In 2008, All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen had the idea to start a concert series behind his desk at NPR. Now, the Tiny Desk Concerts rack up millions of views online and are a coveted performance opportunity for unsigned artists.
For the past four years, NPR Music has opened its inbox to submissions from musicians competing to perform behind the office desk-turned music venue. In 2016, the winner was Duluth’s Gaelynn Lea. This year, the Tiny Desk Contest received over 5,000 submissions from all over the country.
This year’s winner is singer-songwriter Naia Izumi, who impressed the judges with his performance of an original song, “Soft Spoken.” In addition to performing a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR’s headquarters, Izumi is embarking on a U.S. tour, playing in various cities along with local artists who also entered the contest.
On June 1, Izumi is stopping at St. Paul’s Amsterdam Bar & Hall to perform in a Twin Cities Tiny Desk Showcase along with three local acts: iLLism, the Nunnery, and Fellow Pynins. Here’s what you need to know about these three artists before Friday’s concert.
ILLism are a hip-hop/R&B duo comprising husband and wife Envy and Fancy. The two both maintained solo careers before deciding to join forces in 2016. They released their debut album, Love and Loyalty, in 2017, and have since had their music appear on TV shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Jersey Shore.
The pair are inspired by classic husband-and-wife duos like Sonny & Cher and Peaches & Herb, as well as the late ’90s/early 2000s hip-hop and R&B of Nas, Lauryn Hill, and Mary J. Blige. Having grown up in the Twin Cities, Envy and Fancy draw upon the Minnesota musical traditions of funk and the Minneapolis Sound: last year, they were finalists in Paisley Park’s battle of the bands.
ILLism see their music as an opportunity to showcase Minnesota, and the communities that they grew up in. “We don’t make music that is only about love or relationships,” said Fancy. “We want to make music from personal experience, from our community.” In their Tiny Desk Contest entry, Fancy wears a Prince t-shirt, and Envy dons Minnesota Twins merch.
After seeing Tank and the Bangas win last year’s Tiny Desk Contest, iLLism were inspired to enter this year. “We are really big fans of Tank and the Bangas,” said Fancy. “When they won last year, we have just been following them ever since. It was so important for us to showcase us, but also that Minnesota sound, that hasn’t died; it didn’t die when Prince passed away. We thought that Tiny Desk was a perfect opportunity for us to showcase that on a platform that they offer.”
The Nunnery is the solo project of Sarah Elstran, who uses her voice to create lush layers of sound with just a microphone and a loop station. In 2017, Elstran released her first full-length album as the Nunnery, Fire Dove, although she says that the Nunnery is a project that got started by accident. “I never thought I would be doing looping live at all,” said Elstran.
Elstran had played in a number of bands, mostly folk-rock groups, when her guitar was stolen out of her car. “All I had was a loop pedal and a microphone,” she said, “and I just started jamming on that.”
Most of the Nunnery’s songs begin as an emotion, which she builds by adding lyrics and vocal layers. Live performances offer Elstran the opportunity to improvise and craft a song to fit a certain environment. “Sometimes I want to play my songs a little differently, with different intonations or energy, or I’ll play louder or softer based on how the audience reacts,” she said. “A lot of the times I’ll improv a song live and that’s totally based on the audience and how the room makes me feel, and I’ll just make it up from that space.”
Through the Nunnery, Elstran aims to create an experience that is “meditative and relaxing.” She enjoys playing intimate venues such as galleries and house shows that allow her to connect with and feed off of the audience, and utilizes live video projections in her performance to add color, texture, and movement.
In 2012, Dani Aubert and Ian Van Ornum helped found the Oregon-based folk orchestra Patchy Sanders. Now, the two are releasing rootsy folk songs as a duo under the name Fellow Pynins.
Following the release of their 2016 album, Hunter & the Hunted, the pair spent almost a year traveling through the UK, mainland Europe, and Iceland to learn about the roots of American folk by listening to and playing centuries-old ballads, which they now incorporate into their live shows.
“The idea of having intimate eye contact moments with humans and learning songs face-to-face and having the patience to learn a song and sing it for three hours just so you retain it, is not something that I think people create time for,” said Van Ornum. “Now we have the option to in our pocket have access to every song we want with the lyrics and the chords and a thousand renditions. You can just choose and learn a rendition on YouTube and do it over a few weeks.”
Fellow Pynins began as an Oregon-based project, and now Van Ornum and Aubert are relocating to the Twin Cities. Van Ornum, who grew up in Minneapolis, explained that he is excited to move back to the Twin Cities and tap into their artistic communities. “A big reason [why I’m] moving back is to be a part of the music and arts community that I’ve stayed in touch with through the years.”
Van Ornum and Aubert were not planning on entering the Tiny Desk Contest. Aubert was expecting their son, who was past his due date. The day before the contest deadline, the two decided to film a submission. “We sat on our daughter’s little play, wooden kitchen in her bedroom and put up a tripod,” said Van Ornum. “We did one take of the song and then the camera’s batteries died and we submitted it. It wasn’t something that we had thought about or prepared for.”
Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.