Get to Know Houston's NPR Tiny Desk Contestants

As we mentioned at the top of the month, NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest will announce its winner sometime next week. While the contest's judges comb through video entries in the thousands — remember, each one had to incorporate the use of a desk in some fashion — we decided to look at a dozen or so of the local submissions. The ultimate winner gets to play a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR's Washington, D.C., studios, and will tour the U.S. on the dimes of contest sponsors NPR and Lagunitas. Will one of the following locals be the deserving winner? Maybe. Until we know for certain, though, you can enjoy their efforts here:

Aaron Kaufman, “Lover, You Should Know”
Aaron Kaufman’s web bio lists him as a “New England-born, Minnesota-raised and Texas-based” artist. He’s won songwriting honors from BMI and NPR and recently played Anderson Fair. His video uses light and shadows nicely to mirror his broad vocal abilities; the high notes in the chorus are thrilling. Desk use here is minimal. YouTube viewer comment: “Nice vocal range and nice tune.”

Harriet Reynolds, “It Is What It Is, Isn’t It”
Reynolds’s easy way with the guitar and poetic lyrics are perfect for songwriter-friendly venues like McGonigel’s Mucky Duck or JP Hops House. A native Houstonian, Reynolds has played everything from house shows to USO tours over her career. Desk use here recalls an academic’s work space because, in all likelihood, it is. Reynolds is an educator. 

Uri Grey, “Very First Time”
Grey, nee Shameka Dwight, is a revelation and deserving of a larger audience than the 186 followers currently tapping into her Facebook music page. Of course, that’s the beauty of the Tiny Desk Contest — it introduces us to artists we'll want to follow, some in our own backyards. I’ll be looking for her live dates now, as well as the EP she’s promised fans this spring. YouTube says “sounds beautiful. great voice. beautiful song.”

Mumbai, “Chiquita”
It’s unknown whether Mumbai vocalist J.C. Arredondo assembled this entry before or after he shared some thoughts on the Tiny Desk process with Houston Press, but he took his own advice and filmed his entry in a Houston-specific setting, Project Row Houses. One of a handful of band entries on this list, the group’s submission reflects the international city we call home.

Grifters & Shills, “Sweeter With Wine”
Husband-and-wife duo Rebecca and John Stoll have been performing together since 2008. Their previous band, Westbound, has become Grifters & Shills, which offers bluesy Americana tunes like “Sweeter With Wine.” They’re busy, too: Approaching shows include a turn tonight at Natachee’s Supper N’ Punch, a gig tomorrow at Union Tavern and a March 3 date at EQ Heights. Like their music, the desk featured in the entry is vintage and way cool.

Dirty & Nasty, “Kiss the Sky”
The Roologic rap duo was listed among Houston artists entered in the Tiny Desk Contest, but a link to its entry indicates the video has been removed by the user (sorry about that). So, it’s unknown whether the clip is up for contention. Never mind if it isn’t, since you can still hear the song, which includes stablemate Kyle Hubbard as a guest, on the band’s Soundcloud page. If you prefer to hear Dirty Dog D and Nasty Nique lay it down live, be at Roologic Records’ Launch Party March 10 at House of Blues.

Blaze X Black, “Lifetime”
Rick Blaze and Bishop Black front a live band in this clip, which one viewer describes as “New age Mint Condition.” The duo is hoping to connect with Tiny Desk judges in the simplest way possible, via their music. No gimmicks here. The desk is all but obscured by the band and its leaders, who are all giving you something soulful and a little naughty. To learn more about the act, check out its GoFundMe page, established to finance a live album.

Mystery Loves Company, “The Impossibility of Us”
Cellist Madeline Herdeman and guitarist Carlos Machado are Mystery Loves Company, a self-described “chamber rock” duo. Their submission is a buoyant al fresco tune set under a Houston afternoon sun. The band has a pair of live recording shows set this Saturday at Lucky Run Studio, but no date of event ticket sales, so act fast if you’re interested. Otherwise, you can catch their weekly gig Thursdays at Natachee’s or March 24 at Notsuoh.

Namon Eugene, “Sex Like You’re 40”
Upstart pop and R&B artist Namon Eugene used his tiny desk two-fold – to stabilize his music-production equipment and to deliver knowing lines like, “Gotta be free like you’re 20…gotta have sex like you’re 40.” His bio suggests “he weaves stories together from taboo topics few dare to explore,” so if this is your wheelhouse, get voyeuristic on his website.

Jordan Donald, “Everything That Is”
It was a nice surprise to see a local artist representing Houston’s long history of jazz artists in this year’s contest. That it was Jordan “Chili Sauce” Donald — a former member of the Joe Sample TSU Select Orchestra and an accomplished professional musician — and his crackerjack band made the surprise even nicer. Tiny Desk has aligned itself with indie music of every ilk, it seems. Though it would be a bit of an upset should a jazz act walk away with this year’s title, Jordan and friends have the skills to pull off such a shocker.

Allen Chao, “Dollar For My Life”
Allen Chao is a man of mystery to me. According to NPR, he’s a Houston-based act, but he eludes my best search-engine queries. Sitting in what appears to be a small apartment, Chao introduces this song with the same directness as its lyrics, which concern “the hardships of being homeless.” Furthering the intrigue, Chao’s video is unlisted on YouTube, which means he’d prefer we not share it with you here in this forum. [Note: Google it — ed.]

Deno Marquee, “Jasmine”
Marquee’s musical influences run the gamut from Stevie Wonder to Peter Gabriel and Bob Marley. They’re evident in “Jasmine,” a reggae-tinged ode he sings from an outdoor swing while playing guitar, just feet away from a rustic desk. Comments from the YouTube gallery include “lovely song, good stuff” and “Gostei muito,” Portuguese for “really enjoyed it.”

Kelly Lee Keel, “A Self-Diagnosis”
Keel shares in her band page bio that her father is Ron Keel, a professional musician who fronted acts —including a little one you might have heard of called Black Sabbath, albeit briefly — for more than 30 years. He must be a proud papa, since his daughter writes smart songs and delivers them with a lovely voice. Here, she’s contemplating all she knows and still has yet to learn about herself. How she’ll do in NPR's contest remains to be seen, but in the competition for most-talented daughters of Sabbath front men, she’s a clear winner.

Gunrocku, “New Year Goals”
Yes! A punk rock band representing in the Tiny Desk Contest. The west Houston trio recalls Blink-182 with catchy hooks and that one line that brings you back for another listen. In this case, it’s “I’m gonna miss you all the way ’til I get back home.” There’s not much to glean from the Interwebs about them, so maybe they’ll hit a brother up with a show date or at least a press release with their names and discography. The desk is barely visible – because punks don’t follow rules – but there’s a huge tip of the hat to Bomb the Music Industry! for bonus points.

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