There’s no disputing that digital music and online platforms have radically changed how we listen to and discover music. The DIY scene has aced this technological inroad, benefiting from the access and control it gives to up-and-coming artists. Today’s unsigned musicians release their own music, book their own shows, eschew mainstream media and feel a tighter connection with fans. What follows is a look at two of those musicians, both of whom are appearing at the Jefferson this week.
There are generally two defining moments in a young music-lover’s life: when a family member, teacher or friend introduces her to an album, and when she discovers an artist on her own for the very first time. When we look outside of the mainstream, that feeling of discovery can be all the more formative because musical genres spawn scenes, which spawn communities.
Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, 22-year-old singer-songwriter Julien Baker found her musical lineage outside of the legacies and institutions of Stax, Sun Records and Beale Street. “In seventh grade, I started going to shows at the skate park, and the skate park was like the Mecca of alternative slash hardcore slash metalcore music,” she says. “Before then, the only alternative music that I had been made aware of was through VH1 and MTV.”
In the early 2000s, the skate park was booked by Smith7 Records, a collective promoting all-ages music. “I found out that they had shows at their house and that people who were not famous played those shows and it blew my mind,” Baker explains. “The shows that I had seen before then either were huge rock acts like Foo Fighters or something…[with] this separation between performer and audience that was kind of an unobtainable mystique.”
Julien Baker with Half Waif, Petal
The Jefferson Theater
Baker found her footing in the DIY community, playing house shows with her band Forrister. “I think what I crave and adore so much about performing live is the leveling that it does with everybody in the room,” she says.
Baker was still performing with Forrister when she joined the audio production program at Middle Tennessee State University and met Michael Hegner, who had an internship at Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb Studio in nearby Richmond, Virginia. Hegner invited her in to record some demos, and the result was her nine-song debut, Sprained Ankle, which was rereleased by 6131 Records after she shared it on her Bandcamp page. Sprained Ankle became one of the most lauded alternative records of 2015, and since then, Baker has gained a reputation as one of the most honest, heartfelt songwriters around.
“So many things that have happened positively in my musical career have been a result of people in my immediate community, you know, sphere, intervening and offering their resources, which I’m really aware of,” Baker says. “I never, ever want to perpetuate that mythos of the overnight success. There’s so many people who helped me get to where I am.”
Baker’s sophomore album, Turn Out The Lights, comes out at the end of the month and will be her first release on Matador Records. The collection of stunning songs woven with piano and strings marks a sonic growth from the sparse guitar recordings.
“I think the years of growing up and touring in a DIY band really humanized the idea of an audience to me because when there’s 20 people at a show, the person that’s buying your T-shirt is literally putting gas in your car,” Baker says. “… music and the experience of sharing music is the most important thing in the world to me.” —Desiré Moses
Nandi Rose Plunkett always seems to be seeking home in Half Waif, her synth-pop project. Her feelings about home, while on and off the road, are reoccurring themes that run through the lyrics and electronic melodies crafted on her recent album, form/a.
For Plunkett, being a musician and the daughter of a refugee—her mother’s family left Lahore after it became part of Pakistan and relocated to Uganda before dispersing to the U.S. and the U.K.—has led to reflection on a nomadic lifestyle.
“I think home has been such an important thing that I wanted to find and create in my life, so it’s interesting that I chose a career in which I am constantly on the road and away from home,” says Plunkett. “That probably intensifies my desire to make a home even more.”
For the past five months, Plunkett has been living in Chatham, New York, with her two bandmates while working on a new album that’s tentatively titled Lavender. She explains that being connected to nature is essential to her ability to thrive creatively.
“I feel like, for me, in order to create from a place of being deeply in touch with myself it helps to have quiet surroundings and an ecosystem that exists outside of myself,” says Plunkett.
Recently, after crossing the pond to England for her grandmother’s funeral, Plunkett was able to revisit the home that her grandmother lived in for the past 57 years.
She “had lavender in her garden and she would boil it on the stove to create a nice smell in the house,” recalls Plunkett. “It feels really good to be working on this now. Lavender has taken on an even greater meaning for me. It’s kind of a talisman and a connection to her.”
In addition to the coming album, Half Waif recently announced a vinyl reissue of Probable Depth, which debuted in May of last year and features the single “Turn Around.” Plunkett also released the nine-minute track “Dream Cycle” in tandem with the announcement. She describes the sprawling track, recorded back in 2014, as being a bundle of verses and choruses that have been stitched together.
“It kind of mimics the nature of dreams. You’re in one scenario and then suddenly you’re in another and you’re like ‘How did I get here?’ but somehow it still all makes sense within the scope of your dream.” —Anita Overcash