Feature Article: Austin Music + Film
by Emma Banks
Photography by Leah Muse
It’s no secret that Austin is a town home to a wide variety of musicians: both those of the iconic variety, and the ones just beginning to establish their creed. The observation doesn’t stop there, though — we’ll go further and venture to say that it’s this specific dichotomy that births so much of the musical magic we know and love. Below, five musicians that have recently put down roots and, if we’re lucky, don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
The No Frills Country Crooner
Rob Baird is typically an artist who writes what he calls “records for the road” — layered, melodic albums that can carry a car ride from one coast to the other, if needed. Wrong Side of The River (out last May, to rave reviews) falls under that umbrella, and it’s a top-notch embodiment of what Baird stands for, but don’t expect that from his next project — this time, he’s stepping into unexplored, newly intimate territory, head first. In the words of the singer-songwriter himself, it’s terrifying, not because of what’s mentioned, but who’ll hear it — namely, strangers, most of whom he’ll never meet, that will hear heard his deepest secrets minus much of the context. But that’s what makes this no frills country singer such a great one: his willingness to lay it all out on the table, sans embellishment. “As a songwriter, I want to do my best to convey my life, my emotions, and what I’ve been through, and hope people can relate,” he says. “Songs that can withstand the test of time — that’s what I’m trying to do.” His fourth album is due out at the end of the year, and if it’s anything like the last three, we’re in for a treat.
Pop Music’s Latest Darling
At age 15, Madison McWilliams has already accomplished more than some twice her age: with two newly-released singles under her belt (that’s “We’ve Got Today” and “Fighter,” for the uninitiated), and a debut album set to drop this year, to call her an overachiever is a bit of an understatement (to say the least). “I’ve been singing since I came out of the womb,” she says. “It’s always been a part of me and a part of who I am. Ever since I was little, music has just been something that I wanted to pursue.” And that age? Don’t let it fool you — beneath her sweet smile and dreamy vocals is a young woman whose determination, resilience and, of course, talent, make one thing overtly certain: pop music’s latest indie darling isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, she’s just getting started.
One Artist’s Homage to a Beloved Band
Forget the Twin Peaks reference: FireWalkWithMe is actually a tribute to fellow Austin band, … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, and two albums in particular that stood out to Fire founder Rich Mendez: Madonna (1999) and Source Tags & Codes (2002). With both acting as a combined starting point of inspiration, he set out to emulate the style, creating an album that is essentially his extension of the two. “I love the way those two albums were written, arranged and put together, so I sort of made it a personal goal of mine to write more of those types of songs,” he says. “Basically, I wrote more I would want to hear from those records.”
Rich recruited two Trail of Dead members, Jason Reece and Kevin Allen (the latter of which left the band a few years ago) to play with him, while Trail of Dead lead singer Conrad Keely designed the album artwork and named the album itself: A Masked Gathering. First up: the FireWalkWithMe debut single, “A Tired God Looks On.”
“It’s sort of a call to use your own mind, and not leave your morals in the hands of somebody or something that you’ve never met or don’t even really know exists,” Mendez says. “The whole album has to do with after-life and spirituality.” You can catch FireWalkWithMe at local shows, and, of course, SXSW.
An Instrumentalist Takes On Pop
To say that Rob Lowe’s latest venture is a departure from his previous work is the most obvious of observations: a veteran instrumentalist by way of Balmorhea (a beloved Austin indie staple), his new project, RG Lowe, takes this musician down an entirely different path: pop. “It’s 180 degrees different,” he says. “Balmorhea is all instrumental, and a lot of it is very quiet and somber and direct. This new project was me basically teaching myself a new language and a new way of working on a new kind of music.” A melodic departure doesn’t mean, however, that Lowe is giving up his penchant for straightforward, sincere lyrics; even if they are carried by new, upbeat rhythms. “It’s pretty sad!” he says. “Sad is a kind of reductive way to talk about it, but the music is often times very fun and kind of propulsive and rhythmic because you know, they’re pop songs. So there’s a dichotomy that exists. It’s about an intense period of change in my own life and I think that’s a universal experience.” Look for the debut RG Lowe record, Slow Time, out this May, via Austin’s own Western Vinyl.
An Affinity for Improv Proves Sound
Boyfrndz leading man Scott Martin is crystal clear right out of the gate: there’s no real defined process as to how their songs come to fruition, and perhaps that’s the magic of them: raw, real and totally uncensored, they make for one hell of an album. That album was Impulse, out last May, and there’s another, equally improv-heavy one on the way (though it’s not in exactly the same tradition as the last). “It’s pretty early stages, but I’m liking the direction it’s going in,” he says. “It’s going to sound different from the last record for sure. It’s hard to describe … but it’s different. There’s not really any sort of formula or rhyme or reason to how the songs get written; we’ve really always been based out of improvisation.” Boyfrndz has taken many directions over the years: math rock, prog-psych, and now, a darker, more brooding chill that’s in a category all its own. Stay tuned for their next album, out later this year, and catch them at SXSW for a few appearances, including at one of three Spoon residency shows at The March (formerly Emo’s).
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2017