Beyond Grunge: 15 Artists Redefining Seattle Music
BY DUSTY HENRY, MARTIN DOUGLAS, JASMINE ALBERTSON & JANICE HEADLEY / KEXP
In 1989, Seattle music was approaching its breaking point — the point at which it would travel beyond the marine layer hovering above our grey waters and thrust itself into the public consciousness. You know the names: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains. Grunge wasn’t just a cultural moment; it defined the sound of an entire region for generations to come.
Thirty years later, Seattle’s rich musical history remains compelling, but it’s also not entirely reflective of where the scene is now. Once again, though, the city finds itself at a breaking point. In the last three decades, the Northwest has produced countless artists who’ve pushed the area’s sonic boundaries. There’s the infectious rock and pop of Death Cab for Cutie, Tacocat, Car Seat Headrest and Telekinesis; hip-hop from Shabazz Palaces to Macklemore; and the soulful sounds of the True Loves and The Dip, among many others.
While much of the world still associates Seattle with the iconic dirges of grunge, the scene of today is an eclectic blend of genre and spirit. Roots rockers, experimental beatmakers and mind-bending rappers coexist and share stages on a regular basis. The Emerald City has been notoriously hard to define since the heyday of grunge, which is also what helps make the music here so great.
Seattle is impossible to pin down. The bands and artists below represent an array of scenes within the scene, and demonstrate that the next wave of Seattle music is going to be wonderfully unpredictable and excellent. —Dusty Henry
The Black Tones
Deep in the old stomping grounds of Jimi Hendrix, it’s only appropriate that The Black Tones‘ members play rock and roll music as it was originally intended: rooted in blues and blackness. On their debut full-length Cobain and Cornbread (a succinct and accurate description of their aesthetic), the band recorded a stirring version of the African-American spiritual “Rivers of Jordan.” “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)” is a call-and-response anthem in protest of anti-black violence, complete with a weeping guitar. Also appropriate for a band composed of twin siblings, family is not too far away from The Black Tones’ subject matter, as “Mama! There’s a Spider in My Room!” is a funny song about arachnophobia and “Hello Mr. Pink” discusses their father, who served time in prison after robbing banks. —Martin Douglas
Chong The Nomad
Chong the Nomad is giving producers a new name and new goals. Utilizing everything from ukuleles to harmonicas in her sets, the innovative producer is known for kicking off her shoes to dance on stage. Chong (the pseudonym of Alda Augustiano) energizes her crowds with her stage antics and has become a festival mainstay. Her background studying score compositions for film, as well as composing chamber music, means she’s a master at building cinematic soundscapes and making dynamic, infectious songs that set satisfying pop hooks against constantly shape-shifting and intricately layered backgrounds. It’s dance music for the thinker, the lover and those who seek the best night of their lives. —Jasmine Albertson
Like a blacksmith, Dark Smith masterfully pounds and grinds out bleak sonic textures with intense precision. See the band live and you’re a fan for life. Danny Denial’s low croon is absolutely intoxicating, while drummer Nozomi Momo tends to end up stealing the show, throwing her long locks around while building complicated interlocked rhythms. Unlike most of the whitewashed industrial dream-punk of days past, Dark Smith tells stories of the real-life fear and paranoia that comes from living in America while trans, gay, a person of color and/or a woman. —Jasmine Albertson
Seattle rapper DoNormaal says yes to every show she can, sometimes playing multiple gigs in a night. Even with her seeming omnipresence, her inclusion is always welcome on a bill because, well, she’s just that good. DoNormaal’s unique laissez-faire vocal delivery, her penchant for finding and working with the best producers in the Seattle scene, and her ability to flow over anything thrown her way (even horn-based marching fanfare) add up to a tremendous talent, which is saying nothing of her fantastic individual style and kind, compassionate demeanor. Look no further than her 2017 album Third Daughter for proof of her adventurous flow and ear for catchy, off-kilter beats. —Jasmine Albertson
Born Gabrielle Kadushin in Seattle’s Central District, Gifted Gab grew up to become one of the area’s premier MCs. After losing her mother to cancer, a 13-year-old Kadushin found solace in music. By 16, she began using YouTube to share her work and was quickly welcomed into the Seattle hip-hop scene, eventually becoming the first female member of the rap group Moor Gang. (Imagine the Wu-Tang Clan, but in Seattle.)
As a solo artist, Gifted Gab has proven herself to be a formidable force. Her debut EP was titled Queen La’Chiefah — a nod to her idol, Queen Latifah — and Kadushin boasts a similar command of language and flow to go with her insightful lyrics. As KEXP’s Dusty Henry said after seeing her perform in 2017, “Gab calls herself the Queen of Seattle, and after a set like that, it’s really hard to argue with her.” —Janice Headley
With each release, J’Von adorns his artwork with a vibrant new cartoon caricature of himself. The pastel colors of his album covers are perfect reflections of the music. A rapper, producer, graphic designer, animator and so much more, J’Von draws on everything from video games to Adventure Time. His music is a ray of sunshine and bliss in our perpetually grey city. —Dusty Henry
Left At London
Left At London is the stage name of Nat Puff, a trans woman whose personal, introspective music and poetry tackles everything from her sexuality to Borderline Personality Disorder. But it’s possible you already know her for her viral videos, in which she flexes both her sharp musical knowledge and her biting comedic chops. She released her latest EP (Transgender Street Legend, Vol. 1) earlier this year, and it’s a must-listen for anyone who values wit and authenticity within a well-crafted pop song. —Jasmine Albertson
Named after the team responsible for the production of Shabazz Palaces’ interstellar, genre-busting experimental music, Ishmael Butler and Erik Blood added members of their Black Constellation collective (the talented OCNotes and Marquetta Miller) to the fold in order to further explore their musical capabilities as Knife Knights. Their neon soundscapes assume the form of slow jams (“Light Up Ahead”), use beaming synths with traditional African rhythms as a means to flirt (“Low Key”), and form a bridge between Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising and the id-intensive genre of Soundcloud rap (“Drag Race Legend”). “My Dreams Don’t Sleep” make it evident why the cover art of 1 Time Mirage depicts the cockpit of a spaceship. —Martin Douglas
There’s always more to meets the eye with NAVVI. Though its songs are immediate and immersive, listening to what’s beneath the surface reveals a heavy bag of treasures. Listen to the way Brad Boettger creates cathedrals in his production; seemingly every corner of his music is adorned with a figurative stained-glass mural. Kristin Henry holds a lifetime’s worth of emotions in her voice, conveying longing, regret and a twinge of apprehension. Just try to listen to “Dreem” without swooning. —Martin Douglas
“I really believe in manifesting your own destiny,” Parisalexa told KEXP in 2018. She’s done just that. In the past year alone, she’s released two critically acclaimed EPs (Bloom and Flexa) and signed a publishing deal with Kobalt Music; she’s also currently featured on the NBC singing competition Songland.
While Parisalexa (whose real name is Paris Williams) originally intended to work behind the scenes as a songwriter for other artists, her exuberant talent has kept bringing her back to the stage. The songs she writes for herself don’t just demonstrate her knack for transparent, emotional narratives, but also showcase her as a powerful R&B vocalist. From the confident bounce of “Ballin” to the laid-back coolness of “Gardens” and the heartbreaking vulnerability of “Water Me,” Williams is a chart-topper in the making. —Dusty Henry
After years fronting the beloved Seattle bands Chastity Belt and Childbirth, Julia Shapiro is venturing out solo with her debut LP Perfect Version, out Friday. Following Chasity Belt over the years was a bit like watching a friend grow up, as the band moved from hilarious, sarcastic anthems like 2013’s “Seattle Party” to 2017’s introspective slow-burn I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone. Written following a traumatic period in her life (health troubles, a breakup, doubts about her future), Perfect Version finds Shapiro writing some of her most openhearted work yet. With hazy guitars and hushed vocals, Shapiro can turn the mundanity of trying to find parking into a stirring existential ballad. Shapiro is a Seattle treasure who only gets better with time. —Dusty Henry
Emma Lee Toyoda
A self-proclaimed “soft punk,” Emma Lee Toyoda combines toughness and tenderness in the most compelling ways. Since their early beginnings in 2015 as a high-school student competing in a local annual 21-and-under battle of the bands, Toyoda has stood out as a unique voice. Now, having graduated, they’ve lost some band members who’ve left for college, but regrouped as a power trio with an angrier sound.
“In light of the political s*** show of 2017, I’m definitely more aware of all the microaggressions I have to deal with on a daily basis in Seattle,” they told KEXP in an interview that year. “As a Japanese-Korean American frontperson/manager/booker/promoter of ELT, I have to put up with a lot of cis white dudes talking down to me, not listening to me [and] not taking me seriously, so I’m trying to call it out more and advocate for myself.” —Janice Headley
Gabriel Teodros is one of the bravest rappers currently working in Seattle. An artist of Ethiopian, Scottish, Irish and Native American descent, Teodros often uses his music to address race, the gentrification of a city he loves and body-image issues. His fifth and latest LP, History Rhymes If It Doesn’t Repeat (A Southend Healing Ritual),could only come from him. In an interview with KEXP’s Owen Murphy, Teodros told us, “I’m always drawn to music that is deeply personal. I feel like the most powerful music comes from a place of vulnerability. I also feel like the deepest levels of growth happen in places of vulnerability, and that’s always been the kind of music that I’ve wanted to make.” —Janice Headley
When translated from Spanish to English, Amorfo means changeable, amorphous. That’s not just the name of Seattle punk trio Tres Leches’ debut album, but also its entire M.O. During their riotously fun shows, members Alaia D’Alessandro, Zander Yates and Ulises Mariscal frequently switch instruments on stage. Their songs are bilingual diatribes, skeptical of capitalism and invested in the power of community. Describing their brand of punk requires a lot of prefixes like art-, pop- and noise-; the band even has an incredible ska-punk iteration of the Leadbelly children’s song “Ha-Ha This Away.” Few bands in Seattle are as thrillingly unpredictable. —Martin Douglas
It takes a confident Northwest rock band to name its debut album Nirvana, but Versing has the chops to get away with it. (Of course, it sounds nothing like Cobain and crew.) It makes sense that Versing would sound like a classic “college rock” band; after all, the band formed in 2013 after its members met through the University of Puget Sound’s college radio station KUPS.
On Versing’s new album 10000, the group continues to mine an angular, fuzzed-out ’90s guitar sound with a tremendous gift for melody. (It’s been said before, but you can’t help but think of the searing guitars and detached vocals of Sonic Youth.) As writer Martin Douglas put it via KEXP’s local-music column Throwaway Style, the album “swings and coasts on a line between a racket the quartet seems spiritually predisposed to make and the melody trying to burrow its way out of it.” —Janice Headley
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