Our annual roundup of noteworthy Boston-bred bands ranges wide, from the going-national buzz of slick dance-rockers Ripe to the deft, delicate voice of Anjimile. Yet collaboration and coincidence abound. Hayley Jane has guested with Matthew Stubbs and the Antiguas, while the indie-pop Future Teens and bluegrass-groomed Twisted Pine each recorded covers of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” with starkly different results, and many musicians crossed paths at colleges like Berklee. Now they also share a spot on our list of 10 local acts making waves across the past year.
Hayley Jane. Photo: Kerry Brett; Photo Assistant: Scott Stunzenas Hair and Makeup: Elizabeth Bachand / Viselli Salon; Location: Kelleher Rose Garden
Hayley Jane lets it all hang out, whether she’s singing and dancing with her funky soul-jammers the Primates, crooning vaudevillian ditties with Ryan Montbleau as retro jazz-folk duo Yes Darling or coming clean about a past addiction to heroin.
“Music heals,” says the effervescent California native, who goes by her first and middle names. “If you’re honest with your music and you aren’t afraid to speak your truth onstage, you can help a lot of people and that’s my motivation now.”
Her earlier motivation as an overlooked youngest sibling was attention, which she first gained in a fourth-grade talent show. “My family was sitting in the second row and all looking at me at the same time,” Jane says. “I’ll never forget that moment and I said, ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life!’ ”
After a brief LA stint—balancing jobs at Disneyland and a cabaret (“I was a Disney princess by day and a German prostitute at night”)—she moved to Boston on a tip from ska band Westbound Train. She did musical theater, sang with bands at Matt Murphy’s Pub in Brookline and studied at Berklee—ground zero for the Primates, named after her love for evolution and primatologist Jane Goodall.
The evolution of the band wasn’t smooth, though membership shifts finally settled three years ago with guitarists Justin Hancock and Greg Smith, drummer Ryan Clausen and bassist Josh Carter. The nadir came after the unexpected 2011 death of bassist Devin “Dabbo” Caucci, which fueled Jane’s drug use.
“I haven’t done heroin for years [but] slipped a few times with other opiates when I got sad,” Jane says. “All I want to tell people when they see me now is, ‘You can get through it.’ ” That sense of empowerment is regularly shared in “I Can Do It (Poo Jam),” a bubbly, island-flavored number from 2017 album We’re Here Now. “Every time I get up and sing that song and I’m sober, it’s the best.”
Jane is often in constant motion onstage, her limbs extending in free-form dance that reflects both her early formal training and LSD-inspired inhibition. “It’s like I’m able to push energy around,” says Jane, who’s often joined by kindred dancers. “I can gather up the love onstage and push it out.”
In her duo with Montbleau, Jane also spins a hilarious tale of an acid road trip in “Calabasas,” from Yes Darling’s eponymous February debut. Their vintage-styled shtick draws on “uncomfortably real” details that couples share, she says. “We’re pointing out stereotypes, making fun of them and blowing them to pieces.”
But people should get beyond shaming, Jane says. “The more everyone is honest and genuine about what they’re going through, the more we can have an open discussion and everything’s going to get better.”
Ripe. Photo: Chris Anderson.
The time is Ripe for the Berklee-bred funk septet that kicked off its first national tour in February with two sold-out shows at the Paradise Rock Club, then ripped up the main stage at this month’s Levitate Festival. And in between, Ripe put out its punchy, aptly named debut album Joy in the Wild Unknown, which only hints at the razor precision and ebullient abandon of the horn-iced band’s live shows.
“Dancing is a kind of ecstatic release,” lionesque singer Robbie Wulfsohn says. “It becomes a symbiotic thing between us and the audience, where we’re feeding as much as we can to them so they reflect as much as possible back to us, so we can elevate our game.”
In turn, Wulfsohn waxes philosophical on joy as a deeper connection. “We’re just trying to see if it’s possible to engage with more positive emotions from a place of real weight and real meaning,” he says. “If you’re talking about feeling fulfilled or connected or a part of something that’s exciting, you’ve got to be looking at these things as more than just distractions, as more than temporary emotions.”
Ripe has gained a lasting place in Boston and beyond. While forming at school in 2011, the group solidified its mission in 2014, settling on a lineup of Wulfsohn, guitarists Jon Becker and Tory Geismar, drummer Sampson Hellerman, bassist Nadav Shapira, trumpeter Josh Shpak and trombonist Calvin Barthel.
“If you asked me [what I wanted] when I was in 11th grade, I would have said ‘I’m going to be a doctor,’ ” says Toronto native Wulfsohn, whose musical inspirations include the Dave Matthews Band and Radiohead. “This was never the plan…this was always the dream. The fact that it’s playing out, it feels surreal every day.”
In addition to playing larger clubs and festivals, Ripe’s still hitting small rooms on tour (including a recent return to Nantucket’s Chicken Box) that offer a glimpse back to their earlier years of playing Allston house parties and Berklee’s Cafe 939. “Once in a while, we like to scale it down so we can have eye contact with everyone in the room and have that old feeling of singing for our supper, which was our first three years as a band,” the singer says. “We don’t want to forget what it was like doing that.”
Words fly out of Oompa’s mouth in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness rush of respect and regret as she throws herself into “Dear Mama,” a letter-like homage to her late mother that punctuates the poet/rapper’s volcanic live sets. “I’m gonna get started, I promise,” Oompa raps. “It’s harder than I thought.”
Lakiyra “Oompa” Williams, given her nickname by fellow basketball players at Roxbury’s Washington Park, knows life on the edge. Growing up poor (“When your mother’s making $12,000 maximum a year, it’s really hard to consume that as a kid”), Oompa faced more challenges after her single mom’s 2009 death. She took time off from college in Pennsylvania before returning to save her scholarship. But while she was away, her sisters wreaked havoc on their apartment, leading to eviction, Oompa says. “The only way I knew I was homeless was my godmother called me and said, ‘They’re throwing your stuff out.’ I lost my mother’s records, pictures, clothing.”
She retained determination and skills as a slam poet, honed during high school after she’d set aside an early love for hip-hop. “It was the limitlessness of poetry that I gravitated toward,” says Oompa, a 2017 Women of the World Poetry champion and a finalist in the 2016 National Poetry Slam. She also fleshed out musical settings for her words through the collective HipStory, culminating in her 2016 album November 3rd, which includes live showpiece “Dear Mama.”
“The feeling pulls out of me,” Oompa says. “It’s all written down and memorized, but the emotionality depends on where I am and how I’m connected to what I’m going [for] in the moment.” The onetime middle school teacher is now focusing on music full-time, currently working in the studio with producers like Hamstank and Latrell James in addition to performing with her hip-hop and soul-infused band the Chocolate Factory (playing off the Willy Wonka association of her name).
“The form of teaching that I was supposed to do was to come through the art that made me passionate and feel most alive,” says Oompa, who conducts slam poetry workshops and identifies as queer. “I’m trying to represent for the people who feel like their stories haven’t been told… A lot of us have to get to a point where we can survive before we can live.”
Future Teens. Photo: Christina Rose Casillo
“There are certain things you can’t add levity to, but in terms of love and romance and relationships, for me it’s always easier to look at the comedy of the situation,” Daniel Radin says of the songs he writes with Future Teens. And that attitude extends to how he drafted fellow singer/guitarist Amy Hoffman to take a major role in their self-tagged “bummer-pop” group: through Tinder.
“I saw Amy on Tinder playing guitar and singing and said, ‘Hey, I know this isn’t what Tinder is for, but do you want to be in a band?’” recalls Radin, whose past groups include the Novel Ideas as well as a stint in Magic Man. They traded each other’s recordings (his being Future Teens’ 2015 debut Still Afraid of Allston with departed co-founder Gabe Goodman) and embraced a musical connection.
With drummer Dylan Vadakin and guitarist Nick Cortezi, they recorded last fall’s Hard Feelings, brimming with bittersweet tunes like the Hoffman-sung “Kissing Chemistry,” “Expiration Dating” (“You never texted to say ‘Hey last night was great,’ ” Radin sings) and “Learned Behavior,” a Hoffman-penned song of self-loathing with a line about returning “from a gig that made me hate music.”
That gig was actually on a cruise ship, a sporadic solo job that helped support Hoffman for four years before Future Teens bloomed. “My dream is to make music I love with people I love even more, and that’s exactly what this is to me,” she says of the quartet, which recently added Vadakin’s old schoolmate Maya Mortman on bass after Cortezi left for New York, letting Radin move to guitar. “It’s magic, a full-on dream come true.”
Twisted Pine. Photo: Hannah Cohen
When the electricity went out at DelFest, that didn’t stop string quartet Twisted Pine. “If we were all electric, we wouldn’t have been able to play,” fiddler/singer Kathleen Parks says of that Memorial Day weekend event earlier this year in Maryland. “We went into the audience and did three or four traditional bluegrass tunes. Then the power came back on, and we plugged in and had all the pedals.”
Pedals? Yes, Twisted Pine has come a long way from late 2013, when Parks, guitarist/singer Rachel Sumner and mandolinist Dan Bui (all from Berklee) and UMass/Amherst-bred bassist Chris Sartori began playing bluegrass in the tradition of Del McCoury and Bill Monroe at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square. On their eponymous 2017 debut, they served crisp, charming bluegrass-pop originals like “Hold on Me” and “I Miss Talking,” then took another turn with last month’s EP Dreams, which reimagines covers of the Beatles, Blondie and the Cranberries. Those covers took form in backstage rooms.
“ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ started with just me and Dan on a completely different groove, but I started singing the song over that,” Parks says. Her clipped violin bowing in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” adds percussive complement to Sartori’s bass to imply a disco feel, while she and Sumner lend old-fashioned jazz harmonies to Joni Mitchell’s “Raised on Robbery.”
“We were like, ‘How can we make this work on our instruments to convey that groove to an audience that’s heard it one way for so many years?’ ” Parks says of each cover. “And, ‘How can we make it so very familiar but have our fresh take?’ ”
The answer was time. “It isn’t until two or three months after learning [each tune] that we really start to feel it as an entire group,” she says. “That’s when you start to see the changes.” And that continues onstage. “Pretty much every night, we expand on the arrangements,” the fiddler says. “Whatever we’re listening to in the car that day could sometimes find its way in, almost like a little joke.”
At its core, Twisted Pine still remains a bluegrass quartet, though there’s also sonic enhancement from those pedals. “Someday we might have a drummer or keyboards,” Parks adds. “But that’s more in the future for us. For now, we’ve found the right sound. We’ll stick with it for a while and see how it develops.”
Matthew Stubbs and the Antiguas. Photo: Daniel Ontaneda.
Guitarist/producer Matthew Stubbs realizes that the majority of people who go to hear a band probably would prefer a vocalist. It’s just that he’s not a singer or lyricist. But that didn’t stop his group’s Monday residency at the Sinclair from becoming a popular hang that even won a Boston Music Award in December.
“It was a vision of something I would want to go to,” Stubbs says of the band’s nights in the club’s front bar, which features occasional guest singers like Sarah Borges and Will Dailey. “I like moods, melodies. I like just how the sound of an instrument can create a different mood in the room. Even though I’m instrumental, I like to have a song with an arrangement that gets stuck in someone’s head.”
While psychedelic projections wash over the band to tickle the eyes, Stubbs and the Antiguas (bassist Marc Hickox, drummer Chris Rivelli and organist Justin Lopes) grab people’s ears with often sparse, cinematic music that draws from his love of Afrobeat, film soundtracks, psych-rock, dub and Cuban-influenced guitarists Ry Cooder and Marc Ribot. Stubbs is also a blues guitarist by trade, having toured nationally with harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite since 2007.
“I feel like that will always be there in some way or another when I solo, or the melodies I choose will be heavily influenced by blues music or jazz,” says Stubbs, who just finished a follow-up to the Antiguas’ self-titled January debut as well as an EP from his trio GA-20, which plays ’50s/’60s-style Chicago blues, stripped down with a lot of distortion and no bass. “All the blues and jazz guys I listen to, the phrasing is what gets to me. They don’t have to play a lot of notes.”
Animal Flag. Photo: Nick Dinatale
Matthew Politoski brings considerable weight, lyrically and musically, to his songs on Animal Flag’s Void Ripper—to the point that the April release took three years to make. And that’s the same amount of time since the singer/guitarist dispensed with his revolving cast of friends to turn Animal Flag into more of a group project with guitarist Sai Boddupalli, drummer Alex Pickert and bassist Zach Weeks.
“I wanted to do something that was more sonically intense,” Politoski says. “I pictured lots of messy guitars and distortion. And for the first time, I wanted to raise my voice and sing in my higher register—and yell at times.”
True to its title, Void Ripper pulverizes with thick guitars, yet it also shifts to soft dynamics. Some louder songs like the title track are even iced with timpani and chimes, orchestral percussion that Weeks recorded at his alma mater, Lynnfield High School.
But the sonic heaviness of the Berklee-schooled band pales in comparison to what was on Politoski’s mind. “When I wrote those songs I was really angry,” says the upstate New York native who grew up in an evangelical church he calls a “pretty toxic environment,” sparking a spiritual backlash in impressionistic songs. “Even during the Trump campaign, seeing the rise of evangelical white conservatism in America is just seeing how the church upheld these super-bigoted beliefs. On a global scale, but also on a personal scale, it was all confusing and disorienting.”
Through his parents, Politoski’s first exposure to music was Christian pop—“bands that rip off U2 and it’s unbearable”—but he later discovered Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst and Kanye West during his teen years. In turn, Void Ripper reflects the influence of Pedro the Lion and Sigur Rós. “I like that kind of rapturous, huge sound.”
Gozu. Photo: Stephanie Cabral
Immersion into the dense, dark riffs and lyrical howl of Gozu might suggest that the group shares an affinity for early Queens of the Stone Age or Soundgarden, not what guitarist Doug Sherman paints as a more primary influence: soul music.
“It’s not your typical metal phasing,” says Sherman, who once played in the local R&B outfit Superhoney. “We’re not trying to out-metal anybody. We’re just trying to write good songs and obviously have fun and hope we do something creative.”
Gozu did that on April’s Equilibrium, the second album that Sherman and singer/guitarist Marc Gaffney (whose own influences lean toward Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith) have made with drummer Mike Hubbard and bassist Joe Grotto.
Better yet, while Gaffney and Sherman first teamed up in 2009, Gozu hit a new stride with Equilibrium’s release on Blacklight Media, a label started by celebrity chef Chris Santos in partnership with genre giant Metal Blade. Santos happened to catch Gozu at a New York club and approached the band. “It was one of those things like you see on TV, like you have to play these shows—you never know who’s going to be in the audience,” Sherman says. “It’s kind of like a whirlwind.”
Then, when they pivoted to focus on writing songs for the new album, Gaffney’s father died. “It was almost like a cathartic moment, getting all this grief onto paper,” Sherman says, though Gozu’s lyrics remain more abstract and impressionistic. “You wouldn’t know through hearing a song what it was about.”
The same goes for kooky song titles like “The People vs. Mr. T,” “Stacy Keach” and “Ballad of ODB,” a droning 11-minute album closer named for late Wu Tang Clan member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “[It’s] just messing around, having nothing to do with the tunes,” Sherman says. “We take our songwriting and songs seriously but we definitely don’t want that kind of pretentious ‘This next song is called “Swords and Shields,” ’ because we don’t come from that background.”
Anjimile. Photo: Rich Ferri
The video couldn’t have been more casual or quietly penetrating. Anjimile sits on a worn Victorian sofa, softly fingerpicking “1978”—a song about a grandmother the artist never met—as Justine Bowe adds ghostly vocal harmonies and ethereal icing from a hand-held keyboard. “I could fall asleep in your love,” Anjimile sings. “It’s happening.”
It’s happening suddenly for the self-labeled “queer & trans songmaker,” whose video submission was judged WBUR’s favorite Massachusetts entry in the NPR Tiny Desk Concert contest last month, earning Anjimile a slot at the free Aug. 18 Wicked Good Festival on Boston Common with Bleachers, Buffalo Tom and Juliana Hatfield.
The timing couldn’t be better after the July release of Anjimile’s Colors, recorded at Industry Lab, the same Cambridge co-working space with that sofa. The album’s songs range from the African-flavored “Wakanda” to the very literal indie-pop reflection “Dysphoria,” in which Anjimile sings, “Do I know about my own body? I’ve been trying to love me. It’s not so easy,” and the resolving chorus “I’m a butterfly.”
“I was feeling emotional,” Anjimile says of that last tune. “I’m really excited that people who are trans and also who aren’t trans are able to connect with it and relate to the themes of discomfort and growing.”
Growing up in Texas with Malawian parents, Anjimile was weaned on Michael Jackson, Madonna and Shakespeare before moving to Boston to study English and then music at Northeastern. “There’s something about having sound and creating a musical atmosphere that communicates things that words cannot,” Anjimile says. “Music has proved itself to be a way to process the way I feel and my experiences…from family to gender to recovery from alcoholism.”
Two-and-a-half years sober, Anjimile embraces a new challenge after taking testosterone for eight months. “That was a big thing that still is a process of accepting and working through and learning in terms of my voice being a different instrument,” the singer says. “It’s kind of stressful but also exciting to continually discover new things.”
Mint Green. Photo: Anna Lamond
Indie pop-punk group Mint Green was poised to reach the next level after the quartet recorded a few songs for an EP that a label wanted to release. But two members eventually dropped out of the band, leaving singer/guitarist Ronnica and drummer Daniel Huang with an unsigned contract. “I do this as an aspect of fun but also want to make a career out of it,” says Ronnica, a Boston native who goes by her first name.
She’s nonetheless enthused about Mint Green 2.0 with the recent addition of guitarist Nick Tyler Kelley, a former high school bandmate, and bassist Muñeca Diaz, who filled in during previous shows. The band already wove an intriguing sound, cut with bruising guitar bridges and tricky rhythm shifts. “I pull from everything,” Ronnica says. “That’s why you get this hodgepodge of math-rock and power choruses and moody emo verses.”
But the focus remains on her yearning voice and contemplative lyrics, carried through the new “Holy,” about family dynamics and religion—“the overarching idea is hypocrisy and wanting to please people and standing up for yourself,” she says—and a fresh take on older tune “Take Care,” a paean to safe spaces in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against a local performance gallery manager.
In turn, Ronnica displays growth as a writer and performer, dropping her guitar to leap into the audience at a recent Great Scott show. “I didn’t have the desire or confidence to be a frontwoman,” she says. “I don’t think I have the greatest voice in the world, but I do like to write and have things I want to express.”