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 Dacey Orr
It’s tough to say what makes Brooklyn-based Lucius stick out. Their delicate blend of intoxicating harmonies and fierce lyrics is only magnified by the entire band’s chemistry on stage—a display that employs collaborative percussion, eye-catching stage props and a symbiosis of themselves and their audience, turning any venue into its own ‘60s-rooted power-pop experience. Vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig may look like sisters, and clearly their friendship predates any musical collaboration.
“We sort of connected on our similar musical upbringing,” Wolfe says. “Which was ‘60s rock-n-roll and old-school soul music: you know, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder.”
A fitting match-up in more than just influences, Wolfe and Laessig command audiences at every show with twin outfits, often coordinating with the rest of the band and tailoring the atmosphere to reflect the energy of their performance.
“It’s basically a visual representation of the music,” Wolfe says. “We’re two voices singing as one, the band is this sort of machine where every part is integral to the next. Each part works off of the next part in order to make the music that we make. And I think that it has that same sort of symmetry, that same sort of visual. When you’re looking at the stage there’s this uniformity.”
The band doesn’t even have a traditional drum kit; they split the parts between four people, using them the same unity and off-handed charm on-stage that they have with each other on the road. It’s not just Wolfe and Laessig, after all—the band also includes Dan Molad, Peter Lalish and Andrew Burri.
“I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who comes on the road with us is wildly entertained. Or freaked out. Either one,” said Wolfe. “We play pranks on each other, we make up games in the car. I mean Holly got a call this morning and realized her ringer had been changed to fart sounds.”
Their goofy demeanor in person only makes the their forceful lyrics feel all the more relatable.
“I feel like a lot of songs that maybe seem like super powerful and feminist songs are us giving ourselves a pep talk,” says Wolfe. “Figuring out a problem and then writing it down and being able to see it and then share it. I mean we’re lucky that we’re able to sort of complete each other’s sentences, and we’ve had very many parallel experiences and are able to relate to each other in the writing process.”
That’s not to say that the undertones of female empowerment are unintentional. Their forthcoming full-length, Wildewoman, embodies that same pep talk mentality in everything from the lyrics to the cover art, a painting by Evelyne Axell.
“She was really at the forefront of the pop-art scene in Belgium,” Wolfe says. “She was obviously a feminist, and it was really important that that aesthetic and that feeling was sort of projected in the artwork. It might be bold for some people, but that was the point.”
This deliberate boldness reveals itself in each track, whether it’s sonically powerful like “Turn It Around” or lyrically dauntless like “Go Home,” each track seems to have a different way of revealing Lucius’ strengths.
“There’s no real formula for all the songs, each song has had its own unique inception,” says Laessig. Wildewoman in title alone reveals much of what the music has been about from the beginning.
“Holly and I grew up sort of feeling outcasted and feeling like we were different than other people and didn’t really know how to vocalize that, how to feel comfortable,” Wolfe says. “When we met, it was the first time we actually felt that we were in a place that we felt comfortable with ourselves, that we could really figure it out. And we just wanted to honor that sort of free-spirited, awkward, uncomfortable aspect of youth and growing up and being a woman.”
In continually switching up their set to fit the atmosphere, which has ranged from tiny clubs to rustic cabins to big festivals like Bonnaroo and Solid Sound, Lucius has found a consistency in their breezy vocals and powerhouse percussion. Beyond the strong songwriting, the band operates like a well-oiled machine, with each part integral to the next. The support within the group mirrors that of their community of artists and fellow musicians in Brooklyn.
“It’s so important, as an upcoming band especially, to have people that understand where you’re coming from and how hard you have to work,” Wolfe says. “It takes a lot just to get just a little bit of recognition. If you don’t have that support, if you’re not supporting your fellow musicians, what’s the point, really? You have to be inspired and you have to inspire.”
And when it comes to inspiring, Lucius is just getting started. With many tour dates ahead of them this fall and their debut full-length Wildewoman set for release in October, the band’s commanding presence is only bound to reach more ears as they continue to produce meaningful, infectious songs.
“I think we are very much talking to ourselves,” says Wolfe. “And if that helps other people well then, you know, mission accomplished.”
Directed by Peter Lockhart, Edited by Bill Antonucci, Audio by Michael Saltsman, Lighting by Brad Wagner
3. Mikal Cronin
Photo and Feature by Philip Cosores
“It’s good to start with a bang, and then lead them somewhere weird,” says Mikal Cronin, summing up the philosophy behind his second solo LP and first for Merge Records, MCII. The “bang” in his case is a pair of clear-cut singles that lead off the collection, “Weight” and “Shout It Out.”
Speaking over coffee in downtown Santa Ana, California—Orange County’s answer to the gentrified, artistic neighborhoods that spawn the kind of coffee shops you would tell a musician to meet you—Cronin confirms a vast taste and mentions dozens of acts during our conversation. His current favorites range from the classic rock of The Beatles and David Bowie to up-and-comers like Pangea and The Mallards, to some surprises like Sharon Van Etten and Death From Above 1979. But his biggest reaction comes at the mention of the 1996 Tom Hanks directorial debut, That Thing You Do! Those opening songs have pop simplicity and infectiousness of the early-60’s one-hit-wonders portrayed in the movie, but getting an audience to listen is only part of the battle.
“You’ve got to grab them to get them to where you want the to go,” Cronin adds, suggesting one of his destinations, “like, a piano ballad.”
The piano ballad is not hypothetical. “Piano Mantra,” concludes MCII with something weird indeed, something as far away from his musical roots as he has yet to venture. Growing up in Laguna Beach, Cronin began in garage and punk bands while in high school, performing at house parties, short-run DIY spaces and the first real venue he ever played, The Smell in Los Angeles.
“My parents were supportive, increasingly more and more,” Cronin recalls of his Orange County days, having slowly made his way north for school and then the Bay where he currently lives and makes music. On this weekend he’s home, visiting his encouraging folks and watching plenty of TV on their couch, while also checking out Burgerama where numerous friends and associates perform for the label he has been loosely associated with. Cronin now is emerging from a scene that is generally loud and rough around the edges, so it doesn’t surprise that he adds that his mom likes the music “especially now.”
“My mom is like my biggest fan,” he admits proudly. “She listens to my record while she’s driving to work. It’s not too noisy. She likes it better than all my other bands, for sure. She’s just coming around on Ty. She’s like ‘I’m finally gettin’ it!’ She still likes my music better, but she’s a little biased.”
The “Ty” referred to is Ty Segall, Cronin’s friend and collaborator since his Orange County days. Cronin still plays bass in the Ty Segall Band, whose popularity means that success as a solo artist might force him to choose. A quick look at the songwriter—his long wavy hair, jean jacket and black t-shirt sporting a skull and an apparent band logo that is well outside anything a general indie background would inform—indicates that the garage scene is where he is most comfortable. But the music that he can, and does, create has a ceiling much higher than that of the garage.
“It was a thought in my head for a while,” Cronin recalls of making his debut album. “I don’t know what spawned it other than getting into early classic songwriting. I brought it up to Bill of Trouble in Mind while we were on tour and we had been friends for a while, and he was like ‘Just do it, go for it, we want to hear it and we’ll probably put it out if its not terrible.’ And that was it. I started shaping it in my head, something to bring together everything, because I’ve jumped around so much in my interests. I’m schizophrenic like that, and I wanted to put it in one cohesive thing.”
Still, Cronin is careful with his words when discussing his beloved garage music. “I hesitate to say it, but I got really sick of stupid, straight-ahead garage punk. I still love it. But, it started just becoming annoying.”
“It’s more of a reaction in that I wanted to focus more on songwriting,” he continues. “To write a good song and then fuck it up if that’s what I want to do. It’s tricky with this kind of pop music, you don’t want to make something that’s wimpy or dull.”
Cronin notes that members of Ty Segall Band, his “best friends,” have been supportive throughout his solo ventures, but he gets the impression that not everyone in the community is as keen on his softer sound. Still, no one has the nerve to say anything to his face.
“At this point if some shithead punk doesn’t like my music, I don’t give a shit,” he says, revealing an edge that comes from his past and won’t likely be shaken no matter how many piano ballads he writes. “I still like shithead punk music. And, I have friends who don’t listen to pop music that have legitimately come around.”
Cronin’s songwriting has quickly captured the attention of listeners and industry players outside of the garage and punk web, too. Merge Records approached Cronin after a set at South by Southwest, with Cronin admitting to being “blown away” at the time. Since signing to the label and crafting his follow-up under their banner, Cronin has discovered that his new label home is not that different than the “mom and pop operations” he was used to, besides more people in the offices and a publicity team.
“I don’t have a big master plan about getting the music to the masses,” he says. “But I feel comfortable enough to try to have a lot of people hear the music. And, Merge has a different demographic than all of the labels I’ve worked with before, which has been more garage music-specific stuff. So, it feels like they are kind of taking a chance on me, which is great.“
Also taking notice have been critics, and on the day of our meeting, Cronin has received a Best New Track distinction by Pitchfork, to which he is honest about its significance.
“I admit that I do read reviews,” Cronin says. “I don’t get it a lot of times and don’t think that they get the music. How could they when it is so internal? So I don’t put a lot of stock in it. It’s flattering, but I take way more stock in what my friends think. But I can’t say that [Pitchfork’s BNT awarding] doesn’t make me a little happy.
“But at the end of the day I really don’t care,” he continues. “This is more for me than anyone else. I know it’s a cliché, but I strongly feel that way. And, I don’t feel tied down in any way. I know if I wanted to I could make the next record a punk album or a rap album. That’s never going to happen, but you understand.”
“Piano Mantra” speaks to this, a gentle, palate cleansing finisher that Cronin calls a “bold decision” and “risky.” In hearing it, though, it doesn’t seem like a leap of faith at all. Cronin is as confident and controlled of a young songwriter as you will find. From the measured strings to the whine of the feedback that ushers in the songs expansive finish, it’s an ending far from that of a guy whose primary aim is to be in someone else’s band. It is not the crafting of a nameless player for someone else’s songs.
For now, though, with the Ty Segall Band on a break and the support of MCII beginning, no tough choices are being forced, and Cronin repeatedly mentions that not burning himself out and “respecting yourself and your mental health” are top priorities. When leaving the coffee shop, Cronin decides to not drive straight to San Francisco as his plans were, but to stay with his folks for one more day of relaxation. It is hardly the most punk decision from a guy in a skull tee, but, like his music, the contradictions are worn proudly, perhaps aware that Mikal Cronin is all the more interesting because of them.