“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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