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.
“Most of the musicians I know in NYC have serious record contracts, which is definitely not the case in any other city,” says Elizabeth Skadden of the buzzy, brain-rattling no wave quartet WALL. Her underlying point is twofold: Talent isn’t hard to come by in New York City, which also means it’s not easy for bands like hers to stand out from the crowd.
That’s why we’re excited to bring our local focus to New York for this month’s edition of CoSigns. We sent our team out to the five boroughs (and beyond) to dig up the city’s most promising young acts, and they returned with a list of artists that reflects New York’s reputation as the world’s wildest melting pot. The acts we’ve chosen to highlight — Sunflower Bean, Xenia Rubinos, Big Thief, LVL UP, and WALL — are by turns strange and brilliant, but they’re never anything less than original. In a city of more than eight million, that’s quite the accomplishment.
By Lior Phillips
Photo by Crista Simiriglia
When I get in touch with Sunflower Bean, they’re “someplace that starts with a G.” We narrow it down to a city in the Netherlands, the next stop on their tour after playing in Shanghai and Beijing. The New York trio don’t sound one bit overwhelmed by time zones or time lost, despite their youth.
There’s something crippling about the term “psych rock” plastered on an up-and-coming band, though the ability to tap into generations of explorative and confident inspiration fits Sunflower Bean perfectly. Beyond their physical travels, they’re also working toward the next step following their dreamy, yet muscular debut, Human Ceremony. After years of proving themselves in the crowded New York scene, vocalist Julia Cumming, drummer Jacob Faber, and guitarist Nick Kivlen are ready to grow even further into their own.
You’ve been touring all over the world lately, but is there any moment where you go, “OK, I think we need a little bit of perspective”? I’m sure a lot of people want to know how the touring is going, but I’m fascinated by the times between the touring. Like chatting to me now, or taking a break and having a coffee. People take those little moments for granted. Do you feel like you’ve had time to catch a breath?
Julia Cumming: You’re in this exceptional situation, but we still haven’t had that much time to relax. This morning we had a nice breakfast, and we all took long showers. You have to take what you can get and put a little effort into trying to see the cities that you’re in. That’s a constant thing. When you have the privilege of doing something you love as your job, you just have to balance it. Even sometimes when I’m about to perform, I find myself thinking about stupid stuff, like, if my outfit looks OK, or if I’d brushed my teeth that morning, even though I should be more in the moment. It’s always something to think about.
Do you feel like the performance becomes second nature? Do all those little peripheral things, like “Did I put deodorant on? Did I wash my underwear?”, pop up because touring and performing have become totally natural? Or do you still get up on the stage and get a little bit jarred because you’re sharing your personal lives and creativity with the world?
Jacob Faber: It’s a very strange life we lead, this touring. It’s weird when your mind wanders. In the middle of a song, my mind will go to some crazy thing, like, Oh, I hope the food will be good on our next flight. Sometimes playing a set, at least for me, is when my mind can wander and think about things in a weird space.
Cumming: Because you’re meditating into it, right?
Faber: Oh yeah, completely.
Cumming: Our set is also largely improvised, so I think because of that we’re never doing the same thing, and every time you see us it’s going to be a little different, which I think is fun.
Faber: Yeah, it makes it hard to form habits, which I think as human beings you want to do. I think as a touring band, it’s probably good that even though it might be easier sometimes, it keeps you on your toes and ready for the unexpected.
And you can create a world that you can improvise in. Do you ever feel like an impostor? What was happening when you thought, “OK, I can’t believe this is actually my life. I’ve just gone to Asia, I’m now in the Netherlands, I’m moving over to the next country tomorrow”?
Cumming: You have to make a lot of peace with things, especially with what we do … we’re not Justin Bieber.
Cumming: I hate to tell you the truth! There’s this story I tell sometimes where our last big hometown show we did in New York City was at Bowery Ballroom, a legendary venue, and we had never headlined there. It sold out before the show, and all our friends and family were there. It was this really personal moment of “Yes! We’re doing something. We’ve made it in our own little personal way.” But then the next night we were getting paid a little more money than usual to play at a frat party at Dartmouth. So, we do this big show where we’re like, “Aww, we’re on top of our little world we made for ourselves,” and the next night we’re playing an ice-cold dead-of-winter frat house, a fight breaks out upstairs, and everyone goes up there to watch the fight, and I swear to god we played to not one single person. The next night … like six hours away. We’re still working our way up, so we don’t get a big head. Every great show is a gift, and every not so great show is a …
Faber: A really great gift.
Do you feel that while you’re touring and playing you figure out little nuances of what you were originally writing about? Or are you still figuring out what the hell you were thinking when you wrote them? I’m wondering if songs evolve.
Cumming: Something about Sunflower Bean is that it’s not a one-person band. It has a lot of our own styles and flavors, which I think is one of the reasons people call it so many different things because we’re all influenced by so many different things. Sometimes when you write a song and it goes out into the world, it doesn’t exactly belong to you anymore, and the world puts its own meaning on it. I think songs constantly change. And even sometimes when you make it, you don’t fully understand. Maybe it’s different for other people, but that’s what I find. You know what you’re going for and then you realize once it’s done what other people said it means to you, based on a time, or a feeling, and all these different things. I wouldn’t necessarily say that playing the songs live adds that dimension, but I think just as far as songwriting that’s something we’ve experienced.
And how covering certain songs would allow the music to take on a new life. I believe you have a covers EP coming out soon? I read an article the other day about how people think Trent Reznor did a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”, instead. Apparently, Reznor felt that it was invasive in the way Cash took that song, jumped inside of it, wrapped himself around it, and that was it. It became his. I feel like so many people take covers for granted, and it really is such a brilliant exchange for two artists or two bands. Were you nervous to cover songs that you found inspiring?
Cumming: The covers EP is interesting. There are very few of them being made, but I think it’s something for the fans and a little supplemental piece for the album. We made it when we had Rough Trade Album of the Month, and it was a little bonus CD that we recorded in our basement, actually. It’s a little special thing that shows a little bit more of who we are and our influences. It’s got “Life’s a Gas” by T. Rex, “Old World” by Jonathan Richman, “Shine a Light” by Spiritualized, and “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young, which is kind of out of left field. It was one of my favorite songs at the time.
Kivlen: Yeah, I mean there’s definitely the element of wanting to do a good job and make it a cover with some sort of purpose. We picked the songs basically just out of personal preference. We just picked songs that meant something to us instead of picking something that we wanted to radically have a vision of reforming.
Cumming: Yeah, I think with covers there’s a pressure. The EP is called From the Basement, and I think our stance was just, “This is us, this is Sunflower Bean covering their favorite songs, in their space where they write all their songs, in the space where they still practice.” Our home space.
Kivlen: Yeah, it’s not like we took “Harvest Moon” and did it as an industrial.
Cumming: That’s our next EP, just doing “Harvest Moon” a bunch of different ways.
Faber: We did songs that we knew we wouldn’t totally fuck up.
Kivlen: I have the opposite opinion. I think that nothing is too sacred. You can try your hand at anything. Who gives a fuck? People don’t have to listen to it. I don’t want to do anything that’s shit, but if you do one thing that people hate, it’s OK.
Cumming: I do agree with you. Rock music first and foremost is about going out there and doing it.
Yeah, but there’s something in that. Your music allows people to listen, interpret it, and then shove whatever their opinion of you is onto you. I just hate that people are just summing you up as psych rock, as I think there’s a grace to your music that supersedes it.
Kivlen: I’ve grown to hate the term psych rock. To us, psych rock sort of just means creativity. So if things aren’t a little weird or you haven’t heard it before, then what is it? There’s plenty of rock bands that play straight-ahead rock songs with power chords, and if something happens that’s just a little bit off the course, then it’s psych rock or prog rock. I think all music should be a little bit progressive.
By Nina Corcoran
No city in America can claim to be a melting pot the way New York City can. It’s spilling over with natives and tourists, newborns and three-digit elders, and nearly every race in the world — granted, having eight million people makes diversity a bit easier. That active aversion to homogeneity makes for a music scene as vibrant as its people, but, unfortunately, it can divide itself into roped-off sections at times too, especially in Brooklyn. Xenia Rubinos actively challenges that.
The Greenpoint musician diversifies the traditional expectations of Latin music. With two albums under her belt, the latest of which is this year’s excellent Black Terry Cat, Rubinos blasts through genres, tugging on pop melodies while rhythm-heavy beats drive her music. Above it all, her voice slinks around, acting as a versatile instrument full of staccatos and smooth notes.
Born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, Rubinos holed up in Barnes & Noble to learn about music, the state’s limited culture preventing her from discovering the vast sea of sounds present. “It’s very oppressed, culturally,” she says over a quiet lunch in Brooklyn. “There’s just malls, like straight up. And even there you’re really oppressed because everyone looks the same, everyone wears the same thing.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music that Rubinos began learning about ways of performing she hadn’t considered. From the wails of Charles Mingus to the peculiar sounds of Bjork, Rubinos found herself infatuated with musicians who broke away from the norm. She pushed boundaries on her debut LP, Magic Trix, in 2012, but it wasn’t until Black Terry Cat that she found her footing.
From the fuzzed-out bass of “Just Like I” to the flawless vocals of “Lonely Lover”, Xenia Rubinos is pushing her music to embody the spirit of New York City’s melting-pot culture, even if it took six straight months of work in the studio to get there. “I used to feel like recording was like going to the dentist. It’s like you have to do it, it’s really good for you, and at the end of it your teeth are clean, but I would dread it,” she explains. “But now I can’t wait to go back.”
Have you noticed over the course of your career that the type of people who listen to you represent the diversity within your music?
I was just talking with a friend the other day about that because he asked who my fans were. He thought they were all just random weirdos. I’m trying to visualize this audience that’s diverse in culture, in social scene, in age, and it’s starting to happen. At my release show here, I walked out and I was like, “Wait. This is that crowd!” Gay, straight, young, older, black, white, Latino, Asian — everybody was present and that felt really good. That doesn’t happen as much as you would think it does, at all, ever, anywhere, but even in New York where you think it’s diverse, that doesn’t really happen.
Can you think of a song on Black Terry Cat where you wanted to dive into a different sound?
“See Them” is one of my favorite songs on the record and is somewhat of a B-side. I wanted it to sound like a collage, like an adventure that would bring the listener through different parts. I was listening to Kanye at the time and Yeezus, thinking about maximalism. He over-imposes all this stuff that doesn’t belong there, where you’re listening to the song and all of the sudden everything stops and something completely unexpected happens, but makes sense even though it sounds completely unrelated. So in “See Them”, there are explosions that are so much louder than everything else and over-imposed on the whole mix.
I tried to vary my voices on “I Won’t Say”, too. It was speaking, not really rapping, but a fast pace to make it sound like different versions of me. I became my own hype girl [Laughs]. That was the first time I tried — like really tried — to be specific with my lyrics. It was still stream of consciousness, but I was rhyming to myself about being self-obsessed, a bit like selfie culture: What do I expect myself to look like and how do others see me? You get lost, ironically, in how you look at yourself.
What’s your stance on selfies?
It’s weird. I still don’t understand it. But I totally do it. I take selfies, I post selfies, I like looking at people’s faces. It’s cool to be able to create this archive, like this documentation of everything that you do at every moment, you kind of just flip through your Instagram and see all the stuff that you did that year or something and it’s kind of cool in a way, but you know, we’re also all putting up what we think is the best version of ourselves at all times. It’s a persona; it’s not really you, and I’ll never really know who you are and what you look like from your selfies. I won’t know much — I’ll know what you’re telling me, so it’s kind of like this fake reality. We’re all obsessed with this voyeuristic task of watching everybody doing what they do.
Do you think there’s a difference between a picture of yourself in general versus a selfie?
Yeah, for sure, because the picture is how someone else saw you, and a selfie is how you wanna see yourself. We all see each other in different ways. I’ll never know how you see me, and you’ll never know how I see you, you know? The eyes that we look with are totally different.
What about control on the stage? How does that, or a lack thereof, change your performance?
Things are gonna go wrong. If things don’t go wrong, then your set may be lacking adventure. Try to keep a lightness about you, because it’s all about your perspective and where your brain is, where you’re at, where your thinking is, where your soul is at. If you drag yourself — and obviously I’m speaking from experience here — then that interrupts your progress and interrupts what you’re going to do next. I learned a lot from going on tour and opening for a lot of bands, getting to witness how other people deal with problems on the road. I opened for Battles, and basically their whole vibe is like, “Shit’s gonna go wrong pretty much every night,” because what they’re doing is a very high-risk situation. During the first song of the set, Ian — the guitarist and keyboardist — saw that his keyboard stopped working, and he was just cool as a cucumber about it. He just sort of played the line on another instrument. Having grace like that is something I’m working on. Shit’s gonna happen, so you gotta just keep moving.
By Mandy Freebairn
Photo by Nina Corcoran
When I spoke to Big Thief’s songwriter and guitarist Adrianne Lenker, she and her bandmates had just returned from a hiking trip through the mountains of northern Italy. This may be their first venture across the Atlantic, but the members of Big Thief are no strangers to travel. The Brooklyn indie rockers have kept busy since the release of their debut album, Masterpiece, following up a spring tour with Yuck with a smattering of shows and festival appearances. “I’ve started thinking of being on the road as being home for now,” Lenker reflects.
Lenker acknowledges that the album’s title may come across as self-aggrandizing, but if Big Thief is looking to create a true masterpiece, their debut is certainly a step in the right direction. Masterpiece is a delicate balance of raw vulnerability and thoughtful reflection, vacillating between the electric guitar catharsis of “Real Love” and quieter songs like “Randy”, whose soft melodies spotlight the narrative lyrics.
Some of this is obviously influenced by Lenker’s solo work, as well as a series of collaborations she did with guitarist Buck Meek (also a member of Big Thief). In these earlier projects, Meek’s gentle vocal harmonies and twin acoustic guitars underscore Lenker’s ever-poetic lyrics. The songs are beautiful, but they lack a sonic edge to complement the emotional intensity of their subject matter. Lenker and Meek found this element in Big Thief, with the addition of bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia. The result is a fuller and more diverse sound that sets Big Thief apart from their coffee-shop counterparts. Now, when Lenker sings, “Real love makes your lungs black,” a thumping drum and electric guitar help punctuate her declaration.
If Masterpiece is any indication, there’s a lot in store for Big Thief in both the near and distant future. Some of it may be uncomfortable, like saying goodbye to their van, Bonnie (“She’s an old lady … we retired her”). Most of it, however, will likely resemble their music: adventurous, emotionally charged, and always getting better.
You’ve been all over the country this summer and are now embarking on your first European tour. Do you think the shift to more frequent touring will affect your songwriting?
In the past, I’ve found it a lot easier to write when I’m in one place for a long period of time. I like to be alone. But I’m finding that I’ve been learning how to adapt to writing on the road. It’s kind of intuitive to me since I’m around people all the time. I think probably the writing is being affected by everything all the time. Definitely travelling often affects it, and just the people we meet along the way. And I’m not sure if the style itself is evolving because of being on the road, but I don’t know. I’m sure everything plays into it.
You mentioned your songwriting process being kind of solitary, but the album seems fairly biographical at times — there are songs about specific people, a song called “Humans”, a baby’s voice at the end of the song “Interstate”. Can you talk a bit about the experiences that drove this theme?
For this album, the songs were written and gathered over the course of maybe three years, from just after moving to New York up until we recorded it a year ago. Naturally, there are relationships and things that made their way into my subconscious and my psyche over those years, and most of the songs were just ways of processing what everything meant. “Randy,” for instance, is not necessarily about someone named Randy. It’s a lot broader. That song started out being written from a dog’s perspective. I was looking into the lonely whimpering eyes of a dog that I was living with, and I was thinking what it would feel like to coexist with people that don’t speak your language and to never be able to say anything… But as I was writing, it grew past that. It was just the seed that started the whole song, and then it could be about being trapped in your own mind, or being physically trapped.
The album is called Masterpiece. What’s an album you’d consider a masterpiece?
One Quiet Night by Pat Metheny. Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. The name Masterpiece, though, it sounds bold. When I was choosing the name for the album, I definitely knew that some people would take it as kind of a conceited decision. But if you listen to the song “Masterpiece”, it’s meant to be eventually grasped that it’s not meaning masterpiece in the sense that you might take it. It’s in a different sense, like the song. Because there’s a long way to go, I hope, as a band from here. This is just a starting point.
What’s one thing you want listeners to take away from Masterpiece?
I want the listeners to know that I care about them, I guess. And that I hope it means something; that it somehow makes them feel a little less alone.