The Top 20 Most Underrated Artists Of ACL Fest 2015
Who doesn’t love a music festival, right? It’s all the best parts of a concert–music, friends, alcohol and drugs…just lots and lots more of them! Each year, more and more of them are popping up all over the place, over 60 happen in the U.S. each year alone. As you probably already know, one of the biggest and baddest is always the ACL Festival. Inspired by the PBS concert series of the same name, the festival is produced by Austin-based company C3 Presents, which also produces Lollapalooza.
The 14th annual fest is to be one of the most incredible line ups this year, and once again takes place in Austin’s Zilker Park. We’re talking about Drake, Foo Fighters, Alabama Shakes, Florence + The Machine, Bassnectar, Of Monsters And Men, Tame Impala, Deadmau5, A$AP Rocky, Brand New, TV On The Radio and a shit ton more! You can see the entire lineup here.
A few larger music websites will publish guides which present a good summary to the impressive bill, but who doesn’t already know about most of these celebrity performers? Yet one of the best reasons to go is to discover new music! For each of these well known artists, there are a ton of massively talented, vastly underrated ones they don’t get the attention they deserve. Anyone who has ever been or considered going to experience a massive event like this knows what it feels like when looking towards the bottom of the schedule. It can almost feel like reading a foreign language, seeing bands listed that you have never heard of. Almost everyone will want to watch performers like Modest Mouse, Chance The Rapper, WALK THE MOON, alt-J, G-Eazy, Bill Idol, Nero, Dwight Yoakam, Brandon Flowers, Ben Howard and Father John Misty . That’s why we want to draw your attention to this list and that’s why we are here to help.
Live music festivals are still, despite all the advanced technology of 2015, one of the best methods of discovering new music. What happens if you don’t have time to catch an artist you wanted to see, or if it’s too crowded? And everyone loves an underdog! Besides, these some artists that could very well be at the top of the lineup next year or the year after.
These are artists that are already turning up everywhere this year, and others we expect to follow them very soon. The list includes everything from pop to hip-hop to EDM to rock to folk. So in our best and on going effort to cover the best in up and coming music, we present our picks for The Top 20 Most Underrated Artists Of ACL Fest 2015. The list is not presented in any logical or sequential order whatsoever. You can also see our list of picks for The Top 20 Underrated Artists Of ACL Fest 2014 here. See the entire schedule here.
- Meg Myers
For Fans Of: Kitten, Noosa, Blondfire, Son Lux, MisterWives, Sir Sly
Scoring a Top 20 alt-radio hit with the raging, unapologetic “Desire,” Meg Myers “juggles the pretty and the ugly perfectly,” as Stereogum noted, adding that with her “fierce-then-vulnerable voice, you have something that is as sweet as it is unsettling.” The Nashville-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter has consistently worked that dichotomy in her music, exploring the tension between dark and light, sweet and sour, and sex and death in her cathartic songwriting. Her richly powerful voice, which can slide on a dime from a feathery trill to an anguished howl, is the perfect instrument with which to express her brooding, fiercely raw lyrics about craving what’s just out of reach. The words are bolstered by the layered guitar-synth soundscapes she creates with her collaborator and producer Dr. Rosen Rosen.
Released in April 2013, Myers’ debut EP Daughter In The Choir gave listeners their first taste of ferocious anthems such as “Monster,” earning her rave reviews and comparisons to female iconoclasts like Fiona Apple, Sinéad O’Connor, and Alanis Morissette, though Myers cites Tracy Chapman, Joan Osborne, and Heart’s Ann Wilson as inspirations, along with Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Trent Reznor. The Nine Inch Nails frontman’s influence is evident on “Desire,” which is the first single from Myers’ EP, Make A Shadow. Like Reznor, Myers lets her pop instincts temper the dark quality of her songs, thanks to help from Rosen, a prominent remixer who’s worked on tracks by Britney Spears, M.I.A., La Roux, and Lady Gaga among others.
“I came from this grunge, punk-rock background, but I always wanted to write catchy pop songs,” Myers says. “I just didn’t have the technical knowledge to make them work. But I grew up listening to well-crafted songs. I loved Sting, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac. That’s what I was drawn to. I love the simplicity of a great song, I just didn’t realize how hard that was to capture in a recording. That’s why working with Rosen is so great. It was like, ‘Okay, I found this guy I can write songs with and who is really good at turning everything into pop, while still letting me be myself.’”
The songs on the EP express the various facets of Myers’ personality, from the raucous “Go,” in which the person in question is dismissed with the simple, imperious directive in the song’s title, to the deeply personal acoustic guitar-driven ballad “The Morning After,” to the unrestrained “Heart Heart Head” — a live favorite that closes with the sound of Myers’ feral screams. “It’s kind of animalistic when I sing that song live,” she admits. “I can really let myself feel the loneliness and pain I was experiencing when I wrote it and just let it out.”
Music has always been an emotional release for Myers. Born in Nashville, she spent the first five years of her life in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains where she was raised by a truck driver father and a Jehovah’s Witness mother. After her parents divorced, her mother married a fellow Witness, who moved the family to Ohio. Her mother and stepfather worked for a cleaning business. “They cleaned all night and slept during the day,” Myers says. When she was 12, Myers and her siblings were taken out of school when the family moved yet again, this time to Florida, where they bounced from town to town throughout her teen years. During this period, Myers began singing, writing songs on keyboard, and teaching herself to play guitar. She played bass in a band she started with her brother. “I had a huge need to express myself,” Myers says. “Music was always an escape from reality, because reality was pretty shitty. I had a really tough childhood, and was forced to be an adult at a really young age. Music was the only safe place that was my own, where I could say whatever I wanted.”
A few days shy of her 20th birthday, Myers made the decision to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. She lived in a studio apartment with her then-boyfriend and got a job waitressing at a coffee shop in Hollywood and played whenever she could get a gig. Things didn’t work out with the guy, but she did end up meeting Rosen, who signed her to his production company. The two began writing songs, including those that appear on Daughter In The Choir and her EP Make A Shadow. A full-length album, Sorry, followed this summer and features the new single, “Sorry” which is currently working its way up the Alternative Radio charts. Her goal for her music, she says, is simple: “I want it to make people not afraid to feel.”
We placed her in our list of picks for the Top 20 Underrated Artists of Lollapalooza 2014. She is currently on tour as the opening support for AWOLNATION.
For Fans Of: The Colourist, ASTR, Bear Mountain, HAERTS, Charli XCX, Betty Who
HOLYCHILD formed in college, found their artistic inclinations were in sync, and began making music together. Sure, there’s more to that story—a long trail of events that stretches from New York art galleries to the sun-baked streets of Los Angeles, where the duo now lives. But both members, Liz Nistico and Louie Diller, are far more concerned with the “why” behind their twisted electro pop creations than the “how” of where they are today.
Although in the past they have described their music as the halfway point between Katy Perry and Björk, the pair is more likely to name-check F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Bukowski when describing their glittery dance tunes. The classic authors subverted the written form in order to make readers question their assumptions—why can’t they do the same thing with music? HOLYCHILD call their genre of music, brat pop. Their manifesto is simple but intense.
“It’s experimental pop, it’s often sarcastic, and it’s pretty thick with social commentary,” says Nistico. “If you make music within pop form, and just having poppy melodies, people are used to consuming that. People will consume that easily with no difficulty. If you are saying something beyond that, that’s when you can make people think. We definitely want to reach a very large audience and make them think differently, whether it be about gender roles, or the social economic status of the U.S. right now.”
But don’t expect HOLYCHILD to waste too much time preaching. From touring alongside the likes of Passion Pit and MØ, to turning NYC’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) into an electro pop rave, they’re out to make the kind of music that’s aimed in equal parts at the intellect and lust.
“I feel like it’s safe to say, brat pop is one-half rebellion and one-half entertainment,” adds Diller. “We’re not in it to spoon-feed people, but we are in it to entertain, put on a show, make people happy and make people move.”
On their debut album The Shape Of Brat Pop to Come, the pair takes on nothing less than the ideas of power dynamics and inequality—be it racial, social status, or gender-motivated. The beats are wild (thanks in no small part to Diller’s stint in Cuba studying Afro-Cuban drumming), and the tongues are placed firmly in cheek. The cover features a naked shot of Nistico, with hundred dollar bills covering her vagina. Meanwhile the censored version is a close up of Nistico’s lips as she eats a dollar bill. She confirms that, while provocative, like everything else the band does, these images serve a purpose.
“On one hand we use sex to sell things,” she muses. “We’re drawing people in by being like, “Look! Sex sex sex!’ And then raising the thought of, ‘Sex sells! Why do you buy into that?’ That concept is really fascinating to me. It’s definitely hypocritical, but at the same time I feel like we’re all hypocrites.”
Nistico assures that while their message is clear, it’s not definitive. After all, we’re all humans, right? At the end of the day HOLYCHILD is about posing questions—not providing answers.
3. Residual Kid
For Fans Of: King Tuff, FIDLAR, The Orwells, Bass Drum of Death, Purple, Diarrhea Planet
Despite their youth, Residual Kid have earned their place among the top bands in the vibrant Austin music scene being named the Austin Music Poll’s winner for “Best Under 18 band” in 2013/14 and 2014/15 and Second place “Best Punk Band” (2014/15). Residual Kid have performed at SXSW, CMJ, UMS Denver, Fun Fun Fun Fest as well as clubs and theaters as both a headliner and in support of bands such as OFF! Blonde Redhead, The Toadies, Manchester Orchestra, Diarrhea Planet, etc.
Residual Kid will travel to Europe in Summer 2015 to appear at several major festivals in support of their first single for SIRE Records and an EP is planned for 2016.
For Fans Of: LION BABE, Tinashe, Kelela, Tink, Jhené Aiko, PARTYNEXTDOOR
The Bay Area native Kehlani got her start as a dancer — both ballet and modern — and attended Oakland School for the Arts. After an unfortunate knee injury leaving her unable to dance she transferred into vocal training and the rest is history. She began her journey into the music business when she joined Poplyfe in the 8th grade and hasn’t looked back since — even appearing on America’s Got Talent with the band. Influenced by Lauryn Hill, Michael Jackson, India Arie, Stever Wonder and Musiq Soul Child — she has an old soul while adding her own youthful twist to classic sounds. The best way she can describe her music is “feel good music” with R&B/Soul undertones. At only 19 years old, she has shared stages with Tony! Toni! Toné!, Stevie Wonder, Jamie Foxx, Sheila E, and Lenny Williams at many historic venues including Caesars Palace, The Fox Theater, The Paramount and Yoshi’s.
5. Sol Cat
For Fans Of: The Bright Light Social Hour, The Tontons, Spanish Gold, J. Roddy Walston and The Business, Sacco, NGHBRS
Sol Cat is elastic guitars ‘n’ grooves combined with synths and croons. It’s music that gets you dancing, music that gets you thinking, music that’s informed as much by what’s happening now as what happened decades ago.
Touring nationally with the likes of The Weeks, Soil & the Sun, Turbo Fruits, and more, Sol Cat has garnished fans of rock and pop in multiple markets.
The 5 piece’s self-titled debut album appeared in February 2013 along with making an appearance at SXSW. An EP, Welcome to Cowabunga, that October received nods from many critics and journalists at CMJ. Two new singles, “Body Like That” and “Bread on the Table,” hit YouTube with music videos during the summer of 2014, paving the way for a new EP and second album that’s due out in 2015.
For Fans Of: Oberhofer, Young Buffalo, Royal Bangs, Chappo, GRMLN, Papa
After finishing school and coming off of years on the road supporting his former band (Port O’Brien) Van Pierszalowski, the creative force behind WATERS, decided to live and work in San Francisco spending some time standing still for the first time in ages. The calm gave way to creative restlessness and the result was a new band and a new sound in the form of WATERS. WATERS’ “Got To My Head” is informed by an era of Alternative music where frenetic energy, pop hooks and a focused lyrical narrative could drive any young kid to start playing guitar. While recently releasing a full album of songs with the same immediacy as “Got To My Head”, WATERS has announced a handful of West Coast shows and more dates to come. They have previously toured as opening support for both Matt & Kim and Tegan & Sara.
7. Night Drive
For Fans Of: Betty Who, Ishi, ASTR, NONONO, Banks, Burning Hotels
Night Drive co-founders, Rodney Connell and Brandon Duhon met after a young woman they were both unknowingly dating was killed in a car crash. The tragic event bonded the two, and shortly afterwards they began a musical collaboration.
Inspired by sci-fi cinematic landscapes, Night Drive creates modern synth-pop that explores the darker currents of abstract emotion. Infectious melodies wrapped in thoughtful lyrics with pulsing dance beats unveil a stylish, energetic sound that has been featured in film, tv and radio around the world. With added drummer Gibran Nassif, and touring with international bands such as Tesla Boy, Gold Fields and Jupiter, Night Drive has quickly garnered a reputation as a captivating, must see live show.
8. Talk In Tongues
For Fans Of: Speedy Ortiz, Cheatahs, Young Buffalo, Painted Palms, Maudlin Strangers, WATERS
Los Angeles foursome Talk In Tongues didn’t come out of nowhere, although it sounded that way when their debut single “Still Don’t Seem To Care” suddenly appeared online. And it felt that way for them at the beginning, too, when each member was a refugee from another band that just wasn’t working right. Back then, they were barely acquaintances-guitarist and singer McCoy Kirgo remembers seeing his future bandmates at shows in their other bands, and then at parties after the shows. And if you looked into the music they’d already made, it didn’t quite make sense for them to put a band together. (Future bassist Waylon Rector wrote constantly, but all his songs were laptop-made synth-pop.)
But they almost immediately found that they all shared limitless drive and direction and an unexpected common ground in several generations of psychedelic music, from the 60s Pink Floyd and 13th Floor Elevators through the unstoppable Creation Records roster in the 90s. Then things happened fast. By the end of their first practice together, they’d already discovered what they wanted to sound like. Says guitarist and singer Garrett Zeile: “I had songs I’d compiled over the last year, and they fit the direction we wanted-they were the building blocks. Then we all started contributing.”
They booked a show weeks after their first practice together in early 2014, mostly just to prove to the world that they really existed. (If you were there, you’re part of a very lucky and exclusive group!) The very next day, they went into their home studio and recorded their first single “Still Don’t Seem To Care,” a dreamy, ethereal neo-psychedelic song mixed by Claudius Mittendorfer (Arctic Monkeys, Interpol). It was just the kind of sound he’d been looking for, says Kirgo: “I wanted to play big music, like something you’d hear at a fest like Glastonbury. That’s what made me want to dive into psychedelic rock.”
And almost instantly, it lit up the Internet and led to an immediate signing with Fairfax Recordings, whose legendary in-house studio sealed the deal for Talk In Tongues: “It just so happened that the first label that hit us up was Fairfax, and it was exactly what we were looking for,” says Rector. “Every step of the way, there’s been a new opportunity, and we go for it. It’s all been very serendipitous.”
Slowly and a little bit unofficially, Fairfax Recording sessions that were supposed to just produce a B-side or two stretched into day after day of working on what would become their debut album. Everyone in Talk In Tongues writes and plays multiple instruments-they all play each other’s instruments, says Zeile-and everyone had a catalog of ideas they’d been saving. For the first time in his career, noticed drummer Bryan DeLeon, he was in a band where there was no such thing as writer’s block. And as the summer of 2014 ended, they decided they’d finished their full-length-two months after they’d walked in to record a single. (And the eventual B-side of that “Still Don’t Seem To Care” single? A remix by Scandinavian visionary Dungen, due out this November.)
With production from Kevin Augunas (Cold War Kids, Edward Sharpe), their debut album, out in early 2015 on Fairfax Recordings, links modern-day psychedelia with the foundation of early 60′s experimentation-it’s melody and atmosphere and noise-as-beauty captured (barely) in songs that should be blasting out of the Coachella main stage somewhere around midnight. Says drummer DeLeon: “We’re excited this is 100% ours, and we put in the world-every part of this album is an expression of ourselves.”
9. LION BABE
For Fans Of: The Roots, Raury, Flying Lotus, Kelela, Shy Girls, Majid Jordan
Constantly embracing polarity, mixing and matching sounds and visuals to create something new and unique – LION BABE are the New York duo formed of singer/songwriter and performance artist Jillian Hervey and instrumentalist and producer Lucas Goodman.
The pair met at the end of their college experiences. Jillian was in the beginnings of her professional dance career while Lucas was focused on producing artists/bands and his own personal project under the name Astro Raw. Their decision to collaborate on music was purely based on curiosity and chance. After the organic creation of the sultry, electronic soul track ‘Treat Me Like Fire’, they decided to give the song a home and create LION BABE.
LION BABE draw on an eclectic mix of influences for their sonic and stunning visuals, which mirror the rich melting pot of cultures that New York offers. Citing the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles as having a major impact on them both in their formative years, they identify with a generation brought up on the internet, with references from film and music of all genres, places and eras being just a click away.
Their debut LION BABE EP, is led by their single “Jump Hi” which includes a mesmerising Nina Simone sample, written by Jillian, produced by Lucas and featuring hip-hop artist Childish Gambino. The EP is a sublime collection of tracks which showcase the band’s ethos for fearlessly reworking and reinventing the familiar, combining it with their love of fantasy and the surreal, to make their own unique pieces of art; a new kind of soul. Also featuring “Treat Me Like Fire”, the EP was released last year on December 15th on Outsiders Recorded Music (Universal Music).
Taking the same approach to their collaborations, the band have worked with the likes of childhood hero and Grammy Award winning artist and producer Pharrell Williams, and prolific producers/musicians Jeff Bhasker, Andrew Wyatt and Al Shux – aiming to inspire their generation to take risks and not follow moulds, promoting individuality, uniqueness and change.
For Fans Of: JJ, I Break Horses, Little May, Air Traffic Controller, Seinabo Sey, CEO
Having grown up in the U.S., the Amason was a Volvo model that passed me by, but in Scandinavia, it was a popular car in the 1960s. Named after the fierce female warriors of Greek mythology, Volvo adopted a Swedish spelling for its design, and the band Amason (pronounced “Amazon” for the Americans in the room) has followed suit. Perhaps the spirit of a female warrior coupled with the liberatingly swinging ‘60s is a suitable description of this five-piece band of Swedish-born and based touring musicians. Or perhaps their name, chosen spontaneously by Pontus Winnberg of Miike Snow, is just one aspect of this multi-talented, musically minded group of friends that first came together in 2012.
The security and strength offered in Amanda Bergman’s vocals is reminiscent of a warrior, but the whole picture of Amason carries much more depth than a single simplicity can encompass. The story of Amason begins with brothers Pontus and Petter Winnberg, whose father was a music teacher and classical musician. When Petter was 16, he studied at a jazz music school, where he met Nils Törnqvist, and from then on the two have played together in a multitude of musical constellations, including Little Majorette. In 2008, Nils saw Amanda playing a gig in Gothenburg with her band Hajen, and was so blown away by the power of her performance that he just had to tell Petter and Pontus about her. Pontus contacted Amanda through Myspace, and the two recorded a few tracks together. A few years later, Pontus met Gustav Ejstes of Dungen through Stockholm-based music collective INGRID. Within this open setting, they started speaking about making music together. When Pontus played Gustav a tape of him and Amanda, who currently writes under the name Idiot Wind, as she howled along to a drunken piano, Gustav also was blown away by Amanda’s voice, her way of expressing herself, and began thinking, “Let’s make something together.” Which is precisely what Pontus posed once the tape had finished. At the tail end of 2012, these five finally arrived in a musical space together.
Having arrived in a collective sonic space, they all hopped aboard a vehicle, with their past paths and divergent musical tastes thrown into the mix, and found this was more than enough to fuel Amason forwards. A sound created out of collaboration, with each member inhabiting an equally important space. Be it Nils on drums, Gustav on organ, guitar, and vocals, Pontus on piano and pedals, Petter on bass and vocals, or Amanda on synth and vocals, these simpatico souls share the creative ground as Scandinavians share their land. Everything is everyone’s. And the music is all the greater for it.
When Pontus first booked time in the studio and miraculously managed to get all five of them there during that time, the rest clicked into place. They started out by putting an idea on the drawing board, thrashing it out on their instruments, recording the tracks, writing a melody and lyrics, and swiftly had some finished songs to present. The first song to hit the Swedish airwaves, “Margins,” was soon followed by a self-titled EP released in August 2013 on Stockholm-based INGRID, complete with single ”Went to War.” In February 2014, Amason released “Ålen” (The Eel), and on October 28th, 2014 they will release their single “Duvan” (The Dove) worldwide on Fairfax Recordings and INGRID. Their debut album, Sky City, is due for worldwide release in early 2015.
With lyrics in both their native Swedish and the Swedish musical language of choice, English, Amason create in the moment, record almost instantaneously, and soon after scan the horizons for a stage, where the music truly comes alive, where they can share their collected collective moments. They fill their together time with sound, with music-making, with production and lyric-crafting and the joy of the song. Not to say that they don’t have to work to create what they get. Bringing five busy people together and getting crafted songs down in a state of permanence is a mammoth undertaking in and of itself. But as the old adage goes, where there is a will, there is a way. And the Amason will, the Amason way, is celebrated and magnified and revolves around the power of music. While the classic Volvo Amason still motors onwards in its intention to take people places, so too will a pure love of music drive Amason the band far into the future.
11. In The Valley Below
For Fans Of: Sir Sly, Coasts, Little Daylight, Thumpers, Noosa, NONONO
Seldom has a debut single seduced so many, for so long. Two years since its release, In The Valley Below‘s “Peaches” , which was first picked up by European alternative radio, continues as an international airwaves staple “” testament to the enduring viral power of its sunny yet smoldering songcraft and celebratory surrender to mutual attraction.
In The Valley Below “” Angela Gail and Jeffrey Jacob “” meld harmony-laden folk-country Americana, adventurous art rock, squelchy synth pop and woozy blues into something altogether different: stylistically elusive, yet oddly inclusive. Her loaded purr cajoling his weathered inflections, they craft gauzily compelling music at once introverted and all-embracing.
A small-town girl from Michigan, Gail discovered songwriting while holed-up on an even smaller Caribbean sailboat. A thousand miles away in Memphis, Jacob was inhaling Link Wray’s ragged rebellion and the darker side of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. In The Valley Below was born one Texas night when the pair, performing at SXSW in an experimental L.A. rock band, recognized their rare on-stage connection. Back in California, they plunged into collaboration with twin-like telepathy and a feverish, fated chemistry
Though never intended as a gigging band, ITVB’s genre-ambiguous, dreamily accessible expressions traveled well, inducing tireless touring. High-profile stops included England’s Reading and Leeds festivals, Rock en Seine in Paris, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Conan. They shared their journey with the likes of The Airborne Toxic Event, White Lies, Cold War Kids, and Robert DeLong.
In The Valley Below’s debut album, The Belt, is a mysterious, mesmerized and relentlessly melodic record that bares powerful tales of lust, loss and faith like open wounds, while hinting at hidden meanings. Opening with “Peaches” , it also births the huge, hands-aloft hooks of “Neverminders” and “Stand Up” . The deliciously lingering deathbed farewell of “Hymnal” and lived-in, love-in nostalgia of “Take Me Back” lend a throbbing urgency to the insistent, intravenously wanton “Palm Tree Fire” .
Self-written and produced, two of The Belt’s 11 songs were also mixed by Gail and Jacob, with others handled by John Congleton (St. Vincent, David Byrne), Pete Min (Airborne Toxic Event), Lasse MÃ¥rtÃ©n (Lykke Li, Peter, Bjorn & John), and Dave Sardy (Oasis, Band of Horses).
Personified by “Peaches” ‘ sunlight-through-the-eyelids abandon and cult-ish caress, The Belt is that most elusive of records: arcane, authentic, and effortlessly resonant across cultures and eras. Though the duo’s bond is uniquely theirs, we are all In The Valley Below. Earlier this year they performed at the Buku Festival in New Orleans.
For Fans Of: Wolf Parade, Dirty Projectors, Telekinesis, Static Jacks, The Helio Sequence, Viva Voce
For Ume, music is the embodiment of contradiction. The Austin band’s powerful rock songs contain a multitude of opposing juxtapositions, balancing elegance with brutality, strength with fragility, ferocious metal and sweet melody. These paradoxes resound through the trio’s new album, Monuments, a collection of songs that reimagine heavy music and is as beautiful as it is massive. When the musicians began writing for the album, after touring over 200 dates in support of their acclaimed debut Phantoms, the emphasis was on translating the impassioned force of Ume’s momentous live show onto a recording. Rarely has the platform for women in rock been updated as authoritatively as it has been with this band and this new album.
“There’s always been a complete lack of inhibition in our live show,” Lauren says. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily been captured the same way on our recordings. So with this record we tried to embrace that sense of abandon and emotional catharsis in the studio as well. We didn’t hold anything back.”
Recorded with Grammy-winning producer Adam Kasper (Queens of the Stone Age, Cat Power, Foo Fighters, Nirvana) at Robert Lang Studios and Studio X in Seattle, WA, Monuments is Ume’s most colossal sounding recording yet. The recording process was about “just playing the songs and letting the sounds unfurl in an honest and true way,” Lauren says. For the band, the process was as much about self-understanding as it was about tangible creation.
“Adam gravitated toward a lot of my demos that I was unsure about and he helped me see myself as a songwriter for the first time,” Lauren says. “I felt we could take more risks, because we could be free from all preconceptions and ultimately focus on the songs. So one moment we’re drawing inspiration from a Dionne Warwick record I found at an estate sale, and on the next track I’m trying to channel my inner-Iommi.”
Monuments emphasizes the intense power for which Ume has earned live acclaim, but also urges stronger variety of sound and greater emotional range. The album equally contains the heaviest riffs the band has written and their most vulnerable sonic moments, connected by an overarching tone of honesty and freedom. From the first blast of the opening track “Black Stone,” there is no doubt this is a record driven by one of today’s most ascendant shredders, and one that is also not afraid to subvert rock conventions. Cohesive but unorthodox, the album deftly balances the propulsive, surging rock of songs like “Too Big World” and “Chase It Down” with the raw, acoustic introspection of “Barophobia” and “Within My Bones.” At the record’s emotional epicenter is “Gleam,” a dedication to Esme Barrera, one of Lauren’s fellow Girl’s Rock Camp volunteers who was murdered during the writing of the record.
Monuments began as an attempt to deal with loss, yearning, and struggle,” Lauren says. “But it became a process through which I learned to really embrace this life, loved-ones and this chance to make music.”
Lauren and Eric began making music together after meeting at a skatepark in highschool. Shortly after forming Ume, Lauren moved on to attend graduate school in philosophy, but eventually traded in the PhD pursuit to follow her guitar heroine dreams. Driven by a desire to share how they felt as kids the first time they saw Fugazi, Lauren and Eric have logged tens of thousands of miles together on the road, moving from basements and dive bars to major festivals like Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest and Paris’ Rock En Seine.
Since welcoming new powerhouse drummer Rachel Fuhrer, the band has shared the stage with The Smashing Pumpkins, Warpaint, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Franz Ferdinand, Helmet, Wu-Tang, and Foals, and were personally called by Perry Farrell to open for Jane’s Addiction at their Lollapalooza afterparty. Ume appeared on the 2012 Season Premiere of “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, who celebrated the band as “a shitload of rawk in a tiny little room” before taking them to dinner during SXSW. The band’s name — pronounced “ooo-may” — was taken from a Japanese plum blossom that they later learned symbolizes perseverance and devotion, a moniker that aptly reflects the musicians’ tenacity and passion.
“I’m a pretty stoic person, but when I heard this new record I actually cried,” Lauren says. “I think it expresses the story of what brought us here, and is in a lot of ways a celebration of not giving up. It sounds like who we really are.”
For Fans Of: SomeKindaWonderful, Grizfolk, Zella Day, Josef Salvat, Betty Who, Ryn Weaver
Halsey: a better combination of lovable pop and provacative grunge could not have been better engineered in a lab. The alter ego of 19-year-old Ashley Frangipane was conceived from the “Halsey” stop on the L train to Brooklyn (and is an anagram of her first name) — appropriately so, having been born in New Jersey, but defined by the city of New York. Halsey seeks to combine honest, unashamed, and androgynous lyrics with the sugary feminine allure of pop music. Biracial and shaped by the discography of a black father and a white mother, she brings a sense of diversity and a realness to the pop idiom. Her sound is hook-bait-catchy, and unapologetic in nature. “Ghost,” her lead single,” is a perfect example: She plays no victim, instead exploiting the tragic and laughable intimacy of human relationships. Signed to Astralwerks/Capitol, Halsey has all the undeniable makings of a pop star, with a bitter aftertaste that is so tongue-in-cheek.
The VEVO DSCVR artist ended the year on top as the #1 artist on the Billboard Trending Twitter Chart and #3 on the Billboard Emerging Artists Chart. Halsey’s self-assured charisma related immediately with fans and the track went into heavy rotation on Sirius radio. Both free-wheeling and bull-headed, Halsey is an uncensored refresher whose music is “simple, right on point and fresh” (The 405), “an absolute must-hear” (Hilly Dilly) and “expectantly unnerving” (Idolator).
We also included her in our list of picks for The 50 Best Bets Of SXSW 2015 (see here). She has released an EP called Room 93 and her debut album Badlands was also released this year in 2015. She has toured with Young Rising Sons and has opened for Imagine Dragons.
For Fans Of: BROODS, The Wombats,The Griswolds, Little Daylight, Jack Garratt, Sir Sly
BØRNS may hail originally from the lower peninsula of Michigan but his dreamy blend of folk, glam and electro rock sounds like it comes straight from the cosmos. This tree-house dwelling LA transplant will be bringing his angelic voice and dynamic live show across the U.S. this fall. Do not miss a chance to catch this unique, otherworldly talent. BØRNS has toured as the opening support for MisterWives earlier this year in 2015, and has also opened for both Bleachers and Charli XCX. He has released the EP Candy in 2014 and his debut album Dopamine via Interscope earlier this year in 2015.
15. Charlotte OC
For Fans Of: VÉRITÉ, ASTR, Låpsley, Say Lou Lou, Laura Welsh, BANKS
There are several points in the 22 year timeline of Charlotte O’Connor that you might attribute to her metamorphosing into Charlotte OC, future pop star. The first was when she used to dress up as a witch as a child, stand at the end of her driveway staring at passersby in a long black dress. The last was in November 2012 when she was in Berlin for a co-writing session for her debut album. Finding herself at the Berghain, probably the best nightclub in the world, on Sunday afternoon, a new impulse hit the singer/songwriter. ‘I felt like somebody had just let me in on the biggest secret in the world.’ Because the monolithic temple of nightlife and seat of modern bohemianism doesn’t allow cameras or press in, in some ways they had. A new loop for her music began to foment in her mind. ‘It felt like heaven and hell to me.’
‘Certain things that I saw I could not believe,’ she says, of the temple to decadence. ‘I stayed for only a few hours but left inspired.’ Amid the darkness there was beauty, a scintillating tangent for a songwriter. She heard a mix of Bon Iver’s Hi Life being cut up on the spot in the main room and looked at the intensity of the scene around her. ‘Just hearing that voice. I couldn’t believe where I was. What I was hearing was heaven, what I was seeing was a version of hell. It was the most amazing clash of the senses. I have thought about that afternoon many times since.
Charlotte’s songwriting inspiration began to chime to a new, ethereal beat. ‘The whole place just blew my mind. I wrote, Colour My Heart when I came back,’ which became the song that would come to define her direction, a bewitching and unique ‘spooky gospel soul’ that sounds prematurely hit-ready. ‘I want my music to sound like Berlin feels. The chords to Colour My Heart are how I hear Berlin.’ Because she was born in Blackburn in the early 90’s there was perhaps something in the bloodline, the demography and geography that would connect spiritually, if not necessarily stylistically in Charlotte’s music to the collapsing edges of a dance-floor.
Charlotte OC understood music as an outlet to process emotion as a five-year-old child. The daughter of a half Malawi, half Indian mother and Irish father who was in The Merseybeats for a few moonlighting months in the ‘60s, the house echoed to the strains of classic songwriting. John Martyn, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were complemented by the artistic nervous breakdown of Talking Heads, a family favourite. The youngest of three sisters, she resolved to create her own musical universe at 5. ‘I remember my middle sister telling me I couldn’t go somewhere with her and it was the first time I’d known pain. I remember thinking, it’s fine, I’m going to be a singer. I just had that belief.’
Other options failed to present themselves. ‘I wasn’t academic at all. I went to a really bitchy and competitive all-girls school. Singing was all I could do and all I wanted to do.’ The first artist she owned, her epiphany experience, was Alicia Keys. ‘Sat behind a piano, doesn’t have to take her clothes off, she became an instant idol for me.’ She also proved a gateway drug, into the soul singers she now calls to mind. When Charlotte sings there are echoes as diverse as Candi Staton and Stevie Nicks. Genre doesn’t matter to her, so long as it’s true.
Armed with an unusual education of classic songwriting at home, by 15 she had begun singing her own songs. By 16 she was posting on MySpace and quickly picked up a management and record contract.
‘At 16 you really don’t know who you are,’ she says ‘I was at a major label, working with great people but I had no idea how I should sound or what direction I wanted to go in. I had to learn to be myself. It wasn’t the right time. I wasn’t ready.’ A record she slaved over was deemed fit for release by the time she was 18. It never came out.
Her baptism of fire she now thinks was part of the process. ‘It was the biggest relief when I was released from the contract. I wasn’t proud of the music I was performing and that sense of personal pride is so important to me and fundamental to my music. It’s you, at the end of the day. What I have now is a maternal feeling towards the music. With that album I hadn’t any experiences to draw on. I hadn’t gone through love or death. I had never loved anybody. So a love song couldn’t be sincere.’
Fundamental changes happened in her late teens when she began writing for herself, not for other people’s ideas of what she should be. Free from the restrictions of commercial expectation, she had something to write about. ‘I got dumped big time, for being a naughty girl. It was raw.’
Charlotte’s songwriting is sophisticated and immediate, familiar and strange. She says she likes wordplay and imagery but has also learnt to trust a gut instinct. She had her ‘lightbulb moment’ co-writing moment at Tim Anderson’s studio in LA. ‘I’m obsessed with Tim Burton and that studio is like he’s thrown up all over it. It’s my favourite place. I met Tim, had a cigarette, went back inside, he started playing something on the piano and it just happened. I knew that working with him just flowed. The song, the lyrics, it was all so easy to write.’ The deep ascending chord sequence was her touch. ‘I love writing melodies more than anything. It’s about what the voice is saying. Everything else is embellishment.’
Charlotte is a thoughtful and sometimes abstract lyricist. She came up with the suitably stroppy, Philly soul-sounding hook for Hangover in exactly that state. ‘I’d been rat-arsed the night before and went back in the studio apologising to Tim for being hungover. He started playing a beat and I told him I had to go. As I was walking out of the door I started singing the word “Hangover” and we both came in with “In the morning”. It was fully natural. The best co-writing is when you feel like you’re working from the same brain. I went back and we nailed it.’ She cites an early love of Dolly Parton’s incredible ear for melodic storytelling for any country overtones to her tunes.
Charlotte is currently at the closing stages of what will be her EP with debut album to follow, a sultry composite of structured song-writing, a freewheeling vocal range and subtle electronic edge. She is ready for her close-up. ‘I couldn’t be prouder of it,’ she says. At the finishing-touch stages of her hallucinatory 21st century soul epic, she has every right to be.
16. Ryn Weaver
For Fans Of: Little Daylight, BROODS, Great Good Fine Ok, MisterWives, Sylvan Esso, Betty Who
On the day Ryn Weaver was born, NASA and CNES, the French national space agency, conjointly launched the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite. It was an oceanographic marvel, providing unprecedented measurements of sea levels, tides and the ocean floor.
To the cynic, this factoid may seem wholly coincidental. But in talking with Ryn, or listening to her music, one begins to believe in things like destiny, the uncanny, the stars. She has French blood. She has a reoccurring dream of orcas. “I was a little mermaid,” she says of her childhood. When she moved to New York City, she missed the Pacific so much she would fill her bathtub with chilly water and submerge.
Some musicians have a fascinating backstory. She was raised on a kibbutz in rural Oregon. Her father formed that LeBron James Cult. Ryn is not one of those musicians. She was born in Encinitas, California, a surfer town with a mosaic of the Virgin Mary hanging ten under a bridge, and raised in perpetually pleasant San Diego. Her dad is an architect. Her momma is, as she says, “just a momma.” This does not diminishes her fascinating character.
In conversation, Ryn leaps from topic to topic. She talks of lunar cycles, ascendent zodialogical signs, the effect of soy consumption on vegetarians’ nipples, the differing eroticism in the art of Gustav Klimt and his protege Egon Schiele, Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, love, the symbolism of stone fruit in a Joanna Newsom song, the fantasy MMORPG RuneScape, pre-zipper fashion design, death, the empathetic powers of domesticated rats, gender politics, David Bowie’s groin in Labyrinth, and the ominous allure of the sea in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
The day that Ryn was born is also the Day of the Velvet Voice, according to the numerologists at the Secret Language. Her voice is her instrument, and it is indeed as fleecy and voluptuous as brushed burgundy velvet. Her voice is also chiffon, devoré and nacré. It is cotton and silk. It can be crushed or hammered. When Ryn first began composing songs, she would deeply pile her vocals in a computer, building ethereal swirls, posting them to Soundcloud.
Ryn meets Benny Blanco on Halloween in New York, her first time in the city. She is dressed at Bambi. He is dressed as himself, an impossibly young multiplatinum producer. They hang out in a burlesque club, part ways. Two years later, Ryn is crashing up and down the California coast. “It is the most irresponsible time of my life. I’m trying to wash everything out of my system.” She bumps into Blanco again in L.A. on his birthday. He invites her to a party. She plays him her songs on Soundcloud, like the fingersnap slow-jam “You,” which she has appropriately hashtagged #Fairy Pop. “I show Benny but he was wasted,” Ryn remembers. He listens again sober and reaches out to her.
“Ryn’s music sounds like butterflies in your brain,” Blanco says, “Like if you took dope beats, mixed them with Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush and then attached it to a bungee cord.” After co-writing and co-producing hits for Katy Perry, Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa, Blanco has partnered with Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit. It’s an inspired pairing. Both are precocious, twentysomething talents playing left field in pop music, lobbing hooks to the radio that bounce and unexpectedly curve. Working with Ryn is their debut collaboration. “The project didn’t make sense until an hour of us working together for the first time,” Angelakos says. “What makes Ryn so fascinating is this odd straddling between reality and surreality. Someone so innocent, fresh and excited is something so rare that it almost seemed like a facade, but none of it is.”
In Ryn’s songs you can hear the euphoric pulse and summer breeze of Blanco, and the giddy rush and dust-devil synth swirls of Angelakos. Drums pound like fists against the door on “OctaHate,” a slow-jam swing turned earthquake, as Ryn’s voice rises in an anxious trill, building, building, hitting a peakin squeak as she belts, “You shot me down!” When you listen, bear in mind you’re hearing her first take in a studio, ever. Listen more closely and you can hear what sound like drops of water in a tub.
“OctaHate” equals hate times eight, Ryn explains. The day that Ryn was born is the 222nd day of the year. Two times two times two is eight. Her debut EP is being released on August 8. Are you starting to see?
There is something mystical about this Fairy Pop. So, no, there is no grand, juicy backstory. Ryn is a young woman who busted her ass waiting tables and sleeping in her car. That’s cool. Once you tell an interesting origin tale, what is left to say? Ryn may not be a story, but she is filled with them. Stop chasing the white whale and observe the ocean before you.
17. San Fermin
For Fans Of: Kishi Bashi, Sylvan Esso, Lucius, Yellow Ostrich, Son Lux, Typhoon
Brooklyn-based San Fermin, now an eight-piece touring enterprise, did not start that way.
In December of 2012, the initially makeshift project performed a single concert—from sheet music—and signed a record deal. Their self-titled debut was subsequently released worldwide in the fall of 2013 via Downtown Records. Following rave reviews, the band was thrust into the spotlight, performing sold out shows and festivals across the world and opening for the likes of The National, St. Vincent, Arctic Monkeys, and The Head and the Heart. “Suddenly, we were not in a vacuum. We were in the thick of it, which was thrilling but also terrifying,” bandleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone says. “There were all these new possibilities and gray areas. It was a shock to the system—out in the world, barely at home, constantly in a state of semi-crisis.”
Many of the songs on Jackrabbit, San Fermin’s second album released earlier this year, existed only on Ludwig-Leone’s laptop for the better part of a year, as he toured and turned the band into an ensemble operation. When at last he revisited them, he knew that they had to be reborn.
“The first record was written in a very pre-composed way, recorded when I didn’t think this would be a band. So I went from being this isolated composer guy to sitting in the back of a crowded van with seven other band members playing shows in rock clubs every night,” he says. “When I got back, I ripped these holes in the middle of the existing songs and added some new ones. I rethought everything I had been writing.”
Recorded piecemeal in many sessions under Ludwig-Leone’s watchful eye, Jackrabbit bears the scars of experience admirably. If San Fermin could seem prepared and guarded to the point of being polite, Jackrabbit lines that record’s complicated compositional maneuvers and grandiose pop eruptions with necessary aggression. It is urgent and in your face, like a band sweating and singing in a cramped venue. It is emotionally complicated, too, like a group of strangers who have suddenly had their lives interrupted and linked by unexpected circumstances.
Fittingly, Jackrabbit is filled with moments in which each member of the band is prominently featured: John Brandon (trumpet), Stephen Chen (saxophone), Rebekah Durham (violin/vocals), Michael Hanf (drums), Charlene Kaye (lead vocals), Tyler McDiarmid (guitar), and Allen Tate (lead vocals). The two discrete characters born by the debut album have been replaced by multiple personalities, treading new and difficult terrain.
This evolution is at the heart of Jackrabbit, a powerful record where moments beautiful, brutal and a bit of both produce songs that don’t know how to let you out of their clutches or console you with easy answers. At once lived-in and sophisticated, Jackrabbit feels a lot like real life—charmed, challenging, and wonderfully compulsory.
18. Moon Taxi
For Fans Of: Futurebirds, O.A.R., Perpetual Groove, The Features, STS9, Cold War Kids
For the members of Moon Taxi, their third album, Mountains Beaches Cities, represents the idea of exploration – searching both the world and themselves for new experiences. The Nashville rock group, who had honed in on a notably compelling aesthetic with their previous album Cabaret, focused on extending the sonic landscape they’d created in earlier recordings, but this time around they amp up the speed and turn up the volume – creating an overall bigger sound.
The album was self-produced by Moon Taxi’s own guitarist Spencer Thomson with the help of keyboardist Wes Bailey and was mixed by Vance Powell (Jack White, The Dead Weather) and mastered by Greg Calbi (Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Fleet Foxes). “One thing we didn’t want to do was stray too far from what we did before,” Wes says. “We really knew that things for the band had shifted in a good direction and we were growing because of our last record. We wanted to continue the energy we created from that record.”
“Like Cabaret, this project started with rough demos that slowly evolved into a statement from not just the initial songwriter, but evolved into a representation of what each of us individually have experienced in this band and how we’ve grown over the years as players,” Tyler adds.
The band, which was founded in 2006, toured extensively in support of Cabaret, appearing at Bonnaroo, Forecastle, and Lollapalooza. Additionally, they have opened for such artists as Matisyahu, Dr. John, and Dirty Heads, and ended 2012 selling out multiple theaters on their own. While on the road, the musicians began to stockpile song ideas and demos, inspired by the trials and tribulations of traveling around the country to play shows. In early 2013, the band went into the studio to begin recording Mountains Beaches Cities with these touring experiences in mind. Much of the recording was done in Spencer’s apartment with only a few days of drum and bass riffs laid down in Nashville’s Sony Tree studio. Although Mountains Beaches Cities feels like an extension of Cabaret’s aesthetic, the new album is explorative, and its lyrics recount a new narrative for the musicians.
Each song on the album, and even the album title, generates its own story and imagery, but all come back to that idea of exploration and searching. “Beaches,” a surging, borderline experimental track Spencer calls “risky and ambitious” transports the listener with its haunting, emotive melody while jangling acoustic song “Young Journey” encapsulates the eye-opening experience of travel. “Morocco,” a propulsive, hooky track about a place none of the musicians have ever been, seeks adventure in the idea of going abroad. The album as a whole is grandiose and invigorating, each track revealing a new chapter in the LP’s overall story. This record, in particular, is important for Moon Taxi, who has been known in the past for its boisterous live appearances, but with Mountains Beaches Cities, it highlights the nearly perfected balance between the recorded material and how it translates to a live stage.
“We made a conscious effort with the last record to write meaningful songs and produce them in an exciting way,” Trevor says. “That is still the ultimate goal. We strive to produce something that will outlast us as a band. I can see this record reaching an even broader range of people because the song themes are universal. ”
The sound of Moon Taxi pulls from the many different facets and interests of its members. Trevor, who got his start in music playing trumpet in school, is driven by his love for reading, cooking and yoga; while Tyler, who spent his younger years jamming on a drum kit with friends, is driven by an immense appreciation and knowledge of pop culture. Spencer, who used to record himself in his parents garage, has transformed his knowledge of film into producing videos for Moon Taxi’s music. Wes, meanwhile, developed his musical process from classical composers like Mozart and spends his time on tour searching for golf courses while Tommy spends his free time going to concerts and carefully following Nashville’s local music scene. “I think the exploration aspect of the album came from trying to understand and explore ourselves,” Tommy says. “Personally and musically. As we get older we tend to know ourselves better, but there is always more to understand. You try new things , but continue some of the good habits you’ve learned. As we explored our music, we learned more about ourselves and matured as a band. I think it’s a concept that won’t stop at this record, but will carry on to our live shows and other records down the road.”
For Fans Of: THEESatisfaction, FKA twigs, Jamie XX, Until The Ribbon Breaks, Shlohmo, Avid Dancer
Boots gained sudden worldwide attention when his name appeared as songwriter and producer for much of Beyoncé’s 2013 album, Beyoncé, and it became clear that he had shaped the starkly intimate sound of songs like “Haunted,” “Heaven” and “Blue.” Now he is about to decisively end his low profile. “I’m grabbing onto 2015 by the horns,” he said.
Boots is a self-taught, all-around 21st-century musician: singer, rapper, guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, beat programmer, video director, graphic designer. He came up with his logo, a horizontal stripe with two verticals, which can look like connected crosses or, people have told him, like “a bridge, train tracks, motorcycle handlebars,” he said. “I’m not going to reveal rightly yet what it is. But if it’s got you wondering, I’m on the right path.”
He has a major-label contract with the Canvasback Music division of Atlantic, and Motorcycle Jesus will be followed by a full-length album later; he’s releasing as much of his music as possible at no cost online. On Jan. 30, he stepped onstage at Madison Square Garden to play hard-rock guitar with the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. He has also produced what he describes as “crazy futuristic” albums “ with the British singer FKA Twigs and with the Los Angeles art-rock band Autolux. He describes himself as “a weird kind of eclectic avant-garde dude who loves pop music, because I think it can transcend what we think pop is now.”
El-P, the prolific New York City rapper and producer who is half of Run the Jewels (with Killer Mike of Atlanta), wrote in an email: “He’s the only person I know who is as comfortable and credible making a rock song as he is an R&B song. He can flip between these sweet, beautiful ballads and really hard, intense bruiser-type songs and then straight into beat-driven stuff seamlessly, and often in the same song. He doesn’t have to force it. He’s naturally all of his influences.”
Steve Ralbovsky, who heads Canvasback Music, said: “The challenge of all this is that you can’t really put it into a box, but the talent is undeniable. There’s some breathtakingly beautiful standard-type stuff, and then there’s stuff you can hardly put a description to. Whatever shape-shifting direction that his music takes him and his inspiration take him, I’m continually impressed by the talent and the vision of what he wants to do.”
The songs on Motorcycle Jesus are more or less rock songs. They use guitars, drums and keyboards that were played live in studios, then manipulated and tweaked to Boots’ surreal taste. The music reveals his fondness for the melodic reach of the Beatles and David Bowie, for the abrupt sonic shifts of hip-hop and for the warped instrumental tones of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead. The cryptic lyrics, with titles like “Mercy,” “Suicide Games” and “I Run Roulette,” hint at scenarios of alienation, betrayal, technology gone wrong and global disaster. “No one left but us,” he sings in the chorus of “Teen Reader,” the closing song. “Guess we better run, run, run away.”
“Mercy,” which warns, “Daggers in my eyes/Get that evil off my screen,” makes its emotional arc in sound: from a quiet, open elegy to a distorted, claustrophobic attack. Another song, “Only,” grew almost instantly out of an idea that came to Boots at the piano. He called his two drummers, and they joined him to play it live. “As I’m playing, I write the words,” he said. “We recorded it. It’s the third take.”
He was working at Studios La Fabrique in the south of France, an old chateau in which every space, with widely varying acoustics, is wired for recording; he took the live recordings, played them in multiple spaces and mixed together the results. “It turned into this really strange haze,” he said proudly. “I just destroyed this original studio recording.”
In the “Motorcycle Jesus” video, Boots wanders through a post-apocalyptic world, increasingly bruised and battered. He spent the day with dirt on his clothes and a bloody makeup blotch on his cheek. The video shoot was partly planned — locations had been lined up — and partly improvised; he had written the latest treatment during the two-hour drive from Los Angeles. “It’s all in Jordy’s head,” said his manager, Sarah Morris. “We’re just going with it.”
For the shot he was seeking, Boots wanted to be a small figure amid mountains silhouetted by the sunset. But the day’s other scenes had run late. As the crew sped down Route 62 in their van, looking for a panorama without houses or power lines, part of the sun was already below the horizon. But in the twilight, a side road looked promising. “If there’s a way we can pull off the road and just jump out and get this right here, right now, let’s do it,” Boots said.
The mountains carved a jagged line of golden light as the crew assembled the camera and monitor. Boots peered at the screen, framing and calculating the path he would walk, and decided that the camera would make a long, slow pan to meet him. With darkness looming, they grabbed as many takes as they could; the playback was triumphant. “It was a 45-second shot that ends up making it totally worthwhile being there,” said the director of photography, Hunter Baker.
The day before the desert video shoot, over lunch in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Boots sipped sparkling wine and wore the same dark clothes — a tunic-like shirt, jeans, boots — that he would wear on camera. He is calmly articulate, with a steady gaze and a restless, opinionated intelligence. The conversation veered to science fiction, kraut-rock, environmental catastrophe and his distaste for social media: “Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are the ugliest places artists can express themselves,” he said.
He discussed details of how Brian Wilson produced “Pet Sounds” and praised the book “Here, There and Everywhere,” the memoir by the Beatles’ recording engineer Geoff Emerick. That book, Boots said, taught him that to create recorded sound, “you open the door and you start looking at things, and there’s no wrong way to get there,” he said. “You break a sound and it will sound better.
He also spoke about the Beyoncé album that catapulted his career. “It was a freak occurrence, one in a million — could have never happened, could have happened to anybody. But then it happened to me,” he said.
Mr. Asher was nicknamed Boots, for his accustomed footwear, by a member of one of the many bands he played with around the Miami area where he grew up. Making music was his only goal. “I don’t have another choice,” he said. “I dropped out of high school. I can’t do anything else. This is it.”
For much of his early 20s, he was effectively homeless: going on tour and living out of a suitcase in between. Then to pay the rent, he got short-term jobs that left him wanting to concentrate only on music. “I said, ‘I need to focus and put myself all into this, even if it means I don’t have an apartment anymore,” he recalled. He got a little national recognition in 2011-12 with a band called Blonds, an exercise in retro tunes and modern production that was trumped, he said, by Lana Del Rey, doing it better. He briefly considered culinary school.
But a last-ditch bout of songwriting yielded “Onto You,” a moody minor-key song with layers of eerie background voices and a particular rhythmic undertow. He saw it as a template for a solo album. “That song was my heart,” he said. Somehow — Boots refused under persistent questioning to say how — Beyoncé heard it, and asked if he had more music. Then he was asked to do a week of songwriting in February 2013, he said. “A week turned into two weeks, and then it turned into the rest of the album,” he said.
For the first few months he would spend his songwriting weeks in hotels with Beyoncé’s team, and the times in between on a friend’s couch. In June, Jay-Z’s RocNation signed him to a publishing deal, and he was “not homeless for the first time in years,” he said.
Working on the album, he said, “flattened the world” for him. “If the first really famous people you ever meet are Beyoncé and Jay-Z, every nervous encounter you ever have for the rest of your life will never be as bad as that one,” he said. “Madison Square Garden was terrifying, but not nearly as terrifying as the hour before I met Beyoncé.”
Unlike some R&B collaborators, who arrive with beats and loops, Boots said he brought finished songs. He tried writing material geared to Beyoncé, but she was drawn instead to songs he had planned to record himself. “They were something that I had to say personally that were resonating with where she was, where she is,” he said. “Onto You” became Beyoncé’s “Haunted”; Boots’s eventual solo album would need a new cornerstone.
“It was better as the Beyoncé album — it made sense in the bigger picture,” he said. “The Beyoncé album to some people felt like a breath of fresh air because she really did mean it. It wasn’t just a net to capture money. It was a real thought.”
He added: “It was hard to let go of some of that stuff. But the only thing I want is for people to hear me and experience my music. Even if people never know who I am, which is fine, people are still in some way, sometime from now, going to be affected already. Now it’s just the funny part of trying to expand on that myth, the mystery guy.”
In the spring of 2013, Boots started releasing his own solo songs on his Soundcloud site two at a time, eventually building a 15-song mixtape called WinterSpringSummerFall: raps, rockers, electronics-laced tracks and ballads. “The whole idea was to break any expectation of what you thought I might be or do,” he said. The opening song, “A Day in the Life of Jordan Asher,” was a muted rap over wavering vocal harmonies; it spoke about holding a young man injured in a subway accident as he died. “That really happened,” he said. “That was a total, completely life-changing thing. I stopped caring about anything that didn’t mean anything.”
He left the mixtape online for a while, then withdrew it. He expects to do the same with other material: rewarding the attentive, courting serious listeners. “The people that find my music, who will dig deeper with it, are the people I want to hear it,” he said. “The people that listen to it based off of ‘He worked with this guy,’ that’s cool, but they probably won’t stick around if I freak them out, which is fine. The people who are really in it, they’ll stay with me as I scare the hell out of them.” He grinned. “Bait and switch.”
After nightfall in the desert, Boots and the crew returned to the compound where they were staying. Over a rye whiskey, he said, “We’re always chasing the sunset.”
He was talking about his relentless ambition. The dogged survival instinct of his character in Motorcycle Jesus, he said, reflects “people, like myself, who just have to keep moving forward and working, to keep my head and do what my gut tells me. Because I don’t know what happens if I stop working, or if I stop moving, or if I stop going perpetually forward. And I’m afraid to find out.”
Fans Of: Lord Huron, Desert Noises, Shovels & Ropes, Dawes, Alabama Shakes, Seryn
In the last four years, Houndmouth have learned what it means to be a band. On their second album, Little Neon Limelight, they wear that wisdom like a badge of honor.
Less than a half-decade ago in the small Indiana city of New Albany, four pals were crafting tunes on their own, with few ambitions of turning those songs into a spectacle. That all changed when these friends crossed paths, and joined forces. Matt Myers, Shane Cody, Katie Toupin, and Zak Appleby became the drums and keys, guitars and harmonies of Houndmouth, and those personal numbers became the irrepressible core of an outfit turned magnetic.
In 2012, the group issued a self-titled EP on Rough Trade Records, the legendary imprint that signed them after seeing a single gig. One of 2013’s most incandescent debuts, their From the Hills Below the City LP affirmed what label owner Geoff Travis had heard: the sounds of Americana, renewed by the youthful glow of songwriters, musicians and pals unafraid to both celebrate and desecrate them.
Others noticed, too. The Guardian noted that, with From the Hills, “reservations fade,” while Rolling Stone’s David Fricke lauded the “earthy melancholy with a rude garage-rock streak.” Treks with the Drive-by Truckers and the Alabama Shakes followed, plus performances at the Newport Folk Festival, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. In cramped clubs and big theaters alike, Houndmouth earned a reputation as a must-see act, their hooks, energy and charisma making them feel like a lifelong friend you’d just met.
That success, though, turned what had started as fun into something closer to work. Houndmouth learned that being full-time musicians required much more than the nine-to-five endeavors they had left behind in Indiana. But they grew into the role and grew from it. Experiences accumulated; perspectives expanded. Relationships stalled; others progressed.
“We’re not in party mode all the time anymore,” says Myers. “We’re refining how we write songs, writing about people we love, more important things than just nonsensical stuff.” If that was the charge, then Little Neon Limelight is an unapologetic success. These eleven songs sparkle, fade, and sparkle again, mixing innocence and experience, acceptance and aspiration, horror and hope.
Recorded by Dave Cobb in Nashville, Little Neon Limelight pairs the energy and nerves of raw first takes with the accents and moods of a more contemplative, thoughtful unit. Hearts are broken and friends are exiled, love grows cold and drugs do damage, leaders make mistakes and money turns tricks. On the acoustic “Gasoline,” one of the most poignant moments of Houndmouth’s catalog, Toupin barbs the confessions of a perennial party girl with the specter of mortality. “Maybe I’ll meet my maker on a bedroom floor,” she sings, her voice fighting against its own existential fade as bowed cello traces her words. Haunted by samples of the buoyant opener and single “Sedona” and the noisy filigree of a Moog, the beautifully downcast “For No One” stalks through personal blues with conviction. Its world-weariness has been incubated by the world it surveys.
But all of these feelings aren’t worn on Houndmouth’s collective sleeves: Despite the turmoil embedded within many of these songs, they are equal parts energetic proclamation, built with choruses that can’t be denied, harmonies that can’t be escaped and rhythms that can’t be resisted. With its carousel keyboards and start-and-stop drums, “Say I”” is a combination come-on and kiss-off that might make Keith Richards blush. For “15 Years,” Houndmouth conjures barroom bluster to voice the woes of a prisoner, backing the cries of his soul with howling organ and slashing guitar. When all the action drops into a shout-along, gospel-strong bridge, you might feel the urge to bust the fella out yourself. What’s the point of having the blues, Houndmouth seems to say, if you can’t have fun with them, too?
Nowhere is that balance of tragedy and triumph better than on the romp “My Cousin Greg,” a Band-style saga where each member takes a turn with a verse. Written about Myers’ actual cousin and former cover-band bandmate Greg, these four minutes present the title guy as a mischievous, enlightened and acerbic genius. He leaves Florida with his master’s degree in physics for a brainy job in Los Angeles, raising metaphysical hell and questions along the way. Greg thinks his cousin has it made, touring the country by van while playing the songs he’s written.
But Myers disagrees: “If you wanna live the good life/Well, you better stay away from the limelight,” the quartet sings as one in the chorus, repeating the mantra as though it were their only lifeline to sanity. For those long drives, it’s a reminder of the thrill and toil of what they now get to do. “For the first record, we were floating around after having been thrown into this,” explains Myers. “This time, we were able to write more about experiences than random stories, because that’s where we are in life. There had to be an attachment to what we recorded.”
For Little Neon Limelight, the charged, charming and preternaturally mature Houndmouth did exactly that.