South by Southwest Class of 2014: Pop Artists to Watch in Austin
We're only days away to the official start of the Music portion of the annual South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive festival that formally kicks off next week Wednesday. The action-packed Austin, TX festival has tradionally been a fantastic platform for young, up-and-coming artists to play lots of shows, get noticed and expand their fanbase among the many influencers and other tastemaker types that trek to South by Southwest from all over the world.
This year, I will be attending South by Southwest for the fourth year in a row. Over those past few years, the festival has ballooned into a gigantic happening with brands promoting their wares, labels parading their latest signings and promising indie upstars trying to get attention while we all stand in line for hours to get some authentic Austin BBQ for lunch.
For me personally, South by Southwest has been a great place to see many of the acts I'd been blogging about for months and also discover a few new ones. I remember the years I saw Frankmusik and Marina & The Diamonds for the first time while I zig-zagged around town to interview (then) newcomers like Ellie Goulding, Dev and Neon Hitch. My big discovery last year was Disclosure who played a 1 a.m. show just outside the Austin city center that was attended by a hundred people or so. The group was still unsigned in America at the time (they were scooped up by Cherrytree Records right after) but that performance put them in pole position for success stateside.
I will be spending a few days in Austin next week before heading to Miami for the Winter Music Conference. I compiled a shortlist of artists that will perform at South by Southwest that I believe will leave Austin by the end of next week with more momentum for continued success. Read on for a few notes about some of those artists to watch at South by Southwest and listen to all of my picks on the SXSW 2014: Pop playlist on Beats Music.
Betty Who: Frequent readers of this blog will certainly not be surprised by this selection. I've been a supporter of Betty Who since day one. I exclusively premiered her "Somebody Loves You" late 2012 that became a blog sensation and turned Who into one of the hottest new talents on the pop scene to watch. (Listen on Beats)
Chloe Howl: The British singer has been been a blog darling for years now and she's finally making it to the U.S. to properly kick off promo for her debut EP that is released in America on Tuesday. It's fun, clever and hooky electro-pop that pop lovers everywhere will embrace. (Listen on Beats)
Jetta: After blogging about her incredible "Start A Riot" years ago, I finally saw Jetta perform live at South by Southwest upstairs in a small dive bar on 6th Street. I was blown away by her confidence and powerful vocals. Now, one year later, she's one of the biggest priorities on Republic Records and her single "Feels Like Coming Home" is gaining heat on radio following its feature in a Google commercial. Jetta is the real deal and she's most definitely one to keep on the center of your radar. (Listen on Beats)
Tove Lo: The Swedish singer/songwriter has written many of your favorite pop songs including a few gems on Icona Pop's debut album. Following the release of the single "Habits," she's getting ready to step into the spotlight and her just-released EP Truth Serum gives a taste of what's to come. It combines brutally honest lyricism with a bittersweet sentiment that the Swedes have perfected. I'm a big fan and I'm very curious to see her live show. (Listen on Beats)
Sam Smith: Following his hits with Naughty Boy and Disclosure, Smith is about to release one of the most exciting albums of 2014. I've heard snippets of it and it blew me away. His music fits right on the bleeding edge of soul and pop much like how Adele positioned her first two albums. Seeing Sam Smith live is an equally impressive experience that is even more special in small, intimate venues that South by Southwest is made off. (Listen on Beats)
Gorgon City: Disclosure are the bonafide kings of the commercial deep house revival and they have paved the way for acts like Gorgon City to bring more of that viby house coolness. The duo just celebrated a massive U.K. hit with "Ready for Your Love" featuring MNEK that most certainly has the potential to crossover into the pop world with a little push and persistence. (Listen on Beats)
Liz: In recent weeks, I've been obsessed with Liz's new EP that is a collection of songs that celebrates everything that we love so much about '90s R&B and pop. It's a sound that is retro in its original but forward in its execution. She's could easily be one of the biggest new acts to emerge in 2014 with South by Southwest as a kick off point. (Listen on Beats)
Also on the list: RAC, Matthew Koma and Le Youth.
March 8, 2014 | Permalink
Three Things That Come to Mind When I Think of Janelle Monae
There are three things that come to mind when I think of Janelle Monae. First, it's close to 6 years ago that I saw Janelle perform at the Emory University campus in Atlanta, GA when she performed for a handful of people at a student rally to create awareness about the genocide in Darfur. Buzz had steadily been building for Monae in the Atlanta area where she resides at the inconspicious Wondaland compound somewhere just outside of the city. Still unsigned at the time, she had just independently released an EP that gave listeners a few clues about her strong artistic point of view and unique blend of soul-pop.
It was that small and intimate performance in April 2009 at Emory's United Methodist Church that completely captivated me. Her stage energy blew me away. It was unlike anything I had seen before and made me compare her to a young female version of Michael Jackson and James Brown in a review I wrote back then.
Another thing that always comes to mind when I think of Janelle Monae is my disappointment that she has never won a Grammy for any of her music. She has been nominated multiple times across different categories, including Best Urban Alternative Performance (in 2009 for "Many Moons") and Best Contemporary R&B Album (in 2011 for the brilliant "The ArchAndroid"). Inexplicably, at this year's Grammy Awards, her most recent (and critically-acclaimed) sophomore LP "The Electric Lady" was completely shut out of consideration. Rihanna ended up grabbing Grammy gold for "Unapologetic" in the Best Urban Alternative Album category which is a category that quite frankly should have been owned by Monae.
Despite missing out on a Grammy (so far), Monae received one of the biggest honors of her career last night. She was invited by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to perform during a unique workshop event as part of a concert honoring women in soul music. Michelle Obama hosted the workshop for 124 students from middle school, high school and colleges from across the country.
That very special moment brings me to the third thing that comes to mind when I think of Janelle Monae. She's a great example for aspiring artists. The fact that Monae bounces from genre to genre while clearly wearing her inspirations on her sleeves makes it hard for people to put her in a box. And that's a good thing.
Monae's music and performance is refreshing and trying to put a label on it would diminish her artistic intention. Her bold approach and non-conformist attitude is an example to all aspiring artists out there who have set out to create a unique path of their own. Whether you're a singer, writer, painter, dancer or, yes, even a music blogger.
Catch the taped broadcast of the "Women In Soul Music" event including performances by Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, Melissa Etheride and Janelle Monae, on April 7 on a PBS station near you.
March 7, 2014 | Permalink
Betty Who Unleashes Gloriously New Single 'Heartbreak Dream' [Review]
Leave it up to Betty Who to write a song about heartbreak and make it sound deliciously glorious. I'll have one of Betty's heartbreak dreams any day of the week. The rising pop star premiered the summer anthem to be on Spin earlier today in anticipation of its formal release next week Tuesday. Taken from her forthcoming new EP Slow Dancing, "Heartbreak Dream" is another mightily infectious pop concotion courtesy of Betty and her collaborator Peter Thomas that helps to further define her unique brand of pop. Ruled by splashy synths and an irresistibly glittery chorus, "Heartbreak Dream" packs a bittersweet sentiment that puts her right up there with savvy pop makers like Robyn, Ellie Goulding and Icona Pop. Make sure to look for the single on Beats Music next week Tuesday and in the meantime you can find it right here.
February 11, 2014 | Permalink
Celebrating Music's Biggest Night with a Message of Equality
After covering The GRAMMY Awards up close for six years in a row (and watching the show on TV before that), I can honestly say that last night’s show was one of the most moving and emotional GRAMMY telecasts I have experienced. The show managed to impact culture in a big way with a number of performances that conveyed a message about equality. It wasn’t political by design, it was simply a theme that lingered through many of this year's nominated songs.
One of the night's stand out moments was Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' ground-breaking performance of "Same Love" that featured fellow Seattleite Mary Lambert plus special guests Madonna and Queen Latifah. "Same Love" is a song that explicitly addresses the importance of equal rights for all regardless of age, race, sex and sexual orientation.
Following their win for Best New Artist earlier in the evening, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took the stage towards the end of the CBS telecast. The duo performed the song together with Mary Lambert before Queen Latifah entered the stage to officiate a mass wedding of 33 couples in the audience. Madonna gave the newly-married couples a proper wedding gift with an impromptu performance of her classic "Open Your Heart" mashed up with "Same Love" that gave a whole new meaning to the phase, “It's not that hard/If you just turn the key.” It was a truly powerful performance that didn't leave a dry eye in the room.
Kacey Musgraves' poignant performance of "Follow Your Arrow" also promoted a message of equality and individuality.The young Nashville singer won two GRAMMY statues for “Merry Go ‘Round” (Best Country Song) and Same Trailer, Different Park (Best Country Album). "Follow Your Arrow" promotes equality for everyone in not so subtle terms: "Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls If that's something you're into/Love who you love/ 'Cause you just get so many trips 'round the sun."
Musgraves was visibly emotional when she received the GRAMMY for Best Country Song during the pre-telecast for “Merry Go ‘Round.” “That song means so much to me,” she told the audience. “It changed my life. I’m so happy to make country music that I feel represents the genre.”
GRAMMY nominee Sara Bareilles added her own twist to the theme of equality with her performance of "Brave" alongside legendary singer/songwriter Carole King who was honored as MusiCares’ Person of the Year. Bareilles sings, "You can be the outcast/Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love/Or you can start speaking up." Bareilles harmonized beautifully with King that resulted in another memorable GRAMMY moment.
Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar fired up the crowd with their powerful mashup of "Radioactive" and "m.A.A.d. City." The performance was released as a single just moment after the show concluded.
Beyonce stunned the crowd with a show-stopping opening number that mimicked the album visuals of her recently-released, self-titled album.
This year's GRAMMYs also facilitated the reunion of two Beatles: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. They performed together to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of The Beatles' historic performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Bruno Mars did not perform at the show but he was in attendance to receive a GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Album for Unorthodox Jukebox. A very well-deserved win for a solid and cohesive pop album that continues Mars’ winning streak following his meteoric rise to fame. Mars also introduced Pink’s daredevil performance of "Try" followed by "Just Give Me A Reason" with Nate Ruess. The pop singer once again was pulled high up into the air to perform up side down and in rotation while never skipping a beat.
With performances that were both meaningful and fun to watch, this year’s GRAMMYs fully lived up to its reputation as the year’s Biggest Night in Music.
January 27, 2014 | Permalink
Introducing Beats Music: A New Way to Experience, Discover and Share Music (Plus More about the Future of This Blog)
Pop music means everything to me. It's my life and joy. It's what I stand for and what I believe in. Pop has always been there for me and it's what I want to share with others. Those are the reasons why I decided to start writing this blog twelve years ago. I launched ArjanWrites.com in March 2002 as a way to tip friends about new music. There was no big business plan or lofty vision. None of that. I just wanted to share great music with people that cared as much about pop music as I did. This blog organically has grown into one of the first prominent music blogs on the web that has taken me on an incredible journey since then. From The GRAMMYs to CNN, and from ARTIST#TALK to making the Out 100 list. Today, all that love for pop music culminates in my new adventure as the Head of Pop/Dance Programming at Beats Music, a brand-new music streaming service that arrived today.
I moved out to Los Angeles last year to write my first book. After being in California for two weeks and just getting my feet on the ground, I received a call from Brian Frank at Beats by Dr. Dre to come talk about an exciting new project. I met with him and Scott Plagenhoef, and was instantly sold on the vision laid out by Jimmy Iovine, Trent Reznor, Dr. Dre and Luke Wood to usher in a new era of music streaming. I put all my plans on hold to join Project Daisy (later renamed to Beats Music) and its editorial team to be the lead programmer for everything pop and dance. Now I work together with the best in the business to program Beats Music including Carl Chery, Suzy Cole, Mason Williams, Ken Tucker, Jerry Pulles and our tireless and inspiring editor-in-chief Scott Plagenhoef (my new personal hero whose book I used to gift to friends). Radio veteran Julie Pilat joined the Beats Music team in the summer to connect us to the artist community in exciting (and always creative) new ways. (Meet my entire editorial team here)
Beats Music is unlike any other music streaming service out there. It recognizes that music is an emotion and that music carries memories that last forever. We respect those qualities of music, and instead of just giving listeners access to 20 million songs (no worries we do that too), we've build carefully-curated listening experiences around activities, moods, events and artists. Love Robyn and want more of that sublime Swedish pop? We have you covered. Need something to wake up to on a lazy Sunday morning? We got that. Are you in the mood for some deliciously campy dance-pop songs? We have all of that and more. With its panel of trusted sources, Beats Music brings back personalized music recommendations to a mobile app that is fun and easy to use.
Trent Reznor conveys Beats Music's vision perfectly in this TV spot
Over the past decade, more than 7000 posts later, I've written this blog to introduce you to young upstarts like Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Ellie Goulding, Lana Del Rey and many others. ArjanWrites.com has been a labor of love that has provided me with so many opportunities and has given me many new friendships. I'm very grateful for that and I feel truly blessed. With the launch of Beats Music, I will continue what got this blog started. I will keep on highlighting new artists and music that I care about but now primarily on an exciting new platform that reaches people far beyond this blog.
But no worries. This blog is not going anywhere.
I will continue to blog here and provide stories about my work at Beats Music and the pop that excites me. Plus, once in a while I may blog about some other things that interest me. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to follow me on Twitter and Beats Music to continue our conversation about everything pop.
The ArjanWrites.com community means the world to me. I want to thank you all for being part of my incredible journey. I hope you will join me on Beats Music so we can experience the future of music together. Thank you for tuning in!
January 21, 2014 | Permalink