Rashad Tha Poet


“Her parents gave her the best of things, but they never gave her the best of them.” Taken from his 2013 TEDx presentation, this potent line speaks to Rashad Rayford’s flare for provocative commentary, a quality which has earned him his place as one of the key voices among Nashville’s spoken word community (in addition to a handful of NIMA honors). A poet mentor with Southern Word for the past six years, Rayford has held a prominent role in serving the organization’s mission to provide “creative solutions for youth to build literacy and presentation skills, reconnect to their education and to their lives, and act as leaders in the improvement of their communities.” “He’s a great role model,” says Southern Word Executive Director Benjamin Smith, speaking via phone to Rayford’s impact. “He’s one of our key mentors.” He’s also an emcee.

Since 2005 Rayford has issued well over a dozen releases under his Rashad Tha Poet moniker, adding an impressive musical output to his already-heavy creative workload. His latest, Less is More, stands as something of an abbreviated mixtape, with its seven tracks using soul and jazz-inspired beats from Oddisee, No I.D., Rashad Thompson, Trent Taylor, and Caveman the Wise to underscore the EP’s nonlinear storytelling. Thematically, the music finds Rayford searching for clarity in his relationships, certainly with others but primarily with himself. “Swear I ain’t preachin’,” he relates in the EP’s closing track, “this is just mirror talk.”

The set’s lone lyrical collaboration comes from Fyütch, whose wit and charm are abundant on “Wicked.” At its most basic the song’s a conversation between friends, each relating memories of near misses and romantic could-have-beens. “In middle school I used to memorize Shakespeare sonnets and couldn’t wait to get married,” relates Fyütch via email. “So I have a ton of stories of being in the ‘friend zone’, or just hilarious attempts to spit game to a girl that got me laughed at or talked about behind my back.” “But then again,” he continues, playfully painting himself equal parts victim and hero, “I always got the last laugh lookin’ all sexy on stage.”

In spoken word, being “on” suggests an aim for the profound: a lyrical exploration blending self-discovery with purposeful social observations. Add to this a self-imposed drive to exist as a positive role model in the community, and being “on” can quickly become exhausting. Less is More exists as a complementary piece to this mindspace, revealing itself as a brief detour, existing so Rashad Tha Poet can flex his creativity while giving Rashad Rayford a break from having to be “on” all the time.

Wrinkles and All



“I’m troubled by the industry convention that would require me to summarize my creative process in a dozen ‘fully baked’ songs,” explains Lizzy Ross, speaking to the “guts” of her still-expanding Naked in My Living Room release. “As if an album were a thesis to defend or a product with a warranty to uphold.” At the time of this article’s publication, Living Room is five songs deep, each track a single-take performance, capturing a “creative growth spurt” as it continues to unfold. “Most of all, it disturbs me when the need to present a perfect finished product gets in the way of continued creative expression, growth, and risk-taking,” she continues. “When the wrinkles are spared, they’re often my favorite part of a song.”

Born in Annapolis, Maryland (“perhaps the place where music goes to die”), Ross later relocated to Chapel Hill to study at the University of North Carolina. There she joined the short-lived “twangy indie rock bandLafcadio in 2008, before forming the Lizzy Ross Band the following year. In 2010 she released a solo acoustic album called Traces, before hitting full stride with the group’s debut, Read Me Out Loud, in 2011. That year (and in 2012) Ross was nominated for “Best Rock Female” at the Carolina Music Awards, winning the honor the first time through. “They’re wonderful and fantastic,” she said of her bandmates last September, on the eve of both the break-up of the group and her departure from the state. “[T]his is definitely a band of people who are good to the core.” This past November she moved to Nashville.

“I released my most recent album over two years ago [and] at this point,” says Ross, “I’m feeling I’ve quite outgrown it.” With Living Room she hasn’t abandoned her band’s “country, blues, soul, and jazz-inflected Americana” sound, she’s just taken a filter off, letting the music of the moment flow from within and through her “electric rig” and RC-300 loop pedal. “I love the immediacy of a live performance,” she says. “I love the wholeness of a single take recording.”

They might only appear a series of rugged demos, but the weekly sessions do show the singer finding her footing, both in her new surroundings and once again as a solo artist. Whether compared to past solo recordings from a few months ago, or a few years ago, they exhibit an edge that seems to be getting sharper with time. There’s a comfort Ross seems to find in this evolution.

“Once a week, I come to terms with the disparity between how I sound and how I wish I sounded,” she says. “I find things to love about the way I play a song in that particular moment in time. I give a song my undivided attention and energy, we grow into each other, and I show the world our best collaboration of the moment.”

JOTA ESE "Super Dank III"



“My last three tapes I put out were made for smoking […] filled with bong sounds and things. The tracks are all 10-15 minutes long and made to be extra blunted.” While looking out for herbal connoisseurs with his last few productions, JOTA ESE’s Super Dank III isn’t strictly for the smokers. “Despite the name,” he says, “the videos and samples don’t have that much to do with smoking.”

As JOTA explains, most of the project “was done very late at night after I get off work, so it reflects a late night vibe.” The resulting mix drifts in and out of frictionless samples and instrumentals, all of which serves as a relaxed soundtrack for the accompanying Super Dank III video (which repurposes arctic exploration footage documenting Jacques Cousteau and the crew of The Calypso).

“This is a more classic style tape,” JOTA continues, which isn’t to say that the music stands on its own, separate from the series’ first two mixes. “I had help from the same people who helped with the beats and videos for parts one and two.” One of the big differences, he says, is that the new release was produced as a continuous recording before being broken down into the album’s 14 tracks. “Super Dank III was one track but I cut it up,” says JOTA. “So some echoes and things carry over to the next track, which I really really like.”

Shake and Bake



“I know this is somewhat cliché, but I still enjoy smoking to a lot of original dub reggae and original ska records. Those records have always had an impact on me musically.” KDSML’s five-track Nug Life EP is hardly a throwback to the days of King Tubby and Super Ape, but it does reflect the same stripped-down aesthetic of those early influences. “I tried not to over complicate,” he continues, “giving the sounds and the tracks more room to breathe.”

Released via Future Everything, Nug Life bears little smokiness to its sound despite the EP’s obvious theme: “Bong Hit” opens to an “energetic but still laid back feel” that characterizes the entire recording; “High Flier” is a washed out daydream of ethereal samples; “Now-A-Daze” is boosted by crisp pitched-down horn stomps; “The Reefer” warps woodwinds over a deep wobble; and “Gangsta” provides a bass-heavy close to the set.

KDSML promises more music later this year including “a couple of 100BPM joints,” but don’t expect him to trail off too far into the woods. “I am planning on putting out a lot more of my productions,” he says. “But all of the new material stays true to the general style I started developing on Nug Life.”

Turtles All the Way Down



Much has been made of the unorthodox lyrical themes that run throughout Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds of Country Music. “It’s a very psychedelic country record about the human experience and love,” explained the singer to WFPK recently. While "love" hardly seems like absurd subject matter, we are talking about country music here, where women being “accepted” somehow counts as an application of progressive ideals. Then again, in the album’s lead single, “Turtles All the Way Down,” the pursuit of love does include the discovery of “reptile aliens made of light” who “cut you open” and “pull out all your pain,” so maybe there’s something to the unconventional label, after all.

Not unlike how the word “god” has been co-opted by religion though, using the word "love" as a placeholder for fleeting human emotion merely stands as a pornographic reduction of its limitless dynamic. Strip the word of its superficial associations and you’ll begin to understand what the music is about: that "love" is all there really is.

Utilizing psychedelics in the pursuit of understanding, "Turtles" follows the singer as he’s faced with Jesus, The Devil, and Buddha, who shows him “a glowing light within.” “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there, far beyond this place,” he sings. Musically, the track is about as traditional country-sounding a song as you'll ever hear, which makes it all the more enchanting when Simpson recalls seeing the spirit of the universe in the eyes of his best friend or questions why dimethyltryptamine is a Schedule I drug (despite literally being present in each and every one of us… and our lawns).

“Honestly," continued Simpson to WFPK, "I just kinda woke up and felt like I couldn’t write any more songs about broken hearts and drinking [...] People are going to make a lot more out of it than it is.” Despite the astronomical divide between honky tonk clichés and infinite recursion, this modest sincerity rings true through to the end of the song, where a heartwarming glaze of cosmic echo bleeds over a lyrical resolve to abandon fear in favor of love's everlasting nature. “Don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes, fairy tales, blood and wine, it’s turtles all the way down the line.”

Super Duper


"There was just a lot of noise to sort through," says Josh Hawkins, speaking to the time he spent living in New York City. "I think the best thing about Nashville is the country music overload. I'm not a country music fan, but in New York it was hard to meet people who were really doing interesting electronic music because everyone was doing electronic music." The producer, who records as Super Duper, has an interesting perspective that almost welcomes the artistic whitewashing of his hometown that many others hold in contempt. "When I moved back to Nashville it was so refreshing to find just a handful of electronic acts starting to bubble up, and they all stand out here," he continues. "The city's stereotype filters out a lot of the noise and makes it easier to meet and collaborate with other truly talented artists."

Growing up in Nashville, Hawkins moved to New York to work at a music house after he graduated from MTSU. Returning home a little over a year ago, he says the city now “feels like a perfect fit.” Despite feeling at home, he hasn't felt entirely secure with his music, especially his new release, Diamonds & Doubt. “I've been finished with this album for almost a year, so I was getting worried that the songs wouldn't be relevant with people anymore.” An unlikely blessing came when Diplo hand-picked a remix of “Diamond” for a recent episode of his BBC Radio 1 show. “It was such a huge boost! Having that kind of support gave me a lot of reassurance that not just fans, but also artists, would really dig these songs.”

Having previously drawn influence from electronic acts the likes of M83 and Air, Hawkins has likened the sound of his last EP to TNGHT, though he says he’s focused his direction since then. "That album was a lot of experimenting and I had no real concepts in mind. With Diamonds & Doubt I tried to simplify my use of sounds [to] give each song more personality to stand on its own." Simplified doesn’t mean simplistic though, as is evidenced by XLR8R’s description of “Circus Bird,” which transitions “a low-pitched brass loop that resembles baleful laughter” into “wonky, decaying synths.”

“With this new release I'm trying to mold trap foundations with a lot more emphasis on electronic sounds." Beyond the music, Hawkins is trying something else new in releasing the set physically… on cassette. “It's been fun to tell people the album will be released on tape because I always get a positive reaction, even if I'm talking to my grandparents. Everyone likes tapes! It's also really nice to have a tangible piece of music for my songs to live on. Vinyl is great, but cassettes definitely speak more to my generation.”

Salsa in Nashville


Discussion jumps about, though it mostly stays within a vague orbit around how the work that was being done seemed like work that was worth doing. Reflection brings history into the realm of binary: now only good or bad, seen through a vantage point which offers distance and clarity that was not entirely possible when caught up in the whirlwind. But five hours away, that whirlwind is blowing out of control. "We've done everything we can to demonstrate a remarkable amount of restraint," says the police chief as those charged with protecting and serving in Ferguson, MO take an unprovoked turn for the militant, aiming weapons at spectators and firing tear gas at journalists. "Remember when that thing happened in Nevada with the Rancher and cops showed up and there were people photographed in sniper positions with their guns aimed at law enforcement officers?," asks a virtual onlooker. "How did that manage to happen there without every single person in that group getting mowed down with SWAT teams and MRAPs and all these fucking military weapons that the cops are using in Ferguson? What was the big difference between those groups? What would happen if there were snipers on rooftops in Ferguson aiming their guns at these police?" "Watching the news & singing along to Marvin Gaye's little-known remake of his classic, 'Seriously What In the Everloving F**k Is Going On' " exhales Jay Smooth on Twitter. I don't know. Where does the pressure go? Maybe this will all look different, eventually.

There's a taco truck on the corner of Wedgewood & 12th where, earlier in the day, I celebrated one of my best friends' birthdays by buying him a burrito and a sweet tea. We sat on the tailgate of his truck while we ate and talked: It was his direction in life and what he's feeling balanced by my own, what we're going through, what we want in life, what we don't want in life, so on and so on. Later, Salsa on the southwestern edge of downtown for Hummus with Churrasco, a sweet sauce garnishing the still-pink meat, each bite laced with an ample portion of the salty spread and placed over one of the many chewy and savory dough vehicles, washed down by a couple of Diet Cokes. Walking out onto the deck after the meal was over, the instant became one of calming, the restaurant just far enough away from the tourist sector to remain peaceful, and not yet overrun with young urban types who make pornography out of their food, posing it and angling the light for maximum exposure. Who is the picture for? What is it supposed to say? But how can you not take a picture of something that looks so good?

The food was wonderful and I want to remember how good that moment felt despite how much confusion and pressure there is right now, is what this particular picture was supposed to say: Sitting outside with an elbow up on the wooden ledge, stuck between recalling what happened in order to get there and looking forward to the possibility of what's yet to come, mustering only a smile while just being overwhelmed by it all. The work that seemed like good work doesn't always end up feeling that way as time goes on. The people who seemed like good people don't always end up being who you wanted them to be. What we want in life changes, who we want to be with changes, and what we don't want changes, too. It's impossible to retroactively be proud of every last action that happened along the way, or reflect without doubt and guilt that you might never learn how to get life right. The current blueprint seems the way to go for now though: keep trying to learn, to experience, to taste, to love, and just let loose a joke and laugh when you have no idea what in the ever-loving fuck is going on around you.

The Sentimental Ghosts of a Hundred Sketches


As Jensen Sportag, Austin Wilkinson and Elvis Craig have been called an “enigmatic art-pop duo” who, depending on the source, represent “a hipster take on 80s winebar muzak” or “a taste from the romance-filled elevators of the future.” As Wilkinson recently relayed to The Fader though, “The sound of Jensen Sportag is ever-evolving and devolving." "Our motivations," he continued, "are still simply the unique and purely joyful emotion we feel when we make a beautiful sound, and then to layer that sound with another.” While they've remained true to that focus with the duo's new single, "One Lane Lovers," the track also bears an encouraging message of progression.

Accompanying “One Lane Lovers” is a sense of intangible positivity — a feeling that Wilkinson elaborated on via email as the duo returned to Nashville following a performance at the Lapsus Festival in Barcelona. “The music of ‘One Lane Lovers’/‘Let The Queen Bee The Boss’ is symbolic for us because it’s something personal about leaving the sentimental ghosts of a hundred sketches and demos and old unreleased songs to the past and propelling forward toward the ideas and experiences of our future.” “In that analogy,” he continues, “the event of upheaval is the recent release of our album Stealth of Days,” the duo’s 2013 LP, which SPIN's called “a kaleidoscope dreamscape with an extra-heavy layer of Vaseline smeared across the lens.”

While “One Lane Lovers” is dense in its magnetic pop-funk, Wilkinson speaks to a deeper lyrical thread that runs beneath the track’s surface. “In the same way we can get used to very unhealthy conditions we can adapt rapidly to new realities,” he says. “The song has a sort of propulsion surging out of darkness tone to it and since our music is more reflective than nostalgic, both the difficult and promising are at peace in the same thought.” This emerging paradigm becomes a reality with each new morning and every step forward, and despite appearing to be sonically focused on the rearview the song represents a fresh start that begs repeating, if only to help further escape the phantoms of our past.