Ben Whisler on The VU Backstage

I couldn't resist massively filtering this picture.  Ben's on the left, his fiddle player Tim is on the right.

I couldn’t resist massively filtering this picture. Ben’s on the left, his fiddle player Tim is on the right.

Until last night, it had been a long time since we had featured a country artist on the show.  I think the last one was Patrick Thomas all the way back in September of 2012.  Nashville outsiders know Music City as a country town, but this incredible paucity of twangy accents proves that the musical population here, especially among the young artists, is heavily diverse in terms of genre and background.  More than ever, Nashville is a destination city for more than just wannabe songwriters, and that geographic variety, I believe, has contributed to an explosion of activity in folk, Americana, alternative, and straightforward rock music.  Last night, though, it was back to the city’s roots with Ben Whisler, a Belmont artist from Seymour, TN.

Ben is another one of those contacts I’ve made through my time at Lightning 100; one of my colleagues there suggested that I bring him on the show, and he did not disappoint.  You can listen to the full show below, and be on the lookout for video of Ben’s song “Wildcard,” which should be ready later this week.  Keep up with The VU Backstage on Facebook and Twitter!


Jake Vroon–“Anymore”

Hey everybody,

Our wonderful video producer, Tony Xiao, put together this video of Jake Vroon’s performance of “Anymore” from his appearance on the show this past Sunday.  We’ll be posting videos like this every Friday, so stay tuned for more of these as we continue to bring phenomenal musicians on air!

Jake Vroon on The VU Backstage

Last night was more than just a return to the air for my final semester as host of The VU Backstage: it was a revelation.

I had been having a very “meh” day that really started the previous night, when I tried to go see Kid Freud and Staying for the Weekend play at the High Watt.  I say “tried” because when I arrived, I was told that the show had sold out, and that if I didn’t want to instead go see the Pink Floyd cover band next door at Mercy Lounge (who admittedly sounded very good, as far as I could tell from the sound wafting down the stairs) I would have to leave.  A couple frantic texts to members of both bands met a dead end, as they couldn’t add me to the guest list, and so I had to Lyft back to Vanderbilt alone–the friend I arrived with had bought his ticket beforehand and decided to stay.  It was the first time I had ever been turned away from a show, and although I recognized it was stupid of me to be miffed, that I should be happy for the bands for playing a sold-out High Watt, I was miffed all the same.  Grumbling inwardly about how I would pull a Taylor Swift “Mean” on the venue later in life, I returned home.

After a restless night fueled by the fifth Harry Potter book–that whole series never fails to get my mind racing–I faced an exhausting day full of Norman Mailer, leg sets at water polo practice, dispassionate observance of the NFL Playoffs, and a mandatory screening of Annie Hall.  The last of those was actually quite enjoyable, as I had never before seen the movie and thought it hilarious, but the neuroticism and angst of Alvy Singer probably exacerbated my own feelings of malaise afterwards.  I was feeling so drained and automated by dinnertime that I deliberately grabbed the blandest-looking meal I could find (spinach-stuffed swai, spatzle, and Southern-style green beans) and wrote about how boring and healthy the food looked as I shoveled it down my gullet.  It was healthy, sure, but does that make up for the fact that the combined personality of the plate would scarcely have filled the pinky toe of Paris Hilton?

But walking into the WRVU studio at 8pm changed everything.  I talked myself into a sort of game face (perhaps I looked insane muttering to myself as I glided down the stairs to Sarratt’s ground floor, but I was too focused on meta-thinking to care) and by the time I rounded the corner and pressed my keycard to the door, a glowing smile had unzipped my lips.  For the first time all day, I felt comfortable, serene, in my element.  The microphone was mine to own, and I’d be damned if I appeared as anything but a confident, witty, and sympathetic host of a radio show.  A brief anxiety about rust flitted across the back of my mind, but stronger neural pathways quickly shunted off into a dark recess in the general area of my occipital lobe.  Rust was out of the question.  Of course I’d be at my best tonight.

Jake Vroon provided some amazing music and great stories--and also salvaged my weekend.

Jake Vroon provided some amazing music and great stories–and also salvaged my weekend.

Jake Vroon, too, was at his best.  I came across Jake’s music through a fellow intern at Lightning 100 who also happened to be his manager.  I liked what I heard–the wistful lyrics about travel that so easily reached a young man’s heart, the sprawling harmonica that lifted the guitar chords toward the heavens, the unpolished beauty of the production that gave the songs a nature-hewn face and made them accesible–and decided that if I shouldn’t find a Vanderbilt guest for the show, I’d call upon Jake.  Last night, the opportunity came, and he gave us a wonderful hour of whimsical conversation and calming, yearning music.  The entire time we were speaking, I felt everything about the outside world melting away, leaving just the two of us and our words without a worry about what would happen when The Spirit of Radio returned to bid us good night.  Just about the only interruption we had was self-induced, when I found out The LEGO Movie had been beaten out for the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature; although I liked How to Train Your Dragon 2, it was certainly not deserving of being named the year’s best animated movie, and I would have pulled a Kanye on The LEGO Movie’s behalf if I’d gotten the chance.

Anyhow, there you have it.  Last night was not just an opportunity for Jake Vroon to showcase his great music to the global online community; it was also a chance for me to harken back to the reason I started The VU Backstage in the first place, which was to give myself a purpose here at Vanderbilt.  And I walked out of the studio feeling the happiest I had all weekend.  I hope you, too, will feel happy when you listen to the full recording of last night’s show, which you can do below.

Be sure to follow The VU Backstage on Facebook and Twitter, and tune in next week for another amazing guest!

Emily Hackett Moving On Up

With as much attention as Nashville’s burgeoning indie rock scene gets on the local level, sometimes you can forget that this city was built on country music. So it can seem surprising when a young up-and-coming singer/songwriter catches your ear with an honest country sound and sincere lyricism. But Emily Hackett is no stranger to surprises.

“It was totally an accident that I ended up in Nashville,” says the Georgia-bred Belmont graduate. She discovered Music City on a typical college visit, and decided she wanted to devote her university years to songwriting and learning her way around the Nashville music landscape.

Emily Hackett has risen on the strength of her single, "Take My Hand (The Wedding Song)."

Emily Hackett has risen on the strength of her single, “Take My Hand (The Wedding Song).”

The decision has paid off, as Hackett has made some serious strides forward since her graduation in 2012. She won the 2014 Belk Southern Music Showcase in the country-pop genre, her single “Take My Hand (The Wedding Song)” has gained widespread popularity, and she recently played the legendary New York club The Bitter End, an experience she found particularly meaningful.

“My dad found a photo of Joni Mitchell playing there in the 1960s, and it was really cool feeling that company,” Hackett told me. Mitchell is one of her chief songwriting influences, as are many of the great acts of what she calls the “good-music generation”—the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, etc. In fact, it wasn’t until she moved south from Cleveland that she discovered country music through her new friends. In time, these musical forbears manifested themselves in Hackett’s songwriting, which she describes as “front-porch lovin’, southern little bit of truckin’, tell it like it is.” Given the realism to be found in the lyrics of both country and the great singer-songwriters of the 1960s, it seems fitting that Hackett’s writing is driven towards truth-telling and firmly grounded in concrete, real-world stories. She also isn’t afraid to put herself down in her songs—in fact, doing so is an outlet not only for her own emotions, but also for those of her listeners.

“My songs are a little self-deprecating, but that’s what people connect with, because they have that in their heart but don’t want to say it,” she says. And so she expresses the feelings that her audience cannot or will not find the words to display.

“Take My Hand,” though, is certainly not as vulnerable as Hackett’s typical material. Written for the wedding of one of Hackett’s friends, this emotionally raw track is filled with the pure bliss of finding one’s life partner, and with the joyful optimism that permeates the walk down the aisle. Making it accessible to all listeners is the fact that it is a duet between Hackett and Will Anderson, the lead singer for Parachute and one of Hackett’s good friends.

“He’s helping not only in terms of gaining fans because of who he is,” says Hackett, “but he’s also in the pop world, which I’ll write in but don’t necessarily see myself as an artist in.” Anderson’s presence may be helping the song gain a foothold of popularity, but the song is well written in its own right and speaks extraordinarily well to the sense of adventure newlyweds feel on the altar. Its heavy use at weddings has inspired Hackett to put together a music video comprised of snippets of wedding videos sent in by fans.

What’s next for Hackett, then? “The rest of this year is going to be hibernation and a lot of writing,” she quips. Following this extended period, out of which she hopes to create enough material for a full-length album, she looks forward to kicking off a tour, with potential destinations including American universities and a month-long stint in Ireland, where she feels at home with the energetic folk vibe expressed in the local music. Whatever the following months bring for Emily Hackett, though, they’re sure to be full of surprises.

Nine Years Later, System of a Down Still “Mezmerizes” Me

System of a Down managed to capture the zeitgeist of American anti-war sentiment in 2005 with their shocking hit album Mezmerize.

System of a Down managed to capture the zeitgeist of American anti-war sentiment in 2005 with their shocking hit album Mezmerize.

It may be surprising to see a retrospective of a nine-year-old nu metal album on this blog, particularly from a writer who has vented at length about the overall lack of quality of mid-2000s popular music.  Then again, everything about System of a Down’s music, from the band’s ability to mash together disparate and seemingly irreconcilable influences to their shocking success on the mainstream airwaves, is a bit surprising.  System’s landmark 2005 album Mezmerize happened to be on my mind as I put together a discussion for my psychology class, and revisiting it as I worked resulted in three dominant trains of thought, none of which dealt with my homework: 1) nostalgia for the days when my biggest concern was whose backyard trampoline the neighborhood kids would be hitting up after school, 2) amazement at how irresistibly fun the eleven songs are, and 3) wonder at System’s ability to somehow maintain this fun amidst livid, highly caustic lyrics and guitar riffs.  In conjunction, these concurrent streams of consciousness brought me to the crucial question: how the hell did a band like System of a Down hijack the popular music consciousness?

I think the answer boils down to two factors: perfect timing and the group’s ability to infuse its thrashing songs with elements that made them palatable to mainstream listeners.

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Celina Miranda on The VU Backstage

It’s always bittersweet to say goodbye to another semester of The VU Backstage, but it must be done; time doesn’t flow in reverse.  Fortunately, last night’s episode was an excellent sendoff.  I discovered Celina Miranda’s talent at Alpha Omicron Pi’s philanthropy event–one of the best parts of Greek life at Vanderbilt is the musical talent the organizations enlist–and was able to convince her to bring her songs to WRVU.  Check out the full interview and performance below.

The last you'll be seeing of The VU Backstage until the new year!

The last you’ll be seeing of The VU Backstage until the new year!

We’ll be taking a break for several weeks as finals and winter break overtake my mind, but be on the lookout for a post or two should I feel moved to write.  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and make sure to tune in for The VU Backstage’s return to the airwaves on January 11th, 2015!





Sara Barron on The VU Backstage

We came pretty close to having another guest-less week on The VU Backstage.  Luckily, though, the Vanderbilt music scene came through, as it usually tends to do.  There are too many talented musicians on this campus for it not to.  This time, I was told that Sara Barron would be a great songwriter to bring on the air, and I heeded the advice, resulting in an amazing interview and a fun hour of music and talk.

This is just before Sara and I had a rap battle on that mic in the foreground.

This is just before Sara and I had a rap battle on that mic in the foreground.

In all seriousness, this may have been the best time I’ve ever had on air.  I hope you feel the good vibes and laughter as you listen to the full show, which you can check out below.  Be sure to follow The VU Backstage on Facebook and Twitter, and tune in for our season finale next week!