Every Friday, Atwood Magazine’s staff share what they’ve been listening to that week – a song, an album, an artist – whatever’s been having an impact on them, in the moment.
This week’s weekly roundup features music by Samm Henshaw, Silvana Estrada, Ava Kay, Real Topeka People, JPEGMAFIA, Jana Horn, Wildlife Freeway, Ryan Wright, Caitlyn Smith, Noelle Sucks, Alexa Villa, clear eyes & Rexx Life Raj!
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:: Untidy Soul – Samm Henshaw ::
Mitch Mosk, New York
The day is finally here! Five long years in the making, Atwood artist-to-watch Samm Henshaw’s debut album dropped today. 2022 has only just begun, and yet this is sure to be one of the year’s most exciting and resilient releases: A catchy, thoughtful, and sweetly emotive soundtrack to navigating the throes of everyday living, Untidy Soul is classic soul seduction with a tasteful modern touch. From the heart-on-sleeve entrance “Thoughts and Prayers” and radiant “Grow” to the winking, tongue-in-cheek “Chicken Wings,” Henshaw’s soaring vocals captivate as he surrounds himself (and in turn his listeners) in an enchanting array of rich harmonies and warm, wondrous instruments. His lyrics often find him delving deep into his own heart and soul, reckoning with themes of love and connection, finding oneself and one’s path in life (what makes us happy? what does “success” mean to us), and much more.
Sixteen tracks light up the airwaves as Henshaw captures moments of joy and sorrow, wonder and reflection, passion and longing, and so much more. In the searing “Enough,” he asks pointedly, “Why I always gotta be perfect? Sometimes, I go, I try to make everything so perfect… How high is high enough? How far is far is enough? How much is too much? When is enough enough?” On paper it sounds like he’s singing to himself, but when we hear it sung aloud, one can’t help but internalize these philosophical ruminations and make Henshaw’s words our own.
Untidy Soul, which is as much a state of mind as it is a fitting genre description, invites us to join Samm Henshaw in an hour or so of deep thought, reverie, and celebration. His songs are definitively fun, but there’s so much more than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Henshaw’s modern soul sound harkens back to the greats, while injecting plenty of exciting twists and colorful flourishes to feel refreshing and of this day and age.
I’m often one to hyperbolize, but make no mistake: Untidy Soul is a timeless debut, marking the “official” start of Samm Henshaw’s artistic legacy.
:: “Tristeza” – Silvana Estrada ::
Emily Frances Algar, Charlbury, Oxfordshire, UK
Silvana Estrada’s new album, Marchita, translates as “Withered” in English, which is apt given that the record documents Estrada’s first love and the profound sadness she felt when it ended. The word “withered” is not a word you come across in English language songs about love and heartbreak, which now, after hearing Martchita seems odd, as the word is a perfect encapsulation of love dying, of love ending, of a language two people shared slowly withering like flowers that are not watered or given sunlight.
The album as whole is beautiful and Estrada conveys heartbreak powerfully in her words, music and in her voice in a way I haven’t heard except in Puccini’s operas. I could devote paragraphs to Marchita and maybe I will do soon, but for now it’s about “Tristeza,” the song that stands out every time I listen to Marchita.
“Tristeza” when translated from Spanish to English means “Sadness”. It isn’t particularly long but it nestles itself under your skin and once you’ve heard it you cannot unhear it. The song opens gently with Estrada plucking her beloved Venezuelan cuatro. “Tristeza” gently builds with soft percussion and Estrada’s haunting melismas, and when it ends its ending happens quickly and without fanfare, leaving you wanting more. Perhaps a metaphor when a love ends, you always want more. In the song, Estrada is in conversation with her sadness, asking when it is going to leave her alone and allow her to remember her love as it was in the beginning. “Si un día dijera que el amor me iba a salvar, Tristeza, te pido, no cambies mi verdad” or in English, “If one day I said that love was going to save me, Sadness, I ask you, don’t change my truth”. She is placing protective arms around her innocence and naivete of what she believed love to be.
A aquel que ya no está/ Y tú que no te vas/ Te pido una vez más, tristeza, déjame en paz
(To the one who is no longer there/ And you who don’t leave/ I ask you once again, sadness, leave me alone)
:: “Go” – Ava Kay ::
Joe Beer, Surrey, UK
Canada-based singer, songwriter and producer Ava Kay has musicality running through her veins. Gaining recognition for her songwriting and composition for her projects with Disney, CBC and Hallmark, it’s unsurprising music has accumulated over 40 million streams.
The new track “Go” carries a weight of emotion. Originally recorded with a different record label, it triumphed through its placement in a movie, however never reached the potential it deserved due to not being released for purchase or streaming. Recognising the power the song holds, Kay decided to recreate and self-produce the song herself, and put it out for the world to hear.
Written about contemplation and the commitment to moving on with life, the song speaks to many scenarios of having to leave someone or something behind. The torturing instrumentals are perfectly balanced by the encouraging sentiment, as Kay explains, “The lyrics speaking directly to the doubts people have when they make these hard decisions, and breaking through those doubts so they don’t hold you back.” Aching with poignant strings and trembling keys, it’s the type of song that catches you off guard and overwhelms you in a cloud of emotion.
:: “Insecurities” – Real Topeka People ::
Mitch Mosk, New York
St. Louis’ Real Topeka people blasted into our lives over the past two years with an undeniably alluring pallet of sounds and sweet lyrics. The musical project of singer, songwriter, and music producer Zach Wexelman has few established boundaries, opting for a melting pot of sound and style incorporating pop, psychedelic, R&B, and folk elements into songs that defy genre, instead immersing listeners in intoxicating soundscapes brimming with energy and catchy, memorable hooks. The latest addition to the artist’s repertoire is his grooviest song yet: Sweet, harmonized falsetto vocals and a radiant rhythm section make the open-book “Insecurities” a jam worth remembering – and one that promises to turn any living room into a dance floor.
Feel it in my spine the moment I hear you say my name
Hits me like a wave when you tell me that I should behave
I don’t wanna mess it up with my insecurities
Can’t hide ’em
I’m just gonna be me
I’ve tried to
Be someone that I’m not
I’d never have
Found you if I didn’t stop
“The truth is that this song isn’t about any one person in particular,” Wexelman says. “As I was writing it I was thinking about what it would feel like to be in a relationship where I wasn’t weighed down by all the self-doubt and anxiety that I experience when I’m trying to make a good impression on someone that I see a future with. It’s comforting to imagine myself as this super-confident guy that’s immune to rejection and feelings of inadequacy. Realistically, I think that there will always be both things about me that I like and things I wish I could change. But it’s nice to escape for a few minutes and explore the fantasy.”
We all want to be our truest selves around our loved ones: To be embraced and accepted for who we are, so-called “flaws” and all, in a warm, welcoming, and unapologetic manner. Which begs the real question: What kind of emotionally manipulative monster wouldn’t want to sing this song at the top of their lungs?
:: “CUTIE PIE!” – JPEGMAFIA ::
Adam Davidson, South London
“CUTIE PIE!” is a slice of uncomplicated hip hop joy. Originally released back in 2020, it’s enjoying a renaissance of attention after being included on JPEGMAFIA’s latest album “LP!” The pumping fuzz bassline and the repeated snare hits are rudimentary elements not always present on Mafia’s songs, but this time he decides to strip it back. “CUTIE PIE!”’s fun and frothy rhythm backs JPEGMAFIA’s jabs at less talented rappers. As one of the best MCs in the game, he is well within his rights to offer out disses.
What’s so fresh about this tune is how it comes at the end of a run of lower tempo tracks, kicking in and lifting the mood instantly. This kind of rap music is really exciting, JPEGMAFIA is a revolutionary musician in many ways, but it can get murky in the depths of his records. “CUTIE PIE!” makes the fog clear for a couple of minutes, it’s a boppy head-nodder with all the featherlight energy of Mafia’s best work. JPEGMAFIA is a complicated personality, but he likes to party every once in a while too.
:: “Jordan” – Jana Horn ::
Ben Niesen, Pacific Northwest
There’s a small part of Leonard Cohen’s voice that echoes in Jana Horn’s when she reaches the gates of “Jordan.” Horn proves to be a talented songstress all across the runtime of Optimism, and she is accompanied by equally talented and simple instrumentation. Her chamber band folk transforms into the private moments of her solitude; “Driving,” “Man Meandering” and “When I Go Down Into The Night” display the ability to interplay her voice with a chosen instrument. Guitar, organs and silence, respectively.
Yes, she uses silence like an instrument, but “When I Go Down Into The Night” also features her in a seemingly empty room with nothing but a borrowed tune, Neil Young atmospherics abound. However, it’s “Jordan” that stretches the folk and singer-songwriter impules the furthest and all the more spectacular in its plain objectives: light percussion on eiter ear, small keyboard melodies fluttering in the corners, a bass line thrumming through the middle, and curious tape loops like crickets chirping on metal wings. Horn’s voice lays on top of it all before stopping for the cacophony of discordant grandfather clock samples.
Forget all the old masters though; Cohen, Mitchell, Young, Taylor, all of them are passé to the current singer-songwriter master of the moment: Laura Marling. And yet, from production to presentation to performance, Jana Horn is every bit a complete and equal contemporary to England’s reigning Lady Indie. And I want to hear more.
:: “Family” – Wildlife Freeway ::
Chloe Robinson, California
Uniquely captivating indie folk talent Wildlife Freeway shows that family can come in all different forms. We may not get to choose the family we are born into, but we pick our friends and lovers creating family bonds that are equally as significant. That is what the tender, heartfelt tune “Family” is all about.
Some people are blessed to say they have amazing parents and siblings, but for those that are not as lucky, this is a reminder that you can still find that unbreakable loving bond. Sunny A Atema aka Wildlife Freeway collaborated on the track with famed producer Alex Ebert (Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros). The visuals are just as powerful as the song itself showcasing a group of connected people laughing and carefree as they all work together to move a piano.
The singer, based near Joshua Tree, is known for touring with her piano. Atema brilliantly takes something ordinary and transforms that into a dramatic space. Showcasing her raw and haunting tone atop a simplistic backdrop each of her tunes are so mysterious and entrancing. Taking jazz influence and pairing that with pop and folk, her electric, experimental style evokes so much emotion with rich, textured nuances.
:: “A Dream I’ll Forget” – Ryan Wright ::
Joe Beer, Surrey, UK
Virginia based singer/songwriter/producer Ryan Wright took her first steps into music at just 11 years old. Perhaps foreshadowing her future, she began her musical resume performing alongside her singer/songwriter father, and has gone on to collaborate with him as co-producers on her EP. Dabbling in music both in the studio and on stage throughout her teenage years, you can feel the roots of her musical upbringing through the wisdom of her words, particularly in her new track, “A Dream I’ll Forget.”
The new single captures the epiphany of realizing that a relationship wasn’t as perfect as you once thought. Caught in a dreamy daze of hope and naivety, the opening of “A Dream I’ll Forget” is delicate and airy, before awakening into an atmospheric chorus of scintillating synths, decorated by Wright’s dreamy vocals. Opening up about the track, Wright explains, “The song evokes the unsettling feeling of waking up and not quite being able to remember what you’ve dreamt of, but in this instance you’re waking up and forgetting everything good in a relationship. In the aftermath of a breakup, you’re left wondering if all the good things you thought you had were just all in your head. The concept of dreaming is reflected in both the lyrics and production—images of a starry night in July are backed by the sound of fireworks fizzling in the sky to create an ethereal, surreal sound.”
:: “High” – Caitlyn Smith ::
Emily Frances Algar, Charlbury, Oxfordshire, UK
Caitlyn Smith is a writer-for-hire amongst the Nashville establishment. Smith has written for Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Meghan Trainor and Garth Brooks just to name a few. She also co-wrote the main song for the 2018 film Wild Rose. If you want a love song that will tear you open as much as put you back together then you go to Smith. Smith has also released her own music, with the 2018 Starfire and the 2020 Supernova.
“High,” which was released today, was written by Smith, Jennifer Decilveo and Miley Cyrus for Cyrus’ 2020 album Plastic Hearts. Cyrus’ version is rawer and angrier despite the simplicity of the arrangement. Smith puts the song through her signature filter of soft vulnerability, anthemic guitars, and soaring, operatic vocals, closing with wistful Appalachian strings.
Sometimes I get a little too low/ And I can’t see myself through the fire and smoke/ And you, like a neon light/ Shining through a door that I can’t keep closed/ And you, like a rolling stone/ Always building cities on the hearts that you broke
Neither is better than the other, they are just two sides of the same coin. Heartbreak shows up in different forms, anger, sadness, grief, regret and rage. Cyrus and Smith have just divided these emotions up and added them to their own mixes, creating a song for every mood.
There is a beautiful poem by Beau Taplin in which he says, “One day, whether you are 14, 28 or 65, you will stumble upon someone who will start a fire in you that cannot die. However, the saddest, most awful truth you will ever come to find–– is they are not always with whom we spend our lives”. “High” is that poem in musical form, a memory of a person you cannot get away from, no matter how at peace you are with the ending, that person continues to burn in your mind.
:: Songs You Brush Your Teeth To – Noelle Sucks ::
Mitch Mosk, New York
First of all, Noelle Denton’s artist name gets me every time. Secondly, her songs are sweetly stirring and unnervingly catchy. An emotionally savvy singer/songwriter raised in South Carolina and now based in Los Angeles, Noelle Sucks makes “lyrically-driven songs with a certain heartfelt, nostalgic, indie-pop-inspired pulse” – and I use her words here not to make up for my own writing, but because she really has hit the nail on the head. The artist’s debut EP Songs You Brush Your Teeth To arrived on January 7th, with four buoyant songs that run the emotional gamut while uplifting us through effervescent ukulele strums and intimate, confessional lyrics.
All black clothes
Despite the summer months, I’m cold
Winter jackets buttoned to my throat
I think I’d feel better all alone
High school stoned
13th on Folly Road
It doesn’t feel the same when I’m this old
I stay in to clean my bloody nose
And I’m not having fun yet.
Pick me up at recess.
Youd’ve never guessed it,
I’ve got seasonal depression
And they think that it’s contagious
– “Seasonal Depression,” Noelle Sucks
Personally, I find myself playing the EP’s middle tracks “Your Mom Calls Me” and “Seasonal Depression” on repeat. Both are nuanced and lilting, with a kind of unadulterated youthful charisma that shining through.
“I tried to make this EP as vulnerable as I could while still keeping it light and fun, which I think is a good explanation of my personality in general,” Denton tells Atwood Magazine. “‘Seasonal Depression’ was the last song I put out to complete my EP. Don’t tell the other songs, but it just might be my favorite. I wanted a happy and fun, but still emotive song about something serious and personal. The title plays into that contrast as well – seasonal depression having this connotation of not being as bad as “normal” depression, alluding to times when your feelings are written off as something ‘not that serious.'”
“I wrote this one (and “Your Mom Calls Me”) after spending the first few months of the quarantine at my parent’s house in South Carolina, where I grew up and spent my middle school and high school years. Living in my old bedroom again for that long, but feeling so different than who I was when I last lived there, really MADE me look my past right in the eye. I struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my entire teen life, and this song heavily reflects on that and the ways I used to try and escape those feelings. All the songs on this project are kind of written from this place of love and sympathy for my past self, and how she overcame her biggest struggles.”
Needless to say, Noelle Sucks kind of rules.
:: “Good Girl” – Alexa Villa ::
Chloe Robinson, California
There are specific gender norms placed on us from an early age by society. Pink is that color typically used to represent females and for boys it is the color blue. Girls are given Barbies to play with while males get hot wheels and action figures. As you get older, then other male and female stereotypes come into play. Alexa Villa is breaking these societal boundaries with her latest release “Good Girl.” This edgy, electro track truly excites as she unapologetically speaks her mind. She refuses to play the ‘good girl’ feminine persona and her fierce angst is powerful. Her take-charge attitude is so clear from her bold, in your face lyrics.
I wear the pants
Use my voice
I make demands
Do it better than he can
Villa is known for her rebellious, electronic rock tunes that pack a potent punch. Previously playing on Vans Warped Tour. She has supported notable acts such as The Darkness and Ryan Cabrera. Influenced by female artists known for being outside the box (Miley Cyrus and Gwen Stefani) she too wears her unique authenticity proudly. With genuine charisma and spunk, she is a hard-hitting talent definitely leaving a strong mark on the music scene.
:: “FEELING” – clear eyes, Rexx Life Raj ::
Mitch Mosk, New York
clear eyes has been kicking around for a little while, but it was only more recently that Marian Hill’s Jeremy Lloyd started putting more methodical time and energy into his collaborative and minimalist side project. The new year brings an invigorated clear eyes artistry, and one further into the foreground than ever before: Following last year’s incredibly expressive three singles “everything i’m missing” (ft. Marian Hill), “heat of the moment” (ft. Kevin Garrett and Kemba),” and “no place i’d rather be” (ft. Reo Cragun), this month’s new single “FEELING” is a blast full of understated passion and smoldering, downtempo R&B allure. Featuring rapper Rexx Life Raj, the track is an outpouring of intimacy set to a compelling atmospheric soundscape:
Lost in all of these thoughts in my head
Yeah I got your text but shit I left it on read (left it on read, yeah)
I’d rather be dolo instead
I don’t agree with how you think but it’s contagious as hell
Protect my energy at all cost, I look around and we all lost
Everybody got the answers why they always fall off?
I shoot my shot and that bitch hit you like a sawed-off
I got used to boxing all these demons that I fought off
Clouds on horizons, sunlight
Drip through every time, I still find
Silence and madness, I just let it happen
And I let go, make this moment my home
These feelings I’m feeling
Keep trying to hold on
These feelings I’m feeling
Only last for so long (so long, so long, so long)
“For a while, clear eyes songs came into existence in the background of my Marian Hill life,” Lloyd tells Atwood Magazine. “‘FEELING’ was one of the first that I made for clear eyes intentionally. I linked with Raj after being struck by the honesty and clarity of his lyrics and told him about the world I was building with clear eyes. He got it immediately and we made this song about the fleeting nature of our most beautiful moments. I wanted to make the production feel like skittering across the glassy water of a moment, wishing you could stay in it forever, but knowing if you puncture it you’ll plummet. So you skate along.”
clear eyes is a vision gaining more and more clarity with every release, and this is perhaps his most evocative, defining offering yet. Between Raj’s emotive, spine-tingling performance and Lloyd’s inundating ethereal production, “FEELING” hits hard. Perhaps that’s why, unlike all of his other release, this one is in all caps.
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