Up and Coming: 5 Houston-Area Musical Artists You Should Know About
The Houston area probably has as many aspiring bands and musicians as it does different ZIP codes, if not more. With the only condition being their subjects have never been previously profiled (either in these pages or elsewhere in local media), we asked a few of our regular music writers to tell us about the last local artist who really captured their attention.
BLSHS give vintage synth-pop a modern twist.
By Cory Garcia
Whether you label it retro or vintage, nostalgia never goes out of style, and it's easier than ever to make songs that sound as if they come from a different era.
Superficially speaking, you could call BLSHS vintage. Hear the synths in a track like "Blushes," warm and nostalgic and melancholy, and it's an easy adjective to go with. Now listen more closely. Make note of those 808 hits. Pay attention to those high-hat parts. Focus on the beat.
Yeah, this is synth-pop, but in the hands of Rick Carruth and Chris Gore, it's synth-pop with a hip-hop edge. It's the type of melding of sounds that makes them stand out not just among Houston acts, but among synth-pop acts in general.
Then come the vocals. Although Carruth and Gore have been producing music together for years, BLSHS didn't click until the addition of Michelle Miears, who sings like a ghost haunting your subconscious. She's emotive without being dramatic, vulnerable without sounding weak. The music and vocals enhance each other, and the result is songs that are gripping.
"I love songs that make your heart stop," Miears says. "I love songs that can make me cry."
It's not a sound that shares a lot with the eclectic Houston music scene. Bang Bangz and FLCON FCKER tread similar ground, but you can't book that bill every week. As such, BLSHS has had to share the stage with rock bands, acoustic acts and the occasional nu-metal group in an effort to get their name out. That sometimes leads to odd pairings, but so far the approach seems to be working.
"The reception we've been getting is good," says Gore. "One of the great things about Houston is that good bands recognize each other no matter what you play."
BLSHS had the type of rookie year that most bands only wish for. In March of last year, they decided to get serious about the project, passing song ideas and files back and forth digitally so that they could work on material while juggling their nine-to-fives.
Over the next 12 months, they ended up writing a bunch of music, playing their first four-song set in July and releasing their first EP, Abstract Desires, through Synth Records. They capped the year off by getting booked for Free Press Summer Fest. Not bad for something that was just a name and an idea at the start of 2013.
"We definitely dreamed of playing the Fest, but we had no idea it would be that quick," says Gore.
The group's feeling of excitement is palpable when you sit down with them. While their music may be melancholy, it's clear that producing and performing it makes them happy.
"I think the one thing you could say about us is that we're eager and motivated," Miears says. "We're very passionate about this."
"I love BLSHS," adds Gore. "Even if this doesn't take off huge, I'm still going to be doing it."
Looking to the future, the band talks about new videos, a Depeche Mode cover and eventually a new album. They plan on writing songs together in the studio in a more organic, traditional fashion, and starting on songs that push up the beats-per-minute level. Just because things are melancholy doesn't mean they can't be dance-friendly.
As for the present, the group says that while they know what BLSHS is, you may not.
"Don't be so sure you have us figured out yet," Gore says.
Singer-songwriter Libby Koch found an album in her ancestors' stories.
By Chris Gray
Plenty of songwriters have delved into the past for inspiration. Libby Koch dug into the roots of her family tree.
On her brand-new album, Tennessee Colony, the Houston native and seventh-generation Texan has constructed a suite of songs centered around her ancestral homeland, a speck on the East Texas map about 15 miles northwest of Palestine.
"I think there's a stop sign; that's it," she says.
The seeds of Tennessee Colony lie in Koch's maternal grandfather, whom Koch (pronounced like the carbonated beverage) describes as a natural storyteller. They were "super-close," she adds, and the album is her homage to him. She figures she first heard the story behind "Jess Carroll" when she was four or five years old. Both sides of her family settled in Texas in the 1830s and '40s, and eventually moved away, but wound up in Tennessee Colony again thanks to the Great Depression. But the story of the clan's original settlement in the Piney Woods also makes its way onto the album via "Wagon Train."
According to Koch, her great-great-great grandmother ("I'd have to look at the chart," Koch laughs), Lucinda, and "equally great" grandfather met back east and were headed for California. He was significantly older than she was, Koch explains, and had been widowed on the way when his wife died of cholera on the trip. He tried convincing Lucinda to come out to California with him and help raise his four kids. She turned him down, but soon enough he decided he was tired of the trail and wanted to settle in Texas.
"So he went back and, you know, talked to her again about maybe coming out, marrying him and all that stuff," relays Koch. "She was like, 'All right. What the hell?'"
As any good songwriter would, Koch admits she added a little artistic license to Tennessee Colony. "Wagon Train" refers to Lafayette, when her ancestors' fateful meeting happened closer to Longview. But, she notes, "Lafayette is more lyrical."
"I think that's the tradition of storytelling, right?" she says. "Like, I'm sure the way the grandfather told it to me isn't exactly the way it happened. My dad calls it 'embellishing the truth.'"
Musically inclined since childhood, Koch attended Texas A&M and graduated from Vanderbilt University law school. In Nashville she started playing out some "and discovered I could hang." She also discovered the music of artists like Patty Griffin, Ryan Adams, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.
"[That was] all the music that I knew I always liked but I guess I never really found," Koch explains. "Then I just grew more confident in my playing and writing."
Some days songwriting comes easier than others, she admits, but she tries to remember some advice she picked up at a recent Folk Alliance conference from one of Nashville's most respected songwriters, Jim Lauderdale.
"He said, 'Everybody's got their own process,' and for a long time I just tortured myself about other people's process not being like my process, and just learn to let it go," Koch reflects. "I was like, 'That was right on, and if Jim Lauderdale's saying that, I'll try that, too.'"
After she moved back to Houston in 2005, one night in 2008 Koch and some friends were at Washington Avenue wine bar The Corkscrew. She asked how she could get a gig and was met with the reply, "Do you want to come up and play a song right now?" Though she sometimes supplements her income from music with freelance legal work, Koch quit practicing law full-time four years ago and since then has watched her calendar grow from a handful of shows to more than 100 last year.
She has already done more than 40 in 2014, and won Best Songwriter at the 2013 Houston Press Music Awards. Citing the scene centered around McGonigel's Mucky Duck and Tennessee Colony producer Jack Saunders, Koch says more travel is in her future — including possible extended stays in both Nashville and Austin — but Houston has too much in its favor for her to consider relocating.
"Houston's my home," Koch says. "My family's here, and I think that there's a real songwriter-focused Americana scene that is getting stronger here in Houston that will only get stronger if we stay. And that's something that I want to be a part of."
THE HUSTLE GAME
Southeast-side rapper Real Flow is hell-bent on being heard.
By Angelica Leicht
Real Flow has a problem, but not the typical rap beef with a competing artist or label that one might expect. Rather, the southeast-side rapper's issue is with Houston's radio stations.
"Radio stations don't give local artists enough room to grow," he says. "They should spend some time focusing on the listeners and the community that supports them. We support them...shouldn't they support us?"
And perhaps he's right. Spend some time observing Houston's steadfast rap scene, and it's fairly obvious that there's a market for underground rap on the radio. Legendary artists like UGK and Fat Pat put Houston rap on the map for the nation, and the late DJ Screw solidified the chopped-and-screwed sound now known worldwide. A bit of radio support for up-and-coming acts would be nice, even if it's just a pipe dream.
But radio support or not, there's always room for one more local great, and Real Flow is dead set on being the next one in line. He's on the right track to do just that, working his way from spittin' in the street in high school to being a full-time rapper with his own label.
Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Z-Ro and Lil Keke have all welcomed Real Flow to the stage, some of them more than once. He's opened up for national artists — 2 Chainz at Warehouse Live last year being the biggest — and will do so again for Slim Thug later this month.
But even in a city full of Southern rappers, Flow is one of a kind, even if he rocks a country twang reminiscent of Paul Wall. His unique sound has enough Southern elements to identify his Houston roots, but plenty that set it apart from his peers'. Flow's hardcore, honest flow is layered on top of blues-inflected, jazzy beats.
"I worked my way up from the bottom," he says. " I always wanted to rap, so I spent my years in high school releasing mixtapes, always trying to perfect my sound."
It seems all that effort has paid off. With a touch of classic hip-hop helping to cushion the aggressiveness, Flow's work feels more accessible than much of the genre, local or otherwise. His music is at times energetic, and soothing at others. It never strays from delivering Flow's message, though.
His use of jazz and blues elements comes naturally. His father was a blues guitarist who played with legends such as B.B. King, and his music-loving mother kept his ears filled with the classics. It was only natural to integrate those elements, because they're what sparked this whole thing in the first place.
"I went through a tough time back in '97, and music was what really helped me get through it," says Flow.
But beyond his unique sound, Flow's old-school hustle game and keen eye for business opportunities have kept his recognition growing at a steady pace.
"I have to be out there, making a name for myself. And there's nothing better than a personal connection," he laughs. "People don't want to let you down if you've made a personal connection."
For the rapper and budding entrepreneur, every interaction is an opportunity to network. He stops by the barbershop or local shows whenever possible, even if he's not on the bill. He has signed about 15 local artists to his label, Why Not Get Paid Records, and built a studio from the ground up. His clothing line is sold at four or five shops on the southeast side, and he has persuaded several barbers to carry it as well. Interest seems to grow daily, and Flow is in talks to expand into several other stores.
Yet as successful as Flow has been already, his difficulty getting on local radio has been an even bigger hurdle.
"You're not given opportunities in life. You have to create them, which is why the hustle game is all I do," he says. "And if you do it right, you might be able to influence people and touch lives."
Death-metal throwbacks War Master seek new fields to conquer.
By Nathan Smith
To the uninitiated, it can sometimes appear as though heavy metal is dead and buried in Houston. Fans still turn out for the legends, but the genre is nowhere to be found on the radio, and it's been a long time since a band of long-haired locals broke through onto the national radar.
But deep down in the dirt, amid the rot, still roils a seething underground of extreme music in the Bayou City. And one platoon of crusty throwbacks now stands poised to rise from the depths and spread a virulently Houstonian strain of living death from coast to coast.
Fittingly enough for a group founded by a couple of tattoo artists, War Master first took shape as a design aesthetic as much as a heavy-metal band. In 2009, guitarist Neal Dossey and vocalist Daniel Shaw found themselves free agents, and decided to create the kind of music that would match the gruesome, monochromatic battle fantasies in their heads. The result was a decidedly old-school take on early death metal inspired by the Warhammer-obsessed British slashers Bolt Thrower.
"Everyone has their own reasons that they're attracted to extreme music, I think," says Dossey. "I really love the artwork and the whole package of it. We came up with the idea for War Master because that's pretty much the coolest kind of artwork we could think of — crazy barbarian stuff.
"We were big fans of Bolt Thrower, so we kind of just started it as a Bolt Thrower tribute band where we had the freedom to do our own kind of artwork," he adds.
Soon, War Master would wield their noisy, grinding style as a razor, carving their name across the face of the Texas death-metal circuit. As their profile grew within the scene, the band weathered a few lineup changes: Notably, ex-Insect Warfare and Hatred Surge screamer Rahi Geramifar replaced Shaw on the mike in 2012. But the clattering din of battle never subsided around Dossey.
Five years on, the group has released a steady string of independent records, all covered in Shaw and Dossey's horrific hand-drawn visions of clashing swords and long-dead kings. War Master has built a solid local base of enthusiasts by uniting the disparate tribes of Houston's extreme underground with its militant look and craggy, overdriven sound.
"We kind of fall into several different scenes," Dossey says. "Our style of music does blend well with other genres of music, and I think we recognized that early on. It was kind of a happy accident, and we went with it. We're able to do shows with grindcore bands and true death-metal bands and all kinds, and it's playing kind of a throwback style that allows us to do that."
Now War Master has set off on its biggest tour yet. Beginning at Fitzgerald's on May 9, the band embarked on a 22-day tour that's taking them to places they've never been before, like Chicago and New York City. The trek is highlighted by a plum slot at the Maryland Death Fest, one of the world's premiere showcases for underground extremity.
"It's awesome," Dossey exclaims with demonic glee. "It's pretty much the best thing going on in metal in the United States, the biggest metal festival of its kind, with lots of underground stuff."
Houston's most evil emissaries will return, of course, but they won't be sitting down. A slew of old material sits waiting for release, and there's a new album to write. Another tour of the West Coast looms.
No rest for the wicked, as the saying goes.
"We have a lot of records that are kind of in the works right now," Dossey says. "A couple of them are at the pressing plant. Any time new records are coming out, you go on tour with 'em and get people interested in it. That's what we've been doing lately, and it's been paying off."
EASY DOES IT
Still a nice guy, Yves steps out on his own.
Yves Ozoude is a master of engagement. When you're speaking with him, his eyes remain focused upon you. There may be pumping bass or loud conversation nearby, but Yves will peer downward for a second, then tilt his head back to look you in the eye — at all times.
Now 29 years old, Yves is seated at one of his favorite bars, AvantGarden, enjoying a bottle of Guinness. He looks, in his words, "Cuban fresh," in contrast with his usual attire of a single-colored Adidas tracksuit. It's Wednesday, a night Yves and his DJ, Candlestick, usually retreat a bit from the increasing attention and fame. It doesn't completely bother him that before all this, before he was known as Easy Yves Saint or the front man for the critically acclaimed rap group The Niceguys (who are on hiatus), he was a literal outsider who had to be cordial and respectful.
"My whole thing with The Niceguys was to spread as much love as possible," he says after taking a sip of his brew. "I had to think, 'Spread love.' Me coming here, I'm not from here. I had to wipe my feet on the mat."
But now, Yves vows, "I'm not wiping my feet on the fucking mat. I've done that."
After he arrived here from New York and created The Niceguys in 2007 with college friends Free, Cristolph and Candlestick, a minor perception grew that Yves was bourgeois. Arrogant. It didn't necessarily help matters that The Niceguys have released two critically acclaimed albums; the latter, James Kelley, won Local Recording of the Year at the 2013 Houston Press Music Awards. They've been featured on a wide array of top music blogs and earned praise across the country for their musicianship. Yves's assured confidence and verbal dexterity in particular have never allowed even one bar of his to be considered simple.
That expressive nature, from his round eyes to his lanky frame, gets fleshed out more on the six-track Sincerely Yves, his eclectic, candid debut EP (out now). Rather than release one bloated project, the rapper is far more instinctive about letting fans make their own decisions.
"The idea is to let people familiarize themselves, get intimate with it, actually get to like the songs," he says about the structure of the EP, one of around five in total he's planning to release. "I'm digestible as a person; I want to translate it to music."
Much of the early criticism lobbed Yves's way dealt with how his music in particular seemed to be too wordy, too keen on being smart and puzzling. He charts the growth from The Niceguys' 2010 debut album, The Show, to James Kelley as "whimsical" and says it's annoying to talk about himself all the time. But now Yves says he feels far freer, and his latest material shows how he can easily switch from packing an avalanche of metaphors and punch lines to simply being accessible.
Yves will never give a simple answer. All his explanations start as a single thought and explode into a cloud of questions, considerations and more. Nothing is ever short with him, including his thoughts on the music scene ("we're too socially segregated"), making music ("I can't make music with other rappers in mind"), being himself ("no nicknames, I'm just Yves") and how the loss of a friend shaped his perception of going solo.
"She had the right idea," he says in a low baritone. "Her passion was trying to connect everyone. This album is a thank-you."
His thoughts jump a bit whenever music isn't the main subject. A rundown on rappers and women who want to be desired for all the wrong reasons turns into a riffing session with scouting-combine allusions and more. Technology, soccer, his beloved New York Knicks — anything is fair game for further pursuit of thought.
"At the end of this, you want to say something important, because that's the point," he says. "How do you not make this shit in vain?"
Easy Yves Saint and his fellow Niceguys decided to take a break after the group's James Kelley won Local Recording of the Year at the 2013 Houston Press Music Awards.
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