Get to know Natalie Hemby, Paul Cauthen, 3LAU, Ray BLK, Syd, the Japanese House, and Kelly Lee Owens.
Who’s topping the charts, going viral, and ruling our earbuds? Each month, EW’s introducing the freshest music talent you have to hear now. Below, get to know Natalie Hemby, Paul Cauthen, 3LAU, Ray BLK, Syd, the Japanese House, and Kelly Lee Owens.
Who: The Nigerian-born, English-bred R&B singer got her start making music as a kid — she formed a group with current pop hitmaker MNEK in their early teens — but didn’t seriously pursue it until she was studying literature at university. “I had always loved reading books from a young age and fell in love with storytelling,” says the singer, whose real name is Rita Ekwere. (BLK is an acronym for Building, Living, Knowing.) “I started to write my own [stories] in the form of songs. Studying literature at university taught me how to really critique stories, so when I write songs now, I always go back and edit them to see how it can be improved.”
Claim to Fame: Thanks to the strength of last fall’s Durt mini-album, she won the BBC’s Sound of 2017 poll, an annual industry survey that spotlights promising new talent. Past winners have included Ellie Goulding (in 2010), Haim (in 2013), Sam Smith (in 2014), and that little-known singer you might have heard about named Adele (way back in 2008.) “I just kept remembering the names of the past winners and it wouldn’t sink in,” she says of winning the prize. “[When] the previous winners topped the list, they were just starting out and went on to become global superstars, so it means a lot to me that the voters see that potential in me also.” She’s also the first completely independent artist to win the prize.
What’s next: She’s in and out of the studio recording, loosely working towards an album, but being independent means she can take her time. “I’ve had the opportunity to do things and present myself exactly how I want,” she says. “I also haven’t had the pressure to be constantly banging out major hits that comes with being signed to a major, which means I get to make the music I want and be free with my creativity.”
Key track: “My Hood,” a bittersweet tribute to growing up in England’s Catford district that gets an assist from grime rapper Stormzy
Who: One of Nashville’s most favored tunesmiths, Natalie Hemby has written hits for the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Miranda Lambert, and Little Big Town during her decades-long career.
Claim to Fame: In 2011, Hemby began work on a documentary about Puxico, Missouri, the small town she commuted to from Nashville each weekend to spend time with her grandfather. “Then I realized,” the 39-year-old recalled, “[the movie’s soundtrack] is my heart and soul.” With a little encouragement from friends like Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark, she decided to release the collection as her debut LP, Puxico. And for those who are surprised that the songwriter behind Miranda Lambert’s funky “Pink Sunglasses” skews this traditional, well, she gets it. “For years I thought my first record would be balls-to-the-wall with attitude,” she recalls. “All, ‘Here I am! No one sounds like me!’ and all this kind of crap. That’s a part of me, but really, who I am deep down is just this girl who loves to be with her grandpa in a small town.”
What’s Next: Hemby opened up for Miranda Lambert on a recent tour stop and while there are no set plans for album No. 2, Hemby’s hopeful. “You know what, I’ve never been this far along in the record process! I am enjoying it immensely. I write so many songs and am usually just hoping that somebody cuts them, and that I like the way they cut them. It’s nice to have full creative control.”
Key Track: “This Town Still Talks About You,” a whimsical and knowing peek inside small town life.[spotify id="spotify%3Atrack%3A7yPmspgKN5MPOVlyAWFtsa" /]
Who: The former frontman of Americana act Sons of Fathers has always had a bit of a wild streak. “I had to get in some trouble in high school,” he recalls, “but instead of doing the normal things, I got put in jail.” After getting kicked out of his next stop — a Christian school in Abilene, Texas — Cauthen set his sights on music, though he’s still not one to play by the rules. He doesn’t hold back his disdain for what he calls the “sweatshop songwriting” of Music City, which churns out Top 40 hits one after the other. “You don’t know country from ’80s rock now. It’s so diluted,” he says. That’s why he called his solo debut, released last October, My Gospel. “I try to be an honest songwriter,” he explains. “By the time the record is done after 45 minutes, I want people to go, ‘Man, I’d honestly like to meet that guy.’”
Claim to Fame: My Gospel found its way onto plenty critics’ best-of lists last year and helped fuel excitement for his current headlining tour. “I knew it was going to be my breakout record,” he admits. “I knew it was going to be the record that was going to turn heads and get everybody’s attention.”
What’s Next: My Gospel is just the first installment in Cauthen’s three-album plan. He revealed to EW that the next release, which he planned to record in early January, would be called My Friends. He says the set is characterized by “those Waylon-type of trucking songs, those old country, real cool, party-drinking songs.” After that release, he’ll drop My Family, which he says will lean heavy into blues and ballads.
Key Track: The rollicking “I’ll Be The One.”[spotify id="spotify%3Atrack%3A01JkrDSrakX5UO5knhpKNA" /]
Who: While studying finance at Washington University in St. Louis, Justin Blau went from dorm-room mashup artist to in-demand touring DJ and producer. But when gigs started to get in the way of his studies, he turned down Wall Street and left school to devote himself to EDM full time. “My economics professor Glenn MacDonald was instrumental in helping me decide,” he says. “He made me realize that I only had one shot to make it in the music business.” Education is still a big part of his life, however: He’s donated profits from his music to Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that helps build schools around the world. “My parents always stressed the importance of giving back throughout my childhood,” he says. “I decided that as my influence as an artist grew, I had a responsibility to do something bigger.” In 2016, he raised $200,000 for the organization.
Claim to Fame: His remix of Ariana Grande’s “Into You” has racked up more than 12 million streams on Spotify thanks to its thunderous deep-house makeover. “It’s funny, the song was meant to be an original, but I was struggling securing a vocal for it,” 3LAU says. After he noticed that Grande’s song and his instrumental were in the same key, he turned the project into a remix. And when 3LAU played the song for the Geronimo, the head of Sirius XM’s electronic music channel BPM, the feedback was immediate. “He loved it so much that he called the head of Ariana’s label and told him he’d start playing the remix on the radio immediately, if, of course, they approved it for official release,” 3LAU remembers. It was on the air within a week.
What’s Next: After releasing a handful of original tracks in 2016—including “Fire” and “You Want More”—he’s working on an LP. “A lot of dance albums are generally just compilations of songs, but I wanted to do something different this year.,” he says. “It embodies all of the things I’ve learned over the past 6 years making dance music.” A new single, “On My Mind,” is on its way too.
Key Track: “Fire,” a slow-burning jam packed with stuttering synths
Who: The 24-year-old Angeleno got her start as the resident producer and DJ for rap collective Odd Future before pivoting to the neo-soul outfit The Internet. Syd’s profile grew in 2016 with stellar guest spots on songs by Common and Kaytranada, and Fin marks her proper solo debut. The project’s jams — most of which she produced herself — capture her signature aesthetic swirl of soul and hip-hop. Syd explains her approach as “a soft touch” that still “has a lot of attitude.”
Claim to Fame: Each of the Internet’s members has a solo project in the works — Syd’s cohort Matt Martians released his debut album, The Drum Chord Theory, a week before hers — and that motivated Syd to strike out on her own and experiment. “[It’s] awesome, because everybody gets to explore these new sounds that we might not be able to do as a group,” she says. “It’s good everybody gets to get everything out of their system.” And after spending much of her career behind the boards, her touring duties with the Internet prepared her to grab the mic on Fin. “I started taking vocal lessons shortly after [the Internet] started touring,” Syd explains. “That’s what it came from, was me exploring more of my voice with having to get better at singing live — which I’m still working on.”
What’s Next: The Internet sets out on tour on Feb. 18 and they’ll perform a mix of their back catalog and the solo material of their members. “I didn’t want to do a solo tour, because I’d rather not just perform with a DJ and just a DJ,” Syd says. “I’d rather not go out and get another band to perform my solo music with. It seemed natural to have us all go out on tour and do each other’s solo songs.”
Key Track: Fin‘s addictive lead single, “All About Me,” mixes after-hours R&B and boom-bap percussion with a hint of disorienting electronica for a singular stylistic blend. “That kind of beat but not necessarily the sound that we go for with the band,” Syd says when comparing it to the Internet. “We like our stuff a little more quirky than that.”[spotify id="spotify%3Atrack%3A7AXWSA3MrpbAZupErraBmp" /]
Kelly Lee Owens
Who: The 28-year-old Brit grew up in a remote Welsh town before venturing to London as a 19-year-old to pursue a nursing career. There, however, she took side-jobs working in tastemaking record stores like Rough Trade and Pure Groove and interning at labels like XL, which is home to Adele. She also befriended electronic producers like Gold Panda and Daniel Avery. That musical exposure led Owens to start creating her own stylish brand of minimal techno music: gently pulsing beats, ghostly vocal melodies, and synthesizer hooks that are both chilly and enveloping. “Music is my escapism — and at the same time it’s so direct,” says Owens. “You can be present if you want to, or you can just zone out. I want whomever listens to be like, ‘What the f— was that? What did I just listen to?’ I could imagine someone being stoned, lying down, listening to my music, and it being meditative.”
Claim to Fame: Owens has only released a handful of tracks and one EP, but she’s already become a critical favorite. And in a genre that’s typically dominated by males, she is proud to show that female artists can make compelling techno music, too. “I want to make it obvious that I’m not just a singer,” she says. “I’m the f—ing boss! I wrote the music and produced it — I want to be confrontational like that, in a way. It’s annoying to have to do that in 2017, but women can operate a synth and a computer and put sounds together in 2017.”
What’s Next: Owens is releasing her self-titled debut album on March 24 and she’s hoping to perform a run of dates in the U.S. later this year.
Key TracK: “CBM,” one of the year’s most seductive minimal-techno jams.
[spotify id="spotify%3Atrack%3A4sGX3HY8MedutOj1KjUdXf" /]
The Japanese House
Who: Amber Bain, who records immaculate, intimate bedroom pop under the moniker Japanese House, started playing guitar as a child and learned the instrument in an unconventional way: the left-handed songwriter would play her dad’s right-handed six-string. “I was obsessed with the Beatles,” says the 21-year-old Brit. “But I didn’t know what pop music was, until I was about 11-years-old.” That’s when she discovered Avril Lavigne, who inspired her to start writing her own songs. “I wanted to be Avril,” she says. “I still want to be Avril.” But instead of creating “Sk8r Boi”-style bubblegum, Bain’s crafting her own brand of low-key pop music: gentle electronic beats, chiming guitar riffs, and hypnotic, layered vocals.
Claim to Fame: Bain has struck up a collaborative partnership with George Daniel, the drummer for the 1975 who co-produces Bain’s material. And Apple’s Beats 1 DJ Zane Lowe selected Bain’s stunning single “Still” as his last-ever Hottest Record during his tenure with BBC’s Radio 1. She’s also developing something of a cult fanbase in the U.S. “Touring America last time was so fun,” says Bain. “I got a lot of flowers thrown at my face! And as I was going around America, people were bringing more and more flowers [to shows] and throwing them at me. I found it funny and kind of cool.”
What’s Next: Bain embarks on her first headlining tour in the U.S. on Feb. 21 and plans to release more singles throughout the year. “There’s one song I’m working on that’s my favorite song I’ve written so far,” she says. “It’s classic in terms of the songwriting and chord progressions, inspired by Burt Bacharach and ELO and stuff like that. The other [new music]….I write in so many different styles. It’s an eclectic jumble.”
Key Track: “Face Like Thunder,” a shimmering throwback to the brainy ’80s pop of British acts like Scritti Politti.
[spotify id="spotify%3Atrack%3A3llC7WjMtxqDwaM1Gjzvrs" /]