Some artists doubled down on their craft during COVID-19 and emerged from lockdown more motivated than ever. Others became rock climbing instructors.
The latter was the case with The Fritz vocalist/keyboardist Jamar Woods, who developed a passion for scaling walls and amicably left the Asheville-based funk/soul band to pursue those dreams professionally.
The decision left the band’s guitarist and music director, Jamie Hendrickson, in search of a new lead singer — a quest that didn’t take long. As pandemic restrictions loosened and live music slowly returned, Hendrickson began performing weekly shows at Burial Beer Co. Tasked with putting together new bands each Sunday, he eventually crossed paths with Datrian Johnson and invited him to perform.
“He’s an amazing singer and just kind of fit the vibe,” Hendrickson says. “We picked mostly covers at first and a lot of instrumentals. But I started putting Fritz songs on the set list because I wanted to play those songs, and he did great on them.”
Once The Fritz returned to touring, Hendrickson recruited Johnson to take over on vocals. The first of several new members, Johnson was later joined by Thomson Knowles (keyboards) and Matt Schueler (synth bass/keys). Jonathan Lloyd (trombone/percussions/singer) has also officially joined the band, and Rebekah Todd (vocals) has been performing live with them since the spring. Hendrickson now calls The Fritz “kind of a conglomeration.”
“It worked out really nicely, but it’s also a testament to the Asheville music scene and how many amazing people we have here,” Hendrickson says. “You really do have multiple options of singers and keyboard players and bass players who are all incredible. For cities of our size, I don’t think that’s the usual.”
While on tour in Florida last fall, the new-look Fritz rented a beach house for a few days and began writing what became the band’s latest album, Take Your Time. Removed from their busy Asheville schedules, the artists were able to relax by the sand and water during the day, then engage in fun, loose jamming sessions at night. At times, the bandmates swapped instruments, and Hendrickson recorded everything.
“A band’s a funny thing. To create that inspiration, the vibe, and make it all flowing — it’s tricky. And setting is such an important part of it,” he says. “We’re doing things like that to this day. We want to go get a cabin in the woods and stay there for a few days. We have a bunch of ideas.”
Rounding out the sound on the album’s front half is legendary keyboardist John Medeski, who plays in Saint Disruption with Johnson. Hendrickson sent three tracks and some notes about each song’s vibe to Medeski, who recorded his parts remotely from upstate New York.
“We said, basically, ‘Do whatever you want. We’re kind of thinking organ, kind of thinking [clavinet],’” Hendrickson says. “And then he just sent stuff, and suddenly it’s like classic John Medeski, one of our all-time favorites. He has such a specific sound, and it’s awesome.”
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Diamond in the rough
It often takes Nina Gi a few times to get things right. But when she hits her mark, it’s a bull’s-eye.
The Asheville-based singer-songwriter (who uses they/them pronouns) grew up in New Jersey in a musical family and attended a musical trade school during their elementary years. After relocating to Fletcher when they were in fifth grade, Gi added flute to their repertoire, which already included vocals and piano. But making original music felt overly ambitious.
“It was something that I always wanted to do but didn’t have the courage to pursue,” Gi says.
After dissatisfying stints in fashion marketing and lifestyle blogging, they mustered the strength to move to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a reiki master, practicing the Japanese form of energy healing. But when that didn’t work out and Gi turned to Lyft driving to make ends meet, music found its way back into their life through what they term “random” industry connections.
“One person gave me a keyboard, and he used to tour with Stevie Wonder. And another person gave me vocal lessons for free and was friends with the judges on ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’” Gi says. “I was like, ‘OK, well, these people are coming into my life, and they’re giving me these tools to pursue this. Maybe it’s something that I should try.’”
Shortly after the release show for their 2019 debut single, Gi returned to Asheville and remained here while the pandemic brought the music industry to a standstill. Following a few false starts within the local scene, they found some like-minded collaborators who helped create their debut EP, Alchemy. The album’s title and its trio of self-empowering R&B tracks reflect a period of intense personal growth for the artist.
“A lot in my life was changing, and I was feeling like my music is how I’m supposed to help and inspire people throughout the world,” Gi says. “I felt like it was my job to do that through sharing my emotional experiences, my process and what I’ve learned. A lot of my confidence was built through sharing my music and going for things that I never thought that I would be able to do.”
Their creative pursuits have also resulted in a pair of imaginative music videos. In the boxing-themed visuals for album standout “Under Pressure,” Gi takes to the ring to knock out an opponent. Meanwhile, “Please Don’t Let Me Go” features the artist atop Black Balsam Knob. And though Alchemy was released in June, Gi is already recording their debut LP.
“My focus is making music that’s very genuine and authentic to who I am,” Gi says. “I’m challenging myself to write about things that I’m nervous to share and be vulnerable about and share my political thoughts.”
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Nerd Alert almost didn’t happen.
When the pandemic hit, its two members, Logan Venderlic and Tyler Craighead, witnessed the dissolution of their Asheville-based fusion ensemble Emma’s Lounge and put serious thought into setting their musical dreams aside.
“Seeing how we’d both been through many years of projects not fully working out, we thought if we were going to quit, now is a great time to make that decision,” Craighead says. “After taking some time to reflect, Logan and I both agreed that we had to play music if we wanted to feel like ourselves, and no amount of failure was going to stop us from doing so.”
Fortified by a brotherhood they’d forged over five years in Emma’s Lounge, the two friends formed Nerd Alert, an electro/funk duo. Working from Venderlic’s basement, which Craighead dubbed “The Purple Room,” they began by revisiting older songs that were in various stages of completion. And as they shifted from rock and folk influences to a decidedly more electronic sound, a concept album emerged.
Venderlic describes To the Stars! as the story of “two protagonists who are having a hard time on Earth and decide to go to outer space. While on their journey, they discover a new planet with alien life and are briefly worshipped as gods before being found out as frauds — and then try to escape.”
Kick-starting the project was the song “EVA,” an acronym for extravehicular activity, the term astronauts use for describing a spacewalk. Once it was finished, Craighead says, “things started to snowball.” “Cut the Tether” was directly inspired by “EVA,” and the following songs were all influenced by the ones before them — except for “Sexy Jesus,” which the band mates say they “really had to stretch the story to make fit.”
Though the new exercise proved challenging, having a general storyline in mind gave the duo a creative structure they’d long craved. “The narrative was just so much fun, and from that blossomed some of the songs we’re most proud of on the album, like ‘NoN’ and ‘Not Enough,’” Craighead says. “Logan and I wanted to place ourselves in a box because before Nerd Alert, we believed our music was too unhinged and going in too many directions. Sticking with electronic music as a baseline and combining that with the narrative created just the box we were looking for.”
The funky, fresh jams consistently feature intricately layered production, resulting in a sonically rich experience across the album’s 14 tracks. Though Craighead contributed on the production side, Venderlic took the lead and challenged himself to mix the entire record as well as master it — both firsts for the longtime musician.
And in bringing these complex songs to the stage, the band likewise pushes itself by playing as many of the different instrumental parts as possible. While Venderlic holds down lead guitar and runs the sound, Craighead switches between drums and keys (sometimes in the middle of songs), and they both sing and do live looping and knob turning. Even then, some of the layers remain unaddressed, so they also employ backing tracks from Ableton.
“We were once ashamed to have backing tracks but have since discarded that shame,” Craighead says. “We want to put on an amazing show for all the lovely people who come out to have a good time, and if backing tracks help us create that experience to its fullest, then we’re going to use them.”
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