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The Kids Are Alright


Kids making music is not a new concept. Michael Jackson was a child star, so was Justin Timberlake. Prodigies like Sierra Hull and Sarah Jarosz have been making great acoustic music since their teens. 

Great music doesn't require commercial success and commercial success doesn't hinge on quality and creativity.

John Mayer and Johnny Lang have gone onto respectable careers after getting their starts as teenagers. Often however child artists seem contrived, more a product of clever marketing than an example of great music. Televised music competitions such as American Idol are great at finding talented performers, but seem more motivated by sales than creativity. Those aren’t mutually exclusive goals, but great music doesn’t require commercial success and commercial success doesn’t hinge on quality and creativity. Now that the giant record companies aren’t the only avenue to recording or commercial success, aspiring artists are able to make their own music, their own way. This has resulted in the last few years in some promising new music coming from people much younger than you would expect.

A few years ago, SOAK (Bridie Watson) paid a visit to JPR’s Live Sessions. The singer/songwriter from Ireland was 17 and had just released her album Before We Forgot How To Dream

It was runner-up for the 2015 Mercury prize. SOAK (her stage name, a mash up of Soul and Folk) is openly gay and at age 14 wrote the song “Sea Creatures” about her openly gay friend who was being bullied. You hear anger and love and compassion in the lyrics. Later, she spoke of that song with great insight “There are so many different aspects of being 14 in that song like, you have that phase of ‘Oh my God I want to get out of this town, I hate all of these people’ and then the chorus is about people’s ignorance and intolerance.” If this is how she is writing and critiquing herself as a teenager, I think we have a lot to look forward to in the future. 

From this side of the pond, Ogden, Utah to be exact, is a young man named Sammy Brue. He just released his debut record I Am Nice. The folk/Americana singer/songwriter has been writing songs for a good portion of his 15 years after being inspired by his father’s taste in music, legends like Bob Dylan, Leadbelly and Johnny Cash. By the age 11 he was busking at the Sundance Film Festival and shortly thereafter landed opening spots with John Moreland, Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll and Justin Townes Earle. Fun fact, in 2014, Brue was one of the models for the cover photo on the Justin Townes Earle album Single Mothers. These early connections paid off. His record was produced by Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and John Paul White of the Civil Wars. His sound and his writing are something like his Americana influences with perhaps a dose of Brett Dennen and Jack Johnson. Given he is already making legitimate music and is in great company, there is likely quite a bit more to come from this young talent. 

Folk and Americana aren’t the only genres with young stars making good music. When they were very young, Maya Rae (14) a vocalist and Joey Alexander (11), a pianist, were releasing sophisticated jazz records. At around that age I was playing air guitar to AC/DC and giggling at words like “pianist”. 

Josiah “Joey” Alexander is from Indonesia and a true child prodigy. He began teaching himself piano at age 6 after listening to his father’s old jazz albums. 

Credit NPR
Josiah “Joey” Alexander

Wynton Marsallis learned about Alexander after watching a YouTube clip of him playing Coltraine, Monk and Chick Corea and invited him to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He released his album My Favorite Things a year later, at age 11. His technique and sophistication is decades beyond his age. With such an early start, he is going to be headed into something like mid-career work in his 20s.

It is hard to imagine where he is going to take this gift. 

Jazz vocalist Maya Rae is from Canada. When her CD Sapphire Birds first came in I was skeptical expecting her to be more of a novelty than a true talent. That skepticism vanished when I heard her sing the first line of the Carole King classic “I Feel the Earth Move”. On Sapphire Birds, she plays with standards by Gershwin and pop tunes by Meghan Trainor with the instincts of a veteran. She wrote a couple of the songs from the record, including “So Caught Up,” about a very teenage subject, social anxiety from changing schools. In addition to her music, she has an eye for giving back. Proceeds from her CD release went to Covenant House which helps homeless teens. In 2015 she raised $13,000 to help the victims of the Nepal earthquake. She has a great voice, great vision and seems like a genuinely decent person. 

I could go on. EmiSunshine who just released her 2nd album, Ragged Dreams is now only 13 years old. She too is already receiving critical acclaim. 

Aging is inevitable and as we age many of us are guilty of talking about “kids these days” while looking down our noses. As an enthusiastic amateur singer and guitar player, hearing young people with so much talent is intimidating. As a deejay and music lover, I say (dating myself) the kids are alright!

Dave Jackson hosts Open Air, weekdays on JPR’s Rhythm & News Service.