By Zach Collier
A spirit of camaraderie was present before the start of the finals Saturday night. A cinematic blend of Band of Horses, Kings of Leon, and The Shins played from the house speakers as finalists Paul Travis, Mel Soul, Andrew Wiscombe, and James Junius relaxed and joked with each other in the lobby. The tense atmosphere that permeated the first two rounds was gone on Saturday night, replaced by a calm excitement. Wiscombe was quick with the quips, brightening up what otherwise could have been a tense mood. James Junius was quiet but chill – emanating an Andrew Garfield-like charm. Paul Travis was all smiles, and Mel Soul looked positively elegant in a classy black dress and pearls.
As the doors opened and the audience started to take their seats, the performers retreated backstage. There, they started tuning up their guitars, warming up their voices, and running through a few of their trickier songs. I asked James Junius what he hoped to give the audience with his performance. “Empathy,” he said thoughtfully. “Music is what’s gotten me through a lot of stuff. I want to give that back to others.” He particularly looked forward to performing his song, “Dead Fish Thoughts.”
Moments before showtime, Paul Travis came up to everyone and said, “So, are we still doing the hugging thing or what?” He opened his arms, and all four contestants gathered together for a big group hug. Before the show even began, you knew it was gonna be good.
Folk/Country artist Andrew Wiscombe was the first to perform a thirty minute set of original music tonight. He kicked things off with the high energy “Plea of a Sinner,” which featured his soul stirring upper vocal range and some cool muted strums during the verses. It’s evident that Wiscombe is a polished performer. Self depreciating humor, confident movements, simple song explanations, and bold-but-practiced vocal choices were all prominent from the get-go, creating an easily accessible performance.
Wiscombe’s second song, “House On A Hill” was wonderfully subdued, featuring nice hammer-ons and pull-offs, a beautiful narrative, and some nice harmonica. Wiscombe has fantastic intonation. His pitch is perfect – it’s like listening to a record. A passionate performer, he makes you want to listen.
His song, “Jinglin’ Jack” continued with more narrative lyrics, but this one had a pleasant, heart warming twist. Another one of the Reach Provo reporters wrote about his Friday performance of this song (read about it here), and after hearing such nice praise it was a wonderful song to experience firsthand. The whistles on “Jinglin’ Jack” proved that Wiscombe is a true showman.
He dedicated the title track of his album, “The River, The Lark, The Pine” to all of the performers playing that night. “It takes guts to get up here,” he told the audience. “So I want to give this one to them.” It was a nice bit of encouragement to the other performers, with lyrics like, “Don’t fear what they say // Only fear what you think.” Often times, it’s not the opinion of others that holds us back from success. It’s the negative thoughts we have about ourselves that limit us.
The harmonica on “Holdin’ A Ghost” proved Wiscombe isn’t a one-trick pony. He actually is a skilled harmonica player, capable of writing interesting, varied parts. His fifth song was a care-free, goofy ditty written from a rooster’s point of view. His self-aware confidence made it work. He played up the goofy nature of the song with a wonderfully catchy and over-the-top kazoo solo. And his final song? Absolutely soul stirring. When he went up into his upper register you could feel the chills sweep through the room.
My only critique of Wiscombe’s writing overall is that occasionally the rhymes feel a little forced. If someone other than Wiscombe were performing these songs, I’m not sure they would land the same way. But boy, does Wiscombe put on a great show.
Mel Soul came out really nervous – more so than Thursday night. Talking fast, it was hard to catch her words. She hadn’t even started yet and she was already out of breath. However, she made an excellent opening song choice. The slow, grounded “Muses” settled the mood and introduced the audience to her wonderful voice. Despite some feedback from her guitar during the opening few measures, she was able to maintain a confident, consistent performance.
“Stranded,” a song we hadn’t heard Thursday night, took the energy up, featuring palm mutes and a faster strum pattern, which was something very nice to see from Mel. With the simple refrain of “You left me stranded” during the chorus, I could easily picture a fully produced, club-banging pop version of the piece.
“This is Just Me” was probably the weakest song in the set. From a writing point of view, I feel like it’s close to being a wonderful song, but there are some lyrical issues that need to be worked out. With minor tweaks, this could be a body positive, self confident anthem that would really speak to fans of Colbie Caillat’s “Try.” From a performance perspective, nerves got the best of her – probably because this song is so deeply personal. She ran out of breath, and with that lack of breath she lost the crispness of her diction. Diction is an important thing to have with a big, soulful voice like hers. If she spent some more time rehearsing this one – pushing herself to polish it so that it was the very best she could make it, it would be remarkable. It’s just not quite there yet.
She played “Little Lion Man” next. No, not a Mumford & Sons cover, but an affectionate tribute to a deceased friend. It should be noted here that Andrew Wiscombe set the bar for performance high. And while this isn’t a talent competition, it made it very obvious that Mel is just not as experienced onstage. Her guitar was out of tune by the third song, and that made for some intonation issues vocally. As she continues to perform, she’ll learn to have a tuner on hand (a Snark tuner is great for acoustic performances), a guitar strap, batteries for her acoustic/electric pickups charged and ready, and song introductions that have been practiced beforehand. Even though inexperience got in the way of her performance last night, every performer has been where she is. Every single one. It’s part of learning. Make no mistake, however – Mel is a performer to watch out for. She’s going to do very well in the future.
Mel made a beautiful speech towards the end of her performance that addressed the very thing I just wrote about. She said, “I want you all to know that I’ve come a long way. I started performing in 2012. I remember coming to Velour and muse to play and being nervous as hell. Four years later, not much has changed.” The audience laughed and she giggled. “But I want you all to know that you can succeed. Hopefully you can take away from all this some self-love. You’re worth it, and you can do it.” Cheers and applause rang out from the audience. It was a golden moment that I won’t forget any time soon. She then concluded her set with my favorite song of hers, one called “Lights Down Low.” I can’t write much about this one, other than it grooves like none other and has one of the catchiest melodies I’ve ever heard in my life. A wonderful song to end with.
James Junius was next to perform. He took the stage just as confident as Wiscombe was, but in a different way. Instead of leading with his personality, he led with his music and let it speak for itself. Guns blazing, Junius came out strumming on some very interesting chords. It was a very indie sounding song, and it showcased his nice, brassy vocals quite nicely. Just like Wiscombe, Junius can move between his registers quite freely. The song had a way cool picked bridge, and made nice use of an acoustic whammy bar for the last few chords of the song.
While I know the reporter who covered Friday’s preliminaries was a fan of Junius’ country song, I wasn’t. I personally preferred the indie rock stylings of his very first song. It was so interesting and energetic that it made me a fan of his right off the bat. His choice to play a country song was more confusing for me than it was interesting.
His third song, “Salt Lake Blues,” made nice use of jazz chords, featuring some major sevenths and ninths. It also featured this lyrical gem: “Is my life a TV show and I’m the only one who doesn’t know?”
I’m not sure exactly what his musical background is, but if I were to hazard a guess I’d be confident in saying that he’s sung some classical music or participated in some choirs in his lifetime. Why? Because Junius struggles with the same things I do as a performer. His vocals are a little too clean. Too formal. Too classical. I’d like to see him let loose with a reckless abandon and unleash the full extent of his vocal prowess. His voice is just a little too safe.
“Dead Fish Thoughts” – the song he mentioned looking forward to backstage – did not disappoint. The song featured darkly comical musings on the character of God. It was a great lyrical blend of philosophy and science that evoked laughter from the audience. He’d knowingly wink, smile, and nod in acknowledgement of his witty humor. The song started off in a bold way with this line: “I think God messes up a lot and puts us in desperate situations.” While cynical, it also acknowledged the beauty in life. Probably the most captivating song of the night.
Afterwards, he thanked the other performers in his golly-gee, ever so gosh-darn sincere kind of way. The whole time all I could think was, “Man. This guy would be a great Peter Parker.” James Junius is a wicked guitar player. His song, “Backlands” was evidence of this.
His last song, while sentimental, was arguably the least interesting lyrically and melodically. The last ten minutes of his set exposed the flaws in his songwriting, namely an over-relience on major sevenths. These chords are pretty, but too many of them eliminate the tension necessary for a song to hold attention and to really go somewhere.
Overall, he played a good set. This kid needs a band – bad! His songs are bursting with energy and youth. Hearing his songs in a neutered form without proper backing instrumentation kills me. It robs me of the sonic joys these songs promise and that my soul so desperately yearns for. If done correctly, a full band supporting him on these songs would blow up in the college rock scene. With a voice like Sinatra, you get the impression that Junius was born in the wrong era. His vocals on top of a full band would make for some interesting – and unique – rock.
Signed to Esque Records, Paul Travis knows who he is and what he does, and he does it dang well. In our Thursday night recap, we pointed out that Paul had a humble stage persona, with a style that hinted at a much more fearless personality. He began the last set of the night with a sincere, “Hi. Thanks for staying up late with me.” I thought this set would be more of the same from Thursday night, but boy, was I wrong. The first song was upbeat, energetic, and weird – a hypothetical story about a trip to hell and receiving a heart-breaking (but hilarious and relatable) message from his future love. It was absolutely amazing, and one of my favorites from him as a songwriter.
Afterwards, he thanked the audience and joked, “Well. That was my only upbeat song.” The audience laughed and he started in on his second. This one was just as upbeat, and just as good. After he concluded, he pulled a piece of paper out of his wallet and stared at it for a bit. Then he said, “I wrote some motivational quotes on this notecard in case I didn’t feel inspired to finish my set… [Long pause]. I feel much better now.” This evoked more laughter from the audience. It was a truly hilarious moment. Very cool to see Paul’s personality shine through Saturday night. His wicked sense of humor helped keep his beautifully introspective lyrics from wallowing.
His best song is called “Give and Take.” Easily the best lyrics of all three nights. It featured lyrics that said something along the lines of, “[I’ll take] your silent treatment if you share my last name // Share a closet with me. Your clothes next to mine.” This song explores the intricate dynamics of love in a timeless way, with insight far beyond his years.
I don’t have much else to say about Paul Travis, other than you need to see this guy perform. You need to listen to his music. He’s Provo’s Damien Rice. A soul stirring, earnest performer with powerful lyrics that feel like true poetry, I loved every second of his performance.
After Paul Travis left the stage, the judges disappeared to decide on a winner. They were gone for a good half an hour. The decision took forever, but I could totally understand why. This was a good competition, and choosing a winner would be tough.
After the wait was over, Tess Bybee took the stage discuss the strengths of each songwriter. Wiscombe was lauded for his powerful, accessible narrative lyrics. Travis was praised for his soulful melodies and the sacred, poetic spirit of his words. Mel Soul was given credit for how catchy and sweet her melodies were. James Junius was complimented on his interesting chords and use of song structure.
Darcie grabbed the mic again and announced that, after three days of decision and deliberation, James Junius would be named the winner. Junius was awarded recording time with H2 Audio, a music marketing consultation with DAP Music Marketing & Merchandising, some gifts from local businesses, a music video by Callie Crofts of My Fair Fiend, and some cash. Junius was ecstatic.
It was an exciting conclusion to an interesting competition. The format of the Songwriter Showdown is dramatic and exciting, and Reach Provo highly recommends it to the Provo music scene and the Provo community in general. This year’s talent was impressive, and we hope next year’s will attract the best Provo has to offer.