Sharon Van Etten

There are two types of jobs — the ones you leave behind at the end of the day, and the ones that linger, like a habit or a craving, blurring the line between office hours and the endangered species we fleetingly know as “leisure time.”

Growing up, both my parents were college professors. Being on an academic calendar has some serious perks — my father’s tradition of blasting The Jamies’ “Summertime, Summertime” after he turned in his spring semester grades embodied the biggest perk of all — but teaching at any level means signing on for late nights marking up exams, early mornings getting last-minute lesson plans together, and who knows how many hours of worrying about the success of your students. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s non-stop.

It’s the difference between leaving the house to go get a paycheck and leaving to put your passion on the line, for a reward determined only by your perception of your capabilities. And it’s the way artists have to live, both because of the uphill battle facing anyone who chooses to survive by their creativity and because of the elusive nature of the inspiration that justifies that pursuit. These were the things Sharon Van Etten got me thinking about when she tweeted the following a few weeks ago…

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POP QUIZ! Where were you the last time you sang out loud? Doesn’t matter what song, doesn’t matter what volume… 3… 2… 1… PENCILS DOWN! I willing to guess a sizable percentage of you gave one of two answers — shower or car. There’s something about these two personal spaces that makes breaking out into song so tempting. And while the shower offers an excellent private sound stage with fantastic acoustics for belting out, you know, whatever, the car takes it to a whole ‘nuther level. You still have privacy, but you also have car stereo accompaniment, a volume knob for crankin’ when the spirit moves you, and a steering wheel for tapping or drumming or you know, whatever. In that sense, the car itself is like an instrument, and I have never in my entire life seen anyone “play the car” better than Leslie Feist did in her recent Black Cab Session. For some time, I’ve enjoyed how these automotive musical vignettes force artists into stripped-down versions of songs, giving a fresh perspective on the track’s basic structure and composition. Feist turns the tables on this idea, using voice, guitar, feet, the floor and even the ceiling to stage a truly fierce performance of “Undiscovered First” from her new album Metals. And as incredible as it is to watch her stomp her feet and slam the ceiling alongside her band mates, it’s just as gripping when you absorb the whole sonic landscape with your eyes closed. My immediate reaction after listening this way was that there has to be some sort of Grammy category that this session could dominate, like “Best Recording Made in a Moving Vehicle” or maybe “Best Use of Spontaneous Percussion.” While I’m busy petitioning the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, I recommend you watch the session once, listen once, and soak in the fierceness. Oh, and if you’re so inclined, listen to the album version of “Undiscovered First” below and buy Metals from iTunes here.

Feist — “Undiscovered First

Lianne La Havas

Life Cycle Week, Stage 1: Lianne La Havas

Over the weekend, I was thinking about how rewarding it is to follow musicians (and not just on Twitter … although that can be rewarding too, especially if you want to hear the lead singer of Weezer say things like, “Any other guys out there uncomfortable eating whole bananas?”). Watching talented people move through the life cycle of a career in music is fascinating, and I thought it would be fun this week to take a look at a few artists who are in different stages of this cycle, starting with a singer who is just embarking on what looks to be a very promising career. I stopped by the Black Cab Sessions website recently and came across London-based vocalist Lianne La Havas. With her guitar in hand and a charming smile on her face, she gracefully glides through a catchy song about dating an older man. The site doesn’t list the song’s name, and a search for key words came up dry (if anyone knows what it is, I’m dying to know! [UPDATE: The song is called “Age.” It was right in front of my face the whole time.]), but the ambivalent lyrics flow seamlessly, like an intimate conversation with a trusted friend, and Lianne’s impressive vocal control and effortless vibrato serve the song perfectly. I love the feeling of discovery that comes with hearing someone who seems to be fairly new, but who is so clearly bound for success. It’s like taking a different route to work or finding out you actually do like scallops (I thought I didn’t like the consistency) — the world feels new, if only for a short time. Immediately after watching, I went digging around YouTube, SoundCloud and iTunes for more, scarcity acting as both an obstacle and a thrill, finding a few videos on her website and an outstanding cover of the Everything Everything song “Final Form.” Check it out below, and her Black Cab Session above, and I dare you not to fall in love with her. Go on, try.

The Cool Kids

Who cares if they drive on the wrong side of the road and call sweaters “jumpers” … the Brits know their music. In fact, London is home to the world’s greatest car stereo, and I’m not talking about your cousin’s ’94 LeBaron with the subs in the trunk. I’m talking about the Black Cab Sessions! These videos feature famous bands crammed into the back of London’s trademark black cabs, performing for an audience of two: a cameraman and a disoriented cab driver, who has only a few moments beforehand agreed to host the mini concert. It’s a different driver each time, but one thing doesn’t change – they’re always filmed in one take, so you get a truly unvarnished view of the performers. That’s one reason I love The Cool Kids’ Black Cab Session so much. During their 5-minute ride, you get to hear the crazy talented, Chicago-based hip-hop duo of Antoine “Sir Michael Rocks” Reed and Evan “Chuck Inglish” Ingersoll trade off rapping and drumming a beat on the side of the cab, only to have the session fall to pieces when Mickey spits what might be the greatest freestyle lyric of all time: “My imprint is worth more than 9 gold infants.” Love it. Just … love it. Check out their Session above, and poke around the Black Cab Sessions’ website, because tons of great artists have recorded one. And keep an eye out for the Cool Kids’ album When Fish Ride Bicycles, coming out July 12. To whet your appetite, I’ve arranged a bonus test drive below of “A Little Bit Cooler” from their outstanding record, The Bake Sale.