MoPOP’s annual Sound Off! event began as so many things do nowadays, with a click on an emailed Zoom link. However, in contrast to the routine of school Zoom meetings, this webinar began with sweet vocals that washed over the audience as we eagerly awaited the beginning of the performances. I pleasantly floated through the calming yet powerful lyrics and melodies, unaware that the song, “Cashitis,” was in fact made by a 2016 Sound Off! performer, Parisalexa. This caught me quite off guard, as the song sounded like it had been professionally made rather than recorded by a young adult. As the quality of her song would suggest, Alexa is now a highly-acclaimed, professional R&B singer/songwriter. Such successes paired nicely with this year’s performers, who all proved to be extremely talented as well.
The show began with an introduction that was recorded inside of MoPOP, a great way to incorporate the museum without unsafely cramming the audience inside. Members of MoPOP briefly explained why the Sound Off! event was so important to them, with many appreciating its public yet supportive environment for new artists. I was especially impressed by the professionalism of the set, which boasted a huge screen with digital graphics and gave the Zoom meeting a more concert-like feel.
Interviews with the musicians preceded each song and reminded the audience that this incredible music was created by young adults taking their first steps into the professional world. The awkward chuckles and truthful responses in these interviews made the performers seem more human. This lent even more credibility to their passionate lyrics and musical expression.
The first song of the night was performed by the group CANNXN, pronounced “Cannon,” named after the 19-year-old singer and leader of the three-person group, Megan Cannon. Admittedly, I exclusively listen to Broadway show tunes with a dash of old-school songs thrown in, so I was unsure how much of CANNXN’s music I would personally enjoy. That said, I found myself singing along when the chorus of their song, “Uncomfortable,” began playing for the first time. The large screen behind the group also projected different flashing lights, which made the entire performance not only a pleasure to listen to but watch. I enjoyed how the lighting became more complex as the song added more elements to its sound: starting with quiet instrumentals and low lighting which matched with the beat, fading in graphics on the screen as the vocals began, and finally fully exploding with lights as the chorus ran for the first time. I could see how intentional every aspect of the performance was.
Performances throughout the show set their lyrics as the centerpiece of their songs, as was the case with Aurelio Valdez and Ivan/Melonic in their song “Nepantla.” The phrase “My ancestors, when I’m writin’, I see ‘em, and talk with ‘em” was repeated, along with powerful lyrics in both English and Spanish. As a member of the Latinx community, I found Valdez’s song personally meaningful because it spoke about how the past experiences of our family members impact our lives in many different ways. Simple, dark red graphics moved slowly in the background, not distracting the audience from the fast-paced lyrics but setting the mood all the same.
Another great example of this lyrical expertise came from Lexi Lalauni in her first song of the night. Lalauni combined her wonderfully controlled voice with her own smoothly timed lyrics to create a beautiful piece to listen to. In “Unknown,” Lalauni wound her voice through flowing phrases, such as “Nothing lasts forever, but forever is all there is, it never ends, we can never really make sense of it.” Her voice coursed through the words like a soft, steady stream. The passion in her voice made the deep phrases beautiful and even more meaningful.
A crowd favorite, Aurora Avenue (Sam Llanillo, Gabi Meredith, Michael Smithgall, Dominique Ocaña, Koh Casaba, Henry Parker, Neizer Olivera, Peyton David Smith) was the largest group of the night by far, with eight members in total. Self-described as an “indie R&B jazzy type sound” combined with personal influences from many different genres, Aurora Ave lived up to their description. Their song “Skipping Stones” used breathy vocals and calming yet playful instrumentals to give the song a truly personal quality. The chorus was light and groovy, which, combined with a complicated swirling background, made the performance practically hypnotic.
One element that is exceptionally difficult to capture in a Zoom seminar is audience participation, as only the performers can be seen and heard from. Nevertheless, the audience members fully participated in blowing up the Zoom chat with love and support. The overflowing Zoom chat seemed to include the audience with the performances even though the videos were pre-recorded.
This Zoom meeting ended with scrolling credits on the screen, a plethora of congratulation-type comments in the chatbox, and, personally, a sense of time well spent. Not only had I gotten to open up my musical point of view to so many new styles, but I was also part of an audience that supported these young artists and watched them grow. I was extremely impressed with the high quality of sound produced by these musicians and cannot wait to hear more from all of them.
Sound Off! was presented by MoPOP via live steam May 15, 2021. For more information see here.