By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Even as mainstays Churchill's and Tobacco Road pack their stages with the hardest workers in show biz and newer venues multiply from Señor Frog's to the Piccadilly Garden, Krystal Kaffe, and Club 5922, local musicians hunger for good sound systems, good sightlines, and good lighting -- to be seen, perchance, to be heard. And until now it's looked as if the behemoth Billboardlive -- with its state-of-the-art everything -- would remain another perk reserved for tourists and transient bands from other places, or worse, a live music venue dedicated to DJs. So what? say some, there's no one here in town you would want to see or hear anyway. Maybe. But the monthly showcase New Times New Music will give local musicians the chance to prove otherwise.
Backstage at Billboardlive one Sunday afternoon, a super-secret selection committee sorts through handwritten bios, slickly packaged publicity kits, and rough-cut cassettes ("I know the ad said send CDs, but please listen to these songs; they rock!") and samples off-the-rack alternative, unsyncopated hip-hop, reggae-hard-rock fusions, flamenco-classic-rock interpretations, and wonders of outsider pop ("Windshield wiper/Windshield wiper/Windshield wiper," speed-raps MC Salvation. "You remind me of a spatula"). The hours wear on. The "maybe" pile bulges. "No's!" come faster and more furious with each cup of coffee. And then, more often than anyone could have hoped, come the "yeses!"
At one particularly low point, after a long string of recordings neither good enough to be compelling nor bad enough to be fun, one committee member rifles through the cart to find a disc he'd previewed before the meeting. "There's a girl I really like," he says, dipping back into the pile with increasing desperation as another relentlessly mediocre song plays. Finally he finds what he is looking for: Assembling Emily. "And she's young," he marvels. "Only nineteen."
Yes, indeed. So new is Emily Easterly that she submitted a six-track CD she produced last year for her high school senior project. The classical-guitar major, who has been strumming since age ten and writing songs since thirteen, explains how she returned to Richmond's Sound of Music Studios -- where she had interned the summer before senior year -- to learn the art of production. "It was the first time I actually worked with other people on my songs," she says. "I learned, I guess you could say, how to assemble the music."
But Assembling Emily is anything but kid stuff. More Liz Phair than folk, these guitar-laden gems are solid pop-rock sung with powerful understatement and a nascent feminist consciousness. Not yet old enough to get into a SoBe club, Easterly already knows she wants to have complete control of her music. "I am totally in a position now where I'm not dependent on anybody else," she says. "I just want to try to do my own thing and not be molded by somebody else."
While Easterly hones her chops, layering guitars with architectural care, Dean Fields has been studying to strip his songcraft to the rawest of emotions. This Virginian came to UM to study the music business but has had more of a sentimental education. "This last year has been an emotional one," he confesses. After a bad breakup he had something of a musical conversion experience listening to a series of altcountry acts and twisted folksters. "I'm very lucky to have a couple of things that really kicked my tail," he says of hearing Jump Little Children, Ryan Adams, and Rufus Wainwright. "Somehow it just made sense to me in a very personal way. I just realized I'm writing about a bunch of garbage and people aren't even learning about me."
Throwing out the "garbage," Fields cut three tracks with local folk mistress Diane Ward; they're packed with expressive power that comes through even in Billboardlive's dank backstage area on a dreary afternoon. That power, Fields recently decided, might move him right out of Miami to the more acoustic-friendly Northeast. "My heart's in performing and not in learning right now," he says. "I just want to go where there are a lot of people and make them listen. I just go where I can nurture what I want to be."
How will he know when he's found it? "I'm constantly looking for someone to kick me in the gut," says Fields. "Slap me in the face like, ďWow!'" Same here.