By Izzi Bavis
Back in March 2020, before everything happened, I was preparing for South By Southwest (SXSW). I was on-air hosting Live@WSUM when I got a text revealing that the event was canceled due to COVID-19. I was devastated but I quickly came to understand the severity of the pandemic, living at home in Evanston for three months showed me that. Finally back in Madison, I attempted to adjust to the new life, the life of Instagram live streams for Live@WSUM, Zoom for classes and even a virtual SXSW. Things are a bit more “normal” now, and for my last semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I have the amazing opportunity to attend SXSW through WSUM.
If you are unaware or unfamiliar with SXSW, don’t feel embarrassed. Most people I talk to about it either know everything or nothing at all. Hosted in Austin, Texas, the 10-day festivals and conferences surround the arts (music, film, comedy) and professional industries (speakers, panels, roundtable discussions). The experience started in 1987, they had one music keynote speaker and 177 artists with 15 stages. This year there are 11 keynote speakers including Lizzo, Beck and my personal favorite, Michelle Zauner. In terms of musical artists there are over 300 artists performing, I’d guess there are probably around 500 but I’m not going to count the entire list. The cool thing about SXSW is that they try to focus on new artists, it’s a great way to break into the scene. Albeit it is difficult, those that make the cut are lucky.
So who should you be looking out for? Well as I sit, stranded at O’Hare International Airport, I am going to write a little bit about the artists I’m excited to see (NOTE: this was a lot more than I anticipated, so each artist will get a line or two and a song I recommend).
Ada Lea (Montréal, QC)
Recommended song: “Backyard”
Striped down, indie songs. The long rambling lyrics and titles initially drew me to this project and Ada Lea.
alexalone (Austin, TX)
Recommended song: “Unpacking my Feelings”
alexalone is like a jam/grunge project. You feel incredibly angsty while the tracks are playing but there is an element of jamming and each musician searching for their sound.
Alex the Astronaut (Sidney, Australia)
Recommended song: “Caught in the Middle”
If you are searching for easy listening pop adjacent music, look no further. Alex the Astronaut makes me want to memorize all their lyrics so I can drive on the highway with the windows down singing their songs with my friends.
Babehoven (Hudson, NY)
Recommended song: “Alt. Lena”
I love Babehoven. “Alt. Lena” is a different version of their popular song, “Lena.” What I admire about Babehoven is that it just feels real. Like just honest, good music. It’s soft, but that helps the little diddies they create.
Bad Bad Hats (Minneapolis, MN)
Recommended song: “Priority”
Bad Bad Hats has a special place in my heart. They were the band that was on Live@WSUM the day I found out that SXSW 2020 was canceled. Their music is perfect midwestern pop.
Call Me Spinster (Chattanooga, TN)
Recommended song: “Long Hard Day”
A combination of enchanting vocals, captivating lyrics and haunting tracks, Call Me Spinster is a unique group. “Long Hard Day” is just beautiful.
Cassandra Jenkins (New York, NY)
Recommended song: “Crosshairs”
During one of my internships I found Cassandra Jenkins. When I listen to this sweet, sweet artist I think of February in my old apartment. Snuggled with my roommates, the snow falling in slow motion.
CHAI (Nagoya, Japan)
Recommended song: “Salty”
CHAI is exciting. They are engaging, bright and funny. I first heard about them when they released their 2019 project, PUNK. If you want something punk and art-pop adjacent, I recommend diving into CHAI’s discography.
CMAT (Dublin, Ireland)
Recommended song: “I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!”
Oh, CMAT, how you remind me of my sweet friend, Anne. Such great memories of dancing to your music and playing it on-air.
Dolly Parton (Nashville, TN)
Recommended song (is this even necessary?): “Jolene”
The queen herself. In a way I just don’t believe that she’s actually going to be there. Regardless, one of the few CDs I own is a compilation of her greatest hits that I picked up at a record/CD store in Indianapolis.
Ezra Furman (Chicago, IL)
Recommended song: “Point Me Toward the Real”
Ezra Furman’s voice and lyrics make you think that this came out sometime in the late 80’s. The ballads are slow and full of longing and sometimes unnecessary narratives. But in all the best ways.
Girlpool (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended song: “It Gets More Blue”
All of a sudden it’s 2019 and I biked to the Sett to catch the Girlpool show. There they are, near the Badger Market. I love them, I love them, I love them. Everything they make is fantastic and I can’t wait to see them in Texas!
Gully Boys (Minneapolis, MN)
Recommended song: “Sugar Scrub”
A good midwestern punk band. Clever lyrics, catchy riffs and an all around fun vibe. On top of everything, I have heard from many music folks that this is a band to look out for.
Half Gringa (Chicago, IL)
Recommended song: “Force to Recon”
An honest voice, intimate songs. Half Gringa keeps it real with her unique voice. I love the way she approaches song writing. She played Live@WSUM during our little stint of Instagram live sessions.
Horsegirl (Chicago, IL)
Recommended song: “Ballroom Dance Scene”
Okay, come on! These kids ROCK. I saw them at Pitchfork (where I’m pretty sure they were the youngest performers). Their music is fun and fresh and makes me so proud to live so close to Chicago.
IAN SWEET (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended song: “Bug Museum”
Something about listening to early IAN SWEET at O’Hare that just makes me want to run really fast. Like I need to release all this energy and it has to be with IAN SWEET wailing.
Japanese Breakfast (Philadelphia, PA)
Recommended song: “In Hell”
Japanese Breakfast’s album was my favorite that came out in 2021. I’ve been slowly working through her book as well and she is a fantastic writer. Her lyrics and instrumentation are fun and catchy and her artistry goes beyond just her musical career.
KAINA (Chicago, IL)
Recommended song: “Blue (feat. Helado Negro)”
I’ve been listening to KAINA since 2018 and I love this new project she released earlier this month. It’s slow, honest and easy to listen to.
Kainalu (Madison, WI)
Recommended song: “Revelator”
From the very place I’m leaving, Kainalu is fun and funky. This new single is the perfect jam.
Katy Kirby (Austin, TX)
Recommended song: “Juniper”
Me and my dear friend, Zoey, were originally going to SXSW in 2020. Now I’m going without her and it feels wrong in a way. However, our mutual favorite artist, Katy Kirby, will be there. I can’t wait to sing along and dance to this track. Katy Kirby is a sweet, sweet musician. I was lucky to interview her last year.
Kishi Bashi (Athens, GA)
Recommended song: “Wait for Springtime”
If you love a man singing about longing with a banjo, you’ve found your next project. Kishi Bashi’s heartfelt lyrics and twangy influences create a mesmerizing soundscape.
Le Ren (Montréal, QC)
Recommended song: “Was I Not Enough”
Le Ren will break your heart and you’ll love it. This project came out and I sat staring out the window pretending I was in an emotional music video. I wonder what her set will be like…
Luna Li (Toronto, ON)
Recommended song: “Boring Again (feat. Jay Som)”
Some classic grooves, and I’m here for it. Very easy to get into Luna Li’s projects and jam to.
Lunar Vacation (Athens, GA)
Recommended song: “Making Lunch (Right Now)”
This band is so sweet and cute. I love the little tracks they make and I just want to dance with my friends in my living room to them.
Madison McFerrin (Brooklyn, NY)
Recommended song: “Dream”
Madison McFerrin is a very special artist for me, she was the cover star for EMMIE Music Magazine in 2020. She is stunning and an inspiration, I look forward to seeing her perform in person!
Magdalena Bay (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended song: “Dawning of the Season”
Fun and flirty dance music. If you want something to get down to, I recommend spinning their most recent project.
Mamalarky (Athens, GA)
Recommended song: “Meadow”
If you need some fun and upbeat music to lose yourself in, Mamalarky has you covered. Their tracks make you want to walk by a body of water.
Maxo Kream (Houston, TX)
Recommended song: “Local Joker”
Maxo Kream’s tracks are clever. You lose yourself in his flow and lyrics. I found myself listening to his entire discography after this track.
ME REX (London, England)
Recommended song: “Jupiter Pluvius”
Some sweet pop punk to start your day with! If you want something that sounds similar to the Front Bottoms, look no further.
Mini Trees (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended song: “Cracks in the Pavement”
Some sweet and light indie tunes! This project smells like summer and fresh air.
MJ Lenderman (Asheville, NC)
Recommended song: “Someone Get the Grill Out of the Rain”
Saw them play in Madison a few weeks ago, when this song came on I freaked out and instantly became their biggest fan.
Moor Mother (Philadelphia, PA)
Recommended song: “Obsidian (feat. Pink Siifu)”
If you are looking for music that will make you rethink music then take a look at Moor Mother and their most recent project. The way they approach soundscapes is where contemporary music is heading.
Mt. Joy (Philadelphia, PA)
Recommended song: “Rearrange Us”
I met Mt. Joy a few years ago at the Sylvee. They were fun to see and super enthusiastic about me and my friend taking a picture. This song was sent to me and I listened to it on repeat when I flew from Utah to Chicago.
MUNA (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended song: “Silk Chiffon”
SILK. CHIFFON. A top tier track for a top tier band.
The Pink Stones (Athens, GA)
Recommended song: “Love Me Hardly”
The Pink Stones are the only country band I think I’ve ever listened to. Their twangyness is charming and their songs are fun.
Pom Pom Squad (Brooklyn, NY)
Recommended song: “Red With Love”
Female fronted rock adjacent group. I could see myself moshing to this song.
REYNA (Milwaukee, WI)
Recommended song: “you could at least say goodbye”
A sweet, sweet duo from the ole MKE. I love Wisconsin, and this track makes me want to take the Badger Bus.
Runnner (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended song: “Ur Name on a Grain of Rice”
If you couldn’t tell, I’m a sucker for a man with a banjo. Despite being from Los Angeles, Runnner could really be a Philadelphia musician. Just based on this song alone.
SASAMI (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended song: “Pacify My Heart”
She is crazy, but she is free. That’s what I think about when I listen to SASAMI. I can just clearly visualize her singing this song in the studio, so honest and personal.
The Shivas (Portland, OR)
Recommended song: “You Make Me Wanna Die”
My best friend showed me this song when I was struggling with an unrequited love from 2019. On repeat till 2020.
Skirts (Dallas, TX)
Recommended song: “Swim”
Found this album when I was working a remote internship. I listened to it a lot before it came out officially and the sweet taste in my mouth has never left. Feels wholesome and sad, but in a good way.
Snapped Ankles (London, England)
Recommended song: “Undilated Lovers”
Snapped Ankles makes me feel punk rock and cool. I will be sending this one to my boyfriend to assert that I know a cool grunge English band.
Sour Widows (Oakland, CA)
Recommended song: “Crossing Over”
Let me just…cry. Sour Widows are very good but they tend to be for the emotional folk.
S. Raekwon (New York, NY)
Recommended song: “Do You Feel the Same?”
S. Raekwon is the product of a DJ finding out about singer-songwriter music. It’s angsty, depressing but backed with well produced beats.
Strawberry Guy (Liverpool, England)
Recommended song: “Mrs. Magic”
Blew up on Tik Tok and now is at SXSW. Tik Tok changes lives.
Sun June (Austin, TX)
Recommended song: “Karen O”
Sun June makes me want to lie in a grass and stare at the clouds till the sunsets. Their music makes me want to pour my heart out to a stranger and cry alone after.
Tele Novella (Lockhart, TX)
Recommended song: “Words That Stay”
If you could bottle up the feeling of going on a road trip and traveling from the Midwest to the South, this is what would pour out.
tomppabeats (Helsinki, Finland)
Recommended song: “Monday Loop”
ALL OF A SUDDEN I’M 16 TAKING THE L WITH MY HIGH SCHOOL FRIEND AND DOING THINGS WE NOW REGRET.
Waltzer (Chicago, IL)
Recommended song: “Eugene”
I love a Chicago outfit, and I love a Chicago rock outfit fronted by a woman. Not to mention this song is about trying to get into Eugene’s jeans. I love it.
Wednesday (Asheville, NC)
Recommended song: “November”
THIS BAND ROCKS AND I CAN’T WAIT TO DANCE TO THEM. THE HOLD THEY HAVE OVER ME…THIS WAS THE FIRST BAND I PUT ON THIS LIST.
Wet Leg (Isle of Wight, England)
Recommended song: “Chaise Lounge”
This band is cool. Whenever I hang out with my boyfriend’s friends his friend always puts on Wet Leg. To be honest, I thought they were way bigger than they are because of how much I’ve passively listened to them.
Weyes Blood (Los Angeles, CA)
Recommended sond: “Suddenly (feat. Drugdealer)”
She’s just playing solo but she’s an icon.
Zelma Stone (San Francisco, CA)
Recommended song: “Come Back”
To end this list we have Zelma Stone! A little fun pop outfit that will have the crowd swaying and Googling her after the set.
This list took WAY longer to complete than I thought. If you’ve made it this far…much love.