From artists that have already made a splash (Bleachers) to those hoping to land a record deal (Demi Louise), Friday of SXSW 2015 captured the struggle to make it in the modern music industry.
On Friday of South By Southwest Music, I seek out three artists at very different stages of their careers who are clearly engaging with the festival on different scales. Seeing these artists alongside one another brings to light part of what makes SXSW so unique: it’s a place where you can see an international superstar, a new act touring in support of a highly regarded first record, and an unsigned young singer hoping for a record deal, all in one night.
The French-Cuban twin sister duo Ibeyi has been at the very top of my SXSW wish list this year. When friends ask me who I’m hoping to see, Ibeyi is the first name that comes to mind every time. Their live show is astounding: at just 20 years old, they’re carving out a musical space that no artist I’ve heard of is currently occupying. To be fair, they come from a musical lineage: their father Anga Díaz was a percussionist in the Buena Vista Social Club, and their mother is French-Venezuelan singer Maya Dagino. The influences show in the way that sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi build their songs around polyrhythmic percussion templates, using a box-shaped cajón and a Yoruba-originated Batá drum set, and forceful harmonies that recall the Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit.
Ibeyi draw on their Yoruba heritage as well, switching between English and their mother tongue. They infuse their songs with mythical motifs, as in a new song dedicated to “a goddess who dances on graves” but acts as a protective, rather than destructive, force. Despite their music’s deep saturation in ritual and syncretic cultural traditions, the Díaz twins draw on contemporary sonic trends as well, weaving harmonies together with a loop machine and paying homage to hip hop artists like Jay Electronica, whose song “Better With the Infinite” they cover during their SXSW set. Their performance feels like a dazzling explosion of creative energy, fantastic to behold and suggestive of a long career that lies ahead.
If Ibeyi fall among the class of rising stars at South By Southwest, riding high on recently released records, Australian singer-songwriter Demi Louise has clearly come to the festival with another mission: to gain exposure in the American market and, ultimately, to secure a record deal. I wander into the luxurious Stephen F. Austin Hotel and am pleased to find Demi Louise line checking in a mahogany-paneled bar, where I can order a dirty martini and relax into a leather armchair, a welcome relief during a week of teetering through packed, beer-soaked dive bars.
Like Ibeyi, Demi Louise is just 20 years old, but already displays a precocious command over her musical voice. Her songs authentically reflect her experiences with infatuation and heartbreak -- new tune “Enough” is about pining for a boy who eventually came out of the closet -- but also with family and mortality, as in “Ruins,” a hit on Australian iTunes charts, which is about her grandparents’ relationship after her grandfather succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Somewhat surprisingly, Louise is one of the only completely solo performers I’ve seen all week, and she accompanies her voice with percussive guitar playing that bolsters her overall volume. I’d be surprised if Louise doesn’t leave SXSW with at least some bites by record companies, if not the record deal she’s hoping for. She speaks honestly to the experience of young adulthood, and resembles currently popular stars like Colbie Caillat and Sara Bareilles.
Toward the end of the night, I’m curious to check out what the other end of the experiential spectrum looks like at SXSW, so I catch Bleachers playing a midnight set at Stubb’s outdoor arena in the pouring rain. Fronted by former fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff, Bleachers shamelessly rips off grandiose, melodramatic '80s acts like Meat Loaf and Foreigner (especially in “Wild Heart”); their songs sound like they were engineered to be played in massive stadiums. To be honest, I’m prepared to sort of hate Bleachers; at first contact, they sound like fun. minus Nate Ruess’s instinct for baroque songwriting or his insanely expansive vocal range. Antonoff isn’t a great singer; he pulls it off by navigating a fairly compressed vocal register.
Bleachers (photo by Daniel Silbert)
But the man clearly knows how to write a pop anthem, as his co-writing and producing work on Taylor Swift’s smash 1989 confirms, and he’s also mastered the art of convincing an audience that they’re witnessing the most awesome live music show they’ve ever seen (“Austin, we’re giving you everything tonight!” he kept screaming). I’m partially convinced; to be honest, it’s probably the lowest quality of musicianship I’ve seen all week, but it’s undeniably joy-inducing to see hundreds of young people wearing shitty rain ponchos, waving lame neon glow sticks, and having the time of their lives nonetheless. Given that Bleachers sell out large venues across the world, this show is clearly more a victory lap than a bid for exposure, but as such it’s a fairly glorious spectacle to behold and a fun (no pun intended, actually) way to end the night.