Meet the artists of Side Door to SXSW
Get to know the genre-bending musicians who are part of the inaugural project.
The multi-genre artist KAINA laughs when her music is called “experimental.”
“It usually means they don’t know what to call it,” she says from her lifelong home of Chicago. “I think people who live in and are from Chicago really get my music. It’s eclectic. We have a great hip hop scene, great indie rock scene, house was made here, blues. I grew up going to all those rap shows and pop shows and soul shows, and it all just comes out in my music. It’s Chicago music.”
Born Kaina Castillo to Guatemalan and Venezuelan parents, she found her musical passion at nine years old in a Chicago non-profit called The Happiness Project, a musical youth group comprised of students from all over the city. (She performed at the White House twice.) “It trained me for everything in life,” says Castillo. “It was my first time ever in the studio, I learned how to perform. It was fun for me.”
Last summer she released her debut LP Next to the Sun, a mash-up of soul, R&B, and pop on which she sings about the facets of her identity: Being a Latinx artist, the child of immigrants, a young woman living in Trump’s America. Her trip to South by Southwest—she’s touring down with her record’s producer and bff Sen Morimoto—is her first.
“Since I’m gonna be there for a week, I’m going to go in trying to have an open heart,” says Castillo. “I know it’s a huge annoying event for a lot of residents, I’m trying to do my best for the people who live in town. It’s [NBA] All-Star weekend in Chicago right now, and it’s like, ‘Please remember there are people who live and work here year-round.’” —Tara Thorne
Sen Morimoto was a household name in Chicago’s DIY hip-hop community following a collection of well circulated self-releases, but his jazz-rap LP, Cannonball, propelled the musical polymath’s fortunes.
Born in Kyoto, Japan, Morimoto’s family emigrated to Massachusetts when he was a year old. As a child he began his lifelong affair with the saxophone during weekly private lessons. In his teens, he dabbled with piano at a performing arts high school, taught himself guitar and drums, and started rapping.
Cannonball was Morimoto’s first record conceived with a label on board from the start, but he retained his DIY workflow. He composed, recorded and mixed the album largely in seclusion. “Morimoto’s speed and range is matched by lyrics that move easily from abstraction to specificity and from the personal to the observational, usually over drums that zip breathlessly along as if rolling down a hill,” says Pitchfork of the result.
Sooper Records co-released the record with 88 Rising, an international entertainment focused on Asian and Asian American artists releasing music in the United States. The partnership propelled Morimoto’s music to a wider, global audience. This year marks Morimoto’s first SXSW appearance. —Kim Hart Macneill
Self-proclaimed Kentucky-fried queerdos GRLwood—their genre, scream-pop, is also self-proclaimed—make fierce, catchy, incendiary music that recalls Riot Grrl of the 90s and the heavy-leaning musical tendencies of their hometown of Louisville.
“We’re blessed to be in an environment where there aren’t a lot of alt-right Nazi fuckbois playing music in Louisville,” says singer/guitarist Rae Forester, “because of our history of punk in the 70s.”
The duo’s second album I Sold My Soul to the Devil When I Was 12 dropped last summer, a punk blast of politics, rage, and relationships with titles like “I Hate My Mom,” “I’m Not Afraid of You,” and “Gay 4 You.” Forester’s voice is once in a lifetime, able to shift from beautiful to shrieking in a single chorus and hit astonishing operatic highs (it’s those highs, not the screaming, that can cause her vocal damage).
GRLwood has toured the US extensively, but this will be their first trip to South by Southwest. They’re mostly worried about parking, but after that they have a plan.
“We’re gonna get the parking shit out of the way,” says drummer Karen Ledford. “Then we’re gonna go in and find ourselves a dope-ass label. I’m gonna talk to some important-looking people, find out why they’re important, and hopefully they run a sick-ass label. And they’re like, ‘Yo, be on our label.’ And I’m like, ‘Show us that paper.’”
“We work really fucking hard,” says Forester. “We’re a pretty good package deal. We do everything.”
“We do all of our own managing,” adds Ledford. “We’re dope at it, but we’re ready to let off the reins and have some big strong woman put us under her arm.” —TT
For WHOOP-Szo frontperson Adam Sturgeon, asking where the band is from is a complex question. While the band is based in London, Ontario, Sturgeon says, “talking about where someone is from, versus where a band is from, versus my own family history makes that a conversation that not a lot of people have in a way I want to have it.”
WHOOP-Szo delves into similar topics on the band’s latest release, Warrior Down. It’s a loud, lush, and powerful record that highlights subjects close to Sturgeon’s heart and his Anishinaabe culture, including missing and murdered Indigenous women and residential schools.
The band tours extensively and cut its teeth on DIY house shows. While WHOOP-Szo has moved away from that style of touring, Sturgeon looks forward to revisiting it through Side Door to SXSW.
“Someone’s welcoming you into their space. We’re being included in something,” he says. “That’s really where you can develop a dedicated audience and where you meet friends who are going to be available when you get a flat tire outside of town and there’s no one to pick you up. They’re the people you end up having these interpersonal relationships with." —KHM
Madison McFerrin has a South by Southwest under her belt already. “I didn’t understand how late it went, and how obscure some of these spots were for shows,” she says from her home in Brooklyn. “It ranges from being in a hotel to being in a small shoe shop that’s off the beaten path. I feel like this time I definitely have a much better idea of how to navigate Austin and the festival itself, and a better understanding what type of crowd to expect.”
McFerrin has been steadily building buzz almost by accident: In 2016 and 2018 she released two EP volumes of Finding Foundations, songs recorded completely a capella (her father is the iconic vocalist Bobby McFerrin); the track “No Time To Lose” blew up and increased demand. Now she’s got a new project, You+I, with her producer brother Taylor. “This is how I actually planned on introducing myself,” she says.
McFerrin’s live show is solo, built with a loop pedal. She’s not worried about the propulsive hype buzz of Austin detracting from her shows there. “I am confident in my ability to stick out in that kind of environment, to be memorable,” she says. “Just knowing that and bringing that to the table, knowing that I’ve only grown as a singer and a performer…I’m pretty much just looking forward to people seeing this new evolution.” —TT
As a genre, rock is usually paired with an adjective like garage or hard. Partner swerves the qualifiers to produce a sound that refuses to be defined. The guitar duo leaves that up to its tagline: Funny but not a joke, gay but not for each other.
Bandmates Josée Caron and Lucy Niles first teamed up on several other bands in Sackville, New Brunswick, a town known for its long-standing indie arts and music festival, SappyFest. Today the pair lives in Windsor, Ontario and recently finished a European and U.S. tour.
“Playing in Europe and the U.S., sometimes we don’t know what to expect,” says Niles. “You never know what the culture might be. In Europe you drive five miles and it’s a new country.”
This year marks the band’s second SXSW appearance. “Last time we played eight shows in a week, it was hectic, but fun, and we met a lot of cool people,” says Niles. One of her favourite parts of the festival is the wide range of alternative venues. Partner played at a cowboy bar, on a stage in someone’s backyard, and alongside a pool. —KHM
On Valentine’s Day, the singer-songwriter Hayfitz offered a brand-new single, “Daylight,” that questions why romantic chances are only taken late in the dark, buoyed by liquid courage: “Why are the nights we have too much to drink the only times we can say what we think? / Why are the nights we have too much to drink the only times we can say what we mean? / Oh I wanna tell you in the daylight / I wanna say it for real this time.”
Like his debut single “Pinpoint,” it’s a slow jam sung in a gentle, tremulous voice and self-produced in a way that leaves lots of room for the words, evoking the likes of Bon Iver and Kalle Mattson. A Side Door all-star, he toured the west coast in January and will depart from his home base of Brooklyn and play down the eastern seaboard to South By Southwest, where he’ll offer cuts from his debut album Capsules.
As his bio says, “You truly never know when someone might just appear out of what seems like thin air and suddenly become the center of your universe.” This SXSW, that could be Hayfitz himself. —TT
[ Feb 25, 2020 edit: Mir Fontane tour cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. You can book Mir Fontane for future shows HERE.]