Every year, NPR holds a national Tiny Desk Contest, asking unsigned musicians to submit videos performing original songs behind a desk. One winner will be chosen from thousands of entries to perform in Washington, D.C.
Before the national winner is announced, WOSU picked one entry from Central Ohio as our local favorite: Lily Bloom.
Although the pandemic halted live music indefinitely, an impressive number of Ohio musicians still threw their hats into the ring. From the Columbus area alone, 31 entries ran the gamut from soothing trip-hop to violin-looping folk to slow-burning heartland rock.
But it was Lily Bloom, with her song "Ghost," that blew every single one of our judges away.
Lily Bloom is actually the performing monicker of harpist and singer Lily McBride, who performed her original song surrounded by half-drunken bottles of whiskey and well-tended succulents. With a voice that's equal part bluesy and silken, McBride excises the specter of a dead relationship.
"Shredding" is not usually a word associated with the harp, but McBride makes a strong case: You can hear catharsis come out of every finger. One of our judges praised her ability craft a killer solo, while another judge praised how she constructed a "hauntingly modern song using only her voice and one of history's oldest instruments."
Speaking to WOSU's Clare Roth, McBride says the song grew from her first days in the city.
“I had just moved to Columbus and I didn’t have much of a community here yet," McBride says. "It was shortly after I graduated college, so I was just not in the best place already, and so I was going through a lot. And I think the best songs come often when you’re feeling a lot of pain or confusion."
Three years later, McBride continues to process those feelings on stage with an unconventional accompaniment: her harp.
“It’s a very tricky instrument to mic effectively, so that’s hard," McBride says. "Just like the physical space that it takes up, moving it, keeping it in tune for more than four minutes. Those are all challenges with that instrument."
But she says that the harp goes beyond its stuffy reputation, usually relegated to fancy tearooms and classical music.
“There are definitely preconceived notions about it, that it’s just this kind of soft, angelic instrument," McBride says. "And that’s why I love it so much, because it’s so much more than that, and with different technique you can get so many different sounds out of it that people don’t expect."
For certain songs with Lily Bloom, McBride will leave the harp behind. On the uptempo jazz number "Good Girls," she relies instead on a backing horn section.
Like "Ghost," the inspiration for "Good Girls" came partially from a breakup. McBride says the track was more broadly influenced by the disrespect she’s experienced as a woman.
“I feel like in music and in the industry, sometimes people just talk down to me, ‘Oh you’re just a young woman, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’” she says.
McBride plans to continue proving those voices wrong - even if the pandemic has put her industry in limbo. Without any in-person concerts happening, Lily Bloom has performed instead on livestreams and virtual COVID-19 benefit shows.
“Something that’s been really inspiring about this pandemic is seeing people using their creativity to connect still, whether it’s through outdoor concerts, or livestreaming, or whatever they’re doing,” McBride says. “It’s just been really awesome to see people be like, ‘We’re not going to be quiet, we’re not going to stop performing and stop using music, because that’s what makes us feel human and makes us feel connected.’
"So even though things are definitely going to be different for awhile, I think the industry is going to rebuild itself."
Lily Bloom is planning to release its debut EP soon.
Watch all of the Central Ohio entries to the Tiny Desk Contest below. And stay tuned for the announcement of the national NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner.