It's the second year for NPR Music's fabled Tiny Desk Contest! If you've been under a rock for a while now, the contest is basically a chance for unsigned bands in most any genre to try out for the chance to play an actual Tiny Desk Concert at NPR's headquarters in Washington, DC. Now, only one can win, and with 7k applications last year, it's kind of a long shot. But the result is that lots of interesting bands have an excuse to cut a fun, impromptu music video. So the end result to the listener/viewer is lots of great music videos!
We've culled through some of the videos online (not like thousands of them, but certainly a couple) and here's our picks for favorite tiny desk contest videos.
UPDATE: Wow, we are SO excited to hear that Gaelynn Lea, profiled here, has WON the Tiny Desk Contest! How cool is that? Here's the interview we did with her:
Gaelynn Lea -"Someday We'll Linger In The Sun"
To write this article, I spent quite a lot of time scrolling through YouTube video playlists and suggestions, trying out new artists. There was a huge variety of videos submitted of course, and many made use of fancy editing, or bucolic landscapes, or clever ideas. This video from Gaelynn Lea jumped out purely for the song, which shows what a powerful composition it is. Looping her violin as a rolling drone, her voice sang so lightly over the top of the droning undercurrent. The words to the song are gorgeous too, seemingly tapping into the rich natural imagery and vocal techniques of old-school British folk. Her opening verse stopped me cold with its beauty: "Our love's a complex vintage wine/ All rotted leaves and lemon rind /I spit you out, but now you're mine." When I went to find more music, I found that Gaelynn Lea has a powerful perspective as well. Trained as a classical musician, she's adapted the violin to her own body, brilliantly working within the confines of Osteogenisis Imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. I wanted to learn more about her music and her story, so I reached out to her for a short interview.
-Is the song off your recent album?
Gaelynn Lea: The song I performed for NPR's Tiny Desk Contest is not on an album yet... It's the newest song I have completed to date, and it should be on the next EP by my atmospheric alternative duo The Murder of Crows with Alan Sparhawk (LOW) which should be out sometime in the next year.
-How do you go about writing a love song? You strike such a nice balance between personal intimacy and smaller details that tell a story. Are love songs especially hard to write?
GL: The first kernel of this song came to me in a sudden moment of insight while I was doing something else (this time I happened to be taking a shower). As soon as I could, I jotted down the first line and sang the melody over and over so it wouldn't escape me. For at least a month, all I had figured out was the words and melody of that first line: "Our love's a complex vintage wine / All rotted leaves and lemon rind" and then gradually the rest of the song came together. I'd say that's what happens about 90% of the time when I write a song.
I generally dislike love songs because I feel the pictures they paint are unrealistic or the words used are too cliche (although I have a few that get to me). Nonetheless, I do believe in love... just not in a everything-is-rosy-all-the-time kind of love. Love can be hard and yet beautiful, and that's the message I tried to convey in this song. I find songs take me awhile to write partly because I am really dedicated to lyrics - to me they make or break a song. So I try to create phrases that haven't been used before or at least imagery that isn't typical. To me gardening was a meaningful analogy at the end of the song "we pulled the weeds out til the dawn / nearly too tired to carry on" because love needs constant tending to survive.
I love that you’ve collaborated with Charlie Parr! I’m a big fan of his. How did that come about? Was it for a show or tour?
GL: I've loved Charlie and his music for a long long time. Even before I became involved in the music scene of Duluth through performing, I used to go watch Charlie play at the Brewhouse and dance and sing along. Then one day in 2011 I opened for him at a fundraiser. After my set I had a glass of wine with friends and was telling them "Man, I can HEAR a fiddle part in his music - I wish I could play with him someday" and my friends said, "ASK HIM TONIGHT! DO IT!" and probably because of the wine I got up enough courage to ask him during a break if he wanted any fiddle to back him up for the end of his set. Turns out sitting in with people really isn't that strange but at the time I was seriously nervous to even bring it up. But Charlie was so sweet and welcoming, and the set we played together went really well.
That year I sat in with his band "The Devil's Flying Machine" once a week for the better part of a summer, and we've played together at various other events around town. It doesn't hurt that he is one of the nicest people out there; he cares a lot about humanity, especially those living in poverty. Anyway, Charlie Parr is actually the reason I met Alan Sparhawk of Low (Alan and I eventually formed a band together called The Murder of Crows), because Alan and Charlie are good friends and he saw me during an impromptu jam with Charlie at a Farmers Market one day by chance and asked if we could do a show together. There are so many connections made like that in Duluth, the collaboration is one of the reasons I love living here.
How is music a part of your work with disability awareness? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
GL: For me, my music career didn't start out specifically with activism in mind. Of course disability activism is really important to me and has become a central part of my life, especially since college. But I simply loved music and performing and these were my motivating factors. Gradually I began to realize that playing shows and being active in the community allowed me opportunities to speak up in a more public way about accessibility issues and other barriers facing people with disabilities in our communities. I play at a lot of fundraisers for disability organizations and I try my best to educate venue owners and festival planners about accessibility, but of course the main focus during performances is on the music.
However this past year I decided to get more intentional about disability activism and I started advertising that I do public speaking on disability awareness, overcoming obstacles and authentic living. Then at the end of every speech I perform anywhere from 5-45 minutes (depending on what the event planner wants) to close out the event on a more meditative note. This has been so rewarding and I believe also helpful to the community. Because disability is such a central part of my life I tend to forget that many others have little experience with it and don't understand the magnitude of inaccessibility in our society (this interview I did recently highlights this fact)... Being able to address a whole audience in a significant way helps to more effectively spread this message, and closing with music seems to resonate with people in a meaningful way. The combination works surprisingly well. So far I have spoken at the St. Louis County Health & Human Services Conference, a high school, a college, the Chamber of Commerce, and three disability organizations. I have five speaking engagements lined up already this year (including two conferences out of town), and hopefully more to come!
-Do you have any new music coming out?
I just released my debut solo album, All the Roads that Lead Us Home, in November 2015. It pays homage to the traditional fiddle tunes and standards that I have been playing for over a decade, I made the tunes my own by using a Memory Man Looping Pedal to create winding layers of sound underneath these familiar melodies. The album is mostly instrumental in nature, although I included two vocal tracks (#4 and #10). It's available at my website (but you can listen to a sample of it for free here if you'd like)... Since that album is so recent I probably won't make another solo album until later this year at the earliest. I'd like to do a Christmas album just for fun with live-looped Christmas carols, and of course as I write more songs and experiment with more fiddle tunes I hope to develop another full-length solo album.
The Murder of Crows has also started recording again, because we'd like to release another EP in the next year or so. However Alan is touring and performing quite often so it may take awhile to finish... there is no release date set in stone yet. Someday! The Tiny Desk Contest song I entered, Someday We'll Linger in the Sun, will definitely be on that recording.
Joel Cross & The Cross Brothers - "So Long"
I stumbled on this video scrolling around YouTube and immediately fell in love. What a wonderful song and such a lovely performance. Is it soul? R&B? Whichever way you want to swing, there's something universal about brothers singing together in harmony (the three backing singers in the back of the room are Joel Cross' older brothers), and if this video doesn't plaster a goofy smile on your face, that may be your own fault. There's something deeply uplifting about Cross' voice, his presence, his song, heck this whole thing is like a massive dose of the gospel's good news. There's not much on Joel Cross online, other than the fact that he hails from Cleburne, Texas, so I reached out to him with some questions:
Where are you and your family from? Do you usually perform with your older brothers? Did you grow up in music?
Joel Cross: I was born and raised in Texas but my parents are from New Orleans, Louisiana. This is the first time in quite awhile that I've called on my brothers to sing with me. I usually call my 4 sisters to help me out when they can, but I felt like this song definitely needed the male sound. My family is very musical; we all grew up playing and singing in Church. Our Dad was pastor and Music Director. He also wrote several Gospel songs for our local community Gospel Choir.
Would you call your music soul or r&B or do you think it matters?
Joel Cross: I usually refrain from labels because they honestly confuse me..lol. I just want the music to feel good when I play; it doesn't matter what people call it. However my usual answer to that question is "soul music."
NOTE: "So Long" will be on Joel's upcoming album, dropping April 2016!
Joel's had a recent brush with fame when Ellen Degeneres' website discovered a a YouTube clip of his stunning cover of Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off". Happily, he's since recorded a studio version. My whole family and I are completely in love with his cover. So beautiful, subtle, and wonderful. Cross is a major artist to be discovered.
Amythyst Kiah and Her Chest of Glass - "Myth"
I've been a fan of Amythyst Kiah for a couple years now, ever since I first heard her stunning version of the great "Grinnin' in Your Face." Any artist that can take on a Son House classic like that is important, and as one of the few African-American artists working with old-time music, she has a very distinctive voice. BTW I love how she writes about old-time on her website, bringing together Mississippi Sheiks and Son House with Ola Belle Reed and Jimmie Rodgers. I was always taught that country blues and old-time stringband music were two seperate worlds, but the reality is that both were far more intertwined historically than has ever been given credit. Back to Kiah, in addition to laying down great covers of country blues and old-time songs, she's a powerful songwriter in her own right, and is at work on a new project melding electric blues with her Americana roots. She's a badass on social media, a badass in the studio, and a badass in her Tiny Desk Concert submission. I wanted to know more about her and her music, so I reached out directly with some interview questions.
Where are you from originally? Did you grow up in Southern old-time music and blues? You seem to have very deep roots in the traditions, though your new music looks further afield.
Amythyst Kiah: I grew up in Chattanooga, TN, in an area called East Brainerd. I grew up listening to a wide variety of music from my dad's record collection, but I turned 13 and my parents bought me my first guitar, I was most inspired by alternative music. Old time music wouldn't come into my life until 10 years later.
I think coming into the music as an outsider has a lot to do with my approach to the music. I can see all of the elements in old time in all of the other forms of commercial music throughout history, and so to me the sky is the limit when it comes to expressing Southern-ness.
Tell me about new EP? Electric sound? How is it a step forward for your music? Street date?
AK: This new EP is blues rock. It's an extension of what I do as an acoustic performer, and it's been a very fulfilling experience. I've always been a fan of the various forms of rock music, so to get involved with all the technology and sounds that you can get from different equipment has been excited, albeit a bit overwhelming at times. Loading in to a venue is not as simple as it once was! But jokes aside, this form of music has allowed me to explore the wilder side of myself, and it's provided another way to release emotions that I hadn't previously experienced before. We've been playing my songs as a band for a little over two years now and we are so excited to start recording this weekend! Currently there is no street date, but in the next couple of weeks we'll have a much better idea.
You describe yourself as Southern Gothic alt-country blues singer. How do these seemingly different genres tie together in your mind and in your music!
AK: All of those descriptors are actually related! Southern Gothic is a descriptor that I recently adopted, because it emphasizes that I am drawn toward the darker themes country and blues music, which are also pretty closely related.Things like murder ballads, blues songs that lament about tough times, I'm interested in themes that really show the depth of the human animal and strip away social convention. I think that is what all art is meant to do, it's meant to show us the good, the bad, and the ugly within ourselves. The sooner we accept our flaws and differences in ourselves and others, the better off we are. It's not that simple, of course, but it's what I like to stress in my daily life.
The Hannah Yoter Band - "A Million Tears"
I've been hearing about Alaska singer-songwriter Hannah Yoter for a while now, so I was excited to catch her tiny desk contest video. And it didn't disappoint! Yoter blends a singer-songwriter's lyrical sensibility with a bit of honky-tonk dancefloor swagger, mixing it up with a powerful voice that has a rare kind of depth and maturity. The song flits towards predictability, but veers away every time, the sure sign of a clever and curious songwriter. I wanted to know more about her music, her studies in Appalachia, and the video itself, so I reached out to her for more info.
Where was the video shot? Is that Native art on the walls? I like the
juxtaposition of the art with the song. Whose ideas was that?
Hannah Yoter: Yes it is Native art work. We filmed the video in the studio of Alaska native artist Drew Michael. He is an amazing artist who I have admired for a while and it just so happens that Jason, our drummer, is good friends with him. Drew was out of town for the week and let us use his space.
-Tell me more about your songwriting. I like how you’re blending a
larger idea of singer-songwriter in to a folk/bluegrass bed or maybe
country roots? Do you see yourself in these genres, or are you moving
outside genre to write songs?
HY: When I first started writing songs they were very much bluegrass songs. They were structured like bluegrass songs and had the time and feel of bluegrasssongs and I think that was because it was what I was familiar with. As I have expanded my musical tastes and grown as a musician I think it can be reflected in my songwriting. I feel that they are still very closely tied to the bluegrass/folk tradition but I am pushing the boundaries and experimenting a bit. I have a new love for adding a bridge to my songs!
You studied Appalachian old-time music in Appalachia. How did that
mesh with growing up in Alaska and then returning to the state? Are
there similarities between Appalachia and Alaska that you’ve found?
HY: The reason that I chose to head to NC to study Appalachian music was because I grew up with it. My parents found each other in Alaska because of the music and they passed down their love of it to my sister and I. Alaska actually has a great bluegrass and old-time community and many of the songs I learned growing up in AK are very similar to the way that folks I met in NC play them.
Lydia Luce - "Lowland Baby"
Florida (actually, LA now) roots songwriter (and violist) Lydia Luce put out a lovely EP earlier this year that I've been meaning to write about, but this Tiny Desk Contest song is so nice that I think I'll just roll it all into one. See, the thing is that Lydia Luce really knows how to write a love song. Which is no small thing. You need a bit of insecurity, a touch of romanticism, a hint of fear and bitterness, and a shining ray of hope. It's a complex chemistry that most songwriters fail, but Luce has an ear for songwriting that's enviable. She opens this song wondering "I just wanna know if I can kiss you," but as the song unrolls, her sentiments become more shaded with complexity, never losing sight of their grounding in a young woman's perspective. It's quite beautiful.
Love and Grace - "Wild About You"
I was pretty excited to see a Tiny Desk submission from Grace Love. Everyone in Seattle has fallen in love with her roots-oriented soul music, and she's been the star of more local music festivals than I can count. She's something of a Renaissance women too, not only putting out drop-dead badass soul with her full band, but also running soul food pop-ups and creating a one-woman musical. Grace Love is unstoppable, and it's only a small minute before she blows up nationally, like so many other Seattle insiders. Here she cuts a simple and lovely video for Tiny Desk with her musical partner Jimmy James. There's something powerful about the simplicity of this video. I've seen Grace rock a crowd with a full brass band like a true soul diva, but with just her and the guitar, she really tunes into the performance and turns her blues-shouter voice into something subtle, but still with kick!
Neato Bazeato - "Dog Shit Pony"
I'm not sure if this is one of the most perfect songs ever written, or just the best Tiny Desk Contest video. Either way, much as I like these other videos, this is the sure winner in my mind. I think I've seen this video about a hundred times now. Can't get enough.
Cactus Tractor - "Jelly Donut"
Thoroughly charming with a vintage throwback vibe, this video from Albuquerque Bohemian Pop Folk Disco band Cactus Tractor takes the prize for "Most People To Be Found Inside a Desk" and "Most Creative Use of Props That Go With the Song's Lyrics". Fun!
Anna Lynch - "Hotter Than Hades"
We've worked with Anna Lynch before as publicists, and did so because we loved her songwriting. She's got such a strong hand as a songwriter, able to mold the song, the story, the message, all into something beautifully memorable. Here's her submission. Simple video, lovely song.
Deakin Hicks - "How Much You Want to Pay"
Lucas Hicks is a buddy of ours, but this is a quite lovely composition on accordion and clarinet (love the tremulous notes that Thomas Deakin pulls out of his instrument). Also, I believe Lucas should win the prize for "Best Braided Beard at Tiny Desk". IMHO.
Steel City Jug Slammers - "Mobile Shake"
Don't know who these guys are but I like it!! It's not easy to nail an actual jugband sound, let alone to get an actual jug player (the key component that makes it a jug band). These guys got it down pat!