Why Benjamin Lazar Davis Had to Go Home to Rock Out

The 195-mile drive between Bushwick and Saratoga Springs unveils itself in fits and starts. You begin on Broadway — not the Great White Way, but its shabbier, Brooklyn-bound sister — to the Williamsburg Bridge to Delancey, three choked slabs of rigid concrete stretching across the city like veins. By the time you hit the West Side Highway and the turbid sleeve of the Hudson River and head north to the brown cliffs of the Palisades, it feels like you’ve landed on the leeward side of a concrete valley, the George Washington Bridge cast like a lure across state lines. The I-87 slouches northward past New Paltz and Albany before decoupling from the Hudson and scraping the edge of Saratoga Springs’ downtown.

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Benjamin Lazar Davis, 32, took that road home last year to make Nothing Matters, his debut solo album, which was released in May. Davis has been a mainstay in the New York indie scene for nearly a decade, but he’s best-known for his work with the Austin-formed folk-pop outfit Okkervil River. That knack for layered, technically demanding composition followed Davis to his ensemble project Cuddle Magic, a bedroom pop group consisting of Davis, Dave Flaherty, Cole Kamen-Green,Christopher McDonald, Kristin Slipp, and Alec Spiegelman. The band has released several albums, most recently 2017’s Ashes/Axis, an electro-synth heavy record with influences including LCD Soundsystem to Dirty Projectors.

Nothing Matters shares a few chromosomes with Davis’s other projects. It’s still stratified and instrumentally complex bedroom pop, but it’s stripped down in a few places, equal parts Shugo Tokumaru and Sharon Van Etten. “Choosing Sides” could be a single from a lost Shins album, Davis’s voice following a spare acoustic guitar chord as he sings “You got me flowers once for being brave,” before the layers begin to build and more sounds — a steadily exhaling Moog, his own voice in varying pitches — are added to the mix. “Somebody’s Speaking for Me” opens with that same spectral twang before the thump of a drum machine crashes in and low thunder of one of his synths expand the song’s cozy claustrophobia.

The sounds Davis is able to create are a direct product of his recording process. He used money earned from touring with Okkervil River and Cuddle Magic, as well as his collaboration with Joan as Police Woman on the album Let It Be You, to scoop up a trove of obscure instruments — vintage Moogs, hard-to-find Mellotrons, a damn pump organ — only a true gearhead could appreciate. Davis packed a truck full of the stuff headed to Saratoga Springs.

Saratoga was a welcome homecoming for Davis. “My whole family — my two sisters and my brother were up there. And their children,” he tells the Voice over a cup of herbal tea. “I have a special relationship with my dad because he’s a musician, and my mom was amazing. It was so great to kind of connect with them in a deeper way now that I’m an adult living in the house.” Davis recorded nearly all of Nothing Matters in his childhood bedroom and treated the process like a day job, beginning at 10 a.m. and wrapping up by 8 p.m. so his parents could get some sleep. (Davis’s father is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist; he led bands in the Sixties and Seventies as well as touring with the Mamas and the Papas.) The room was mostly unchanged from the way he left it for the New England Conservatory of Music at eighteen; Davis transformed it into a makeshift studio, his misfit collection of instruments lining the floor.

Davis has made a career out of collaboration, and his journey home was a way for him to emerge from that comfortable chamber of partnership and explore his own tastes. “There was an energy in me that I felt while I was doing a lot of collaborating, just that I wanted to put my print on things,” he says. “I don’t want to call it ego, but just that I wanted to show the me that was there in the collaborations.”

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Freedom comes with its own chains, though, and Davis sometimes struggled with the reality that there was no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to tell him that something was gorgeous or that something needed to be scrapped completely. Save for his mixing engineer, no one heard the album until it was completely mastered, not even his parents, who were sleeping under the same roof. “I really care about what everyone thinks, and when you’re collaborating, you have somebody to talk to about the music to,” he says. “When you’re by yourself, there can be no conversation. That’s the difference. Here I was just doing the record without talking to myself about it. I just worked on it, and then the next day I worked on it.” And so on.

One reason Davis was able to dive into Nothing Matters so fully was that he limited his musical options — though “limited” for him is something of a misnomer. He brought only one acoustic guitar instead of his usual four, and lugged only two basses — an electric and a standup — choosing to leave his collapsible one at home. He indulged his keyboard fetish, however, by bringing a Moog, Mellotron, and, yes, that pump organ as well. (NPR Music has a full run-down of the equipment Davis schlepped home.)

Offstage, Davis is no stranger to the paralysis of choice, and bringing every instrument in his arsenal to recording sessions has done more harm than good in the past. One experience in 2016 at a house in Long Island where Davis moved to record some tracks with Cuddle Magic made an especially memorable impression: “I brought all the instruments that everybody had, that all my friends had, and I took the Steinway upright that I used in my record in a moving truck to this place,” he recalls. He recorded near to thirty songs during that time, but they didn’t gel the way he wanted them to and he had to scrap the project altogether. “It was just a big learning experience,” he says. “For me, when I had a class in college, sometimes the entire course boils down to one sentence that you learned.” His lesson from his time on Long Island? “Restrictions are the best thing.”

By making the trek back to Saratoga, Davis was stripping down part of himself. He was still playing with new sounds, but realized he didn’t need every instrument in the world to make the music in his head a reality. For someone with Davis’s expansive tastes, this was a move inward. He was eighteen again, fooling with whatever guitar or cheap synthesizer he had lying around, trying to create a one-man symphony from spare parts. The sounds of Nothing Matters are of someone finding home just where he left it.

Benjamin Lazar Davis plays Trans-Pecos on Tuesday, July 24.


Sons of an Illustrious Father’s Family Affair

Like moths to a flame, there is a mysterious, magnetic energy that seems to attract Josh Aubin, Lilah Larson, and Ezra Miller, the trio that make up Sons of an Illustrious Father. When we sit down to talk in the atrium of the Ludlow Hotel, they snuggle up to one another on the weathered brown chesterfield sofa. Theirs is a natural, unaffected closeness built over the course of a decade, all affection and tenderness. As they discuss the band’s debut album, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, the late spring sun bleeds through the skylights, the delicate clink of porcelain cups hitting porcelain saucers.

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Miller, 25, and Larson, 27, met in middle school in New Jersey, where, as Miller put it, they “were lonely, isolated individuals who sought shelter amongst each other.” The pair bonded over a love of Bikini Kill and Patti Smith and Nirvana, and eventually started playing music together. Today, fans may recognize Miller as the Flash from 2017’s Justice League, or Credence Barebone from 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He is — or will be very soon — a bona fide movie star, and you can already hear the Hollywood image management machine whir into life. But back in 2010, when Aubin joined the band on bass, Miller was just a confused teenager trying to figure out his place in the world.

Those early years were rocky, with many rehearsal sessions devolving into alcohol-fueled arguments. Miller has admitted to having struggled with mental health issues during the formative years of the band, something he now knows he wasn’t addressing with the appropriate weight or urgency. His newfound ability to see his psychic struggles as part and parcel of who he is — rather than compartmentalizing them or allowing them to deny his emotional agency — has heartened his bandmates. This is where he belongs.

As calm as the trio seem, their tenderness belies a focused intensity and a clear-eyed recognition of the winding roads they all took to get here. All three are outspoken activists, and discuss gentrification, U.S. foreign policy, and the treatment of marginalized communities in America with equal energy and intelligence. The band first made waves with “U.S. Gay,” a triumphant anthem written in the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando in June 2016, where a gunman opened fire in the queer-friendly club and killed 49 people. It’s a song that forges purpose from its lyrics as well as its rhythm. When Miller croons, “I want us murdered, martyred, mutilated/Matthew Sheparded to the calm/To sprout wings as we fall/Don’t want my friends dead at all,” I’m not sure whether to weep or dance.

“I think for all of us it’s really important to be creating a space and sending a message that everyone is beautiful and amazing as they are, and there’s room for all of our strangeness here,” says Larson. “We want to create the music and the world that we wanted and needed as kids.”

Nonconformity extends to the band’s sound as well. They’ve called themselves “genre queer,” an impish and accurate description of a group that can combine new wave synthesizers with muddy grunge chords and come out with something that defies characterization. The effect is similar to the 1975 at their most experimental, or David Lynch’s work in Twin Peaks, where styles, tropes, and classifications were thrown into a blender with spellbinding results. There are times on Deus Sex Machina (“Crystal Tomes,” “Unarmed”) when Miller’s voice shifts from plaintive to fierce and back again. Album closer “Samscars” is stunningly unorthodox, both emotionally charged ballad and soaring stadium rock anthem, bridged by a layered instrumental section that wouldn’t be out of place on an Explosions in the Sky record.

“Extraordinary Rendition,” another track from Deus Sex Machina, is a spiritual follow-up to “U.S. Gay,” which opens the album. The song’s title refers to a particularly sinister abduction tactic used by the CIA, where the spy agency captures foreign nationals and transfers them to the custody of cooperative foreign governments, where they are held at “black site” prisons. The song slithers and booms, diving into a crash of heavy kick drums and cymbals before cutting to the moody strum of a single guitar and Miller’s haunted voice. The song “was an observation of the ceaseless crisis of our country and our world throughout our entire lives,” Miller says. It’s a portrait of an America rotten at its core, narrated by three artists who have made activism a core part of their collective identity.

For his part, Miller doesn’t believe that being queer compels him to activism, but he does think it grants a certain nuanced perspective on strife. “I think being alive obligates you to activism,” he says. “And I think being queer has the potential to free one from the uncertainty of identity that can hold one back from engaging in activism in the world.” Activating that activism in people who don’t find themselves under the thumb of the culture at large is a whole other question, of course, a topic that Larson broaches soon after. “Very rarely, I feel like, does a straight, cis, white man come to realizations about oppression without other people informing him,” she says.

“I think that’s one of the basic aspects of privilege, right?” Miller adds. “It’s that it’s the privilege to have the option to engage with the pain and horror of hegemony in the world because you benefit from its structure, whereas people who are victimized by those same structures don’t have that choice. They engage as a result of their existence. They’re already engaged.”

Sons of an Illustrious Father

The band developed this inclination to tilt at privilege playing at DIY spaces like 285 Kent and Silent Barn, two now-defunct venues they have a special affection for. “The culture that created open alternative space in New York was a very persistent, extremely active combative culture of claiming and appropriating space,” says Miller. “They practically fought wars in the Lower East Side and throughout New York to hold and protect and to claim that space that we knew growing up.”

“We’re trying to find ways, spaces that are accessible to people, particularly youth, can be adopted and adapted for safety and expression and sites for the growth of community,” adds Larson. “What are we doing if we’re not serving that population that is literally the future?”

Miller cites the story of ABC No Rio, the legendary Lower East Side cultural space that withstood the twin forces of gentrification and City Hall for 36 years before the wrecking ball finally came. “Look at how hard people really had to fight to keep that space open to folks,” Miller says. “We definitely have a long way to go, I think, in this generation to have that sort of commitment and devotion and readiness to really fight.”

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The band’s members do see hope in reaching a new generation, though, and they’re dedicated to developing a space for kids who may feel out of place or isolated to discover that there’s joy in living life outside the boundaries. They’re currently on a whirlwind tour, including a show in Brooklyn at Elsewhere on June 12 and a gig in Cleveland that is under-21 only, with those older needing to be accompanied by a minor to gain entry. “We’re trying to find ways and to find spaces that are accessible to people, particularly youth, can be adopted and adapted for safety and expression,” says Larson, who credits music with capsizing her perspective on gender. “As I got older and more aware of society — and therefore more aware of my failure to conform to gender norms — I wanted to feel like I could make sense of and justify myself within the world,” she continues. “Playing music became a way of achieving that justification, as it clearly was for people like Little Richard and David Bowie and Patti Smith.”

It’s that fearlessness, that devotion to coloring outside the lines, that has driven Sons of an Illustrious Father in their music and their advocacy. They are here to make the world better for everyone, and they want you to join them in the fight.

Sons of an Illustrious Father play Elsewhere in New York on June 12.


Teenage Riot: On Debut Album “Lush,” Snail Mail Deliver

Teenagers like Lindsey Jordan aren’t supposed to be this good at anything. Imagine yourself at that age: Do you have a stack of melodramatic scribbles lying in a box somewhere? Did you keep track of every heartbreak, swearing off love for good? Were there moments of existential dread committed to paper, and are they maudlin, half-formed things? Are you cringing at their very memories?

At 19, Jordan is this good. Her preternatural feel for composition surfaced on her first EP, Habit, written when she was just fifteen. She wrote most of those songs without thinking they’d be played in front of much of an audience. They were introspective, closed-off garage rock tracks that explored teenage loneliness without a whiff of soppy sentimentality. Consider this lyric from “Slug,” one of the standout tracks from the EP: “I could’ve waited my whole life to/Know the difference/But I should’ve just known better than that.” Jordan was writing this stuff before she could drive.

That precociousness may be why Jordan is tired of talking about how old she is. “I don’t really think about age when I’m writing,” she says. “I guess it’s just like a sense of confidence and self-esteem. I think it’s just about writing songs for yourself and just writing songs because you like writing songs.”

Jordan grew up in Ellicott City, a suburb of Baltimore most famous for being extremely haunted. She first picked up a guitar at an early age, starting classical lessons at age five and adhering to a rigorous, self-imposed practice schedule. She was writing her own songs and playing coffeeshops by the time she was eleven, but it wasn’t until she began listening to the complex rock of Future Islands and Television in middle school that she shifted her tastes and fell in love with Baltimore’s tightly knit DIY and punk scene.

That’s where Jordan found her people, forming Snail Mail in 2015, and playing at the Baltimore punk U+NFest alongside seasoned shredders Sheer Mag, Screaming Females, and Priests, the last of which ended up releasing Habit on their Sister Polygon label in 2016. Jordan signed to Matador a year later on the strength of her EP and a few demos. She was still in high school, splitting time between recording sessions and ice hockey practice.

Lush, Snail Mail’s debut LP, is stunning, one of the best indie rock debuts in recent memory by anyone of any age. With musical nods to bands like Sonic Youth and Jordan’s hero, Liz Phair, the album explores themes of loss, yearning, and detachment, its lyrics a reflection of the professional whirlwind she’s been enduring over the last couple years as labels and press have vied for her attention. “The songs are odes to my own life’s changing,” she says, “and just sort of growing as a person.”

The guitar work on Lush is especially striking, from the mellow warbles on “Speaking Terms” to the tight riffs on “Full Control” to the dreamy fingerpicking on “Let’s Find an Out,” a song written while Jordan was dealing with the stress of a packed touring schedule. There’s never any fear or self-doubt in her voice, even as she plumbs the depths of suburban melancholy on “Stick” or acute longing in “Heat Wave.”

Lush also marks the first time that Jordan, who has said she is “predominately interested” in women, has written about explicitly female love interests. She knows that her coming-out process was probably easier than most, given a supportive family and her tightly knit Baltimore music circles. “I guess the world — at least the one I come from — tend to be more accepting of one another and sort of foster and encourage people to come out,” she says.

Jordan doesn’t waste any time showing you what she’s capable of. Album standout “Pristine” announces itself after a lullaby intro a little more than a minute after you hit play. The opening riff has all of the eerie air of Thurston Moore’s spectral notes that open Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot,” but as Jordan begins singing “Pristine/Untraced by the world outside you,” the song takes on a life of its own. She navigates hurt and despondence and gloom without ever dipping a toe into melodrama, something that seems damn near impossible when you consider the lyrics “And I know myself, and I’ll never love anyone else/I won’t love anyone else.” In the hands of a lesser artist, those words would become weepy and mawkish, but Jordan loads them with emotional ballast. You believe her. It’s a hell of a thing.

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Jordan arrives at an auspicious moment for a smart, spiky indie-rock grrrl, with artists like Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Lucy Dacus, and Soccer Mommy leaving their male contemporaries in the dust when it comes to composition and performance. Jordan has taken her place among that fierce sorority with Lush. Of course, she bristles when I ask if she feels stifled by the label of “female rocker.”

“I just think that perpetuates the problem,” she says. “I’m just totally sick about talking about being a woman.” And it’s not that she wants to slough off the mantle of feminism, or isn’t aware of the trials that her female forebears had to deal with to get a record deal, it’s that Jordan knows that women artists doing well shouldn’t be the focus of fascination or overwrought trend pieces. It should be the confirmation of what anyone who’s been paying attention already knows.

“Girl bands” are not a genre or a subset, and Jordan understands that continuing to position female-led acts like Snail Mail as something of an ancillary narrative to what’s happening in music today is doing listeners and fans a disservice. Snail Mail is not a girl band; it is just a great band, and it’s just getting started.


Snail Mail play Music Hall of Williamsburg on June 6.


On New Album, Courtney Barnett Takes a Load Off

If you’ll bear with a shaky hypothesis for a second, there are really only two types of art. On one side is the art that’s inward-looking, the kind that reads at worst as a maudlin confessional about that time you had a bad date and, at best, as a diary of how the world has interacted with you and all the damage and good it’s done. The other is reflective, more about how you see the world than how the world sees you. Good artists are typically masters of one or the other, either better at holding up or looking in the mirror.

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Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett’s follow-up to 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, shows an artist adept at both. Where Sometimes told George Saunders–like stories about suicidal young men and the doldrums of gentrification, Tell Me has Barnett looking you right in the eye and confessing her anxieties and angers. “I feel like it’s kind of a cliché, but a lot of stuff was going on from ages 27 to thirty for me,” says Barnett, who turned thirty in November 2017. “It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and maybe it was through writing this album.”

Barnett is introspective with a desert-dry sense of humor, but calling her shy unfairly discounts her native Australian warmth. She grew up in Sydney before moving to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, where the attended art school. Next came several years on the garage rock circuit in Melbourne, but it wasn’t until Barnett released the track “Avant Gardener” in 2013 that she started making waves across the Pacific. Sometimes, Barnett’s critically acclaimed 2015 album, was her formal introduction as a bonafide indie rock doyenne.

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Save for the casually excellent collaborative album Lotta Sea Lice she recorded with former War on Drugs frontman Kurt Vile, Barnett has been quiet, releasing only a few singles (“How to Boil an Egg,” the infectiously catchy “Three Packs a Day”) and touring with her wife, Jen Cloher, herself a fixture in Australia’s DIY scene. Follow-up albums — especially when you’re coming off something as beloved as Sometimes — can be overwrought affairs, with artists looking to bottle whatever intangibles made for a great album in the first place.

Overthinking is not one of Tell Me’s flaws. There are moments on the album when it seems like Barnett is writing more for catharsis than composition, something she admits freely when asked about her headspace in constructing such a direct record. “I sat down and kind of wrote without a strong idea or narrative in mind. I just kind of flailed around, really,” Barnett says. “I kind of have to get that out of the way to get to the good stuff.”

But Tell Me is the rare record that gets the blend of personal and accessible just right. The stories and advice that stud the entire album feel like they’re coming directly from Barnett. When she sings “Friends treat you like a stranger and/Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well” on “City Looks Pretty,” you can feel the weight of fame alongside her. It’s heavy. It drags. This isn’t a third-person diagnosis of some stand-in character, this is Courtney Barnett laid bare and telling you this is what her world looks like.

She continues to mine catholic issues like misogyny, impostor syndrome, and loneliness throughout the rest of the record, sometimes with startling directness. “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence” is about, well, crippling self-doubt and a general lack of self-confidence, something that Barnett dealt with after the success of Sometimes. “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” begins with Barnett deadpanning those exact words over a thicket of feedback before it crashes into a swampy grunge rock.

As much as those tracks provide personal expository details on Barnett’s post-fame journey, it’s on “Nameless, Faceless” that she makes a universal statement of contemporary issues. The song’s backstory is well-known by now: After Sometimes dropped in 2015, a petulant commenter said of Barnett’s songwriting that he “could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you.” She responded by writing a withering comeback set to a buoyant guitar riff, a cheery song that belies its weariness of a world dominated by petulant twerps squawking anonymously. “You sit alone at home in the darkness/With all the pent-up rage that you harness/I’m real sorry/’Bout whatever happened to you.”

Barnett decided to set her view of the world to music, and much of Tell Me sounds as if she meant this to be a personal cleansing ritual. But she doesn’t want its personal narrative to refract its impact on others. “If the album is completely for yourself you would keep it to yourself, you know?” she says. “I want it to have benefits for someone else to listen, or to share in the stories, or the misery, or the happiness.” 

Courtney Barnett plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday, May 19


The Return of the Hum, Brooklyn’s Buzzworthy, Women-Only Concert Series

Rachael Pazdan has booked hundreds of shows, more than enough to know there was a problem. Pazdan, 28, was until recently the music director of (Le) Poisson Rouge, the decade-old Bleecker Street venue. She also booked shows around the city under the LPR Presents promotional umbrella. If you’ve been to a show at Baby’s All Right, Murmrr, or Union Pool in the past few years, chances are you’ve seen Pazdan’s handiwork.

But back to that problem. Pazdan was one of only a handful of female bookers working at any of New York’s major concert venues, and soon after starting her role at LPR in 2016 she realized that that gender disparity extended to the acts that were playing those venues as well. “I was just seeing a lot of live music and noticed that I never saw women onstage consistently,” says Pazdan, who estimates that, between work and pleasure, she’s at a show at least every other night in New York. “It’d be one bass player or a singer, but there’d be so many nights where it’d be literally an entire triple bill of only men onstage.”

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It was in that spirit of frustration that Pazdan decided to start the Hum, a female-only concert series now in its fourth year. Originally, Pazdan allowed male musicians to play as long as they weren’t front and center, but she eventually realized that she wanted a unique space for female musicians to collaborate with one another and banned men from playing altogether. “I’m a freak for collaboration. I love putting artists together in weird situations and challenging situations and having them collaborate,” she said. By removing male influence from the creative process completely, Pazdan has taken what her forebears at Lilith Fair developed and what her contemporaries at all-female workspaces like the Wing have progressed. She has no intention of making the Hum’s audience a dude-free zone, but she does understand that for many female artists, being able to create in a room free of male influence can be freeing. “I’ve heard many times over that it’s a completely different experience working with only women,” Pazdan said. “The artists feel like they can be more open. They don’t feel like they’re going to get shut down if they say something during the rehearsal or collaborative process. They feel empowered to speak their mind.”

Pazdan grew up in Naperville, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Her father, a musician, had eclectic tastes, filling the house with music from Tom Waits, A Tribe Called Quest, Muddy Waters, and King Tubby. Pazdan was also an accomplished dancer growing up, and credits her instructor with introducing her to artists like Jill Scott, Fiona Apple, and Ani DiFranco. After a stint at Columbia Artists Management, Pazdan landed an artist services job with BRIC, one of Brooklyn’s cultural lodestars. That daily interaction with artists coming through BRIC’s doors gave Pazdan a view into what made local artists tick, and what the scene was missing.

The Hum’s first go-round was at the now-closed Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint, a venue that was dear to Pazdan but difficult to set up the way she wanted. “The first idea was to have musicians collaborating with a visual artist doing projections,” Pazdan said. ”It was hard in Manhattan Inn because it was a square room and the performance was in the round. Where are you going to put the projector? It just didn’t work.” She abandoned the visual aspect of the series altogether, and refocused her efforts on the music. The Hum has welcomed acts like Frankie Cosmos and Kimbra to the stage, as well as members of the Big Thief, Cat Power, and Tune-Yards. “There is a debilitating trendiness surrounding a certain brand of feminism that prizes visibility as its main goal. I’m generally disinterested in that,” said Taja Cheek, a/k/a L’Rain, who is set to perform on the Hum’s second night on May 9. “The Hum has catalyzed new work and collaborative relationships that might not have existed otherwise. I went into the process thinking I would only play these songs once in my lifetime for the performance, but I’m still workshopping them today for my next record.”

This year, the Hum will call Bushwick’s House of Yes home every Wednesday in May. Pazdan knew she could have brought the shows to Manhattan and potentially reached a bigger audience, but she also “wanted to keep building it in Brooklyn.” 

The location also has a nostalgic tint for Pazdan. “My first show I ever produced in New York City was in 2012. It was called the Vis-a-Vis Project,” she said. “It was this way overly ambitious thing. The vision was for it to be a DIY arts festival — a three-day thing. It started in this venue that’s no longer there called Vaudeville Park. Second night was at another venue that is no longer there. And the third night was at the original House of Yes across from [now defunct] Shea Stadium.”

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The Hum’s fifth installment comes at an especially volatile time, and Pazdan knows that the series is taking on additional layers in the shadow of movements like #MeToo. Along with L’Rain, this year’s lineup includes NYU darlings OSHUN, singer-songwriter Glasser, and the meme-toting, psychedelic rapper Bunny Michael. Jessica Lea Mayfield will open the whole series up on May 2.

For her part, Pazdan wants the Hum to keep growing, but there are no plans to expand it beyond its current scope. She’s focused on impact over imprint. “I just wanted to do the Hum one time as a one-off residency. I had no idea that it was going to become something much more than that,” says Pazdan. “I just felt the need to keep doing it, because people kept asking me about it. I feel like it was the right time for it to happen, especially now.”

‘The Hum’
House of Yes
2 Wyckoff Avenue, Brooklyn
Every Wednesday in May

May 2: Jessica Lea Mayfield; Ana Asnes Becker and Caroline Yoder (Fruit & Flowers) with Rachel Angel and Rachel Housle; Anni Rossi and Nicole Schneit of Airwaves

May 9: Glasser and L’Rain; Lou Tides and Miho Hatori; Arone Dyer’s Dronechoir; Ziemba, Marilu Donovan, Elizabeth LoPiccolo, and Mara Mayer

May 16: Bunny Michael with L.K. Napolitano and Zoie Omega; Sateen; Xhosa

May 23: OSHUNLATASHA and Lawlyse; SassyBlack

May 30: THAO and MIRAH with Maia Macdonald, Mickey Vershbow, and more; Katie Von Schelicher and Julie Byrne; Alix Brown, Breanna Barbara, Dida Pelled, Lyla Vander (Roya), and Reni Lane (Fever High)


Rosehardt Takes Hip-Hop to Church on Soulful Debut

Growing up, Caleb Eberhardt spent a lot of time at church. It’s not just that his parents were religious. His father, Arthur J. Eberhardt Sr., was a founder of the St. Paul Tabernacle Baptist Church in San Francisco in 1992, one of a constellation of Baptist ministries that dot the southeast side of the city in neighborhoods like Silver Terrace and Bayview. His mother, Dr. Albirda Rose-Eberhardt — Dr. Rose — became an ordained minister in 1999, and preached at St. Paul Tabernacle alongside her husband.

Over slow-dripping keyboards and insistent snaps, Eberhardt outlines his childhood routine on “Goddamn,” the second single from his debut album as Rosehardt, Songs in the Key of Solitude: “Church every weekend / Plus Bible study, choir practice, children’s church, and deacon’s meetings,” he raps. His low and growling frustration contrasts with the searching r&b falsetto he uses as the song starts, when he sings, “Mama asked me if I go to church / I said, ‘Naw, Mama.’ / She said, ‘Baby, what would it hurt?’ / It’s too hard, Mama.” In the bridge he poses a question — perhaps it’s mother talking to him, perhaps he’s talking to himself: “Where’s your faith?”

Growing up the way Eberhardt did, you’re often funneled into two outcomes as your faith matures. For many, the presence of the divine remains a guiding light through trying times, a constant source of gratitude and inspiration. Others reject the institution completely, becoming fundamentalist atheists who wield the zeal of the convert like a logic-forged cudgel. Eberhardt is something of a rarity. He hasn’t felt comfortable sorting himself into either camp, all he knows is that his relationship with God and the church has changed since he lost his father in 2010.

“All the people who grew up like I did or close to the way I did — I don’t wanna say nothing has swayed them, but they’re steadfast,” Eberhardt, 28, told me from his living room studio in Greenpoint. “I just wonder if they’ve ever had a moment like the one I’m having right now, which is just curiosity mixed with a little bit of panic and mixed with a little bit of paranoia.” Eberhardt smiles and looks toward his bedroom door. “It’s just funny that my mom is here,” he says.

Dr. Rose was sleeping in her son’s bedroom, on a visit from the West Coast. (Rosehardt is a portmanteau of his father’s last name and his mother’s from a previous marriage.) Even though Eberhardt was inundated with doctrine for most of his young life, he says that his family never made faith feel like an obligation. “I was never pressured in any kind of hostile way.” That freedom fostered a healthy skepticism in Eberhardt. “I’m confused about my faith, right now. I’m in a place now where I’m just allowing myself to be receptive to anything that might feel like it makes sense to me,” Eberhardt says. “It’s scary, but it makes me feel like I’m in a bit more control.” That confusion — about his place in the world or, really, in the cosmos — has yielded some of his strongest work to date.

Caleb Rosenhardt

Known as CE, Eberhardt began performing in New York as one half of rap duo Quincy Vidal, along with his close friend and collaborator Le’Asha Julius. He and Julius met as undergraduates at SUNY Purchase, where they were studying theater. Eberhardt can be guarded when you first meet him, but his natural state is that infectious calm native to northern California. His charisma coils and springs at different moments, like when he goes from a pretzel of limbs quietly curled on an easy chair to deploying an overpowering charm, a flexibility that no doubt served him well as an actor. (Eberhardt has had bit parts in shows like The Deuce and Law and Order: SVU.)

That theater background informs how he approaches live performances.  At a recent show at Union Pool, he made the stage into a simulacrum of his bedroom, creating an extra layer of intimacy. Midway through an hour-long set that dripped in emotion, he stepped down into the audience with an acoustic guitar to perform the heartbreaking “Come Away Death.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but it just felt right for that show,” he says. “It called back to when I really started making music. I started on the acoustic guitar and would play coffee houses, at my high school, all that shit. It was just sort of a nostalgic trip for me.”

In many ways, nostalgia is a defining theme of Songs in the Key of Solitude. He began writing the album in the immediate wake of a dissolved relationship, composing the lead single “Fall Into You” only a few days after he and his longtime girlfriend ended things. The album title is an homage to Stevie Wonder’s opus, of course, but Eberhardt originally called his project Songs in the Key of Death. He scrapped that title after 24 hours, but he knew he wanted to explore loss, pain, and their ancillary and inverse values. “It helped me realize the difference between loneliness and solitude, both in terms of the music and in terms of the journey I was on,” he says. “Solitude is something you want, something you seek out for yourself. Nobody wants to be lonely, but that doesn’t mean you can’t like being by yourself.”

Solitude is album as catharsis, but it doesn’t ever feel overwrought or inaccessible. “Fall Into You” has all the isolation and detachment of Frank Ocean’s “Novacane,” and the exploration of physical and emotional numbness will be familiar to anyone who’s been dumped before. Ocean is an obvious influence on Eberhardt, from the combined crooning and rapping to the raw lyrical emotion. But where Ocean deploys a devastating falsetto, Eberhardt uses a gentler weapon without sacrificing anything in the way of poignancy.

He can also spit bars. On “Bartender,” a throwback boom-bap track, he takes his cues from Odd Future standouts Tyler, the Creator, and Earl Sweatshirt, using his voice to add some oomph to the uppercutting bass.

It’s on “Goddamn” where you can hear Caleb wrestling with his faith in real time, but the song is also a dirge for Eberhardt Sr.,  who died when Caleb was 20, after struggling with Alzheimer’s for the better part of a decade. “Pop is sick and I’m thirteen / Condition of his health, and my opinion of church, is worsening,” he raps. “Soul is growing hard, I’ll be damned if you catch me hurting / Pray and pray and pray with no indication it’s working.”

When we talked, Caleb outlined the familiar contours of a disease inevitably likened to watching a loved one disappear in slow motion. First his father stopped driving, then came the small stumbles and disorientations that signaled the coming decline. By the time the elder Eberhardt  was put in hospice, Caleb was resigned to his father’s fate and started to question a god that would poison a man that dedicated his whole life to a higher calling. “All this together — the irony of my parents being so big in their faith and me as a young kid watching this — I’ve looked back and realized how it shaped who I am now,” he says.  

Growth was the theme of Eberhardt Sr.’s first sermon as leader of his congregation in San Francisco. He read from Philippians, expounding on the need to forget what’s behind you and forge ahead: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” Three decades later, Caleb echoes that message through his music, his pain of the moment put down on wax and his eyes trained on that light pulsing faintly in the distance.


Lovehoney Are Ready to Be Your New Favorite Rock Band

It’s rare that you come across a rock band that takes rocking as seriously as Lovehoney. It’s not that they carry that existential weight of being “serious musicians,” but they understand that the breed of mud-caked, rhythm-and-blues-driven music that Chuck Berry started and Led Zeppelin continued and Black Sabbath turned to 11 is less central to New York’s music scene than it used to be. Sure, the Black Keys were the biggest band in the world for a while, until they traded in blues for bouncy, polished pop, and Jack White is headlining half the major festivals on the circuit this summer in support of a new album set to drop later this month. But dense, blues-driven sounds are a rarity in today’s music landscape.

The reality is that rock stars feel increasingly like relics, with their rightful heirs in all things excess and relevance firmly planted in hip-hop: Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Future, the Migos. That’s where the star power is, and rock has been woefully left behind.

Lovehoney wants to change all that. “What rock and roll needs is people who want to be rock stars,” says guitarist Tommy White, 34. “We go to bed thinking about playing the Garden and the people that we idolize felt the same way. We don’t want to play for a bar tab, we want to make this our careers.”

“We’re playing so we can quit our jobs,” bassist Matt Saleh, 31, agrees.

White and his bandmates don’t think that spirit has been around in New York since the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and the rest were hellbent on rock stardom from their home bases on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg. “I think that after the Strokes and all that, the scene plateaued here,” drummer Tom Gehlhaus, 33, said.

“It was the same scene that inspired me and Matt, and it fizzled out,” White continues. “A lot of pop garbage came out after it, but now, you know, people are saying, ‘Oh, we want to hear people with guitars and songs.’ So for us, we want rock ’n’ roll” — at least the kind they like to play — “to be known again.”

LoveHoney recording their EP “Feelin’ No Way in Site B at Backroom Studios on September 22, 2017 in Rockaway, New Jersey.

Lovehoney may be getting close. The band has released a series of EPs over the past 18 months of what White calls “heavy R&B.” Their most recent, a tight, three-track project named Feelin’ No Way, released last October, drips with heavy distortion, the fuzzy feedback like the White Stripes at their grimiest. Alysia Quinones bursts into the recording, a controlled vocal detonation in which you can hear her background in metal, soul, and hard rock bleeding together. The EP sinks somewhat in the middle with the claustrophobic, muddy “Come Over,” but thunders back on its closing track.

The band formed in New York, after each member had gone through fits and starts in other bands. White served as the initial fulcrum; Quinones, Saleh, and Gehlhaus all knew him separately through the city’s rock scene, and bonded over a shared love of all things R&B and blues. Gehlhaus and Quinones are both native New Yorkers — Queens and Brooklyn, respectively — while White and Saleh are from southern Connecticut. They’ve run the gauntlet of club-size venues dotting Brooklyn and Manhattan, but they’re still waiting for a breakthrough that will let them graduate to the kinds of spaces that will let their music roar.

Devil Woman, an EP they released early last year, showcases the kind of sound that can fill the city’s larger stages. The title track finds Quinones at her most playful, letting her force skip over White and Saleh’s turbid string work. But it’s on the other two tracks — the band has an affinity for short, concept-driven projects — that you can hear the disparate background of all four musicians fusing together beautifully. “Beauty in the Struggle” is equal parts Alabama Shakes and No Doubt, by far the gentlest track in Lovehoney’s library. “I’m Gone” plays like an updated blues standard, White’s slick guitar work giving Quinones’s considerable vocal talents room to exhale completely.

Quinones, 28, knows that she has a responsibility to expand musical opportunities for women who look like her. (Quinones is Puerto Rican, Surinamese, and Guyanese.) “It’s really important for me to show my face for other girls out there that are just like me,” she said. “Spanish girls from New York that don’t think they fit into that demographic of, like, ‘rocker girls.’ There’s a lot of girls speaking for girls, but there’s not a lot of girls in rock music talking for urban girls.” There aren’t many role models for that cause other than Quinones, and she wears the purpose with pride. “Brown girls are in. We have so much soul, we’ve been through so much. Let’s take it back to all these girls that had, like, these rough voices.”

Gehlhaus chimes in. “It’s not like [Quinones] is from Michigan who just moved here two months ago. She’s born and bred New York and she’s real,” he said. “We’re all real here. This is not like let’s move here and be a band. We’re not trying to be something we’re not.”

A focus on authenticity can only take a band so far, but Lovehoney thinks their brand of rock can be a soundtrack to escape in the current climate. “We’re just trying to be that music for those people that are like, ‘I’m mad. I want some really good, dirty rock ’n’ roll. I want to just not think about anything,’ ” White said. “We try to have a feeling behind everything we do, because, if we wanted to, we could make whatever music to be popular. But then for us, we wouldn’t inspire anybody. We’d just be another fad.”


How Jazz Outlaw Melanie Charles Found Voodoo in Brooklyn

Stumbling up the dim staircase at Smalls and into the late-January midwinter chill, it was difficult to tell what year it was. Melanie Charles had just finished her set downstairs, a jazz-heavy collection of originals and covers closing with Nancy Wilson’s “Save Your Love for Me.” Charles let ghosts into the room, channeling Billie, Ella, and Nina with equal verve. If it weren’t for the two guys chatting loudly about cryptocurrency and venture capital at the bar, you could have easily felt yourself drifting backwards a decade at a time.

Charles, 29, is a Bushwick native who grew up playing church music, learning piano from her congregation’s organist, Michelle McCoy at Holy Trinity Baptist Church. She joined the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, trained as an opera singer all through high school, and was prepared to devote her life to the medium, but, during a mandatory vocal consultation with a Juilliard instructor prior to her final audition, she came face to face with the entrenched racism of the classical music world.

“I told the teacher that I like jazz and that I liked opera and church music — that I liked a lot of different things,” Charles said. “And the teacher said, ‘You know, you’re a black girl. You should probably sing jazz.’” Charles took the hostile advice and ended up in the New School’s jazz program, where she flourished. “It worked out even though this teacher was really discouraging and negative, but I’m happy that I took her advice and ended up falling in love with jazz.” Charles eventually joined the tightly knit — and fiercely orthodox — New York jazz fraternity as a college student. (She joked that the “jazz police” would have raided the place if she didn’t play a more traditional set at Smalls.)

The lines between jazz and other forms of music have always been particularly bright. Even for artists as rarefied as Herbie Hancock—an artist whose jazz bona fides are as strong as they come—there’s a certain otherness to their work outside of the genre. (Hancock’s Head Hunters is a classic, but it is a pop or fusion classic, not a jazz one.) That barrier is starting to show some holes, though, and Charles is part of a growing community of artists who see jazz as a starting point rather than a purpose unto itself.

By the time Charles graduated from the New School in 2010, she was looking for something different. “I felt like, you know, I wanted more sound,” she says. “I started getting involved in the beat scene and I noticed that a lot of beat makers in the scene were using SPs” — a type of sampling device made by Roland — “which is what Madlib uses. I was like, ooh, there’s something about this sampler that’s rooted in tempo culture, but if you use it a certain way you can sort of arrange and create on the spot live.”

You can hear the influence of that scene bleeding into the music she’s making now. “Be on My Side,” the slow-burning closer to Charles’ 2017 release The Girl with the Green Shoes, shares a bloodline with Madlib’s Shades of Blue or J Dilla’s jazzier production credits: A sultry, static-flecked sample of Buddy Miles’ rendition of “Down By the River” buzzes in the background. Miles croons “Be on my side/I’ll be on your side” like some a spectral lounge lizard incarnation of Neil Young; Charles summons the spirits of Erykah Badu and Syd Bennett. In other places — “PETTY,” “Midnight,” — you can hear her collaging her musical DNA into jazz-studded multi-instrumentalism and dipping a toe into the experimental. Fusing that many genres can often guarantee a muddied sound, but there’s an uncanny cohesion to Charles’ music, her wandering threads braided into something strong as rope.

Melanie Charles
Melanie Charles

About halfway through her debut EP, Charles swan dives into minimalism, taking her Haitian roots with her. Charles’ mother grew up in Haiti, and the island nation has been taking a more central role in her compositions and thinking. “Damballa Wedo” is more chant than song. Charles switches over to singing in Creole with a spare sample for her backing track: An acoustic guitar, a note or two of bass, Charles’ own voice repeating “C’est bon, c’est bon dieu” over and over again, her Bs softly bouncing along, giving the song a hypnotic rhythm. (There is a lot of Malian artist Oumou Sangaré in Charles.)

The song is an homage to Charles’ burgeoning interest in Haitian Voodoo. (Damballa Wedo is a god of creation in the Voodoo tradition, represented by a white serpent and responsible for maintaining cosmic balance.) “The day-to-day practice of Voodoo is really rooted in community, it’s rooted in music and rhythm,” Charles says. “The last ceremony that I went to, there were six drummers with six different drums that all had different pitches, and they would take turns switching back and forth between different drums. They sang songs and danced. It was all to conjure the spirits and so, if the spirit wasn’t coming, it was time to change the song, you know? I thought that was amazing.”

Charles is aware that Haiti and Voodoo — an anglicization of the Creole word “voudou” — have certain associations stateside. Charles’ mother, who moved to New York in her 30s, is a devout Catholic and was weary when her daughter began investigating her ancestral traditions. “I told her, ‘Mom, for me it’s art. It’s answers to questions that I didn’t even realize I had before I started going to these ceremonies.’” (Charles is helping her mother record her first album at age 65. She describes it as a “fusion of gospel” and “Haitian rhythms.”)

Charles feels that it’s on her and the other children of the Haitian diaspora to fight those stereotypes. We use “voodoo” when we want to talk about zombified economic policies or black magic. It’s a religion of cursed dolls and hexes and rolling bones, rather than born out of a conflation of African animist traditions and Catholicism. (Voodoo gods are syncretic with Catholic saints; for example, Damballa Wedo is often represented by Saint Patrick.)

“Haitians specifically are very proud,” she says. “We were the first to be free, so we have this pride, and we know our culture. It wasn’t erased. When we’re looking back to find ourselves, especially those of us who are first-generation, it’s like, now’s the time. We’re all in our 30s, and so this is the time when we’re like, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?’ We’re able to trace that back easily.”

Charles visits Haiti regularly and has been watering her blooming interest in voodoo through attending rituals and speaking with adepts, as well as plumbing the depths of Haiti’s music traditions. “A lot of [Haitian songs] are a cappella that were passed on by oral tradition,” she says. “I want to have those rituals as part of my musical texture. … I’ve been taking some of these traditional melodies and stories and arranging them in different mediums. There’s a lot of traditional folk songs from Haiti that are gorgeous and are not well documented.” She’s been recording the musical elements of ceremonies and sampling them in her music, attempting to construct a collage that builds upon Haiti’s traditions.

This isn’t uncharted musical territory. Jazz, R&B, and hip-hop — each of which you can hear in different measures from Charles — are all influenced by West African rhythms, and voodoo ceremonial music draws a direct line back to communities abducted by slave traders. But few have expressly connected Voodoo to their compositions: Dr. John’s “Gris Gris” refers to a protective amulet, and the superstitious howls from blues musicians like Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins about “mojo” and “spells” can be rightly inferred as Voodoo — or at least “hoodoo” — references; Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, with an apparently straight face, called the band’s album Reflektor a “mashup of Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo.” Charles is attempting to update those traditions by bringing historical context, as well as her personal heritage and contemporary tastes, into the studio. The early results are stunning.

On Charles’ last trip to Haiti, a voodoo priest told her she was protected by two gods — out of respect for the religion, Charles wouldn’t reveal which two — and that made sense to her. She had always been liable to say yes to whatever came her way, but dangers never presented themselves. “When the priest told me that, I said, ‘Oh that’s what it is,’” she says. “It’s been there all along.” She’s now focusing on bringing some of the oral traditions from Haiti to the States, and galvanizing the considerable musical talent among children of the diaspora. “It’s our job to go back and sort of say, ‘Hey, we want to help and we are on your side because we’re Haitian too,’” she says. “I think that it begins with the art, with the music. A sense of humanity and safe space, and that would change this perspective and the dialogue and the feeling of what it means to live in Haiti.”


L’Rain Weaves an Aural Tapestry Out of New York’s Chorus of Sound

If you’re talking to Taja Cheek — even if you’re the one interviewing her — there’s a good chance she’s recording you. It’s not some paranoid tic or an obsessive compulsion to remember every word. She’s collecting sounds and then twisting them into something bordering on unrecognizable, taking sampling to a sublimely absurd extreme. “When I’m around people and I get nervous or excited, I like to record our conversations and the sounds in our environment,” she says. “I have hundreds of recordings of conversations that I completely forgot I ever recorded.”

And before she turned to hard drives and iPod, Cheek would carry around a recording device made by a local synthesizer company, building up a growing library of found sounds. “You could cycle through recordings and manipulate them and port them,” she recalls. “I’d walk around everywhere with this box and I would record everywhere: on the subway, on the block.”

Taja Cheek, AKA L’Rain

Cheek’s growing archive of sounds—including snippets of demos and song parts that she’s been uploading to SoundCloud for years—let the Brooklyn native make a collage of an album, replete with haunting warbles and gospel-flecked harmonies that may have started as a conversation about the weather or the warm hum of a subway car.

L’Rain isn’t all disembodied voices, though. The album’s orchestration is uncommonly tight for an artist with tastes and talents as varied as Cheek. (She can play cello, bass, piano, and, amazingly, the baroque recorder.) “In high school I started discovering music, and in New York around that time there was just a lot of stuff to see,” she says. “A lot of the DIY venues were doing a lot more punk-style stuff, but I was also listening to a lot of hip-hop and I was raised playing classical music, so those streams are always there when I make music.”

Cheek owes a lot of her current musical form to those genre-blending beginnings, and runs a small venue—she’d rather its name be kept secret—in her basement where collaboration is king. “DIY spaces are what allowed me to play music throughout my entire life,” she says. “This venue has become its own little microcommunity made up of people who stumbled upon it on message boards or word of mouth. There’s a cross-mingling of genres that’s happening here with people just experimenting with sound and all talking to each other”

She continues, “I ran into someone at a show a while ago who was still in school and she had never been to an experimental show and it sparked something in her. …. There’s always this fear of people leaving for Philly or Pittsburgh or wherever, but I still feel like there’s people here that are trying to make it work.”

L’Rain in performance

Cheek grew up in Crown Heights, as did her father and grandfather. “My parents weren’t musicians but they were musical,” she says. “My dad was involved in the music industry in the early days of hip-hop, so my earliest memories are of discovering music in his collection. I remember finding all these CDs in a box in the basement. It was mostly hip-hop records but I remember finding, like, a Pixies album mixed in there.” (Cheek credits the Pixies’ Kim Deal as one inspiration for first picking up a bass guitar.)

Cheek’s compositions are experimental but never burst into something unrecognizable or affected. She recorded much of L’Rain in her bedroom in Crown Heights, but this isn’t the hazy bedroom pop of Shugo Tokumaru or Ariel Pink. Instead, Cheek lands somewhere nearer to the crisply stacked multi-instrumentalism of Panda Bear or even the Flaming Lips, where sounds crash into each other like a controlled collision. There are moments when Cheek steps close to descending into formless experimentalism on “Which Fork / I’ll Be” and “Stay Go (Go, Stay),” but she has a knack for pulling back from the brink just in time, playing around at the edges of orthodox composition with sure feet.

The voices Cheek has been recording also make themselves heard: a repeated, scatting whisper taking on the shape of a fussing piston on “Alive and Awake,” a distant chant and tambourine become both an intermission and introduction on “Benediction” and “A Toes (Shelf Inside Your Head).” Perhaps most affecting is a bootleg recording of Cheek herself singing Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes” while a recording of her parents crackles in the background. It’s the only time you hear Cheek’s mother, Lorraine, on the album, though many people assume hers is the voice warbling “Happy Birthday” on “July 14th, 2015.” (It’s actually a close friend of Cheek’s.)

Cheek lost her mother in 2016, and while the grief rattles and ricochets throughout L’Rain, the Brooklyn native doesn’t want the album defined by distress. “I’m not that interested in grief alone, but more how it functions in relief with other emotions,” she says. “Grief can encompass moments of levity and humor; those feelings don’t have to be extricated from each other.”

L’Rain playing at C’Mon Everybody in Bed-Stuy.

To that end, she’s also been thinking a lot about mass bereavement — “the spaces that exist between joy and grief” — and how to introduce some of that through performance. “My live show is different from the record, and sometimes I feel like the audience doesn’t know exactly what to do while they’re watching me,” says Cheek. “So I feel like it’s my job to lead people through the show a little more. I’m trying to figure out if that’s most effective through actions or visuals or something completely different. The album takes people into its own weird world, and I want to figure out how to do that with a live show.”

Ritual is a good word for what Cheek does onstage. At a recent show at C’Mon Everybody in Bed-Stuy, she lit a small bundle of sage and took a seat among her bandmates. Dressed in black—while her keyboardist, drummer, and bassist were draped in white—Cheek took a moment to settle herself and then gestured for the entire audience to sit on the floor. Her opening salvo was unrecognizable from anything she’s recorded, but you could hear the free jazz influences of Alice Coltrane colliding with electronic and noise music. Cheek didn’t stay in the avant-garde for long, eventually untangling the knots and settling into something closer to what you hear on L’Rain—close being the key word. For production wizards like Cheek, imitating the sound you get from hours in the studio is a dangerous proposition. So instead Cheek relied on a song’s blueprints, riffing and improvising as she looped and layered her voice and guitar over and over again. The result was hypnotizing, a wonder of practice and refinement where you could see Cheek finding a tune in the swirl of noise around her in real time. She finished the show without a word, letting those spiraling loops die down with the house lights.


Denitia Has a Story to Tell

Denitia Odigie was feeling stifled. She had relocated to Brooklyn from Houston in 2010 after landing a room in the Clubhouse, the music and art collective housed in a scruffy Victorian in Ditmas Park. The move was central to her development as an artist — and where she bonded with local scene veterans like Sly5thAve — but she felt the all-too-familiar claustrophobia of life in New York closing in on her. So she moved to the beach.

“I was starting to feel like I was going nuts,” Denitia recalls. “I couldn’t really record much in there, because there was, metaphorically speaking, so much noise around me. So I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I find a sublet for three months in Long Island, and just go and write, and get the fuck outta here?’” Denitia never made it beyond the city limits, but she did find a spot in the Rockaways, in an apartment complex right on the beach. “When I first thought about moving to the Rockaways, I was like, ‘This is insane, it’s so far away,’” she says. “But as soon as I got out there, I said, ‘Yep, this is me. I’m about to come out here and write my ass off.’” That change of scenery inspired Denitia’s Ceilings EP, a stirring four-song solo project that addresses self-actualization, anxiety, and liberation with strength and honesty.

Denitia, 33, is best known for her work as one half of the r&b duo Denitia and Sene, a group she formed with fellow Clubhouse resident Brian “Sene” Marc. Solo projects often involve a certain anxiety, what with the weight of expectation, but Ceilings banishes those concerns from the opening chords. The subdued minimalism of her work with Sene is absent here, with Denitia opting for something closer to the warmly futuristic soul of a Solange or Jessie Ware. Opener “Bound to Happen” sounds like someone waking up for the first time, a fog lifting. Ironically, it was also the last song included on the EP when Denitia was putting together a tracklist with her friend and producer Daniel Schlett, owner of the Brooklyn recording studio Strange Weather. “When the songs put themselves together, I looked back and said, ‘Oh, wow, this is a reflection of a journey that I have been on,’” she says.

Denitia’s journey began on the rural outskirts of Houston, where the airwaves were dominated by the twang of country and where her home was filled with the sounds of Al Green and the Temptations. Blazingly intelligent from a young age, she skipped grades as a child and learned piano at five, writing her first songs and playing talent shows and church concerts before she turned ten. She took her first formal songwriting course as a student at Vanderbilt in 2000 — she was just sixteen when she began classes at the university — and started considering music as a career. Doubt about her talents lingered — she has said that her family wanted her to “do something smart, like brain-smart” — and she toyed with the idea of going to culinary school after a stint as a vegan chef in Nashville. Ultimately Denitia resolved to give music another year and dug in her heels, writing, recording, and playing as much as she ever had. The effort led her to New York and, at long last, stable footing in a world defined by its ephemerality.

But freedom and stability aren’t the same thing as space, and so the Rockaways beckoned. “When I was a kid, we lived out in the country,” she says. “Something about having access to the city but being able to go home to something that’s just a little more chilled out really resonates with me. It just really felt right to be out there.”

Denitia went to the beach with a renewed sense of purpose. “I’d gotten to this practice of being very intentional about just writing shit,” she says. Ceilings is a culling of sorts, then, the result of countless hours spent recording demos and seeing what fell into place where. Of the recording process, Denitia recalls, “I was getting as far as I could with it, and just tracking drums, bass, keys, guitar, vocals, and getting the vibe there, like painted out.” She credits Schlett with lending Ceilings its cohesion. “Daniel just understood it. He said to me, ‘Oh, you wanna make something bangin’, but still feels like you?’ So we took those demos that I made at the beach and went to his studio to re-create them.”

The openness of Denitia’s surroundings shines through: Though Ceilings runs just over thirteen minutes, the collection doesn’t feel hemmed in or truncated. “Waiting” pulses with frustration; the title track plunges the entire project into longing and loss; closer “Planes” breathes the whole thing back to life with bouncing synths and the crash of a drum kit. The most hopeful track on Ceilings, “Planes” is also a natural concluding statement from an artist who has taken the well-trod path of self-doubt and anxiety to emerge somewhere completely different. But even with this first solo project barely in the rearview, Denitia’s got her eyes trained on the horizon: She’s already working on a full-length follow-up to Ceilings that’s focused on “stretching out.” “I love Ceilings, but that was the ‘then’ me,” she says. “I’ve absorbed so many beautiful things since I finished recording Ceilings, and I’m excited to sculpt something as the ‘now’ me.”