Tiny Desk, Big Sounds. Our Favorite 2019 Northern California Tiny Desk Contestants
NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest just ended and Northern California came out in a big way. There was so much ground to cover, it was too much for one pale public radio music host to cover alone.
This year three of us contributed our favorite five entries (not an easy feat). Since we couldn’t stop, there’s a playlist below with even more regional entries we hope you check out.
And if that’s not enough, you can look back at our selections from last year’s contest here.
Lillian Frances’ Picks
Lillian is a Musician based in Davis, a fanny pack devotee and CapRadio’s 2018 Tiny Desk Sacramento headliner. We’ve invited her to weigh in on her favorite entries in this year’s local Tiny Desk Contestants. Find Lillian’s entry to the contest here and more of her music here.
Shawn Thwaits Rebel Quartet x Camilla | Sacramento
What a treat. This song falls somewhere between a lullaby and prayer. Camilla’s captivating vocals match beautifully with lush steel drums and keys, leading me on a dreamy moonlit stroll along the beach. The song exudes gratitude, drawing attention to the little joys that ebb in and out of our lives.
With relatable lyrics (for me personally, “f*** I lost my keys” and “I fear that I’ll become cliché” hit home) and an undeniable groove, this song is the perfect little package. The performance itself is as ephemeral as the moon Camilla describes (“the playful moon, she’ll be gone so soon”). The song begins, and I’m swept into a lucid dream, floating on Camilla’s smooth, smokey vocals until apparently four minutes have gone by when I look around, blink a couple times, and play it again.
See Loud | Lafayette
See Loud (Chris Lao) is a vivid storyteller, drawing me into the fraught world of a transgender teen struggling to find acceptance in her identity. Lao draws inspiration from his own experiences as both the teacher of transgender teens and from his own struggles growing up gay in a conservative Catholic family.
The song is full of witty bars and sophisticated rhymes (“The Catholic Church ran in his jeans, as the truest religion, had so much beef with his brothers he’d cook a stew in the kitchen”), that kept me rewinding over and over, making sure I didn’t miss a word. “Can’t be Saved” could remind Lao’s students and the community at whole that a person should be recognized as more than his/her/their gender or sexual identity.”
Tre Burt | Sacramento
Tre Burt’s fingers are dancers, skipping and bounding around the fretboard of his guitar. So at home, I suspect they don’t even notice their skip or their bound. Listening to Tre’s music is soothing, but be on your toes: lyricaly he’s thick as molasses, deep. "She'll tell you that she buys your lies, though she gets them all for free." His quips come come one after the other in quick succession, each blossoming in unexpected, thought-provoking ways. Both purposeful and effortless, casual and masterful, “Everybody’s Mother” feels like a song that just happens with every exhalation from Burt. There’s a veneer of rust on Tre’s voice, a sort of worn timelessness like he’s shaking his pipes clean through his gritty bellow. Beneath the worn exterior there’s a sleek, shining stream of song.
Sumdood | Sacramento
This song is straight up fun. I’m a sucker for all things quirky, and this one had me hooked in the first few seconds (“...wait, is he saying ‘mom museum?’ Oh, he is. WORD!”). It’s got a sweet groove, silly lyrics and catchy melodies all in an easily digestible arrangement. It’s a sweet, tidy package, offering no more and no less than a little pop gem needs.
“Mom Museum” might not be out to tell a particular story, allowing me to conjure my own with images of the angsty child within us all, secretly pining for attention and acceptance (“What is everything? Why is everything? Why is it always about them?”). This contrasts nicely with the song itself, which feels like it couldn’t care less what we thought about it anyway, making it all the more appealing.
Water Bear | Sacramento
“Picture a mountain on the the hair of a leg of a tiny gnat...” That opening lyric pulled me into a fascinating alternate reality. Here, in the seemly mythical world of the Water Bear, standard rhythms, keys, and melodies are thrown out the window. What we encounter instead is an entertaining smorgasbord of a song that defies any genre I’m familiar with. I got a serious kick out of the song’s originality, lyrics, and musicianship. Were these musicians beamed here from another dimension in order to share the wisdom of the Water Bear? Are there scheming Water Bears in the deepest cracks of the ocean, plotting how to incorporate themselves in the Sacramento zeitgeist? Not sure. I’m left with a lot of questions, and satisfied with the lack of answers.
Camille Escovedo’s Picks
Hey, Listen! Intern Extraordinaire
Casey Smith | Elk Grove/Wilton
Casey Smith’s voice echoes around the room in a melancholic spiral, smooth and dark like a ripple across deep water. “Crash” drips with soul, unsettled emotions and burned bridges with lines like “crashed every car, fired from every job.” It’s a bleak song, with glimmers of hope when skimming rock bottom. I like to think the song implies each day is a new opportunity to shake off mental fog and isolation.
LaTour Soul | Sacramento
LaTour Soul’s intro sets an endearing family band vibe. Then the music kicks in: lighthearted bongos, groovy keyboard, warm harmonies. The head must bob, the toes must tap. “Saw You First” whisks me off to a summer’s day, calling to mind the feeling of cruising down a shoreline in a convertible, sunglasses on, and my hair swept under a headscarf. I’m INVESTED. You can hear a giddy smile in Tatiana LaTour’s voice when she sings, “Know the way the sun may shine, see how much it means to me.” In that moment, I can seriously relate. At one point, the musicians stop almost everything for a huff and exhale into the microphone. It’s fabulous.
Hannah Mayree | Sacramento
“Better Person” takes me on what feels like a spiritual quest to live a meaningful life and die a better person. The banjo leads us through a winding and dark journey, while the lyrics tell us why Mayree makes the trek. “Be all I can be, shattering.” she sings. The whistling is beautiful, but also strange and almost alien-like, resembling growth, intuition and satisfaction. I’m left at the foot of a hill, bewitched.
Spacewalker | Sacramento
It’s evident that April Walker is tuning into something most people can’t sense, awakening and combining harmonies and beats out of thin air. She begins by recording her harmonies on the spot and loops the samples, crafting a thrilling and dynamic experience. Walker is energetic and whimsical, toying with rhythm and grooving in place with stuffed animals seated at her tiny desk. “Telepathy” is full of dazzling surprises, vocally and instrumentally. At one point she conjures a shaker and ukulele. It’s hard to expect what will happen next, but with every view, I’m awestruck. By the end, I had mega chills and envy that she knows the way to this world she’s created and I don’t.
Michael Turgeon | Sacramento
How do I begin to describe what just happened in this song? Grand Canyon be damned, Michael Turgeon is the great unconformity of the NPR Tiny Desk contest. With a voice both eerily clear and wobbly, Turgeon’s lyrics capture the tension between the otherworldly and the grounded. “In the winter when nothing grows, I dig a hole and plant my toes. I know I’m still growing.” The clarinet creates a redwood forest in my mind, a lush inner world where wisdom grows. By now, I’m far down the rabbit hole. Like Hannah Mayree, Turgeon’s lyrics seem to speak to the beauty and strangeness of personal growth.
Nick Brunner’s Picks
Host: Hey, Listen!
A tube TV flips to life and a trio of guys appear, wedged tightly in a tastefully lit and decorated attic corner, not sweating it. This video oozes style before the music even starts and when it does, I'm hooked. "Stay Away" is one of the catchiest pieces I've heard this year and no surprise, considering it comes from the guy responsible for "The Distance." Greg was Cake's guitarist from 1991 to 1997 and after a few years off came back to music at the urging of his wife. I for one am super excited to hear more from The That.
While it's still early days, you can find The That online here.
There's such a cabaret energy here and I found myself taking multiple listens to the follow-the-leader solos from Kim Nguyen (piano) and Alex Reiff (bass). The Davis quintet has been making music like something out of a Danny Elfman coloring book for only about one year with Liz Kat front and center. I love how her voice grows into a room-filling presence. This could be due to the meaning behind the song. Kat told me "'Dollhouse' is a rhetorical analogy about being stuck in a box living the 'American Dream,' and being unhappy — everything feeling very superficial, working the 9-to-5 and doing what we do every day."
Igwe Aka | Citrus Heights
Content Advisory: This track contains explicit lyrics
There's an immediate early 90s West Coast hip hop video vibe: People chilling out on a couch, a laid back R&B loop and low key magic trick involving a massive bag of weed at the 10 second mark. That all takes a back seat the moment you hear Anthony Aka's voice. Confident and hypnotic, Aka projects the vocal equivalent of never breaking eye contact. The 21-year-old artist moved from Nigeria to Citrus Heights as a child and has been making music with his cousin Ugo the Producer since his freshman year of high school.
Find more from Igwe Aka here.
House of Mary | Woodland
House of Mary's Aubrie Arnoux is concise when asked why she chose this track for the Tiny Desk Contest:
"It’s fun to dance to and it has a unique sound and feel, also I get to play the drum and shake a banana 🍌 so what not to love?!!"
Like any good chef, House of Mary makes the most out of limited ingredients. The harmonies from Aubrie Arnoux and guitarist Spencer Byrnes are spot on and make "Crown" a satisfying repeat listen. Fans of The Kills, The White Stripes and Prinzhorn Dance School would do well to find themselves in the House of Mary.
"Melancholy" makes six and a half minutes pass like nothing. I've listened to this piece a lot in the last two weeks and every time jazz greats like Grant Green and Melvin Sparks come to mind, as do relative newcomers Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper. The session feels loose and professional at once and it's one of the reasons I love it. It's especially impressive to watch David McKissick juggle both keyboard and trumpet (both notoriously reliant on the hands of the player).
McKissick says that the piece "... accurately describes how we feel when hearing about injustices against people of color which seem so happen more often than not. When I composed this particular song it was after hearing and reading about the untimely death [of] Stephon Clark here in my own neighborhood."
More About Our Contributors:
Camille Escovedo grew up in the small town of Windsor and has been a nosy, chronic pedestrian ever since. She literally just graduated from Sac State with a bachelor's in sociology, but not before joining the school newspaper as a reporter and Capital Public Radio as a spring intern. Camille loves breakfast but can't commit to a sleep schedule that doesn't result in her shoving a sad piece of toast into her pocket every morning and rushing out the door. She got heart, though.
Lillian Frances is a Davis, CA musician and headlined CapRadio's first ever TIny Desk Sacramento concert in 2018.
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