Asheville-based vocalist Jordan Scheffer hasn’t let being visually impaired get in the way of her musical dreams. Passionate about singing since the age of 8, she went on to win the 2017 national Blind Idol contest at 18.
More recently, Scheffer celebrated the October release of her debut album, Until We Try. Produced by Daniel Seriff, with additional help from her father, Eric, the record is a collection of covers that Scheffer says made her “feel happy inside” while also expressing the human condition. As such, the track list features multiple Bob Marley numbers, in addition to several songs by Nigerian/French artist Aṣa.
“Afro-soul and reggae music appeal to me so much because they just sound raw and real, filled with beautiful melodies and rich, warm instrumentation,” Scheffer says. “The lyrics speak about humanity, common experiences and how to better the lives of people and the planet, which is always a good thing.”
The selections also represent genres the singer has been listening to since her youth, though “it’s just now that I’m really starting to embrace them as a singer and explore their effect on me.”
Along with producing, Seriff plays guitar on the album, which also features horns from members of the New Orleans-based band Naughty Professor. Scheffer notes that her collaborators took the time to see her vision through, including reworking songs to fit her preferred key and singing style. Dave McNair, whose credits include albums for David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, then mastered the album, proving essential to its ultimate sound, which Scheffer describes as “incredibly clean and clear.”
Shortly after the album’s release, Scheffer performed much of Until We Try at the LEAF Festival in October. Her next gig will be at Isis Music Hall on Friday, Jan. 21.
In the meantime, she’s making sure to savor the moment and celebrate realizing her goal of being a recording artist. “It feels wonderful,” she says. “It gives me hope that I can do something bigger and keep succeeding. It feels so surreal to now be on the artist end of the spectrum, whereas just a few months ago, I was a listener.”
Beauty and brevity
Juan Holladay has been playing less music than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Asheville-based singer-songwriter’s recorded output suggests an artist who hasn’t stopped creating these past 20 months.
Though consisting of a mere five tracks, his new EP, Beauty Sleep, contains lush, soulful soundscapes and songs within songs that make its 10-minute total runtime feel considerably richer than its brevity might suggest.
“I work with a lot of different people on these songs at each level,” Holladay says. “I usually add vocals, horn lines and synth lines over instrumentals that I get from my producer-collaborators. And then after that, I might ask someone else to throw down whatever they want here, and then we’ll just dig through and find samples and cut it up.”
The EP features several guest musicians, including Raleigh-based vocalist Chris Charles (using his CHVRLES moniker) and local saxophonist Jacob Rodriguez. Meanwhile, longtime collaborator Patrick Doyle is one of several mixers on Beauty Sleep, and fellow local technician David Elliott Johnson mastered the EP.
“[Johnson] added his own flavor — definitely a little bit of an artistic flair, even in the mastering process, because we did it kind of lo-fi, but yet it would sound good in a hi-fi system as well,” Holladay says.
The album’s standout moment, however, belongs to Holladay himself. While the rapped verse on “Late Bloomer” appears to be a guest spot, it’s actually Holladay’s vocals, altered to a lower pitch through a series of recording techniques that Holladay discovered somewhat by accident.
In addition to Beauty Sleep, Holladay also plans to work more with his band the Secret B-Sides. Over the course of the last four years, the group has been struck by a number of tragedies, making it difficult to establish steady growth following the release of their 2014 album, Welcome to Soul City. Keyboardist Jeff Knorr died in 2017, followed by drummer Robin Tolleson two years later. But rehearsals with the current lineup are becoming more frequent as gigs arise, including one Saturday, Dec. 11, at Salvage Station.
“We’re just letting the new band settle in,” Holladay says. “I’d love to do a Secret B-Sides album and for it to be more bossa nova style — something really fun and a new direction.”
The new New Wave
“I think about a year ago, I went a little crazy,” says Black Mountain-based guitarist JP Kennedy. “That was the time with COVID cases rising and the election turmoil, and anyone who had any empathy wasn’t sleeping. I had weeks of not sleeping. The whole thing was insane.”
To help combat the mental anguish and sleepless nights, Kennedy and fellow local musicians Didier Rubio (bass) and Colleen Rose (vocals/synths) began sending around snippets of songs they’d recorded on their phones — a bass line here, a drumbeat there, some words and a melody. The audio files may have been short and largely just promising ideas, but for friends unable to write, practice or perform as usual, any organized signs of making music together felt like needed rebellion.
The result is Thieves Like Us, whose debut album, Sending You Messages, was released in early October. Rounded out by drummer Ari Schantz, the band continued sharing phone recordings before uniting in a practice space to write additional songs once COVID rates fell to a comfortable level and vaccinations added another layer of encouragement.
“I do think we were subconsciously writing about the pandemic because so many of the songs have the theme of looking for connection,” Kennedy says.
The six original post-punk tracks are unabashedly ’80s-inspired and look to carry on the traditions of Joy Division, New Order, The Cure and Blondie. In Kennedy’s opinion, these “weird underground art bands” wrote some of the best love songs out there, if not “maybe the best songs ever.”
“We didn’t want to shy away from this direction,” he continues. “We aimed our ship where our favorite bands had headed — synth washes, bass carrying the main melody line, some shimmery disco drums, no guitar solos. All the melody lines are so pure that you can sing them in the shower.”
Steady gigs and general band activities, however, are currently difficult — Rose is traveling in Europe, Rubio and Schantz continue playing in the rock group Miami Gold, and Kennedy is involved in multiple ensembles. But the group’s ability to remain creative during the pandemic has them confident that Thieves Like Us is just beginning.
“Sometimes I’m writing and I hear something with a moody melody and I think, ‘That’s a Thieves song,’” Kennedy says. “Colleen [Rose] is back in December, so we’re playing a kind of Thieves show at American Vinyl Co. on Dec. 30. The band may just function like this — when we are all in town, we’ll get a beer and look at all the music we’ve sent each other and create some more post-punk-inspired pop songs and then play them around town.”
Eleventyseven’s 2012 EP Attack of The Mountain Medley began with a wild hair to try something that sounded like the old country and folk tunes that bandmates Matt Langston and Davey Davenport grew up with in the South.
“It was totally a joke at first, but by the time it was finished, we sort of saw a totally different side of ourselves, and it became exciting,” Langston says. “The thinking was that no one would be into it since it sounded so different from our usual synth pop/unicorn party sound. It sort of just took off when we weren’t paying attention and became the most popular thing we’ve done. It still kind of feels like the joke was on us.”
Just shy of a decade later, Langston found himself feeling creatively drained amid the ongoing pandemic. Though he’d spent every day in his Rock Candy Studios working on music or producing for other bands, the loneliness of primarily remote work was wearing on him, as was the absence of playing live shows. To regain that spark, he took another break from the synthesizer workflow and started on a new set of folk tunes, dubbed Revenge of The Mountain Medley.
“It seemed like a fun creative space to revisit and maybe air out our artistic closets that had begun to feel stuffy,” he says. “We were grateful for the lightning strike of the first EP but weren’t trying to make it hit twice. We just wanted to have some more of that brand of fun.”
Desiring a new flavor to fold into the Mountain Medley series, Langston pushed himself to learn lap steel guitar, while also relearning the mandolin. Polishing his banjo skills also took a little time, but since he frequently writes on acoustic guitar, that foundation helped push the project forward. After a few weeks of practicing, he and Davenport felt back in familiar territory and embraced other hurdles as they arose.
“The challenging part is going from writing pop tunes and short heart exposés to telling clear and concise arcing stories within a song structure,” he says. “My favorite thing about folk music is that it’s this musical casserole made of history lessons, cautionary tales, love stories and laments. It’s this amazing cultural chronicle and mirror to look into and see who looks back.”
While Revenge of The Mountain Medley has much in common with its 2012 predecessor, much has changed for eleventyseven between those sonic departures. As he’s gotten older, Langston feels that becoming a more loving person has made a huge difference in his life, and he strives to pay it forward throughout the community.
“My biggest hope for our growth is that we learn how to help people feel seen and understood in really accessible ways,” Langston says. “I’m serving a life sentence in the studio, so I learn something new every time we start a song or a new band comes in to record. You don’t need to be a tortured artist to tell your truth, you just have to be an honest one.”