NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest revolves around a simple concept. Highlight the essence of a musician and their song in a stripped-down setting, away from a lit-up stage, or the power of a giant sound system. The annual competition provides musicians of any kind an opportunity to play in the coveted All Songs Considered office; complete with bookshelves brimming with photographs and records, a small but mighty audience, and of course, the trademark messy office desk. While some may already feel at ease with an acoustic guitar or fiddle in hand (looking at you, folk musicians), the tiny desk environment can bring out truly unique adaptations of electric or large ensembles. Here are some of our favorite submissions from the Greater Ann Arbor area.
Singer/Songwriter Chris Dupont is in his element at Ypsilanti’s Wolfhaus Studios. He pays incredible attention to detail in this beautiful duo version of his song “Retrieve.” Violinist Katie Van Dusen adds the perfect texture to Chris’ acoustic guitar-playing, and the two feel clearly at ease in their performance. This recording is a testament that Chris’ songs hold up whether played with a full ensemble or stripped down to their simplest form.
From the sheer intensity of the count off, you might get the feeling that punk duo Throwaway will take down the walls of this tiny Ann Arbor basement before their song ends. Or starts. The raw electricity is palpable in this DIY video featuring their song, “Exotic Bird.” Experimental guitarist Kirsten Carey and drummer Jonathan Taylor let everything go in a fierce 3-minute noise excursion, except for the angst. As the lyrics say, “…so much angst.”
What happens when you take an 8-piece Balkan Brass band and put them in a tiny office space? Rhyta Musik compels you to get out from behind your desk desk and start dancing. The ensemble’s call-and-response vocals and colorful charisma are infectious in their song “Don’t Be Mean.” The band can regularly be seen at the Blind Pig, but after this video, we can’t help but recommend seeing them in an office near you.
What desk would be complete without an IPA sitting in its corner (in Michigan, at least)? Songwriter/Hip Hop artist Nadim Azzam captures the essence of a thriving regional folk/rock scene in his original song “Out of Air.” Backed by bass, saxophone, drums, and a floating (yes, floating) tiny desk, this living-room performance might best be described as cozy, but maybe that’s coming from what looks like a very comfortable couch in the background.
Hip-Hop artist Rufio Jones wants you to know that his song “Nigerian King” has nothing to do with Africa whatsoever. It does, however, dive into the world of fabricated internet personas, and the traps we sometimes fall for under the guise of the web. Rufio’s delivery has the perfect sarcastic tinge to get his point across, and oh, did we mention that serious vinyl collection serving as a backdrop?
One winner will be selected by a panel of music industry professionals, to be announced in late April. Past winners include hip-hop/soul group Tank and the Bangas (2017), folk singer/violinist Gaelynn Lea (2016), and singer/songwriter Fantastic Negrito (2015). To see more tiny desk entries, visit tinydeskcontest.npr.org.