Musical artists looking for some magic catapult out of obscurity can hardly find a more alluring vehicle than NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. Judges in 2018 spotlighted the Asheville band Natural Born Leaders, who found themselves with new listeners from around the world.
Nearly 50 bands and solo artists from this region entered videos into the 2020 competition.
One is Claire Hoke, who until recently had devoted herself to a folk duo called Cowbaby.
“We decided this year we wanted to explore our own solo things because our whole experience writing songs was with each other, so we wanted to see what it was like separately,” Hoke said.
For her Tiny Desk entry, Hoke seated herself in front of a desk topped with houseplants, a hollow-bodied Ibanez guitar in hand as she performs her song “Tick Talking.”
“Entering the Tiny Desk competition by myself was definitely weird, like the first thing I actually released into the world that was just a representation of me,” she said. “So I was very nervous and had to do it so many times before I was like, you know what, this is just the one and I’m gonna submit it and it’s fine.”
The Asheville singer-songwriter who calls herself Lo Wolf said she felt a social opportunity and responsibility behind her entry. Hence the song “Rape City, USA.”
“I’m an outspoken person, I can’t really help myself,” Wolf said. “I feel that it’s my right and my responsibility to speak out and up for all humanity, because there’s a lot of destructive forces, and if we don’t stick together, then it really is easy for people to pull us apart.”
Against the drab siding of a garage, Wolf performs in the video without facial expression, singing, playing guitar and dancing, however reluctantly, despite the lyrics.
“That song in particular people will be like ‘Oh, I feel kinda bad for dancing, but I wanted to dance,’” she said. “I’m here for it, here for the chaos it causes, and I’m glad that it causes people to think, and to dance.”
Nick Gonnering and his wife traveled the country in a 1977 motorhome before they decided to permanently move from Green Bay, Wis., to Black Mountain. Since that move, Gonnering has devoted himself fulltime to his music.
“I always wanted to use, like, crazy jazz chords and do all these things,” Gonnering said. “I’ve really kinda slimmed it down to good lyrics and good chord progressions and having a good message and feeling behind the music more so than trying to get really intricate and trying to do too many things at once.”
Not that you can tell from his Tiny Desk entry for the song “Southern Ghosts.” Gonnering punctuates his performance by using his guitar as a percussion instrument, his palm and fingertips extracting a range of sounds as a rhythm track beneath the melody.
“It’s kind of symbolic of don’t let the things you’re going to brush aside tomorrow be here in this moment,” Gonnering said, explaining his foundation for the song. “Be here, feel what you’re feeling now and make that decision when the time comes, and the whole world kinda opens up differently in that way.”
The band VIA is one of the few full band entries from this region. Karen Austin plays keys and sings.
I didn’t realize it was an option for electronic shoegaze rock bands,” Austin said. “I thought it was just for sing-songwriters.”
In the video for the song “Morse,” VIA performs in its cramped rehearsal studio, bathed in light from a projected film of Austin walking toward the Joshua Tree used on the U2 album cover.
We like to project them onto our bodies and just the whole environment on stage,” Austin said. “I like to see us as the canvas and the landscape for the visual images.”
This Thursday, Tiny Desk is introducing a weekly livestream series called Top Shelf. New editions are on YouTube for eight Thursdays. After that, Bob Boilen and his staff at the Tiny Desk Contest will announce the 2020 Tiny Desk Contest winner.