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AAPI Artist Spotlight – Rina Sawayama

Next up in my AAPI Artist Spotlight series I would like to introduce Rina Sawayama. 

You might have heard of Rina’s song “XS” on TikTok.

Rina Sawayama is a 31-year-old British-Japanese artist that dabbles in various sub-genres of pop music and different genres altogether. She has coined the nickname of being a pop chameleon because of how she can incorporate and seamlessly create music that is indie-pop, electric pop, R&B, dance-pop, rock, and alternative.

She started her music career how most artists do– uploading songs onto the Internet. Rina would upload song covers onto MySpace and eventually formed a small band with local kids and used her high school’s tech equipment to produce songs. From that, she maintained her passion for music and started making music and touring till she was recognized for her talent.

What I find refreshing about Rina’s music is that she finds ways to highlight issues in society and tie that in with her Japanese culture into her music. She is an advocate for a variety of social justice issues such as sexism and uses Pop music, which often is stereotyped and often called department store music, to empower her and breakthrough those stigmas as a female pop artist.

Her debut album titled “SAWAYAMA” as well as her first EP “RINA” both showcases her persona as an artist. A Japanese woman who doesn’t hesitate to call people out and write about her past traumas and experiences while gift-wrapping it into earworm music that is digestible for her audience. She brings in a lot of influence from the 90s and early 2000s Pop scene in all her music and combines it with this R&B style voice. Similar to this ideology she has developed, the artists she was inspired by like Britney or NSYNC made pop music that lots of teens felt embarrassed to enjoy and now are considered to be iconic. 

One of her most popular songs “XS” is about consumerism and capitalism and the phrase ‘XS’ is supposed to represent the excess spending and product manufacturing that highlights how as consumers we always want more and are never satisfied with what we are able to attain.

The mature topic of capitalism and over saturation of the market is balanced with a fun dance-pop track inspired by Britany Spears’ music, as shown through the lyrics:

“Gimme just a little bit (more), little bit of (excess) | Oh, me, oh, my | I don’t wanna hear “No, no” | Only want a ‘Yes, yes” have you dancing around in your room while making you reconsider the role you play in our capitalistic society.”

There is a pattern throughout her music where she writes lyrics that are deep and thought-provoking about our society while keeping this light pop danceability to it that makes her so unique. Time and time again she highlights that oftentimes while her lyrics carry such strong meanings since she is a woman making pop music she isn’t taken as seriously and the upbeat electric pop and R&B style overpower people from looking into her lyrics.

Along with social issues such as climate change or toxic masculinity, Rina also touches on how her experiences being Japanese in Cambridge, her pansexuality, and the feeling of otherness that she has had to navigate through her entire life.

Another song I want to highlight is “Tokyo Love Hotel”. In this song, she discusses the guilt she feels of using Japanese symbolism in her songs as well as calling out people for having this odd obsession with Japanese culture to that point where Japanese people can’t showcase their authentic culture cause it’s not what has been idolized in the West.

 Her lyrics “And oh there’s nothing that I could say | That hasn’t already been said | You got that neon lights, golden guy | Falling for a stereotype| Has it all gone to your head?” bring forth this idea that whoever was into her wasn’t for her true self but of this idea of what a Japanese woman is meant to be like based off of stereotypes. 

There is so much more to her music than what I can capture in this short post and I highly recommend checking out her music even if you are not a fan of the Pop genre. Rina writes lyrics that are genuinely an important part of her experiences and might resonate with a lot of people if given the chance.

In most cases, the mental image of Rina’s music people have when they first see her is quite different from what her music is at the core. Her bold and eclectic makeup looks and appearance almost make you feel that her music is electronic dance music  (EDM) or alternative rock but in reality, she is a Pop artist and it’s a genre she has mastered. 

Check out her discography on Spotify.

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Band/Artist Profile

AAPI Artist Spotlight- Hojean

In honor of AAPI, Asian American Pacific Islander, Heritage month I’ll be starting a little series where I’ll highlight a few different AAPI artists.

To start off this series, I’d like to introduce the Hojean or Justin Hojean Yi. He’s a 23- year old Korean-American R&B artist that got his start by wanting to perform a song for his crush at his school’s talent show. After playing up on that stage and seeing the reaction of the audience, he knew that being a musician was his passion. From that, he found his niche in writing love ballads and R&B tracks. He was initially an indie singer, but once he began experimenting with the R&B genre he felt that he preferred it a lot more.

The Georgian artist is a singer, producer, songwriter, and visual artist, who takes part in all creative aspects of his music production from lyrics writing to song cover art all from the comfort of his home.

What I admire about Hojean is his love of making music not only for his fans but as a way to support his parents as well. His entire life is writing music and his passion for spreading his musical diversity for his fans to experience the feelings he feels while writing his songs. Hojean has mentioned many times that he was always a creative person growing up and would doodle in his notebooks in school and sing at church, in a way he was always meant to make music and share his art.

A few of his most popular tracks are “Over 85”, “Pick Up Your Phone”, “You Feel Like” and of course his newest single “Bluffin,” which I wrote a review of.

His song “Memory” is a personal favorite of mine. It’s an upbeat song about moving on and letting go of the past. It was a track he had written after taking a nine-month hiatus from creating any new music– a product of his anxiety in a sense. A culmination of his feelings that had been developing while he was in a slump. But one day he walked into a thrift store and bought an electric guitar on a whim. That electric guitar lead to this song being written and now has become a significant part of his music production.

As a visual artist, I felt a connection to this song the most because I had been in an artist’s block myself. Painting was something I had a hard time doing during the school year during the pandemic because I constantly felt like my art didn’t compare to other artists, similar to how Hojean had felt about being a musician. Imposter syndrome– a common dilemma. Once listening to Hojean’s music one summer afternoon I started scribbling in my notebook and listening to Memory got me out of my slump as well.

If you want a change of pace or want to listen to music that makes you feel like you’re floating down a river on a sunny afternoon then Hojean’s music will make you feel just that.

Hojean will be releasing his first EP sometime this year so be sure to keep an eye out for it!  

Check out Hojean’s Spotify page to view his entire discography. 

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Band/Artist Profile Blog Playlists

African American Cultural Center: “HERMonies: Black Sounds, Black Voices, Black Movements”

Our neighbors in Witherspoon at the African American Cultural Center have debuted a new musical exhibit “HERMonies” that features songs from 10 black woman who have used their music to advance social movements. The full playlist can be found at the above link, but here I’d like to take a more historical look at the two oldest songs on the playlist, “Strange Fruit” and “Mississippi Goddamn.”

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Band/Artist Profile

Old School PJ Harvey

So y’all know PJ Harvey right? The folk singer who did “Let England Shake” about 10 years ago, really popular with the British hipsters? I always assumed that was a pretty representative album for her career. It fits into a category of Folk that I respect in the abstract but don’t actually care for all that much, acts like Richard Dawson who write poncy medieval ren fair music with an ironic edge that’s always without fail about capitalism or the decline of the British Empire or something. The style is very popular with British indie critics like The Quietus and tends to get lots of Mercury Prizes. There’s nothing wrong with this music, it’s just not personally to my tastes, so I never really checked out PJ Harvey’s back catalogue. Recently that changed, and I’d like to take you on a tour of two of her more popular songs that got me hooked on 90s-2000s PJ Harvey.

Sheela-Na-Gig

Sheela-Na-Gig is an excellent example of what Harvey does right in folk music, but translated back into a fairly boiler plate alt rock sound. This is a track off her debut album “Dry” and it has a kind of general appeal while still showcasing what makes Harvey unique. If you listen to as much 90s chick rock as I do, the lyrical themes here will be quite familiar: it’s a feminist angst anthem about being slut shamed by some random dude at a bar. The metaphor is a reference to an Irish architectural grotesque that depicts a woman with a greatly exaggerated vulva. The chorus uses this comparison as a term of abuse, “He said, Sheela-Na-Gig, Sheela-Na Gig, you exhibitionist.”

This would make for a fairly good, if somewhat disposable, 90s alt rock single, but it’s Harvey’s lyricism that really sells the track. She has a flair for creating a single vigniette, and using perspective shifts to create double entendre. The Sheela-Na-Gig is a mocking hyperbole from the man’s perspective, but in the opening passage she uses a pre-Christian icon as a way to symbolize her motivations, “Look at these my child-bearing hips, and look at these my ruby-red, ruby lips, and look at these my work strong arms.” The central issue of female exhibitionism is given two different meanings through the same symbol, interpreted from two opposing perspectives. It’s a really neat literary flourish, but the song isn’t brow beating or pretentious in the slightest, it has a focused ‘Don’t bore us get to the chorus’ approach and a high octane performance.

The other major aspect of Harvey’s songwriting on display here is her referential approach. The second verse uses the line “Gonna wash that man right out of my hair” from South Pacific, giving one instance of a woman cleaning herself because of a man. This is, again, reversed by the unnamed man’s referential line in the third verse “He said, wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean, he said wash your breast, take those dirty pillows away from me,” with “dirty pillows” being a reference to a similar line from Stephen King’s Carrie. The contrast between both the lines and between the works they call upon really supports the perspective contrasts within the song, using references as shorthand for more complex themes.

Rid of Me

After the debut album’s success, PJ Harvey could have rode into a wave of hits and mainstream success on the rock charts. Instead, she chose to go in the opposite direction, working with legendary hardcore and noise rock producer Steve Albini to make one of the most ugly and brooding rock albums of the era. “Rid of Me,” is the album name, and the title track is in some ways a repeat of Sheela-Na-Gig with a far more intense approach.

The track is a slow burn, building from a bassline and drum fill into a thrash and burn banger over the course of several minutes. The narrator begins from the position of groveling ex-girlfriend begging not to be abandoned. However, as the extended first verse build, the imagery becomes gradually more violent. PJ Harvey delivers this in a very frail tone, making the lyrical contrast more subtle than it would be coming out of the lips of say, Courtney Love. A line like “I’ll make you lick my injuries,” has a double meaning in reference to the lines directly before and after. In the context of the previous verse, it seems love sick, while in the context of the chorus where Harvey breaks open into a violent scream of rage, it seem like a threat. The song also features charged and uncomfortable imagery, “lick my legs, I’m on fire,” is an innocuous 6 word sentence that creeps the hell out of me in the context of the song.

A compelling aspect of Harvey’s early career is the folky-ness of it all. Punks have a long history of going into folk rock when they get old, but Harvey merged the two in her early years as well. And not in the gimmicky Violent Femmes way either, her music is not a slapdash fusion. The blues rock riffs and chord progressions go almost unnoticed except when she calls explicit attention to it by say, covering “Highway 61 Revisited,” in a pitchy wail. She has a compelling back catalogue, and I encourage you to use these two songs as a sample.

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Band/Artist Profile

Songs About Poop, A 23,000 Song Discography and Spotify Revenue

Somewhere out there, there is a man with a more extensive discography than you can possibly imagine, with over 23,000 songs. He has 27 Spotify profiles (as far as I know of, there could be more) where he puts out album after album. You might be thinking, “Caitlin, I know who you’re talking about, and his name is John Darnielle.” And while it’s true that The Mountain Goats have an extremely extensive discography, that’s not who I’m referring to.

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Band/Artist Profile

Say a Little Prayer for Dionne Warwick

Does anyone remember Dionne Warwick? This feels like a ridiculous question to ask about one of the 40 biggest hitmakers of the 20th century, but I think it needs to be asked before we start. Nowadays, most discussions I can find online of Warwick are not about her music, but about her wonderful Twitter presence or appearance on The Masked Singer. I’ve never heard her music on oldies stations, seen it on a friends Spotify playlist, or seen the glowing retrospectives that surround her contemporaries. She was initially billed in a league with Aretha Franklin (a name that, for reasons that will become apparent, is going to come up a lot in this article), but comparing her fame with the queen herself seems absurd, as most people I’ve checked in with for this article have no idea who Warwick is. I think that’s a shame, as everyone’s life would be a little better with her music, so I’d like to introduce you: everyone, say hi to Dionne.

Warwick’s story is a typical major label career track from the 50s and 60s. She was discovered as a backup and group vocalist, noticed for her considerable talent, signed to a standard one-sided contract that would leave her bankrupt, and started pumping out hits at breakneck speed. Her style is more, let’s say, traditional, than the Motown and funk that fills our memories of late 60s R&B. Her instrumentals are urbane, orchestral, and of a time before the upheavals of her day. I could easily imagine my 99-year-old great-grandmother turning up to Dionne Warwick in the 30s. This was the type of music that actually dominated the charts in the 60s and 70s, as opposed to the hippie anthems and provocative funk and soul we remember. This rather uncontroversial sound is a big reason that Dionne Warwick has not been beaten into our heads like most boomer music of her day.

But that’s only one reason for our generation’s ignorance of this classic artist. The more obvious reason is her voice. She’s an incredible singer, but not in the way that takes up a lot of oxygen. Discussions of what it means to be a “good singer” bias towards belting into the stratosphere or singing pitches that would shatter glass. Warwick is hardly going to compete with memorable performances of that type like “Respect” or “Gimmie Shelter,” but her voice casts a mystical spell in a more subtle way. To demonstrate this, I’d like to show you a song you might remember from another artist “Say a Little Prayer for You.”

I’ve heard the Aretha Franklin version of this song a million times, but I would never rate it as one of my favorites. I didn’t realize or understand why that version didn’t work for me until I heard Dionne Warwick’s original recording. Some songs call for belting, but some call for agility and clever enunciations. Warwick’s skill is in how she pronounces words, her control over which syllables pop and which slur into the next note. Even when she pushes into a higher and louder voice she always sounds completely in control, never as much as breaking a sweat. This allows her to find new melodies and counter melodies in every line, making each realization of the chorus shine in a slightly different way.

If you have a little bit of patience and a nostalgia for traditional pop stylings, then give Warwick a chance. You won’t be disappointed. Also, if you have a strong tolerance for contemporary Jesus Hip-hop, check out her latest single I guess because it’s a trip.

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Best of Phoebe Bridgers (Deep Cuts)

My very first blog for WKNC was about the very best of Phoebe Bridgers, in which I included my then-favorite pieces of her work. However, since the creation of that post I’ve delved deeper into the Phoebe-verse, she’s come out with new music and I’ve become a better writer. So without further ado, I’m going to declare what’s worth listening to outside of “Motion Sickness” and her other larger hits. 

“Georgia” Daft Star Live Performance

Everything about this performance is perfect to me. Her vocals, the guitar, and of course the haunting lyrics of “Georgia.” This performance is from 2014, before her footing in the music industry had been fully secured, (the studio version of this song didn’t come out until 2015) and that’s why I think I love it so much. It’s raw– you can tell it’s coming straight from her soul and one nearly never gets to hear Bridgers belt the way she does here. I love her whisper-singing as well, but this performance has wedged a permanent place in my heart. The belting of “If I fix you / Will you hate me?” is one of my favorite moments in music ever. Bridgers knocked this performance out of the park and it’s by far my favorite thing she’s ever done. 

“Waiting Room” from “Lost Ark Studio Compilation, Vol. 8”

Speaking of Bridgers’ raw emotional moments early in her career, let’s talk about “Waiting Room.” She wrote this song when she was 16, and has since expressed embarrassment by just how genuine this song is, saying: “it’s super sincere, and I meant everything. But it’s so emotionally raw, and I’m… pining for someone. And I think the fact that I’m complaining so much in the song is, especially in retrospect, like, dude, you’re fine.” Personally, I love it, teenage angst and pining is rarely packaged so beautifully. I love it when Bridgers’ vocals shine as they do in the bridge. In the bridge, she laments repeatedly, surrendering the fight to love this person, “know it’s for the better.” Bridgers repeats this phrase 36 times in a row. If you believe in the idea of “right person, wrong time,” listen to this song. It’ll tear your heart in two.

“Dylan Thomas” from “Better Oblivion Community Center”

If you haven’t caught on by now, I love it when Bridgers branches out of her niche. This song is from a collaboration album with Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes), titled “Better Oblivion Community Center.” It’s an indie rock track that’s fun despite its grim lyrics and certainly worth the listen even if you’re not a fan of Bridgers’ normal stuff. There’s a lyric in one of the final verses that references Phoebe’s ghost artwork (done by Angela Deane) that has stayed fairly consistent throughout her career: “They say you’ve gotta fake it / At least until you make it / That ghost is just a kid in a sheet.” Bridgers and Oberst are a magical duo, and this song is tangible proof of that. 

“Me & My Dog” from “boygenius”

boygenius is a trio that consists of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and of course, Phoebe Bridgers. This track displays the best of all three of them, and is impeccable lyrically. My favorite two lyrics are: “I had a fever / Until I met you / Now you make me cool” and “I wanna be emaciated / I wanna hear one song without thinking of you.” Between the harmonies, the song’s relatively short length and again, the beautiful lyricism, this is a deep cut you won’t regret listening to. 


Other honorable mentions include: “That Funny Feeling,” “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night” and “Steamroller.” If you haven’t already read my original “Best of Phoebe Bridgers” blog, check it out, you may discover something new or find a new appreciation for her work.

Until next time,

Caitlin

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Band/Artist Profile Classic Album Review

Diamanda Galas: The Masque of Red Death

We’re starting the New Year right at WKNC with death, sadness, and AIDS. If you’re tired of the general malaise and continued pandemic of 2022, let’s throw it back to the bright shiny 80s, a time of general malaise and a pandemic that continued for far longer than it should have. Today, we’re taking a look at one of the few musicians to tackle this weighty subject head on, Diamanda Galas and her avant-garde classic, the Masque of Red Death.

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The Music of Swiss Army Man

Header for The Music of Swiss Army Man created by me!

Synopsis

Is there anything that can make being stranded on an uninhabitable island bearable? Insert dreamy orchestral indie-rock music by two members of Manchester Orchestra and a character played by Daniel Radcliffe. In Swiss Army Man, main character Hank (Paul Dano) finds himself lost on an island, feeling hopeless and wanting to give up on life. That is until he sees a corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) wash up on shore. Hank now has a new reason for living, and we follow him as he teaches Manny what it means to be human. We watch Hank and Manny become closer as they journey together to find their way home.

How Music is Used

The music mirrors the sentiments of hopelessness and hopefulness felt by the pair as they run into many obstacles. Radcliffe and Dano are featured both together and alone in a number of the tracks, making them feel even more intimate and emotional. We hear recognizable tunes like Cotton Eye Joe and Jurassic Park sung by the pair. Endearing and emotional, those covers add a bit of humor and lightheartedness. Uniquely, the other lyrics in the songs written for the movie narrate what is going on in the film, which is so incredibly witty and matches the movie’s eccentric plot. 

Musical Masterminds

Who do we have to thank for the music of Swiss Army Man? None other than Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Andy Hull is the frontman for Manchester Orchestra. He makes a cameo as the news crew camera man in the movie. Robert McDowell is the lead guitarist and backing vocalist for Manchester Orchestra. He has ventured on to work on his solo project named Gobotron. My favorite song from this soundtrack has to be Montage, which features Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. The two sing about starting a fire, hunting critters using Manny’s body’s skills, and letting their friendship blossom. Swiss Army Man is an absolutely heart wrenching story of friendship, enhanced by its capella-esque soundtrack. I hope you get a chance to watch this movie and bask in the music of Swiss Army Man

<3 dj mozzie

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Band/Artist Profile

Iona Fyfe Artist Profile

There are many ways to discover new artists, some better than others. While we can debate our favorite ways, I think I speak for everyone when I say the absolute worst way to discover a new artist is to find out they had to go public with #metoo allegations in response to career backlash. These headlines almost always override the artist’s music and work for exclusive focus on their victimization by the industry. In an effort to counteract that trend, here is an unusual artist I discovered through this less than ideal pipeline: Iona Fyfe.

The most immediately recognizable thing about Iona Fyfe is that she’s a Scottish artist who often sings in… well that’s kind of the confusing part. The language (or dialect of English depending on your feelings about the United Kingdom as a political entity) is called Scots, and it’s a surprisingly well preserved cousin of our tongue spoken in the rural south of Scotland, where the Celtic languages of the North mixed with Old English. It’s a strange thing to our American ears, where even the most divergent dialects of our country are still fully intelligible. In the slowest, syrupiest songs in Iona Fyfe’s catalogues, you might just think she has a strong accent. In faster folk songs like “Guise of Tough,” the language barrier is far more jarring. Fyfe’s language uses words and sounds that feel intuitive and gel with the musical/poetic vocabulary of the English tradition, but to our ears it’s mostly nonsense.

However, the effect of Scots is still artistically compelling to English speakers. Since we are steeped in the same musical and poetic traditions, and we share several roots, grammatical transformations, and entire words or sentences. The music still makes emotional sense, communicating everything important and not a lick more. Coming away from the songs, I found myself understanding what the music meant, but not what it was about, which makes for a fascinating if unmooring listening experience.

Then there’s Fyfe’s English language work, which is more accessible if less compelling. Her 2019 ep, “Dark Turn of Mind,” is entirely in English, and built around a cover of previous blog topic Gillian Welch. While the ep isn’t as good as her Scots language music, it represents something unique about Fyfe, that her music is conversation with the Southern American folk tradition. This connection is partly musical, Appalachian folk is built off the musical framework of Celtic and English folk, and partly ethnic. Since the 90s, many white southerners have begun tying their cultural identity to the Celtic tradition, rather than to the Anglo-Saxon or American Nationalistic traditions. Analyzing this cultural shift is beyond my pay grade, though it was a constant feature of my upbringing. The only place I’ve ever been outside North Carolina and the surrounding states is Scotland to visit my brother studying abroad. The label of “Scots-Irish” is a fraught identity, but it’s good nonetheless to see Fyfe reciprocating a more wholesome vision of white Southern identity from across the pond, especially by covering our music from our cannon.

I encourage you to check out the Iona Fyfe discography. If you aren’t a folk person, it will probably remain a minor curiosity to you, but it’s a gimmick that’s worth your time. I wish her the best on her post-Covid career, and hope to see her extend her relationship to American in the coming years, because God knows her nations relationship to Europe is strained right now