MoPOP’s battle of the bands continues — without an audience

Like most of Seattle’s live music scene, this year’s 20th edition of ‘Sound Off!’ looks radically different.

Person on left side of photo facing the right side of the photo, light behind them shining into camera. The person is singing into a microphone. The singer has long dark hair.

"Launching a music career during this time feels scary, because there is no blueprint on how to do this," singer-songwriter Lexi Lalauni says. She's one of the eight artists selected for MoPOP's Sound Off! 2021 program. (Nate Watters/MoPOP) 

There are only a few minutes left before Kiddus Fecto has to hit the stage and give his all in a performance that could be an epic boost for his music career. But the 21-year old rapper/singer shows no sign of the jitters. “I’m ready,”  he says, thumping his fist into his palm. “Poised.” The lights dim and a deep treble thunders through the speakers. Showtime.

“At the Kingway Apartments/ Sittin' with a grab bag in my pocket/ In the west, I be locked in/ You be leaving comments/ I be leaving with confidence ...”  He runs back and forth as he raps, while collaborator Daniel Nzanga, aka Matondo, plays loops from the DJ table at the edge of the stage. Fecto, his booming bass voice resounding through the speakers, launches into the chorus (“I’m on my Seattle shit,” he sings) and points into the dim room: “Hands up!” he calls out. 

But there’s no audience here to do so. 

The Museum of Pop Culture’s spacious Sky Church — a state-of-the-art performance venue nestled into one of the many folds of the shiny Frank Gehry-designed museum — is empty, save for a camera crew and a few sound people (and me). On the humongous, cinema-sized high-definition LED screen behind Fecto, flecks of golden confetti feather down. Absent a crowd, the empty tiled floor reflects the glitter back to Fecto. Like the bulk of live concerts this year, this one will have to be experienced virtually. 

Local band Aurora Avenue, an "eight-person J-pop- influenced indie outfit with a 3-piece horn section" formed just a few months into the pandemic and was selected for a coveted spot in MoPOP's Sound Off! Program this year. (Nate Watters/MoPOP) 

In normal times, MoPOP’s yearly Sound Off! was a battle-of-the-bands-style music competition that drew large crowds. Every spring for nearly two decades, a few hundred people gathered under the Sky Church’s high-tech dome to watch as a dozen on-the-rise musicians (age 21 and under), selected by an industry panel, youth advisory board and MoPOP staff from roughly 80-130 applicants, competed for the top spot through successive scoring rounds. 

Sound Off! offers these budding music stars industry knowledge, mentorship, maybe even fame (successful alumni of the program include Travis Thompson, The Lonely Forest, Parisalexa and Sol) and, crucially, live stage experience. But last year, COVID-19 closures halted the program midcompetition, leaving the four finalists without a chance to compete in the finals (though some of them got to perform at MoPOP’s Founders Award).

Like most of the live music scene, this year’s 20th edition of Sound Off! looks radically different. Both the crowded live concerts and the competition element are gone. The eight selected artists — from a “J-pop-influenced indie outfit with a 3-piece horn section” (Aurora Avenue) to a “glitter and grunge” band from Tacoma (CANNXN) — are recording their live sessions in the vacant MoPOP hall as a film crew circles the stage. (One upside this year: bands can do three takes of the same song, instead of one make or break performance.) Participants don’t see each other perform and meet on Zoom instead of backstage. The resulting concert film will be broadcast in a single, stand-alone livestream hosted by KEXP DJ Troy Nelson on Saturday, May 15. 

Clay Beck, the drummer of Tacoma band CANNXN performs during a recent recording in MoPOP's Sky Church. CANNXN hopes to blur the lines between "glitter and grunge." (Nate Watters/MoPOP)

It’s a typical COVID adaptation. It works, sure, but it’s not ideal. “The program is really about live performance,” says Robert Rutherford, MoPOP’s manager of public engagement and Sound Off! project manager. “For these artists, a lot of what draws them to the program is that visceral sensation of being on stage.” 

But when we step from the windowless hall into the bright sun during a scheduled COVID safety break (to air out the performance space), Fecto and Nzanga seem elated — and nonplussed about the absent audience. 

“It was a great experience, man,” Fecto says, sitting on the concrete steps outside the museum. Behind him, the Space Needle slices through the blue sky. “Just being on that stage with all the lighting and stuff, how it sounded [through] the monitors — just that whole experience …,” he says. 

Did it matter that it was only in front of a handful of people? “I didn’t feel no way about it,” Fecto says. “Honestly: I practice my stage presence at the house when I'm alone all the time. So it wasn't new for me. Whether there's 100 people in front of me or zero people, I deliver the same performance.” 

Plus, Nzanga chimes in, “We aren’t that far away from times where we had those small-level crowds. I guess for major artists — like stadium-esque artists — it would be a big culture shock.” 

Particularly because COVID has eliminated their live gigs, Fecto and Nzanga are happy to be on a stage at all. “It’s really hard out here for artists; we got a lot of shows pulled back,” Fecto says. “So we had to rely on Instagram live, but [it] was terrible. You join it and it's all blurry and you can't even hear the low end all the way.” 

Nzanga nods. “Doing stuff like this is a blessing, for sure,” he says. 

Local rapper and singer Kiddus Fecto performs in front of the camera during a recent recording for Sound Off!, a yearly music competition that looks very different this year. (Nate Watters/MoPOP)

Even as Seattle music venues start to book bands for the fall, the live scene is still stuck in an unprecedented hiatus. Musicians are left trying to launch or continue their careers into the void. 

It can feel scary, says Tacoma singer-songwriter Lexi Lalauni, a 2021 Sound Off! participant who blends R&B with indie pop. “There is no blueprint on how to do this, and live music is a big part of launching a career,” she says. “But it also makes me more inspired to find other ways to connect, and finding more time to focus on my craft rather than focusing on how to be heard.” 

Still, she says, “Sound Off! was a major step for me in my career, to do something that scares me but also pushes me to grow as an artist.” 

Kiddus Fecto and Daniel Nzanga recently performed two songs for fewer than a dozen people, mostly MoPOP staff. "I practice my stage presence at the house when I'm alone all the time," Fecto says. "It wasn't new for me." (Margo Vansynghel/Crosscut) 

Although she has recorded multiple songs and has performed most of her life — in musical theater and as a solo artist in coffee shops and other intimate gigs — Lalauni still feels a twinge of anxiety before going on stage at the Sky Church. The songs she’s selected are brand new, never performed live. After debuting them during this weekend’s showcase, Lalauni plans to release the songs in June with accompanying music videos. They might also make an appearance on her first album, which she hopes to finish this year. (Fecto plans to do the same.) 

But when Lalauni steps on the stage, all traces of nervousness vanish. The lights turn a twinkling, deep-sea blue. She sits on a tall chair, takes the mic and launches into her newest song, a ballad called “The Unknown” that was inspired by the pandemic and her personal life this past year.

Nothing is set in stone

It’s all up for change

Even though that’s how I feel I still believe in fate

Sometimes it’s hard to let go

Guess I’m afraid of change

Even though that’s how I feel

I’m seeing through to better days

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