Emo Is Alive and Thriving in Nashville’s Living Rooms and Dives
Beneath Music City’s trendy, indie punk bubble, a crop of earnest young bands are cultivating a DIY scene primed to explode.
Photo of the band Bogues by Carolyn Ambriano
There's no escaping Nashville's "It City" status; we're reminded of it weekly by countless buzzy travel and lifestyle articles, and daily by the nonstop influx of newcomers, hoping to make a dent in the city's fast-growing real estate, tech, restaurant, and, of course, entertainment industries. By now, claiming "Nashville is more than just country music" feels tired, at least it should to anyone paying attention, since beyond what is, sure, the most thriving and concentrated country scene in the nation, lies a well-represented smattering of rock, pop, indie, punk, and hip hop acts who've found success at both the local and national level.
In the next episode of NOISEY, which airs Tuesday, January 17 at 10 PM EST on VICELAND—starring Kesha, Jellyroll, and more—we give you a look at Music City from the perspective of hustlers, rebels, and outsiders. However, with the highest concentration of music, musicians, and music-related industries in America, to profile any facet of Nashville's sprawling, labyrinthine scene is to barely scratch the surface, and even if you think you have a pulse on the city's most underground happenings, something newer and even further below the radar aways seems to emerge to challenge your view of the town's musical makeup.
Far removed from the transplanted singer-songwriters who chat about their latest co-writes and personal branding between sips of overpriced coffee, eluding the industry brats who have their entire career plans mapped out before playing a single show, beneath the nose, even, of the hip young tastemakers flocking to East Nashville and boosting the city's "cool" credibility, and a world away from the boots and honky tonks of Lower Broadway, Nashville's DIY spaces and house venues have, over the past few years, experienced an influx of raw, young, and passionate local punk and indie artists, who all seem to harbor a special affinity for the type of emo that has sparked so much talk of a scene-wide "revival" in recent years.
The best Nashville punk could roughly be divided into two camps. On one side, a group of buzzier, better known bands waver between grunge and more classic punk edge, benefiting from a thorough embrace by the industry-connected side of the city, drawn to their inherent "coolness." Bubbling up in suburban basements, college campuses, pop up show spaces, and venues less trafficked are the bands on this list, who, despite interest from labels and the emo scene at large, are routinely and unfairly ignored in conversation about local music.
It's telling, as well, that Nashville has recently become something of a refuge for well-known pop punk and emo artists of the aughts—members of Saves The Day, Braid, New Found Glory, Further Seems Forever, and Bayside all call Music City home, and emo adjacent megastars Paramore never left—although their presence appears to be more a coincidence, due to a comparatively low cost of living and a high opportunity for songwriting and production gigs, than a phenomenon that has any direct correlation to the city's new emo scene.
Instead, these new bands have seemingly sprung up thanks to years of a handful of dedicated promoters, dives, and DIY spots willing to bring more emo and underground punk acts to town, slowly helping to build a scene and create an outlet for emerging local bands to find an audience who share their sense of community, ideals, and musical background. A scene at this level is always a product of the right time and right people, and with the spaces, artists, and audience all in sync, Nashville's answer to emo has never felt stronger, and the 12 artists below are a huge reason why.
Though she hails from Memphis, and has recently relocated back home full-time, Julien Baker's time as a student at MTSU in the Nashville-adjacent college town Murfreesboro meant that she cut her teeth in Music City in the run up to her solo rise with 2015 debut Sprained Ankle, often playing local dives with her lesser-known (but equally compelling) band, Forrister. Baker's profoundly sad, deeply personal style has garnered a ton of attention from emo fans especially, including one major poster boy for the scene: Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba, who, incidentally, also calls Nashville home these days.
Signed to taste-making label No Sleep Records, the home of many key players in emo's popular resurgence, the members of Daisyhead hail from a background playing in heavier projects, and those influences shine through with an aggressive, raw base to their emotionally-charged sound. The group masterfully play with dynamics, and channel an unabashed love for late 90s and early 00s post-hardcore, which has earned them enough traction to become one the most likely candidates in helping bring broader national attention to Nashville's entire emo scene, especially with a sophomore LP on tap for this year.
Like Into It. Over It., an artist to which he often draws comparisons (and one above all who is frequently credited in "leading the emo revival"), YØUTH, the live alias of lifelong Nashvillian Julian Dente, draws influence from the math-y, noodle-y, American Football school of emo, coupled with more straightforward angsty, indie rock. Claiming to "make music that reminds you of high school— in a good way," which could essentially be the mission statement for all modern emo, Dente's nostalgia-fueled style and strong 2015 debut, Start Again, has resonated well throughout the blogosphere.
From their early days of crafting scrappy songs named for Pokémon references, to their huge emotional leap with heartbroken and angsty 2014 full-length debut Those Days Are Gone, to the more personal and introspective music set to make up their forthcoming album for new label home Triple Crown Records, Free Throw's unpretentious callback to the emo and screamo they grew up on, along with their affinity for pop culture, has helped broaden their reach well beyond the confines of Nashville. Recent tours with Sorority Noise, Somos, and Tiny Moving Parts indicate that they're well on their way to becoming a scene mainstay.
After releasing a debut EP, Hadal, under the name Nest in 2014, Body Origami tweaked both their name and their sound ahead of last year's Thermal Blue, which channels as much the emotionally muted tones of Brand New at their most somber as it does the experimental, ambient stylings of decidedly more indie acts like The Antlers, embracing the group's knack for the slow and experimental. With something of an intermittent social media presence, it's hard to keep tabs on exactly what Body Origami are up to, though they have indicated that new music will arrive this year.
Slow and Steady
Originating from Austin, Texas, Slow and Steady, the brainchild of songwriter Jacob Lawter, manage to fuse catchy, layered musicality with gut-wrenchingly sad and personal lyricism, channeling as much the sound of classic emo and peak-era Pedro the Lion, as more contemporary, layered, and melodic indie rock—they list their genre as simply "2003," which feels like an appropriate catch-all. The group's extraordinarily strong debut LP, In Time We Belong, arrived in 2015, and since firmly planting their roots in Nashville, they've become an indispensable part of the city's growing punk scene.
While Pocket Science pull more from the hard-hitting 90s alt rock of Foo Fighters and the quirky power pop of Weezer than they do from the the emo bands of that same era, the group still hover within that musical sphere, culminating in a loud, pop punk sound and songs about family drama, toxic relationships, the government, and the extraterrestrial origins of Jesus, throughout their aptly titled 2016 EP, The Cult of Alien Jesus. With the potential to be Nashville's answer to Pup or Rozewll Kid, the band have found the perfect balance between a fun and lighthearted presentation, and surprisingly poignant songwriting.
Though they've slowed down a bit since the release of their 2015 debut, Wait It Out, due to involvement with other projects (a common occurrence in Nashville's punk scene), midwest transplants Beer Head, who hail originally from Springfield, Missouri, assure us that they do plan to release a new record sometime in the future. Citing Slowdive and The Smiths as influences in the same breath as The Get Up Kids and The Casket Lottery, the duo's ambitious, indie punk definitely bends genre, while retaining a sad, earnest core that feels unabashedly emo.
Michael Pfohl, who began making music as Secret Stuff in 2014, is in the unique position of having been both influenced and artistically shaped by Nashville's DIY scene of just a few short years ago, before also subsequently becoming a key figure in contributing to its growth in a major way, by starting his own prolific, punk-geared booking company, Fountainhead, and hosting shows in a now-defunct house space called Exponent Manor. With Secret Stuff, who will release their debut full-length this year, Pfhol explores the misery, stress, and self-examination that comes with navigating your formative years.
Formed less than a year ago, Pale Lungs have, so far, released just one single track, an ambient, post-rock tinged emo tune called "My Window," with a debut EP planned for this spring. Heavily ingrained in the local DIY scene, two members are involved, with Secret Stuff's Michel Pfhol, in Fountainhead Booking, and are essential in providing a platform for emerging punk acts in Nashville and nearby Murfreesboro, often in the house show space where they live and regularly host touring bands. Pale Lungs aren't just a byproduct of the Nashville punk scene, they're an active part of its continued growth.
Like Pale Lungs and Julien Baker, Bogues originates from just outside Nashville proper, in the comparatively small town of Murfreesboro. And, in the same vein as Baker's solo output, the project is a stripped-down, emo leaning vehicle for songwriter AJ Gruenewald, whose debut EP, Mulligan, incorporates a soft southern flair, and is meant to be a thematic concept work centered around "Northeast living in the most problematic way possible." In the vein of Pinegrove or a softer Turnover, Bogues' sound is decidedly less nostalgic and more contemporary than some of his local peers.
Made up of former members of promising but ultimately short-lived group Cellars, Low Mass are the newest band on this list, but based on the strength of their debut single "Churches," which comes out of the gate swinging with the post-hardcore intensity of Toucé Amoré and the dynamic experimental sensibilities of late-career Brand New, they're primed to become an important fixture in Nashville's evolving emo landscape. The group are currently working on their debut, so expect to hear a lot more about them this year.
Philip Obenschain moved to Nashville before it was cool. You can challenge his emo cred on Twitter.