Take the Stage
Black Girls Rock. The words on Shea Rose’s T-shirt set the tone when she took the stage at Johnny D’s Uptown for a recent gig, dashing preconceptions of gender, race and musical style.
Opening for idol Nona Hendryx, Rose indeed rocked both originals and covers of the B-52s nugget “Dance This Mess Around” (set for a new EP this fall) and the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” which included a rap breakdown. Her 2011 mixtape Little Warrior (available for download through her website) further accents Rose’s hip-hop side with sassy rhymes over sleek production.
“I love to bridge the gap between musical styles,” says Rose, who won the Boston Music award for R&B/soul/urban contemporary artist after graduating from Berklee last year. She also lent vocals to Berklee-bred jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy-winning the Mosaic Project, alongside such stars as Hendryx, Cassandra Wilson and Esperanza Spalding.
“This is my opportunity to create a lane and go for it,” Rose says of her rapid, genre-bridging rise on the local scene. She flashes confidence on songs like “Rockstar 201” (her update of Rihanna’s “Rockstar 101”) and female empowerment anthem “I’m the S***,” where Rose snaps, “I don’t really care that you got mad girls, and you gotta private jet to fly around the world.”
Hard to believe the Braintree native was a shy girl who wrote poetry and didn’t even sing until late in high school. “I was struggling with conforming,” says Rose. “I couldn’t find myself because of everything I saw around me that was called normal, and I felt so not that.”
Things clicked after she enrolled at Berklee, and after initial struggles realized you don’t need huge pipes to be a unique singer. And about three years ago, Rose started rapping when drummer Cindy Blackman invited her to record in Italy.
“Rapping allows me to deliver my message in a more concentrated, impactful way,” says Rose, who also helps impact the community through her social outreach program, My Angel Wears a Fro. Citing a Janis Joplin sound bite included on Little Warrior, Rose says, “She liked to get on the bottom side of the music… as opposed to floating on top of the music like most chick singers. Rap allows me to do the same, [to] get into the body and feeling of the music.”
Hair: Nancy Brown; makeup: Joanna Petit-Frere; wardrobe styling: Dana Moscardelli/Zero2sixty Creative; wardrobe: Nanette Lepore dress, Twentieth Century Limited jewelry; location: the Beehive
Ghosts of Jupiter
Imagine being able to present your band’s music with more mind-bending visual imagery than a Radiohead or Roger Waters concert. It’s a surreal reality for Ghosts of Jupiter, whose self-titled debut provides the soundtrack to a kaleidoscopic, state-of-the-art digital show at the Museum of Science’s Charles Hayden Planetarium.
“It’s kind of a dream come true,” singer/keyboardist Nate Wilson says, “and we’re reaching people on a nightly basis without even leaving the house. Not that we’re not happy to get out there and play gigs.”
Indeed, Ghosts of Jupiter perform regularly, roaring to the semifinals of the Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble with their earthy psychedelic rock, which evokes Led Zeppelin, Cream, Traffic and Pink Floyd as well as the Black Keys. “We don’t sit there and plan out that we want it to sound like 1974, but it just winds up that way,” Wilson says. “You can use musical technology not only to create new sounds. You can also regulate old sounds.”
Weaned on classic-rock radio in rural New Hampshire, Wilson made initial inroads on the jam-band circuit with his jazz-influenced outfit Percy Hill, then Assembly of Dust. He left AOD to launch the Nate Wilson Group, which became Ghosts of Jupiter, adopting the name just before the band’s manager suggested the museum develop an entertainment show for its renovated planetarium. “There’s a lot of fortunate coincidence,” Wilson says.
That includes finding the right musicians. Guitarists Johnny Trama (also of Dub Apocalypse) and Adam Terrell, bassist Tommy Lada (who did double duty in the Rumble with finalist Garvy J.) and drummer Tom Arey (who’s about to tour with the J. Geils Band) put heft behind Wilson’s melodic sensibility and metaphorical lyrics.
The quintet’s pulsing flow proves perfect for the morphing 3-D geometric patterns that sug gest a free fall through an Escher drawing projected on the planetarium dome. Ghosts of Jupiter: Music Experience takes a post-Pixar leap beyond those old Floyd and Zeppelin laser shows. Yet the music stands as an equally fresh experience, in a program ready to franchise to other cities.
“For a band that’s struggling to get its music heard and establish a fan base, it’s a huge opportunity,” Wilson says.
Raised in Texas, Danny Mekonnen didn’t relate to the music of his Ethiopian parents. Born in Sudan, it was only after he visited Africa and moved to Boston to study jazz that he took an interest in ethnomusicology.
“I suppose you could call it one of these crises of identity,” the saxophonist says. “What will my contribution be to the world of music?” He found a connection in Ethiopiques, an album series that showcases Ethiopian popular music from the ’60s and ’70s, realizing he could “throw it on the iPod and not go through a stack of cassettes at my parents’ house.”
Now Mekonnen’s making his mark with Debo Band, an 11-piece group that just dropped its debut on rock label Sub Pop. “This is what Ethiopian popular music was, drawing on traditions of jazz, funk and horn-based music. If we were a jazz band [doing] cerebral stuff, Sub Pop wouldn’t be quite the right place. But the way the band plays, it presents itself more like a rock band.”
Indeed, Debo (which means “collected effort” in the Ethiopian language of Amharic) delivers a contemporary kick that blends instruments like sousaphone and accordion, electric guitar and wah-wah violin.
Mekonnen also culled players from his Jamaica Plain neighborhood who had played everything from klezmer to post-punk rock. While the band’s debut impresses with airy intricacy in both originals and fresh takes on Ethiopian classics, Debo rachets up the energy live. “You hear those arrangements dissected and broken apart,” he says, “and it’s a lot more trippy.”
As their van rolls down the California coast on their first cross-country tour, Anna Fox Rochinski of Quilt says, “It’s been kind of cool watching the terrain shift.” The same can be said of the skeletal, atmospheric patchwork of her aptly named trio, whose music echoes the ’60s psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane.
Rochinski, fellow singer/guitarist Shane Butler and drummer/singer John Andrews have just played the Summer of Love environs where Airplane once flew. “We had this one lady dancing to that time period, up front and kind of wilding out,” Butler recalls. “We said,
‘Well, here we are in San Francisco, and there’s the
People weren’t always dancing in the folk and noise scene where Quilt’s members hung out in Jamaica Plain and Cambridge. Both Butler and Rochinski studied visual arts and performed in improvisational and song-based bands. Their tastes spread from old and new psych-rock to choral music, traditional Indian music and Krautrock; Butler cites Sonic Youth, the Velvet Underground and Terry Riley among his many inspirations.
“It’s funny living in the age we do where so many musics are accessible and appropriated and restructured and rethought,” Butler says. And Quilt’s hazy minimalism (sometimes augmented live with loops to lend ambience) grew clearer on the trio’s eponymous debut, produced by Apollo Sunshine’s Jesse Gallagher over separate summers with Andrews and drummer Taylor McVay.
“I’d say our sound stays pretty curious and intuitive and a process of discovery,” says Rochinski.
At first, with its stringed instruments and seemingly precious name, Darlingside might be mistaken for a hokey bluegrass group. Wrong. For that matter, the name was derived from the phrase “murder your darlings,” coined by literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch for writers to expunge their work of needless ornament.
“Darlingside is to darlings as pesticide is to furry woodland creatures, except we changed the ‘c’ to an ‘s’ because we’re not super into death,” cellist Harris Paseltiner explains. “We like when music starts to defy expectation. We do have some of that lighthearted nature and playfulness, and we are using folk instruments and harmonies, but it launches pretty far from there.”
On its album Pilot Machines, Darlingside suggests a band in the vein of indie-rockers Death Cab for Cutie or Punch Brothers. Yet its contemplative pop also echoes members’ experiences in choral singing, jazz and classical music as students at Williams College in the Berkshires. And violinist Auyon Mukharji spent a year-long fellowship studying traditional music and instruments in Ireland, Brazil and Turkey, leading to unusual harmonies.
Songwriting usually begins simply, with just acoustic guitar and vocals. “As much as we like to explore the textures and develop the songs and get into the progressive zone,” Paseltiner says, “first and foremost we choose songs that have an elegance and powerful core melody.”
Live shows also dash the seemingly cerebral nature of the group, which shared a house in Hadley before moving to Somerville and Cambridge. Bassist David Senft and Paseltiner trade lead vocals as well as guitars and between-song barbs with Mukharji (who doubles on mandolin), guitarist Don Mitchell and drummer Sam Kapala, as Darlingside works into its musical and personal comfort zone.
“We’re very close and have that kind of trust,” says Paseltiner, adding, “Whatever role needs to be filled, people will step in and fill that, and that’s been really liberating.”
Jeffrey Fortunato earned his nickname for being mouthy around his Roxbury neighborhood. Now his volubility has spread via the Internet. “I’m part of the generation that grew into social media,” says Moufy, who boasts 34,500 Facebook fans. “It’s really an engine that lets us speak directly to my fans.”
Just out of his teens, he also fuels his fast-breaking buzz by posting a steady stream of mixtapes and videos that pump his facile, catchy and well-produced rap to a broad audience.
“I was a kid growing up in the inner city and going to private school, so I was meshing between two worlds,” says Moufy, who attended Cambridge’s prestigious Buckingham Browne & Nichols school. “I struggled in private school ’cause I was really confused.… I wasn’t mature enough to turn it on and off.”
The Dominican rapper reflects that struggle in his music. “If I haven’t seen it, I don’t talk about it. When I talk about the streets and shootings and people dealing drugs and mothers going through it, I’m not lying. That’s real,” Moufy says. “But in private school, they still had their own issues.”
He raised eyebrows last year when his video for “Miss Newton” depicted a girl lost in alcohol-fueled promiscuity who took her own life. “Those issues were relevant in private school,” he says. “Everybody has their own problems, no matter their background.”
Moufy plans to drop another mixtape by October, while his team delivers concert tickets and T-shirts with his “Star Gang” logo (a cartoon star sticking out its tongue) and posting fan photos on Facebook. “The name ‘Star Gang’ comes from a group of kids reaching for the stars,” Moufy says. “That includes everyone, ’cause everyone has a dream.”
In its name, this Allston band nods to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who literally burned a path through the South during the Civil War. “He was ruthless,” says guitarist/singer Josh MacGregor, “so we thought it would be a fitting moniker.”
He cites Sherman Burns’ often-merciless volume. In regards to the prog-grunge band’s seismic shifts in tone and tempo, MacGregor adds that members butt heads with their different influences.
“Each one of us is attempting to get our piece into the mix, and it’s like a giant clashing,” he says. “And we’re still battling onstage. That’s kind of what gives us that powerful sound.”
That sound evokes groups like Nirvana, as band members were first exposed to rock in the grunge era, but the Sherman Burns sound sharply dives off other cliffs. MacGregor embraces post-hardcore outfits such as Fugazi and Hot Water Music, while Aaron Silverstein favors more noisy, experimental bands. And with bassist/singer Andrew Mildenburg and guitarist Stu Grove, “anything goes,” MacGregor says.
“A lot of our songs are the result of over-analysis,” he says. “If we feel like the sound is stagnant or has been achieved so many times before by countless other people, we try to do something to alter it in some way.”
MacGregor has known Grove since high school on the same North Shore punk scene that spawned Dead Cats Dead Rats. But Sherman Burns builds on those roots with its thicker, more harmonic structure, evident from the start of the quartet’s self-titled debut. “I use my bones to build my own skeleton key,” MacGregor and Mildenburg harmonize over an arpeggiated guitar line before their haunting melody erupts into crosscurrents and screams.
“I like a good melodic sensibility,” MacGregor says, “so I try to work that into music that’s more aggressive and dramatic.”
Air Traffic Controller
Dave Munro took the literal approach to naming his band, having written and recorded songs after shifts at his former gig as a Navy air traffic controller. “I just entertained myself with my four-track,” the Malden native says. “I was working on [music] whenever I could. It was always going on in my head.”
He continued to follow that passion, whether jogging or doing post-deployment sandblasting jobs. “You can’t hear anything when you’re doing that,” Munro says. “I’d just sing under my helmet.”
Through a friend, his song demos got into the hands of Boston-bred L.A. producer Bleu, who became Munro’s collaborator in the studio, icing his tunes with strings and electronic effects. “Working with him made everything so limitless,” Munro says.
Multi-instrumentalist bandmate Steve Scott arranged a 40-piece orchestra for one song from ATC’s second album, Nordo. And live, Munro’s group has grown to six or eight members (or 20, depending on the number of guest players), evoking a sonically fleshed-out cousin to They Might Be Giants influenced by the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. Bassist/banjo player Casey Sullivan also has stepped forward as a female foil to the reedy-voiced Munro.
The affable frontman calls Air Traffic Controller “suburban indie-pop,” noting, “I think of ‘suburban’ as sit-
ting in the back of your mom’s station wagon, listening to her switch all the radio stations.”
With its gritty grooves and harmonica bends, Coyote Kolb would be at home in a blues bar. With its acoustic twang, undercut by pedal steel and banjo, the group often draws the Americana tag and could appeal to old-school country fans. And when guitarist Chadley Kolb sings in mournful tones, echoes of Alice in Chains creep in, making them fit for the alt-rock crowd.
“Nobody wants to play the same bar over and over again,” says Kolb, whose band mates insert harmonies that nod to gospel, blues and folk-rock groups. “You hope you can string it all together with a constant fiber, and I think we’re still finding that as a group,” he says of his quintet, which gelled over the past year and a half to record the crisply shaded United State.
Growing up in small-town southern Maine, Kolb migrated through grunge, hardcore punk and metal bands before moving to Boston, where he experimented with circuit-bent electronic music. Then he returned to the acoustic guitar, reflecting on the country & western and classic rock records that his grandfather had played, which Kolb describes as “the first music that ever really caught me.”
He also dug into early blues, and when he saw Sonny Jim Clifford playing harmonica on the street, Kolb introduced himself. They formed a trio with drummer Matty Maybruck before adding bassist Owen Beane and pedal steel/banjo player Noel Coakley.
As for the name Coyote Kolb, the bandleader says, “It’s a tribal name, a character name… and the coyote, symbolically in American folklore, is both the creator and mischievous rebel who incites the challenging of authority. So I thought that pretty well described me, and I would extend that to my brothers.”
When singer/pianist Mali Sastri performs with her art-rock combo Jaggery, her voice conjures personas from haunting siren to primal demon. She traces that range to voice movement therapy.
“The voice is the bridge between the inside and the outside. It can be the place where thoughts and emotions get jammed,” says the singer, who studied voice movement therapy in London. “[It’s] letting everything out through the voice, the ugly sounds—not just what we think of as pretty—and all the personalities.”
That touches on the dark side of Sastri’s life. She cites self-hatred and eating disorders that plagued her for years. “I was dealing with body issues through dance,” she says, “punishing the body but also trying to enjoy it, trying to express something.”
Music was always another outlet, and it took the forefront after a series of dance injuries. She cites Cyndi Lauper and the Cocteau Twins among early influences, and she was inspired by Lexington comrade Amanda Palmer, who, after high school, invited Sastri to help write a group-penned play.
Sastri went on to London and New York, where she formed Jaggery (named after an unrefined brown sugar) eight years ago. The band has solidified over the past few years with upright bassist Tony Leva, drummer Daniel Schubmehl, violist Rachel Jayson (also of Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys) and harpist Petaluma Vale.
The group’s sense of dramatic atmosphere should find fresh grist in an upcoming album that addresses Sastri’s feelings after reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. “I like the Jungian idea of the shadow self,” Sastri says, “and I ran with it."