the latest updates and check out Ancient Mahogany Gold when it arrives on planet Earth September 13th. 

PLAYING CINCY: Oski Isaiah Enlists the City’s Best to Deliver New LP

F*ck A Job / Company

Oski Isaiah finished out a busy July with the release of his highly-anticipated new album, Fuck A Job. The 10-track LP features assists from Aziza Love on “Anytime,” Monty C. Benjamin on “Over” and Jus Clay on “Business.” Fuck A Job follows up Oski’s 2018 album, Adventure 2, and a compilation music video released just two weeks ago. Filmed by Dre Shot This, the three-part visual bridges Adventure 2 cut, “Mob,” Fuck A Job highlight, “Apply,” and an unreleased track, “Mention Me,” that comes from a mysterious future project.

Fuck A Job is produced completely by Autumn Jivenchy, who provides hard-hitting beats that bring enough energy to match Oski’s lively tempo, yet remain stripped-down enough to let his vocals shine. Oski’s bars take the listener on a journey through hardship and success and shine a light on themes of support and believing in yourself.

“It was rough end of 2018. I feel like I lost everything. I nearly folded,” the Ohio rapper wrote on Instagram. “Having to be strong. Mentally and physically changing. I felt like a failure. It hurt to exist, I didn’t want to. In those moments, at my lowest, I remembered who I am. I started to understand my purpose. I’m here to promote loyalty, prosperity, love and mental health. I’ve done that with all my music.”

After thanking everyone who contributed to his album, he wrote, “I’ve been able to make Fuck A Job my best album yet.”

Listen to the full album below.