A troubled soul with a talent for writing honest, disarmingly direct songs, Johnston performs in the NPR Music offices. His short set closes with one of his classics: "True Love Will Find You in the End."
Set List: "Mean Girls Give Pleasure" "American Dream" "True Love Will Find You In The End"
July 29, 2019 | Stephen Thompson -- Lots of musicians cut corners during sound check. It's a time to make sure everyone's in tune and in balance, everyone's blocked properly for the cameras, and every piece of recording equipment is doing its job the way it's supposed to, but it's not as if anyone's rolling tape for posterity. Sometimes, Tiny Desk artists do their sound check in shabby street clothes before ducking into the green room to don their fancy performance wear. It's standard procedure, and no big deal at all.
But from the second Lizzo entered the room, fresh off a long interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, she was on: all charm, vibrant and gracious, dressed to the nines and ready to sing her face off. In rehearsal, Lizzo belted out "Cuz I Love You," the title track from her wonderful new album, with nothing off her fastball; if you were standing six feet away at the time, you'd swear the gale force of her voice was blowing your hair back. She was the star and the mayor rolled into one, at once ingratiating and commanding, as an audience of maybe 25 milled around and prepared to let in the crowd.
Once we opened the room, there were as many people as we've ever had at a Tiny Desk concert, hanging on Lizzo's every word as she held court and waited for the cameras to roll. She literally needed no introduction; one of us usually says a few words and gets the crowd to applaud for the start of the performance, but Lizzo was master of ceremonies from the second she walked in. Naturally, she needed all of two seconds to blow everyone's hair back once more.
Everything around the singer must have felt alien to her, starting with "this tiny-ass desk" and continuing through the crowd — perched mere feet away, with only a bit of office furniture and a few cameras as a barrier — and a backing band assembled, at Bob Boilen's request, just for the occasion. Lizzo usually performs with dancers and a backing track; the former, though much-missed here, stood in the crowd and bobbed along, while the latter got mothballed in favor of slyly funky arrangements. Together, Lizzo and that brand-new band preside over three songs from Cuz I Love You: the aforementioned title track, "Truth Hurts" (so winning, in spite of its repeated references to the Minnesota Vikings) and the literal and figurative show-stopper, "Juice," which gave her the opportunity to pick up the flute she'd been waiting the whole set to bust out.
SET LIST "Cuz I Love You" "Truth Hurts" "Juice"
MUSICIANS Lizzo: vocals, flute; Devin Johnson: keyboard; Dana Hawkins: drums; Vernon Prout: bass; Walter Williams: guitar
CREDITS Producers: Bob Boilen, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Beck Harlan, Bronson Arcuri; Associate Producer: Bobby Carter; Photo: Claire Harbage/NPR
Jan. 29, 2018 | Suraya Mohamed -- Singer, songwriter, poet, educator and community organizer Jamila Woods is also a freedom fighter: a voice that celebrates black ancestry, black feminism and black identity. "Look at what they did to my sisters last century, last week," goes a line from "Blk Girl Soldier," her powerful opening number at the Tiny Desk.
"Traumatic things ... happen to black people, but then you still have to go to work the next day, or you still have to wake up and teach a class, or go take care of your family," Woods told NPR in September. "I had just been bottling up all my feelings about these things ... so I remember this song being a way for me to cry about a lot of those things and just feel them and sit with them."
Woods followed "Blk Girl Soldier" with "Giovanni," another anthem of black female pride, inspired by the Nikki Giovanni poem "Ego Tripping." The original text includes no punctuation, not a single comma or period, and reveals a liberated prosody that is also illustrated in the song. Listen how her lyricism interplays with the rhythm section's syncopated groove to create a captivating state of emotional buoyancy.
There is much to savor in Woods' music, rich with philosophical meaning and striking musicality. Of particular note is her recurring theme of self-love, as heard in "Holy," the last song in this set: "Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me." (What a refreshing affirmation to hear "loving me," instead of the predictable "loving you.")
"My mission as an artist is always to create art that's useful," Woods told NPR. "I want my music to feel like it has a tangible effect on people, like it allows them to check in with themselves, feel affirmed, feel able to continue into their day or into their path with renewed energy and a renewed sense of self, because ... that's what I hope to manifest in myself."
"Blk Girl Soldier"
Jamila Woods, Erik Hunter, Justin Canavan, Ralph Schaefer, Aminata Burton
Producers: Suraya Mohamed, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Bronson Arcuri, CJ Riculan, Alyse Young; Production Assistant: Salvatore Maicki; Photo: Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR
Jan. 29, 2019 | Bob Boilen -- This Blood Orange Tiny Desk is a beautifully conceived concert showing off the craft and care that has made Devonté Hynes a groundbreaking producer and songwriter. It's a distillation of themes found on Dev Hynes' fourth album as Blood Orange, titled Negro Swan. Themes of identity, both sexual and racial, through the eyes of a black East Londoner (now living in New York) run through this album and concert. Dev Hynes is a composer who fits as comfortably in the worlds of R&B, gospel and electronics as he does in the classical world of someone like Philip Glass.
The opening song at the Tiny Desk, "By Ourselves," features Dev Hynes on piano, Jason Arce on saxophone, Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah on vocals along with a powerful spoken word performance by Ashlee Haze. Ashlee's story is a tale of finding herself and her identity in the words and music of Missy Elliott when she was, in Ashlee's own words, an eight-year old, "fat black girl from Chicago" who discovered "she could dance until she felt pretty" and "be a woman playing a man's game."
"Jewelry," the second song performed, welcomes Mikey Freedom Hart on piano while Dev moves on to electric guitar and vocals reminiscent of a languid Jimi Hendrix, with soul-baring lyrics of pride. The group then offers a rendition of "Holy Will," inspired by the Detroit gospel group The Clark Sisters, as singer Ian Isiah takes this song of praise to a whole new level.
Blood Orange ends as a trio on the final song, "Dagenham Dream." Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah are on vocals; Dev Hynes works an organ sound while singing about being beaten and bullied as a school kid in his hometown of Dagenham in east London. The power of each of these songs is magnified by the way Blood Orange has woven this performance together. He's a rich, rare and caring talent we first met 11 years ago in a grassy field in Austin, Texas back when he still used the moniker Lightspeed Champion. Now his thoughts are deeper, his message of finding one's place in this world more deep-seated, with a clarity few artists ever achieve.
Devonté Hynes - Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Keyboards
Ashlee Haze - Spoken Word
Eva Tolkin - Vocals
Ian Isiah - Vocals
Jason Arce - Saxophone, Bass clarinet
Mikey Freedom Hart - Piano, Keyboards
Producers: Bob Boilen, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineers: Josh Rogosin, Patrick Boyd; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kaylee Domzalski, CJ Riculan, Kara Frame; Production Assistant: Brie Martin; Photo: Heather Kim/NPR
Spanish singer Buika has a singular voice that draws inspiration from the past, with traces of Afro-Cuban influence and African-American jazz expressionism. Watch her performance of "Death Is Not The End" in a back room at Le Poisson Rouge during NYC Winter Jazzfest with WBGO Jazz 88.3 and The Checkout from WBGO.
Nov. 30, 2018 | Lauren Onkey -- When a baby grand piano rolls into the office for a Tiny Desk concert, you expect something special. But none of us could have imagined what it's like to see 15-year old Joey Alexander play that piano with such mastery. The thing is, when you see him play live, you quickly forget his age and get lost in the intense focus of his performance. Alexander and his stellar supporting cast — Reuben Rogers on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums — form a tight trio, locking eyes as Alexander's compositions unfold. The relaxed, seasoned veterans looked thrilled to be playing with Alexander at the Tiny Desk, and he was clearly inspired playing with them. The crowd was both mesmerized and humbled by the memories of what they were doing at 15.
Born in Indonesia, Alexander learned to play by listening to his father's jazz albums. When he was just 10-years old, Wynton Marsalis invited him to play at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala, and the young Alexander set the jazz world buzzing. He made his mark covering classics by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, but he's now recording and performing more of his own compositions. He showcased that original work during his Tiny Desk performance. Alexander's vigorously rhythmic playing was playful in the opening "Eclipse" (from his latest album of the same name), which he described as "spontaneous playing." "Bali," also from Eclipse, followed, while "City Lights" (from his 2016 album Countdown) closed a set that ranks among the year's finest jazz performances at the Tiny Desk.
Set List "Eclipse" "Bali" "City Lights"
Credits Producers: Suraya Mohamed, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kaylee Domzalski, Bronson Arcuri; Editor: Kaylee Domzalski; Production Assistant: Brie Martin; Photo: Cameron Pollack/NPR
Nov. 16, 2018 | Bob Boilen -- The group is new, but all of the members of boygenius — Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers — are Tiny Desk Concert alumae. In fact, Julien has been behind my desk twice before. So when the usual nerve-racking session was over and I shouted out, "So, is it any easier the second or third time?" I had to laugh when I got a resounding "No!" from all of them. The notion of playing in broad daylight, in an office, without having your voice coming out of a PA and with an audience close enough to touch is not only intensely intimate but also intimidating. That's not only true to these three, newly collaborating, under-25-year-olds. It was also true of, say, Ralph Stanley (who was older than their ages combined) when he sang a cappella behind my desk.
But what came through as these three heartfelt singers performed was the strength of their songs. My first attraction to each of them as artists was the songwriting. In fact, the title track to Julien Baker's first album, Sprained Ankle, is what got me to a show of hers early in 2016, which introduced me to the opening act, Lucy Dacus. (You can hear them tell their tale on an upcoming All Songs Considered.) Boygenius only has six total tunes, all from their just-released, self-titled EP, and here they perform half of that catalog. What you get at the Tiny Desk is a frailer version of these more fleshed-out songs from a band that is likely quite temporary.
For their closing tune at the Tiny Desk, "Ketchum, ID," Julien, Phoebe and Lucy each take a verse. Lucy's verse ends the song with the line, "Let's dissolve the band, move to Idaho." And the chorus to the song, in stunning harmony, echoes the mileage of the lifestyle, how they live and how they met: "I am never anywhere / Anywhere I go / When I'm home I'm never there / Long enough to know." This trio is a special gift to us all in 2018.
Set List "Souvenir" "Me & My Dog" "Ketchum, ID"
Credits Producers: Bob Boilen, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kaylee Domzalski, Beck Harlan; Editor: Kaylee Domzalski; Production Assistant: Brie Martin; Photo: Cameron Pollack/NPR
Oct. 29, 2018 | Felix Contreras -- Watching this performance is to witness a spell being cast, note-by-note. Liniker e os Caramelows (Liniker and the Caramelows) are from Brazil but steeped in the tradition of soul from here in the U.S. They started their turn behind the desk with the ballad "Calmô," a testament to the power of slow songs dripping with soulful emotion. It was a bold statement of just who they are as a band and what they stand for.
You have to go back to the co-mingling of jazz and Brazilian music in the late 1950s to appreciate the affinity our two countries have had for each other musically. Lead vocalist Liniker Barros has obviously done her share of listening to soul singers and she effortlessly slides from lower registers to an emotional falsetto, though the Tiny Desk space did restrict the kind of vigorous floor show of dancing and moving from all the band members that I've seen at the bigger live performances they've done.
Liniker and the band shook things up to high-gear, Brazilian funk on the second part of "Tua," complete with a mid-song, church-revival breakdown, featuring tenor sax. "Remonta" displayed the band's flexibility as they moved from ballad to a reggae bridge, eventually exploding into a majestic African-based Candomblé rhythmic finish.
This performance catches Liniker e os Caramelows as they spiral upwards toward wider acclaim and recognition. Seeing them this close helps to understand just how they cast their musical magic on their audiences.
Set List "Calmô" "Tua" "Remonta"
Credits Producers: Felix Contreras, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Bronson Arcuri, CJ Riculan; Editor: Kaylee Domzalski; Production Assistant: Mary Mathis; Photo: Claire Harbage/NPR
It's as if the pianos were haunted. Somewhere about midway through this Tiny Desk, as Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds performed on his electronic keyboard, two upright pianos were playing lilting melodies behind him, absent any performer at the keys. And yet these "ghosts," along with Ólafur's band of strings and percussion, put together some of the most beautiful music I've heard at the Tiny Desk, made all the more mysterious through its presentation.