What got you into music in the first place? Who did you listen to growing up?
I grew up in a music-loving household. There’s a cassette tape somewhere of my sister and I singing “Yellow Submarine” when we were really little. My parents loved The Beatles, Johnny Cash and Motown and they both are in a choir and love to dance. I play the piano and the flute, and dabble on acoustic guitar. As for my own personal tastes growing up, when I was in elementary school, it was a lot of pop and rock, plus classical from piano and ballet. I started collecting vinyl in 3rd grade. By junior high I was really into the underground music I discovered on pirate radio stations and at an indie record store in my hometown. The cool, bright-magenta-mohawked woman behind the counter would recommend imported (mostly UK) music and more often than not I’d buy it before even hearing it and loved it. I was obsessed with music magazines and read them voraciously.
One of my first big arena shows was Prince in elementary school, and I continued to go to concerts from indie bands to large arena shows several times a month, and have never stopped. I caught U2’s first U.S. tour, New Order, The Cure, The Go Go’s, INXS, Pixies, Nirvana, Salt-N-Pepa, Beastie Boys and lots more all in small venues when they were just starting out.
When did you get started working in the music industry?
After college, I worked at a club in Detroit called St. Andrew’s Hall. It’s where I saw a ton of shows growing up and I basically worked there because I wanted to be immersed in music and see shows for free. I started writing about music shortly thereafter. I’ve done on-camera interviews for Rollingstone.com; I was the Editor-In-Chief for regional music magazine Illinois Entertainer; I produced on-air artist interviews and music-related stories for NPR-affiliate WBEZ. My work regularly appears in Chicago Tribune, and I’ve contributed to a variety of publications, including USA Today, SPIN.com, MTV.com and many others.
You’ve covered so many different types of music in the past few years. Can you give us some highlights?
Since I’ve interviewed many artists from across genres, it’s tough to just name a few as highlights as they’ve all generally been engaging conversations. Most recently I’ve interviewed Lil Durk, Courtney Barnett, CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry, and Lorde – all of whom were great. I’ve interviewed Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne multiple times, and he’s always interesting. I interviewed Yoko Ono while in Iceland, everything about that was amazing.
I’ve also covered a ton of festivals. Here in Chicago there’s Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, North Coast and Riot Fest, among others. I’ve also been covering Iceland Airwaves every year since 2007. I also created a course for Columbia College Chicago, where I take students to cover Airwaves each fall and we produce a radio documentary that airs on WCRX-FM; I teach radio and music journalism courses there. I’ve covered South By Southwest a dozen times, Finland’s FLOW Festival, the Juno Awards in Canada and Goiânia Noise Festival in Brazil as well.
How did you first get involved with ReverbNation/CONNECT?
I started in January 2014. A friend who used to work at a major label recommended me. I met Simon Perry several years prior when I interviewed one of the bands he worked with who is from Chicago for the NPR affiliate here and we have a lot of mutual friends in the industry. We immediately clicked and I knew I wanted to be involved as a Senior Curator to hear and discover burgeoning acts who have potential and new, good music.
When you’re reviewing music, what strengths do you listen for?
Obviously, at the very basic level, strong songwriting, lyrics, and vocals are paramount. But there are also the less tangible things, such as emotional connection, creativity and originality, which can often be the most important for me and those are less easy to define. I also consider cultural impact, does this artist contribute/have something important to say in a defining, cultural way?
Tell us a little bit about some of the artists you found for CONNECT. What struck you about these artists and made you think they would be interesting to work with?
Lorine Chia has a rich timbre that recalls the raspy beauty of vintage standards singers, but it’s also modern sounding in the context of her songs. She got under my skin on first listen in a good way. Ella Rogue‘s vibe on “Raise The Bar” shows potential and attitude in equal measure. Ogden Payne‘s laidback flow on “Back In The Day” was an early discovery and he was appealing right away, too.
(Clockwise from top left: Ella Rogue, Lorine Chia, Ogden Payne)
Who are you listening to these days?
I just got back from Iceland Airwaves, so I’ve been immersed in artists who played there to prep to cover that fest. There were a lot of great Icelandic artists I’ve seen previously: Vök, Fufanu, Grísalappalísa and FURA were a few of the bands I’ve enjoyed watching grow over the last couple of years. Icelandic acts I hadn’t seen previously that were impressive this year are Reykjavíkurdaetur – they’re this amazing, 20-female-strong rap collective whose stance, choreography and explosive NASA set was great on opening night, and I caught Filipino-Icelandic rapper Cell7 as a fun festival closer. International artists I caught for the first time live that were also fest highlights included Japanese punk act Bo Ningen, who were mind-bogglingly ass-kicking as was Los Angeles by way of New Jersey’s Ho99o9‘s beer-soaked set. The OBGMs’ energy and enthusiasm won over industry hearts during their set, Chicago’s Meat Wave put on a fun show, too.
I’m gearing up to cover Grimes’ show in Chicago, so I’ve been listening to all her records and am about to dive into her new one, Art Angels.
What’s the best thing about the Chicago music scene?
There are a lot of great things about the music scene, from the talent to the venues to the people who make it tick. In the summer, there are scores of free outdoor shows. The city has strong musical roots from all genres, from blues to dance, punk to jazz, indie rock to alt country and all points between – some of the most influential artists hail from Chicago. Hip-hop has always been strong here, though it arguably hasn’t always gotten its due. Kanye West and Common are native sons, but they no longer live here; Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest I believe still call our city home, though the latter isn’t making music right now. In recent years, our hip-hop scene has been getting more deserved attention again with artists such as Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Chief Keef and Lil Durk making new waves.
Where do you think the music industry is headed? What’s exciting? What’s worrying?
Streaming is one of the biggest topics, and how it might shape the industry is still in contention. There’s also sampling and copyright/fair use law and what shape those will take legally going forward, both with online use and in songs, which should be interesting. It’s an exciting time for artists because the internet democratizes distribution and being heard in some ways, but at the same time it’s oversaturated and lends itself to a needle-in-a-haystack situation for discovery. I’d argue that because of this, music criticism is more crucial and valuable now than ever. The fact that anyone can put music up online also means that the traditional way of growing as an artist – i.e. developing as a songwriter, playing live, building rapport with and gaining an audience – can get lost by the wayside, and that probably doesn’t serve the artist well long term. The ability to deliver live and tour is more crucial now for those looking to make a career in the music realm because we all know record sales generally are not what they once were and connecting with an audience in the live setting leaves a lasting impression. Generally, the best artists make great records and are also riveting live, but not everyone can (or are talented enough to) accomplish that.
Check out some of Althea’s favorite ReverbNation picks below!