There’s hardly a second when Alex Giannascoli’s voice can’t be heard in “Walk Away,” the opener of his latest album, House of Sugar. The distended, pitched-up wail that introduces the track gives way to cascading layers of his more familiar intonations. “Someday I’m gonna walk away from you,” he sings; “not today.” These are the song’s only words, repeated again and again for more than four minutes. In the repetition, emphasis shifts from “someday” to “not today" and back, leaving the listener in a space of uncertainty. It’s in this space that Giannascoli—the 26-year-old artist better known as (Sandy) Alex G—lingers throughout the album’s thirteen songs: between backwards and forwards, past and future, one voice and another. On House of Sugar, his third full-length for Domino and ninth overall, Alex inhabits a diverse range of musical and emotional points-of-view (often simultaneously), in turn illuminating the tension that hides in the shadow of desire.
Giannascoli began writing these songs in the fall of 2017, having just finished a tour for House of Sugar’s acclaimed predecessor, Rocket, and moved into a new apartment in Philadelphia. Whereas with earlier efforts, such as 2011’s self-released Winner or the landmark 2014 release DSU, he’d write numerous songs fairly quickly, with House of Sugar Giannascoli worked at a steadier pace, concentrating on fewer songs and laboring over each one more than before.
After building the tracks at home, recording most of the guitars, keyboards, and vocals himself, Giannascoli enlisted some recurring bandmates and collaborators to help realize further aspects of the album: Samuel Acchione’s wailing electric guitar on “Walk Away,” John Heywood’s bass underneath “Taking,” Tom Kelly’s drums giving “Hope” its bounce, Molly Germer underscoring “Southern Sky” on violin. Throughout the process Giannascoli worked closely with Jacob Portrait, who mixed both Rocket and its predecessor, 2015’s Beach Music, and here helped to balance each of House of Sugar’s dense, multi-faceted tracks. As the product of extended focus and planning, House of Sugar emerges as Giannascoli’s most meticulous, cohesive album yet: a statement of artistic purpose, showing off his ear for both persistent earworms and shifting textures.
Which is to say, “cohesive” doesn’t imply that House of Sugar dispenses with the out-there sonic adventurism that’s made previous (Sandy) Alex G records so singular. Giannascoli recorded with a clone of the Neumann U87 microphone, built by Tom Kelly—the first time he’d ever used a microphone other than the Samson Q1U USB mic that he got as a teenager. The new mic, coupled with an updated version of Garageband that came with a replacement laptop, provided Giannascoli a new toolkit for home-recording, prompting him to analyze the types of sounds he’d been making and that he wanted to make. In addition to bolstering the rich, polished mix of its rock-oriented songs, the new equipment allowed for a broad range of unique technical experiments that provide each track emotional and tonal complexity. This includes not only the otherworldly vocals that haunt songs such as “Walk Away,” “Taking,” and “Bad Man,” but also the more subtle hums and echoes that texture “Hope” and “Gretel,” and the distorted soundscapes into which listeners of “Sugar” and “Near” are immersed.
Throughout, the multiplicity of Giannascoli’s voice evokes the hybrid existence of a science-fiction creature, at once human and something else. Indeed, in many ways, hybridity defines House of Sugar. The lines between characters and narrators are perpetually blurry, allowing room for artist and listener alike to move through the songs, to access their shifting headspaces. On “Southern Sky”, we hear a voice other than Giannascoli’s own: frequent collaborator Emily Yacina, who sang on Rocket’s “Bobby,” among other (Sandy) Alex G songs. The pair’s voices intertwine as they follow the track’s meandering pathway. Its steady country-rock bounce belies the extent to which “Southern Sky” changes as it flows along—how it starts with a discordant piano run and ends with the lilting strum of a single acoustic guitar, a disturbed (and unintentional) echo of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” The distinction between beginning and end, at first concealed by a tight composition, is emblematic of the way House of Sugar works as a whole: throughout the album Giannascoli makes you think that something is one way before revealing, often almost imperceptibly—maybe not until it’s too late—that it’s probably another.
The stakes are often high in this regard. The dramatic action pose depicted on the album’s cover (as always, painted by Giannascoli’s sister, Rachel) points to the feelings of precarity evoked within. Just as the figure skater looks poised to either succeed or fall, House of Sugar’s characters are constantly teetering on the edge of extremes, approaching either bliss or violence—unless it’s both at the same time. They’re manipulated (“Gretel”) and manipulative (“Crime”); up in the sky (“Sugar”) and buried in the dirt (“Bad Man”). Caught in the ambiguous spaces of the songs, House of Sugar’s characters are disposed toward the bad—“Music makes me wanna do bad things,” sings Giannascoli on “In My Arms”—but seemingly reaching for the good. Or, are they? Could bad be good, sweet be sour? While each track hints at concrete situations derived from either Giannascoli’s life or a covert array of literary and filmic sources, none excludes a host of oppositional possibilities that listeners can generate and regenerate themselves.
The album’s final track, “SugarHouse,” opens with applause: it was recorded at a 2018 concert in St. Louis, with a saxophone overdubbed later, the first time Giannascoli has implemented a live recording on a studio album. (In 2018, though, he released a Live at Third Man Records LP.) A brooding, flowing anthem, “SugarHouse” shares its name with a casino not far from Giannascoli’s home in Philadelphia; as the song unfolds, the casino emerges as a suggestive site for the album as a whole. Its first verse echoes the various moments when a House of Sugar protagonist realizes that highs are always temporary, that what seems sweet often isn’t. “SugarHouse is calling my bluff,” Giannascoli sings. But, in the second verse, his character—unknown and broken—nevertheless professes faith in where he is and who he’s with. Nothing is definitive, but after thirteen songs of being split apart and spread around, through these relationships, in the House of Sugar, he might finally be “put together again.”
Since their serendipitous start in a Southern Utah piano shop, THE PIANO GUYS have proven to be a powerhouse group without limits. Arriving as a musical phenomenon seemingly overnight, the quartet of Jon Schmidt [pianist, songwriter], Steven Sharp Nelson [cellist, songwriter], Paul Anderson [producer, videographer], and Al van der Beek [music producer, songwriter] have delivered bold compositions that transcend boundaries of style and genre, a boundlessness that has since translated into a massively-successful career. Now gearing up for the release of their 2018 album, The Piano Guys make their next step forward in an already impressive career that has proven to be nothing short of Limitless.
“Who would have ever thought four middle-aged dads from Utah filming classically influenced music in nature could ever succeed at the outset?” asks member Steven Sharp Nelson. “That is why the name Limitless works so well. Our favorite thing is to find a way to be on the fringes of possibility. We like to combine things you would never expect to find together—but are close enough to make sense. It has been our mindset from the beginning.”
Since formally introducing themselves in 2011, The Piano Guys have released five studio albums, two Christmas releases and a fan-favorite live album, earning six No. 1 debuts on Billboard’s Top Classical Albums chart and garnering an impressive 2 billion-plus global streams, over 1.6 billion YouTube views, and averaging nearly 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone. They have sold out concerts in almost every corner of the world and attracted a diehard audience of millions. The Piano Guys have appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, Mashable, People, been featured on CBS Sunday Morning and performed on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America and The Tonight Show.
In late 2017, they hunkered down at their own TPG Studios in Utah and commenced work on what would become Limitless. A sublime, soaring, and sweeping cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” teased out the forthcoming project, generating over 8 million Spotify streams and nearly 20 million YouTube views. Moreover, the crossover of The Chainsmokers’ “Something Just Like This” [feat. Coldplay] and Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” further illustrated their signature penchant for masterful mash-ups.
Throughout the process, the music would live up to the name Limitless as they once again leapt past boundaries. “Often, highlights of a symphonic masterwork thrown into a piece of pop music or film score give people an invitation or a gateway to enjoy classical music,” Steven elaborates. “We like to tantalize their taste buds. If you consider pop music the sugar, we are putting greens into it and making a smoothie.”
That is exactly what they do on the “Swan Lake/In My Blood” mash-up. The musicians find a common ground between a recognizable movement of the Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake—a first for the band—and “In My Blood” by Shawn Mendes. The result merges the composer’s heightened drama and a transfixing pop melody carried by emotive strings and lush piano. “We had yet to employ the work of Tchaikovsky into one of our arrangements,” continues the cellist. “We also had not used much material from a ballet yet. It was fun to reach beyond those traditional limits of genre and composers. When we heard ‘In My Blood’, we loved the message. Every time Shawn feels like giving up, he sings, ‘It isn’t in my blood to give up.’ That is very much the story of Swan Lake too. The stories attached to each other fluidly.”
The four-piece charted new territory by reimagining two songs from Korean pop juggernaut BTS. For “DNA,” Steven simultaneously plays cello and speaks through a talk box in Korean, while Al serves up raps in the language. Meanwhile, they channel sentimentality through powerful piano chords in the evocative “Epiphany.” “The bonus is Al and I both spent time living in Korea, serving as missionaries at different times and in different places,” he goes on. “We learned the language and immersed ourselves in the culture. It is very special to be able to take a K-Pop song and turn it into an orchestral masterpiece.”
The album closes with an original from the group, “Miracles,” in which the four-piece teams with the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra to bring their story of hope to the forefront. “We love throwing in new textures, so it has got electric cello” he adds. “Thematically, it is the moment where someone remembers the miracles they have experienced in their lives. That is our story. As children, we feel completely free. We have not had the limits of the world projected on us yet in youth. We have not been oppressed by the limits we place on ourselves about failure either. The whole album is a reminder that this innocence still exists within us, and we can do anything.”
In the end, Limitless shares an important message. “We hope this feeling of Limitless-ness transfers,” he leaves off. “As a mission of The Piano Guys, we hope we can be spokesmen of hope and faith. We want to make listeners feel like they can get up and conquer the world. We hope you become excited about what you can do!”
Dominic Fike is aware of the demand that’s mounted for him to put his music online ever since he posted a batch of self-produced bedroom demos to Soundcloud in 2017, and then swiftly pulled them down. “People are mad at me. It's like owing your friend money,” says the 22-year-old. “You can't really talk to them about anything else until they get it.”
Fike wasn’t really aware of the buzz that had accumulated nearly overnight until he finished serving a jail sentence earlier this year. While on house arrest for three months, Dominic wrote, produced, and recorded a set of songs in a friend’s bedroom, some of which would later release on Don’t Forget About Me, Demos . The demos are a rare glimpse at an artist on the precipice of ubiquity, one so specifically him, notable for his self-assured singing, dynamic instrumentation and compelling songwriting.
“3 Nights” sets the tone for Don’t Forget About Me, Demos , an effortless slice of pop with a tropical bent that coasts on acoustic guitars and a Fike’s elastic, singsong flow. The rest is a composite of his influences filtered through his artistic lens: “Westcoast Collective” takes cues from Weezer, all spidery rock guitars and intermingling vocal harmonies, while “King of Everything” harnesses both the breezy beach-rock and angst of Sublime, a diarist rumination on ruling a domain when you find yourself alone.
Elsewhere, Fike touches on family life on the Red Hot Chili Peppers-indebted “Babydoll,” while “Socks” dials back the pace for a more laidback reflection on the boundaries that others can place before you. Sonically, it’s a polished step-up from his first Soundcloud offering, which he erased from the Internet for a variety of reasons. Now, he says, his songs were updated “kind of in the way they would remaster a Disney movie—it looks the same but the quality is just better. The vocals are brought out better. It's not too bedroom-y.”
Don’t Forget About Me, Demos is the first official entry in Fike’s discography, the culmination of a longtime dedication to and love of music. Born and raised in Naples, Fla., he was first introduced to music by his father, who taught him how to play guitar when he was 10. From there, he developed a taste for music on his own, refining his skills by looking at and learning from YouTube tutorial videos. His musical interests reflect those of one raised on the internet -- spanning everything from The Beatles to Frank Ocean and Young Thug.
From there, he began to experiment with writing and recording his own music. He recalls that the house was filled with musical equipment including a four-track recorder that he used to lay down his earliest work. With his brother, he played a variety of instruments—piano, guitar, vocals—on original songs, treating music as a hobby from his pre-teens up until he posted his demos.
His compositions speak to his upbringing, embodying both the relaxed tempo of his native Florida and his own tumultuous upbringing in the sometimes oppressively sunny state. (“All the songs are a direct reflection of being in that environment,” he explains.)
With his untimely incarceration behind him and Don’t Forget About Me, Demos finally seeing the light of day, Fike is intent on releasing more music and sharing his perspective with the world, this time making sure that nothing stands in his way.
I’M ALONE, NO YOU’RE NOT
There is nothing like the sound of siblings singing together. Whether it’s the Beach Boys or the Everly Brothers—or, more recently, First Aid Kit—absorbing the same breathing rhythms and speech patterns adds an element to vocal harmonies that can be pure magic. With the release of I’m Alone, No You’re Not, the mesmerizing, hypnotic sound of the trio known as Joseph—made up of sisters Allison, Meegan, and Natalie Closner—joins this elite company.
“It’s just second nature, like a fifth limb that’s already on you,” says first-born Natalie. “There’s an ability to anticipate what’s going to happen and blend with it. When Meegan and Allison sing, they know exactly what I’m going to do and when.”
But the Closners didn’t actually start singing together when they were growing up in Oregon, the children of artistic parents (their dad was a jazz singer and drummer, their mom a theater teacher). Natalie was the performer—“the older sister who stood on the edge of the fireplace and told everyone, ‘Watch me!,’“ she says. Twins Meegan and Allison stayed out of her lane, joining in for their mother’s musical theater productions but otherwise avoiding the spotlight.
When Natalie was in college, she began pursuing music more seriously. The summer before her senior year, she went to Nashville to check out the scene and work on her guitar playing and songwriting. She had recorded an EP and done a few rounds of touring when a friend sat her down one day.
“It was kind of dramatic,” she says, “He took me aside and said, ‘I don’t think you really believe in this.’ It stopped me in my tracks.” She thought deeply about the music she was making and had a curious epiphany; she decided to ask her sisters if they would consider singing with her.
Initially, they didn’t really get it. “We thought she was asking us to be background singers, so we didn’t take it that seriously,” says Allison. “It was more commitment than I was expecting—I even tried to leave at one point, but after a while, I was convinced.”
A transformation occurred when the Closners were in the process of recording their first album, Native Dreamer Kin. At the time, they were calling themselves Dearborn, but their producer felt that the name didn’t fit the strength of the music. They went to visit their grandfather Jo, in the eastern Oregon town of Joseph. Allison made a playlist for the trip and called it “Joseph,” which is what influenced the band’s name.
“Once she said it, it just hit us all—that’s what this is and who we are, these are the sounds of the land that we’ve lived on,” says Natalie.
With this new sense of themselves, Meegan and Allison began taking a more active role in the group’s songwriting. Meegan notes that while the process was a “totally new journey” for her, it felt similar to the candor and vulnerability of her long-time journaling—just “pulling out the gold and arranging that into neater lines.”
She and Natalie both point to the song “Honest” as a keystone for the development of I’m Alone, No You’re Not. “We were trying really hard to write a song, but nothing was coming,” recalls Natalie. “One night, Meegan was working on some lyrics and getting frustrated, so she wrote in the margin of the page, ‘I can’t say a true thing. It’s hard to be that honest.’ Immediately after that, her most honest sentence spilled out—‘There’s always two thoughts, one after the other: I’m alone. No, you’re not.’ And she thought, ‘Oh, there’s the song.’ “
Meanwhile, the group was cultivating a devoted fan base in the most traditional ways possible: touring the Western states playing living room shows, backyard parties, and secret house party gigs; reaching an audience directly through such platforms as Noisetrade; selling their self-released CD and building a loyal following step by step. By the time they were approached by ATO Records, Joseph had already built a strong community of fans on its own.
As they moved toward making their second record, the project took an additional turn when the Closners decided to work with some other songwriters in Los Angeles. “We were afraid of it at first because the songs were more pop than we were used to writing,” says Meegan, “but as we internalized them, they started becoming super-important to us.”
They point to “More Alive Than Dead,” co-written with Ethan Gruska, as an example of these contributions. “That song describes an experience with a partner where you have hard things in your combined past,” says Natalie. “You’re haunted by them until you realize that those things are dead, and as long as you dwell on them, you’re missing the real live person in front of you.”
She adds, though, that Gruska was critical in clarifying and sharpening the nuanced emotion of the lyric. “When Ethan sent us back the demo, I lost it, He was able to see the heart of the song and bring it out, cut to the core of what I was trying to say.”
Finally, the women of Joseph recorded the album with acclaimed producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis, First Aid Kit) at his studio in Omaha. He was able to open up their expansive, evocative vocal sound with powerful and striking arrangements, adding depth while highlighting their haunting intensity.
“This was our first time doing a recording like this,” says Natalie, “and we learned so much about creativity. Mike is a genius, and he’s just a total maniac as a musician, so he took these bare bones songs and brought them to life with lush, gorgeous textures and sounds.”
The initial reaction to the music on I’m Alone, No You’re Not has been remarkable. Joseph was selected as a #SpotifySpotlight artist, and booked for festivals including Bonnaroo, Pickathon, and Sasquatch even prior to the release of the single “White Flag,” a song inspired by an article predicting a massive earthquake for the Pacific Northwest.
“Reading that created a heaviness that was making us jumpy, scared, and miserable,” says Natalie. “It became clear we had two options: be scared and cowering, backing away from the world into paralysis, or keep moving and live. Defy fear. Wear peace. Find better ways to love the people in our lives instead of huddling together like frightened sheep thinking about earthquakes.”
Most rewarding for the Closner sisters has been feeling the audience response to the new songs, as they tour supporting such artists as James Bay and Amos Lee. “This is really when you learn what’s special about a song, or if it’s special,” says Natalie. “It’s this crazy firecracker thing that happens—‘Am I feeling something? Is anyone? What is this song, what does it do, which parts make the most sense?’
“It really is about connection with people, and we’re so grateful we’ve gotten the chance to do that. This has been a totally wild journey, and we’re constantly blown away with possibility of what could be.”
“...Dealing with such issues as race and loss of identity, Batalla has created a musical voyage well worth taking... ” —Newsday Throughout the 60s and 70s Discoteca Batalla was a well-known landmark in the Latino community in Venice, California. This mom and pop discoteca (Spanish for record store) was a haven for desperately homesick immigrants from all over Mexico and Latin America. It was a spot to gather, exchange news from home, buy the latest Spanish language pop exitos or maybe just enjoy sweet coffee and pan dulce with the proprietors, Barbara and Jorge Batalla. Jorge was a singer and radio D.J. He knew the lyrics to every traditional Spanish language song ever written. His wife, Barbara hand wrote letters home for the working men and women separated for years at a time from their families. Perla Batalla is their daughter—a singer best known for her decade-long work with Leonard Cohen, as well as with such artists as Lou Reed, Sonny Rollins, k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Jackson Browne and Laurie Anderson. While the record store closed its doors over 40 years ago, the experiences and stories shared there are part of L.A.’s heritage. Battala’s new work, Discoteca Batalla, is an homage to this long lost moment in time. Funds provided by the Ginny Mancini Endowment for Vocal Performance with additional support from The Theatre at Ace Hotel.
“(Delaria) swings hard, and scats and bends notes in a style that suggests a no-frills Betty Carter on steroids.” —The New York Times The much-loved and outspoken actress, comedian and gay icon Lea DeLaria seems to have achieved overnight stardom with her three-time, SAG Award-winning, stand-out role as Carrie “Big Boo” Black in the Netflix hit series Orange is the New Black. However, her multifaceted career has, in fact, spanned decades. An Obie & Theater World Award winner and Drama Desk nominee for her portrayal as Hildy in the Public Theatre’s 2014 revival of On The Town, DeLaria has also appeared in the television series The Code and is the first openly gay comic to perform on television in America. She was also the featured vocalist at the 50th Anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, and has performed in some of the most prestigious houses in the world including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Chicago Symphony, Hollywood Bowl, The Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House. With a performance style described as “loud and brassy,” DeLaria brings her high energy genius to The Theatre at Ace Hotel to perform hits from her latest album House of David: delaria+bowie=jazz. With her velvet-smooth voice contrasting perfectly with a razor-sharp wit and sassy stage presence, DeLaria promises to deliver. Additional support from The Theatre at Ace Hotel.
“An instantaneously recognizable masterpiece.” –The New York Times A hallucinatory cinematic fever dream, Dawson City: Frozen Time tells the bizarre true story of some 533 silent film reels, dating from the 1910s and 20s, that accumulated at the end of a film distribution line in northwestern Canada and which were miraculously discovered some 50 years later, in 1978, buried in a sub-arctic swimming pool, deep in the Yukon permafrost. Filmmaker Bill Morrison (Decasia, The Miners’ Hymns, The Great Flood) deftly combines excerpts from this remarkable collection with historical footage, photographs, and original interviews, to explore the complicated history of Dawson City, a Canadian Gold Rush town founded across the river from a First Nation hunting camp, and then traces how the development of that town both reflected and influenced the evolution of modern Cinema. Combined with a powerful, evocative score by Alex Somers (Captain Fantastic; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Honey Boy), Dawson City: Frozen Time is a triumphant work of art that spins the life cycle of a singular film collection into a breath-taking history of the 20th century. This film presentation will be accompanied by a live performance of the score by L.A.’s contemporary ensemble Wild Up and a girls choir from the National Children’s Chorus. Funds provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation multi-year grant for Collaborative Intersections in the Visual and Performing Arts with additional support from The Theatre at Ace Hotel.
“A force to be reckoned with, [Avery*Sunshine] showcases her emotions through nuanced vocal performances, selling her artistry with the utmost consistency.” —Popmatters
In a genre that is inundated with singers, AVERY*Sunshine has forged a career by staying true to her musical vision. Fluent in many languages from soul and house to jazz and hip hop, she expresses herself with a voice that speaks boldly and tells a uniquely familiar story—a story about love and loss, healing and finding the newness of oneself in the midst of it all. Her repertoire features soulful, in-the-pocket R&B grooves, sublime ballads, exquisite arrangements with lush orchestration and exuberant, life-affirming gospel. The Atlanta-based singer/songwriter’s no-holds- barred signature sound has also garnered her acclaim from such pop luminaries as Patti LaBelle, Berry Gordy and Boy George. Career milestones include opening for Babyface at Madison Square Garden, performing for Smokey Robinson at his Rock
‘n Roll Hall of Fame tribute and taking the stage twice with the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Sunshine is joined by her musical partner (and husband) Dana Johnson, a classically-trained guitarist, gifted lyricist, producer and the man behind the tracks.
Funds provided by the Kevin Jeske Young Artists Fund
with additional support from The Theatre at Ace Hotel.