Each year since National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest was inaugurated in 2008, thousands of emerging musicians have submitted performances for the chance to be featured in NPR’s popular Tiny Desk series and tour the country with the organization. Past winners, including Duluth’s Gaelynn Lea, have gone on to sign record deals and perform around the world.
The 2019 winner, as judged by a panel that includes NPR’s Bob Boilen, Lucy Dacus, and Radio K alum Abbie Gobeli, is Quinn Christopherson of Anchorage, Alaska. Congrats to Christopherson, and we can still enjoy submissions from Minnesota artists who were, as usual, strongly represented in a range of genres. These are just some of the many talented local musicians who threw their hats in the ring this year; for a full list of entries visit NPR’s website.
Sprig of That – “Moment We Can’t Understand”
Sprig of That combine folk, Western classical, and world rhythmic influences into fresh acoustic performances. Formed just last year, the trio, which includes Isabel Dammann on violin, Krissy Bergmark on tabla, and Ilan Blanck on guitar, was recently featured on The Current’s Friday Five for their rendition of the classic Appalachian tune “Cluck Old Hen.”
Ruth – “Natural Sin”
Ruth Maghanga is a singer-songwriter and guitarist from Minneapolis. Her voice conveys a stunning range of emotion in just a few breaths, and her lyrics are poignant and complex. Maghanga hasn’t released much music yet, but this performance has me hooked.
Brianna Kočka – “Where Our Time Doesn’t End”
Brianna Kočka has been active in the Twin Cities folk/Americana scene for several years as a solo act, and as a guitarist with Zoo Animal. Her first full-length album, Dreamlife (2018), is a reflection on loss and grief composed with traditional folk elements. Listen to Kočka perform live in the Radio Heartland Studio.
Saltee – “Detective Bartley”
Saltee fuse hip-hop, orchestral, and jazz sounds during this performance recorded in a chalk-covered room in the Walker Art Center. The trio, including Jacqueline Ultan on cello, beatboxing from Carnage, and Mike Michel’s guitar, have opened for Atmosphere and most recently performed at Red Wing’s Big Turn Music Festival. Catch them live at Art-a-Whirl on May 17.
Gabby Z – “Mythology”
You may recognize St. Paul’s Gabby Z from her successful run on season 14 of American Idol. Since then, she has moved to New York, enrolled in music school, and performed around the city with a new band. “Mythology” is the first funky single released off her upcoming debut album.
Kashimana – “Hunny Bunny”
This sweet a cappella tune is so serene and pleasant, it makes for a pretty effective lullaby. Kashimana, which means “that is her heart,” is a composer, producer, singer, and storyteller who makes narrative soundscapes based on her experiences growing up in Nigeria and Kenya and settling in the U.S. She performs as a solo artist, and with several Twin Cities groups.
The Nunnery – “Sweet Willow Tree”
The Nunnery is an atmospheric keyboard and vocal project from Sarah Elstran, which actually began as part of a healing practice enacted by Elstran and her roommate. Meditative and otherworldly, Elstran’s improvised compositions are inspired by the spaces in which she performs live, and usually combine with projected visuals designed to foster a sense of peace and understanding. After entering the Tiny Desk Contest last year, Elstran was selected to perform in the Twin Cities Tiny Desk Showcase alongside last year’s winner, Naia Izumi, and several other top local entries from the 2018 Contest.
Black Velvet Punks – “Tricksy”
The Black Velvet Punks are a groovy neo-soul and jazz-punk band fronted by guitarist Taylor Seaberg with bassist Roderick Glasper, and drummer Traiveon Dunlap. In 2017, Seaberg opened for Chastity Brown at the Fitzgerald Theater. The term “velvet punks” “emphasize[s] the kick and splatter of punk with a tapestry of neo-soul charm and smoothness,” according to the group’s Bandcamp. Their song “Tricksy” is a whirling confessional detailing the aftermath of a messy break-up.
SoloStar – “#lovesong”
Nakara White debuted her SoloStar alias in 2010 and has since released two mixtapes and an EP, Lost & Found. She has collaborated with numerous Twin Cities acts including Sole2dotz on his 2018 release, Misfit and spends time outside of music working with youth. “#lovesong” is an infectious and soulful ballad. Watch to the very end of the performance to see the band’s personality shine.
Jillian Rae – “Inebriated”
Jillian Rae is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose violin accompaniment has been featured in performances by Adam Levy and the Okee Dokee Brothers, among others. In 2013, Rae released her first solo project Heartbeat, and established herself as an independent voice in the Twin Cities pop-infused Bluegrass/Americana scene. Listen to Jillian Rae perform live in the Radio Heartland studio.
Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.