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The High Key Portrait Series: Strand of Oaks

Strand of Oaks | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in recurring installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.

It was by luck of the draw that Tim Showalter became a Philadelphian. Having spent his childhood in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana, the Strand Of Oaks frontman was sold on Philly by a childhood friend of his who’d already pioneered the relocation, and to hear Showalter tell it, it hardly even feels adopted, anymore.

He makes reference to that several times, in a recent interview with us, effusive in his affection for all he feels Philly has been able to offer him over the past decade and a half here. Wearing his beard long and his lumberjack coat red, Showalter reminisced warmly about wandering the Wissahickon, building out his band, getting to see Philly legend Jack Rose play hallowed local stages like Brenda’s — and then, with a sense of genuine gratitude, the good fortune of getting to later play them himself.

Showalter also talks “Winter Classic”: a lineup of several consecutive Strand Of Oaks shows that launches tonight at Boot And Saddle. On deck this week to celebrate a fourth year of these gigs with him are folk-singer Joe Pug, and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel. Continue reading →

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Watch John Legend get into the holiday spirit with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” video

John Legend in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” | still from youtube video

There’s plenty of holiday music to go around, but the season always seems a little more festive when a new tune comes our way. John Legend recently put his own stamp on some classic holiday songs with his new album A Legendary Christmas, and just released a fun, retro-inspired video for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The singer duets with Esperanza Spalding on the track, and the video sees both musicians decked out in their holiday best, reveling in the season’s festivities as they sing. Continue reading →

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Self-Discovery and Sincere Pop: In conversation with Helena Deland

Helena Deland
Helena Deland | photo by Jodi Heartz | courtesy of the artist

Patience is a virtue too often underestimated in today’s musical climate. When even the biggest pop stars of the world have taken to releasing their albums with little to no advanced notice, it can be easy to miss artists that take their time introducing their music, and themselves, to the world.

Take Montreal up and comer Helena Deland, for example. Over the past year, she’s slowly but surely made herself known by releasing a just handful of songs at a time, like a bedroom pop Body Talk. These songs, “volumes” of a collection called From the Series of Songs “Altogether Unaccompanied”, cover as wide a range of genres as they do feelings. Those emotions and genres come together under the umbrella of what Deland calls “sincere pop”. She’ll be presenting these songs, along with what could potentially be on her proper debut LP in time, via a run of U.S. shows through the first half of December that will include a stop at Philly’s own Johnny Brenda’s next Wednesday, December 5th.

Before those shows kick off, Helena was gracious enough to chat with The Key about what motivated her release schedule this year, what to expect on stage and on record, and how her view has changed on what pop music is and can be. Continue reading →

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WHY?’s Yoni Wolf talks about ten years of Alopecia and why I remind him of his dad

WHY? | photo courtesy of the artist

One year ago, WHY?’s Yoni Wolf — loquacious literary-inspired rapper, producer and instrumentalist, one-time Anticon label owner — returned to the famed home recording of his past with 2017’s Moh Lhean; this, after spending all of his time since 2008 stretching the boundaries of chamber-hop sound and lyricism with that same year’s Alopecia. This modern classic of angsty, alternative hip hop, a nasally intoned effort currently re-released on vinyl (“we can’t keep it in stock, as each pressing runs out quicker than the previous run,” says Wolf), and its tenth anniversary is cause enough for live celebration as WHY? pulls into Union Transfer on November 29. Continue reading →

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Two to Tango: The Midnight Hour’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge

The Midnight Hour
The Midnight Hour | photo courtesy of the artist

While T2T is normally reserved for a full-bill’s worth of entertainment, the joining of together legendary rapper/instrumentalist Ali Shaheed Muhammad (best known for his role in A Tribe Called Qwest) and equally audacious producer/player Adrian Younge (collaborator to Kendrick Lamar, Ghostface Killah and Philly’s own William Hart) for The Midnight Hour is worth breaking precedence.

The jazzy, soulful, and freeform orchestration, rhythms, and lyricism of the pair’s recorded output (their eponymous 2018 album, a soundtrack for Netflix’s Luke Cage) certainly does. I caught up with the dynamic duo — together, in separate cribs in Los Angeles — right before they camped out at Johnny Brenda’s for a mid-week jam, November 28. Continue reading →

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Draco Rosa’s Latin Lesson: Rock en espanol innovator (and Ricky Martin collaborator) returns with Monte Sagrado

Draco Rosa | photo courtesy of the artist

The only thing that matches the pleasure of speaking with Draco Rosa is listening to him, and his various shades of haunting sound across a three decade spectrum. If you don’t know him from his goth-tinged rock en espanol albums such as 1996’s Vagabundo, 2004’s Mad Love, 2013’s Vidam — or his new, epically psychedelic and metallic Monte Sagrado that brings the American-born, Puerto Rican artist to The Foundry November 28 — you know him from the 1990’s alterna-funk outfit, Maggie’s Dream.

If these passionately aching, and smartly conceptual albums have shamefully alluded you, there are smashes (“Living La Vida Loca,” “Maria,” “She Bangs”), that Rosa has co-written and/or produced for his pal, Ricky Martin, with whom he shared a tenure in the multi-platinum, Latino boy band, Menudo. Along with all that, Rosa is a coffee entrepreneur and farm owner, an activist, a cancer survivor and a cookbook author.

Phoning from Las Vegas rehearsals for last week’s live Latin Grammy Awards, Rosa sounded hale and hearty for a guy who had his second bone marrow transplant and beat cancer’s ass — for the second time in his life — earlier this year. Continue reading →

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Indie Rock Hit Parade Live Session: Mirah

Mirah | Photo by Eric Schuman for XPN

Joining us in the studio for this Indie Rock Hit Parade live session is an artist with a celebrated and ever-evolving approach to songwriting. Though she was born here in Philadelphia, Mirah Zeitlyn is most closely connected to the music scenes of Olympia, Washington (and, more specifically, the venerated K Records label) and New York City. Over the course of the last decade, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mirah perform her one-of-a-kind compositions in a variety of configurations. There was the live presentation of her insect-focused song cycle Share This Place, a collaboration with the Spectratone International string section, that featured stop motion creepy-crawlies projected above the stage. In 2011, Mirah teamed up with Thao Nguyen of the Get Down Stay Down for a co-headlining album (and memorable World Cafe session). This time around, Mirah brought two of the versatile musicians that appear on her new album, Understanding, bassist Maia Macdonald and drummer Andrew Maguire, to perform a set of new songs in our studio.

Continue reading →

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Ivy Sole tells a queer love story in “How High”

Ivy Sole | still from video

Philly-made rapper Ivy Sole has released a video for “How High,” off her debut album Overgrown. Directed by Sole in collaboration with Ethan Boye-Do, the video was shot in Venice Beach and shows Sole wandering the shore in the early morning, hand-in-hand with actress Andria Langston. The song captures that stomach-flipping rush of being in the proximity of someone you love. Continue reading →

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Indie Rock Hit Parade Live Session: Mass Gothic

Mass Gothic | Photo by Katie Tapman for XPN

Joining us in the studio for this Indie Rock Hit Parade session is a group that truly is a family affair. Led by the husband-and-wife duo of guitarist Noel Heroux and bassist Jessica Zambri, Mass Gothic released their second full-length album for Sub Pop, I’ve Tortured You Long Enough, earlier this year. Its title a winking nod to the often tumultuous nature of married life, the album weaves heartfelt ballads with experimental rockers in a thrilling and eclectic (and brightly colored) package. Just like on the record, Noel and Jessica are joined in this performance by keyboardist Cristi Jo Zambri (a performer in her own right and, as you might have deduced, Jessica’s sister) and drummer Joseph Stickney, who is Christi Jo’s partner. The fluid interplay between each member of Mass Gothic suggests a band that has ironed out all the kinks, but that doesn’t tell this album’s whole story. Listen to the live performances and hear the album unfold:

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Consider the Angles: Abi Reimold on combining passions for introspective music and outrospective photography

Abi Reimold
Abi Reimold | photo by Emily Kuhar | courtesy of the artist

While Abi Reimold’s song are intensely personal, their love of photography is based around capturing others. On their album covers, they combine the two passions. The photograph on their most recent LP, 2016’s Wriggling, centers around a bowl of worms on a clean white table, the creatures writhing and wrapping around each other.

“I just liked the idiom: ‘opening a can of worms.’ I felt like that would tie the songs together very well,” Reimold said while munching on a salad bowl, seated across from me at a table on Walnut Street. “[It’s about] getting through things, and even though you can be in a situation or a mindset, and feel those feelings, that doesn’t mean that’ll be something permanent.”

Reimold recounted taking the shot that would become the cover of Wriggling. Filmmaker J. Miller was documenting the process, the room was set up. They just needed one thing: the worms. For that, Reimold went to their gardener friend, Katy.

“She was like, ‘Actually, I have a bunch of worms in my bathtub!’ It was really serendipitous.” Continue reading →