Kalen Nash

Kalen Nash’s Ukred, available digitally on May 29th, 2012, will be the first release for Normaltown Records. Kalen, who also fronts the New West Records band Ponderosa, showcases a reflective, more intimate side on his debut solo release. Songs like "White Oak" and "Ramona” conjure ghosts from his family's past. "Don't You Love Me Baby," written nearly 100 years ago by Kalen's great-grandfather, Euquid "Ukred" Lee Nash, exhibits the songwriting legacy of the Nash family.

White Violet

AGES, the third release from White Violet, is a record of unprecedented pacing. Bandmates Nate Nelson (songwriter, instrumentalist, producer) and Brad Morgan (instrumentalist, songwriter) plan to release tracks in five digital volumes, two tracks at a time, over the course of one album cycle. At the end, the album will be released on vinyl in its entirety. Each volume is a parcel to unpack and take in, a piece of the gradually unfolding puzzle. Each experience is like a bright correspondence with a stranger who, at the end of which, you meet to hear them speak their heart in full. The album will be written over the course of the cycle–amping emotional proximity to the material onstage–giving AGES an authentic narrative. In an age where we have access to endless streaming, sculpting a record into multiple releases is not only strategic and pioneering, but also an invitation to have a conversation; letting the listener join the band in a slow burn experience.

Daniel Romano

Mosey music is a study in contrasts. There's glitz and grit, reveling and wallowing, wretchedness and showmanship. Mosey music's pioneers wore their battered hearts on sequined sleeves. From Bakersfield to Galveston, the legends traded their tragicomic highs and lows for gold records and white Cadillacs. But that was then; the days of Buckaroos, Nudie Suits and various Hanks are over, save for the museum displays. To quote a George Jones title track, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"

Enter Daniel Romano, a songwriter who delivers mosey croonin' and hard luck storytelling. While references to marquee names like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard are apparent in Romano's music, the obvious influences certainly don't demystify his talent. Romano works with equal parts authenticity and creativity, and his musical world is rich with archetypes and archrivals, wry observations and earnest confessions.

Romano's solo debut, Workin' For The Music Man (2010) announced a new artistic bearing. The follow-up, Sleep Beneath The Willow, was pure honky tonk poetry, and again received impressive response from all corners. The "dreamy homage to a bygone country-music era" (Globe & Mail) made the Polaris Long List, and solidified Romano's reputation as a solo artist.

Come Cry With Me furthers his Mosey aesthetic, musical and visual. Again self-produced and played, for the most part, by himself, Romano's new album continues with themes of bad choices, hard times, boozing and losing. Amidst the tales of woebegone orphans, family knots and broken hearts, there are spoken word yarns that recall Hank Williams-as-Luke The Drifter. Romano's deep rumbling baritone vocal dips serve, conversely, to lighten the mood, leaving no doubt that this artist knows how to deliver a punch line.

Lilly Hiatt

Royal Blue, the second album by East Nashville firebrand Lilly Hiatt, is about the majesty of melancholy—or, as she explains it, “accepting the sadder aspects of life and finding some peace in them.” A dance between pedal steel and synths, the album examines the vagaries of love and commitment but steadfastly refuses to romanticize any notion of romance. Singing in a barbed lilt full of deep worry and gritty determination in equal measure, she conveys emotions too finely shaded to be easily named, yet will be familiar to any listener who’s had their heart broken—or has broken a heart.

This is, in other words, not a well-behaved singer-songwriter album. Instead, it’s feisty and rough-around-the-edges, full of humor and bite and attitude from a woman who proclaims, “I’d rather throw a punch than bat my eye.” Royal Blue hints at autobiography without sounding self-absorbed, as Lilly transforms a rough patch of life into smart, sturdy, sometimes even hilarious songs that don’t sit squarely in any one genre. Instead, Royal Blue reaches out boldly and playfully into many different sounds and styles: Austin folk rock, Pacific Northwest indie, pre-Oasis Britpop, New York punk ca. 1977. There are ‘90s alt guitars and ’00 indie synths, some twang and some Neko Case and Kim Deal.

Setting the tone for the album, “Far Away” marries a shimmery Cure synth theme to a steady rock-and-roll backbeat, as Lilly explains the devastating realities of a love gone sour: “I have never felt more far away than when you were right here.” When she delivers a volley of ooo-ooo-ooohs on the coda, it’s hard to tell whether she’s lamenting her loss or proclaiming her freedom. Even at its most personal, Royal Blue remains complicated and often contradictory. The surging surf-country number “Machine” hints at rebellious adolescence while “Somebody’s Daughter” is a nod to Lilly’s songwriting father, John Hiatt.

Lilly’s songs are equal parts romantic autopsy and acid kiss-off to a dismissive lover. He shows up again on the fidgety “Get This Right,” with its insistent drum patter, churning guitars, and anthemic chorus. “When you turn your lamp off, please hear my sweet, soft voice,” Lilly sings over the gentle acoustic strums and Doppler-effect synths on “Your Choice.” Then she adds, with startling finality, “You made your choice.” Royal Blue is not your typical break-up album, though. Lilly would rather rock than mope.

To say she comes by it naturally shouldn’t imply that it’s all easy for her. Her father is a famously eclectic singer-songwriter whose tunes have been covered by Emmylou Harris, Nick Lowe, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan, among others. Living just outside of Nashville, he provides gentle counsel and sage advice to his daughter. “I’d be a fool not to take it,” she says. “We have a really good relationship, and there’s a lot of trust there, so I feel comfortable talking to him about certain songwriting predicaments. I played him some songs I was trying to write, and he said, these are really good, but it sounds like you’re trying to do something different. You don’t have to come up with special chords or anything. Why don’t you just be you? That was simple advice, but good advice.”

Lilly being herself means playing songs that are sharply witty, brutally frank, and musically adventurous. In that regard, her backing band has proved crucial in helping her realize her full potential as a songwriter and performer. The group has been playing and touring with her for years, and they played on her 2012 debut, Let Down. “We’re tougher now with a new confidence in our playing,” she says of the band, which includes Beth Finney on lead guitar, Jake Bradley on bass, Luke Schneider on pedal steel guitar and Jon Radford on drums.

It helps that they all share a love of ‘90s alt-rock bands, which comes through in the distressed guitars, the urgent backbeats, and the post-punk synths. Lilly cites the Pixies and the Breeders as influences on this record, as well as Dinosaur Jr. and—her all-time faves—Pearl Jam. The group recorded these dozen songs at Playground Sound, a small studio located in producer Adam Landry’s backyard in Nashville.

“I know Adam and am a fan of his work,” Lilly says. “I also knew he did analog recording, which excited me. I wanted to try that.” She chose Landry because he was a versatile rock producer who has worked with Deer Tick, T. Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate, and Hollis Brown. “Sometimes I think it might be easy to take my songs to Twang Town, if someone wanted to, but they’re not country songs. I had a feeling Adam would bring out other things in the music. Which is exactly what he did.”

In the studio, Adam credits Lilly with being game for anything: “She would be playing electric guitar with her band, and I’d be in the control room running the tape machine. I had an old KORG polysynth plugged into a Memory Man. I reached over and started playing it, and she didn’t miss a beat. She’d just go with it. She trusted me and was open-minded, and I think that helped create that sort of late ‘80s/early ‘90s vibe on the record.” But it all comes down to the songs themselves. “A killer backing track and a killer vocal can be totally ruined by really stupid lyrics,” says Adam, who was drawn to the stark candor of Lilly’s songwriting. “She’s just real honest. That’s the big thing here.”

“That’s the only way I know how to write as of now,” she admits. “Maybe that will change, because writing always does, and maybe I’ll learn to take myself out of it a little more and embellish the details. But right now I don’t know any other way. I hope people don’t think, wow, she really has some issues. But you know what? If they do, that’s fine, too. I have a hard time saying a lot of things in life, so it’s easier to do it through the song. It’s a healthy coping process for me.”

Ronnie Fauss

Ask a hundred singer-songwriters when they got serious about making music, and almost all will say the passion possessed them while they were still kids, or maybe in college, or after an attempt to hold their first “real” job. But Ronnie Fauss’ musical path is the exact opposite of conventional: He didn’t fully embrace songwriting until after his first child was born. And the working professional didn’t start sharing his songs with the world — much less consider “troubadour” as a viable option — until a few years after that. He didn’t even start singing until he realized it was the only way to give his songs exposure.

All of which makes his association with New West imprint Normaltown Records even more impressive. Fauss’ second album for the label, Built to Break, releasesNov. 4; it follows his well-received 2012 label debut, I Am the Man You Know I’m Not. To say this is a more rapid than normal trajectory is such understatement, we hope it doesn’t inspire 99 jealous fits.

As for sharing the same label umbrella as John Hiatt, Steve Earle and some of his other biggest influences, Fauss says the notion never even occurred to him back when he first started playing in public.

“It’s literally just one of those old-school stories you don’t hear anymore,” says Fauss of his evolution from self-releasing EPs to recording for a label he’s idolized. A Dallas resident born in Oklahoma but raised in Houston, Fauss happened to be playing at Houston’s Cactus Music when New West/Normaltown owner George Fontaine Sr., a fellow Houstonian, heard him.

“We met and just connected and became friends. It really happened that organically,” Fauss says. But he earned his contract by crafting strong songs with an appealing, folk-tinged country-rock sound that owes as much to Whiskeytown and Old 97’s, his Dallas homeboys, as it does the Cali country of Laurel Canyon and the spirits of Townes and Gram. Or the influences of Earle, Hiatt or two other heroes, Guy Clark and John Prine.

In fact, Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller even lends his voice to “Eighteen Wheels,” a raucous honky-tonkin’ road song that would serve as a perfect companion on any trip.

Like I Am the Man You Know I’m Not, Fauss tracked Built to Break mostly in Nashville. Both were produced by drummer/percussionist Sigurdur Birkis.

“We made a conscious decision to make this record a little more rock ’n’ roll and a little bit less country,” Fauss says of their work. “We wanted the loud songs to be really loud, and the quiet songs to be really quiet. And we wanted the one country song, ‘Never Gonna Last,’ to be really country.”

That ear-catching melody features fiddle, resonator and the gorgeous voice of Austin-to-Nashville émigré Jenna Paulette. The song contains a fine example of Fauss’ lyrical skill in the compact, yet so-astute line, “All we know abouttomorrow is that it’s never gonna last.”

Though his lyrics often address life’s emotional tolls, he’s quick to assure songs such as “The Big Catch,” which examines divorce’s effects on a child, are not autobiographical.

“It’s an interesting thing to explain at home: ‘I’m really happy; we’re all good. This is just a song I wrote,’” he jokes. Then he adds thoughtfully, “I think there’s a little bit of truth and a little bit of fiction in every single one of my songs.”

Turning fiction and truth into stories that resonate with listeners is no small feat, but Fauss pulls it off on every Built to Break track. He’s particularly proud of “The Big Catch,” which he regards as the album’s emotional anchor. The kind of ballad Slaid Cleaves might have written, it features Eric Neal’s fiddle, Devin Malone’s pedal steel, and pretty harmonies by Camille Cortinas. She also accompanies him on the album’s only cover, Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula.”

“It’s an incredibly gorgeous song, and I wanted to try to bring something a little bit unique to it,” he says.

It’s safe to say “unique” applies to the entire collection, from the Dylan-inspired “I’m Sorry Baby (That’s Just the Way It Goes),” to the song in which Fauss addresses actual country — as in countryside: the aptly titled “A Place Out in the Country.” But the twang in this sweet mid-tempo melody owes more to Jackson Browne’s neck of the woods than Texas or Tennessee.

Fauss wrote it after watching The Promise, about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Originally, he says, it was “a quiet little folk song.” Then he envisioned “a real Americana-type thing, with lots of pedal steel and harmonica.” But fate intervened, stranding Fauss on an airport tarmac. By the time he got to the studio, the band had worked out a twinned-guitar section instead. He was unsure — until he heard it.

“I just fell in love with it,” he says. That gave the song a third incarnation as a circa-70s Laurel Canyon throwback.

“I just allowed myself to get out my comfort zone, veer off into this different path, and I’m so happy I did,” Fauss says. That happened repeatedly during these sessions; Fauss cites “A Natural End” as another instance in which he thought he’d mapped out the song’s course, only to have Birkis point the compass in a new direction. “He said, ‘Take the third verse, turn it into a bridge, write a new melody and take out the guitar solo,’ and explained why. I said, ‘OK, I trust you. Let me give it a shot,’” Fauss recalls. That treatment boosts the momentum just enough to give the song a strong finish.

Fauss may have a fun-seeking, risk-taking streak, but he’s also a loving father. And even though he returned to songwriting to avoid being consumed by parenthood, that experience affected his creativity. He became more prolific, and the songs got stronger. “That finally gave me the confidence to say, “Maybe I should do something with this,” he explains.

Though his early, home-recorded EPs were popular, Fauss says even those, much less his label work, would not have seen the light of day had he not been convinced he had something solid to offer. “I’ve got this standard that I try to hold myself to,” he admits. “If it’s not something that I would listen to if somebody else did it, I’m not gonna put it out.”

That standard was put to the test on the album’s final track, “Come on Down.” Fauss rejected its first incarnation, done in full-band mode, because he believed the strings, accordion and electric guitar overloaded it. Birkis disagreed.

“While he went out for a break, I sat down and played it live with Sadler Vaden [Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit] on the 12-string guitar next to me,” Fauss says. That gave the beautiful ballad, an ode to the working class, the breathing room its thoughtful lyrics needed; the only addition was pedal steel. Another mix of fiction and experience, Fauss says, “It’s about a guy who works in a factory, which isn’t autobiographical. But at the same time, a lot of those sentiments are what I feel.” In the end, his character realizes, “This work will break our bodies but it only builds our souls.”

No, writing, recording and performing songs isn’t factory labor, but it still can be challenging. And even if Fauss’ rapid acceptance makes it seem like a breeze, he knows better than to take his good fortune for granted — which means laughing when it comes in the form of performance payments made entirely in $5 bills. Hey, if that’s troubadour life, Fauss can handle it. Because he’s not built to break.

New Madrid

“Compact in some ways, yet expansive,” is how New Madrid's Phil McGill describes their new album. magnetkingmagnetqueen takes a wide swath of influences ranging from the guitar tangle of Television and the tripped-out introspection of Yo La Tengo, to the angular experimentation of Can and the harmonic bath of Magical Mystery Tour; and combines them into something entirely unique.

magnetkingmagnetqueen has it all. The album reveals New Madrid’s evolution and collective growth, resulting in the band’s most complete work to date. “Don’t Hold Me Now” is like Pylon channeling the pre-Tommy Who. “Untitled III” is a pint-sized epic, with several movements in a three-minute window. On the other end is the dark, monolithic stomp of “Guay Lo” and the dirge-like march of “Shades.” Bringing it all together are centerpieces like “Summer Belles” and “Darker Parts,” songs with an undeniable pop sensibility that go through the looking glass and emerge as the sonic amoeba well known to fans of New Madrid’s live performances.

magnetkingmagnetqueen was made with engineer/producer David Barbe (Deerhunter, Drive-By Truckers, The Glands) in two primary locations. The group started out recording at Dogwood Lodge, the site of an unused summer camp on Lake Chickamauga in a large, open room with mobile recording gear over a week in the summer of 2015. More recording and mixing was done at Barbe’s Athens, GA studio, Chase Park Transduction with additional recording at New Madrid’s home base, The Barn.

New Madrid formed in the fall of 2010, and shortly after was approached by Barbe, who invited them to his studio to record their first full-length album, Yardboat. It happened fast. Inspired, they finished in three days.

Signing with Normaltown/New West Records, the band released their sophomore album, Sunswimmer in 2014. A live EP, Dawn Teeth Rattling, was released in 2015.

Since then the band has toured consistently across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. When not on the road, they live together in The Barn (a literal barn located in the agrarian outskirts of Athens) constantly working on new ideas.

J. Thomas Hall

For the past six years, J. Thomas Hall has written, recorded and toured with Ponderosa. In the studio, Hall has co-scribed some of that Atlanta-based act’s most immediate songs, such as “Navajo” from last year’sPool Party. On the stage, his steady bass line and pitch-perfect harmonies often tether the wandering parts of Ponderosa’s psychedelic dynamic. Wherever he goes, Hall carries himself like a seasoned veteran, because that’s exactly what he is. He’s operated in and around the Atlanta rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere for the entirety of his adult life.

It’s no surprise that Hall has solo material in the can. This pair of songs is a nice juxtaposition and a perfect demonstration of his range as a writer. “Heart Ache” is the sort of Willie Nelson story from the road that country music needs more of these days. It’s a poignant tune that could have been recorded in the musky backseat of the van or the cramped green room of any of the hundreds of clubs Ponderosa has played in over the past three years. “One Day” sees Hall dig into his Atlanta garage scene roots, reminding us not to get sucked into the murky big picture. He’s going to “take [his] chances one day at a time.” Good news: word is that those chances will include the release of further singles, eventually enough for an LP. Here’s looking forward to that.

Ruby The Rabbitfoot

Not many people can take something as devastating and tumultuous as a breakup and turn it into an album thick with joyous beats, infectious melodies and lyrics that spin disappointment and desolation into revelatory moments, but Ruby The RabbitFoot is not someone who sees things in simple black and white. On her third album, Divorce Party, she creates a vivid world that stretches far beyond just the songs – from videos that straddle the line of performance and art, to her fearless use of fashion, to the music itself, which serves as the thrilling, creative center to her unique universe. Produced by Andy LeMaster (Bright Eyes, Azure Ray), Divorce Party is a celebration of life after loss, and the creative renewal that comes from finding light amongst the darkness.

"I want this to be a soundtrack for anyone going through a transition," says Ruby – though this album was written after a particular romantic one, she's not the kind of artist who stays stagnant, anyhow. For this record, she immersed herself deeply into pop music and hip-hop, listening constantly to everything from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift and Fiona Apple. "Having your heart broken is something that humans all experience," she adds. "It's how you learn, and how you grow.”

Beginning with "Beach Flowers," the first song she wrote for the LP and which also kicks off the album, Divorce Party is thick with unusual percussion, shimmering synth licks and ethereal orchestration courtesy of a more experimental approach to instrumentals. "I built you up into a castle in my brain," Ruby sings in her crystalline vocals, "and though it's made of sand, I like making plans just the same." For the Georgia-born artist, the idea of a "beach flower" came to represent how some experiences are as lovely as they are ephemeral – but that doesn't make them any less worthy of enjoyment. "A beach flower is something beautiful and temporary," she explains. "You wouldn't plant all your flowers on the beach unless you wanted the ocean to gobble them up."

The process of creating Divorce Party took nearly two years from start to finish – after 2014's New As Dew, she embarked on an artistic journey that took her everywhere from Georgia to California, where she met collaborator Natalie Neal, who became an instrumental partner in expressing her vision. Neal, a renowned avant-garde director and photographer who has screened her work at Sundance Film Festival, made the ideal match for Ruby. Together, they have been developing the visual palate for Divorce Party, including its stunning first video for "Beach Flowers."

Ruby’s creative expression knows no bounds and her vibrant personality and unique style have led to a host of exciting collaborations as musicians, apparel brands and various creatives have all sought her out to collaborate. One of Urban Outfitter's "Five To Watch In Athens" and hand-picked by Japanese magazine Nero, for a photo spread, Ruby delights in flirting with the fashion world and is just as creative with her image as she is with her music. Ruby made her acting debut in 2014 as Macklemore's love interest in the highly popular video for Fences' single "Arrows," featuring Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

To create Divorce Party, Ruby took the songs down to Athens, Georgia, and LeMaster, working with an innovative goal in mind and a new, playful approach to composition. "I wanted more of a pop-sounding record," she says. "I'm a songwriter first and foremost, and I think in the past it's been my nature to pick up the guitar. But in my free time, I love pop music and rap music and R&B. So I had a heavier hand in the style I wanted this time. I learned how to make beats, and learned so much from working with Andy. He has the same love of pop music, and is fearless." That love is clear in songs like "Faucet Love" and "Ancil," which both manage to be stirring and addictive, melding the stickiness of a pop record with experimentation – via unexpected horns or skittish rhythm - that could only be tackled by someone who knows no real boundaries. And then there are also moments like "Wish," with a slow-burned eighties vibe, that puts on full display the complexities within her vocal range. On “I Hate You” Ruby marries beats and an upbeat melody with some deeply cutting lyrics: “If I ever see your name in lights I think I'll melon ball my eyes out/ Mail them to you overnight with a note that says/"Surprise! Remember when you used to swim for miles and miles in these baby blues?/I wish you would have drowned, cause I hate you/Oh I do.”

"That breakup was challenging, but I'm good for it," she says. "I learned so much about love, and I am writing and singing better than I ever have. So I'd like to thank my ex.”

“Even though there's this connotation of disruption and heartbreak, divorce parties have a celebratory energy. Every person that we love teaches us, so when it's time to part ways I think it's beautiful to appreciate everything we've gained from the experience. I wrote these songs in a period of separation from a love. I want to release them into the world as a celebration of all that I learned during that time. It's my Divorce Party!”

Cicada Rhythm

Cicada Rhythm has been buzzing around Georgia for the past couple years and the duo’s understated and elegant music resulted in Creative Loafing Atlanta awarding them “Best Local Folk Act” in 2013. The pair have charmed the Southern press with Flagpole writing, “The thing that most impresses about Cicada Rhythm's sound is how big it is, even though it's not. Cloaked in sleepy sweetness—all ringing acoustic guitar and sliding upright bass, cooed vocals with snug, Welch/Rawlings-style harmonies—the Atlanta-based duo's music lands with an impact you didn't quite see coming." Creative Loafing Charlotte exclaimed, “Regardless of how the influences of folk, jazz and blues intermingled, Cicada Rhythm craft an open-hearted, inventive blend of American musics in deceptively simple songs that are both haunting and playfully jaunty... Rarely has a band’s name fit their music so well. Cicada Rhythm conjure up the Southern twilight when the buzz of insects washes in waves through the trees, and that eerie but comforting moment of stasis before the world transforms."

Born and raised in Georgia, this talented pair imitates and modernizes folk music to a rejuvenating degree. The sound of DeMarcus and Kirslis exhibits skilled and articulate guitar picking honed in dive bars over rolling bass lines. The duo, which delivers chilling harmonies, unbridled enthusiasm and sincere performances, will play City Winery in Nashville tonight and make their way back to their new hometown Athens for two shows at AthFest 2015 this weekend.