Music

His Name is Baby Tap, and He Doesn’t Know Why

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“Um. My name is Baby Tap. I don’t know why, but, my name is Baby Tap. It’s nice to meet you,” he says in a video message posted to his YouTube account in July.

A more important question might be who is Baby Tap?

But, it’s unfair to the essence of the human behind the art to ask such a question.

After all, it’s not like Avess Arshad isn’t a person in the first place.

With a steady job, full-time hours at a café, and a quaint London apartment he shares with his boyfriend, he’s most humanly human. It’s just that his musical endeavors are unlike anything the patrons he serves within a commercialized London could easily warm up to.

Beats of otherworldy flair. Electronic murmurs. Lyrics some might call crass—the package is chaotic yet calculated; There’s a science to Arshad’s craft. It just takes some getting used to.

Even he struggles a bit to define himself in “normal” terms.

“I feel music, I become music. I don’t sell that shit or ever intend to. It’s far too precious to me,” he says, like a rebel (revolutionary?) defending a countercultural identity as an independent artist. What a dead-on-arrival term in today’s music industry, huh? Independence. For some, it’s synonymous with a lack of grandeur. Of meager means heralded only when recognized by the masses. Is it possible to be an independent artist in today’s world without automatically shoving oneself into a niche with potential for fluke success? We see artists who were once firmly-planted atop the charts of yesteryear (Eve, Radiohead, Bjork) now releasing music independently—free of constraint—to satisfy their artistic craving seemingly stifled years prior.

Indie is synonymous with freedom. With uprising.

How does Arshad explore this freedom?

“I fit into the equation of music as a whole as an enjoyable catharsis through energy and expression, spirituality and dance,” Arshad says of his art. “It’s fire, you know. Music is like fire.”

It’s an elemental likeness that illuminates all the things which make Baby Tap an undeniably radiant spectacle. For Arshad, having conviction in songs like “Gay for the Hip-G Girly Girls,” “Fuck Me With No Rubber,” and “Kill Yourself” transcends mere shock value.

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“I know there are people out there with the same sense of humor as me,” he says of the tracks on his first full-length release, Gem Pop, released earlier this month. “I work hard. I say what I want to say. I am destined to find the most hyphy, insane beats. I am destined to give people the opportunity to release their craziness. Whether that works on a big scale or not, I don’t give a shit. As long as I’m enjoying my own journey I invite others to enjoy theirs.”

For Arshad, it’s a journey nearly ten years in the making. In 2003, a 14-year old Arshad began dabbling in electronic production. Never losing sight of what was once just a fun way to pass the time when nothing else could, he’s amassed hundreds of tracks, ten full-length demos, and a decade of experience. That’s more than most major-label pop stars. For Arshad, however, success has been defined by time spent perfecting his passion after 12-hour shifts at work. Of hours clocked cutting tracks and laying down vocals (with no pay) in a cramped apartment while the rest of the world (or his corner of London) toiled away just outside his window.

“I had to work so long and so hard to manipulate feelings into sounds the way I wanted to. I spend at least an hour on it almost every day,” he says of his process, which still includes balancing a “real” job aside from crafting videos to accompany the tracks in addition to writing and producing music. “I will never appreciate having to work to live under these rules from the government. I would rather just do what I want and take life slower and more freely but I just make sure I kick my own ass into gear and work on that music as much as I can.”

He pauses.

“But, sometimes I am so tired. I don’t know what the outcome is. I will let it be what it turns out to be. I do not know.”

If the amalgamation of pop-culture collage, candy-coated colors, and graphics inspired by the 90s digital era are any indication: does anyone know, really? Do we know how to define art? How to define ourselves? Or do we let a cyber-footprint fill in the empty spaces we’re too lazy to show in waking life? Is there vision in independent expression like the uninhibited beauty which flows forth from artists like Baby Tap? We see a portion of ourselves in this type of art. Perhaps this uninhibited display is what makes independent artists such as Arshad such clear points of interest in this mess of a society where slaving to unseen masters can inspire alternative output.

“At the end of the day we die alone and nobody will really understand us as we understand ourselves, so I’m just following my desires and needs,” he says. “Baby Tap represents the acceptance of confusion and the ability to ride on the flow of life.”

Whether it’s recording into the wee morning hours, filming a video like a pop icon on a London park bench, or merely toying with new sounds—boyfriend and day job tucked at his hip as a reminder that life exists outside of art—we’ll indulge in the flow of life Baby Tap wants us to see, and realize that a separation of the two is mere child’s play.

Download Gem Pop for free (payment optional) here:

Baby Tap will be playing from 10PM-4AM on Sunday, August 25 at:

Star of Bethnal Green
359 Bethnal Green Road
E2 6LG

Directions:

Tube: Bethnal Green
Overground: Shoreditch High Street

Bus: 8, 106, 388, 254, D3
Nightbus: N8, N253

No Doubt Looking Cowardly for Pulling “Hot” Video

Touchy subjects are meant to be poked and prodded. It’s then that you get the most genuine response from people. Gut reaction is pure, unfiltered, and often the most “right” response a person can have. If you call someone a racially insensitive word, they might scream at you or punch you in the face; an appropriate reaction to the hate-filled word slung their way. The nonexistent consideration for their being might provoke violence, but it’s a fleeting moment. Art isn’t afforded the same luxury of escaping beyond the scene of the crime, as it endures far beyond the momentary instance of a passing conversation or verbal jab.

That’s why we need artists to latch on to such subjects and make them topics of conversation. It’s my gut reaction that someone else’s gut reaction is often wrongfully violent. Take, for example, the release of No Doubt’s music video for their latest single “Looking Hot,” which has sparked outrage from Native American groups for being “insensitive” towards an entire culture of people, and was quickly taken down off the band’s official YouTube page.

Let’s start with the song, which is about finding something uniquely attractive, with Stefani’s lyrics at once welcoming objectification (“stare on my ragamuffin”) but at the same time consciously playing into the role of said alluring entity. It’s a stagnant message of “female empowerment,” but a message nonetheless. The song takes on a satirical air, poking fun at the “male gaze” and its obsession with things like ragamuffins and demeaning the entity of woman by labeling her simply “hot.” The male cages the female, the female breaks free and harnesses control. The music video merely compliments that idea—if you think about it, that is.

Let’s take a trip back to early America, not unlike the one depicted in No Doubt’s music video (if we want to get really philosophical—they don’t explicitly say this is America, or Native Americans, or—you get my point). It’s a time not a single person alive today experienced. But it is a time we’ve come to accept as being ruthlessly unpleasant for women. While the Industrial Revolution afforded women meager jobs, they were given just that in return; a meager way of life. Housewives, cooks, and family caretakers were still the most common roles for women to play. A woman’s say in politics, culture, and society was largely silent until suffrage movements reared their courageous heads in the early 1900s. Women and Native Americans were minority beings in every sense of the word.

So, we have a time period that valued male brutality, conquest, and strength over dark skin and vaginas. Do we see how it’s appropriate, purely in an artistic sense, for Stefani to take on the role of an imprisoned female Native who’s delicate frame is poked, prodded, and held captive (physically and ideologically) by the upper male hand? The clues are all there. In the lyrics and in the quick-draw between the attractive woman and Adrian Young as a “Cowboy,” Tony Kanal as an imprisoned Native, Stefani leading a tribal ceremony in dance around a fire…the list goes on; repressed versus the repressor, caging the “other,” and finally showing us the beauty of the uniquely mysterious “minority.” A battle rages towards the end, signifying an important clash of the underdog and the iron fist of dominant ideals keeping them down, an important message that, by all means, should not be stifled in today’s volcanic arena of social injustice.

I can understand backlash against things that are mindlessly provocative. Incoherence in art makes it easy to target those merely using something like race at face value to make a fleeting headline on Perez Hilton. Art with intent beyond making a momentary splash, however, is different. Think of the episode of “The Sarah Silverman Program” where Sarah mistakenly dons blackface to experience what it’s “really like” to be black. She believes she’s starting a racial dialogue, but merely brings criticism upon herself for her careless decision and strayed focus from the task at hand. The act becomes about her, not about the issue. It’s a brilliant episode. The same logic can be applied here. Trying to empathize with the struggles of another group of people is pointless and irrelevant to the progression of society. You can’t understand struggle unless it happens to you. Sympathy turned into action, however, is where change is made. No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video may be part gorgeous aesthetic and part social commentary, but the thread of coherence runs throughout the entire piece, which deserves a fighting chance to be heard versus quick dismissal like its subjects and real-life counterparts years ago.

Shower me with accusations of premature vitriol, but they’re cowards for taking it down.

Why Carly Rae Jepsen Will Work

Sweet voice. Dimpled smile. Tiny frame sporting clothes stripped right off the freshest rack at the hippest Justice in the world. The girl in question looks no more than seventeen years old. An average, suburban-bred cutie pie indiscernible from the hordes of others who sing along to the multi-platinum single she released earlier this year when it makes its rotations on the local eight at eight.

The reality is that this “girl” is Carly Rae Jepsen, nearly thirty and poised to ascend the ranks of worldwide pop royalty with the release of her new album, “Kiss,” today.

Of course any pop artist would kill to have a track like “Call Me Maybe” in their repertoire; the single reached #1 in major markets around the globe within the first few months of its release. Jepsen joined the ranks of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry as one of the biggest successes for contemporary pop in the past year. The question on everybody’s mind, however, soon turned to how exactly Jepsen would turn a massive single hit into an extended career as a pop superstar.

“Kiss” is armed with an artillery of songs that sound like a raging battle of young love, where lollipops take the place of swords and Hershey Kisses burst out of candy-cane shaped cannons. It’s sweet, catchy, and represents a much-needed escape from the pretentious, watered-down theatrics of some of today’s biggest pop acts. The one thing that separates Jepsen from the aforementioned poster children for contemporary pop music is her image. She doesn’t really “fit in” with any of the industry’s other leading ladies. The dichotomy between the “old” and “new” has never been more apparent as it is today. We still have tried-and-true traditional icons from past decades like Britney Spears, P!nk, and Christina Aguilera still impacting international charts; then you have the “newcomers” (as Xtina so lovingly refers to them) in the vein of Gaga, Minaj, and Rihanna making a colorful (albeit an arguably superficial) splash with their outlandish costumed antics both onstage and off. Jepsen lacks the maturity which anchors the former group firmly into our iPods (she’s 26), nor the “freshness” the latter possessed when their “originality” first impacted the industry (um, she’s 26).  In essence, Jepsen is the first “traditional” pop star we’ve seen sift through the bullshit, feathers, and pseudo-subgenres to the top of the mainstream charts in years.

Of course she’s done it all without bleeding to death on stage or kissing Madonna, but that’s not to say Jepsen hasn’t had any “help” along the way. Her career, persona, and musical output at this point strikes me as such an interesting dichotomy between forced and genuine that it’s hard to discern whether or not she’s actually a “pop star” or she’s simply hit the industry jackpot at a time consumers crave simplicity and no-strings-attached innocence over anything else.

Take, for example, Jepsen’s alternate medium equivalent, Bella Swan of the Twilight novel and film series. The girl is a vapid, lifeless character who resonates with young readers (particularly girls) largely due to her “non-existing” existence. She has no personality, wholeheartedly emotionless, and is played by perhaps the most boring, stony-faced actress of our generation, Kristen Stewart. At the risk of sounding like a generalizing asshole, it’s hard not to think the female fanbase of a series like Twilight is simply indulging in a cut-and-paste series of events where they’re subconsciously interchangeable with a lifeless protagonist and her experiences. After all, Bella is paired with a hunky guy she’s “forbidden” to “have” (uh oh, cue rebellious teen girl phase), ultimately portrayed by arguably the most intense-looking, attractive young man in contemporary Hollywood, Robert Pattinson, who really looks at them when he’s framed, close-up, on the silver screen in front of them (really, now, how many shots can you have of one actor looking into the camera in a single film?).

How many times have you seen a “Will you be my Edward Cullen?” Facebook posting, message board comment, poster, sticker, binder, trapper keeper (still using those, right?), or any other form of studio propaganda convincing girls this is the type of man they want—the type of man they need—and is ultimately a fictional creation whose only contributing a blank slate for which girls to project their desires unto with (no return) in a one-sided “relationship” rooted in fantasy. The only way they can “have” him is by, well, buying more Twilight bullshit.

Jepsen’s music, as gleaned from a quick listen to “Kiss,” calls upon listeners to fill the same set of shoes. The lyrics are almost unbearably saccharine, too sweet to be taken entirely seriously as a 27-year old woman’s deepest confessions, yet tinged with just enough suggestive flirtation to make her fit in with the contemporary Top 40 crowd. Her appearance begs us to disregard her body as a canvas (something Gaga or Ke$ha cringe at) and as a mere playful vessel just being cute and “doing what girls do” as she dances onstage with all the coy innocence of a high schooler at their first boy/girl party. She’s relatable for lacking a concrete personality. Her songs don’t require much thought to really enjoy, and she’s singing them without the theatrical flair that make her industry counterparts so readily accessible at awards shows and on magazine covers. They come with previously established standards of eccentricity, Jepsen merely comes with a song and a smile—there is a superstar, and then there is a famous girl. Gaga is revered as a performer, as a star, as someone associated with the outlandish, a clear border between her and the “normality” of the consumer. Jepsen, however, is simply “a girl with some cute outfits and catchy pop songs.” How does that manage to burst through the corsets, pink wigs, and glow-in-the-dark capes?

I’ll tell you how; with the help of a male pop star. Jepsen’s rise to fame came as a contestant on “Canadian Idol,” where she placed third. Her superstardom, however, didn’t come until after she exchanged tweets with Justin Bieber, who then signed her to his record label. Bieber’s commanding force of millions of young girls swayed the tides in Jepsen’s favor. She didn’t necessarily “do” anything besides bask in the spotlight Bieber fixed on her. Clearly we’re past the social mindset that men “need” women and the other way around, but it’s hard not to think that Jepsen would never have succeeded if it weren’t for the sexually-crazed girls blindly following wherever Bieber’s dic—erm, point of interest—directed them. In interviews, magazine articles, and even on “Kiss” where she sings a duet with him, she’s consistently associated with the teen heartthrob. A point of reference for teen girls, a simple façade, but the receptor of Bieber’s attention, something these fans so desperately seek.

Even the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift have their identities carved out for them, whether by genuine artistry or by studio analysts. Adele is brooding, not physically atypical for a “pop star,” and has a voice that elevates her beyond the Katys and the Rihannas; Taylor Swift dabbled in a genre that’s all about consistency and wholesomeness far before she dipped her hands into the well of pop. She got her start crooning about idolizing a country icon, Tim McGraw, as many women have, and has ridden the waves ever since. What Swift does, however, is pen her own tracks in the vein of authenticity. She publicizes breakups and turns trivial moments like Kanye West stealing her microphone at the VMAs into a song that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place if sung to someone who raped her. Carly Rae isn’t really doing any of this on her own. She kind of wants you to “know” her, but kind of really wants to have her song played in a club, too.

But, what’s fueling this desire to return to pop’s roots as a traditional outlet for “normal” people turned superstars? Have we finally tired of putting effort into caring about Gaga’s meat dresses, about the vomit in Ke$ha’s hair? The truth is that people like Gaga and Ke$ha are genuine artists. They pen their own tracks, compose their own music, and even write for other artists. They’ve established themselves as a business with an edgy shell that happens to involve a little glitter and grease. But has the public given up on recognizing their artistry in favor of the glitzy bits? Carly Rae represents the opposite in a time where it’s convenient to simply say “fuck this mardi gras bullshit, I just want a pop star I want to fuck.”

I hope none of this sounds like a sexist rant, because industries like the music business have always banked on gendered appeal whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Whether Carly Rae Jepsen’s success will ride on the genuinely catchy tunes that provide the bulk for her “traditional” pop album, “Kiss,” or her ability to “happen” at a time when simplicity and innocence provide a convenient escape from the cluttered state of the world is still yet to be seen.

XxXtina Releases “Your Body”

Many a workers’ commute were made a tad brighter as Christina Aguilera—diva extraordinaire, human balloon, and all-around pro at tossing her gum into a sea of screaming fans—released her new single, “Your Body,” in the wee hours of an otherwise dreary Monday morning.

Along with thousands of gals, gays, and fans of hate-fucking (isn’t that a requirement to be an Xtina fan?) I, too, spent the day zipping through town with my windows down blaring the pop icon’s latest pseudo-R&B/electro club banger, but not without a typical writer’s bout with self-reflection and a need to expel any and all feelings regarding its release via the expertly written (erm, typed) word.

The summer months of 2012 were an explosive rebirth of 90s pop culture indulgences. Thankfully, no one in my circle sported a “Rachel” or a fanny pack, but we did see an exponential increase in the cultural relevance of Madonna (her “Ray of Light” era counts here, right?), No Doubt, and Britney Spears. If you haven’t purchased music from any of these artists and/or watched “The X-Factor” lately, the 90s sends its sincerest apologies for purging itself of your existence.

Christina’s potential return to “form,” however, comes after giving her PR team the toughest two years of their lives after the abysmal performance of her last LP, “Bionic,” her film debut, “Burlesque,” and her divorce & DUI arrest in 2011.

Thankfully, the Gay Gods answered her prayers and sent her a gig as judge on NBC’s surprise hit “The Voice,” which catapulted her asshole antics into every living room in America. While this new platform provided Christina with an extremely important outlet for which to give herself masturbation material (she thinks her critiques are really good), no perk of being on the show could come close to touching her newfound ability to suckle the vitality of the up-and-coming contestants and funnel it into the flaming release of “Your Body.”

The track roars with the audacity the entire “Stripped” album thought it had, albeit tinged with a bit more nearly-middle-aged sexual desperation; My initial reaction to the song went a little something like this: “mmm damn gurl you still got i—‘ALL. I. WANNA. DO. IS FUCK YO BODAAYY’– *SCOOBY DOO EARS* RRHUUUUH?!” Heart attack and panic as I rolled up the windows in embarrassment, the family sitting next to me in idle traffic casting their Jesus rays my way.

I was not prepared, but I guess I always knew Xtina was a forceful top.

It’s just that she’s doing exactly what made “Bionic” an absolute bore; provocative for the sake of being provocative. There’s no substance in trying to sound like Santigold on “Bobblehead” or M.I.A. on “Elastic Love” (a track I still think she penned for Christina knowing how awful it was) beyond making a point of reference that merely indicates the attempt at being provocative, thereby tearing down the veil of authenticity we so desperately desire. Because we want to believe Christina is penning her own tracks, cutting them in the studio with producers, and touring her music in tip-top vocal condition; but the reality of “Bionic” was anything but, seeing the singer instead dilute herself into a cloudy mixture of genres that didn’t suit her, but probably sounded edgy in the pitch meeting. The bottom line remains that her voice defies channeling, especially into already-specific styles of the likes of people such as Santigold and M.I.A.; when Christina mimicked their vocal stylings, she lost what made her stand out, and “Bionic” resulted in a failed attempt at playing ‘catch-up’ than it did a triumphant sprint across the finish line.

Don’t get me wrong, I love indulging in Christina’s asshole antics, but can she really come through with another hit album after this long? One that does something new—or, for the least part, something consistently well—that showcases her as the talent we fell in love with in the first place? She’s poised for success, but lacking the element of originality albums like “Stripped” and “Back to Basics” oozed with so many years ago.

If we’re to judge by “Your Body,” Christina will see a spike in sales if only for her appearance on “The Voice” to thank for it. The show is promotion within promotion, and it’s sad to see a former powerhouse icon rely on another format to provide a crutch or training wheel support for an ascent up the charts a’la Jennifer Lopez during her stint on “American Idol.” To me, being a child of the 90s, Christina’s voice defined a generation when Britney’s cleavage and coochie were busy defining a fleeting instance of blossoming teenage sexuality. “Your Body” is good, listenable, and ultimately an enjoyable pop outing, but lacks the punch of iconic artistry Christina should be pumping out at this stage of her career. The whole “Pussy Eat Everything” mentality isn’t becoming on anyone, let alone a one-in-a-billion talent often compared to the likes of Billie Holiday and Etta James.

For the fun of it, please picture Etta singing the chorus of “Your Body.” Shade, shade, shade.

At the end of the day, we’re all just bitches sitting in a little spinny chair judging the shit out of the dancing monkeys placed before us. And while I still thought I looked cute singing “Your Body” en route to work, channeling my best “Alicia Silverstone in the white jeep from Clueless,” I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror of what is actually my parent’s old pickup truck; a beautiful contradiction, if you will, one which reminded me that, just like Christina, even the shittiest of vessels can still carry the most beautiful of packages.

Catching Up with Alex Young: Excerpts from my Interview with her from East End Fashion Magazine

“It was a sweet bird,” she says, fumbling for words in the most endearing way possible. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize birds before this particular photo shoot, but now I know they have a lot of personality. They’re really willing to pose.”

She’s ever a gracious soul, even to feathered co-stars unable to understand a single thing that comes out of her mouth.

It’s a good thing humans easily understand the effects of sweet, sonically seductive musical stylings is as easy as kicking back and switching your brain’s pleasure dial to the tune of “indulge.” It’s the essence of grace that makes indulging in everything about up-and-coming New York City-based pop singer Alex Young so unbelievably satisfying. One day her crystalline voice wafts through a set as the opening act for Cee-Lo Green, the next she’s modeling gorgeous vintage clothing alongside toucans and a python, poise and grace successfully intact for both.

So, let’s give her credit; she has actually far outgrown the generic label of “pop singer.” After all, you don’t make it to MTV’s airwaves without paying your dues, although it helps when talent is imbued at a young age. She says music has been a huge part of her life ever since she was a  child, with memories of her childhood involving parents who filled the house constantly with music, embedding it in her mind and forming a warm relationship that endures to this day.

Sentiment aside, her contemporary career was built upon electronic and pop sounds, but her latest single, “Don’t Play With Me,” threw a funky wrench into the musical machine, complimenting her signature quirkiness and flamboyant performing style.

“The song was just a natural evolution and progression. I’ve always been a lover of old-school Motown and funk music,” she says. “I wanted to incorporate funk somehow… and we took it from there. I’m really excited with the sound.”

The risk paid off. “Don’t Play With Me” garnered Young extensive airtime on MTV-U and the music video for the single (featuring Young in a dazzlingly stylish old-school red jumpsuit) now has over one million views on YouTube.

“You work so hard on putting music together and getting the right sound,” she says of creating the song. “Thankfully the fans were very receptive of the new style. I wanted to go in a slightly different direction, so I don’t think it’s a departure from my sound. It’s derivative of my music, but I always want to push the envelope and keep things new. When you start to concern yourself with what other people are thinking, your music is totally screwed. Your focus is external when it should be internal, and I try my best to concentrate on only that.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear about Young’s career, it’s that she harbors a deep appreciation for the fans that make her work possible. Always a present force on social networking sites, Young never misses an opportunity to interact with her growing set of followers on Twitter and fans on Facebook, 30,000 of which she’s netted on the former. Her page promotes her latest endeavors and projects while Young communicates with her fans, shining a bit of positive light on those who make her career possible.

Along with the new single, Young says she’s currently working on a killer follow-up album to her debut LP, “Amazing,” released in 2009. The album is a return to her roots in electronic pop, while moving in a new direction entirely less traditional than funk.

“Trap” music, as it’s known, is a relatively new stylistic subgenre incorporating elements of dubstep and urban dance, although infinitely “more listenable” than those, Young assures of the new style we can look forward to on the album.

“It’s really an evolution of dubstep. There are a lot of DJ’s playing it right now. It’s very, very new and a lot of people haven’t heard of it yet, especially from a mainstream artist” she says. “I really wanted to bring it to its full scope. It’s relaxed, it’s not as hyped up…it’s that groove that keeps you moving, listening, and involved.”

As for what’s inspiring these slight alterations to her music career, Young says it comes in the form of, well, typical everyday experiences.

“I take a lot of my creative process through ordinary things. The city is constantly inspiring me, and fashion on the street is a huge part of that,” she says. “In New York City you never know what you’re going to see. When you walk on the subway you’ll see someone in a bumblebee outfit or an outfit that’s pop art with a modernistic touch, huge headpieces, leggings and platform shoes… all kinds of style that’s always pushing and inspiring me.”

While we won’t be seeing Young take to the stage in costume as a five-foot insect in stilettos, her appreciation for unabashed confidence and fashion shines through in her clothing line, simply titled A Young Rose.

The line, a collaborative endeavor with her stylist, Arlinda McIntosh, is a minimalistic reinvention of the classic, funky styles of yesteryear.

“The next installment is going to be old Hollywood with a lot more funk,” she says. “I want to throw some fun colors in there and have some fun. Arlinda is in her 50s, I’m in my 20s and it’s an interesting dynamic between the two of us creating a line that speaks to everyone. There’s no age base, it’s style-based.”

Young also cites two very interesting inspirations for fashion and style in general. Audrey Hepburn, the classic film beauty who exudes class and regality. The other? Studio 54 legend Rollerina, a large-and-in-charge drag queen personality straight from the heyday of the club kid scene, whom Young recently had the pleasure of meeting.

Cranking out pieces for a fashion line isn’t the only way Young unleashes her inner fashionista. She creative directs many of her photoshoots, including the aforementioned shoot where she posed with various birds and reptiles.

“I love creating concepts and imagining a scene, whatever it might be, how it relates to my music, and producing it,” she says of the visual creative process. “This photoshoot was always a dream of mine, from the setting to the clothing to animals to the dark and mysterious, yet powerful tone, it’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

But, there are some aspects of her career, found in the most glamorous of places, which test her fearless demeanor.

“Alright, I did have mixed feelings about the snake,” she admits.

Alas, the end result is gorgeous. The snake looks happy. She looks comfortable.

So, Ms. Young does have limits. Luckily for us, she isn’t prone to paying them much attention.

One Year, One Voice; Remembering Amy

It’s been one year, down to the day, that one of the greatest voices in contemporary music was silenced forever. July 23, 2011 marked the death of Amy Winehouse; an artist’s death that affected millions around the world. As we go one year without the voice that inspired so many, I want to revisit an article I did for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last summer, explaining my frustrations at the outrage over the media coverage of her death. As we endure an age where media oversensation runs rampant, I wanted to touch on various aspects of celebrity culture I think are entirely important to cover in the news. Detractors cite her various addictions as reason to “expect” her death and, in turn, somehow justify it as something trivial and unworthy of our attention. I wanted to cover these topics in the article. The fact remains that Amy’s voiced touched millions, and while her physical voice may be silenced, the part of our hearts she illuminated will sing forever.

ORIGINALLY POSTED IN THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, JULY 2011

He can only hold her for so long,

The lights are on, but no one’s home.

Amy Winehouse, “He Can Only Hold Her”

It’s a seemingly trite verse lifted from a tune which appears on the late Ms.  Winehouse’s sophomore (and, unfortunately, final) album “Back to Black.” Without  context, it doesn’t mean much. When examining the all-too-brief life of the  woman who wrote it, though, it becomes as searing as her out-of-this-era  voice.

The lights were certainly “on” in one way or another for Ms. Winehouse. Five  Grammys. International sales certifications named after every precious metal in  existence. Top 10 hits in what seems to be every country that hosts broadcast  radio.

But no one seemed to be “home” to discipline the young lady with all the  accolades. Certainly not Ms. Winehouse herself.

Images of the singer trolling the streets of London, barely coherent, come  quickly to mind. This seems to be how the media favored her. She was the celebrity screw-up. The headline disaster that struck once a  weekend. An easy target. The butt of the joke. All for being brutally honest  about her life, including her addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine.

She was an addict. But she was also one of my biggest inspirations.

Fans know the tragic last years of her life as the “old” Amy. This wasn’t the  Amy they wanted to see come out with another album. This was the Amy that  whenwillamywinehousedie.com preyed upon; certainly not the Amy I hoped would  survive.

The media awaited — and at certain points, even I painfully expected — the  breaking news of her death-too-soon.

“I’m absolutely disgusted that her death is receiving more coverage than the  tragedy in Oslo,” one of my friends said to me. “People are crying for Amy but  can’t even point out Oslo on a map,” he continued, “It’s just proof of this  country’s pathetic obsession with fame as well as the total lack of empathy with  the common person, albeit in a different part of the world.”

His frustrations have been echoed by many a hipster-Greenpeace-vegan hybrid  since the news arrived of Ms. Winehouse’s death. I mean, “anti-establishmentism”  is the bees knees nowadays.

It’s not hard to see that Ms. Winehouse was a godsend to many. The fact that  news of her death impacted so many people is no fault of the media which is  reporting it. If a story is being read, it would only make sense for an outlet  to cover it. The public has spoken, and news of Ms. Winehouse’s passing seems to  be hitting home with far more than just those “pathetically obsessed with  fame”.

News of her death hit me as hard as the first note I heard escape her tiny,  delicate frame. I was 16. She was around the same age that I am now. But her  voice smoldered with tinges of another era (though it’s done heapings of  injustice by any comparison whatsoever) that took me to a place I could  experience only by way of headphones and “Back to Black” on repeat.

The time I spent with her music was time I spent getting to know her. Loving  Amy was not, for me, about an obsession with fame, as my friend seems to think.  When an artist becomes a celebrity because she expresses extraordinary  creativity, as Ms. Winehouse did with every song she wrote and performed, she  forms a relationship with her listeners. Not only of a consumer-supports-artist  nature, but even on a spiritual level.

The darker side of life pervaded Ms. Winehouse’s music. Whether it was in  crooning a beautifully subdued rendition of the 1958 Teddy Bears’ hit “To Know  Him Is To Love Him” or tackling original tracks like the disturbingly honest  “Rehab,” Ms. Winehouse never downplayed her struggles. She needed no safety net,  and the public certainly never provided her one.

Underneath the veil of fame was a dark, lonely, self-deprecating human being  who placed herself on display through her art. Any fan of hers will tell you  that. Her songs are like a diary, written for all of us to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big of a Britney Spears fan as the next guy, but  I’ll never be more than a “fan” of music products like her. We feel safe with  products. Ms. Winehouse was anything but “safe,” in both her artistry and her  personal life.

She was a danger to herself and no one denies that. But her public struggle  made her a shoulder to lean on for so many people she never knew. And it made  her death more tangible to those who loved her. Ms. Winehouse’s lyrics touched  the similarly afflicted hearts of those who clung to her as the second coming of  Billie Holiday.

Many of the hundreds of thousands mourning her death are simply mourning a  friend. We’re not elevating her death above the tragedy in Norway; we’re  grieving a personal loss that just so happened to coincide with an unspeakable  act of terrorism.

As a culture, we seem to have an “I told you so” mentality. Amy Winehouse  detractors “aren’t shocked” or “couldn’t care less” about her death, as I gather  from countless Facebook postings and conversations with friends. Now that their  “prophecy” has come true, the stake needs to be driven deeper. It can’t suffice  that she succumbed to a disease that’s little different from a fast food-induced  heart attack or smoking-induced lung cancer. We feel the need to keep talking.  Like it’s an addiction.

The song “He Can Only Hold Her” continues:

How can he have her heart,

When it got stole?

Ms. Winehouse’s heart may have been damaged and easily stolen in her search  for acceptance, but I’m thankful that I was given at least a piece of it in  recompense for the part of mine she’s since taken to the grave.

Rest in peace, Amy. I have a feeling the angels will be doing more listening  than singing thee to rest.

My Interview with “The X-Factor” Contestant Tora Woloshin

“People tell me that the reason they let me go was that they knew they wouldn’t be able to make me into something that I’m not,” says 22-year old Tora Woloshin, singer, performer, and two-time contestant on a pair of the biggest reality competitions on national television.

She speaks candidly about her most recent appearance on (and elimination from) Simon Cowell’s “The X-Factor,” which debuted earlier this Fall. The show is structured similar to “American Idol,” a competition both Cowell and Woloshin have a history with; “Idol” eliminated her as well back in 2005.

“I feel like people on [these shows] really have the talent, but for some reason what they’re being made into is not as appealing as their natural selves,” she says.

Woloshin’s outward appearance can hardly be described as “natural”; a gorgeous array of tattoos (she’s got 17 of them) cascade down her slender frame; a symphony of vintage garb intertwines seamlessly with neon embellishments, dazzling patterns, and just the right amount of girly-girl ornamentation; all nestled comfortably in their dynamic chaos beneath a luscious stream of homemade platinum blonde hair. A Harajuku copycat, some might say; but in the words of the great Coco Rocha, “don’t ever confuse style with gimmick.”

Thankfully Ms. Woloshin’s blood runs thick with style.

It’s funny to see her striking wardrobe so bluntly serve as a metaphor for her demeanor; usually that’s the job of the journalist to lay bare for their reader. With Woloshin, I’m not sure I have to.

“Um, hello, I just got a call from this number?” Woloshin says, returning a phone call I’d placed to her mere minutes after our interview’s scheduled time. It was a quarter to six in the evening.

“Yes, is this Tora? This is Joey, we had an interview for six thirty tonight, so sorry I’m a little late,” I responded.

“Umm…I thought you said six? It’s only three forty-five…”

Time zones don’t translate well in Woloshin’s world. Thankfully she wasn’t up to much.

“Well, right now, I’m extremely broke,” she says. “[After these shows] they just drop you and don’t tell you why. My days consist of pilates, writing music…which takes a long time. I just recently started getting the hang of Garage Band, trying to make all the music myself.” Things clatter in the background. She laughs. Composure maintained.

She then tries to explain one of her tattoos to me, a byproduct of personal experiences she tones down her usually bubbly demeanor to reveal; her amazing style compliments her infectious presence, but it’s also a living testament to the struggles she’s battled her way through.

“My sleeve and my chestpiece are combined. It’s sort of like a map of where my heart’s been,” she says. “It’s about…well…it has biomechanics…it’s kind of my way of saying robots can’t love because they don’t have a heart…kind of like, well, if I was a robot, I wouldn’t have had my heart broken as many times as I have…it’s hard to explain…if you get it, you’ll understand what I mean…you know what I mean?”

Her chest reads “Love vs. Hate.”

Woloshin was a victim of rape at a young age, the effects of which remain with her to this day.

Her voice goes bleak.

“It all started when I was 14,” she says. “He stole my virginity. I wanted to save it until marriage. I had a couple of abusive boyfriends; I deal with a bad wrist because one of them broke it.”

She perks up.

“But I want to be able to change people’s lives with my music and with my words. I feel like I’ve been through so much in my life and millions of other people have been through the same thing,” she says. “I want to be able to bring them hope. That’s why I do [what I do].”

Woloshin has been perfecting her art since she was only two years old. She’s started taking dance and vocal lessons, from California to Arizona, when she was only four. She won a singing competition, Lucky Break, back in Tuscon.

But, while she was tearing it up onstage, a very different side of Tora was burning rubber—literally—on the streets of Tuscon. Woloshin was a drag racer by the time she was sixteen.

“Don’t tell my mom,” she says with laugh.

While her tatted and tanned complexion certainly screams to be framed amidst the backdrop of an underground drag race, Woloshin’s style functions more as a testament to her inner self versus “fitting in” with any subculture she may be associated with. Appearing on “The X-Factor” didn’t help diversify her image any further, she says.

“They didn’t tell my whole story,” she says. “They only said a couple of things; that I like cars and that I like to sing. Obviously that’s not all there is to my life.”

She says she was hoping to showcase her vocal ability even further with a rendition of “Hotel California” at judge Simon Cowell’s house; one final performance to wow him before he selected his final four (which ended up being five) contestants for the live round of shows. She told the camera crews she was nervous about forgetting the lyrics, becoming visibly shaken during a taped interview.

The editors, however, only showed one of her two performances; a rendition of The Rolling Stone’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” “They made me look like an idiot, like I couldn’t remember the lyrics to a ten-word song,” she says. “That was a dick move. [For ‘Hotel California’] I had a mic stand, I had a lot of emotion, and I sang it spot-on. I definitely know for a fact that they did not show that song because they knew I was going to be eliminated. Obviously they’re not going to show the better performance because the audience would have been more pissed off than they already are [at my elimination].”

And so Tora was kicked to the curb once again. Her shine, however, fails to dim, particularly in regards to her “broke-chic” vibrancy exuding from her closet. Consignment shops are a quick fix for those on a budget, she says.

“I mostly go to vintage and thrift stores before I go to the mall,” she tells me. “You can find some of the best things there. I think a person’s style should be able to make a statement of who they are. It should definitely say that.”

When asked if she considers brand names superior to no-name bargains, she pauses.

“Only when it comes to cars!” she says, giggling.

So, will you find a gorgeous menagerie of vintage couture lining the interior of Ms. Woloshin’s closet?

Well, sort of.

“My closet is not…um…very ‘presentable’ right now,” she says with a laugh. ” But I’ll invite you over to my house and you can look it over and explain it to me.”

An Evening with Zee Avi: I Interview One of My Idols (And Take Her Out for Primanti’s And a Beer)

Zee Avi and I (Joey Nolfi), September 28, 2011 at Club Cafe, Pittsburgh

The following is an article I wrote about Zee Avi prior to actually meeting her. We’d spoken on the phone, on Twitter, and through email a few times prior, but nothing can compare to actually meeting her, as I did after her show here in Pittsburgh last week. She’s a genuine sweetheart and is filled with artistic knowledge, insight, and is just an all-around good time. We chatted in the green room of the Club Cafe on Pittsburgh’s SouthSide for hours, I bought her a beer at Primanti’s (a Pittsburgh institution, mind you) after. It was more amazing than I could have ever imagined, truly a perfect night. Thanks for everything, Zee!

Zee Avi

By Joey Nolfi

A renegade moped sped along darkened city streets amidst the shadows of a brisk September eve. The driver had exited the Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville, just north of Pittsburgh, only moments prior. The act had been a rousing one; a laid-back singer-songwriter took over the stage. She unleashed a voice tinged with kisses from another era as if Billie Holliday’s undying cadence seeped through modern day speakers from a sonic limbo, craving center stage once again.

Despite its other-era smokiness, the sophistication of the voice brooded from a pocket-sized frame that was barely a quarter century old.

Said voice was also safely holstered to the back of said moped until its wranglers had the audacity to coerce it (and its containing body) back onto the tour bus. 

 “My tour manager was like ‘We have to go!’,” says Zee Avi, accomplished Malaysian musician, lyrical storyteller, owner of the voice in question and, apparently, rogue musician-gone-wild during tour stops.

She says that night in Pittsburgh, now a hazy mental souvenir from her performance in the city last Fall, is one she’ll never forget. And one year later, with a voice still as timeless as ever, Avi is returning to the Steel City for more.

The seemingly demure brunette says Pittsburgh brings out a much darker side of her; an animal attraction for everything Pittsburgh has to offer, if you will. She’s drawn to the city, having performed here two times since her first appearance at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 2009. So naturally, exploring the city streets with a starstruck fan (Was the name Aaron? Was it Sanjay? She can’t remember, but it’s the experience that counts) was like the gateway drug into the depths of an intoxicating Pennsylvania metropolis.

“I love Pittsburgh because I have so much fun there,” Avi says. “Everyone is just really warm there. I love the grittiness of it. [I’m always there at] the right place at the right time.”

On her third visit to the city on September 28, she’ll be playing songs from her latest LP, “Ghostbird,” which released in August. Drastically different from her eponymous 2009 freshman effort, “Ghostbird” mirrors its creator’s affinity for and the easy breezy, toes-in-the-sand, laid-back stylings of the beach bum mentality with a twist of her signature quirkiness and sophistication.

But then again, one look at the singer’s exotic, calculatedly-ruffled, busy clothing choice (one that she calls “whatever chic,” mind you) will tell you that, too.

Talking to the infectiously relaxing voice that’s usually crooning on sweet studio-produced melodies immediately places one on such beaches, drink in hand, straw hat covering lazy eyes as they rest under the summer sun looming just above the shorefront horizon.

“[“Ghostbird] is inspired by everything and nothing. I create something out of everything or I create something out of nothing,” the 25-year old musician says, charming accent (with hints of coastal origins) in tow. “But it’s not just writing about heartbreaks anymore. Everyone does that.”

Lyrical content on “Ghostbird” ranges from observing personified animals in nature on “The Book of Morris Johnson” to the fear of eviction after a domestic dispute in “Concrete Wall”, with complimentary island-esque production that grounds the album in a natural, earthy sense that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on a late Bob Marley album. One track in particular, “Stay in the Clouds,” even incorporates the sound of rain drops as they lazily kiss the ground in a sonic dream as free flowing as her hair as it lashed her cheeks on her moped excursion.

“I’m always that girl who’s never quite in touch with whatever ‘reality’ is. Sometimes I wish that people would see things how I see them so they don’t think I’m that crazy” she says (with a laugh) of the track’s inspiration. “It’s basically about the chance for me personally to sort of see things sometimes not as a tree but as a forest, [to] never stop being a daydreamer, [to] never stop being a dreamer in general.”

Avi pursued her own lofty dreams in an unconventional manner as far removed from the beachfront mentality as a webcam and an internet connection can be. After posting a video of herself singing –in which only her sharply defined chin and string-strumming, delicate arms were visible– to YouTube back in 2007, she was signed to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, launching her career in the United States and giving her a much larger platform to pursue her craft in Malaysia, where she’s sometimes referred to as KokoKaina.

“I guess back in Malaysia I’m considered like a ‘pop’ singer,” she says, bashfully speaking of her superstardom back home as if it’s a foreign intruder on her subdued musical stylings. “I have hairstylists and makeup artists [there], I’ve never done that before.”

While parts of her image appeal differently to both dedicated American fans and loyal Malaysian ones, Ms. Avi says most Malaysians actually speak English, so the perceived dichotomy between the two  music markets is actually not as deep an opposition as one might assume.

It’s the genuine affection that she craves and relishes, feeling a connection with her fans that brings out her wild side; a side that can sometimes lead to, well, late night gallivanting atop a fan’s moped.

“The appreciation is all the same with everybody,” she says. “The warm welcome is the same kind of feeling as being appreciated. Everyone is equally accommodating. Music touches people the same way, but it might interpret differently to some.”

Still, her roots as a proud Malaysian woman still find their way into the primarily English-language albums she releases. Songs like “Kantoi” and “Siboh Kitak Nangis” are sung almost entirely in her native tongue, and Avi still finds the time to tweet in Standard Malay to some of the over 40,000 fans who follow her on Twitter.

Most of the activity she has with her fans revolves around Twitter, for that matter. Just before the release of “Ghostbird,” Ms. Avi treated fans to a special preview of the new music online. She spent the time proceeding the preview describing her tears over sharing the new music.

“Oh they just mean everything to me,” she says of her fans. “I never fail to meet everybody after a show. I would sit there at the merch table for three hours if I have to, and I have. It’s just like a connection.”

While she’s certainly grown accustomed to bonding with her fans, as for the typically American comparisons to oldies greats like Etta James, Avi says she’ll never quite come to terms with such heavy juxtapositions.

“I tell them there’s something in their water,” she says with a laugh. “It’s incredible to be, you know, in the same sentence as these great artists. I respect and look up to them so much. It’s still surreal to be compared to that but we’re all out to create something new.”

She says “we’re” in reference to other contemporary artists, many of whom fill the sonic space around Avi when she’s not busy birthing (as she calls it) her own harmonies in the studio.  

“I love Andrew Bird, avant-garde artists, tUnE-yArDs…do you know tUnE-yArDs?” she excitedly asks, perking up from her laid-back demeanor to discuss the peers she views as inspiration rather than competition.

“Music is a powerful thing, a universal language. It goes way beyond love sometimes and is a catalyst for love sometimes,” she says of digesting and creating music. “To be able to provide a soundtrack for someone’s life at one moment, even for a mere second, is a true blessing for me. Anybody who appreciates that, I appreciate them.”

But, things aren’t ever going to be strictly business at her show this year. She fully intends to sing her heart out but isn’t planning on traversing the “safe” road (which would entail, you know, sleeping before an eight hour drive to the next city) with her tour managers this time around…well…again.

“I would love to see the city. If I have time would you show me around?” she earnestly asks. “We can get a round of drinks at a local Pittsburgh brew.”

Have all two-wheeled motor vehicles prepped for one extra passenger, Pittsburgh. Zee Avi is coming for you once again.

Pop Revolutionary V.V. Brown Roars Back With “Children” (feat. Chiddy)

I’ve been waiting for this day for what feels like ages. And I couldn’t be happier to report that it’s finally. Freaking. HERE!

V.V. Brown returns with an infectiously saccharine, candy-coated electro-infused pop gem “Children”, which features fellow artist Chiddy, released on iTunes today.

The single, the first off her to-be-titled 2012 follow up to “Travelling Like the Light”, harnesses Brown’s signature larger-than-life pipes and marries them to an uplifting, skipping-to-and-fro beat.

Chronicling the lengthy process of crafting of her upcoming album on Twitter (@VVBrown) since she began touring the U.S. with Maroon 5 back in 2010, Brown has hinted at  everything from experimentation with tribal drums to electropop-tinged confections , and “Children” delivers in more ways than one.

The contemporary UK music scene, once a hitmaking juggernaut for up-and-coming ladies since the late Amy Winehouse paved the road nearly 6 years ago, has hit a rough patch as of late. Duffy’s latest tanked, Adele converted to American standards (What? No? I know, but I had to conform her style to fit the point I was trying to make somehow…) and Lily Allen’s all but dropped off the face of the earth. Brown’s drastic departure from the pop-funk vibe that pervaded her freshman LP breathes new life into not only the British front but into the lungs of pop music in general.

Here’s hoping the sophomore LP is as groundbreaking as the first.

Follow Brown’s progress on the album in a series of video and live chat events, which the singer will release over the course of the next month or so on her website, www.vvbrown.com

The first of such teasers:

 

Listen to (and purchase) the new track on iTunes today.