The 3rd Annual Bringing Back the Arts music competition is this Sunday, March 16, at the Bluebird Theater. Admission is free. The competition is part of First Lady of Denver Mary Louise Lee's Bringing Back the Arts initiative, designed to bring greater attention to local artists and to encourage the creative endeavors of Denver's youth.
It features ten high school bands -- finalists among the many that submitted songs to a panel of talent buyers and musicians. The finalists are Alterity, Coasta the Messenger, Mia B, The Social System, Lutes and Shatters, Abraham Lincoln High School Choir, Eva Claire, Reborn, Picture Perfit Quintet and The Pigz. They represent a broad spectrum of musical genres and will compete for three cash prizes.
We had a chance to speak with three of the finalists about their music, where each has played beyond anything like a school talent contest and their inspirations. If the level of sincerity, care for craft and sense of humor we encountered is any indication, Denver's next generation of musicians is already giving us something worth seeking out.
Westword: When did you start playing guitar?
Wyatt Leonard: Six or seven years ago, when I was ten or eleven. I started on electric. An Epiphone Les Paul Jr., a very cheap guitar. I honestly think I started with the game Guitar Hero and I decided to start playing real guitar. It kind of expanded from that and has taken over.
Were there particular artists in the game that you took to?
I got really into Led Zeppelin when I was younger. When I was in middle school I would just try to learn every Led Zeppelin song. More recently I've gotten into really old Delta blues from the '30s and '40s and stumbled into this band called North Mississippi All Stars. Luther Dickinson, the guitarist in that band, I've been very influenced by him recently. I saw them when they were in town at The Gothic in February and that was one of the greatest shows I've ever seen. They're doing a lot of what I want to do with Alterity so there's that connection. I picked up some tricks from Luther just from watching him.
There's some verbiage about restoring faith in humanity on your Facebook bio.
That was kind of a joke. The serious part about it is that we feel not enough people are into blues music and it's dying. So the serious part of that was to get people into the blues.
What is it about the blues that you think is important to keep doing?
It's really easy to connect to. It's still really relevant today because the songs and the style is forever.
Even though you're in high school, you've played shows outside the context of a school.
Probably the coolest place I've played is Red Rocks with this music school program I attended. With Alterity we've played at The Gothic Theater for a battle of the bands. We're playing at the Bluebird in May and of course this Sunday we're playing at the Bluebird too. We've played at Seventh Circle Music Collective quite frequently. Eck's Saloon and we've played The Church a couple of times.
Are there other local artists with whom you feel you have some kinship?
We have some friends in a math rock band called Boats Without Oars. We have lots of friends in bands and it's a really cool community.
As a band based in blues, do you do covers as well as originals?
We like to cover Son House and Robert Johnson and all those old blues guys. We also cover newer stuff like White Stripes because I really like Jack White. We actually also cover some heavy stuff like Sleep, "Dragonaut." We like to do as wide a variety of music as possible.
You identify Detroit and Delta blues as your musical roots when it comes to rock and the blues. Why that instead of say Chicago or Kansas City blues?
A lot of that music developed before African Americans could votes so there's this really dark undertone to it. It was just an acoustic guitar and one man type of situation and it hit me way harder than Chicago blues did or anything.
Westword: You got started singing pretty early in life, is that right?
Eva Claire: I started taking voice lessons when I was three years old. It wasn't something I took seriously then, it was just sort of fun. But now it's something I'm serious about and hope to do for the rest of my life.
What do they teach you in those lessons?
They teach us the techniques but also acting and presentation and how to have expression when you're singing.
How long have you been writing your own songs?
I would write short songs when I was really little, but they weren't all that good. It would just be really silly things. I started writing more seriously when I was eleven, which was about four years ago. Over this past summer I went to a songwriting workshop at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and learned a lot of really great stuff. Since then I've been into that quite a bit and trying to find places to perform my own songs.
What was your biggest take away from that Berklee workshop?
I think that finding techniques for when I'm stuck while writing and finding ways to get past that and end up with a great song. Something that I personally do is write down words and phrases that I really like or something that someone says that sticks with me and try to find some way to work it into a song.
At your age, you probably haven't played at bars so where have you found to perform your music?
I look up open mic nights at different places like maybe at coffee shops and stuff like that. That's pretty much what I do.
Have you found that people are pretty receptive at those kinds of places?
Sometimes it's not entirely but it's definitely a place where I can go and perform and people will enjoy at least a little bit of background music.
Based on the recordings you've put on Soundcloud you have originals but you have also done some covers but instead of the usual suspects you cover artists like Halestrom and Coeur de Pirate.
Halestrom is actually a heavy metal band that I'm really into. Obviously I don't know how to play electric guitar, bass, drums or any of the other instruments that you usually hear in that kind of music. But I figured out a way to do an acoustic cover by looking up the chords. It's a band a friend of me about last year. It was really different from some of the stuff I'd heard in the past and I wanted to find a way to incorporate that style into my own music.
Coeur de Pirate is a French artist. We actually listened to one of her songs in my French class and I figured covering a song by her would help me with my French pronunciation.
When did you start playing guitar along with singing?
In January two years ago I started playing classical guitar and I didn't like that very much and I moved on to acoustic guitar. I liked the sound better and that helps me write my songs. I think the pace of classical guitar is pretty slow and I couldn't really figure out many of the finger picking techniques and it didn't interest me that much.
You record at home? What do you use?
I actually have an app on my phone that I use to record. I plug in some Apple headphones and sing into the microphone. It helps with blocking out some of the background noise. That's how I record most of the stuff I post on Soundcloud.
In playing around in coffee shops, have you connected with other local artists?
I look up original songs on YouTube. They're not all local artists but I like to find people who aren't that famous and who are kind of in the same boat as I am. I like Allie Rhoads. I covered one of her songs and I believe she's from Omaha. I love listening to her music because it's so relaxing. Also there's Anna Graceman, who was on America's Got Talent about a year ago. She's from Alaska and she has an amazing voice and has these beautiful songs.
Has anyone taken you under their wing in any way?
There's Noah Wilson, who is a DSA alumnus, having graduated from the guitar program several years ago. He actually runs a songwriting class every Wednesday or Thursday after school. I've learned a lot from that and he actually taught me how to play guitar.
Westword: Why did you call yourself The Pigz?
Bo Gurule: When I was a small child things weren't so good with my dad. But the gist of it all was that he thought everybody's a pig so why not be pigs too. So we're The Pigz.
You seem to have an irreverent sense of humor about things.
Martin Riedel: Sorry to cut in but I happen to disagree. We take everything very seriously. We're very serious artists.
Have you played out a bit outside a school context?
Carlos Rios: We have, actually. We've had about eight gigs in total.
Where have you played out so far?
BG: The first time we played out was at the 7th Circle Music Collective. We have also played at Toad Tavern two times. Club Revoluciones as well. And Radio City Music Hall.
What is "Jeffery Samen Chinese Food"?
MR: He's a friend of ours who works at New Happy Restaurant at Sheridan and Dartmouth. Check 'em out Facebook, Twitter, Instgram, Myspace.
BG: When we started with the whole band around June we had a tradition of going to a Chinese restaurant every Sunday.
CR: One of the waiters there is named Jeffery Samen and we became friends with him.
On the press information that went out it described you as rock/jazz and that gives one a good idea of generally what you're about but listening to your music it's beyond just that.
CR: We play all sorts of genres. When we first started out we didn't call ourselves any genre, exactly. Because it's not like we're a traditional jazz or rock group. Instead we made a genre for ourselves and called ourselves Apple Tartar.
Like steak tartar except with apples?
CR: Right! You got it.
What's your new album called?
BG: The Pigz Vs. The Pigs. That album will be five times better than Hard Candies.
Under influences on your Facebook page there is listed Jorge Alberto Balderas.
CR: This goes years back, when I was ten years old. Jorge was basically my saving grace as some might say. He allowed me into his home and he adopted me, basically, when things weren't going well with my family. I have him to thank for everything in my life.
BG: Jorge Alberto Balderas was basically this joke we had.
Have you connected with other local artists over the last year?
CR: The problem we're running into is that there are a lot of bands that think they're too good or whatever. We'll be like, "Hey do you guys want to play with us here and here." "But we don't play stuff like this." And we're like, "Dude, take what you can get. It's a gig."
Has anyone in town mentored you in any way?
CR: Not really. We're pretty independent and no one has really taken us under their wing.
BG: We're kind of our own managers.
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