pop

Stephanie Rodd: “Stronger Than Ever”

For us uncultured Americans, we tend to invent a caricature when we hear about a “French songstress”. Yes, we let our assumptions automatically paint a picture of a smoky nightclub against a traumatic war torn backdrop, a slender figure in haute couture wardrobe, cigarette in one hand, microphone in the other, and lyrics toutes en français. The reality, of course, is much more of a mixed bag; I mean c’mon…we’re talking about a massive nation with a century-plus of cross cultural influences here.

Enter: Stephanie Rodd. The Parisian-Londoner up-and-comer pardons herself past the stereotypical chanson midcentury chic of Edith Piaf or Juliette Gréco and instead slides towards the more contemporary energy of acts like Adele, Estelle, and the late Amy Winehouse. Based on what little we’ve heard so far, there’s no doubt that Rodd’s time in England has helped her find the right R&B-soul-pop soundscapes for her singing style that’s reminiscent of Jorja Smith.

And in 2024, as part of a rapid trajectory, Stephanie Rodd’s shooting for the moon with the release of her debut EP next month. Following her mid-February introduction “Worth It”, Rodd’s sophomore single “Stronger Than Ever” finds Stephanie sounding…well…just like the song title. It’s an intriguing, minimalist arrangement filled with passionate chord pads, seductive synth squeaks, carnal guitar, trap-type drums, and soul-warming subs – all anchoring a bold vocal mix of triplet rhythms and unconventional melodies.

Felt Out: “Crash Inside It”

When we last geeked out over Austin’s Felt Out, we broke down their foundation as that of auto-tune innovators on the cutting edge of alt-pop. And following the first anniversary of their second full-length Until I’m Light, that’s clearly still the case for these multi-instrumentalist-producers. They still sound like a next generation Imogen Heap. Their style still scratches that itch within the hyper-processed, accessible-yet-oddball alt-pop niche. And they’re still going strong in 2024.

Yep, after a year of silence for studio releases, Felt Out touched down from their natural habitat way up in the electro-aether last week, almost as if ushered in by the solar eclipse. On Friday they fired off “Know You (closer3.0)” – a Frankenstein re-assembly of leftover samples from their current streaming star – and “Crash Inside It” – which came alongside a minimalist music video. Unlike the polished, narrative-driven visual companion to “Closer”, “Crash Inside It”‘s counterpart lets a flickering frame rate and negative polarization do the storytelling, a return to their earlier aesthetic of amateur footage, analog grain, openness to interpretation, and all.

It’s certainly on brand for Felt Out, that’s for sure. And it’s got us eager to see and hear what they’ll come up with next. You feel us?

francene rouelle: “love wasn’t enough”

When we prioritize praise, obviously the actual performer gets preferential treatment. So when listening to a final product, it can sometimes be easy to overlook the impact of a producer with a calculated vision, especially when they’re still in their salad days.

That brings us to Austin-based, Cambodian-born producer Wil Brookhart, best known by his creative handle waverly. On top of his idiosyncratic trap/pop/R&B sound, and helping catapult his bestie promqueen to local legend status last year, waverly’s also got a brand new retinue – his newly launched label mHart – which caters to Asian-American artists alongside a near-dozen-person all-minority/women team. That’s right; it turns out promqueen was just the initial proof of concept, because ahead of her anticipated sophomore szn two, she’s now joined by the second exciting addition to mHart’s already-promising, all-lowercase roster – francene rouelle.

Still in her early twenties and humbled by an agrarian upbringing, this first generation Filipina’s skipped past any nepotistic child TV star chapter (looking at you, Ariana Grande and Sabrina Carpenter) and straight into the auspicious arena of Asian Pop. And with backing from waverly’s cutesy-yet-sophisticated style of beats, francene rouelle hyper-effeminate fashion and coquettishly-confident vocals altogether gloss a strategically-girly image. In other words, while Ariana Grande grasps at straws, peddling too many versions of the same tired tune, a new Pop/R&B princess begins to seize the throne. So get ready to bend the knee when rouelle’s debut EP finally a fairytale drops April 19th, and charm your weekend with that record’s opening fable, “love wasn’t enough”.

Ethan Azarian: “Hawaii”

Us Austinites love to brag about living in the “Live Music Capital of the World”. But that moniker’s not just a matter of venue multiplicity; no, there’s something about our city limits that not only creates a gravitational pull, but also dips newcomers right into a fast-acting melting pot.Case in point? Ethan Azarian, a Vermont-raised singer-songwriter-painter who moved down here in the late ’80s shortly before founding a quickly-beloved local institution, The Orange Mothers. Well, outside of the Mothers, Azarian’s also an accomplished solo folk/pop artist, and on top of raising Blue Cow Studios from the ground up and more recently spearheading the Songwriter’s Happy Hour at Hole in the Wall, two decades after the release of his solo introduction Captain of the Town, Ethan’s still going strong.As a matter of fact, just in time for this big freeze, Ethan Azarian’s offering up a much-welcomed change of scenery with his latest full-length Hawaii. Featuring not just the album artwork of Ethan’s son Francis but some really tasteful piano and organ as well, Hawaii is a gorgeous, sans-percussion folk family affair. And you can see the father-son chemistry live at a free show 7PM this Saturday at the Cactus Cafe with fellow Hawaii contributors Lindsey Verrill, Jeff Johnston, and special guest Amy Annelle. By then we’ll have warmed up just enough to want to get out, thanks in no small part to Hawaii‘s title track. Despite its beautifully-barren, wintry arrangement, the lyrics that carry “Hawaii” paint a transportive tropical portrait of volcanos, green waters, and enveloping island voices.

Walker Lukens: “Man & Wife”

As a commemoration of factory personnel, harsh conditions, and tumultuous union strikes, Labor Day often loses its meaning for all the folks just enjoying a Monday off. But a century-plus later, we can still take a moment to appreciate some less-industrial aspects of life that often get taken for granted. For example keeping up a clean, appealing appearance usually takes a continued concerted effort, and once those looks help you land a partner for life, the work doesn’t stop; it’s a real labor of love to keep a marriage going strong past the initial honeymoon phase. Keep those in mind as we commend all the hard work Walker Lukens has done over the years. He’s elevated himself from mere multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter to a monolithic must-have producer-for-hire here in Austin, not to mention a concept-driven creator who’s helped mastermind the Song Confessional podcast and the vast Texas Wild collaboration. Still, seems like Walker’s got an undying hunger (and somehow enough time) to make great tunes on his own accord. On that note, this Friday Walker Lukens finally unleashes his fourth full-length Accessible Beauty, self-produced and recorded at Lukens’ Paradise Lunch recording studio. He’ll be taking these eight mellow originals on the road for a week-long East Coast tour in October ahead of three Central Texas shows in mid-December, including “The Last Walt” December 15th at The Paramount as part of KUTX’s 10th Birthday Concert Series. But even though the locals will have to wait a while to catch the new Walker live, Lukens was kind enough to toss us some early access to Accessible Beauty with the LP’s latest and final lead single. A spiritual sequel-of-sorts to this April’s “The One Who Loves You”, “Man & Wife” keeps the affection flowing with shimmering synths, vocal harmonies that weep with reverb, and a hard-rocking hook that gives this multi-coupling of sounds some tasteful dynamic range. So consider celebrating Labor Day with a spell of spontaneous romantic gestures that’ll reaffirm the work you’re willing to put into a relationship (be it currently in existence or a dream for the future). And even if you’re single by choice and plan on keeping it that way, the soft, mature sensuality of “Man & Wife” will make your inner beauty feel sexier and more readily available then it’s ever been on a Monday.

Primo the Alien: “Move”

With only one week left in LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we gotta get in as much queer representation as possible. So on the verge of Pride in Local Music tomorrow afternoon and evening, today we’re highlighting one of Austin’s most eccentric musical personalities, Primo the Alien. Aside from recent strides like making their ACL Fest debut last October and descending down to KUTX’s Rock the Park concert series a couple weeks later, this intergalactic master-of-MIDI and celestial synth-wizard has an incredibly prolific studio output – a Milky Way of singles often complemented by vibrant music videos. Style-wise, the synthesizer and MIDI sampler are always close at hand, so it makes sense that this singer-producer orbits around all things pop – synth-pop, electro-pop, dance-pop, you name it. Ahead of their slot 7PM tomorrow on Pride in Local Music’s main stage for the festival’s fourth celebration, this morning Primo dropped their fifth single of the year. Far from lost time at just shy of three-and-a-half minutes, “Move” will abduct your headspace with Tropical House chords, tasteful retro synth tones, perfectly-saturated beats that beg for the dance floor, and of course Primo’s indestructible, superstar-nearing-supernova singing.

Softee: “U + Me (WDYT)”

As progressive as some parts of the US purport to be, it can be insanely easy to not fit within the cog-work of traditional Western values. And without access to proper support, that absence of belonging can tragically lead some “outcasts” to take drastic measures – destruction towards themselves or others. It’s a human condition, plain and simple. But the ability to recognize that placeless-ness and understand its origins (often by gesturing broadly at our increasingly complicated society) before allocating that uncertainty into a nuanced piece of art that perhaps makes others feel more accepted? That’s divine.

Dating back to its origins in the late-’70s days of Studio 54 disco domination, electronic music has consistently provided a safe haven for “alternative lifestyles”. Even if the performers themselves aren’t explicitly part of the counterculture, the innate desire to dance our troubles away on a welcoming dance floor has created a shared identity for lovers of all things four-to-the-floor. That about brings us to Moorhead, Minnesota songwriter Nina Grollman, better known by her stage name Softee.

When Softee relocated to Brooklyn just under a decade ago, her unapologetic queerness and undyingly creative personality began to make a lot more sense. Already primed to be a pop star, Softee made her studio debut with her August 2019 EP Slow Melt, and impressively kept the momentum with another batch of ten infectious tunes via Keep On the following year. Softee’s racked up some admirable streaming numbers since then, but she sure as hell hasn’t lost sight of her music’s empathetic potential for anyone losing sleep over rampant emotions.

With that, Softee is set to reemerge anew and stronger than ever with her sophomore full-length Natural. As seen in the macabre, medieval imagery of the various single artwork, Softee is picking up where Beyoncé’s Renaissance left off by axing regressive representation and re-establishing the dance floor as a harmless melting pot of all human behavior. In teaming up with Berlin’s Sweetbbyj, Natural is enhanced by an extra Eurodance aesthetic over which Softee goes hard. It’s like a mixtape of all the best electronic styles swirled together by Softee’s virtuosic vocal performance and sanguine synth work. Hear for yourself on Natural‘s latest offering “U + Me (WDYT)”, whose “Apache”-esque breakbeat, instant classic of a hook, and wah-drenched funk rhythm guitar all make the bed for Softee to uphold the prowess of pre-millenium electro-pop-R&B queens like Robyn or Janet Jackson. So…what do you think?

promqueen: “Xí Xọn”

Last summer we treated you to a crispy trap-R&B collabo between Casie Luong and waverly called “blessing”. Rest assured, the second-generation Vietnamese-American songwriter and the Cambodian-born producer are still palling around Austin making great music together. And on that note, today, in the spirit of spring and new beginnings, the two team up to introduce a real smokeshow of a project, promqueen.

With waverly still planted in the producer’s chair, promqueen showcases a previously unrecorded talent of Luong’s: bilingual rapping in Vietnamese and English. It marks a new chapter in the pair’s shared mission to amplify Southeast Asian voices here in the states, allowing promqueen to reign in a Vietnamenglish court of cultural pride. It also reckons with Luong and waverly’s collective challenge of not quite knowing where to land in the Venn diagram of Asian-American identity. As a result promqueen presents an interesting trichotomy; although one of promqueen’s core values is natural authenticity, she sits atop a throne of carefully-concocted predominantly-digital instrumentals and hyper exaggerated character-driven imagery. But like bright lipstick against a pale complexion, that high contrast only makes promqueen’s wig-adorned aura of pizzazz glisten stronger.

This fierce, sexy, and verbally-deft belle of the ball breaks out her debut EP szn one in June, kicking off with a “must-see” event before the five remaining tracks trickle out like fashionably-late and outrageous red Tết envelopes. Fastened by saturated boom bass and tasteful 808s, “Xí Xọn” is an extra sassy first impression of promqueen and a tempting promise of what’s to come. Bonus points for the music video that puts you up close and personal with promqueen’s flamboyant makeup, rapid costume changes, and some twerk-adjacent dance moves that are much easier to learn than whatever the latest Tik-Tok routine is.

Jill Barber: “Hell No”

When we watch characters like Marge Simpson or Mad Men‘s Betty Draper, their “homemaker” status is typically the butt of a joke. However after plenty of post-lockdown reflections, the status quo has clearly shifted back to domestic preferences. And although she’s worked damn hard for her planet-spanning, twenty-plus-year success, Canada’s Jill Barber is ready to put aside almost all of it in favor of motherhood and marriage. Almost. Barber boasts a discography dating back to 2002, an impressive list of international festival appearances, three JUNO nominations, countless awards, song placement in programs like Orange is the New Black, ambassadorship with Save the Children, bilingual fluency, and oh yeah, authorship of two children’s books. With a decade of marriage under her belt and a couple kids tied to her hip, this highly-decorated debonair has entered her forties with the maternal wisdom that you simply can’t rush greatness, nor should you ascribe to outdated norms. Sure, Jill still mixes a potpourri of infectious folk arrangements and seductive jazz vocals within perspicacious pop formulas. But she’s also eager to reclaim and re-appropriate the term “homemaker” on her eleventh full-length of the same name, out next Friday. Homemaker is a jubilant piece of musical matriarchy and cooperation, plain and simple, one that recognizes that nobody succeeds alone, that twice the work for half the pay is a raw deal. Barber’s latest cut comes straight from her creative nerve center in Vancouver, British Columbia and serves as her first as co-producer, yet another testament to the power of nurturing together. So if you want to stave off these statewide winter shivers, harness the warmth of emotional energy within Homemaker and say heck yeah to “Hell No”.

Texas’ top musical moments of the year

From the highlights to the blue notes, what happened in the world of Texas music in 2022. A Texas country music legend says goodbye to the road that goes on forever; our conversation with Robert Earl Keene. Also a renaissance for one of the best know Texas artists of all time: the impact of Beyonce’s 7th album, an homage to house and disco music. And Adrian Quesada turns up the volume on a rediscovered musical genre with his Boleros Psicodélicos. A lonestar-studded review of the year, today on the Texas Standard:

Arya: “i’d rather lose you”

No matter the kind of creative, a hard pivot takes a lot of guts. Be it George Carlin dropping “straight” in favor of “straight up” or Danielle Ponder leaving her legal firm to focus on her pipes, those risky shifts can end up being unique, life-changing gifts. Among the more recent entries into that roster? Serbian national Arya.

You see, Arya spent about a decade and a half back in Belgrade behind a Baby Grand; ten-plus years of classical piano coupled with a Bachelor’s in Jazz. Yet despite becoming a certified ace on the ivories, the fulfillment of contemporary innovation wasn’t exactly there.

Now, as Austinites, we won’t claim that it was the Live Music Capital that turned Arya into the rising star she is today. However, it was Arya’s move to Texas that coincided with her 2019 debut EP it wasn’t love. That record introduced the world to a daring, new, and authentically-emotional pop-R&B voice, no doubt well-informed by her mastery of jazz and classical theory. On top of all that talent, she seems like an outstanding human being as well! Arya’s last single, “Bed”, came alongside her “Better Every Day” merch line, which donates proceeds directly to Austin’s beloved SIMS Foundation.

Arya’s been plugging away at her debut visual EP Insides, but with 2022 quickly coming to a close, she’d be remiss if she didn’t go out in full R&B-stunner style. At 7:30PM tonight at Pedernales Station, Arya unfurls the live rendition of her latest single “i’d rather lose you”, with tattoos by Slowpoke Marfa, free drinks, and more. Can’t make it? No problem. The heavenly piano chords, angelic vocals, and soaring synth bass of “i’d rather lose you” are enough to make you pray for more right away.

Otis Wilkins: “Eat Yer Phone”

We here at KUTX aren’t shy about our adoration for Austin songwriter Taylor Wilkins. And why would we be? Between his two semi-eponymous projects – the hard rockin’ Otis the Destroyer and the soft poppin’ Otis Wilkins, Taylor doesn’t really miss. We’re still patiently holding out for a full record from the latter, but Wilkins’ “quality over quantity approach” has us pretty sated for the time being.

That said, you can expect a new slew of singles from Otis Wilkins in the near future. Each one features our fearless Destroyer’s falsetto vocals, carefully-chosen key chords, and crafty guitar work. The latest track, “Eat Yer Phone” came out at the top of July, but its body-positive pop is best enjoyed in a cameo-covered video that just dropped today. So instead of doom scrolling or fueling epidermal insecurities, see if you can count how many local musicians you recognize in the visual feast that is “Eat Yer Phone“.

Casie Luong & waverly: “blessing”

There’s an adage that’s true for many things, but especially applicable to high-caliber collaborations; “you can’t rush greatness.” In the case of queer, second generation Vietnamese-American songwriter Casie Luong and Cambodian-born producer Wil Brookhart (who recently rebranded himself as waverly), they’ve actually known each other for quite some time, thanks to the Mother Falcon Music Lab, of which both are faculty members. Their mutual interest in the modern pop-R&B sound has overlapped their personal friendship for awhile, but it’s only been within the past year or two that they’ve actually made music together.

Inspired by the flirty, mischievous tones of Ariana Grande’s 2020 LP Positions, Casie Luong crafted the first draft of “blessing” at home over pastries and coffee last Fall. And while we’re sure that initial version was more than just a morsel, with the implementation of slick drum programming, vocal effects, and synthetically plucked strings (almost a call back to Mother Falcon), waverly has helped turn “blessing” into an absolute trap-R&B treat. Fingers crossed that this the first of many collaborations between waverly and Luong, and the best of luck to them on their journey to increase Southeast Asian representation down here in the Lone Star State and impact the demographics of mainstream music culture.

Primo the Alien: “Worlds”

Pop’s a broad spectrum, a mega-genre that pushes the boundaries of modern production but becomes plenty accessible thanks to foolproof earworm formulas. Austin singer-producer Primo the Alien is something of a pop stalwart, with a discography primarily defined by ’80s-style synth-pop. But it’s the 2020s, and Primo’s keen to keep with the times. So with the added encouragement of an Austin Music Award “Best Pop” nomination this year, Primo the Alien’s beginning to move towards contemporary electro-pop. Primo’s got a lot on their plate for 2022, including an appearance Weekend One at Austin City Limits Music Festival. Primo’s also playing For the Love of SIMS: A Benefit Concert to Support Emotional Wellness in Our Music Community 7:45pm tomorrow night at Far Out Lounge, opening for fellow KUTX favorites Max Frost and Sir Woman. However the biggest piece of news from Primo comes today courtesy of a new standalone single. Intended as an empowering anthem for women who feel marginalized in the male-dominated music industry, “Worlds” will wow you with Primo’s impeccable vocals, saturated synths, and brain-draining dubstep breakdown in its finale.

BETWEEN FRIENDS: “laurel”

At the risk of sounding pessimistic, it’s not that often that siblings maintain the closeness of their childhood. But there are obviously exceptions, be they Peyton and Eli Manning, Finneas O’Connell and Billie Eilish, or L.A.’s Brandon and Savannah Hudson. The Hudsons have stayed faithful to their commitment of being best buds, a pact made easier by their creative chemistry. They’ve dubbed their partnership BETWEEN FRIENDS, and have already begun conquering endeavors in fashion, set design, abstract visuals, and of course, songwriting. BETWEEN FRIENDS’ preferences are decidedly within the realm of modern pop, but the duo’s youthful curiosity has led to experimentation with psychedelia, ’90s alt-R&B, and even mid-century easy listening. Having only recently entered their early twenties, BETWEEN FRIENDS is eager to catapult their music career and present all those amalgamated styles on their debut EP, cutie. cutie delivers nine vibrant pop tracks that your headphones won’t want to stop hugging. cutie also comes alongside its own set of MTV/Nickelodeon-inspired visuals, Cutie TV, which drops on June 10th, just two days after BETWEEN FRIENDS opens for Halsey on her Love And Power tour. cutie‘s latest single ,”laurel” pays tribute to the Hudsons’ teenage home Laurel Canyon (also an iconic 1970s music hub) with hypnotic vocal effects, jazzy synth chords, and head-bobbing digital percussion.

Sunshine Boysclub: “Don’t See Why”

In recent memory, L.A. singer-producer Sam Martin’s occupied a singular role at the helm of indie pop outfit Youngblood Hawke. But just within the last couple months, Martin’s embarked on a refreshing solo venture, Sunshine Boysclub. Martin lives up to the expectations of the handle with a summer-ready youthful energy, lathering up classic disco-funk formulas with modern flairs of psych-pop, first heard on “Patience” last month.

In anticipation of Sunshine Boysclub’s debut album this fall, Martin just unleashed his sophomore single (and music video) “Don’t See Why”, a sweat-inducing booty-shaker ideal for a vacation, workout, or commute playlist!

Ralph: “Strawberry Meltdown”

Dating back to the genre’s inception, the world of pop music has been highly competitive; these days everybody and their mothers wants to be the next Taylor Swift or Dua Lipa. So when a pop singer comes along with something unique that doesn’t try to chase a recent fad, it’s actually pretty impressive. Which brings us to Toronto’s Raffaela Weyman, better known monomynously as Ralph.

With the pristine digital production of the modern era at her fingertips, Ralph bridges a cross-generational gap between ’70s/’80s darlings Stevie Nicks, Sade, Cher, and Donna Summer to current electronic-R&B sensibilities. Ralph’s all set to share her latest EP, Gradience, in its full resplendent glory, but in the midst of unseasonable heat close to Ralph’s home, she’s treated us to an ideal car cruising-bop (be it with the top down or AC on full blast), “Strawberry Meltdown”!

fruit collective: “walk”

Though the restrictions of COVID-19 are cautiously lifting, certain social distancing implementations have proved fruitful for some. For example, before everyone got used to living behind their laptop and collaborating remotely, it wouldn’t have been all that easy to put together a trio whose members live in different metropolitan cities, but that’s exactly what happened with fruit collective.

The Chicago-Austin-Boston three-piece bears seeds of indie, pop, and R&B for their lo-fi harvest, transplanting the berries of the late Mac Miller and contemporary KUTX favorites like Clairo and Anderson .Paak into fruit collective’s fresh sound. We all know Friday is market day, so stock up on fruit collective for the weekend with the group’s gorgeous debut single, “walk”!

Shopgirl: “Killer”

For those that remember the majesty of Austin synth-pop trio Sphynx, you’ll recall that all three members possessed the talent and presence fit for a frontman, even when the energy was apportioned out song-by-song. Well, since Sphynx went the way of the…sphinx…a couple years back, the prospect of pursuing solo projects has become more and more tempting for each player. And just months after singer-guitarist Aaron Miller launched his solo venture Josie Lockhart, keyboardist-vocalist Cory Dennis has ushered his own pop star persona, Shopgirl, into the spotlight.

Where Sphynx sank into streams of ’80s-style retro-pop, Shopgirl splurges on all the accoutrements of modern pop, complete with futuristic vocal processing, emotionally exploratory lyrics, and some slick mastering from Tame Impala engineer Greg Calbi to top it all off. Look out for Shopgirl’s debut album Waves later this year, and treat yourself this New Music Friday to Shopgirl’s first-ever studio single, one that looks back on Sphynx, the glory days, and their quiet conclusion, “Killer”!

Casie Luong: “Last Call”

As a music educator, actress, and budding non-fiction writer, it can be tough to keep up creatively with Austin’s Casie Luong, especially since she somehow always finds time for more. In the midst of penning a family memoir and overseeing operations for Mother Falcon Music Lab, Luong’s managed to connect the dots between Kacey Musgrave’s exquisite melodies and Taylor Swift’s otherworldly pop soundscapes for her first project serving as both engineer and producer, the two-part EP Freed.

Freed Pt 2 comes out tomorrow and precedes the Hero EP, out later this summer, so liberate yourself along with Luong as she lashes raw emotion, unbridled nature, and pure nostalgia together to channel acts like St. Vincent and Sarah Jaffe on incandescent originals like “Last Call”!