The Friday Dispatch
Billy Porter, The Beaches, Danny Brown, Spearmint, and Animals That Swim
Billy Porter is known for many things: Broadway, Pose, routinely outdressing every other man in Hollywood, and that’s just for starters. With Black Mona Lisa, he comes out swinging as a bona fide popstar. Fluent in survivorship, Porter’s dancefloor friendly reinvention is, on one hand, a roar of colossal self-belief; on the other it’s a call to action for a world that’s lost its spark. On Black Mona Lisa, he's in the mood to celebrate, pulling “love and joy and hope and peace” back into focus after an antagonising half-decade or more.
For the New York-based artiste (Porter warrants the ‘e’), music has always been a universal language of connection. Growing up in a Pentecostal community in Pittsburgh, much of his early life revolved around the church and gospel music. It also revolved around profoundly traumatic abuse within the strictly religious family that he eventually escaped from, throwing himself fully into the world of musical theatre and dance as a teenager, finding a lifeline through art.
Speaking to me on camera from a London hotel room earlier this year, it’s love and gratitude that Porter wants to talk about most. He’s been in town for several weeks in his role as co-producer of hit queer, Black musical A Strange Loop (named after a Liz Phair song, no less!), and has spent the day on the set of a photo shoot. He seems somehow both exhausted and almost volcanic in energy, often leaping off the sofa and tilting his laptop to the ceiling or, when especially riled up, pacing the floor with it shaking wildly in his hands.
He’s understandably agitated about returning to New York the next day. Just a few weeks earlier, he and his husband of six years, Adam Smith, had announced their divorce, and Porter’s pain seeps through the screen. As we talk, he’s in tears one moment and filled with burning ire the next. “I’m going through a lot of shit right now,” he says, apologetically, wiping his eyes. “It’s been fucking hard and I just want to get this year over with.”
Black Mona Lisa arrives after a considerable wait – the first single “Children” was released so long ago that the album also features an all-new version featuring “the Grace Jones of jazz” Lady Blackbird – but Porter keeps his frustration largely in check. After all, he’s already been waiting a lifetime to live out his technicolour art-pop fantasy. Brought into being with the help of Justin Tranter, the enby co-writer of songs by Lady Gaga, Britney, Ariana Grande and more, Black Mona Lisa was preceded in March by Porter’s first official headlining tour as a musician, a journey he says was “life-altering, redemptive, and so healing.”
In 2022, The Beaches parted ways with Universal and went out on their own. This parting wasn’t by choice, though they make sure to clarify that there was no ill will, it’s just how the industry goes sometimes. The band is right. A reliance on digital trends has put a heavy numbers skew on music discovery and label priorities. It’s more common now to see acts signed that already have a following that labels hope to capitalize on rather than the label picking someone out from oblivion and building that following from the ground up. But leaving a major label, it might now be fair to say, is no longer the career hard-stop it once was. Multiple notable breakouts from the past few years – including Raye and MUNA, to name a few – were released from the major system before finding their footing. Most impressively, these acts have actually used such moments as pivot opportunities and selling points for their future careers. Still, it takes a band with unrelenting grit to press on and make it work. The Beaches, it turns out, are seemingly one of those bands.
The Beaches are catching up with me in Philadelphia. It’s not their first time in the city. In fact, they were here on tour last year to play at the Dolphin Tavern during a small run of US dates, guitarist Leandra Earl tells me. The Tavern, she notes, is around half the size of the venue they’re currently sitting in, and only about 50 people showed up. Tonight’s show is sold out.
“We had a conversation with our agent – we’d been dropped from our labels and had changed managers as well – and he had a very honest discussion with us saying, ‘this next record has to be the thing that takes you over the edge,’” Jordan Miller recalls. “There was a lot riding on us, and it definitely felt scary,” Enman-McDaniel adds. “The numbers matter. But now it’s starting to change, and it’s starting to feel different for the first time in over 10 years. I think we’re all just finally accepting it because it’s hard to let go of being jaded, I guess.” Interjecting, Earl laughs “I’ve never been jaded!”
All things being equal, 2023 should have served as a victory lap for Danny Brown. Instead, this has been a far more complex year. Quaranta was essentially finished during the pandemic but held by Warp up to this point. All the while, Brown’s substance abuse issues have been publicised, with the rapper facing some of his darkest times during the pandemic and recently completing a stint in rehab. Such turmoil could foreshadow a major musical shift.
Well, yes and no. For those who like the party stuff, there’s plenty to enjoy. “Tantor” is a perfect first single, Brown barking at the top of his register in nihilist mode – “This that Black Lives Matter, still sniff cocaine / Paid for a therapist but I still ain’t change.” “Dark Sword Angel” is combative, firing shots at label executives over a swaggering beat, but leaving room for charmingly crude sex bars and a surprising reference to comedian-cum-landlord Hannibal Buress.
Time is a fixation of Brown’s across Quaranta, starting with its title – Italian for forty, and a follow-up to XXX, his album of a decade prior. The back-to-back “Y.B.P.” and “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation” provide a then and now of Detroit. The former paints a picture of youthful struggle, though the tune is spry and the performance almost wistful. “Vacation”, by contrast, rails against the opportunistic gentrification of a deprived city, the protagonist finding his hometown almost unrecognisable.
While they’re obviously poles apart in terms of content, Quaranta is reminiscent of a Bruce Springsteen LP from his darkest period. Artists with such established personae have to give the fans some of what they’re used to, but when it’s time to get bleak, it gets bleak. Though it may confound the fans who want more of the yelping renegade of old, this is Brown’s most personal and cohesive record to date; difficult, timely, and necessary. To the man’s credit, he can drop so many of his signature tics and tricks without becoming any less captivating an artist.
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Three things to get excited about this week
The podcast: Let’s do a thought experiment. If a kid asks ChatGPT to write lyrics for a new beat they just made and adds those words to the track, who gets the copyright? Maybe they list their own name on the release form, put the song out, and the track flies under the radar for a while. But then the song blows up. Another artist comes along and claims those words sound suspiciously like their own. What next? This, Golnar Khosrowshahi claims, is the new, thorny frontier of the music industry. On a recent episode of Decoder, Khosrowshahi, founder of Reservoir Media, spends an hour with The Verge’s Nilay Patel musing about the future of the business of music, covering in particular the industry’s “collision course” with AI, private equity’s new interest in copyright catalogues, and how streaming has changed the mobilization of music rights. If you’re interested in the financial machine behind the art we all love, this episode is worth a listen.
The reunion: A few weeks ago, we recommended a BBC podcast dedicated to chronicling the history of music’s most iconic girlbands. This week, one of those bands is back. Girls Aloud has announced that they’re hitting the road once again for a 2024 arena tour in honour of their late bandmate Sarah Harding. Speaking to BBC News about the shows, Kimberley Walsh said: “For us, it will feel very much like she’s there. She came alive on stage. That was the happiest she ever was. With grief, there’s definitely a shift where it’s like, ‘OK, you’re ready to celebrate that person.’”
The clip: Something about late fall makes me crave Joni Mitchell. And when I’m in that Mitchell mood, I often return to this clip of her performing “Coyote” in Gordon Lightfoot’s home in 1975. The footage was released in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue, a documentary about Bob Dylan’s fall 1975 tour. Indeed, Dylan provides welcome accompaniment on this rendition, providing guitar embellishments to Mitchell’s silky vocals along with Roger McGuinn. The close up shots, the coming together of greats, the candle burning low in the background, and simply the fact that this all happens in Gording Lightfoot’s own house make this a magical 3-minute watch. If you’re in need of a moment of pause this week, here’s your antidote.
What’s the deal with…. Spotify’s new royalty model?
After much speculation, confirmation has finally come that Spotify is switching up its royalty payment system. But what does this really mean? Well, to start, Spotify doesn’t actually pay artists directly. Rather, Spotify pays lump sums to track rightsholders, usually meaning labels and distributors, who then pay artists according to their individual deals. The way royalty money is divided up and given to these distributors depends on the total number of royalty-eligible streams on Spotify’s entire platform, also known as the royalty “pool.” What exactly that total number is, however, has been up for debate. It’s also a number key to understanding Spotify’s most recent change. As more and more tracks are uploaded to the streaming platform, the royalty pool grows. Spotify’s view is that this increasing number of tracks holds the potential to dilute the amount paid out to professional artists, both emerging and established. Thus, the company is instituting a change whereby a song is only eligible for royalty payouts if it reaches over 1,000 streams within twelve months. Right now, songs with between 1 and 1,000 streams are paid on average $0.03 per month, and these payments often go unrealized. While this doesn’t sound like much, tens of millions of songs are currently receiving these small payments, and thus what looks like throwaway pennies actually adds up to $40M per year. In addition, Spotify is also looking to combat royalty-bearing “white noise” and fraud tracks with new detection technology and minimum limits for noise tracks. The changes, Spotify says, will redirect $1B to working artists over the next five years.
Something Old, Something New
Every week, one of our writers or editors share their recommendations of two records they love - one from the past, one from the present. This week, Simon Heavisides on Animals That Swim’s I Was the King, I Was Really the King (1996) and Spearmint’s This Candle Is For You (2023).
Animals That Swim remain a curious, and currently dormant, enigma. Maybe that’s one of their strengths – who doesn’t want to have a band that is seemingly undeniably great but unknown to 99.9% of the listening public? It’s a selfish desire and takes no account of the monetary rewards such songwriting genius should have garnered, nevertheless, many a music fan would have to cop to it.
After a string of memorable indie singles and EPs plus a pleasingly ramshackle debut album, Workshy, came their magnum opus, 1996’s I Was the King, I Really Was the King.
Lost in the overheated, increasingly jaundiced world of late Britpop, it came and, well, it went. That commercial under-achievement belied the treasures within. Exhibit A: single, “Faded Glamour” is breathtaking. If the Go-Betweens had come from Margate rather than Brisbane maybe they would have sounded a little like this. With its dilapidated grandeur, here is the indie of beer-sticky backroom venue floors and dank, smoke-stained rehearsal rooms. A towering work of bittersweet trumpet-fueled brilliance. That it doesn’t overshadow its 11 companions tells you all you need to know.
If you genuinely want to discover an unheralded classic, I Was the King awaits you at very reasonable used prices, you won’t regret it – as the song says, “It gets me everytime.” Drink deep and drink long. You can thank me later.
The eternally youthful Spearmint specifically distance themselves from indie as a genre. The reason for that denial is tied up with what ‘indie’ meant before it became a totally amorphous entity. Their version simply means a determined self-reliance that has seen them release ten rich and rewarding albums in just under thirty years.
It’s a back catalogue to set you salivating but you don’t need to rewind to experience it. Instead, you can start with the latest instalment, This Candle Is For You. A record brimming with tender, soulful, mod-pop-inflected songs that face much of the tough stuff of life in these strange days, while managing to hold some battered hope together. Whether self-critiquing the accrued habits of a lifetime, extolling the beauty of elderly felines or dealing with the brutal violence stalking a still deeply misogynist society, this is a collection of songs full of truth and compassion. Begin here and work your happy way backwards.
You’ll soon see there’s a reason Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in (500) Days of Summer sighed, “It pains me we live in a world where nobody’s heard of Spearmint.” You can, of course, help right that wrong.
Dropping at midnight every Thursday, follow our 20-track playlist for a taste of the best new music from the most exciting breaking artists.
These are the songs our editors and writers have on repeat right now, taken from the hundreds of tracks released in the last seven days. Leading the selection this week are new tracks from HONESTY, EKKSTACY, SPIDER, Chalk, Amaliah, and coverstar Bb trickz.
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