Modern Soul(s): Vulfpeck collaborator Antwaun Stanley connected with former My Dear Disco/Ella Riot leader Tyler Duncan for a new EP

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Antwaun Stanley

Antwaun Stanley's powerful voice sounds like it came from another time, cast from the deep grooves of a 1960s R&B record.

That's why it's always a treat when the Ann Arbor singer appears as a featured vocalist with jam-funk-soul stars Vulfpeck or with one of the other bands for which he's associated.

But a new EP, Ascension, shows Stanley taking a big step forward as a solo artist. The record was made in collaboration with Ann Arbor multi-instrumentalist and producer Tyler Duncan. His impressive resume includes leading the Irish crossover group Millish and the dance-rock project My Dear Disco, aka Ella Riot, as well as producing songs for Carly Rae Jepsen and Lake Street Dive.

The EP isn’t technically Stanley's solo debut—he released a gospel album a few years back—but it does showcase his artistic voice in a new way with a modern R&B sound. 

Ascension features three fully developed songs and three largely instrumental interludes. “Speed of Night” recalls old-school R&B, while “Tightrope” offers inspiration through James Blake-like soul-tronica. “Lost in Translation” is the EP's stand-out with its addictive groove, great singing, strong lyrics, and a crackling horn section.

Stanley answered a few questions about the new EP and his other work.

Kenyatta Rashon explores "The Art of Keeping It Real" on her accomplished debut album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Kenyatta Rashon in a green hoodie

Photo by Kyla McGrath

Ypsilanti singer and songwriter Kenyatta Rashon showcases a polished R&B sound spiced up with some hip-hop accents on her terrific debut album, The Art of Keeping It Real.

Rashon has a distinctive singing voice, both expressive and powerful. And her songs are uniformly strong, with memorable melodies and vibrant lyrics. “YoFi” and “W.rong” express regrets for lost love, while “I am” and “H4L” are anthems of self-empowerment. The single “Free” establishes a great summer listening vibe over wistful and wise lyrics: “Some things could change and some things could not / But I made peace with the things I got / I’m free”

Rashon answered a few questions about the album for Pulp.

Bill Edwards made the most of the pandemic era with an ambitious new album, "Whole Cloth"

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Bill Edwards

Where some musicians may have understandably felt limited by the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Bill Edwards took it as an opportunity. 

Unable to collaborate with other musicians, Edwards decided to record full-band music all by himself—playing instruments both familiar and new, and learning software packages as well. He wrote, recorded, and started the process again, ultimately finding himself with 30 fully finished songs. 

The resulting album, Whole Cloth, is a major achievement, filled with gems about chasing love, finding love, losing love, and more—and shifting among various musical subgenres that all fit under the broad umbrella of Americana, from old-time country to roots rock to western swing.

While nearly all the songs concern relationships in one way or another, “You’re Still Here” is a touching ode to a friend long gone, while “Ain’t Wet Yet” finds some humor in the politics of trickle-down economics and “Sing Me” praises the power of music itself.

Edwards, who was already skilled on multiple instruments, uses his versatile abilities to great effect throughout the album, such as a warm acoustic guitar solo on “Slow Down the Moon” and wistful fiddle on “Billy’s Lament.” The latter is one of three instrumentals on the album, crafted while Edwards had a paralyzed vocal cord— even that couldn’t slow down his creative process.

He's performing a free-admission album release concert on Aug. 27 with Lauren Crane opening the show.

"I’ll play a short selection of my favorite older songs, and then dig into the new record," Edwards said. "For the latter, since the arrangements rely heavily on drums and a variety of lead instruments, I’ll play acoustic guitar and sing to tracks from the album. I’ve got them recorded in my looper pedal, and it works quite well."

Edwards agreed to answer some questions about the new album.

Ann Arbor singer-pianist Hannah Baiardi makes jazz her own on "Straight From the Soul"

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Hannah Baiardi

Hannah Baiardi has been writing and performing music since age 3, so it’s no surprise that her first full-length album, Straight From the Soul, is a polished and thoughtful work.

Although a listener might categorize the music as contemporary jazz, Baiardi clearly draws on other influences as diverse as R&B and new age, and it all comes through on the album. The University of Michigan grad (BFA ’18, jazz studies) offers smooth, heartfelt vocals and evocative piano playing, which combine for a distinctive and memorable sound. She’s backed by an excellent supporting cast, including Karen Tomalis on drums on most tracks and Marion Hayden or Ryan King on bass.

Baiardi writes much of her own material. The album features five original compositions, ranging from the wistful yet hopeful “Who Can Relate” and “Distant Land” to the joyful “Let Go” and “Feel It.” The album concludes with “Transit,” an outstanding instrumental showcase.

The album also features two pop favorites from old movies—an introspective take on “Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair and “The Summer Knows” from Summer of ’42, which makes for ideal listening in the summer of ’21.

Baiardi recently agreed to answer a few questions via email.

Nessa’s new album explores an “Otherworld” as well as our own

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Nessa's Kelly McDermott

The third album from Ann Arbor's Nessa showcases an ensemble remaining true to its roots while stretching out thematically.

Led by flutist/vocalist Kelly McDermott, the band continues to develop its own particular strain of Celtic-inspired world music. And on the new album, Otherworld, that sound serves to explore two specific themes: of women finding truth and a prayer for the planet.

Joining McDermott in the core band are Rob Crozier on bass and other instruments; Dan Palmer, guitars; Mike List, percussion; Rick Beamon, drums; and Brian Brill, keyboards. Brill and McDermott produced the record.

The album opens with a composition about another world and devotes its second half to an “Elemental Suite” celebrating our own world. The title track is a haunting, flute-led instrumental that sets the stage for what’s to come. Thoughtful and enchanting, it effectively suggests the idea of another dimension. Written by Crozier, “RGB Reel” -- inspired by Ruther Bader Ginsburg -- showcases his expert bass playing. Dan Palmer’s “Buiochas” is a beautiful take on Irish jazz. 

The music on Otherworld is largely original compositions, but the band also weaves in reinventions of traditional songs, further extending the notion of both staying rooted and reaching out. “Sovay” is mellow and jazzy, while “Wraggle Taggle Gypsies” has an almost reggae feel. And “Stitch in Time” even manages to successfully work in rap elements.

The four parts of the closing suite each evoke their particular element. “Air for St. Brigid” features gorgeous wordless vocals; “Singing Waters” uses water sounds and a flute that suggests a flowing river. “Fire Dance” takes listeners from embers to a roaring blaze.

McDermott answered a few questions about the new album via email.

Water Music: Kat Steih's "Hymns of the Huron" takes inspiration from Ann Arbor's liquid landmark

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Kat Steih

Photo by Jamie Chiu

The Huron River is one of the unifying elements of the greater Ann Arbor area, so it's not surprising that it has provided inspiration to a local singer-songwriter, Kat Steih, for her recent album, Hymns of the Huron: “I’d really like to focus on using my voice as a musician to make connections between things. I’d like to advocate for holistic music/creative education, women in creative fields, and water rights.” 

Steih will get to support water rights when she performs benefit for the Huron River Watershed Council on March 27 at Triple Goddess Tasting Room in Ypsilanti.

Hymns of the Huron features a fully realized sound, led by Steih’s rich, expressive voice. She’s backed on the record by Jesse Morgan, piano; Ben Lorenz, drums (who also produced); Jason Magee, guitar; and Kristin von Bernthal, bass and backup vocals. Steih wrote all the songs on the album. It opens with “Hole in My Heart,” placing sorrowful lyrics against a jaunty melody. The poppy “I Need a Friend” similarly establishes an infectious groove over a serious theme, while “I Haven’t Seen a Couple …” is a thoughtful heartbreak song. A sense of sadness and longing runs throughout much of the album, until “Don’t Push Me Away” brings in a sense of hope and “You’re Not Gonna Lose Me” concludes the record with a reassuring promise. 

Steih answered a few questions via email.

Bill Kirchen reminiscences on Commander Cody, Iggy Pop, and Bob Dylan before the Ann Arbor guitar legend's Honky Tonk Holiday

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Excerpt from Bill Kirchen's Holiday Honk Tonk 2019 poster

Ann Arbor native Bill Kirchen is instrumental in creating the rootsy country-rock-blues-folk mix we today call Americana. 

Kirchen hit it big early in his career as the lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; he’s responsible for the dazzling guitar work on their enduring 1972 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He’s since become known as an absolute master of the Telecaster guitar, playing with a nearly endless list of impressive names through the years. 

Most recently, though, Kirchen has found one more way to shine: He’s become well known for his Honky Tonk Holiday tours, which showcase some of the most amazing, overlooked Christmas-themed gems you’ve never heard, alongside some other favorites from throughout his storied career.

On Sunday, Dec. 1, Kirchen brings his annual holiday spectacular home to Ann Arbor for a show at The Ark.

Dusting off should-be-classics like “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas,” “Silent Surfin’ Night,” and “Truckin’ Trees For Christmas,” Kirchen -- now based in Austin -- will appear with his backing band The Hounds of the Bakersfield, featuring Rick Richards on drums and David Carroll on stand-up bass. 

Kirchen took the time to answer a few questions via email, reflecting on the upcoming show and his time in Ann Arbor.

Long-running folk duo Annie and Rod Capps coalesced with a great band for its new album, "When They Fall"

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Rob and Annie Capps

Photo by Jennifer Prouty.

For fans of heartfelt and well-played acoustic roots music, a new album from Ann Arbor duo Annie and Rod Capps is always a treat. But with their latest, When They Fall, something’s a little different.

The songwriting, always smart and heartfelt, has become richer. The musicianship -- fleshed out on the record by Jason Dennie (mandolin and mandola), Dan Ozzie Andrews (bass), and Michael Shimmin (drums and percussion) -- is also better than ever. And the duo is making its most concentrated publicity push. It all feels like something of a step forward for a project that was already a vital and important part of the local music scene.

When They Fall goes from one highlight to the next, but among the most memorable tracks are “Poor Old Me,” showing a great sense of humor with the band sounding particularly lively; the touching “Happy New Year” and “Walking Through” (the latter featuring memorable lines like “I’m praying for the strength to grieve”); and “Build that Fire,” a warm and optimistic conclusion to a truly great recording.

Annie Capps answered a few questions recently via email.

False Figures make no-frills, minimalist Americana on their self-titled debut

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

False Figures

There’s some irony in the name of the Ypsilanti band False Figures. Taken from a line in one of their songs, “Red Herring,” the name refers to fake idols.

But False Figures’ sound is anything but fake. The band is low-fi and low-profile (their social media presence is limited), creating a soulful, warm sort of Americana music that sounds like it might be played by friends around a campfire.

The core band has mostly consisted of Jim Cherewick, vocals, guitar, harmonica, and violin; Joel Parkkila, vocals, guitar and more; and Jason Lymangrover, bass and guitar. More recently, Stefan Krstovic has joined the band as the regular drummer. All the members have experience in other local bands including Human Skull, Best Exes, Congress, and Hydropark.

Their self-titled debut album is an accessible, engaging listen. The no-frills sound is well suited to the songs, which tend to be short and to the point -- one highlight on the album, “Matchbox,” gets the job done in just over a minute and a half. There’s a thoughtfulness to the lyrics, though, especially in songs like “Stay On” and “Out of Time.”

A second album is already in the works. And although the band has been primarily a studio project, they will play a live date at Ziggy’s in Ypsilanti on Wednesday, August 28 with Simon Joyner, Raw Honey, and Idle Ray. The show is being produced by Fred Thomas' Life Like Tapes.

The band recently agreed to answer a few questions via email.

Art and "Soul": Honey Monsoon's new album looks for the light within

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Honey Monsoon by Miles Marie

Photo by Miles Marie

For local band Honey Monsoon, music and art spring from the same well of creativity. 

That dedication to artistic exploration comes through clearly on the band’s second album, Opal Soul, which offers an engaging, irresistible mix of neo-soul and jazz with some world-music elements neatly woven in. For the album, Honey Monsoon's core musicians -- Ana Gomulka, guitar, vocals, keyboards, music, and lyrics; Taylor Greenshields, drums, percussion, recording, and mixing; Sam Naples, guitar, vocals, and mixing; and Binho “Alex” Manenti, bass and keyboards -- are augmented by a horn section and other musicians for a full, layered sound.

Opal Soul is very much about reflection and finding the light within,” Gomulka said. “I'm madly in love with exploration, healing, and the journey back to my higher self. Listening to this music is an invitation for all to make the journey with me.”

Both music and lyrics on Opal Soul reward a close listen. One of the album’s highlights, “Sign of Life,” starts out as fairly straightforward pop, then the horns jump into an avant-jazz groove, followed by an acid rock guitar solo, with all the elements ultimately mixing into a cohesive whole. 

Gomulka sings: 
“Looking for a sign, looking for a sign of life / Looking for a way, looking for my way out / Looking for a sign, looking for a sign of life / Looking for a place, looking for a place where my roots can sprout.”

All the songs on the album deserve attention, but two other particular highlights are “Cloud,” an irresistible, neo-soul single full of gorgeous hooks; and “Clarity,” a compelling song about finding that precious concept and learning to let go of the past that builds to a rich, extended groove.

Gomulka took the time to answer a few questions about the new album via email.