Tuning in to Mainstays of Local Microphones
written by Colleen Ann McNally | photos courtesy of Mary Caroline Mann; Sharif Hassan; Russell Dreyer
Greater Atlanta communities continue to rise in population, and for each person counted, double that for the number of ears tuning into the equally expanding music scene.
There’s no shortage of national acts touring through our amphitheaters, the Georgia Dome and downtown green spaces — in fact, the city’s premier festival, Music Midtown, fills Piedmont Park again this month with big crowds to see acts crossing multiple genres.
We’re swapping wristbands for intimate venues and Rolling Stone cover stars for hometown pride, supporting three local gems as they shine in the spotlight.
In 2011, Points North Atlanta first met the four sisters of von Grey and was awed by the young prodigies with Alpharetta roots. Arguably more jaw dropping than watching 10-year-old Petra play piano back then is seeing the transformation she and her older sisters Annika, Fiona and Kathryn have made in the years since.
We’re not just talking about looks here; the folksy, bluesy, soulful songs that once captured audiences as an opening act for Sarah McLachlan at Chastain Park have turned a corner, and then another to enter an ambient-electric alternative frontier. Their unique sound has been compared to Mumford and Sons, or rather, dubbed Mumford and Daughters.
Along the way, the foursome has checked off major milestones like standout sets at South by Southwest and Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, late night performances with David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, the latter leading to an iTunes Top 10 spot. All of these dreams became a reality before any sister reached her 21st birthday. Recent performances on stages closer to home range from Lake Lanier’s Full Moon Party and Heritage Sandy Springs Festival to CounterPoint Festival and Aisle5.
Now 19-year-old Annika (vocals, violin, banjo, guitar, keys) sings and writes the songs with 17-year-old Fiona (vocals, guitar, violin, percussion) and has emerged as pseudo-spokesperson for the group when verbalizing their creative process.
“The last few years have been a period of pretty extreme musical evolution,” Annika said of their artfully crafted and more sophisticated arrangements. “Because we started so young, we’ve had the chance to evolve dramatically while still maintaining support from people that listen to our music because they all understand … It’s such a lengthy and complicated process when you’re growing up, especially when you’re documenting that through songwriting, releasing music and playing it live.”
Of course, teenage life is transformative for anyone. Top that with an unconventional upbringing through home schooling, navigating separate personal lives and seemingly nonstop musical immersion leading up to their second EP “Panophobia” released last month. The tracks expose an edgier, yet more vulnerable side than what they’ve done in the past.
Perhaps most impressive is the apparent family bond. Annika said their innate sense of connectivity is the biggest benefit to being related to her band mates, and shared how each sister’s strengths come into play: 20-year-old Kathryn (cello, bass pedals, keys, background vocals) often serves as mediator and peacemaker, while Fiona stars when scheduling and organizing logistics and Petra (keys, electronic percussion, background vocals) supplies the spark and spunk.
“When we are songwriting or discussing future steps, we are so open and honest with each other,” Annika added. “When you have four moving pieces and you’re all young and exploring what it’s like to be independent, it’s nice to have the communication to make sure nothing gets pushed aside.”
Close ties don’t only apply to each other; von Grey draws inspiration from the sense of community among other vibrant artists nearby, as well.
“Atlanta is a huge city and there’s so much talent here, but I think it’s underappreciated by the industry in a lot of ways just because it’s been categorized as a mecca for hip-hop music, which is true, and there’s a lot of country music that comes from here, which is also amazing, but there is another entire scene of alternative music and creative individuals who are breaking boundaries,” Annika said. “Being part of something that is big, but still feels so intimate and supported, is really one of the highlights of the artistic scene here.”
That sentiment of an artistic community is one that is echoed and exemplified by the charismatic Wesley Cook. With 11 years of experience to his name and a fourth record in the works, Cook recalls many people helping him along the way, making it easy to return the favor for upcoming artists.
After all, communicating with others comes naturally to Cook who was born in Germany near the French border. “[Living abroad] shows you a Venn diagram of all humans,” Cook said. “It shows you what universally makes them happy.”
His family also lived in South Korea before he first came to the United States for college, studying linguistics at the University of Georgia and cutting his teeth playing open mic nights in Athens.
“I’ve always known this is what I’ve wanted to do,” said Cook, who played in front of his first live audience at a 10th grade talent show.
Another moment of clarity came just after college when Cook, who was working security for major events and considering joining the military, helped in the pit for Dave Matthews Band — one of his heroes.
“I turned around to a sea of lighters and was like, ‘Oh, wow’ and the next night I went back to playing open mics,” he said. Cook hasn’t looked back since.
He has been recognized locally as “Best Atlanta Singer/Songwriter of 2014,” but Atlantans aren’t the only ones enjoying Cook’s talent. He has opened for Santigold at Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival annually held in Milwaukee, Wis. and travels to Nashville, Tenn. regularly to collaborate with veteran hit songwriters like Roger Cook (no relation) and Steve O’Brien.
When at home, some of his favorite venues to play are Crimson Moon in Dahlonega, Matilda’s Music Under the Pines in Alpharetta and The Red Clay Theatre in Duluth, and he regularly gets requests for corporate functions or private house parties. The sage singer/songwriter even owns his personal record label, Little Sun Records.
Cook finds songwriting inspiration here too. The creative soul approached the tourism manager and the now-mayor of the City of Brookhaven with an upbeat idea: to pen an original song just for them. “Brookhaven” fans can download the tune for free online. Similarly, Cook has worked with companies including Bloomingdale’s to create jingles, as well as with couples to create a one-of-a-kind song for their wedding.
“A lot of artists can only write what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking,” Cook said of the experience. “I’m realizing I can move myself and absorb what I think is someone else’s point of view, and I really think my upbringing has a lot to do with it.”
Of course, other reasons Cook remains at home are his family, friends and fans. Songstress Kara Claudy happens to be one of them.
You may have recently spotted Claudy on the keys or guitar at The Mill Kitchen and Bar in Roswell, Atlanta Beer Fest, Rock Atlantic Station concert series or the landmark Smith’s Olde Bar. She describes her sound as “’90s crossover,” reminiscent of McLachlan, Lisa Loeb and even the rock flavor of Sheryl Crow.
Claudy shares a few commonalities with Cook: both had “watershed” moments that directed them toward pursuing professional songwriting while watching another artist perform (for Claudy, it was Vanessa Carlton at Terminal West); both have international upbringings from parents that worked with the military, which they believe has given them unique perspectives for their writing; and both know Joe, Claudy’s supportive husband, who reached out for Cook’s advice for his wife. They’ve since shared a stage in Birmingham, Al. and Claudy credits Cook for tips on breaking into the business.
As for her husband? She credits him for inspiring the “Shirt Song” track on her first EP “Right Here” that debuted last May. She scribbled the hopeful ballad a week after the couple met for the first time at Five Paces in Buckhead, although she admits it took her much longer to tell him that.
“I write a lot about love, and love is what brought me back to Atlanta,” said Claudy, who also enjoys commissioning customized songs for weddings. After living here for seven years, she calls the city “home base,” despite being raised in California, Colorado, Indiana and Okinawa, Japan.
Songwriting has been in her heart and a hobby since age 14, but only in April 2014 did Claudy decide to cut back on her full-time corporate job to pursue her passion.
“I might be driving in the car and a chorus pops in my head, and I’ll write around it,” she said.
Drawing on her background in business, she formed a plan and dove in. Through regional gigs, she met a producer and is now well on her way. You could say Claudy just finished her first “international tour” after she returned to Japan last month for a special performance at the USO (United Service Organization) on the base where her dad was stationed.
Another track on the EP, “Children” also has international ties and was a request from her mother. “The song is about a massive rush of children crossing the border between Mexico and the United States last summer. There was an influx and nobody knew what to do with the kids, so they were just stuck in these impound centers,” Claudy said. “I wanted to write from a very human perspective, with all the politics out of it — just what I thought that journey would look like, and it was in the back of my mind how Atlanta is this hub for sex trafficking.”
Ultimately, she — like von Grey and Cook — deeply understands and, as a songwriter, contributes to the power of song. “Someone can hear a song and it can literally change their life, or open up a whole new way of thinking, like me being at that [Carlton] concert,” Claudy said. “One moment I was on one path and the next moment another whole possibility opened for me.”
Experience that power for yourself when Claudy performs later this month at Red Hare Brewing in Marietta on Sept. 18.