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Ear candy: Meet the winners of the New Times Music Awards 

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The insidious COVID-19 pandemic might have squelched our annual New Times Music Awards live show, where genre winners go head to head to see who can put on the best live performance and we award our local music scene-makers for their outstanding achievements, but in spite of the live awards show cancellation, the music competition went on with about the same number of entries and enthusiasm as years past.

Our team of judges scoured through hundreds of entries, listening carefully to decide who this year's winners would be, and as usual, the competition was fierce. There's no denying the wealth of talent throughout SLO and northern Santa Barbara Counties, but there can be only one top winner in each category, so without further ado, meet the 2020 NTMA Award winners.

Jump to the winners list

Watch some of the winners perform, courtesy of Big Big SLO!

click to enlarge ALBUM OF THE YEAR Natalie Haskins created a stunning debut album in Puhidua, which was four years in the making—a true labor of love that was worth the wait. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • ALBUM OF THE YEAR Natalie Haskins created a stunning debut album in Puhidua, which was four years in the making—a true labor of love that was worth the wait.

Album of the Year

Quite literally every entry in this year's album category was worthy of listening, but Natalie Haskins' Puhidua was truly outstanding. If you follow Haskins online, you might recall posts lamenting the time it's taken to finish the album and musing whether it was worth all the time and trouble.

"I worked on it for four years," she said. "I originally tried crowd-funding, but I didn't raise enough money so I decided to do it on my own. It has 16 songs, and that's a lot, and the packaging I wanted was very expensive. I wanted it to look and sound a certain way. It was my first album and contained my first 10 years of songwriting."

It's hard to believe Puhidua was Haskins' debut full-length record, and its Americana sound is full of gorgeous melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Ironically, since its release she's changed musical directions.

"If I do another album, I'd like to do R&B," she said. "I listen to a lot of soul, and I might do an album of ballads."

As for Puhidua, Haskins said, "I feel relieved to have finally finished it, and I'm proud of it. It's exactly how I wanted it to be. It's nice to win, but I don't care about competition, to be honest. This is really for all the people who worked with me and played on the album, and for Kip Stork of Avalon Digital Recording Studio, who engineered, mixed, and mastered it."

click to enlarge YOUTH Kathryn Callarman, at just 15 years old, delivered a terrific song in "What We Can't Obtain," a song about perseverance. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • YOUTH Kathryn Callarman, at just 15 years old, delivered a terrific song in "What We Can't Obtain," a song about perseverance.

Youth

This was a tough category to judge, and it really came down to two standouts—Sacha Carlson, a past winner and professional actor currently appearing in the Netflix series Julie and the Phantoms, and 15-year-old SLO High student Kathryn Callarman. As good as Carlson's "Forever More" was, the judges gave the edge to Callarman's "What We Can't Obtain," an uplifting song about perseverance.

Callarman started playing music at age 7 and wrote her first song at 13, inspired in part by her parents' music collection: Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix.

"Both my parents have really good taste in music," she said, maybe because her dad drove her to the interview and was standing right there.

Even more amazingly, "I did all the instruments on the recording," she noted, "bass, drums, keys, tambourine, electric guitar, and backup vocals. It was a pretty tedious process, and I could only work on it one hour at a time."

She recorded it at Damon Castillo's Laurel Lane Studios, but she said she plans to get a computer and learn to record on her own. Drawing inspiration from listening to music and nature, more great things for this talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist are surely in her future!

"I'm just really grateful," she added.

click to enlarge HIP-HOP/RAP Silk Ocean frontman Hakeem Sanusi (left) and producer Vince Angelo dropped "Listen to Me," a tight hip-hop track that would light up a dance floor. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • HIP-HOP/RAP Silk Ocean frontman Hakeem Sanusi (left) and producer Vince Angelo dropped "Listen to Me," a tight hip-hop track that would light up a dance floor.

Hip-Hop/Rap

Hakeem Sanusi, who's 26 years old and was born in Nigeria, won this year's hip-hop category with "Listen to Me," a track recorded with his 22-year-old producer, Vince Angelo. With a smooth-as-silk groove and slick lyrics, the song sounds like it would blow up the club dance floor.

After Nigeria, Sanusi landed in England and then Massachusetts before heading west to attend Santa Rosa Junior College and then transfer into Cal Poly to study finance, which is how he landed in SLO Town. Once here, however, he decided to "follow the path of what I love to do most: music," he said.

SLO Town has something of a hip-hop scene, but it's pretty much all underground, and Sanusi admits he finds it "lacking," but "I'm hoping to revitalize it. It's about doing what fills your soul, and there's nothing I love more than performing live in front of a giant audience, making music that makes people dance."

"Listen to Me" is off his yet-to-be-released four-track EP, which he calls "his first real recording." He got help from producer Angelo, who said, "I taught myself to play all the instruments on it."

"A lot of hip-hop and rap comes from adversity, pain, and deep challenges," Sanusi added, "and it's pretty comfortable here in SLO. My music is about the stories that connect with my life, things I've seen that I don't agree with, trying to make something beautiful out of the pain. For us, it's all about making the best music we can."

Open

Category winner Kathleen Brauer entered "Who Are You?" a whispery electronic dance music ballad that really draws you in. She's got an amazing voice that can go remarkably high. Not Kate Bush high, mind you, but it gets up there! With its driving beat and lush sound, it's hard to resist. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Brauer was trapped in Europe, couldn't attend our photoshoot, and was unreachable for an interview. Safe travels!

click to enlarge R&B/BLUES For the second year in a row, Dante Marsh, frontman for The Vibe Setters, took home first place in this highly competitive category. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • R&B/BLUES For the second year in a row, Dante Marsh, frontman for The Vibe Setters, took home first place in this highly competitive category.

R&B/Blues

Dante Marsh has won this category for the second year in a row. Obviously last year wasn't a fluke!

"It definitely feels good to win again," he said. "I feel more accomplished because this is a completely different kind of song from last year, which was fun and upbeat, and this one's more personal."

His new track "Everything Considered" opens with some sparkling guitar work and Marsh's gorgeous falsetto. It's dripping with soulful reflections. Originally from Ohio, he went to LA hoping to make it big.

"LA was tough," he admitted, "but I wasn't going to let it discourage me. I think my journey will take me back there someday, but I don't have to press it. I met all my band members here, and this town, it's a special place. There's a lot of love for music here, and the music community is incredible."

So is two-time winner Dante Marsh and his amazing band The Vibe Setters. Check them out live when large gatherings are allowed again!

click to enlarge ROCK/ALTERNATIVE Tiger Muffin—Marcus Karr, Ryan Searcy, and Andrew Martinez—put together the super hooky rock track "Watch Out!" - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • ROCK/ALTERNATIVE Tiger Muffin—Marcus Karr, Ryan Searcy, and Andrew Martinez—put together the super hooky rock track "Watch Out!"

Rock/Alternative

As usual, this was a highly competitive category. Only Best Songwriter had more entries. Though there were a lot of great entries, the judges loved Tiger Muffin and "Watch Out!" It's a straight-up punkish dangerous rock 'n' roll anthem with great production and a lot of different textures.

"Watch out! You're about to get more than what you asked for. Watch out! It's about to get little worse a little faster," rocks the chorus.

What's weird is Tiger Muffin is a bit of a one-off band. Featuring bassist Marcus Karr and guitarist Ryan Searcy, Tiger Muffin has no internet presence because they pulled the name out of thin air. They were just looking for a band name that wasn't already being used, saying they plugged in about a dozen names before they found Tiger Muffin wasn't taken.

They also used to play regularly as a quartet but now, they're both in their 30s, they have jobs and relationships and responsibilities, and music has become a hobby—a long distance one at that. Karr lives in SLO, Searcy is in the Central Valley, and their drummer Andrew Martinez is from the Bay Area.

"We've got a zillion songs," Searcy said.

"We have a backlog," Karr added, "and we're eying playing live in the future."

"Hopefully this win will open a door," Searcy said. "We feel there's an audience for these songs."

If they're as killer at "Watch Out!" they're a shoo-in!

click to enlarge COUNTRY/AMERICANA/FOLK Jon Bartel, whose EP Hell came in second for Best Album, took home best Americana song for "Love Her Lonesome," a lovelorn lament. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • COUNTRY/AMERICANA/FOLK Jon Bartel, whose EP Hell came in second for Best Album, took home best Americana song for "Love Her Lonesome," a lovelorn lament.

Country/Americana/Folk

Jon Bartel's "Love Her Lonesome" is off his Hell EP, which came in second in this year's Best Album category, and it's a truly depressing collection of country and American songs. If you're feeling suicidal, don't listen. Bartel was in a dark place when he recorded the album entirely on his own, every single instrument, in his North Wall Studio in A-Town.

"I'm not being tongue-in-cheek. The day after I finished and mixed it, I decided to go to therapy. I realized I needed to talk to somebody about my personal demons," he said.

"Love Her Lonesome" is one of Bartel's "most country" songs he's recorded, the tale of a man who didn't know how to love. It's got a lot of classic country tropes like driving off in Cadillacs and wearing all black, the sort of clichés that represent the shallowness of the song's relationship.

"I'm a classically trained pianist," Bartel noted, "but I was playing plastic guitars and broken keyboards hooked up through old tube amps. I love working with a band, but for what I was doing on Hell, it's hard to say, 'Hey, I want you to play this broken thing.' I did it all in my studio, which by the way is open for recording projects."

As for Bartel's depression, this win hasn't hurt: "Yeehaw! I feel pretty good about it."

He still wouldn't smile for the camera.

click to enlarge BEST SONGWRITER Irascible Don Lampson (second from left)—with band members (left to right) BanjerDan Mazer, Eric Brittain, and Charlie Kleeman—won Best Songwriter for the narrative insta-classic "Bakersfield Girl." - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • BEST SONGWRITER Irascible Don Lampson (second from left)—with band members (left to right) BanjerDan Mazer, Eric Brittain, and Charlie Kleeman—won Best Songwriter for the narrative insta-classic "Bakersfield Girl."

Best Songwriter

Don Lampson has entered the NTMA songwriter competition quite a few times.

"I've frequently been the bridesmaid but never the bride," he rumbled in that rusty voice of his. "I've come in third three different times. I certainly feel honored to get this close to a Grammy."

"Bakersfield Girl" was a clear winner despite being in a category with more entries than any other. It's just a classic traveling salesman song about an illicit affair:

"Honest Don is my name, traveling sales is my game. I've got customers to see. I take them to lunch and they give me their orders, 'cause there ain't no lunches for free. One night I stopped over in Bakersfield, and I went out to bowl me a game. And in that bowling alley is where I met Sally before I had thrown my first frame. I read the name on her bowling league shirt on top of a 38-D. She gave me a wink so I sent her a drink with a note reading, 'Come sit by me.' She asked, 'Was I married?' And I lied, "Hell no!' Ain't it funny what distance can do? Try as I would, try as I could, you know a horny man just can't be true."

"I wish Dwight Yoakum would record it," Lampson joked. "Then the money would come rolling in."

The Vietnam Vet and former prison guard has seen a lot of living and has a helluva lot of great songs, so Don Lampson, we salute you and your songwriting prowess!

click to enlarge LOCAL LEGEND Musician, promotor, and owner of Big Big SLO, Paul Irving, is this year's highly deserving Local Legend. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • LOCAL LEGEND Musician, promotor, and owner of Big Big SLO, Paul Irving, is this year's highly deserving Local Legend.

Local legend

Every year New Times picks someone from the music community who's gone above and beyond in helping promote local musicians, and no one seems more deserving than Paul Irving, who runs Big Big SLO, which before the pandemic published a monthly guide to live music and a yearly guide to local bands and venues. During the pandemic, Big Big SLO has been instrumental in setting up a lot of livestream events, including Live Oak on the Radio. For the previous five years, he also organized and hosted with Vince Cimo the Central Coast Music Con, a daylong event about all things music.

Irving himself is a terrific trumpet player who started in fourth grade. He landed in SLO when he came to visit a high school buddy at Cal Poly for a weekend and loved the place. He lives with his family in Baywood and also ran the weekly Beer at the Pier shows. In 1986 he was part of Rock Steady Posse, later Mozaic, and today he's in the Zongo All Stars and Upside Ska, though they haven't been playing thanks to COVID-19.

Irving is self-employed selling life insurance and annuities, but music is where his heart is: "I wanted to do something that resonated with what makes my soul work," he said of his many musical adventures. Congratulations to a truly worthy Local Legend. Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

The 2020 winners

Stream the playlist on Spotify

Album

1st - Natalie Haskins, Puhidua

2nd - Jon Bartel, Hell

3rd - Williams & Nuttycombe, Photo Op

Youth

1st Kathryn Callarman, "What We Can't Obtain"

2nd - Sacha Carlson, "Forever More"

Hip-Hop/Rap

1st - Hakeem Sanusi, "Listen to Me"

2nd - Ezra Henderson, "Game Plan"

3rd - Kacey Family, "Chaos"

Open

1st - Kathleen Brauer, "Who Are You?"

2nd - Brass Mash, "California Mind Me Up"

3rd - The Ruben Lee Dalton Band, "Shambala Bar"

R&B/Blues

1st - Dante Marsh, "Everything Considered"

2nd - Ynana Rose, "Trouble"

3rd - Pete Pidgeon, "The Wind and the Lover"

Rock/Alternative

1st - Tiger Muffin, "Watch Out!"

2nd - Cloudship, "Believer"

3rd - The Ruben Lee Dalton Band, "The Healer"

Country/Americana/ Folk

1st - Jon Bartel, "Love Her Lonesome"

2nd - Derek James, "Jealous of South Carolina"

3rd - Rich Severson's StumbleWeedz, "Right at Home"

Best Songwriter

1st - Don Lampson, "Bakersfield Girl"

2nd - Julie Lee, "Green Light"

3rd - Ted Waterhouse, "Crazy When You Smile"

Readers' Choice Award

Kacey Family, "Chaos"

Live stream performance at Big Big SLO!

 

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