CoSigns takes a monthly plunge into the world of music discovery, profiling five artists that you absolutely need to know about before everyone else does.
Longtime readers of the site might be familiar with our CoSigns feature, in which we spotlight emerging artists from scenes around the world. In the past, CoSigns has been one of our most reliable ways of introducing fresh, vital music to our readers while giving young artists the platform they deserve.
One of the most exciting aspects of local music is the “local” part. Taste knows no geographical boundaries, but loyalty does, and it’s always more thrilling to get turned on to a new band in your own backyard. That’s why we recently decided to freshen up CoSigns a bit, recasting it as a monthly feature that focuses on five artists from the same city or scene. Every month, we’ll go out of our way to find a diverse cross-section of artists who represent the best of a particular place’s musical tapestry. The best part? You’ll get to hear them before they blow up nationally and become total sell-outs.
This month’s CoSigns are near and dear to us because they all hail from Chicago, the city that Consequence of Sound itself calls home. We’re confident that the acts we’ve chosen — Jamila Woods, Yeesh, Oshwa, Whitney, and Trevor Sensor — represent Chicago’s insane diversity and speak to its reputation as one of the world’s best cities for music.
Now won’t you join us on a walk through the Windy City?
By Collin Brennan
Photo by Bradley Murray
It would seem that Jamila Woods has had a pretty good year. The Chicago-born singer-songwriter casually found her way onto two of hip-hop’s biggest releases of 2016, lending her vocal talents to Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” and Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings”. She also carved out some time to record and release her solo debut, HEAVN, an album on which our own Adam Kivel describes her as “[standing] tall, offering a voice not only of astute criticism and observation, but also of hope for a better future and black self-love today.” Yes, it’s been a pretty good year for Jamila Woods.
But has it, really? Listen to a song like the defiant “Blk Girl Soldier”, and it becomes clear that Woods feels the pains of her community acutely. Since the 2014 killing of Mike Brown and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, the black community has been forced to contend with a seemingly endless series of tragedies brought on by police violence.
This environment of fear, distrust, and heartbreak has transformed Woods from a poet and a soul singer into something bigger. She can’t just write soothing, pleasant songs anymore, like she often did in her former duo, M&O. She has to be a voice for healing, for social justice, and — most of all — for radical black self-love.
So far, Woods has succeeded wildly in that role. HEAVN is an album that meets unspeakable hatred head-on with something we don’t see too often in the world these days: love, optimism, and a hopeful vision for the future. That doesn’t mean Woods is immune to feelings of rage, only that she’s found a different and equally valid means of expressing her anger. Songs like “LSD” and “Emerald St.”, the former featuring Chance the Rapper and the latter Saba, paint a vision of strength, stability, and interconnectedness that can’t help but draw attention to itself.
“It’s a wonderful day in the hood,” she sings, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, she makes us believe it with all of our hearts. Listening to Woods, it feels like music really does have the power to bring about a better world. At the very least, she shows us what that world might look like.
One of the fascinating things about HEAVN is how freely you pull from all areas of culture to promote this message of black self-love. You nod to everything from Paula Cole to The Cure, and I’m wondering if there’s some kind of intention behind using those particular samples, or were they simply the first things that came to your head while writing those songs?
I think it was often really stream-of-consciousness. In my songwriting process, I like to keep a lot of influences and source materials around me, so it kind of looks like a crazy person’s room in whatever space I’m in. I think of a song as a physical space — like my bedroom or something — and it’s nice to have things around me that I think are beautiful and that remind me of other times in my life.
I think my sampling comes from that kind of place. Like, I want to reference an Incubus song because the boy I had a crush on in 8th grade burned me a CD and put it on my desk. I have a personal attachment to those songs, and bringing them into my own songs is a way to kind of recontextualize them in my story.
There’s not a lot of bravado in your music. HEAVN is a brilliant album, but it’s very humble about its brilliance; there’s none of the Chance or Kanye stuff where they boast about their accomplishments. Do you think it’s important to present yourself as just another person — a member of a community instead of someone who’s risen above it?
That’s cool. I didn’t really think of that intentionally, but I do think of always bringing in a multiplicity of voices into whatever I do, because so much of who I am is influenced by countless other people. I think our society has a tendency to make you want to think you’re a self-made person and you did everything all by yourself. Especially in the music industry, that’s something that’s really valued, but it’s not the way that actual communities operate, you know?
I try to leave space for not just one story, but multiple voices. I really love collaboration in that way, bringing in and mixing those perspectives to make it even stronger … It’s the same thing with the samples. A lot of them wouldn’t necessarily be the “expected” sample if you’re making R&B or soul music, but for years I only listened to alternative rock, and I think that makes me a richer person for having had that experience, so I want to bring that in there.
There’s a childlike element to your music that doesn’t make it any less complex but definitely recalls a time when people were a lot more innocent than they are now. There’s a lot more hope than anger, and I’m wondering, where is the anger? Do you find it hard to stay positive in the face of all this hatred and brutality?
Yeah, that’s something I think about a lot not just as an artist but also as a person. I’m kind of a quiet person. If I’m in a room, I might be observing for a while before I’m ever speaking. So considering what’s going on in the community right now, I often have to ask myself, “What is my role?”, or “What is my strength?” Because I do feel anger and sadness and rage and all of the things that are natural to feel when what’s happening to black people in this country is happening.
But anger doesn’t always have to look a certain way. It might not always look how you expect. Some people might cry when they’re angry or some might yell, and it’s important for me that I’m a representation of that — that there are multiple ways to feel. People might try to police emotions and say anger is bad, but all emotions are useful. They’re all paths toward action, toward getting to another place.
By Nina Corcoran
Photo by Stephania Dulowski
The first time I heard Unwound, I struggled to find words worthy of their sound. Their music combined elements of post-hardcore, noise rock, and this beautiful, pensive contemplation, something that suggested both pent-up frustration and utter bewilderment with the world around them. They found a place within ‘90s rock music that had yet to be explored, a space that felt strangely comforting, edgy, and openhearted in the best of ways.
Yeesh do the same thing. The Chicago trio don’t dodge genres, but rather play around with them. They pull sections from post-hardcore styles and mix them with the grittier side of pop rock. They deliver lines with the heart of emo but the scratches of post-punk.
On this year’s Confirmation Bias, the group’s sophomore LP, Yeesh explore territory that’s equal parts noisy and introspective. They’re reviving a post-hardcore sound that touches on Japandroids’ energy and Cloud Nothings’ anger, and they’re doing it in a time of ‘80s revivalism and trap loops — that is, a time that desperately needs a rock record that can hold its own from start to finish.
Much of the group’s sound comes from the familiarity of friendship. Back in 2010, guitarist Alex Doyle and drummer Peter Reale started Yeesh while at college, taking their name from one of Rosario Dawson’s lines in the film Sin City. Two months later, they asked Greg Obis to join on bass. After a short hiatus that allowed everyone to graduate, they relocated to Chicago and started fresh in 2012.
Compared to their 2015 full-length, No Problem, this year’s album carries a tighter sense of urgency and anger. “Alex and I have been in a sort of ‘loudness war’ for the past year and a half,” laughs Obis. “Each of us just kept buying — and continue to buy — louder and louder amps, and I think that drove the music to be more aggressive and brutal as our sonic capabilities changed.”
As they look to the future, Yeesh have three goals in mind: make a living playing music, tour Europe, and get louder amps. It’s hard to imagine them not accomplishing all three. At the very least, Confirmation Bias is a big step in the right direction.
Your music wears its influences on its sleeves, particularly Unwound, Shellac, and Drive Like Jehu. How do you take those styles and merge them into something of your own?
Reale: I don’t consciously try to sound like other bands or show influences directly. Our songwriting process is entirely collaborative. No one ever brings formed songs to practice. At most someone might bring a musical idea. I’ve been listening to a lot of Nails and Cattle Decapitation.
Alex Doyle: To piggyback on Pete’s comment, our musical influences are similar but also vary pretty heavily from each other, and we are constantly critiquing and rewriting each other’s parts so we end up mashing together ideas from different sources. I’ve been listening to a lot of Drake.
Obis: I’ll definitely echo what Alex and Pete said. However, I also have tried very hard to emulate Bob Weston’s bass tone! I also work for him, which is kinda funny that we’ve drawn that comparison recently.
There’s a feeling of improvisation that pops up occasionally in your songs. Were any of the sonic or lyrical changes added last minute in the studio?
Obis: A lot of the lyrics and melodies on “Well Adjusted” were written the day we recorded it. I had a solid chorus, but only a vague idea of how I wanted the verses to sound, mostly thinking about the stream-of-consciousness writing of Parquet Courts, which I was big into at that time. It’s a new poetic voice for me, and I am very pleased with it. I plan to explore it more in the future.
From the inside looking out, what drives your record? I feel like there’s a lot of chaos and anxiety pent up in it, but that may just be my reading of it.
Doyle: I made a choice on this record not to write about the past. The songs are all very personal and the issues unresolved and up-to-date.
Obis: I definitely feel the record is driven by cumulative frustration about a lot of things in our lives. For the songs I sing, “Well Adjusted” is definitely a collage of envy and self-loathing projected onto people that I perceive as more put-together. “Speechless” is about someone very close to me who suffers from substance abuse issues, and it’s kind of this outraged scrawl of disbelief and trust issues. It felt good to write those songs.
There’s a great line in “End Results” where you talk about perfecting the subtle ways to waste a day. What’s your ideal lazy Sunday?
Reale: Not practicing, probably cooking food, and doing something outside. If we’re talking “ideal” here, record shopping, because ideally I would have some money to buy records.
Doyle: Ideally … drink coffee, work out, read and see friends, get a drink, go to bed, wake up and realize it’s not Monday and I don’t have to work.
Reale: Drinking a lot of coffee is implied in mine.
Obis: Play Civilization 5 for 12 straight hours. And drink coffee.
By Collin Brennan
Photo by Se Collier
Alicia Walter is the kind of performer who stops you in your tracks — the kind who makes you smile like an idiot because you’ve just heard something that can actually, definitively be described as new, and how often does that happen in the world of pop music? Walter, who plays under the moniker Oshwa, is a Chicago-bred classical musician turned avant-pop extraordinaire, that rare subspecies of person who feels equally at home in concert halls and dingy DIY venues.
I first met Walter in one of those DIY venues several years ago. She was relatively new to songwriting back then, but she had recently moved into a collective in Rogers Park where her friends and fellow artists encouraged her to give it a shot. The first songs she ended up writing were all over the place stylistically, recalling tUnE-yArDs but infused with operatic flourishes that put Oshwa in an entirely different league from the punk bands she was sharing bills with.
Since those early days, the story of Oshwa has been a story of pushing beyond perceived limitations. While studying music composition at Chicago’s Columbia College, Walter remembers how frustrated she was by the program’s narrow scope. “Pop music was kind of shunned or looked down on, as if it weren’t worth looking at,” she recalls. “So I was using Oshwa as an outlet for all of the things I couldn’t write at school, and that kind of fueled the fire when I was getting started.”
Eventually, she turned her project into a proper band and released a debut LP, Chamomile Crush, in 2013. Despite receiving plenty of blog hype and nearly winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, Oshwa the band never got quite where Walter wanted it to go. So she went back to square one, writing songs as a solo entity and trading in her wilder tendencies for something slightly more defined.
The result, due out this fall, is a sophomore LP she’s calling I We You Me. Like the plurality of identities that name implies, Oshwa is many things at once. One thing we’re sure of, though, is that she’s a musician worth knowing in the present.
I first saw you perform at a Chicago DIY space in 2011. Your focus back then was much more on heavy vocal looping and simpler, more understated guitar melodies. Your new music seems to adhere more to traditional pop song structures, though it’s just as ambitious. How has Oshwa evolved over the years to get to this point?
I think the focus with the album that’s about to come out, I We You Me, was to be more structurally cohesive. Chamomile Crush was our first LP and I really love all the songs on that album, but it’s also written in a more patchwork way. Things were put together and made to work, and I really wanted these songs to be stronger on their own. So naturally, I started “playing” a little less. I learned how to control my voice a little bit more, too. I used to sing a little more bombastically, and I don’t do that quite as much anymore. I wanted these new songs to be strong on their own.
Your new songs seem a lot more indebted to pop music than anything you’ve done in the past. Why is that?
I work as a wedding DJ, and I started doing that probably around the same time that I was starting to write these songs. It was interesting because I’ve noticed a change in myself. My awareness and appreciation of popular music has changed in a way I didn’t expect it to. Now I associate popular music with what it makes people do. I press play and then everyone dances, and it’s a super-fun time! It’s weird how that really does shape my own tastes in what I personally want to listen to. I listen to way more popular music now, and I think that’s subliminally influencing me in my own work. I want to write a song that makes me want to say, “Oh! Oh, yeah!”
You mentioned that there have been a lot of changes with Oshwa in the process of making this record. What is Oshwa? Is it Alicia Walter, a collective of musicians, an art project that expands beyond music? What do you envision the band being in the future?
It’s really interesting. I’m trying to figure all of this out, too. I started Oshwa never intending it to be a band, and it became not only a band but a very specific group of people. Now, I’m already working on the next record in terms of writing, and I don’t want to play alone all the time. I’m not trying to be on stage playing alone, but at this point I think I am Oshwa, and I’ll still find people to be a part of it with me.
By Nikki Volpicelli
Photo by David Brendan Hall
One of the first Facebook messages Whitney received after putting out their first single, “No Woman”, was from a man who had just lost a loved one. “He said the song saved his life — and that’s all we care about when it comes to outside reactions.”
Otherwise, the band is perfectly fine keeping to themselves. When singer and drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek set out to write their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, they wanted it to be a completely selfish experience. “We just wanted to record the songs that we wanted to hear and play over and over again.” Ehrlich says. “I think that’s what you have to do. You just have to make songs for yourself.”
At the time, their longstanding band, Smith Westerns, had recently split. “There was a lot of really crazy, dramatic stuff going on in both of our love lives and band lives,” Ehrlich recalls. This rings true on tracks such as “Dave’s Song”, where he sings, “I know it’s hard to give up when I don’t want to be saved.
Whitney’s songwriting process may be selfish, but it’s also extremely sentimental and relatable. Feeling sad and lonely? Listen to “No Woman” and a weird thing will happen: You’ll feel better. A lot of that has to do with the bright guitar chords and triumphant horns; it’s got all the lo-fi bliss of Smith Westerns, topped with an extra dose of blues and alt-country. Imagine if Neil Young joined an indie rock band and reworked a soft-spoken cover of “The Needle and the Damage Done”, and you’ll start to understand why Whitney is quickly becoming the most talked-about band of 2016.
When Smith Westerns disbanded, what made you decide to start a new project together?
Julien Ehrlich: It started out based on our friendship, and then we realized we could complement each other really well. I knew that I had a knack for doing vocal melodies and that Max was a great guitar player. After the first three or four songs we wrote, the scope of the album started to become fully realized, and it was like, “Oh man, this could be the best thing we’ve ever worked on.” And then we executed it, and it is.
So you didn’t necessarily have a theme in mind when you started writing Light Upon the Lake?
Max Kakacek: It took us three songs to find the sound of the band, and to mess with Julien’s voice. If you hear our first demo, you wouldn’t recognize it — the same thing with the instrumentation. When we recorded “Golden Days”, all of a sudden everything clicked together in a way that it hadn’t before. Then we figured we’d go back and re-record some of the songs that started off kind of jankier. It wasn’t until “Golden Days” that the pieces really stuck together as they should.
Was “No Woman” one of the original songs that had to be re-written?
Ehrlich: The first three or four songs came out in the spring and summer of 2014. At that time, we were just having a lot of fun shooting little, dorky, personal music videos. Then things got a lot sadder once winter happened, and it was a bit tougher to write songs, but we kept writing and ended up with a demo that didn’t make it on the record. That summer was the final push that brought about the title track, “No Woman”, and “The Fall”. That final push was for happier, more cinematic songs.
You mentioned that this album was kind of a selfish project — that you both just wanted to make the music you’ve always wanted to play. Was that something you discussed prior to starting the writing process?
Kakacek: No, I think Julien and [I] are more “doers,” so we started making this album and then later realized the trajectory after a few songs. The first couple of songs were just coming out of us. Part of what we both liked about it was the spontaneity. It was super organic, so we tried to continue with that throughout the rest of the writing.
Ehrlich: Yeah, there was no agenda. We didn’t think we were going to conquer this weird imaginary indie thing or something.
Now that you’re both in different places in your lives, do you think the next record will take on a different sound?
Ehrlich: I think it will be based on the same energy we had while writing the first one. The first one was a snapshot of where we were emotionally in our lives, and now we’re in a completely different place. There might be a bit more upbeat and hopeful stuff in the future.
By Ben Kaye
Trevor Sensor doesn’t have what most would describe as a beautiful singing voice. It’s a scratchy, nasally croon that sounds to your ear like what a fresh, unsanded piece of wood feels to your hand. It’s rough — even prickly — but there are pockets of smoothness that make it welcoming just the same.
Whatever you think of Sensor’s voice, it’s getting him the right kind of attention. It’s what drew The Killers’ Dave Keuning to walk up to the 22-year-old singer-songwriter after seeing him perform at a bar in Pella, Iowa (where the former grew up and the latter went to college), and offer him a record deal.
Since then, Sensor has signed to Jagjaguwar and continued to share his punk-influenced Americana, thus far via a pair of singles (“Judas Said to Be a Man” and “The Reaper Man”) and his Texas Girls and Jesus Christ EP.
The title track to that effort might be the best summation of what this distinctive voice and talent is doing with his music. What begins as a stumbling, acoustic number straightens up as soon as Sensor’s burr appears, dripping whiskey-soaked heartbreak. But then, in the final minute, the track descends into a howling, thrashing whirl. It’s a duster that Sensor will continue to kick up when he releases his sophomore EP, When Tammy Spoke to Martha, this August — the type of beautiful storm in which you don’t mind getting caught.
There’s no way to ask this question without sounding like a dick, but you don’t have the kind of singing voice where if you tried out for a play, the director would be like, “Lead role!” You don’t have this voice that’s instantly recognizable as a singing voice. It works incredibly well on record, obviously, but when you hear yourself, who do you look toward and say, “Well, I can do things like this guy did?”
Well, the old blues singers and jazz singers are a lot like that. Back in the day, it used to be about how much soul you had in a song and what you were trying to say. I think now we’ve made a lot of things very plastic, and it’s all about, “Is it pretty? Does it make me feel good?” I’m not really into that. I’m more interested in making people think or challenging people or making things that are ugly. I view my music as very ugly, and I like it that way.
I think an obvious reference point for a lot of people is Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart … I’m actually a huge fan of both of them. It’s definitely not like I’m going to do my voice that way because I like them. My voice just sounds that way, whether people believe that or not. That’s why I never did choir in high school. My mom wanted me to do it, and I was like, “I don’t think they want a guy gargling rocks in the back trying to do bass or something.”
If I could do anything as great as Tom Waits, I think I’d call it a day.
Where do you see yourself fitting into the current state of — whatever you are, alt-country, Americana?
I don’t like to put genre on things. I think the thing I noticed is that as soon as you bring an acoustic guitar into anything, they immediately say country or folk or something. Sometimes … I don’t know. Were the Violent Femmes country or folk? They were a punk band, but they had acoustic guitars. They’re basically considered a punk band from Wisconsin. I think there’s just different tendencies within song structures, and people’s images are really important. They’re like, “Well, we’ve got to package you a certain way.”
I just see myself in this long chain of songwriters where everyone is basically the same chord progression, same type of lyrics, same type of metaphors, and melody phrasings, and all that. They’ve all been used, really, and we’re all still borrowing everything from the early 20th century, basically, onward. And I just feel a part of that chain. I think the thing that’s important to me is that if you’re going to be a part of that chain, you have to be as individual as possible and say something that’s completely individual and coming from yourself. Otherwise, you’re just going to be a forgotten link in the chain.
So how do you make yourself a shinier link?
You just be a good songwriter. I’m kind of stingy when it comes to singer-songwriters that I like because I feel like a lot of people fall into the Chris Martin [school of] really abstract and bland lyrics. If you listen to Coldplay lyrics, for example, they’re very universal in the sense that … Okay, well, “Fix You” is a song that doesn’t use any specifics at all. It’s all just really abstract words that cover a lot of ground, so a lot of people can relate to them.
But for singer-songwriters, I think good songwriting is using words that apply to your life in some way — that are truly individual and not somebody else’s. And you’ve gotta be careful with what you’re using, because I feel like ever since Dylan had the song “Boots of Spanish Leather”, for example, everyone from Tallest Man on Earth to The Head and the Heart has used that. And that’s not very individual, guys. You’re clearly ripping off someone there.
What was the inspiration for this EP? Does it differ at all thematically from your debut? Musically?
The theme revolves around bar life more, and I wanted to design it that way. It’s going to be two songs and a weird piece for the third track — it’s a weird piece, we’ll just leave it at that. Maybe some storytelling will happen, I don’t know.
But I wanted it to basically reflect my times spent in bars and what I’ve seen there. I’m deeply connected to that kind of nightlife, and all the people and the characters you see there and how you interact with them, and so on. Alcohol is definitely a theme for some reason. As I take a sip of beer…