A few years ago, Bob Boilen, host of NPR Music’s “All Songs Considered,” turned his work desk into a concert venue. Today, he invites musicians from all over the world to play intimate sets of songs between the desk and bookshelves in the Tiny Desk concert series. The short sessions are filmed and later posted online for music buffs to discover new jams or hear reimagined and often stripped-down versions of favorites. Superstars such as Adele, T-Pain and Natalie Merchant, as well as many others have recorded shows for the series.
Five bands from Charlottesville and Staunton hope they will be next.
They’ve all submitted videos to the 2016 Tiny Desk Contest and if they win, they’ll be asked to perform a set. Fans can vote for their favorite videos, and judges will choose a winner by the first week in March. Each band brings something different to the competition, but they all share the same goal: Get their music into ears across the nation.
Vote for your favorites at tinydeskcontest.npr.org.
Juliana Daugherty, “Easier”
Juliana Daugherty’s voice is beautiful. It’s sensuous and haunting; it sends shivers down your spine and echoes in your ears all day. As a vocalist, guitarist and flutist, she’s an integral part of two Charlottesville alt-folk bands, Nettles and The Hill & Wood, but with “Easier,” she strikes out on her own for the first time. The song captures “a special kind of despair that comes of feeling like you’re stuck in a black hole when everything else in your life is going objectively well,” Daugherty says. It’s a simple but abundant performance—Daugherty, her guitar and harmonies from Lowland Hum’s Lauren Goans—of a song that offers a sincere look at melancholy: “I gave it a good fight, / I tried to be alright when I wasn’t. / I took it all in stride, / life’s got to roll the dice sometime, / but it isn’t getting easier.”
The Judy Chops, “Mouse and Cat”
“Mouse and Cat” is the latest tune from quirky, genre-defying Staunton band The Judy Chops. Written by vocalist and baritone-banjo-ukulele player Sally Murphy, this song is about love (and its pitfalls) and it will make you bob your head and snap your fingers. Murphy says that it’s a solid introduction to The Judy Chops vibe, with all six members playing music in a tiny sound booth at Blue Sprocket Sound in Harrisonburg. Already, the contest is paying off: They’ve connected with some fellow contestants and are swapping shows for a tour this coming year.
The Findells, “The Girl Walking Backwards”
The Findells’ submission is a live take of an energetic rock ‘n’ roar tune that’s caught an early B-52s wave. It’s a song about a guy who’s too timid to cross the room and talk to a girl: “Red hair, black shirt, yellow pants / It’s not hard to imagine romance / With the girl walking backwards.” So he fantasizes about her (and her Plymouth Satellite) instead, says guitarist and vocalist Allan Moye. There’s full percussion, male/female vocals and an electric guitar duel where you’d usually find a solo. Submitting a plugged-in rock song is a bold choice for this Staunton band, and Moye says it’s a “knee-jerk CBGB stylistic response” to the softer, stripped-down format of most Tiny Desk concerts.
Disco Risqué, “Something for Nothing”
For Charlottesville’s Disco Risqué, entering the contest was an opportunity (and a challenge) to create a stripped-down version of one of its catchy, rambunctious funk-rock tunes, “Something for Nothing.” Most of the tracks on the band’s debut run upward of five minutes—these guys love to vamp and keep the groove going—but this one is radio-friendly. “Something for Nothing” is a crowd favorite, says guitar player Charlie Murchie, and it was one the entire band felt comfortable presenting to NPR listeners as their first taste of Disco Risqué. Filmed in a house on Locust Avenue, with drummer Robbey Prescott using a guitar pedal case as a kick drum, this version of a song about a guy who just can’t seem to get it together suggests that volume and a flashy light show has little to do with getting your groove on.
The Anatomy of Frank, “Diagonal/North America”
The Anatomy of Frank’s intimate songs are well-suited to acoustic performances and small venues like Tiny Desk. The band garnered some new fans with its 2015 contest submission and hopes to do the same with “Diagonal/North America,” a tune that singer-guitarist Kyle Woolard says is about getting lost in the cold, way up north, and about wanting something out of life that your partner may not. The contest gave Woolard and bandmates Jimmy Bullis (keys) and Max Bollinger (drums and xylophone) the chance to look at their music anew and to “make more sounds with fewer people,” says Woolard (longtime guitarist Erik Larsen recently left the band to pursue new projects). The Tiny Desk movement—where local bands open their music up to a national audience—is a great one to be part of, Woolard adds.