In the last four years, we've interviewed some of the artists included in the New York Times' annual look at the future of music.
On the weekend, The New York Times’ Sunday Magazine included “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going.” The annual list this year includes songs by Lil Yachty, Frank Ocean, Future, Adele, Mitski, and Kelala. Among the 25 songs are some that we have covered here at My Spilt Milk. In the issue, Amy Phillips wrote about Pentatonix version of “Jolene” with special guest Dolly Parton.
Pentatonix’s music is indeed relentlessly wholesome — just five voices cooing and trilling and humming cheerily along. There is nothing dangerous or dark or threatening in their work, which consists mostly of chaste covers of pop hits and Christmas songs. No sex, only kissing. No bad behavior, no cursing and certainly no politics. The five members of Pentatonix, though, represent a rainbow coalition of historically marginalized groups. Maldonado, the group’s lone woman, is Hispanic. One of the male lead singers, Mitch Grassi, is openly gay. He and the other male lead, Scott Hoying, have a side-project YouTube series called “Superfruit,” which sells tank tops that say “Marriage Is So Gay.” Avi Kaplan, the basso profundo, is Jewish, and Kevin Olusola, the beat-boxer, is black and a practicing Seventh-day Adventist.
The song is a natural extension of the series of videos Pentatonix released starting in 2012 that featured them singing a cappella covers of hits, including Justin Timberlake’s “Pusher Lover Girl.” In 2013, we wrote:
The Justin Timberlake song is just one of the hits of the day that Pentatonix covers on its YouTube channel, most garnering millions of views. The channel was part of a conscious effort to let people know the group still existed and remained active after The Sing-Off, but it began organically when someone shot them singing Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" in a living room. "Most reality show winners, if they don't do anything within an allotted time, people forget about them," Mitch Grassi says. "We really didn't want that to happen, so we wanted to be always always coming out with something new. And, keep our fans engaged at the same time."
Ryan Bradley wrote about Mica Levi and Oliver Coates’ collaboration in The New York Times:
In 2011, Coates was working on a commission for the London Sinfonietta and suggested a collaboration with Micachu and the Shapes, who were already trying to, in Levi’s words, “smudge a whole lot of things together.” For the Sinfonietta collaboration, Levi and her bandmates, following in [Harry] Partch’s footsteps, deployed a new instrument she had built with a friend called the chopper—a hollow box with strings on top and a rotating wheel to pluck them, like a turntable that strummed. The live album that resulted, filled with wobbly, off-kilter strings, was called “Chopped and Screwed” (a nod to screw music, the Houston hip-hop style). It landed in the hands of the filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, who was looking for someone to score “Under the Skin,” his film about an alien exploring earth in a woman’s body. He wanted an experienced composer who had never written music for a movie, someone who would come at the task differently. “I think he wanted someone who was, you know, cheap,” Levi said.
In 2012 when Levi’s band Micachu and the Shapes were in New Orleans to open for Animal Collective, Alex Rawls talked to her about creating new instruments.
"Instrument-creating with bits and bobs," Levi starts. "When I was in my late teens, I got interested in Harry Partch, and he did his own thing. It seemed so logical to me. If you're making your own music, why not make the instruments you're making them on?" Unfortunately, her homemade instruments are too fragile to travel with, and because they're largely acoustic instruments, they're tough to use in concert settings. It's not much of a sacrifice on this tour to travel without them because as alien as Never can sound, those instruments played only a small part in its making. Never is what it is because of what the band plays, not what it plays with.
Although I’ve been listening to him for years, I have begun to think of him as interpreter of the places “out here in the middle,” as he puts it one song. He has written about Cheyenne, Wyo.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Wewahitchka, Fla; about crab fishermen, soldiers and Walmart stockers. His songs tap into resentments about things like coastal attitudes of superiority and political correctness. His narrators are often white men who know the Bible, own guns and give their kids a nip of vodka in their Cherry Coke to get through long road trips. A Texan friend of mine likes to say that McMurtry writes as though he has spent time eavesdropping on conversations in every Dairy Queen in America. Stephen King, who owns a classic-rock station in Maine, has written that he “may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.”
In 2015, Alex Rawls wrote:
The precise language and storytelling in McMurtry’s songs suggest that his lyrics are carefully crafted. The vocabulary of “Carlisle’s Haul” is so specific that it’s easy to imagine him doing research to find it, but that wasn’t the case. What little he knows he picked up as a teenager in the ’70s while visiting a friend’s summer house near the mouth of the Potomac River. For the most part, McMurtry writes syllable by syllable, finding his story a detail and action at a time. Because the characters in his stories are so concrete, it’s tempting to assume that he has thought them through. That, like most assumptions and conclusions you’re inclined to draw about James McMurtry, would be wrong. How well does he know the people in his songs? “About as well as you know someone at the end of the bar who you talked to for three hours for no particular reason.”