meta-script5 Indigenous Artists You Need To Know: Earth Surface People, Sage Cornelius & More | GRAMMY.com
5 Indigenous Artists You Need To Know: Earth Surface People, Sage Cornelius & More
Sage Cornelius

Photo: Mark Oliver

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5 Indigenous Artists You Need To Know: Earth Surface People, Sage Cornelius & More

Across genres, regions and tribal affiliations, Indigenous artists continue to reflect and refract their identities to various degrees, and in surprising ways.

GRAMMYs/Nov 1, 2023 - 09:08 pm

Renata Yazzie considers herself a musicologist, advocate and supporter of Indigenous music and musicians — whether she’s making music herself, or studying at Columbia in New York.

"Everything I do is in support of Native people pursuing their musical love," the Diné classical pianist tells GRAMMY.com. "Whether that be teaching, uplifting their music, filling in on keys for a band, promoting shows or writing about them for different outlets, teaching music, or teaching piano… I aim to just help Native musicians get the tools they need to make the music they want to make."

While her work braids Native and classical influences, Yazzie is attuned to sounds across the Indigenous musical spectrum; for instance, she tipped off GRAMMY.com about Levi Platero, a blazing New Mexican blues guitarist who hails from the Navajo Nation.

And as 2023 winds down, Yazzie's championing a panoply of Indigenous acts, from a neo-soul groove machine to a heavy metal fiddler — and below, she explains why she is. Some wear their identities and heritages in more elaborate displays, and some less so — which is just as valid.

"In terms of Indigenous artistry in music and in film and in TV, we are in a moment where Native people are negotiating their own terms with how they want their identity and their art to be connected or not connected," she explains, referring to sensations like "Reservation Dogs." "They're negotiating that on their own terms, and it's an act of sovereignty for us to be able to do that. We haven't always been able to do that."

With this in mind, open your hearts and ears to this cross-section of Indigenous talent, as the curtain opens for Native American Heritage Month 2023.

Earth Surface People

Led by Dakota Yazzie — no relation to Renata — Earth Surface People is a genre-fluid collective with a Navajo core: Yazzie, and his synth-playing younger brother, Cochise Yazzie, are Diné.

Skillfully weaving threads of jazz, fusion, R&B, soul, the group's sound achieves a seamless dialogue between Indigenous and Black American musics — driven home by the artistry of a key collaborator, in Diné vocalist Nanibaah. This aural tapestry is heard on their latest album, 2022's nihook​á​á​ʼ diyin dine​ʼ​é (Earth Surface People).

"Earth Surface People came from a need to tell Indigenous stories, places, history, attitude. It's something I saw a lack of growing up in rural Arizona," Dakota Yazzie told Shoutout Arizona. I grew up around my traditional people: farmers, storytellers, medicine people, jewelers, weavers, artists, revolutionaries, creatives.

"I found a lot of solace in their stories of survival and their stories of triumph," he continued. "How some overcame extraordinary odds with minimal resources."

"I think their work is important because they're pushing Native music into new sounds," Renata Yazzie says, "You don't hear a lot of Native bands that sound like Earth Surface People….. [They're] continuing to showcase that Native people can make whatever sounds they want, and they do."

Ailani

Hailing from Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, the mononymous Ailani — born Ailani Swentzell — is an up-and-coming singer/songwriter who's been committed to the craft since high school.

And the first thing you'll absorb about the indie-popper's driving and intimate sound is her bell-like tone as a vocalist.

"She has got such a clear, pristine, pretty voice," Yazzie says, noting that Ailani comes from a long line of artists, including visual art and ceramics. As she continues, Ailani represents a milieu of young, Native artists who simply write quality songs and put them out there.

"She was always the youngest. And what she was putting out was very well done," Yazzie says of her early perception of Ailani. "And I think her voice is what makes her quite unique."

When Ailani released her last album, 2022's Mortified, she made it clear she was broaching uncharted territory for her artistry.

"I am proud that I broke out of my usual shell a bit. This isn't a usual Ailani heartbreak/falling in love album — don't worry though, you'll still get a solid share of those themes," Ailani told Grimy Goods. She went on to explain that Mortified's title is an unflinching reference to self-hatred, and overcoming it.

"There are so many different things going on in this album, but I like it. I like how it's sort of unapologetically thrown together," Ailani said. "It needs to be, because not everything is clean-cut storylines."

Tinge

Tinge represents the Anishinaabe star in the Indigenous cosmology, as well as that of the Two-Spirit gender identity: their leader, Veronica Blackhawk, who uses they/she pronouns, is both.

Blackhawk has described Tinge's themes as encompassing "mental health and identity" — and if you zoom out, their "experience as a young Indigenous person navigating and healing through intergenerational trauma."

Back in the spring of 2023, the indie rock trio released their debut EP, Big Deep Sigh. Blackhawk characterized its songs,  as "accumulated over years of quiet bedroom writing [where it felt like holding in a deep breath for far too long.

"I exhaled," she continued, "and out came the biggest, deepest sigh I had ever released." And that comes through not only in Blackhawk's unvarnished lyricism, but in the dynamism of the band.

Side Montero

Yazzie calls the Albuquerque-based, Indigenous-led four-piece Side Montero "a band with Native members, but not necessarily a 'Native band'."

Which does not undermine two of its members' Navajo identity one whit, but underscores how some Indigenous artists choose not to make their heritage the focal point.

"They're not super forthright about the Native members' identity. They just [have two] guys who happen to be Native, and they kind of pride themselves on that a little bit, I think," Yazzie opines. "They acknowledge who they are without being over the top about it."

Which leaves the music, which iswhat Side Montero are all about, and their sound represents a fresh spin on well-trod indie and alternative rock territory.

Together, incisive vocals from singer/guitarist Aaron Lee, curlicuing lead guitar from Jaren Robledo, and a walloping rhythm section in bassist Ben Work and drummer Levi Maes make Side Montero a band to watch out for — Indigenous commentary or none.

Sage Cornelius

A heavy metal fiddler? You read that right. Billed as "the most metal fiddle player you know," Sage Haskelchi'i Cornelius is a monster on this unconventional vehicle for riffs and rage.

"He went to school, got a business degree, and just couldn't give up his fiddle," Yazzie says of Cornelius, who has Navajo, Oneida, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo roots. "So, at some point, he made the turn into fiddling full time."

Although Cornelius' YouTube channel features him sawing through headbanging originals, like "Entombed," and covers, like Metallica's "To Live is to Die," Cornelius inhabits all sorts of genres; he just finished a tour with singer/songwriter Shawn James, for instance.

"He always blows people away," Yazzie says admiringly of Cornelius. And like everyone else on this list, his music speaks loud and clear: he, nor any other Indigenous creators, defies compartmentalization or easy assessment.

America Has Birthed A Wealth Of Musical Forms. These Indigenous Artists Want To Know Where They Fit Into Them.

America Has Birthed A Wealth Of Musical Forms. These Indigenous Artists Want To Know Where They Fit Into Them.

Delbert Anderson

Photo: Maurice Johnson

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America Has Birthed A Wealth Of Musical Forms. These Indigenous Artists Want To Know Where They Fit Into Them.

Despite being the first, truest Americans, Indigenous peoples have historically been alienated and othered while working in what we understand as American forms — from jazz to country to hip-hop and beyond

GRAMMYs/Nov 13, 2021 - 01:26 am

A festival promoter told Delbert Anderson he didn't present as Indigenous enough. The trumpeter and his group, DDAT, showed up to the State Fair of Texas in what he calls "the Native American section" — filled with dancers in traditional garb, among other signifiers. DDAT, for their part, donned suits. 

"They immediately assumed that we had some type of traditional feather show," Anderson, who is of Diné and Navajo descent, tells GRAMMY.com. "They probably thought we were going to show up in regalia or something."

The promoter asked Anderson whether or not DDAT played traditional music. "No, we don't," he responded. "But there are a lot of melodies that are inspired from that." The promoter didn't comprehend this — so much so that she went up to Anderson mid-set and shoved a turquoise necklace around his neck. 

Anderson was shocked. "I kind of stopped and said, 'Excuse me,'" he recalls. "And she just sort of said, 'You don't look Native enough.'"

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Read More: Meet Delbert Anderson, A Native American Trumpet Master Interweaving Navajo Melodies With Jazz

Ever good-humored, Anderson brushed off the harassment and tossed the necklace around his white bass player's neck. Still, he can't get the incident out of his head. "That's one of the first times anything like that has happened to me," he says. "They expect that kind of back-to-the-roots, traditional type of music from anyone who uses the words 'Native,' 'Indigenous' or 'tribal.'"

He's not alone: Many musicians of Indigenous ancestry in his circle — and outside of it — have felt the micro- and macroaggressions come fast and hard. And othering those who identify and market themselves as Indigenous isn't exclusive to jazz.

Even though Indigenous peoples have been here longer than anyone, they face tension, discomfort and/or unadulterated racism in a slew of genres understood to be American — from country to blues to gospel to hip-hop.

This is despite the fact that all these genres have deep Indigenous roots. Jazz household names Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk had Native American ancestry. Same with blues musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Charley Patton and Martha Redbone. In classic rock, you've got Jimi Hendrix and Robbie Robertson. The list goes on.

Renata Yazzie. Photo: Darklisted Photography​

Despite this, Diné classical pianist Renata Yazzie says moving through her world is a "scabrous" experience. "The greatest difficulty is not only teaching ignorant people, but willfully ignorant people who refuse to recognize how the elitism of classical music has affected historically underrepresented groups," she tells GRAMMY.com.

Why do musicians who identify as Indigenous, like Anderson, Yazzie, Mali Obomsawin, Adrian Wall, JJ Otero, James Pakootas, Julia Keefe, Warren Realrider and Raven Chacon — all of whom spoke to GRAMMY.com for this story — experience such tension, both from within their communities and in the wider world?

The answers are manifold, varying wildly between artists and their tribal affiliations. Here are some of the ways that artists of Indigenous descent have experienced unease in the American music landscape — and how they overcame it.

Howlin' Wolf. Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns​ via Getty Images

Considering The Course Of History

Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have developed an impossibly broad array of musical traditions. And with the arrival — or invasion, depending on who you ask — of European settlers came trade, fighting over boundaries and the introduction of European instruments.

At mission schools, Europeans taught Native Americans to compose on European instruments. This led to students composing Indigenous usic with those tools and methods. Works like 1845's Indian Melodies featured traditional Native tunes composed with European notation.

In the back-half of the 19th century, the primordial stew of Black American music was percolating — the one that would give the world jazz, blues and other idioms. And the pervasive invisibility felt by Indigenous peoples meant they had a point of commiseration with Black musical communities.

"Black and Indigenous people have been in community with each other since the beginning, since Black Africans were forcibly brought here for slavery," jazz bassist Mali Obomsawin, who is affiliated with the Odanak Abenaki First Nation tribe, tells GRAMMY.com. "I think people tend to forget that many of the founding blues and jazz artists were both Black and Native."

This confluence of heritages and traditions has been obscured by what Obomsawin calls a larger obfuscation of Indigenous identity — coupled with anti-Blackness. "If someone like Thelonious Monk, who was Tuscarora, was to be like, 'I'm Native American,' everyone would be like, 'No, you're Black,'" Obomsawin says.

"It was not desirable for Natives to be higher in numbers, whereas it was desirable for Black folks to be higher in numbers because they were considered property," she continues. "That means that slave owners and human traffickers had more property value. Whereas the more people that were Native, the more people the government was accountable to."

Mildred Bailey. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Julia Keefe, a jazz vocalist and enrolled member of the Nez Perce tribe, is acutely aware of the crossroads of Blackness and Indigenousness in early American music.

"There is a historical precedent for Native Americans in jazz," she tells GRAMMY.com, citing Indigenous people who learned European music in boarding and residential schools. "Around the same time that jazz was taking off in the '20s and '30s, there is evidence of Native people forming their own big bands."

One lesser-known early Indigenous jazz musician was Mildred Bailey, a singer of Native descent from the Coeur d'Alene tribe.

"She was the first one to sing in front of a big band," Keefe notes. "You think about all the female vocalists — Ella FitzgeraldBillie HolidaySarah Vaughan — who got their start singing in front of big band, and it was because there was such an appetite for that sound by Mildred Bailey singing in front of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra."

Oscar Pettiford. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

But Bailey is just the tip of the iceberg in this regard. Besides Parker and Monk, there's a lengthy list of jazz artists of Indigenous descent — including saxophonist Jim Pepper, bassist Oscar Pettiford and trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry.

And jazz is but one piece of the puzzle: Indigenous artists can be found in all genres. But at times, proudly broadcasting their heritage in these spaces has proved difficult in the face of divisive politics.

Navigating Political Divides

While Anderson can only speak for his local scene near Farmington, New Mexico, he has a clear vantage on what it's like to market oneself as a Native American musician.

"I think as time progressed from the '80s until now, there were a lot of stronger Indigenous voices that came out," he says, citing activist causes like the American Indian Movement. "The moment you try to take any stand for Native American something, people tend to take those words as 'You're a hardcore activist.'"

"I mean, I could go outside right now and say, 'I stand with Standing Rock,'" he adds. "Immediately, people are going to think of me as a negative force here."

And while that scene comprised a healthy variety of perspectives and genres, it attracted judgement from the outside. "I think a lot of the people who were involved didn't really realize what they were creating," Anderson says. "It really looked like they were making some type of coalition — or Indigenous organization — that's going to fight everything that goes in their path."

Delbert Anderson. Photo: Maurice Johnson

This atmosphere weighed heavily on Anderson's career in 2013, when DDAT began to market themselves as "Native American jazz." (James Pakootas, their MC, is Indigenous; bassist Michael McCluhan is white; drummer Nicholas Lucero is Hispanic.)

"We immediately got thrown into this pool of musicians that were stirring up this big group or organization," Anderson says. "The moment we said 'We are Native American jazz,' they immediately assumed we're part of this Native American music scene, and it lost us gigs because they thought we were there to lecture the audience."

Anderson saw his more militant colleagues as refusing to compromise, acting as if rules didn't apply to them. "There's a lot of that showing up in musicians today," he says. "The moment a venue says something that they can't do, like, 'Oh, you can't burn cedar here before the show,' or anything like that, they'll throw a huge, huge fit."

"I hate to say it," Anderson says, "but it kind of ruined it for the rest of us who don't participate in that ceremony."

To avoid these associations, DDAT eventually decided to pivot away from "Native American jazz," describing themselves as a funk/jazz group inspired by Indigenous melodies. "People started to see us as not being activists, or the rowdy ones," Anderson says. As a result, the group immediately started getting offered more gigs.

Julia Keefe. Photo: Don Hamilton

Braving Inner Conflict

This dissonance isn't limited to sociopolitical factions, or a conflict between musicians and promoters — although Anderson could certainly share other horror stories. Even so-called enlightened spaces, like jazz workshops, have left Indigenous musicians second-guessing themselves.

"At gigs or at workshops or what have you, people will come up and be kind of aggressive about it — almost offended," Keefe says. "Like, [Flustered voice] 'What does that mean? What do you mean you are a Native American jazz vocalist?' 'Well, I'm Native American and I sing jazz. That's what I do.'"

"With that confrontation of my identity," she adds, "there's been tension within myself of, 'If I'm going to claim my Native heritage on my business card, should my music be more influenced by my Indigenous heritage?'"

But even if an artist defines what Indigenousness means for themselves, it's bound to create friction with others' preconceptions or stereotypes. "That's something that Natives come up against in any sort of art form," Obomsawin says.

Adrian Wall. Photo: Shondinii Walters​

Adrian Wall, a flutist and guitarist with roots in the Jemez Pueblo tribe, experiences dislocation just by announcing who he is to the world.

"Once you play the Native card, you're kind of stuck being a Native musician when you're actually playing music that's accepted worldwide just as American music," he tells GRAMMY.com. "Once you call yourself a Native, all of a sudden you're playing Native music."

Raven Chacon, a Diné composer who works in the experimental and noise scenes, has had to push against assumptions that his work would be stereotypically Native — or adjacent to new age. 

"There was an assumption it was going to involve flutes or drums or something," he tells GRAMMY.com with a laugh. "Even from people should know better, there have been assumptions."

Raven Chacon. Photo: Jamie Drummond

To fellow experimental musician and sound sculpturist Warren Realrider — who is Pawnee and enrolled with the Crow Nation of Montana and makes music akin to John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros and Merzbow — the solution lies in creating a music industry framework that accurately represents Indigenous creators.

"These systems of music, distribution, performance, whatever — they are built on a world that's not the Indigenous world," he tells GRAMMY.com. "You're always going to have to work against that in some way."

Plus, as a representative of his background in the insular noise space, Realrider's work has become bigger than him — he feels inordinate pressure to not let his tribe down.

"A lot of Indigenous artists don't lose that aspect," he says, considering the arc of his life and career so far. "That's something you carry along with you, and you present yourself that way."

Addressing Language Barriers

Sometimes, the criticism comes from within Indigenous communities themselves. JJ Otero, a Hopi and Diné singer/songwriter inspired by bands like Counting Crows and Pearl Jam, had to deal with the finer points of language — even one he knew backward and forward.

"I didn't use the Navajo language in my music for the longest time," he tells GRAMMY.com from his home on a Navajo reservation. "The white guys in [my first band, Saving Damsels] said, 'You should write a song in Navajo that we can play.'"

JJ Otero. Photo: Unek Francis

Despite being a fluent Navajo speaker, Otero wanted to be careful that he said things exactly right. "I don't want my songs to just be a lazy utterance of words in Navajo," he says. To thread the needle, Otero enlisted his father to vet his lyrics for inexact grammar and syntax.

"I do believe that sometimes our own people can be our toughest critics," Otero says. "We can take that criticism and be mad and upset about it, or we can dive deeper into why those criticisms exist and understand the foundation of why Navajo is sacred."

Facing One's Own Community

As a rapper and motivational speaker who spits bars in DDAT, James Pakootas operates by what he calls "a very deep awareness of protocol."

"A lot of times, Native artists in contemporary music want to meld the two worlds, but it seems like sometimes they're taking away from the culture. It's not done with care," Pakootas tells GRAMMY.com. "It's like sampling a powwow song, putting it on a hip-hop beat and calling it good."

James Pakootas. Photo: Maurice Johnson

To avoid this sort of mishandling, Pakootas works with collaborators to tell his stories as considerately as possible, preferring to bring in a drum group and analyze together how the story could be told.

"A lot of songs I know are ceremony songs," he adds. "There's not going to be any of those that I share because there's a protocol in place to keep that sacred. There's a time and a place for that song to be sung or that melody to be used."

Reaching Harmony From Dissonance

How can music fans right these wrongs and push against the othering of Indigenous artists? Maybe the first step is realizing that Indigenous music is all music.

"Native people are very much seen as mythological creatures, as the villains in Westerns, the mascots that you love to hate, or whatever," Keefe says. "So, I can see why [musical discrimination] would be a thing because so often we are perceived as a figment of someone's imagination."

Warren Realrider. Photo: Shane Brown​

For Obomsawin, this necessary shift begins with education — and by listening to the stories of her elders. In her case, that teacher is Pura Fé, a Tuscarora and Taino vocalist and activist related to Thelonious Monk.

"She is so intimately aware of those dual legacies — the Black and Native lineages of jazz," Obomsawin says. "I just hope that more air time is given to the elders in the jazz and blues community who know those things. I think it could really help to unearth some of those stories as really important parts of American music history — as well as our history in general."

Mali Obomsawin. Photo: Nolan Altvater​

As for Yazzie, she believes significant change won't occur until we give sovereignty to Indigenous artists — so they can decide who their audience is, why they perform their music, what their music sounds like, where they want their music played, and how they want it to be perceived by the rest of the world.

"I always maintain that Native music is Native music because a Native person is outputting it," Yazzie says. "But on the flipside, you don't want to limit people to where all they do is Native music. I think you have to be really careful to not use the Native music label as a way to put people in a specific box. Because Native music is still also blues. It's still jazz. It's still country. It's still hip-hop. It's still classical music. [Indigenous] people are in those genre-specific spaces and they're doing amazing things."

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When considering this subject, Anderson always returns to Don Cherry, who remains one of his idols. "In one of his interviews, he said, 'Hey, it's about meeting other people. It's about having relationships with your friends,'" he says.

"I think everyone just needs to go back to their original state, going back to just being a human and recognizing that we're all humans here," Anderson adds. "Approach each other as human beings with our minds or our thoughts."

Anderson is bringing Cherry's openhearted philosophy to his next endeavor — collaborating with the American Pops Orchestra for a Bureau of Land Management project. This has been a laborious process, with no shortage of fine lines to navigate.

"Bringing this orchestra onto the Indigenous lands is going to be a real struggle because of all the racial division going on in the world," he says. But in the end, Anderson believes all the work is going to be worth it.

"Having these two different identities on that land, I'm hoping the land can really heal the group that's there," he says. "I mean, if the land really heals, we're going to put the land to the test." 

Because it's happened before on this soil: Indigenous people and those of so many other backgrounds have come together to make great American music. Sure, it's been a rocky path to get there — sometimes a troubling and treacherous one. But Anderson and his colleagues aren't afraid to tread it.

Commonalities, Subtleties & Purpose: 7 Musicians Pushing Ancient Asian Instruments Into The Future

Erick The Architect Steps Into A New World On 'I’ve Never Been Here Before'
Erick The Architect

Photo: Ellington Hammond

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Erick The Architect Steps Into A New World On 'I’ve Never Been Here Before'

The Flatbush Zombies' member says his debut double album is more than catchy introspections: 'I’ve Never Been Here Before' is the arrival of a new persona and sound.

GRAMMYs/Feb 21, 2024 - 08:47 pm

Rapper/producer Erick The Architect is no stranger to reinvention. 

The Brooklyn-bred MC cut his teeth over alt-East Coast beats as Erick Arc Elliot before forming psychedelic rap trio Flatbush Zombies with childhood friends Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice. But after multiple mixtapes and two albums with the group, Erick is returning to solo form and venturing into new creative ground. 

Following 2021’s Future Proof EP, Erick is embarking on new musical travels with the release of his official debut album, I’ve Never Been Here Before. Out Feb. 23, the double album explores Erick’s flowy instrumentation, poeticism, and artistry at full scale. The project is fueled by singles "Shook Up" featuring FARR and Joey Bada$$, "Ezekiel’s Wheel" with funk forefather George Clinton, and the breezy "Instincts" with Westside Boogie.

Erick says I’ve Never Been Here Before is more than a collection of catchy introspections, melodic monologues, and '90s-inspired jams. It’s the shedding of one persona — and sound — and the beginning of a new: the Mandevillain. 

"This album is an identity of a new person," Erick the Architect tells GRAMMY.com, noting that the moniker is an ode to his father’s hometown of Mandeville, Jamaica. "A lot of people may have thought there was a ceiling to what I’m capable of, but I think this album will showcase a brand new artist and identity, which is really hard to do when people think they already know you. But I really think this is unique." 

The switch isn’t just in name — he’s taken on a new approach to music, too. For the first time in years, Erick says he’s prioritizing himself and his specific musical world. "It’s the first time I have created with the headspace that I’m free," he says. "I find that other artists don’t listen to other people’s music when they’re in a creative space, but this is the most locked off I’ve been from things."

As much as I’ve Never Been Here Before signals new creative ground for Erick to fertilize, it also represents his collective efforts to limit distractions and break free of any barriers — personally and sonically. 

While it was difficult to stay so focused and inward-looking while creating his debut album, turning to some of his legendary collaborators provided some clarity. After having conversations with James Blake, George Clinton, and other artists as part of the project, Erick no longer feels forced to fit a mold or address outside criticism. 

"This album is about sacrifice, and I’ve Never Been Here Before is me being okay with losing things," he says. "I think that losing has always a negative connotation because nobody wants to lose, everybody wants to win. But it's the first time I'm losing stuff and it’s better being lost. Whether it's a habit or a person in your life, you don't need to hold everything."

I’ve Never Been Here Before lives up to its title in both theme and creation. Where Erick previously wrote songs in moments of vulnerability, the rapper says he "doesn’t feel that way anymore." 

Citing the work of Keith Haring, Miles Davis and Pablo Picasso as inspiration, Erick says he was driven to write more high-spirited songs, rather than ones tethered to struggle and hardship. As a result, the album is more accessible than some of his previous work.

"I’m tired of writing from a perspective of just being like, 'I’m sad today, bro,'" he says. "I haven’t made a project that I feel like you can just put that joint on and just play it, don’t even think about anything else because it’s commanding an energy that we all need." 

In transforming the project, the "Die 4 U" artist pieced together a blend of new and older songs he recorded five years ago. And while a double album is a "death sentence" in the eyes of most rap fans, Erick says he’s prepared for both heaps of praise and hurls of "he’s overrated" from listeners. He would feel more anxiety only if the music never came out.

"I’ve always believed that I had another special part of me that I think people didn’t witness because I didn’t put it out in the forefront," he says.

While getting a new release across the finish line can be a heavy weight to bear, Erick says he’s determined to prove his doubters wrong and own his legitimacy as a solo act. "I didn’t get lucky or sneak in here and steal beats from somebody’s laptop," Erick says. "This project is great to defeat people who have perceptions about me that are incorrect."

With the momentum of I’ve Never Been Here Before, Erick is set to test his new music and moniker on the road during his upcoming Mandevillain Tour, which kicks off in Austin on March 25.

Now that he’s fulfilling his ambitions as a solo act, the artist has a few more mediums he plans to explore – TV and film. After being a rapper/producer for more than a decade, Erick says he’s ready to take grander creative leaps.  "I’m just trying to take this to the highest caliber," he says.

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It Goes To 11: DPR IAN Unveils The Drumsticks That Inspired His Musical Dreams
DPR IAN

Photo: le3ay Studio

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It Goes To 11: DPR IAN Unveils The Drumsticks That Inspired His Musical Dreams

Korean artist DPR IAN shares the story behind his Ahead 5A Drumsticks, the nostalgic piece of gear he discovered while watching Joey Jordison's Slipknot performance videos as a teenager.

GRAMMYs/Feb 21, 2024 - 06:01 pm

Korean artist DPR IAN might have abandoned his drumming days, but that doesn't change the fact that it planted the roots for his artistry — which is why he still names his Ahead 5A drumsticks his favorite piece of musical gear.

"I remember my friend showing me a video on YouTube by SlipknotJoey Jordison," the singer/songwriter, whose birth name is Christian Yu, recounts in the latest episode of It Goes to 11. "That was the first time I got absolutely shook."

Because of his hours of watching the band's videos, he could quickly recognize the tools they used on stage in any instrument shop. After convincing his mom to buy the same drumsticks as Jordison's, Yu drummed everywhere, including his car dashboard, which still has dents today.

Eventually, it was time to perform on the drums live. Having never been in front of an audience, the nerves were so high that he remembers he "blacked out" on stage as soon as the song started playing. "It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life because I froze."

However, DPR IAN says it taught him a valuable lesson: not to become a drummer. But it also showed him that one negative experience shouldn't ruin his entire perspective on music.

"The greatest success is actually from a failure," he declares. "You have to learn how to be bad [at] things."

Press play on the video above to learn more about DPR IAN's history with the drums, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of It Goes to 11.

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How Lola Kirke's 'Country Curious' EP Is A Full-Circle Moment In Many Ways
Lola Kirke

Photo: Alexa King Stone

interview

How Lola Kirke's 'Country Curious' EP Is A Full-Circle Moment In Many Ways

While hearing Lola Kirke sing country music might be surprising to some fans, the actress/singer details to GRAMMY.com how her new EP, 'Country Curious,' is actually one of the most authentic projects she's done to date.

GRAMMYs/Feb 21, 2024 - 03:41 pm

You've likely seen Lola Kirke a time or two on the big screen or your favorite streaming platform. However, the London-born, New York City-raised performer — who's been featured everywhere from Amazon Prime Video's Mozart In The Jungle to HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty — is now looking to be recognized in a different way: country music star.

Country Curious, her third project due out Feb. 16, aims to reinforce her oftentimes overlooked honky tonk credentials, to both fans and critics alike. She turns old-school tropes on their head with a cheeky blend of nostalgic sounds and contemporary, female-forward storytelling.

"I've joked that a lot of these new songs are like bro-country for women," Kirke tells GRAMMY.com. "I just wanted to mimic those sounds to see if I could create something more feminine by singing about it as a woman instead."

On its four songs, Kirke goes from gushing over a southern accent ("He Says Y'all") to saying adios to those not worth her time ("All My Exes Live in L.A." and "My House"). It's been a calculated adventure for Kirke, who's slowly expanded on her country sound with each passing record, moving from the glimmering 70's and 80's influenced Heart Head West and Lady For Sale to the empowered contemporary stylings that dominate Country Curious

The title of her EP also stems from a childhood infiltrated with country music that she credits to her father, who played in classic rock bands and introduced her to artists like Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline. Despite her long fascination with the genre — and even fronting an all-female country band in college — Kirke acknowledges that, from the outside looking in, she doesn't look the part of a cowgirl.

"As a girl from New York City who was half Jewish and half English, it wasn't exactly up there," she jokes about the possibility of a career in country music. "For whatever reason I delusionally believed I could be an actress and that would be easier, and it worked for a while. One thing I've always loved about music is that I don't need a green light from people like I do as an actress, I can always raise hell and sing a song."

Calling from her Nashville home between rehearsals for a new acting role, Kirke spoke candidly about her path to country music, imposter syndrome and how acting and making music compare.

Country music is often tied to a place, but it can also come from the heart — something people often neglect when debating authenticity in the genre. Is that idea what you're hitting back on at the beginning of "He Says Y'all" when you sing "I've got my Wrangler's starched and I'm pearl snap pretty, which is kind of strange 'cause I'm from New York City?"

I definitely want to empower more people to listen to country music. But these days it doesn't seem like I have to because it's becoming increasingly ubiquitous, which I love since it's my favorite kind of music. 

The most authentic thing we can do in this world is love something with every ounce of our being. That's what should be the price of entry, because in the end that's all that really matters. If you love something then you're going to do right by it — and I love country music, so I hope to do right by it.

What are some differences and similarities of how you approach acting and musical pursuits?

Well, for acting I would never take a shot of tequila before I did a scene, but maybe I should because it could be very fun! [Laughs.]

I'm able to do that more when I'm performing due to the social element of it, which is really exciting. I do try to bring my whole self to whatever it is I'm doing, whether I'm on a stage singing or I'm in front of a camera acting. That being said, the Lola Kirke that I am when I'm playing music is not the Lola Kirke that I necessarily am at home.

For one, I look like s— when I'm at home, but on stage I really love wearing fun costumes. On that note, with acting, I was starting to get a lot of feedback about the way I looked that wasn't positive and made me sad, hearing I was too fat for roles. I didn't want to be part of an industry that did that. I'm not naive to the idea that music can be kinder to female artists, but so far I haven't felt that same pressure in my music to look a certain way because I have a lot of control in how I look when I'm doing it.

There was always this confusion with me as an actress where I felt like a really glamorous person even though I was constantly playing an assistant. You can be a glamorous assistant for sure, but there was a leading lady role I wanted to step into that I just wasn't being cast as. I feel like with the role I've created for myself with my music that I've been able to embody that.

In some of your songwriting and in past interviews you've alluded to your battle with imposter syndrome, especially in terms of your music and moving to Nashville. What's motivated you to be so open about those struggles?

It's really important to try new things in life and to test your own limits of what you believe is possible. If you get into the habit of doing that a lot, you'll often find yourself feeling like an imposter because you're constantly learning and growing. There's a healthiness and bravery in allowing yourself to feel like that.

However, that feeling of not deserving anything I have is something I've also dealt with a lot.  It can seem self-centered at times, but it's made me realize that life doesn't have to be as hard as I make it. You don't have to be scared all the time that everyone's gonna come down on you for doing something wrong. 

Overcoming my imposter syndrome has been a lot of looking at my own judgmental nature because I have a lot of negative self-talk that I'm working on. While it's nice when somebody else validates you, that ultimately has to be an inside job.

Is that what you're singing about in "My House," not only getting toxic people out of your life but your own toxic thoughts and insecurities as well?

I think all of my romantic or heartbreak songs have a double meaning. On "All My Exes Live In LA," while it is a true story, it's also about leaving behind the proverbial abusive ex-boyfriend of Hollywood and being like, "I don't want this anymore. I'm gonna go find my own place in this world and maybe I'll come back, but if I do it'll be more whole and not defined by you."

Sometimes it's easier to write about these bigger ideas through the foil of a man or love because somehow it sounds less cheesy — even though we break up with a lot of things in this life, not just romantic partners. I hope listeners find double meaning in all of my songs about breaking up with a man, or being empowered by a relationship, to be a different thing because we have relationships with a lot more things than just lovers.

Regarding "Exes in LA," I love the inclusion of First Aid Kit on the song. They're not a band that I necessarily think of when country music comes to mind, but I love them jumping on these and feel like they really nailed the vibe. How'd the opportunity to collaborate with them come about?

It all came from a mediocre 6.4 review that Pitchfork gave my last record, Lady For Sale. Overall it wasn't a bad review aside from mentioning it was egregious that someone from New York City like me was making country music. That became the thesis of a TikTok I posted that the First Aid Kit gals commented on jumping to my defense, saying they loved my music and would be interested in hearing what Pitchfork had to say about them making country music from Sweden. 

After that we became close friends online and I got to go on tour with them throughout the UK, which was so special. A real friendship blossomed from that, so when I was dreaming up collaborations for [Country Curious] they were at the top of my list with Rosanne Cash.

I imagine that your collaboration with Rosanne, "Karma," was a pretty serendipitous and full-circle experience, since she's one of your biggest country influences?

Many years ago during a moment of heartbreak, I was consulting a psychic — as one does — and she told me that I really needed to listen to the song "Seven Year Ache" because it'll be a huge window into my future. The song doesn't have the most optimistic perspective so I thought that was weird. 

Then when I was sitting down with [Lady For Sale producer Austin Jenkins] he mentioned it'd be really fun to make a record like Seven Year Ache and it brought me back to that moment. We ended up making this record that was very inspired by Rosanne's. 

Eventually, I got back on the phone with the psychic again, where she re-emphasized the importance of working with Rosanne Cash. I remember thanking her but inside thinking she was crazy — until a couple years later and I was lying in bed one night after a pretty rough day professionally, and refreshed my email one last time to see if any opportunities trickled through. Lo and behold, a message popped up from Rosanne Cash. 

She said she'd been trying to reach me for a while to see if I'd like to do this workshop project in New York with her for a theater piece. It was such an honor and such a beautiful experience as an actress and musician to get to work with her in both capacities. When it came to this dream EP I reached out fully expecting a no in response, but to my surprise she said yes.

I love "Karma," particularly for its double-edged sword dynamic that has you referring to karma as your friend one moment and declaring you don't mess with her because she can be a b— moments later.

That's a song I wrote for a dear friend of mine. I originally thought of it as more of a quippy Pistol Annies upbeat number, but when my co-writer Jason Nix sent me a tape of him playing it in this really sad way that I thought was brilliant, so we did that with it instead.

You talked earlier about being steeped in old country influences growing up and on past recordings. I feel like "Karma" very much sees you with one foot planted in the nostalgia of '70s and '80s country and the other in its contemporary, pop-tinged present.

A lot of that also came from Elle King's influence as producer of Country Curious. She has much more of a rootsy sensibility that I was really happy she brought because it was able to ground this more contemporary sound in a lot of the classic country influences that I really love.

From your early days in London and the Big Apple to the bright lights of Hollywood and now Nashville, what is something that music has taught you about yourself?

Music has taught me that I can do things that I never thought I could do. Through disappointments in other areas of my life, I've been empowered to discover hidden talents that I would've never honed because I grew up thinking that only really gifted people made music. 

While I may have raw talent somewhere as a musician, what I've loved most is the constant working you have to do at it to get better, and how you can see the results when you do. That's also probably why I didn't enjoy playing music as a kid, because I never wanted to practice the piano, but as I've gotten older I've become much more interested in practicing and expanding in that way. 

Music has made me realize I'm more capable than I ever thought, which comes back to the imposter syndrome. We contain multitudes as humans, and music has helped me to see that.

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