Each year thousands of unsigned musicians share their original songs for the chance to play NPR’s famous Tiny Desk in Washington, D.C.
The winner of the Tiny Desk Contest also gets to tell their story on All Things Considered and headlines a tour with NPR Music. California alone saw 626 individual entries and CapRadio is once again rounding up our favorites (or at least as many as possible).
Our fingers are perpetually crossed that an area artist gets named the winner but whatever the outcome, each year this contest helps introduce us to artists who color Sacramento and it’s always exciting to share our favorites with you. Kick back with some headphones and enjoy this year’s round up of CapRadio’s favorite Tiny Desk contestants.
Jasmine Vu is a Member Engagement Associate for CapRadio, a first soprano, and a reformed member of collegiate a cappella. Pre-pandemic (and way before CapRadio), you could find them broadcasting from KDVS 90.3FM's basement radio station or (more commonly) taking a nap in its front office.
Arson Whales | Cool
As the pandemic raged and live music opportunities shuttered, Linda Brancato, Kevin O’Shaughnessy, Joe Kimberlin, Brad Penner, and Ben Jackson found each other in Arson Whales, an alt-rock ensemble that formed in 2021. “Zephyr and Sycophant” is a sleek, leisurely song with a psychedelic touch that perfectly scratches a cerebral itch I didn’t even know I had.
On repeated listens, I find myself more and more swept up in the rhythmic, hypnotic bassline, undercut with Linda Brancato’s wonderfully raspy voice and the dreamy synth. It’s a drastic change from some of the band’s other work, and fills me with the same nostalgia of watching grainy Rilo Kiley concert recordings on YouTube in my teens. I’m excited to see where Arson Whales go next.
Get caught up with Arson Whales previous singles here.
eggcorn | Napa
This entry from Napa-based artist eggcorn (otherwise known as Lara Hoffman) is absolutely DELIGHTFUL. I hope you experience the same joy I did as the camera first zooms into the adorable cheese puff tiger, accompanied by Hoffman’s pure, effervescent voice.
“Observer Effect” follows Hoffman’s journey recovering from a broken bone. Her neuroticism over the dos and don’ts of recovery have her in arrested development with lines like, “Caught in ouroboros as my body reposes, Hoffman sings, everything is poisonous in high enough doses.”
In writing “Observer Effect,” Hoffman says she gave herself permission to enable her “vices” and focus on the little pleasures. This song is surely one of them, a lesson of allowing yourself kindness wrapped up in a sweet, whimsical melody that brings me back to coffee shop open mics, spring walks through my college town, and many other simple joys of my own.
"Observer Effect" and other music by eggcorn can be found on Bandcamp.
The Little Army | Sacramento
"2021" opens with a quiet, almost sheepish introduction before launching into a frenetic tirade of uncertainty, isolation, and possibilities gone by. It’s a spirited alt-rock anthem befitting a band called The Little Army. Evan Bautista’s lyrics underscore two years rife with loss and unrest. He makes references to hikikomori, the Japanese term for severe social withdrawal, (particularly in teens and young adults), prompting my own reflection on the effects of pandemic isolation on me and so many I know. "2021" feels like a question without an answer, a lament without comfort, and a journey with no destination.
The Little Army is Evan Bautista (guitar/vocals), Austin Neal (guitar), and Tyler Yang (drums/production). More of the group’s music can be heard at Bandcamp.
Maya Unagi | San Jose
The first thing that caught my eye in Maya Unagi’s performance is her impeccable staging. Perfectly diffused sunlight and lush greenery frame Unagi and her bandmates Tariq Morgera (bass), Alann Santiago (guitar), and Tessa Piccillo (drums). Unagi’s striking red suit (and nails!) and Morgera’s bass draw your eye straight to the center as the band slides into the beginning of "Deep Red."
The song is a slow, sumptuous piece about an infatuation so overwhelming that it brings the singer to her knees. There are moments where the entire ensemble feels downright hypnotic. As a singer myself I was impressed by Unagi’s vocal control and how she hits each note with surgical precision. Morgera, Santiago, and Unagi on synth provide a dreamy instrumental backdrop while Piccillo’s dynamic drumming sets the tone. "Deep Red" is a luxurious delight for eyes and ears, and I find myself coming back for more.
Maya Unagi is on Instagram and more of her music can be found on Soundcloud and Spotify.
Terra Lopez leads the band Rituals of Mine and the artist behind the installation This Is What It Feels Like. CapRadio has been a big fan of her work for years and thrilled to have her working with us this Tiny Desk season and keep your eyes peeled for her upcoming podcast with CapRadio later this year.
Jakhari Smith | Sacramento
The sentiment in Jakhari Smith’s chorus of “Far From Here” (“Take me somewhere/Far away from here/Take me somewhere/Take me, Take me”) feels spot on with how these last two years have been. The vibe of this performance though is pure comfort; with friends lounging on a roof, hanging out, creating together.
There’s something deeply nostalgic about this video yet undeniably fresh at the same time. Maybe it brought back memories of 2010 Sacramento, where Midtown house shows were an every weekend event, or maybe it’s just that I want to hang out with these people. Either way, the talent is effortless in this performance and quite simply, cool.
Jahkari wears his influence on his sleeve (literally), rapping about his struggles, insecurities, dealing with law enforcement while wearing a Nas shirt. Soulful guitar (played by Connor Chavez) and beautiful backup harmonies (sung by Coco Leilani and Emilee Durbin) help complete the moment, leaving me wanting to hear more. The earnestness and humility embedded within Jahkari’s lyrics evoke a yearning for something deeper.
Jahkari Smith is an artist that is destined to find it.
Find more Jahkari Smith on Spotify and Instagram.
Aviva Le Fey | Murphys
Pure, raw, simple, yet incredibly powerful; Aviva Le Fey’s “On The News Again” is a heartbreaking rumination on what it’s like to live complicitly amongst the endless cycle of chaos, war, and grief.
Mundane tasks such as paying taxes that inevitably help fuel war (“But I paid my taxes today/I had them wired away/And forged into guns”) while watching the news in the comfort of your bed (“Bloodshed on the news again/I turned away/Ever the fair-weather friend/They said 139 dead, 27 children/As I lay in bed), “On The News Again” embodies the existential crisis’ many of us are going through during these turbulent times by forcing us to question what good is being informed about the wars in Palestine and in Ukraine if we do nothing about them?
“What good is muscle when the will is weak”? Aviva Le Fey asks as flashing red and blue lights flicker on in the distance.
This performance reminds me of what Tiny Desk is all about.
Hear more of Avivia Le Fey on Spotify, Instagram and at her website.
Gillian Grogan | Healdsburg
Gillian Grogan’s voice stopped me in my tracks with her first note. She has such a distinct style and unique approach to songwriting; it immediately drew me in. The song and video are both gorgeous and compliment one another so well. I mean, she is singing in a beautiful meadow!
“Daffodil” is a stunning, intricate folk song that showcases Gillian’s talent and range. I’m very much looking forward to hearing more from her.
More from Gillian Grogan is on Spotify, Instagram and at her website.
Karega Bailey | Oakland
This performance is part hip-hop/meditation and a mindfulness retreat. Karega Bailey has to have the most calming, nurturing, soothing presence and voice I’ve heard in a long time. Pair that presence with the combination of the soft melody of the keys, Solauren Adam’s soaring vocals, a lemon tree, the positive affirmations, and his beautiful little baby … it’s an undeniable performance that will surely leave you feeling some type of way afterwards.
His lyrics touch on vital topics that most hip-hop artists have always strayed from: mental health, grief, trauma, and going to therapy. “No Weapon” is refreshing, important, and deeply powerful. It’s a crucial message about grief, hope, pain, joy, and never losing faith. But most importantly, you’re watching a father living his truth right in front of his daughter.
There’s nothing more life-affirming than that.
Find Karega Bailey at his website, on Instagram and Facebook.
Years before she became the voice and face of Insight, Vicki often found herself down a rabbit hole of Tiny Desk videos on YouTube. This is her first year writing about local entrants for CapRadio.
TIP Vicious | Sacramento
From the moment TIP Vicious enters from stage right and points squarely at the camera with a welcoming hello, I knew I was in for something special. Despite the title, “Slow” is energetic and playful, with a crafted flow that struts on a confident beat. I dare you to try to stay still.
There’s a deep, wonderful ensemble of community too. The Guild Theater surrounds this Tiny Desk, in Sacramento’s historically Black Oak Park neighborhood. From the location, to the band who learned “Slow” with one week notice, and those who stepped in behind the scenes (not to mention the electric display of local artists’ works on stage) TIP Vicious highlights in bold the meaning of being #SacramentoProud.
See and hear more Tip Vicious on Instagram.
JMSEY | Sacramento
JMSEY’s “Lil While” begins with a dreamlike, sugar-coated comfort. But don’t settle in too easy. JMSEY captures a palpable frustration in searching for the right balance of quality cuddles — and space. His vulnerability of navigating this inner turbulence is thoughtful, endearing and in sync with a photographer who can relate.
The video takes me back to spontaneous nights at artist warehouses (and the coffee fueled mornings that followed). Be sure and note the particularly tiny desk before “Lil While” lifts off. With two feet planted back on ground, I’m grateful for the introspective journey. More JMSEY at his website, Spotify and Instagram.
Lilian Frances | Sacramento
Want to go on a road trip? Lilian Frances will not disappoint. The artist who calls the Capital City home takes risks to new heights. I loved basking in Lilian’s other passion — rock climbing. “Gravestone Feel” dangles at Sugarloaf, a cluster of towering granite that humbly reminds us how small we truly are in the world.
Performing on a tiny portaledge (!!!) I’m immediately struck by the audio production to pull this off. Talk about taking advantage of the creative possibilities NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest offers. “Gravestone Feel” also shows Lilian’s journey as an artist. By definition, electronic alt-pop, but balancing at the center is her first instrument — Lilian’s soulful voice that soothes any fear of heights.
Lillian Frances has a website, music on Spotify, and fun on Instagram.
Mr. Brunner is a 15-year veteran of CapRadio, host of the music discovery series Hey, Listen! and an avid cat fancier.
Caregiver | Sacramento
At any point in their work I think you'll find this artist witty, smart and sorrowful (often all at once). It's a delicate mix meted out by guitarist and vocalist Lindsey Bitson who this year adopted the non de plume Caregiver.
"Guilty Conscience" has this twangy, contemplative shuffle that makes me want to slow everything in my life down and find a nice rocking chair. Recording the video at the Red Museum is a natural choice as it's home to so many scrappy, up and coming DIY performances and an especially appropriate setting as warm lazy sunlight melts into the background to provide the perfect natural element to moment. One song isn't enough to do her stage presence justice so I hope you make time to see Caregiver live soon.
Stream more music from Caregiver on Spotify, find them on Instagram and see more videos on YouTube.
Rainbow City Park | Sacramento
I love the energy of a freshly minted band. Rainbow City Park added the final members to its roster in January, started playing frequent gigs around Northern California and have already released three singles this year. "Be" is the group's second among them.
I really admire the balance the six members of the band manage to strike. That many electric guitars looks imposing that close together but the result is silky and inviting. I'm looking forward to seeing where this band goes next both sonically and in person. They play The Russ Room May 27.
Find Rainbow City Park on YouTube, Instagram and their website.
Farrow and the Peach Leaves | Nevada City
I was sold in the first four seconds of this entry (by now I hope you've seen why) but even if I hadn't been, I'm a sucker for lap steel guitar. That's just the start of the song's appeal.
"All Blue" takes me straight to a spring day in the cab of my dad's truck. It's clean air, rural baseball and an utter lack of problems. This video shows off the group's tight instrumentation, sense of humor and juuuuuuuuuust the right mix of jam band (for my taste at least). If bands like Drive-By Truckers, Trampled by Turtles and early-career Wilco are up your alley, don't sleep on Farrow and the Peach Leaves.
Check out more of their work on YouTube. Pick up the group's records at Bandcamp, and I highly recommend you check out the testimonials section of the band's website. Serious brand synergy happening over there.
Coco Leilani | Sacramento
In her vocals alone Coco Leilani lays down shades of what you might hear in something by Prince or Hiatus Kaiyote. The video, like the beat in the song, is minimal ... shot on a phone, just the artist and a sampler. What makes the two minutes and change of "tick tock" so gripping is her confident connection to that machine and her lyrics. The flow of this piece is hypnotic.
Neat to see Leilani and Emily Durbin both contribute to Jahkari Smith's entry this year, too. This contest season has been the most interconnected I've seen Sacramento's music community and that's been both fun and encouraging.
Follow Coco Leilani on Instagram and find her recordings on Spotify and Apple Music.