A crooner who refuses to be labeled as country. A couple of partnerships that celebrate differences and similarities. A young rapper who believes in putting contemporary issues through a positive spin. A Christian band with a hard rocking sound and a songwriter never without his four-stringed friend.
This year’s Augusta Chronicle AMPED Music Contest finalists are a diverse group, each approaching the process of writing and producing music in different ways. What unites them, what has brought them to the AMPED finals, is the one thing they all have in common. The desire – and ability – to write, produce and perform exceptional music.
The six finalists made it through two rounds of online voting at augustachronicle.com/AMPED to reach the last challenge – the live show at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, on the Global Stage at the Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival.
Here’s a look at this year’s AMPED finalists.
D. BLAZE (Song: Day Dreaming)
Laying down a steady stream of lyrics over skeletal beats and deep grooves, Augusta hip-hop artist D. Blaze produces music based on the belief that less is, quite often, much more.
Although rhythmically infectious, D. Blaze considers his lyrics, which often communicate a message of empowerment and positivity, of paramount importance. It’s the reason he is careful to ensure his tracks never overpower the vocal tracks.
“The simpler it is, the better it seems to work,” he said. “Simplicity is good.”
Eschewing much of the bragging and bravado that typifies contemporary hip-hop, D. Blaze tracks draw inspiration from real problems experienced by real people. He said the continuing effects of the economic downturn inspired Day Dreaming, his AMPED entry.
“It’s about a degree doesn’t necessarily mean a job anymore,” he said. “You see it everywhere. There are a lot of people out there like that. I just want to let them know they aren’t alone, to keep moving forward, you know?”
A song that resonates the way Day Dreaming has isn’t something that can be purposefully written. Instead, he said, it comes from playing with those musical sounds and tones that inspire him.
“That’s important to me, because I don’t want to be labeled,” he said. “I want to be able to branch out. That’s why, as soon as I made this song, I knew it was strong.”
THE REMEDY (Song: How We Roll)
Contemporary Christian rock act The Remedy understands that a strong sense of faith and the desire to play hard, occasionally heavy and usually loud Southern rock need not be mutually exclusive. Equal parts Allman and Amen, the band’s music combines a strong ministerial message with stylistic ideas derived from musical heroes.
“Our sound developed because we were interested in a lot of things,” says guitarist Josh Guillebeau. “I wanted our music to sound like a lot of things and a lot of people – Blackberry Smoke, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin. But doing that, it becomes its own thing.”
Vocalist Ethan DeMore said that though the band finds the idea of eventually bringing its music to the widest possible audience in the largest possible venues – and the trappings that go with that – appealing, they still measure success in small ways. It’s in the sound of a successful recording, in finding an enthusiastic audience and in understanding exactly how a Remedy song should operate.
“It’s in knowing we can play a song and make it sound like it does on our record,” he said. “But it’s also in people understanding that our music is Christian music and hearing that message.”
SHE N SHE (Song: Secrets)
Formed when two disparate singer-songwriters wondered what might happen when one’s Southern stylings were combined with the other’s West Coast folk rock sound, She N She is a band that celebrates its differences.
The band, which also includes musicians raised in the worlds of indie rock and punk, has, over time and nearly constant gigging, developed a cohesive sound that combines close harmonies, sterling musicianship and a willingness to take artistic chances – a recent performance, for instance, featured a Eurythmics-White Stripes mash-up.
Brandy Douglas plays guitar, sings and serves as one of the group’s primary songwriters. She said that although she and her musical partner Drea Suarez still write solo, bringing the band together to
polish and perform those songs adds dimension.
“It makes us versatile,” Douglas said. “It means we are able to play in different ways for different audiences. We can be true to ourselves and still give an audience what it wants.”
Suarez said the band has found fans playing at rock shows and country bars, on festival stages and the most intimate of venues. Whatever the environment, she said the goal is always the same.
“We want to be appreciated for what we do,” she said. “That, for us, is success.”
ESKIMOJITOS (Song: Golden Gate)
The membership of rock act Eskimojitos has been a little bit of a revolving door, with a lot of area artists spending time on the band’s roster. At its core, however, there has always been two firm friends, friends that have seen each other evolve as musicians and men – singer/guitarist John Krueger and singer/drummer Zach Swenson.
Although both have been part of other musical projects – both as members of bands and solo artists – they say the Eskimojito chemistry is special.
“It’s liberating,” Krueger said. “Zach and I are brothers and that is, and always has been, the basis of this band.”
It’s a closeness, Swenson says, that allows for creativity without fear. While both men offer criticism of both writing and performance, it is understood that their vested interest in the project makes the quality of the songs presented and ensures the music continues to grow the primary concern.
“I, for one, am a huge fan of John’s songwriting ability,” Swenson said. “It’s been incredible to watch him progress from writing pop ditties to music that is really deep and interesting.”
CHRIS HARDY (Song: She’s a Loud Thinker)
Chris Hardy’s music is the result of a conscious decision to live a creative life.
Hardy, who recently returned to Augusta after several years away, said his homecoming was prompted by a desire to focus on the things he loved – including music.
“Because of that, I’m successful already,” he said. “Coming back has redefined what that means to me. I mean, I don’t want a record deal. I want to be completely free to do the things I want to do.”
And for Hardy, that means taking a decidedly unique approach to music. He accompanies himself on a rarely-seen acoustic piccolo bass guitar – he refers to it as his ‘four-stringed little friend’ and rounds out arrangements with a drummer. He said his unusual approach – which incorporates disparate elements such as pop, folk and, for the careful listener, prog rock – is a testament to his own abbreviated attention span.
“I get bored easily,” he said with a laugh. “I get bored with my own thoughts and, well, the thoughts of others. That means I work very hard to make my music as interesting as possible.”
Still, Hardy sees what he is doing as accessible.
“What I’m doing, it’s basically pop music,” Hardy said. “It’s just being written in those interesting places around the edges.”
DALLAS DUFF (Song: Perfect Ten)
Although he prefers playing with the big sounds of a band, Dallas Duff believes the best songs begin life much more quietly.
“If you can’t break it down to a singer and guitar, it’s not that great a song,” he said.
By beginning his process simply, Duff said, he’s able to incorporate elements from his wide palette of musical influences. He admitted he bristles a little when, despite some twang, he’s called a country artist or, in the face of the loud guitars often incorporated into his arrangements, a Southern rock guy.
“I like to do a lot of things,” he said with a small shrug. “There’s no such thing as a bad genre of music – just bad performances.”
Writing, Duff said, comes from a very personal place. And while his relationship with his music runs deep, he doesn’t believe in the idea of being overly introspective when it comes to sharing what he has written.
“You may write for yourself – even play for yourself – but in the end you really do want people to care,” he said. “That’s the dichotomy of what I do – what we all do. Is this personal? Yes. Do I want to play arenas? Yes. I would love to do that.”