The past 18 months have been a blur for Seattle songstress Mary Lambert, who was working as a bartender when she was tapped to write the chorus for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Same Love," an anthem supporting same-sex marriage that crashed pop culture consciousness.
"As soon as it hit mainstream radio, I realized something was changing," says Lambert between tour dates. "The public had made it a priority, and there was a demand for it. That was really an incredible feeling. This wasn't just preaching to the choir, but actually reaching regular people who aren't necessarily gay advocates or in the queer community."
The song's success culminated in a transcendent Grammy performance complete with Queen Latifah presiding over a mass wedding and Lambert singing arm in arm with Madonna. She spent the day before the performance overcome with emotion and lost it when one of the couples thanked her during rehearsal.
"After we did the song – I could barely choke the words out – Madonna looked over at me and literally wiped my tears. I thought, 'What world am I living in right now!?'"
One where she has a record deal and an album due this summer. Meanwhile, her recent four-song EP, Welcome to the Age of My Body, addresses suicide and eating disorders.
"I forget that I'm an anomaly. That this doesn't really happen in the industry – a plus-sized queer woman who wants to talk about body issues and sexual abuse gets a major-label record deal."
Shakey Graves projected star from the start. When Alejandro Rose-Garcia emerged on Austin's music scene in 2011, with a paper-bag CD-R, heartthrob teen acting credits (Spy Kids 3-D, Material Girls), and suitcase kick-drum to provide his own rhythm, his gritty folk and roots-stomping blues ballads immediately packed houses. With increasingly high-profile tours, festival appearances, and two digitally released live sets, a follow-up to lo-fi debut Roll the Bones never emerged.
"I actually went into a studio in 2012 and recorded 16 songs, but I'm going to end up only using about two of them," acknowledges the 26-year-old songwriter, sitting outside of Empire Control Room with sound check sweat dousing his shaggy, dark hair and seeping through his trademark white tank top. "I hadn't worked in a studio before, and the first mistake I made was to try to go in and re-record songs I play live all the time. I just made them worse."
Rose-Garcia may have finally found his wanted sound in Esmé Patterson of Paper Bird. Her harmonies and Shakey Graves' new fourpiece outfit move toward a Fifties country R&B sound cut with a modern roots sensibility. Though the sophomore disc still isn't due till late 2014, moving beyond the one-man-band will have been worth the wait.
"I've really had to remind myself that if I put out something bad, I'm going to regret that a lot longer than if I take a little bit more time and put out something that sounds great."
"When I came here I was a boy, and now I'm leaving a man," drawls Robert Ellis on "Houston," the 7-minute ode to his former stomping grounds on new LP The Lights From the Chemical Plant. The song drifts in a harsh nostalgia wavering through Ellis' distinct twang, before suddenly breaking into jazz runs and a sharp guitar jam.
"What we wanted to do with that song is represent the cross-section of the music and the culture that, at least in the South, is pretty uniquely diverse," offers Ellis. "When I moved there, I wanted to play jazz, and I had some friends that played R&B. That was the scene I got into, but country music is of course a really big thing there as well. So that song is kind of an R&B country jam."
That eclecticism runs behind much of the Texas songwriter's excellent third album, his first since moving to Nashville.
"The last record was intentionally derivative," Ellis confides. "The whole B-side was meant as a straight up-and-down classic country tribute, and I think the meaning or maybe the irony of that was lost on some people. I really love that music, but that's not what we really represent."
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