Despite pre-festival outrage at an immigration clause, the talent gathering for South by Southwest in Austin this year is impossible to ignore. Song to Song will premiere, with a sparkling cast of musicians including Patti Smith, Lykke Li, Iggy Pop and Florence and the Machine. Attendees will get a first look the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s cult fantasy novel American Gods. And the musical showcase includes no less than 33 Bay Area artists, ranging from well established to virtually unknown. We’re highlighting 3 talents across genre that are on the rise.
It took just one painfully thought-out album for Asa Taccone to remember that “making music is supposed to be fun.” After grinding for years, the Electric Guest frontman and bandmate Matthew Compton found success with their 2012 debut album Mondo. So rather than fall victim to the kind of pressure that crushes breakout stars more often than not, Taccone reacted to the success by retreating to his bedroom to record a solo follow-up album. There, he came to learn one of the biggest lessons about the creative process behind music the hard way:
It kind of broke me down mentally. Nobody liked it…and after sitting with it, I realized it was garbage too. But the great thing about it was that it inspired me to get me back to what music used to be for me: intuitive, and not over-intellectualized. Once I scrapped that record, a completely different album emerged really quickly and naturally, and I love it so much more.
The result was Plural, an electronic R&B infused record that marks the group’s continuing evolution and increasingly confident sound. Rolling Stone called it “a Beck-ian journey into L.A. slacker soul, full of hooky neon jams,” Entertainment Weekly praised its “winking falsetto and retro swagger,” and The Guardian commended its “soulful, funked-up pop.” Since Plural, the duo has hit the late-night circuit, been featured in commercials and television shows, played Outside Lands, and more. Says Taccone:
I just realized that working quickly and intuitively is part of the magic of making music. I think a lot of music suffers when people get into a studio and feel like the process has to be this heady thing. When you go in with expectations, it wears down the levity and the fluidity that the natural process should have.
Compton adds: “I think we found that it’s better to record all of your initial ideas quickly and then spend more time whittling them down to the most important components. While we were making the new album I found myself being influenced by things that were very simple but rich in texture and still possess an emotional payoff.”
Payoff, it certainly did.
STELLA makes the high-minded sound effortless. Her 2016 debut album Selfish oscillates between singer-songwriter, sultry alt R&B, and dream soul infusions to create something familiar yet wholly original. It might not be what you’d expect from the daughter of musical legend Carlos Santana, but already STELLA has established a jazzy, ephemeral sound of her own.
Instrumentally she draws on future-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote, but STELLA’s vocals soar over layers of music with Nelly Furtado clarity and an Erykah Badu thoughtfulness. Though the album was written around heartbreak, the 32-year-old’s music finds warmth in the emotion.
She tells Hope Street that music almost didn’t happen for her: “For the majority of my life, I wasn’t interested in doing things that brought attention to myself. And even though I’ve always loved music, I knew that pursuing it meant I had to put myself out there. And I didn’t want to, I liked being unknown…And then one day – literally one day – it became very clear to me that I had to go for it and when I decide to go for something nothing can really stop me. The clarity came from realising that my disinterest was actually resistance. I believe we need to move toward the things we resist, not away from them. So that day, I decided.” Lucky for us, she hasn’t looked back since.
Nef the Pharaoh
Promising to join the ranks of Vallejo rappers Mac Dre and E-40 is charismatic Nef the Pharaoh. The 20-year-old’s 2015 single “Big Tymin’,” a salute to the late 90s/early 2000s New Orleans-based rap duo Big Tymers, is brushing 10 million plays on Spotify. His self-titled EP was released in collaboration with EMPIRE and E-40’s record label, Sick Wid It.
Pitchfork praised Nef for breaking out of the Bay Area hip-hop mold, saying he “dodges the derivative. As a rapper, he lets the energy lead and the bars follow, boasting and flexing with the kinds of memorable banalities that make up some of hip-hop’s best yet least-celebrated moments.”
With the charm and swiftness of a much more seasoned rapper, Nef uses elements of trap rap as skillfully as he progresses hyphy flow. The versatility he exhibits between tracks like “Michael Jackson”, “Lauryn Hill”, and “#Saydaat'” clearly draw on influences that extend past his immediate local tie. Not that we’re complaining: The Bay Area is sure to claim Nef as its own on his journey up the rap ranks, no matter how far he goes.
Check out the rest of the Bay Area artists on the SXSW lineup here: