“Precious, the look upon your face, I wish I could frame it, you watch me dancing in the crowd, laughing way too loud, but you’re too sweet to ever call me out.” -Ali Angel, “Loving You Lately”
EXT: SUBURBAN HOME – DAY
Bubbles drift toward the clear blue sky above a circle of parents and toddlers. The gathering claps and sings along to a female guitarist strumming away on her acoustic, swaying back and forth while sitting cross-legged on plush green grass. The adults move the children’s arms like puppets as giggles and smiles fill a fenced backyard in the confines of suburbia.
EXT: BEACH – NIGHT
The slow climb of the tide pushes against the sand before sliding back into the Pacific. Sparks float slowly yet uncontrollably to join the endless dots that speckle the black blanket above. The same guitarist, shifting her tone, plays a tune as folks pause their casual conversations and toast their drinks as they enjoy a pseudo concert around a bonfire.
Ali Angel is that versatile performer from both scenes. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter is a fresh talent and brings along a soulful perspective. Her voice is pure and comforting and her sound blends generational roots.
“There’s always something new, there’s always something changing, I’m always evolving. … I want to be as real as I can always,” Angel said. “I’m on the side of looking at the glass half-full and getting the vibe out.”
From Al Green to Sheryl Crow to Sturgill Simpson, Angel’s influences are apparent in her music. The folksy rhythms combined with the use of brass and solid structure provide listeners with not only a great sound but an undeniably groovy vibe.
Angel’s journey is spelled out for the audience through her notes and her words.
Angel is a product of her surroundings and luckily for her, she grew up and lived in some of the best American music scenes. New Orleans provided her with a history of jazz and brass; Nashville gave her a course on twang and rhythm, and Los Angeles brought everything together through experimentation, ambiance and attitude.
After working a life in retail, Angel found a chance opportunity to headline “mommy and me” music classes, which she has continued doing so for two years and counting. The strums, drums and sing-a-longs, the parachutes and bubbles all tend to become a part of the artist as a whole. She’s capable of transposing her outlook on life between age groups and genres to make each listener have a good time.
Being able to play music during the day and also have the flexibility to work on her original material has been perfect for crafting her sound and what genre she satisfies.
“It’s like the retro-soul-pop world … I love all of that music and I try to get my sound to fit in with that world,” she said.
Outside of retro-soul-pop, there is also some country twang present along with indie and classic rock and Americana. She’s able to display her versatility vocally and musically with seemingly no effort or straying from distinction. She’s taking the ’60s and ’70s and blending that generation’s sound with the strong female voice of the ‘90s, combining revolutions in a time when everything is coming back full circle – as is the case with music every 30 years (give or take).
“I love the ‘70s, the liberation … just like taking independence and singing about topics that weren’t necessarily in the mainstream but doing it in creative ways and empowering ways. I love all of that. I also love the style, the aesthetics … I’m a huge vintage fan.”
Angel admitted her mother and father served as great musical influences with the songs they introduced her to as a child, and her vast knowledge and exposure to music guides her abilities. From The Dip to Spoon to Margo Price to Elton John to The Beatles to The Eagles to The Chicks to No Doubt to Jack Johnson and on and on, she has a plethora of inspirations. Yet, it always comes back to the scene.
Los Angeles is a melting pot of musicians and other artists. It has always been a place to try and make it, or at least fake it until opportunities present themselves. Angel doesn’t view it as oversaturated competition, but rather a community, which serves as a benefit.
“Being from LA, it’s super lucky and helpful because you just know so many people who know so many people,” she explained. “Just putting myself out there and getting different contacts and writing with different people and just saying yes to everything.”
She was able to connect with 606 Studio engineer Oliver Roman through a family friend. After an instant bond of musical tastes, Roman offered the support of his band Jaw Talk, and then an act was formed and has blossomed since.
“I am most impressed by her dedication to learning and perfecting her skills as a writer, artist and musician,” Roman said. “Some artists are very private about their creative process, but Ali is always excited to hear something.”
He added, “Ali always comes in with new and fresh ideas. … I like the music we make together and I think other people will too.”
Though the pandemic has presented obstacles, as it has for all artists, Angel and Roman were able to overcome uncontrollable communication issues and keep recording until the music was finished.
Using life situations, Angel tries to record every chance she gets when the idea is fresh, but also sometimes writes without intention. With good lyrics and great rhythm, there’s a solid balance of which holds more weight from song to song. The passion shifts depending on the emotional tone or tendencies, creating a full catalog, which is vital for any artist.
Angel released her debut single “Play Pretend” last year and the track defined her music right from the beginning. It not only captures her sound but her general outlook and vibe as well.
The song builds up nicely in each verse with flowing production elements that fit the brief vocal breaks, and the addition of soft chimes and whistles transitioning out of the brass background and into the slightly fuller chorus is a good complement. The key to a song with a beat like this is to keep it in motion and Angel executes this exceptionally. The listener can easily get lost in the music and the trance is only broken when the track ends.
Her next release was a cover of Green’s “I’m A Ram.” Angel’s version dropped weeks ago. There are differences, however, so it’s not a straight cover which is refreshing. It’s also not a slower cover of a song that should never drastically lose tempo (in this specific case) for the sake of an artsy rendition – which has been trending for too long. Though releasing a cover early in a songwriter’s career can be risky, Angel didn’t offer a carbon copy like some artists do, and it worked because it fits her sound and her influences.
“It wasn’t really super intentional. I love Al Green and this is one of my favorite songs by him … and one day we kind of were just like you know what, it would be really fun and easy, we already have the whole thing down, to record a version of this. … It’s kind of a cool way to do a lesser known song from a legend and give it a new breath of fresh air.”
Green’s original has a more prominent brass presence, but Angel replaces those loud distinct notes found in the verses with slide guitar. Yet, the song doesn’t lose anything, and that is partially due to what fans have come to expect from her after her previous release. She obviously has no problem using brass but shows her versatility by not relying on it. The other difference is in the vocals. Green used his sharp vocal cuts and playful groans to jam with the long outro, but Angel takes the opportunity to showcase her range and ability to hit notes with ease.
“Extra Wild” was released on March 4. It’s clean, catchy, and all the small elements of the production blend together. The listener gets that great brass addition again, with a smooth and simple bass line that stands out, and there even – and this may be my ears playing tricks on me – seems to be a wave simulation subtly pulsing in the background. The highlight, however, is the sexy saxophone solo that emerges to keep the groove steady through the rest of the track.
Once again, Angel keeps the beat in motion, and the audience has no choice but to relax and enjoy the chill vibe.
“I’ve always wanted to do music that I Iove. … I feel like most successful artists in the past haven’t made music they thought people wanted to hear so they just wanted to make the music they wanted to make. I feel there is space for every kind of sound.”
Angel has certainly captured her own sound and the music translates to a broad audience. Her next release, “Middle Name,” will drop on April 8.
“My drunk and disorderly Avenue B, you feel cold and everlasting, I keep coming back on account of my head, on account of my bad design.” -Kate Vargas, “Mighty Fire”
The room should’ve had a haunting cloud of smoke resting heavily above the stage and crowd. The spotlight trapping the dust in the dimness would have to do. Kate Vargas smiled as she flicked her long colored nails against the strings of her acoustic, admiring the non-traditional clashes and brushes of her drummer’s small set of random extensions. Her sultry rasp bounced off the old concrete walls, echoing the darkness from within that she needed to share.
Kate Vargas has emerged as a major player in the alternative/singer-songwriter scene. With the support of a small ensemble of talented and established musicians such as Eric McFadden, the creativity behind her sound and the uniqueness of her vocals have fetched great accolades and some flattering comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits, Fiona Apple and Lana Del Rey.
Yet, they are them and she is her. Vargas digs deep into her past to converse with demons and make her lyrics personal and emotional while maintaining relatability to her listeners. Her approach is pure, dabbling with and revitalizing instruments found in heaps of uselessness and fortifying the deep imagery of her past and present.
Vargas said, “What I really want to do is just write songs and survive, and I’m doing that.”
She’s dark. She’s fun. She’s undeniably herself, which is something fresh and needed in the music world.
Corrales, New Mexico is a small pseudo-rural cluster that borders Albuquerque, an escape from everything but within a tumbleweed’s roll of the chaos that hovers around. The eclectic villagers have clear views of the mountains rising far above and beyond the lush trees of the Bosque to the east and desert grounds sloping upward to hold the top of orange and purple sunsets to the west. It’s unlike anywhere else.
“It’s an artist and farmer village,” Vargas said of Corrales. “They have a pet parade and people will walk their pets down the road and sometimes dress them up, and there are llamas, and donkeys, and emus, and all kinds of things, and whoever wins is elected mayor for the day. That really sums up the vibe.”
Within the diverse beauty that each individual contributes to the village, Vargas embraced the arts and the scene that her personal boundaries would allow. She was, and still is, a classically-trained flautist. There was a fire inside that needed to be released, however, one of independent expression. It wasn’t a dislike of the flute that drove her to the guitar, it was her love for all music and determination to find the correct outlet. From the village’s studio where she learned to be a musician from Darryl Dominguez to community recitals showcasing her original material to Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space, Vargas had the resources to follow her passion.
“I had these adults in my life who were very supportive with what I was doing musically. [Darryl] really encouraged my writing, encouraged me to play a song that I had written at a recital. It really didn’t occur to me to do that.”
However, the raw juvenile mind can be a dangerous seductress. The support wasn’t enough; she needed a way out from something. One such break booked her a trip to a boarding facility out of state as a teenager.
Vargas spent part of her adolescent life in Utah, away from her family in an attempt to curb her wild side, erase her days as a troublemaker. The temptation of vices was too strong as she constantly searched for an escape. Through her early obsession with Harry Houdini, it proved there was something that had troubled her for some time.
She explained, “There was like a rumbling, a deep rumbling. We all have stuff growing up, and it just seemed like an easier way to not have to look at it or deal with it. None of us really want to be uncomfortable or face things that don’t feel good. It’s hard being a human, especially when you’re growing up, learning what it is to be alive.”
Her upbringing, influences and mind attribute to her songwriting, but it was music that served as her life raft while the demons clawed and dragged her below the surface. She was moving too fast like a bullet train teetering on the edge of worn cracked rails, spiraling, drowning in doom, giving into the darkness she had become accustomed to relying on.
She’s now 10 years sober and counting.
“I remember that moment, it’s something I kind of have to remember. I had this real moment of clarity. I just saw myself as this kid growing up and where I imagined myself, and then I had let that kid down. I was actively harming myself and hurting the people in my life just because I wasn’t present. That was the big motivator.”
Though there was an unexplainable issue, the solution was always present. Reaching an epiphany, or multiple epiphanies at that, is important for an artist to accomplish. Vargas has roots as well as deep-seated psychological inspirations, negative and positive, she can access, whether consciously or not, to help her create. It comes out through her stories and poetry in songs about religion, addiction, relationships and just general musings of life. She’s not only a creator but a listener and absorber of stories, which helps her relate to audiences. Accepting and overcoming turmoil can be therapeutic for everyone.
A variety of contrasts have emerged from fans and critics, but that only supports the uniqueness of Vargas because it’s a diverse group of artists. McFadden, who is featured on Vargas’ 2021 album Rumpumpo, has worked with many amazing musicians and writers in his career that has spanned decades and revels in her matchlessness.
“Kate is pretty high up there,” McFadden compared Vargas’ abilities to other greats. “She’d have to be in the top two or three songwriters that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I think she’s one of the best songwriters of her generation.”
McFadden, who also spent a good portion of his life in New Mexico, has toured with the likes of George Clinton and Eric Burdon and collaborated with artists ranging from Bo Diddly to Les Claypool to Pat McDonald among many other famed musicians and writers. The guitarist also has an extensive solo collection that he continues to build.
The New Mexico connection isn’t what brought McFadden and Vargas together at first, but it certainly helped strengthen their bond quicker. The two met at the Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. It wasn’t until their third festival together that they finally collaborated on a song.
“I was really taken by her,” McFadden said, “I thought, wow, this is brilliant. Her whole presence, and the lyrics, and her voice. There’s a lot to her creatively, a lot to her personally, emotionally; there’s a lot to know. She runs deep.”
Vargas’ ability to tell a story in minutes is a talent, just like for any singer-songwriter. To put it in perspective, authors claim that 100,000 words still isn’t enough to completely tell a story, but musicians only have around four minutes to convey their tale. No word is wasted, but when complemented with a musical virtuoso such as McFadden, it adds that other element to the story. Take classical music, for example. There are no lyrics, but a tale can still be heard within the notes.
“I’m learning a lot about writing and growing as a songwriter myself just from being in such close proximity to her. She’s honest and she’s authentic, but she’s also brilliant, she has great insight.”
Together, McFadden and Vargas mesh extremely well. During the pandemic, they started live streaming jam sessions and discussions on their show “Live From The Red Couch.” His invaluable industry experience, her vast musical knowledge and both their immense talent have created something special. The pair have perfected Vargas’ sound, and their passion and exceptional songwriting ability are on full display in her music.
Vargas released her first three albums as an independent artist. It has become a strategy of many creators of late, and if they possess the perfect combination of uniqueness and quality, then they will be discovered. Her style has been labeled as dreampop, dusty folk and junkyard blues, but to bring simplicity to all the sub-genres that seem to appear with each new act that becomes popular, Vargas is a folk singer-songwriter.
Now, to contradict the above, she also has a southern gothic sound present that you find from artists such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Parker Millsap and Grace Potter. She captures the topics, deep lyrics and catchy bluesy rhythms, but adds her irreplaceable vocals. Though comparisons are the best way for the industry to describe an artist, especially an emerging one, Vargas truly constructs a range of elements that make her authentic.
This process, this genuineness and creativity, charmed Bandaloop Records founder Bill Hutchinson. He started his company in 1998 with the goal to seek out great lyricists, melodic composers and live performers, giving unknown artists an opportunity to showcase their talents to more audiences.
After listening to musicians slated to perform at AmericanaFest in Nashville, he came across Vargas during his scouting and knew he had to talk to her immediately, even before seeing her perform.
Hutchinson said, “Kate stopped me in my tracks. Then there was her distinctive voice. She had everything I was looking for. Songs, great lyrics, a great live show, a winning personality, and the desire to put in the work necessary to get ahead.”
Hutchinson praised the amount of energy she has in the studio, and that is shown through her passionate lyrics and artistic composition. Her drive, focus and hands-on involvement during recording have proven her dedication to her craft, and she set the tone early for how far she wants to grow in the industry.
“Kate’s just getting started and, really, there’s no limit to what she can accomplish,” Hutchinson expressed.
The major outlets and big names have taken notice, and her music is rightfully raved within many circles—even when it comes to lowly independent journalists. There’s a certain respect due.
The pandemic was rough on Vargas. Any artist knows that their mind is in desperate need to be occupied and spending too much time with their thoughts can be detrimental. She found herself in Los Angeles with her hands on Jackson Browne’s guitar and her mind on Newton’s first law.
Her constant motion helped guide the release of her label debut with Bandaloop Records, Rumpumpo, this year. It is her first album in three years, fourth overall, and the intention was simply to provide audiences with good, well-executed art. Rumpumpo gives listeners everything they need to know about Vargas in 11 songs—if they are willing and ready.
McFadden said of Rumpumpo, “Kate’s album is a gem. Anyone that stumbles upon Kate’s latest record is like finding a buried treasure.”
The title track not only displays her distinct sound and the creativity involved but how open she is about vices and addiction and the ability to tell a story, almost masking the depth of the words with a whimsical beat that doesn’t fit the lyrical content. That is on purpose and it’s very difficult for musicians to achieve. It eases the heaviness in a way so the listener can withstand processing each little bit, lyrically and musically, without being deterred. In addition, around the 2:30 mark, a Spanish-influenced solo is inserted into the jazzy, gypsy-like beat that on the surface doesn’t make sense, but strangely fits. Her influences, past and style are all on display. Maybe the listener doesn’t actually need 11 songs.
Luckily for them, there are. “Honeydipper” showcases her flexibility as a vocalist. The rasping isn’t an act but can be contained, and there’s a hint of southern twang that comes out at times. “Left Shoe” continues her ability to keep an infectious beat, and then she slows things down with “Everything Forever,” the first ballad on the album.
“After the song is done, it’s exciting,” Vargas said about the writing process. “I said something that I’ve wanted to say or I expressed this thing in a way that feels really true to me. It’s really like a birthing. It can take anywhere from, for me, a couple days to a couple years.”
She wants to get to the heart of each song while in the studio, which helps create an experience with each track and album. Structure and balance are vital to both. Vargas is able to capture the essence of her own music and give listeners something of everything. “Animal” and “Split 3 Times” bring back to the toe-tapping melodies and thought-provoking lyrics, but then the overlooked hit of the album emerges.
“Someday” is a seemingly basic slower track, but it’s the subtle build-up throughout that enchants the listener. Also, the lyrics aren’t overpowered by tempo or rhythm, allowing them to absorb the message clearer. If there was ever a song to either wander a dusty trail as the sun curves from horizon to horizon or sit in a rocking chair on a front porch and stare up at the clear stars while pondering life between long blinks, this would be a contender.
“Church of the Misdirection” and “Glorieta to the Holy Place” sandwich the descriptive track “Lighter” on the listing, but the two religion-based songs have drawn attention—especially from New Mexicans. Vargas dives deep into the memories of her childhood and the role Catholicism played during her upbringing, using that southern gothic sound that complements the topic flawlessly. Though it’s been concentrated on in regard to Rumpumpo, Vargas has done this before, even back on her first album in 2014, Down to My Soul, with the track “Sisters of Loretto.”
This is something that makes Vargas special. Unintentionally, she immerses listeners in a situation from a child’s perspective, which is to be considered innocent, to try to make sense of life aspects that are confusing then and now. On the contrary, when it comes to her time as a teenager and the dark years that followed, she uses her experiences to create stories and provide clarity and hope.
Rumpumpo ends with “Like Apollo” which sums up everything the listener just experienced with a bluesy rock conclusion to this specific part of Vargas’ journey. And it’s left with an open ending like any good series.
Vargas has evolved without abandoning her sound. However, nothing sounds exactly the same which some acts fall victim to. The subtle progression within one’s own catalog is an art in itself.
After Down to My Soul, Vargas released Strangeclaw in 2016 and For the Wolfish & Wandering in 2018 which includes her most popular song, “7 Inches.” Each album contains a fitting first track, especially “Roll Around” off For the Wolfish & Wandering. It possesses the same personal tone as the title track off her debut back in 2014.
This proves her commitment to her sound and lyrical intention, but she also is not only influenced by her experiences but time periods, and also by the changeability of emotion. “The Truth About the Heart” has a ‘90’s rock feel all over it, and “November” is a prime example of her ability to capture the essence of a slow emotional song. Both tracks can also be found on For The Wolfish & Wandering.
No matter which point a new listener starts their journey into Vargas’ catalog, they will receive everything she’s about.
Vargas wrote about her future in her essay “Self-Help is an Oxymoron” in Atwood Magazine, explaining that her inability to meet her potential is “a temporary state that’s lasted my whole life thus far” before promoting confidence to overcome her back-and-forth thoughts.
What a fantastic saying. Perhaps this must be said because it eases the battle with her ego. An ego doesn’t always boast conceitedness but can also express negative feelings toward oneself because of failure to meet what the ego believes is the bar. She has been open about her feelings and issues, even away from the stage, but no matter the internal debate, the outside world recognizes her impending success.
McFadden added, “Kate is an artist who I think will have longevity and keep rising because of her talent. She’s the real deal.”
Vargas is an enigma in a sense when it comes to the way she writes. Her music is a necessity, not just for her fans, but for herself. This is in no way a professional psychological analysis, but how she changes perspective to drive home a point, whether intentional or unintentional, is interesting. The confusion she addresses about religion from the pure mind of a child, the damaging vices she battles in the midst of teenage angst, and the reflection on the past that only an adult who has found clarity can offer are all present in her lyrics at some point—and there’s a lot in between as well.
Vargas said, “When I was on the path of total self-destruction, I wasn’t writing that much, and when I was, I wasn’t writing the way that I wanted to. Nothing really felt true to me. I was not doing what I was meant to do, I wasn’t doing it at all, and now I am, and that feels right where I want to be. I just want to survive.”
Her darkness, her eclectic perspective and her passion for her craft combine to create something utterly distinctive and of the utmost quality. Music: the answer was inside all along for Vargas. She has shared her solution and her calling, and will do so for a very long time to come.
“Blue thumbs and hearts, put them in a line and sniff them all up, the new cocaine without the shame.” -Ivory Lake, “My Phone”
The embedded screams of abuse remain stationed in his memory as Josh Watts bashes sticks and hammers pedals against the plastic skin that surrounds him. A sound that was once absorbed in the womb to be rediscovered 14 years later through the pulsing rhythmic influence of Lars Urlich has now consumed his limbs as an adult. He was lost but found sanctity in applause.
Watts is all of Ivory Lake. The talented young musician composes for and creates on each instrument during production of his original material. For live shows, he has assembled a grouping from the deep talent pools England and Spain have to offer that embodies chemistry like only musicians can. His drive and the obstacles he has had to overcome have formed a budding artist in the alternative/indie pop scene.
Labels, however, are meant for industry, and occasionally the mood of the sound overpowers the meaning of the lyrics. With influences that range from the Beach Boys to Metallica, Watts has accomplished a rare blend of style that has the possibility of broadening his listeners.
“To be able to give people some kind of meaning would be an amazing place to be,” Watts said.
He has the platform to showcase his abilities and now he yearns to share meaning with new audiences. He needs to share his story to satisfy an understandably involved, somewhat damaged mind.
Ivory Lake is a beautiful backcountry part of the Waitaha River in the west coast region of New Zealand. The water is surrounded by mountains, like an exclusive spring reward for only the most devoted of campers and hikers. It’s somewhere Watts had never heard of before, but a glowing rippling pool one evening ignited his imagination as he visualized elephant tusks stabbing the water. Capturing inspiration is part of his creative process.
With English and Jamaican heritage running through his veins, Watts spent a majority of his childhood in Crookes outside of Sheffield, England—and his father spent the majority of Watts’ childhood in prison. His mother, on the other hand, was a musician and played in a band with her sister. Treacle was an all-female melodic rock band, and Watts’ mother managed the drums and provided vocals—something that was obviously passed down.
Watts recalled, “I can always remember the sound of them rehearsing in my grandparents’ cellar. After they were finished and my mom would let me have a bash on her drum kit, that was always the best bit for me.”
That beat, that sound that resonated upward through the floorboards, whether performed on an amplifier or streamed out of speakers, wasn’t just meant to influence, but rather drown out the issues young children should never be exposed to. Watts, along with his brother and sister, were forced beyond their control to listen to the vulgar words and witness the physical assault of domestic violence.
“We could always hear what was going on. We weren’t physically abused, it was more psychological. You have to understand the effect that seeing the person you love most getting their head slammed into a flight of stairs has on a young child; it’s something I relive almost daily. I know the victim is my mother, and I can’t speak to her experience, only mine and being five years old and frozen at the top of the stairs, unable to help or move or even speak. It’s the absolute worst feeling I have ever felt and I regret not being able to help to this day, even though I know I couldn’t have if I tried.”
Though memories struggle to exit, forms of relief have the ability to enter the mind. Music has been an outlet for Watts in order to curb the anger and release his thoughts. It has reduced the pressure of recollection and given direction to simmering uncertainty.
Pain can be an enhancer when it comes to lyrical composition, but also a hindrance to expansion if not blended into the sound correctly. Another obstacle Watts has had to overcome is the fact that he is dyslexic.
During grade school, he began struggling with core subjects such as literature and math; it was frustrating to make sense of what others seemed to solve with ease. He was an outsider without an answer until being formally diagnosed at 12, a year after moving to Spain with his mother and siblings.
The relocation was needed after the violence had become too much to deal with and his struggle in the classroom were just an added obstruction at an important developmental phase of life. Just like his mother rightfully fleeing from the abuse, Watts had to address his disorder to pursue his dreams as a composer.
“It’s like there’s a jigsaw puzzle in my head but none of the pieces look like they fit,” Watts shared. “My songs still have the meta narrative, but then there might be references to 12 completely unrelated stories that only I know about in there—which I think can help open the songs to the listener’s own perspective.”
His songwriting has found a home in alternative/indie pop, which helps tremendously with a jumbled mind. The style is experimental at times, and if properly contained, albeit contradictory liberal, the blend of sound and voice has the ability to branch out from the norm without straying from structure and theory. Occasionally, a listener will be entranced by the standard poppy cadence, chord progression and major-key positive emotions and fail to process the darkness of the words. On the contrary, if revealed by the ear, the lyrics may be more accepted with a broader emotional response. It’s different than falling victim to complete sadness through minor bleak signatures and depressing stories—which there’s a time and place for when sought. In a sense, and this is by no means a professional analysis, the blend of different styles and themes is a form of stabilizing an unrelated unbalance.
Watts’ music could also be derived from a subconscious connection to his mother’s ‘90’s melodies. They both had to overcome obstacles and found hope and promise of new beginnings at the same time. In addition, music has the tendency to repeat itself every thirty years, not necessarily the sound, but the resemblance, attitude and meaning. Perhaps it’s the generational bond between parent and child that creates these era revolutions, or perhaps it’s the shared influences of adult and youth listeners under the same roof.
Watts saw his first concert when he was 14, which happened to be Metallica during their World Magnetic Tour. Metallica didn’t truly find mainstream success until the early-‘90s when Watts was exposed to not just his mother’s music, but other artists of the time.
Along with the heavy metal idols, Queensryche didn’t find mainstream success until around the same time in the late-80s—though their foundation happened in the late-70s. Their records were successful enough the decade between to keep afloat before becoming an act that still tours to this day. Yet, along with Metallica, the band found prominent radio success in the early-90s.
Ex-lead singer Geoff Tate was an important part of Queensryche’s earlier success, but has since sought solo endeavors. Enter influence and opportunity for Watts. The drummer was selected to play for Tate’s band during the singer’s 2019 tour. Watts performed over 100 shows in 26 countries in just six months.
Tate said of Watts, “He’s a talented singer and songwriter as well as an incredibly solid drummer. He’s been able to play all the Queensryche material so well, and that’s serious stuff for a drummer.”
Landing a spot on Tate’s act was vital for Watts’ exposure to not only the industry but the experience of a major tour and performance fresh into his songwriting—even before releasing any material. He was able to bond with other artists and build a strong network by relying on his personality and skill. He benefited from staying true to himself.
“Josh Watts is so easygoing and such a pleasure to work with,” Tate added. “He’s all about the music all the time.”
Through inspiration, influence and first-hand knowledge, Watts has received a better understanding of sound and structure which has led to the construction of quality songs.
Though his influences could be traced back to ‘80’s and ‘90’s metal, his sound varies from the heavy distortion and monotone vocals of the high-octane genre. Yet, the deep dark lyrical themes remain. Enter inspiration. And don’t forget the underrated alternative melodies of the ‘90s and ‘00s which was found in Treacle’s sound. Though Watts has difficulty listening to songs that were meant to drown out the abuse to this day, inspiration was maintained.
Besides the connection, the words and hints of past melody, Watts has been able to use his modern influences to shape his style. Artists such as the 1975, Tame Impala, Father John Misty and Phoebe Bridgers have all served as inspirations on his path to crafting his idiosyncratic alt pop craft.
Watts explained, “Although the music I write is on the lighter side of things, a lot of my lyrics could be classified as heavy in a way. Light, fun and interesting with darker subject matter.”
There is a complex method to the madness. Humble enough to not claim expertise on any one instrument, Watts considers himself competent enough to write and play the drums, piano, guitar and bass. He’s a dedicated father to two small children, so the free gaps in the day are meant for practice and creation whenever presented. Therefore, a majority of his composition comes while alone in the dark hours of the evening. He is, however, unapologetically and undeniably himself during his practice, and also understands that in an ever-changing world, there’s always room for growth, and adaptation is necessary to survive genre and personal shifts. Change is inevitable and can affect the whole process from draft to final cut, and an artist must be open to critique and alterations that produce the best track possible.
Writing alone can only take an artist so far. Currently, Watts works with The Animal Farm records in London and producers Mat and Ville Leppanen (Alien Feelings, Alex Goupil, Seprona), and he recognizes the great contributions of the company, including maintaining an assembly to his songs when the drafts can be all over the place.
The Leppanen brothers said of Watts, “We’ve found it very motivating to work with Josh because he’s a talented, skillful and versatile musician with great work ethic. It’s always a pleasure to work with people like that.”
Watts touched on composing, “I don’t really have any structure to my writing, and my lyrics can be complicated, putting them together in my own dyslexic way. I like it that way because it leaves a little wiggle room for the listener’s interpretation, and I think in music that is a huge part of what makes people feel connected to the song.”
Ivory Lake has three songs out now and commitment to the craft can be found in each one.
The COVID-19 pandemic was bittersweet for Watts, as it was for others. Many people suffered tremendously dealing with various forms of loss, but it also offered perspective. Watts used his unexpected free time to first spend quality time with his family, but also find himself as an artist and experiment as a songwriter, mastering his craft.
In 2021, Ivory Lake released three singles, “Pillows,” “Lazy” and “My Phone.” The debut EP features “Pillows” as the title track, and the song is a great example of what Watts is going for with his sound. Structurally, it’s fantastic. A high-octave, slow-tempo soft piano intro transitions into Watts’ indulgent melodic vocals and strumming of an acoustic guitar. The build-up is what is key here, though soft, about a minute in, the listener experiences that familiar indie pop piano chord progression found in bands like Jukebox the Ghost. The song is then in full compilation as the verse flows into the chorus.
“I’m most proud of ‘Pillows,’ Watts admitted. “It’s the song that took me the longest to write and it really came together in a beautiful way.”
Musically, the song is beautiful, but lyrically, it’s deceptive. The theme is the effect domestic violence has on children who witness the assault; it’s a very personal song to Watts. The key, tone and tempo all promote joy, but the theme of the words is dark. The listener is experiencing a moment; not the violence itself, but the mental consequence that affects others. The sound is purposely meant to soothe the situation, almost saying it will be “all right.” With the decreasing dynamics of the bridge vocals and the comforting brief guitar solo that follows, it’s like the audience is under the pillow as well. The music stands for avoidance and misdirection while the lyrics serve as a reminder that the memory is always present, with hope to primarily be dormant. The structure of the song is the in-and-out of a traumatic situation. The coda then matches that lovely intro.
“Lazy” begins with a similar cadence, now cementing part of Ivory Lake’s style. The light intro rhythm becomes the verse, and then there’s a nice pick-up in vocal and musical timbre during the pre-chorus. The transition into the chorus flows perfectly, and the additional elements during the shift out of the chorus and into the second verse are done well. The theme of the song is depression and the vicious cycle the mind gets trapped in, consuming a person with the lack of motivation. However, the tone and tempo of the music and Watts’ vocals capture the mood of attempting to lift out of the state. Yet, the character apologetically succumbs to depression though the will to rise is there, but just can’t be found. The words are the disorder; the music is the cure yet to be discovered.
The last single, “My Phone,” shows Ivory Lake’s versatility, primarily in sound and tempo. It also displays Watts’ ability to flawlessly construct a pop song. “Pillows” may be Watts’ favorite song, but “My Phone” is an absolute hit. In each part of the track’s structure, the elements provide catchiness among the subtle differences. This is a record that could be played in a variety of settings. Lyrically, it’s fantastic. The words are relevant to modern society and relationships and how technology has consumed many, and could potentially replace the most human of emotions and traits. The “happy” beat masks a different trouble, not one of personal adversity or obstacles, but rather the problems society is creating for itself.
Even though Ivory Lake has a catalog of just three songs, future releases should be greatly anticipated by listeners.
Watts has the ability to take Ivory Lake far in the industry. He is an excellent musician, a great songwriter, and already has major performance and touring experience serving as the drummer for Tate.
“I have listened to and enjoyed his solo material,” Tate shared about Watts. “I see nothing but success for him in the future.”
The multi-talented singer-songwriter realizes the effort that must be put toward his goals. His dedication is proven, his abilities have been showcased, but he also understands that balance is a necessity. Luckily for Watts, music also serves as a form of decompression, a relief from his anxiety.
“I have a very busy mind that often evolves into panic attacks,” Watts confessed. “So when I’m creating something, it’s the only time I can really feel my mind go quiet and go into auto pilot.”
That, and his love for exotic animals. From years spent watching Steve Irwin and David Attenborough as a child, Watts began collecting unusual species. Iguanas, tortoises, terrapins, snakes, leopard geckos, salamanders, tropical fish and tarantulas among many others were always of the utmost interest to him. Witnessing the beauty and magic of the life cycle became a side passion, a different avenue to channel his emotions and thoughts.
We all have our idiosyncrasies that lead to ascertaining some idea of significance, and whatever Watts is doing, it’s working. His overall approach to life is admirable, maintaining a warm heart though a product of a troubled past and damaged mind beyond his control, and making sure his children are never exposed to the same issues. The perseverance to overcome and find meaning in art, discovering splendor in the darkness, and recognizing that deep-seated gloom is always present have shaped his sound and personality. Watts’ life created Ivory Lake. His creation has no ceiling.
“My drive comes from self-loathing and not believing I’m good enough, it just makes me try harder and put in the hours. I can only really hope to sprinkle a little bit of who I am as a person into the genre and watch it unfold from there,” Watts said. “There is no telling where it will go but I’m excited to find out.”
He has done his best, he has tried, and listeners are rewarded for that. This is only the beginning, and we all have been given perspective to reflect upon through Ivory Lake’s music and Josh Watts’ story.
“Idon’t like work, work is for jerks, stay in be with the circus freaks.” -Prime, “In Summer”
Lee Heir was working in a meat factory. This isn’t a follow up to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It was his first job and he wasn’t undercover. He was just going through the tedious motions of industrial livelihood, watching each package convey by with “prime” stamped on the side.
Whether the band name serves as motivation or a memory, Heir dedicated his free time to producing a blend of good music
Heir started Prime years ago, but later teamed up with guitarist Chris D. Bramley in 2019, and the two eventually brought in Stuart Boles and Jon Carter. Yet, the group was strictly formed to make music for the time being.
“I formed Prime originally in 2014 as a studio project,” Heir explained, “and in 2015 we began doing more live shows, playing pretty much continuously for a few years until I wrapped things up on the band just over a year ago, and decided we wouldn’t play live again.”
That decision happened in December 2019. It wasn’t the end of a band per se, but more of a recharge considering the group is still releasing music. The pandemic may have helped the quartet accept the transition to making camp in the studio and taking a break from touring. Heir was able to concentrate on new music and new projects while also returning to the drudge of the daily grind during the day.
Prime is a rock band. However, they blend in some classic sounds of other genres, and they do it well.
Heir said, “We make rock music, but it has a mix of blues, glam, indie and punk which I think makes us stand out.”
There are certain tracks where listeners are privy to the influences and inspirations of Prime, and the sound spans musical generations. There are hints of famed revolutionary artists such as David Bowie and even a little Pet Shop Boys sneak in, but what is most prominent is a mesh of ‘70s’ and ‘80s’ punk attitude and sound, bluesy rhythms and a touch of glam.
Although Prime may be finished touring and Heir is looking toward the future, there are still some quality tracks that listeners can enjoy.
The UK outfit has centered their sound around influence and are looking to share their music with listeners though the direction of the band is still in question.
In 2020, they released a compilation of their best songs, Art/Facts. “In Summer” is a solid opening track with a genuine poppy ‘80s’ feel to the sound. The rhythm, especially the vocal verses, is infectious. It’s a perfect lead into “Bye Bye” which can be considered a glam rock, funky track that makes a listener want to move. From the first two songs, perhaps their best two tracks, audiences can grasp the talent Prime has for melody.
“To Be Or Not To Be” then brings out the punk sound. That continuous loud drumbeat that became a staple in the British punk revolution is found throughout, and Heir’s attitude can be sensed in his blunt lyrics. “I.O.U.” then highlights a different instrument: the bass. A funky bass line opens another rhythmic track that has a feel of an early Tom Petty or John Mellencamp song.
After the rough garage distortion of “No Sign Of Life,” the band slows down their tempo for the ever-important album balance. “Free N’ Easy” showcases Heir’s vocal range as the listener enjoys ‘70s’ melody and cadence. “Like The Weather” then teases listeners with a new element to Prime’s sound with a brief bit of synth to introduce the track—which will become more apparent later on.
“Flatline” showcases Heir’s real lyrics the best since he does tend to focus on what he observes on a day-to-day basis. It’s a great song because of the shift in tempo that happens around the 1:10 mark and the 2:00 mark on the track. As stressed before, and album needs balance, but that same balance can also be captured within the a single song if done correctly.
Considering Prime meshes styles of the past, most can be found in “Take Me To Your Crew” which is quite a feat to accomplish. There’s this strange marriage of ‘70s’ and ‘80s’ punk with a bluesy guitar solo by Bramley. Though punk is technically one genre, we’ve seen it change each decade, so being able to blend certain elements without losing the overall sound is respectable—as is adding a totally different genre’s dynamic.
Prime’s sound begins to shift into experimentation with “White Boys, White Noise,” taking a Primus-like bass line and inserting pop culture references. It’s funky, going back to their style on “Bye Bye,” but more contemporary. Fittingly, a “Bye Bye” remix follows with an increased tempo and electronica dynamics added, putting a new wave feel into what originally sounded like a ‘70s’ track. This remix takes basically everything they know how to do, punk, rock, funk, disco, glam, and whatever else to create this alternative track—and the keyboard is a fantastic touch.
“Teen TV” ends the album with a straight chaotic punk track, reverting back to that garage band sound of a band’s pure joy for their craft without a care for what the audience thinks.
In 2021, Prime released “Jeff Took A Trip,” which, despite the band’s uncertain future, verified their studio work remains intact. The psychedelic track rivals a Pink Floyd song with soul, blues, indie rock and electronica elements.
Heir confessed, “I’m not a fake songwriter. Everything is based in reality or observations that I feel to be an accurate representation of how people really act. There’s pressure I put on myself to succeed in what I do.”
There’s definitely talent present. If Heir continues Prime or decides to focus on a different project, he has at least left some good music to be remembered, and enough of a sample for listeners to be intrigued by what else is to come.
“I see my father now in me, a little more every day, the bad is there too, keeps the good company.” -Tony Benn, “Don’t Give Up Your Heart”
Tony Benn has an interesting namesake. He is not the former minister of technology, nor is his name the hip shorter version of the famed crooner. And for all the college basketball fans out there, it’s not the head coach of Virginia’s stage name.
No, Tony Benn is his own person, and he’s made a name for himself as a modern folk singer-songwriter.
The Irish singer has spent most of his career as a solo artist. Yet, he found success in 2005 with the band Exploding Marmalade, reaching the Irish Top 30. Having been in the industry most of the 21st century, Benn has shared his stories internationally. He dedicated himself to music when he was young, however.
He reminisced, “I always sang in school and when I was 15 I had some money saved from my summer job. I wanted to get either a surfboard or a guitar. I decided on a Squire Telecaster (no regrets, it shaped the rest of my life), I bought a book and taught myself, playing every day till I was obsessed.”
After grabbing the axe and mastering the strings, Benn wanted to make a mark with his own voice, and he strengthened the talent he had inside the hard way and the academic way. While busking on streets, Benn attended Dublin’s Ballyfermot school of Music, and the combo helped prepare him for this career aspirations.
With influences such as Eddie Vedder, Roy Orbison, Ani Di Franco and Bruce Springsteen, Benn’s knowledge of music was vast from a variety of avenues. Listeners may even find some Bob Dylan-esque dynamics in Benn’s composition, both musically and vocally.
“I try to marry modern songwriting with a classical DADGAD guitar sound and my singing voice,” Benn said.
His acoustic stylings fit the alternative folk genre well, but with the addition of his deep soulful poetry and measured tempo, his sound becomes very stripped-down and raw. He isn’t afraid to find inspiration outside of the genre as well. For example, listening to pop and classic country helps discover basic and infectious melodies. All these elements help construct a good singer-songwriter, and it’s a style that audiences of the genre have come to love from generation to generation.
In 2009, Benn released his first solo album, Tony Benn. Though the production quality wasn’t outstanding, the tracks really defined what Benn was going for: emotional lyrics paired with great guitar play. Just like some of the best Irish music. His songs were basic to his plight, but tracks such as “It Starts in C” gave hints at the passion he was capable of creating.
After a lengthy hiatus from releasing new content, it wasn’t until last year when Benn put out another full-length album, If I Cross Your Mind. The title track softly, and fittingly, opens the album and sets the tone of what is to come—and it’s one of the songwriter’s favorite songs.
Benn explained, “It has a distinctive sound because of the DADGAD tuning. The melody is sung in kind of a yodel which I don’t usually do, and the lyrics are simple and mature.”
When an artist is able to accept and stay true to a consistent sound early, it makes for a better collection. Benn created his own distinction in the alternative folk genre without straying too far and deterring listeners who are loyal to the style.
The harmonica in “Don’t Give Up Your Heart” is a nice touch, and also a staple in folk music. There is a slight shift in sound in “Won’t You Be Mine” and an increased tempo in “The City.” Yet, his best cadence may come, depending on the ear, in “No More Excuses.”
Explicit language isn’t needed in most stories, but when Benn curses in “People Give Bullshit Advice,” it heightens the song. Since it is uncommon throughout the rest of his lyrics, it strengthens his passion.
“Gypsy Rover” closes out the album nicely with a little more volume then the tracks that preceded it. If not paying attention, as in playing the album in the background while focusing on work or another task, the songs could sound the same. However, they aren’t, and there lies Benn’s brilliance. Subtle changes in the sound provide enough variety to produce a quality album.
Benn’s latest 2021 single, “If We Make it Through the Winter,” continues his consistent sound, fresh with harmonica, melodious guitar and a sing-along..
Though imperceptibly different, each song has two traits that are never abandoned: guitar melody and meaningful lyrics anyone can be moved from and find a relation to.
Benn said of life, “The struggle for me, like anyone else, is to survive and keep all the plates spinning.”
Alternative and folk fans, especially ones accustomed to Irish melody, will be satisfied with Benn’s latest release. He stays true to himself just like listeners stay true to the sound.
Experimentation in music, especially when mixing genres, has led to progression within the industry. Vulgarithm is looking for similar success, and is using an old style to help.
Vulgarithm is a one-man outfit created by Andy “Dirt” McGurk. With a decade of rock and metal experience, he decided to make a change and challenge his artistic abilities.
McGurk explained, “I felt my previous solo stuff started getting stale and I needed a creative reboot.”
Bands, or artists, in need of invention look to the technique of blending styles, or in many pop culture cases, collaboration. Look what’s going on with country and hip-hop, for example. Blending sounds is different, though, especially when it’s one person creating and programming the composition. McGurk knew what he liked, knew what was becoming flat, and decided to venture into the uncertain world of providing unique content.
Based in the U.K., McGurk has concentrated on music since he was a child. There wasn’t a thought toward anything other for his future. He learned the piano at six and eventually picked up the guitar. He studied his craft, learned structure and sound through listening to songs and attending festivals, and eventually followed the industry as it has drastically shifted the last two-plus decades. He realized a personal change was inevitable and vital to sustain in an overcrowded scene.
Vulgarithm’s style could best be described as riff rave. It takes deeper riffs, especially the low distortion popularized in the ’90s and 2000s, and mixes in some 90s dance music. Sound strange? There’s a little more to it, so it’s a tad difficult to explain. Yet, within the variety of beats offered, nu-metal is also present.
“Bands with big riffs and grooves always stick with me,” McGurk said, “but the two biggest influences on my writing has been anything Trent Reznor or Maynard James Keenan have done. Constantly reinventing themselves to make their music unique.”
Those inspirations, and also the vocal tone of Serj Tankian at times, can be heard. More so, the bass usage is similar to The Prodigy and the nu-metal act Ultraspank. Yet, he also mixes in remains of the old rap-rock genre on some tracks when the vocals are added. A good comparison may be Hed PE.
Then there are the visual elements, and this derives from McGurk’s time as an audience member watching bands such as Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Orbital. I’ve personally seen Nine Inch Nails and Tool before, and the production quality of their performances is incredible. It’s an art; it’s an act. Of course, they have the funding to offer that level of entertainment on a grand scale, but adding those elements are important factors to consider.
The combination of visuals with energetic sound can take a live show to the next level. However, there first needs to be live shows.
Vulgarithm uses projections and costumes to enhance the experience for its audience. Unfortunately, there haven’t been many performances to showcase its fresh act and sound. In fact, the only shows McGurk has been able to share are virtual, having never played in public as Vulgarithm due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGurk said about his shows, “I’ve had a grand total of 3, maybe 4. Sadly, all of these have been online as Vulgarithm has only been around since the start of 2020.” He added, “My main aim as an individual performer is to look engaging as well as sounding good.”
As many in the industry know, live shows are where artists make a majority of their money, and for McGurk to miss out on that type of revenue and promotion is difficult to swallow. In the meantime, it’s about finding other avenues in order to sustain.
“This is where Vulgarithm has to step up now,” McGurk explained. “It has only known lock-down in its existence so I’ve had to really push the word out through music, videos, online shows, and merch. Anything other than gigging to let the general public know I exist.”
In 2019, Vulgarithm released Share If You Agree, and offered its sophomore EP, Share If You Disagree, last year. The single “Out My Way!” was recently shared on Feb. 19. More tracks will be released leading up to McGurk’s next EP, Share In The 3rd Degree.
There are a couple tracks by Vulgarithm that best defines the sound McGurk is attempting to develop and perfect. “Piece of Shame” off Share If You Agree provides listeners with an idea of Vulgarithm’s influences. It has similar energy to the nu-metal group Spineshank. McGurk really finds his sound and attitude on “The Vulgar Rhythm” and “I Cannot Take This Country Seriously.” The latter is his hit, in my opinion, and it’s because the song is one of the most consistently rhythmic and structured tracks McGurk has produced.
Though Vulgarithm is in no doubt creative and versatile, which is most apparent in its tracks “Still Have Doubts” and “I Can Only Find Nothing,” there is a small issue to consider. Occasionally, when blending styles, consistency suffers. You can use different styles to make a unique sound, but it’s better to keep that unique sound instead of flirting with other combinations on the same track or album. Experimentation is a necessity for the creative mind, but so is organization for the final product.
There is some Reznor in “Out My Way!” but it also displays Vulgarithm’s ability to make infectious hard rock beats. On the contrary, it also makes abrupt changes to the sound, including the insertion of the Independence Day speech. No complaint there. Great movie, great speech. The one thing Vuglarithm can work on is its in-song transitions, and then it will have its unique sound.
Nine Inch Nails, Tool, The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers maintained their sound and style, and they are definitely great acts to be influenced by. In the case of Maynard James Keenan, when a new sound was developed, it wasn’t developed necessarily through Tool, but rather A Perfect Circle or Puscifer.
What Vulgarithm is best at, in my mind, is rhythmic nu-metal, or perhaps industrial metal. There are parts of each song that McGurk can use. He has a good hard rock vocal range and tackles issues with his lyrics, he can make excellent beats and riffs, and can visual stimulate an audience. The key is bringing those aspects together more consistently and organizing each song and EP for a better flow. And if he can do that, he has the ability to become a known brand.
Heavy rhythmic acts, whether straight riffs or with the addition of synthesizers, do work on an international level. Danish band Volbeat has some of the best cadence for a hard rock band, especially with the distinctive vocals of Michael Poulsen. However, if Vulgarithm wants to take note of any band to learn from, it would be Rammstein. The Germans not only blend hard rock distortion with synthesizers almost perfectly, they know how to structure a song from beginning to bridge to end. Not to mention Rammstein is one of the most electrifying live acts in the world. Trust me, I’ve seen them and I will always remember that show.
McGurk is on the right path with Vulgarithm. One thing is for sure, he is creative and true to his style, and once he perfects it, it can take him places.