During March, NPR launched the fifth year of their Tiny Desk Contest where they accept submissions from artists for a chance to win a performance at the legendary Tiny Desk hosted by creator and host of All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen. The winner also gets to tour the US with NPR and microphone company, Blue Microphones. The only criteria of the contest is to record a video of an original song and in the video, there must be a desk. This year, the winner is Quinn Christopherson, an Athabaskan and Inupiaq, trans-singer-songwriter from Anchorage. He won with his powerfully emotional song, “Erase Me” about the privileges he has a transgender man. From watching his submission video as well as his official Tiny Desk session, I was completely awestruck. Quinn’s lyricism was so clever and charming. I was excited to catch Quinn at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert On The Road Tour.
I arrived at the Lodge Room in Highland Park just in time, walked up a skinny flight of stairs, and saw a beautiful blue room with golden accents; there was an ornate golden star on the ceiling from which chandeliers hung. Upon arriving, I noticed how NPR was making the event fun and engaging. NPR was raffling away a Blue microphone and headphones. There was also a photo booth with the shelves behind Bob Boilen’s real Tiny Desk in DC as the backdrop. Plus, they had a table of free swag including “Tiny Desk Contest” stickers, tambourines, and posters. Fast forward to the end of the night, when NPR also gave away tote bags to attendees who filled out a survey. As someone who is a sucker for free things, NPR got on my good side.
The hosts of the night were Boilen and KCRW DJ, Raul Campos. They were both also judges of this year’s contest among Lucy Dacus, Jason Isbell, Ledisi, and more. For each date of the tour, Boilen invites artists from each city that stood out to him during the contest to open for Quinn. First up was LALA Brass, an ensemble of a drummer, a tuba, a flute, trombones, trumpets, and pianists. Although their ensemble was large, each musician had unique dance moves and flair; they had a lot of character. Their songs were upbeat, anthemic and soulful. With all the instrumentalists on stage, the music felt very layered and hard-hitting. The whole band was chanting and yelling, inducing the audience to clap along with their free tambourines. LALA Brass ended with the song that they submitted to the contest; it was impossible not to move your hips along to the funky beat. Everyone’s hands were in the air shouting, “LALA! LALA!”
The next performer was NoSo, a queer, Asian-American singer-songwriter who happens to be a recent USC Thornton graduate. Boilen praised her by saying that after watching so many contest submissions, her’s was one of the few that he felt inclined to watch again. Dressed in all black, NoSo started off with the song that she submitted to the contest, “Allie.” Her deep voice and singing style was reminiscent of songwriters like Lucy Dacus and Big Thief. The way that her fingers effortlessly hammered on and off the guitar and slid up and down the neck was impressive in itself. I resonated with NoSo the most because I am also a queer, Asian-American person dealing with similar emotions that she sang about. “Being a piece of shit in [her] early 20’s” and being a gay minority in a white Chicago suburb that served as the inspiration for the movie Mean Girls. Whether she was playing her acoustic or electric guitar, the open tuning was warm and reverberant while also clear and soft. NoSo was also no joke when it came to beatboxing. She never missed a beat while fingerpicking complicated riffs that would fit in a math rock tune. She oozes talent. There was no doubt about it that NoSo deserved to be on that stage.
After the melodious performance, it was Cab Ellis’s turn to bring the energy back up. This band (which was also made up of some fellow Trojan performers) brought together fusion, hip-hop, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. Connor Abeles of Cab Ellis had a significant raspiness and growl to his voice as he aggressively rapped and shook his head like a rock star. He let the music take control of his body as he screamed and flapped his arms around the stage. The crowd was feeling it, too. The full sound of the brass section, rock guitar, and dramatic hits from the drum got everyone into an infectious, energetic dance craze. At some point, Abeles’s sweatshirt came off—and thank god, too—there was no way he wasn’t heating up from all that spazzing he was doing. Like LALA Brass, Cab Ellis ended their set with their Tiny Desk submission, “Flashback,” which Abeles says is inspired by the Her soundtrack. It was a poetic song whose long verses felt like spoken word rapped with a jet-fast rhythmic flow. The choruses hit suddenly and passionately as a beautiful jazzy explosion. Their performance left me saying “wow” with my jaw dropped.
Finally, the pièce de résistance, Quinn Christopherson was greeted with wild applause as he walked on stage with his guitarist and best bud, Nick Carpenter. Christopherson had so much adorable charisma that was coupled with his vulnerability and candidness. Between songs, he gave hilarious, sweet anecdotes. He gave a shout out to his hometown, Anchorage, and talked about how his dad—who had been attending every show on the tour so far—couldn’t find shoes in LA. He has a voice that can go at once from restrained and somber to powerful and thundering. Accompanied by Carpenter’s voice, the two created hollowing harmonies that gave me chills. Christopherson grimaced his face and strained his neck as he sang as if he were reliving the emotions behind each of his songs. He is a master at turning pain into beauty, as well as, painting vivid snapshots of nostalgic little moments of his childhood. His song, “Glen,” was about following after his dad. Christopherson also sang a cute song about his sister, “You were edgy/and you had heart.” I don’t even have a sister, but I was crying about her. Then, a song that threw it back to 2005 when it was normal to knock on doors. Quinn sang about simpler times: logging into MSN, getting dropped off at the roller rink and finding his first girlfriend on Craigslist. But also, he sang about grim subjects like living his life as a woman and changing his name. The song that I liked the most was “Good Boy,” a sarcastic, comedic poppier tune that poked fun at men who expect to be praised for not being misogynistic and still participate in sexist behavior. And of course, he played “Erase Me.” The lyrics speak for themselves: “I used to have long hair / I used to smile when I walked / I used to be someone I hated / I used to cry a lot / I used to think I was a woman / I got used to pulling the short stick.” Long story short, tears were streaming down my face. I’ve never felt this much frisson from seeing live music of songs that I had never heard before. From listening intently to his lyrics, the intensity in Christopherson’s voice, and the brooding, wistful atmosphere the guitars created, I was basically pushed into a corner. Christopherson and Carpenter’s stunning performance bullied me into an appreciative sob session.
After the show, I bought pins from the merch table that aptly read: “Quinn Christopherson made me gay and then made me straight again” and “Quinn Christopherson is a bummer.” I tried to get his attention to take a photo, but he was bombarded with fans, friends, and family who were all eager to praise him. Now, Christopherson is scheduled to support some of our favorite artists like Courtney Barnett, Portugal the Man, and Lucy Dacus. If he’s not already, Christopherson ought to be on your radar. I’m truly excited for him to release the music he performed at the Lodge Room so that I can listen to it and cry in my room.
— Natalie Lee, Staff