If our year-end lists of songs and albums were any indication, it was a great year for emerging artists. From the un-fightable, infectious pop of Haim, the ragged garage rock of Mikal Cronin, the punishing punch of a Savages track to Majical Cloudz’s reflective slow-churners, we were in for a treat in 2013 with breakout acts.
Along the way, we made plenty of discoveries in our weekly Best of What’s Next profiles, which are featured first at PASTE.COM. We’ve included our 20 favorite finds and their complete profiles (or reviews in a few cases) below for you to discover yourself. And if you’re taking a peek at this during the work day and just want to see the darn list already, we’ve got you covered—head on over to page 12 in the gallery below.
By Claire Ruhlin
Less than two years ago, the members of the Indiana-based folk-rock quartet Houndmouth—comprised of keyboardist Katie Toupin, guitarist Matt Myers, bassist Zak Appleby and drummer Shane Cody—were recording their minimalist, self-titled EP using a few mics set up in Cody’s Indiana home, fondly nicknamed the “Green House.” If this year’s been any indication, things have changed in a big way for the members of Houndmouth. They’ve landed a record deal with Rough Trade Records, toured with the likes of Alabama Shakes and Drive-By Truckers, performed on Conan and Letterman, headlined their own tour and released their debut LP, From the Hills Below the City.
“None of us expected anything when we started this band,” says Myers. “We got together and we were just making stuff, and we kind of knew that it was nice—we really liked it—but we had no idea how it was gonna translate.”
Though the band was formed in 2011, the members of Houndmouth have known each other for years. Toupin and Cody went to high school together, Myers and Appleby played in blues and classic rock cover bands in high school and Myers and Toupin worked as an acoustic duo for three years.
“That was really hard,” Toupin recalls. “It was like four-hour gigs of acoustic guitar and my fingers would bleed. We wouldn’t get paid and nobody would pay attention.”
Their hard work, late night-practices and unfulfilling gigs leading up to Houndmouth’s genesis paid off when the band performed at the South by Southwest Festival in 2012. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records came down to watch them perform and, after meeting with the band, offered them a record deal.
Houndmouth’s EP was released in August of 2012 and they followed it with a gritty, folksy full-length From the Hills Below the City in June 2013. The LP was largely tracked live and was recorded with the help of producer Kevin Ratterman.
Thanks to their shared roots and familiarity, the four-piece share an intuitive, almost visceral connection, which is evident in the fact that Houndmouth has no lead singer; instead, all four members switch off on vocals.
Songs like “Hey Rose” feature Appleby’s twangy baritone, while Toupin’s powerhouse vocals lead the more bluesy ‘Casino.’ “It was never a question whether who was gonna sing what song,” says Myers. “If you wrote the song and brought it to the table, that’s who was gonna sing it.”
And while they write many of their songs separately, most of the tracks on From the Hills Below the City remain thematically and lyrically cohesive, spinning often-romanticized stories of down-on-their-luck wanderers, lawless vagrants or fictional towns reminiscent of bygone eras.
“That kind of took us by surprise: that we were writing about similar things and had all the same interests,” says Myers. “I think it’s kind of an unconscious kind of thing. We were communicating through our brainwaves.”
As Toupin affirms, Houndmouth’s image was not premeditated, and their identity evolved naturally as they worked together. “We’d just have these practices, and someone would say, ‘Oh, I wrote this, let’s try this.’ Or ‘I wrote this, let’s work on this,’ and we’d work it out, and then that just became our set, that became our album and that became who we are.”
They do occasionally write together and swap lines, melodies and song ideas. “We all just kind of take from each other,” says Myers. “It’s just lines that resonate with our souls are what we’re after.”
Following their gut has certainly worked well for them. While on tour, they’ve taken the festival circuit by storm, performing at events such as Newport Folk Festival and Forecastle Festival in Louisville, with crowds nearing 1,000 gathering to sing along with their warm, rootsy twang.
With their close quarters on tour, songwriting—along with everything else— is becoming increasingly collaborative. “Instead of being like, ‘Hey, I wrote this song, let’s work it out,’ it’s more like, ‘Hey, I got this idea, let’s see what we can do with it together,’” Toupin says. “So I think that for the next album it’s gonna be a bit more collaborative on the songwriting aspect of it.”
Which is no surprise, considering that, as the band evolves, Houndmouth is becoming more in-sync than ever. “We aren’t even separate people at this point because of touring. We’ve been together so much this year,” says Myers.
Since touring, they’ve also had the chance to meet and learn from bands they’ve admired, including Alabama Shakes, Dry the River and Dawes. “You learn just by watching other musicians, you know, that have done this for a long time,” Toupin says. “Some of that bands that I’ve always listened to, I can call them my friends. That’s weird. Like, wait, I don’t belong here,” she adds, laughing.
Judging by the buzz and glowing reviews since the band’s EP debut, Houndmouth should fit in just fine. Besides befriending some of their favorite bands, one of the most rewarding aspects of the breakout success has been the overwhelmingly positive response from live audiences, especially those in hometown performances. Many fans even join them in singing the lyrics.
“That’s like one of those childhood things that you never think…“ Myers breaks off. “That’s what you always try and strive for. It’s just unreal. It’s so cool. We just—we really didn’t see that coming.”
Their catapulting careers don’t look to be losing momentum anytime soon, and the members of Houndmouth are handling their success like pros: sticking to their roots and staying humble.
“We’re getting pretty lucky. We kind of live it a day at a time,” says Myers. “We’re still just kind of learning and getting along, y’know. Riding it out.”
But they’re also excited for the future. “I’m looking forward to making a new record and doing it all again,” Toupin says. “Looking back now, it’s like, ‘Oh, well that was pretty fucking cool. It’s just part of our life now I guess.”
By Hilary Hughes
Ella Yelich-O’Connor—aka Lorde—is, in a word, intense. This applies to every facet of the aspiring pop marvel’s being, whether we’re talking about her album, the timbre of her voice or her stage presence. It’s a fitting description for her impermeable gaze that stops you dead in your tracks and draws you in like a tractor beam, regardless as to whether you’re watching her from your computer screen or the back row of her concert. It refers to the scowls, winces, elated grins and downcast glances she throws when she’s behind the microphone, be it in the comfort of a studio or before a slack-jawed crowd in a nightclub. It accurately sums up the gravity of her lyrics, in that Lorde—who’s only 16 years old—touches on depths of love and loss that those who’ve lived a life full of each can’t articulate in such an engaging manner.
In short, Lorde cultivates intensity, and at this point in her career, where she’s on the cusp of her major label debut and a handful of international dates to support it, it’s clear that the depth, the dramatic pauses, the literary dirges and the refusal to become a cog in the pop music machine is working.
If you need a visual that wraps her up in a striking snapshot, look no further than the video for “Tennis Court,” the first single off her debut full-length, Pure Heroine, which drops via Universal on Sept. 30. In it, Lorde, clad in a black fishnet top, braids Heidi would be jealous of and varnished lips, is the only instrument, the only presence and the solitary conduit for her voice and vision. “Tennis Court,” a lush ode to young love set to warm synths and the kind of beat that wouldn’t be out of place on a videogame soundtrack, is a shy smile of a single—one that gives off the impression that she wrote it with the door locked in her bedroom with her headphones on. She didn’t—most of Pure Heroine and her incendiary EP before it, The Love Club, were composed and subsequently and tackled in the studio alongside producer Joel Little, though she did write a song or two in bed or on the train—but that pure, confessionary vibe remains, and speaks to her adopting the studio as her new abode of sorts.
“The studio is where I can be creative,” she says over the phone as she packs for tour in Auckland. “I feel more vulnerable onstage. I’m not a super confident person; I’m not quite a superstar onstage. The studio is kind of my sanctuary, where anything is possible and I can try out anything and no one will laugh at you.”
She throws what she needs in a bag—“I always forget something that I have to pick up at the airport later; I basically just throw everything in a suitcase”—which comes down to a lot of understated, black clothing and a bunch of Throat Coat tea, and she gives her bookshelf a go before flying off to London, or New York, or Tokyo. Lorde, an avid reader and the daughter of a poet, loses herself in words. Currently, she’s reading Battleborn, a collection of short stories that delve into life in the Western United States by Claire Vaye Watkins, which she’ll likely take on the road as she kicks off a proper American headlining tour on Sept. 24 in Los Angeles.
Her lyrics are her proudest accomplishment, and the care that goes into crafting the smart, thought-provoking words of Pure Heroine mirrors these wordsmith leanings and an artistic cultivation in small rooms with a microphone as opposed to Auckland’s stages. She’s still only 16, after all; she’s not of legal age to drink in her home country, let alone in the States, and as such she doesn’t consider herself a fixture in the Auckland music scene as she can’t patronize its venues, technically.
“It’s quite easy for me to be normal here,” she says. “I’ve only released my music quite recently, and I can’t go to the bars or anything. Most people are surprised about my age. I look older than I am, so I’m not like, ‘It’s crazy, she’s making music, she’s so young!’ you know? Maybe there’s a scene here for some types of music, but not for mine. It’s a weird scene here. The scene isn’t the reason why I’m making music or anything.”
These introverted creative tendencies carried over from The Love Club, and ironically enough gave us “Royals,” the explosively popular single that was repurposed for Pure Heroine and is currently looping excessively on Top 40 radio. She may have skyrocketed out of Auckland’s obscurity and into the international public eye, but that doesn’t change what she writes, what she reads or how she approaches either.
“I haven’t compromised being an honest songwriter, which is cool,” she says. “I was like, surely it’s going to be embarrassing, or weird, but I’ve managed to keep my process personal and that was important to me for this album and these pop songs. I don’t think there’s an overarching singular theme, but I have quite a strong voice. Not a physical voice, but a lyrical voice. I think the album offers a pretty good introduction into my world. The Love Club was quite spin on who I am and what my life is like, so with Pure Heroine, I hope people listen to what I say, not just the music. I hope people read the album, as well.”