Our favorite North Carolina NPR Tiny Desk Contest submissions in 2023

By Grant Holub-Moorman

April 19, 2023

NPR Music’s annual Tiny Desk Contest attracts video submissions from thousands of unsigned artists. Winners of the contest receive an opportunity to perform among Bob Boylen’s jam-packed bookshelves and to be featured by NPR Music on national radio and their YouTube channel (boasting 7.6 million followers). North Carolina is well represented in the series, with features from musicians like Anthony Hamilton, Sylvan Esso, Rhiannon Giddens, and the Avett Brothers, yet no unsigned artist from the state has won the Tiny Desk Contest. 

That could change this year. Over a hundred North Carolina artists answered NPR Music’s call and uploaded video entries of their original music. Ephemeral college bands and hermit singer-songwriters are common entries, making the Tiny Desk contest a true snapshot of independent artistry in all its unmarketable glory. While the contest offers the possibility of fame, the dominant feeling, in both the videos and the comment sections, is a celebration of free expression and musicians unequivocally supporting each other. Take a listen, jump in the comments, and show some love to the artists you didn’t realize were your neighbors.

Taylor Aaron Parker Williams “My Sweet” (Greensboro)

The groove could not be tighter on “My Sweet.” Despite no microphones, the eight-piece band balances and blends through the dynamic shifts. The group is stacked with Triad talent, including multi-instrumentalist Eli Fribush, who jumps off the keys and picks up the alto sax to glide into a summer-dazed solo. Meanwhile, Kyrese Washington, Lora Mouna, and Royal Marquis paint a watercolor backdrop with flute and backing vocals. The song is romantic and soulful, to be sure, but bandleader Taylor Williams (Black Haüs) is clearly having too much fun for this to be some 21st century R&B seduction. His energy is undoubtedly from the ‘70s. Williams’ neck and shoulders are constantly bobbing and swinging in appreciation of his bandmates. You may find yourself doing the same.

Instagram / Bandcamp / Spotify 

Filesystem Check (FSCK) “Right on Time” (Charlotte) 

Truly tuned in and floating on a beat, File System Check (FSCK) preaches an existentially shook message calling for unfiltered artistry and love amidst conflict. Charlotte emcee Joe Sig delivers “Right on Time” calmly and without pretension, sharing wisdom gained through loss and loneliness. Bouncing between regret and hope, it’s easy to get caught in the slow-motion whirlpool of emotions. To escape, adjust the EQ and grab hold of the bassline– Stephen Porter’s live accompaniment on bass guitar provides rhythmic contrast to the lo-fi beat and underlines Sig’s impactful lines. 

Soundcloud / Instagram / Bandcamp 

SCOBY “The Anxious Things I Said” (Winston-Salem) 

Huddled together in the Wake Forest University student radio station, SCOBY engineers a monstrous and sublime machine of interlocking rhythms and dissonance in staccato. “The Anxious Things I Said” is a distracted letter to an ex that pulses with confusion and frustration. Jane Alexander’s one-handed keyboard part wrestles and dances with Daniel Nesbit’s jarring riffs on guitar. Despite the fidgety nature of the song, SCOBY is uninhibited and confidently playful, a sure indication of continued growth. 

Instagram / Bandcamp / Spotify 

Leah Lawson “The God Thing” (Asheville) 

Surrounded by birdsong, Leah Lawson confesses her sheltered evangelical youth. The entry video begins with the tiniest of desks, a toy bottle of wine atop. The Asheville artist is alone in a fur coat with her electric guitar and a robin’s egg mini amp. Never allowing her reflections to be trapped by regret, she dreams of backseat hookups and delivers thoughtful messages to past friends. The simple strumming and contemplative yowling belong on her front porch; Lawson’s voice pushes through windows, softly urging neighbors to come out and listen.

Website / Instagram / Spotify 

Colin Cutler “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear That Idol Down” (Greensboro)

This raging street song summons the vision and strength of Blind Willie Johnson to the Alamance County courthouse and its monument to the Confederacy. The clever politics of Colin Cutler do justice to the great American traditions of both wry lyricism and fiery sermons. Cutler, a Greensboro-based singer-songwriter, prefaces the song with the story of Blind Willie getting arrested for playing “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down” in front of a New Orleans courthouse back in 1929. Like the original, Cutler relies on biblical allegory, invoking some of the most exciting tales of the Old Testament. While he performs alone, Cutler sings for the whole town. His voice is a summons for North Carolina to join in call-and-response, harmonizing a song into mission, an allegory into action.

Instagram / Facebook / Twitter 

The Ton3s “Serious” (Charlotte) 

2E, J. Vito, and Tony Lelo are taking a shot at their very own Tiny Desk moment. In 2016, the R&B trio, known then as The Hamiltones, sang for the NPR offices backing Anthony Hamilton. As The Ton3s, they now release music under their own label, Ghetto Allstars, making them eligible for the Tiny Desk contest as unsigned artists. In their entry performance of “Serious,” The Ton3s cut deep into the groove of ‘90s R&B, while their sidestepping in matching outfits is more reminiscent of 1930s quartets. Crooning out joyful persuasions and waterfalling harmonies over seven minutes, each member of the trio takes lead in patient succession. In particular, Tony Lelo shines in his solo, confidently sitting behind the beat and leaning into the straightforward seduction. 

Instagram / Website / Facebook 

Quisol “Pure Potential” (Mooresville)

With eyes downcast, Quisol’s posture never slackens even as his emotion crests, weaving slowly a loving plea. “Pure Potential” flows with gentle yearning and whispering, indiscernible encouragement. The song structure is disorienting. Quisol glides through shortcuts in the labyrinth and leads the listener back to the chorus often and without warning. 

In his studio recordings, Quisol concocts a uniquely soothing sound while stretching the limits of pleasantries with seasoned musical trespassers. Despite his access to infinitely strange sounds and bandmates, for the Tiny Desk entry, Quisol sings alone with only his harp.

Website / Instagram / Spotify 

Daniel DeLorenzo “Blockhead” (Pittsboro) 

There are only a few instrumental entries out of North Carolina this year. Daniel DeLorenzo’s fusion trio has no qualms about letting the music speak for itself. “Blockhead” drives relentlessly through jolting transitions, quaint video game riffs, and an intergalactic drum solo. The trio constantly rotates leadership throughout. Avoiding any semblance of a melody or traditional format, the piece is carried by an ostinato, a deviously short phrase that repeats throughout. The echoing riff builds until each instrument is swallowed and immediately spat out into a solo or new phrase. Lorenzo’s dominant guitar solo scooches aside for Theous Jones to soar on drums, bending time until the song’s sudden landing.  

Website / Spotify / YouTube 

2:00AM Wake Up Call  “No Nostalgia” (High Point)

This attic solo performance about defying past expectations fits easily into an early-2000s indie rock groove. Cute swirls of synth ice the cake of a well-layered backing track. The introspective lyrics sharpen and another voice joins to a ragged but unified edge. Shoulders hunched, the guitar-wielding narrator dives into a futuristic call to revolution: “We’re still living, we’re still here. Unforgiven. Lifetimes are worth much more than fear. No nostalgia.” With a deep backlog of demos and DIY music videos, 2:00AM Wake Up Call is ready to assume its destiny in the heavy rotations of North Carolina’s college radio scene. 

Instagram / Bandcamp / Spotify 

Oceanic “change your mind” (Charlotte) 

Drumsticks dance around the verses with punctuation and flourish. Each instrument only plays when necessary. The breathing room in “change your mind” causes a tidal motion. The push and pull is led from beneath by bassist Sam Goodwin, whose sparse embellishment curls in the undertow. Floating above, lead singer Nathan Wyatt trails fingers through constellations with a lip-biting falsetto. With their video recorded less than two hours before the deadline, we will see if Oceanic hits the buzzer beater and wins the contest.

Website / Instagram / Facebook / YouTube

Sultry Storm “I See You” (Raleigh and Clemmons)

Two sisters warmly embrace a world growing tired of the daily grind. “I See You” is about recognition, not glamorizing or pitying struggle. Sultry Storm’s Rosa and Ronnie Russ’ uninhibited dancing and constant smiles indicate more of a family gathering than a New York recording studio. Leading on vocals, Rosa leverages a vocal toolbox with distinct jazz, gospel, and R&B techniques. Twice, Ronnie interrupts the joyful harmonizing to switch on her real-talk rap, building on the supportive message of the song with a layer of cynical understanding. She spits a loving challenge– “Why you gotta be? You versus this economy… Got you on your knees, is that a prophecy? Not from me.” 

Website / Instagram  

Set For The Fall “Mistakes” (Fayetteville)

Set For the Fall singer Joey Lassiter’s vocal command explodes over this simple rendition of a heavy rock song. Much like operatic singers telling simple stories with huge voices, Lassiter does the same, only with a ragged edge to his immense vocal range. On piano, guitarist Donovan Roybal provides a sturdy frame to center Lassiter’s over-the-top rumblings. The studio cut of “Mistakes” relies on symphonic distortion and twisting transitions for momentum. Unplugged, only breath and embodied emotion guide the listener from one tormented verse to the next. Opera isn’t dead, it’s now hardcore.

Instagram / Facebook / Spotify 

Lucas Pasley “Icelandic Ponies” (Sparta)

Lucas Pasley of Sparta, NC old-time band, Gap Civil, tells an intergenerational story of family loving one another the best they know how. “Icelandic Ponies” is the kind of routine poetry and family wisdom that upholds conversation and community memory in much of rural North Carolina. There are no pursed lips or whispered confessions here; Pasley is unencumbered in his recounting. A far-off dream roams loose under the surface of the story, glimpsed by a trapped mother with “Glaciers in her heart and volcanoes in her head.” In Pasley’s contest entry, he stands in a schoolroom beside Gap Civil bandmate Kyle Dean Smith, with a chalkboard backdrop displaying children’s drawings. The two guitars nod along with the story, while Smith unobtrusively injects his superb fingerpicking. The tune never tries to be anything other than a true telling about the burdens we bear and why we choose to bear them for others.

Instagram / Facebook / Spotify 

Check out the complete list of North Carolina Tiny Desk Contest submissions this year.

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