Five Rising LA Artists You Need to Hear
We spoke to five acts you absolutely need to know about before everyone else does
CoSigns takes a monthly plunge into the world of music discovery, profiling five artists that you absolutely need to know about before everyone else does.
If you aren’t careful, Los Angeles will eat you alive. Many artists and musicians flock to the city hoping to find a kind of creative paradise, only to be met with professional failure, perpetual traffic jams, and a creeping sense of isolation that feels uncanny in a metropolis of this size. But there are some — believe it or not — who thrive in this place where the weather’s always nice and the stakes are always high.
LA demands a lot from its artists. It can be discouraging to walk along Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park and think, “Holy shit, everyone here is also in a band.” On the other hand, it can also be enlivening. To stand out in a city like this takes a little something extra, and each of the five artists we’ve CoSigned this month — Bishop Briggs, Steady Holiday, Bloodboy, Alex Izenberg, and Springtime Carnivore — have that something extra. They may be going it alone in the city’s dense and crowded music scene, but they don’t lack for confidence. In fact, they’re already looking beyond the palm trees and vast concrete expanses. “I think of Steady Holiday as bigger than just a Los Angeles project,” says Dre Babinski, and maybe that’s the key to thriving here: You’ve got to be bigger. You’ve got to own that bigness.
Photo by Philip Cosores
It’s not often that the future of alternative radio slaps you in the face on a sleepy Tuesday night, but that’s how I was first introduced to Bishop Briggs. When the electro-soul singer took the stage at historic West Hollywood venue The Troubadour, I had yet to hear so much as a note of her music. But the buzz at the sold-out show was palpable, and the few songs Briggs went on to perform during her abbreviated set (“Wild Horses”, “River”, “The Way I Do”) struck me as familiar in the way all predestined megahits do.
With a sound that blends huge trap beats with slithering rock melodies and a voice that could topple a concrete wall, Briggs isn’t long for clubs like The Troubadour. Anyone present in the audience that night would agree: A force of nature like this belongs in a goddamn arena. So I was gratified to find out, just a few months later, that the young singer was opening for Coldplay at the Rose Bowl. It’s hard to go up from there, but I’m confident she’ll find a way.
We were hoping to profile you as more of a rising artist, but you’ve exploded so quickly just over the course of the past year. You went from being relatively unknown to opening for Coldplay. Has that been a difficult thing for you to process, and does it ever seem like kind of a weird dream?
I mean, if it’s a dream, it’s the best dream ever. I think it depends. When it comes to writing, I really try to disassociate from everything that’s happening. It’s so exciting, but I want to make sure that I don’t bring that pressure into writing. With everything else, I’ve just been trying to enjoy it as much as I can and just really appreciate everything that’s happening. For me, this whole dream is about waking up each day and being able to make music. And so, with all of these things that are happening, what’s so exciting to me is I get to wake up every day and make music and perform. That’s really the goal.
Speaking of the performative aspect of your music, I first saw you at a small club and have since seen videos of you at the Rose Bowl, performing in front of this massive arena. Do you feel like your live show has had the chance to develop to that point yet? When you get out on those huge stages, are you ever like, “Oh my god, what do I do now?”
Even when I was performing in little coffee shops to three people who were checking their phones, I would perform as if it was a stadium full of people that were so excited to see me. Almost to a fault, where I think it was a little too much for the little coffee shops that I was performing in [Laughs]. It was definitely out of place. But I’ve always remained the same. The goal is to reach as many people as I can, and I think performing as if it’s your last really means putting everything you have into it. So whether it’s a small stage or the Rose Bowl — which is insane, that I can say I’ve played that now — I just try to keep that mentality of trying to prove to anyone and everyone that I’m worth listening to.
Can you think back to what the smallest stage you’ve ever played on was?
Yes! Of course I can. It was like a year ago! [Laughs.]
Because I know the Rose Bowl, but I’m curious about the other end of the extreme.
Well, I guess the smallest of all stages was in Japan, which was in front of my parents and my sister in the living room. They were the toughest crowd, as you can imagine. But there are ones that I found in LA that were very small and that either meant it would be an amazing, intimate show or very bad, and you’d just want to leave very quickly afterwards.
Speaking of your mom and dad, do you think your parents had a much bigger influence on your tastes growing up, just because you were living with them in a foreign country? Were you going out to shows when you were a teenager? Were you exploring the local scene in Hong Kong?
With music, it depends on how you absorb it. I was such a lone wolf growing up that I really loved listening to music at home, and at that time it was whatever was available in the CD section of our house. So I think musically growing up with all the Motown music and The Beatles really influenced me, but when it comes to the people that I met along the way, that was all the writing material. There was so much to write about with every person I met, whether it was being heartbroken or feeling fulfilled, I think that’s something that really comes with the people you meet while living in these places.
I can see that. With the songs that you’ve been putting out recently, I notice you’ve been collaborating with Mark Jackson and Ian Brendan Scott. I assume you’re the real creative force behind these songs, but I’m wondering if working with these producers and working with other people has helped show you how huge you can sound. Because one of the things about your music I’ve noticed is just how big it is. You use these huge trap beats, and everything about it seems to be made for these big arenas.
Ah, thank you. I mean, I am not the creative force behind it at all. It really is a collaborative thing that becomes that creative force. At least I hope it becomes that. But all I can say is, collaborating with them, I really have felt like everything that I was trying to do before and trying to say before came to light. They really introduced this trap, hip-hop element that I was seeking for a long time, but I just didn’t know how to combine it with the soulful music that I wanted to write and the depressing lyrics that I wanted to have along with it. So it was definitely a game-changer when I met them.
I imagine it must be hard to sit in your room writing these songs and not really know what you can really accomplish in the studio or on the stage with the right tools.
And I think sometimes it really works well when you write that song on your own and make it as dark as you need it to be, but then when you bring it into the studio, that’s when things can have a new element added that may uplift it and maybe give it more life than it would have had before.
I also heard that you grew up doing a lot of karaoke, and I was wondering if you have a go-to karaoke song that you still lean on?
That’s the thing, I need to do more karaoke because I still haven’t found my song. But I think the one I always feel comfortable singing no matter what time of day would be “Oh, Darling” by The Beatles. You can go crazy in it, you can bring it up, bring it down, the lyrics are kind of simpler. Though you don’t really need that in karaoke, because you do have the lyrics written there [Laughs].
Photo by Philip Cosores
Dre Babinski is happy to be taking photos at the Edendale Branch Library. She’s not a stranger to the Echo Park spot; it’s near her home and a prime people-watching location. But she’s also happy that the location isn’t definitively Angeleno. We’re not shooting with the LA skyline in the background or at Urban Lights or one of the many other spots that place images firmly in a time and space. “I think of Steady Holiday as bigger than just a Los Angeles project,” she says, owning her ambition.
This isn’t the logical conclusion of years slaving away as an unappreciated songwriter. Babinski spent years not as a bandleader, but as a side-player in bands like Hunter Hunted, Dusty Rhodes & the River Band, and Miracle Days. Often projects would require her to play violin, the instrument she trained on in her school years, but Steady Holiday is a result of her picking up a guitar and writing on an instrument she was less experienced with, resulting in material that merges calm indie pop with gentle psychedelic intonations. Her songs sound like transmissions from an old soul, toeing the line between antique and contemporary.
“One of the things I’m trying to let go of as an artist is the ideas that prowess is important,” she says. “It is to a certain degree. I want to be able to play my songs. Beyond that, creation is so much more important than technicality or cleverness or all the heady, educational things that really haunt me.”
Babinski offered up her debut as Steady Holiday in June, being invited by Paul Tollett to play Coachella this year before the album had even dropped. And though she’s still very much supporting Under the Influence, including an upcoming tour opening for Islands and a local LA headline date at the Bootleg Theater on November 15th, she’s also looking forward to what’s next, ready to test the limits of where her creative endeavors can take her.
Photo by Philip Cosores
When you started out playing music, were you comfortable with being a side-player, or did you always want to be the creative director?
I definitely didn’t want to be in charge. I was just floating and didn’t know what I wanted. I was happy to be playing music in any capacity because it gave me some context in this world. I can’t even say that I “loved” playing. I liked being a part of something. I liked having friends and traveling. The whole experience of it was attractive and cool to me, but I didn’t have any aspirations of creating until pretty recently.
So, where did the aspiration come to start your own project?
I’m not sure what changed. I’ve always felt like I needed a role in what I’m doing, and playing other people’s music just wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t satisfying. And it took me many years and many tours to realize I wasn’t enjoying myself. I just wasn’t really in tune with my own body and mind for a really long time. And once I started paying more attention to that, I realized how unhappy I was in my own life and in my music. So at that point, I quit doing sideman work and took a lot of time to reflect to figure out if I even wanted to play music at all. It brought me so much sadness and frustration and judgement.
But once I took a step back from that and started taking care of myself, taking care of my head, I realized that for longer than I’ve even realized, I wanted to front my own project and validate my own ideas and creativity.
What’s the learning curve like?
I’m not a prolific writer at all. I started playing guitar six or seven years ago, and every new chord I would learn, I wrote a song. So I wrote like seven songs over the course of four years. But I kept writing and playing around with Garageband, and I accumulated a body of work that I liked and was ready to be recorded. I had the resources and the opportunity with the producer that I worked with, who I felt a real connection with. The opportunity that it all represented was more than making a record. It was me taking myself seriously. I was taking my art seriously and taking my own life seriously. No one else is here, no one else is making that decision for me like I let happen the rest of my life before that.
What was the biggest challenge for you in creating your own material?
Doing it alone. Being alone throughout the process, not having that sounding board, and choosing not to. It was a decision that I actively made, and it was a hard one. And it continues to be difficult. It’s lonely to make things on your own, to fail on your own, and to succeed on your own. There’s no one to share this. I still want it this way, but it’s hard.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Especially considering what you said, where your initial reason that you got into music was the community aspect of feeling a part of something. Now it’s completely different.
Totally. That’s one thing that I’ve learned from playing live shows for this project — how fun it is to play with people and make decisions with people. It’s been really informative, especially in terms of writing the next record. I want to write with a little more direction this time, because I know I’m going to be playing it live. I know it’s fun to play loud and distorted and fast. I plan to maintain the same level of integrity but with a much different approach.
Have you already started working on the next album?
Yes. I’ve now written with a couple different people, which is something I’ve never done before and is a very vulnerable experience, more so than even sharing the songs I’ve written on my own. To be in a room and create something with another person is wildly more vulnerable for some reason. Relinquishing a bit of control and letting the best decision win, it’s all something I’ve never had the confidence to do, and it feels really good. I also feel more confident about performing the songs I’ve created with someone else because I don’t feel so attached, like I have to bleed on stage every time.
Not many people would consider getting kicked off their high-school surf team “lucky,” but it’s hard for Lexie Papilion to see it any other way. The incident led her to focus more seriously on music, and the songs she ended up writing in college gave her more satisfaction than any competition trophy. Smothered in distortion and reminiscent of the punk she grew up listening to, those songs only sort of resemble the bracing, anthemic indie pop Papilion is producing today under the moniker of Bloodboy. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
Now in her mid-20s and about to release her debut EP, Bloodboy has found a comfortable home in the space between dirty, nasty punk and shimmering electropop. She doesn’t consider herself a pop artist, per se, but a voice as impressive as hers has nowhere to end up but the FM airwaves. Listening to a deceptively complex arrangement like “Drunk You”, it’s scary to think that the late-blooming musician only recently learned how to play guitar after stubbornly refusing for years. Scary, and a little unfair.
How’d you find your way to performing as a solo pop artist? Listening to your debut EP, it doesn’t register as something that a solo artist would put out. It has a very heavy, full-band sound, with parts for every instrument.
It’s interesting that you have placed the “pop” parameters on it, because I never really thought of it that way, and that’s something I hear all the time. I guess I just innately write pop songs, but I didn’t grow up listening to pop music, and I didn’t ever intend to be writing pop music. In fact, I struggled with it for a long time, and I hated that the shit that would come out of me was so pop-leaning. Because I grew up listening to mainly early punk, and I could never execute that.
But early punk is still very pop-oriented.
It is, that’s true. But sonically, because I was producing for such a long time at such a rudimentary level, I couldn’t execute the ideas that I wanted to. I could hear it, but I couldn’t get it to sound that way. So for a long time, I would take songs to producers, and they would be like, “This sounds like electropop.” And I would say, “No! That’s not what I want!”
So are you going for something more punk-influenced or more rough around the edges? Because when I think of electropop, I think more of shimmery synth-type stuff.
Me too, and that’s definitely not what I was going for. I think it was also a product of me not playing guitar. I didn’t grow up playing guitar, and for some reason I completely dismissed the entire idea of learning guitar. I have no idea why! I grew up playing piano, and despite listening almost exclusively to early punk music, I just didn’t learn how to play guitar.
Probably because you grew up listening to early punk music.
[Laughs.] Right? But then I had that revelation that, if I could pick up a guitar and at least play chords, maybe I could better convey my ideas. And so I did that a couple of years ago. I still suck, but I wrote most of the parts on the EP with the exception of Dave Depper, who’s now playing with [Death Cab for Cutie]; he came in and played some really amazing guitar parts.
Photo by Philip Cosores
How in control of your music do you feel? Especially in LA, where there’s all these producers around and a lot of people telling you what you should sound like, what you should include, what you should not include. Do you feel comfortable with that, and do you feel like you ultimately have the final say in your creative work?
I’m very lucky. The team of people I’ve worked with have been so like, “Just do whatever you want to do.” I’ve been with my manager for like three years now, and he has seen this project take so many different turns and never once has he expressed any sort of, “You’d be better suited doing this or doing this.”
Producer-wise, though, yes. I feel like that was much harder for me to find someone I was creatively compatible with. I started working with a close friend of mine a few years back, and he was super supportive and nurturing of my ideas, but we just weren’t really on the same page. I went on to work with several other producers who — one of them wouldn’t even let me be in the room when he was working on the stuff. I was just like, “I can’t.” To me, that’s not a collaboration, and that’s not the way that I prefer to work.
But as much as my stuff may sound rough around the edges, these songs were a lot rougher. The earlier versions definitely had way more distortion. I did have someone tell me, “You can’t go full Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti lo-fi, that’s going to do you a disservice.” And I was like, “Well, what if I want that?”
Photo by Philip Cosores
I feel like you do benefit from the production on your EP, though, which really threads the needle between that blown-out pop sound you hear on the radio and the stuff you hear at The Satellite on a given Wednesday night.
So, I saw that your press bio describes you as a “former surfer.”
Yeah, everyone likes to talk about the surfing [Laughs].
We don’t have to! I’m just curious, because it seemed like an interesting piece of info.
I grew up in San Clemente, where surfing is more important than football. I started surfing pretty young, and I loved it for a long time. I competed on the surf team and got to travel a lot, which was cool. Missed a lot of school, which was also cool [Laughs]. I actually got kicked off when I was 17 for getting drunk at one of the competitions, and it was kind of traumatizing at the time. That was really the world that I lived in. So I decided to kind of stop, and I went to college and started taking music seriously again.
So you’re a bit of a late bloomer.
A very late bloomer. The artist thing kind of only happened in the last two years! So it was a very late revelation [Laughs].
Photo by Nicky and Juliana Giraffe
Alex Izenberg doesn’t feel the need to speak much. A series of yes’s and no’s form a stark contrast to the 25-year-old’s multi-layered and gorgeous melodic crescendos. He occupies the density of Scott Walker, the indie pop of Tobias Jesso Jr, and the sonic tapestry of Grizzly Bear/The Antlers. Though fledgling in conversation at first, Izenberg isn’t phased by the chaos of missed connections, perhaps because he is so familiar with singing about them. His new album, Harlequin, swells with complex strings, horns, and piano, supporting a voice that bursts wide open when talking about music. Exes, crushes, and Emily Dickinson poems-turned-songs (“A Bird Came Down”) — Izenberg is rising and we’re ready for the show.
[When we first reached Izenberg via phone, he hadn’t yet woken up.]
Sorry about earlier. I was just waking up, but I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself.
Okay, thank you, that’s better. I was getting concerned!
So I started playing music by playing guitar because I would be at my best friend’s parents’ apartment all the time, and his big brother had a Fender Strat that I’d always seen him play, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. One day when I was 13, my parents took me to get a Fender. I was at the guitar store, and Linda Perry came up to me while I was playing guitar and thought I was so good that she bought me a guitar. Have you heard of Linda Perry?
Ha! Yes of course, from 4 Non Blondes. So she just bought a guitar for a stranger?
Yeah, and then we stayed in touch. I was at her studio a lot, and she started coming to my band’s rehearsals. She really acted like the “band mom” and eventually signed us to her label, Custard Records, and we put out an EP. We went on tour with Roger Daltry for two months, and when we got back, the band kicked me out.
Oh no! Why?
I guess because I wasn’t paying enough attention to the music, and I wasn’t networking on tour to help broaden our fan base. I didn’t really see it coming to be honest, and then around the same time my girlfriend of two years who I was obsessed with broke up with me. I was very sad at that period of my life. I would even go as far as to say that I was depressed. But, I’m also very proud of the record I’ve got out of it all.
It’s really wonderful.
Oh, you’ve heard it? Are there any songs that you like?
I really loved your first single, “To Move On”, with the accompanying Andy Warhol-inspired video of you eating a burger. “Changes” hit me quite hard, particularly the line, “If I had known that her heart was made of stone, I would flee.” That was quite heart-wrenching. What was that about?
During “Changes”, I was thinking about my ex, just thinking about me and how maybe if I changed my ways she would come back.
The piano lines are beautiful during the track “Grace”. What is the story of that track?
Well, when I was working on my record with J.R. [Chet “J.R.” White] from Girls in San Francisco, I met this girl named Grace who was working there. I thought she was really pretty, and we got talking, and I guess I might have had a crush on her. I kept showing her pictures of my dog, and she’d laugh, but then I saw she had an engagement ring on and a part of me felt really let down because I’m optimistic. I went into the studio, and I just wrote the song.
I’m assuming the line during “The Farm” — “The darkness had taken over me once I had seen her engagement ring” — is about her, too. Have you contacted her since?
I emailed her, Grace, and she never responded. We follow each other on Instagram, but she never likes any of my posts. She hasn’t liked one.
When you write songs like “The Moon” with that notable lowness and introspection, do you feel like it seeps into your personal life, or are you able to have a bit of distance to your songs?
I try to have distance from it because most of the songs are sad and about me not being loved.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I quite like the dark, which is possibly what fuels the light. The muck sometimes feels raw. What do you think is your guiltiest pleasure?
What is your greatest fear?
Tell me about the title of the album, Harlequin?
There is that band King Crimson. I don’t know if you know them, but in one of their lyrics during the song, they say, “Harlequins coin pointless games,” and that line always resonated with me. Sometimes I just feel like people are playing games with me, and I feel fed up with the world a lot. A harlequin is like a clown, sort of, and I kind of just feel victimized sometimes, and that line just resonated with me.
Photo by Julia Brokaw
Maybe you know Greta Morgan as the vocalist and pianist of the on-again, off-again indie rock group The Hush Sound, or maybe you know her as the songwriter for the summery jangle-pop project Gold Motel. But if you’ve never paid much attention to Morgan’s music in the past, that’s likely to change with the sophomore album from her solo project Springtime Carnivore.
Midnight Room is the result of a bad breakup, a serious bout of insomnia, and a songwriting process that involved piecing together fragmented phrases written on index cards in the early hours of the morning. But what Morgan lost in sleep and sanity while writing the album, she made up for with her strongest material to date. Unlike most breakup albums, Midnight Room is definitively not a bummer to listen to; tracks like lead single “Raised by Wolves” almost come across as playful until you listen closely to the lyrics.
When I called up Morgan to talk about the album, she was in the back of a van on the way to Springtime Carnivore’s first tour date in Pomona. We chatted about sleep schedules, Saves the Day, and how punk is really just girl-group pop in disguise. The last topic came about due to Morgan’s latest collaboration with Katy Goodman of La Sera, a punk covers album appropriately titled Take It, It’s Yours.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use songs to communicate with other people, and I think that so many of the songs on Midnight Room seem so clearly directed towards one person. I’m wondering if you’re using songwriting as a way to communicate something to someone that you couldn’t necessarily say outright.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m consistently shocked by the level of subconscious honesty that I can tap into when I’m just playing piano and kind of singing a bunch of nonsense. My process usually is that once I have a little seed of a song idea, I’ll just run my voice memo or a four-track and record for however long the song is coming. And when I go back and listen to a lot of stuff that comes in that state, I’m sort of shocked at the things that I hear myself say, because when I’m playing and singing I’ll just let a subconscious thought slip out that’s maybe more vulnerable than I would actually say to someone in conversation or write in a letter … But most of them are composite songs, so it’s not necessarily directed to one person.
You’ve described using a “collage” method of writing lyrics, where you write little snippets on index cards and then piece them together bit by bit. In that respect, do you look at Midnight Room more as a concept album? Not necessarily a “breakup” album, but an album where all the emotions swirling around it have to do with a particular time and place?
Thematically, all of the songs are definitely from the same universe, and one of the reasons I wanted to work with Chris Coady, who’s such a talented producer and engineer, is I think that’s his greatest strength: finding a band with a promising sound and helping them fine-tune their next record. He’s come in to a lot of bands’ careers for their second record, like Smith Westerns…
He did The Orwells’ second record, too.
Yeah! He’s so great at helping to fine-tune the sound so that the album can be totally cohesive and exist in a very specific universe where everything makes sense together.
Yeah, one of the things I noticed about the production on this one is that it’s not really lo-fi and it’s not really hi-fi, either. It’s drifting in and out in certain places, but it still sounds lush in its own ways.
Totally, and I think a lot of Chris’ records sound that way. He makes the kind of records where, if you found them in 40 years, it would be a little hard to pinpoint when they were actually made.
You did a lot of the writing for Midnight Room late at night, and I’m wondering if you’ve had a lot of experience with insomnia or if this was a new sensation for you?
I remember when I was a teenager and had a few emotional traumas that triggered periods of time when I was not sleeping very well. At that age, I would just play guitar in bed as a form of self-soothing. I don’t know, it depends. When I’m really emotional, I don’t sleep very well. But also, being out on tour, it’s oftentimes a really jagged schedule where we’re up late at night. But yeah, when I’m happy and healthy, I sleep through the night. I’m usually a good sleeper! I can kind of sleep anywhere.
Do songs often come to you in your dreams? I’ve had that same experience, but it’s frustrating because within moments of waking up, they’re gone. I feel like I need to keep a dream journal or something.
I definitely think that the most important thing to do is linger in bed in the morning for a few minutes. If you’re waking up from a dream, I think the worst thing you can do is look at your cell phone right away. So yeah, I’ve been pretty diligent about keeping dream journals since I was a teenager. I started journaling pretty actively when I was 12 and never really stopped, so that was just one part of it. I was really interested in Jungian psychology as a teenager, and as an adult I’ve been reading more about the Jungian archetypal type of psychology. It’s just interesting to read into all those things as symbols of whatever bigger pictures are happening in your life.
Photo by Lenae Day
With a song like “Raised by Wolves”, the subject matter doesn’t really seem to match the instrumentation, which strikes me as upbeat and even a little playful. Does that incongruence sort of match what your emotional state was like while writing this album?
It’s funny, because I recently went to FYF Fest and saw Saves the Day…
I was there, too!
No way! It takes a lot to make me run, and I sprinted to get there in time. But that record [Stay What You Are] came out in 2001, I think when I was in seventh grade, and I listened to it at summer camp every day. And it’s funny, because I feel like Saves the Day has these really intense lyrics that they’ll pair with a really upbeat melody or upbeat arrangement just to make it a little less overwrought. So I guess I try to counterbalance things in the same way.
Saves the Day is a really good example, actually, because that’s totally what they did on that album. It had that pop punk sound, but they brought a spacier, kind of menacing atmosphere to it.
The same thing with the Misfits. When we were writing [the punk covers album Take It, It’s Yours], Katy [Goodman] and I were talking about how so many of those punk bands like the Misfits and Ramones were inspired by ’50s and ’60s girl groups. So it was almost like, by us doing covers of those artists, we were circling them back to the influence. And those lyrics are really dark and masculine and aggressive, but they’re over this girl-group melody and upbeat arrangement. It makes it palatable in a very interesting way. It’s like having salty and sweet. What’s better than having a little bit of salty and sweet?
Originally published at consequenceofsound.net on October 12, 2016.