Stephen Becker

For Stephen Becker, music is a stream of consciousness. Originally working as the Trees Take Ease moniker, the Brooklyn based artist is stepping out from under the branches and releasing music under his own name for the first time. It marks a shift, a new beginning, that initially started out as a casual bedroom project but quickly blossomed into something significant. This new chapter starts with EP Nothing Sun Under the New.

Equal parts weird and sublime, Becker resides in a sonic universe that bends into a state of oblivion and relishes the fleeting moments. This uninhibited approach creates a kaleidoscope of textures where songs about frozen drinks and old teachers exist against a backdrop of propulsive synths, screwy percussion and lo-fi guitar hooks. “I think there’s a lot of power in the right melody and the right chord progression and the right sonic environment and that to me has as much emotional weight as anything that I’m saying,” he says. 

Attending concerts as a teen with his Dad and playing in jazz band throughout high school led Becker to experiment with different improvised arts, rubbing shoulders with different genres and practises. This curiosity, along with his talents, secured him a place at Oberlin college in Ohio, studying guitar performance. There, Becker witnessed performances from the likes of Deerhoof, Frankie Cosmos, Yo Yo Ma and Fred Frith that inspired him to merge his skills as a jazz musician and guitar expert and dive into songwriting. 

The transition led to “art songs” and “experimental folk music” that can still be felt in Becker’s output. “I got to a place in my studying that started to feel frustrating,” he explains. “I realised that I wanted to write songs and also embody all these other things that I was excited about, whether it was improv or contemporary classical music. I wanted to synthesise everything that I love.” With inspirations including the likes of Marilynne Robinson, Werner Herzog, Olivier Messiaen, Sibylle Baier and Nels Cline, the result is a glorious mish-mash of spontaneity, where songs flow more like free writing. 

Becker’s journey into music was unintentional, accidental even. While his parents are both doctors, Becker sees himself as taking after his artistic Grandparents. His Grandmother is a visual artist, watercolorist and painter, while his Grandfather built violins and collected all sorts of instruments, most of which now reside in Becker’s own closet. He never met his Grandfather in person but he finds solace in the family connection. “It’s funny when your immediate family doesn’t really do what you do or understand what you do but you feel this lineage of carrying on,” he explains. “Who knows if I’ll be that to some future generation in my family – the quirky instrument-collecting Grandpa.”

This free-spirited, almost unconscious nature sees Becker create a playground of escapism,  where snapshots of his life are exaggerated and fictionalised through an often ironic prism. He finds beauty in the in-between, where strange, abstract realms exist without the need for a clear narrative or rigid structure. Nothing Sun Under the New shines a spotlight on the beauty that can arise from a spur-of-the-moment mindset. By accessing this kind of process, Becker taps into something real and concrete, resonating through an introspective honesty. “I like to be freeform and fictional in my music, but my feeling is that within that abstraction lies a deeper truth, something more real than just the plain facts about me,” he says. “It’s a wash of sounds and lyrics, but the picture that it paints is ultimately more true and sincere than anything else.”

Elif Yalvaç

At an early age in her homeland of Turkey, Elif Yalvaç taught herself to play a hard-to-find guitar. Surrounded by an exciting variety of music, she found herself as fascinated with sound as with song. That fascination never diminished, eventually earning her a masters in Sonic Arts from Istanbul Technical University (after a BA in Translation and Interpretation), and it has been woven into the compositions on her debut EP Cloudscapes (2016), her debut album L’appel du Vide (2018), and now her sophomore release Mountains Become Stepping Stones, out December 4 on NNA Tapes.

On Mountains Become Stepping Stones (Yalvaç’s first release with NNA Tapes), the electronic/ambient artist leads listeners on a transformational journey through outer landscapes and inner feelings. Inspired by her travels to Nordic countries far from home, especially by Iceland and Norway, Mountains Become Stepping Stones reflects the raw vitality of nature: its danger and intensity, as well as its beauty. The record also draws deeply on Yalvaç’s inner world, and it reflects her conscious choice to keep creating in difficult times such as these, despite challenging personal circumstances. Using a vast array of instruments, including electric guitars, synthesizers, and a Game Boy, as well as field recordings from Iceland, Yalvaç’s compositions embrace opposites: microsound glitches with slow intense builds; celestial beauty with abrasive energy.

In September 2019, Yalvaç returned to Iceland–one of the countries across Europe that she has performed in–to reconnect with its magic and redefine her relationship with the landscape and her experiences there. Each piece on Mountains Become Stepping Stones is infused with a yearning for escape, whether outside or inside, and a desire to grow beyond limitations and pain, creating intense musical experiences that others can identify with.

The album’s lead single and opening track, “Brocken Spectre,” is named after the natural phenomenon: “When I was flying to Iceland for the first time from Bergen, Norway,” Yalvaç says, “it was magical to see a glory: seeing the aircraft’s shadow within a halo of a rainbow.” On this piece, Yalvaç introduces the Game Boy as a musical instrument, incorporating its soft sounds into ambient layers. “I wrote so much about Game Boy in my master’s thesis; it was now time to make music with it.” Rainbows also return elsewhere on the album on “Bifröst,” which is named after a small settlement in Western Iceland, as well as the burning rainbow bridge in Norse mythology. “Bifröst was a pick-up and drop-off point for me in my journeys to other parts of Iceland. It was a bridge for me in Iceland, and this piece also makes a bridge in the album sequence.”

“Under The Aurora 1” and “Under The Aurora 2” were composed after a life-changing experience beneath the magical northern lights: “I had some memories in Reykjavik that hurt me, but I picked up an e-bike and cycled for 15 km to a tiny natural footbath hot spring there, where I sat for hours, lost, with my eyes on the skies. I cycled back under the Aurora in the middle of the night.”

The value of the natural world also extends to birds on Mountains Become Stepping Stones. “Painted In Pitch Black” channels the flapping wings of a Phoenix rising from black ashes and “Huginn and Muninn,” is an ode to Ravens. “In some cultures, these birds are sometimes associated with ill or dark things, symbolizing that something bad might happen. To me, however, these are brilliant animals. I have seen more in Iceland than in any other place and they are so beautiful. To me, they sing beautifully.”

The album’s centerpiece, “Black Sand Beach,” features layers of electric guitars, field recordings (made in collaboration with Magnus Bergsson), and the sound of Yalvaç’s breathing. “The sand is the color of volcanic explosions. On one side you have sea stacks and basalt columns, and a cave. On the other, you have the North Atlantic ocean with extremely strong and dangerous waves. When you stand between the two, the sounds of the waves are very powerful. You feel small in the face of a powerful planet that is very much alive and changing.”

The last piece on the album, “Kintsugi,” references the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by reconnecting the pieces with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Translated to “golden joinery,” this piece represents a healing journey for Yalvaç: the process of being bent and broken into a better shape.

With Mountains Become Stepping Stones, we move with Yalvaç as she creates new memories and connections to her surroundings. “It is a celebration of individuality and uniqueness. We’re defined by our flaws, and something broken can become even more beautiful,” she says.

Bendrix Littleton

Bendrix Littleton is the writing and recording project of Nashville-via-Dallas musician Bennett Littlejohn. The project’s namesake, Maurice Bendrix—the protagonist of Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair—is described by as “sometimes an unreliable narrator, for he is so consumed by jealousy, self-pity, self-hatred, and bitterness, that he measures everyone else by himself…[and] confesses that from time to time ‘a demon’ takes possession of his brain.” It’s an appropriate moniker for the self-aware, malaise-filled songs of Bendrix Littleton’s debut, Deep Dark South, due out September 25 from NNA Tapes. While in the album is imbued with the contradictions and painful beauty of the modern American South (as opposed to Greene’s WWII-era London), the hazy, solitary narrative voice remains.

Formerly one half of the “NyQuil-Pop” duo Bent Denim (dissolved in the summer of 2018), Littlejohn sought a fresh outlet that was more individual and freed from any preconceived artistic notions. During this time Littlejohn began taking on significantly more studio work, including production credits on Hovvdy’s Heavy Lifter (out now on Double Double Whammy), new material from Katy Kirby (out on Keeled Scales), and forthcoming work from Sinai Vessel. While production on this music was deeply rewarding, it was nonetheless work that was beholden to someone else’s vision. And it was out of this craving for artistic autonomy that Bendrix Littleton was born. Deep Dark South has provided a space for Littlejohn to experiment, collage, write, and record in a completely independent manner—a long-awaited and welcome zone of unfettered creation.

On the singular writing and recording process of Deep Dark South, Littlejohn states:

The initial spurt of songwriting was directly correlated to a vintage Harmony H162 acoustic guitar I found at a flea market in Kentucky, near the Tennessee border. This guitar would’ve been sold at Sears in the early 60’s. I strung it up with all of the higher pitched strings from a 12-string acoustic set and got to writing. A lot of rich, burnt-out musicians affectedly claim that there are ‘songs in guitars’ to justify their ever-growing guitar collections, but I do feel there is an ounce of truth in this. The way something feels, or the faults of a certain instrument indeed can bring out something unique and new.

Once the basic bedrock of the record had been tracked, I realized that the songs were too slow, my voice was too low…a spark was missing. My brother had just sent me my old Tascam four track cassette recorder. So, I spent a little time with that, and ended up committing these songs in their unfinished states to fixed tracks on this old tape machine—no editing, no panning, no volume changing. Driving the cassette tape hard and speeding the songs up (which also raises the pitch), gave this album that special aspect I had been looking for, and also provided a completely fucked up and new sonic foundation for me to start layering on top of.

And on the themes and sensibility of the album itself, Littlejohn says:

Throughout the record I deal with the common tropes of alcohol/drug abuse, malaise, ennui, regional junk, and the dissolution of relationships. It’s well-trod ground, but I’d rather write what feels genuine rather than something foreign for the sake of novelty. It feels ridiculous enough to put out something in 2020…so much noise to break through. But I feel like these are common enough things. I wouldn’t say these things are universal, but they’re not far from it.

Deep Dark South is out on September 25 from NNA Tapes.


Kalbells’s sophomore album Max Heart (NNA Tapes, 2021) opens with the process of regeneration. “I’m rotting and I’m never coming back the way you knew me then,” Kalmia Traver sings with a combination of buoyancy and resilience on the opener “Red Marker.” From the beginning, Max Heart is an illustration of death and rebirth; letting go of what doesn’t serve us in order to leave space for the blessings that do. With Max Heart as their next chapter, central to Kalbells work is the process of creativity giving space for vulnerability and radicalism–continually practicing decolonization work and fighting against white supremacist, heternormative, and patriarchal models. Take their pre-show vocal improv practice of tintinnabulation (introduced by sometimes-drummer and honorary member Dandy McDowell) which Traver explains is “more about listening than it is about vocalizing; it’s more about creating that ecosystem together of trust and respect and interplay and play and joy. I think that that practice is definitely at the center of our work together.” Angelica Bess, Zoë Brecher, Sarah Pedinotti and Traver used this collection of ten tracks to embody prosperity and reciprocity.

Kalbells began as a side project for Traver, who also contributes to the joyous, rocking chaos of Rubblebucket. Three years after the debut album Ten Flowers, a more ambient invocation of untapped self-creativity, the sophomore LP was designed to maximize the synergy that Bess, Brecher, Pedinotti, and Traver manifest. Over the course of 2019, Traver planned several week-long intervals of writing a song a day, and, surprising herself, she was writing a lot of love songs. That year she experienced acute heartbreak, but her heart organ “felt bigger than it had ever been.” Similar to energy conservation, it seems that the lost love that influenced Traver’s writing was transferred elsewhere. Rather she invested in the formidable love with her touring band turned bandmates, and they birthed songs that capture the vibrancy of their collective.

A prime example of Kalbells furthering their sum energies is the effervescent funk of “Purplepink.” Co-written between Bess, Pedinotti, and Traver, a hyper synth bass darts around elongated keyboard sighs. Although the three recorded their vocals in their bedrooms between 2019 and 2020, Bess remembers the day when the lyrics and rhythm came in sync. “I came over to Kal’s house with my bass, she had a cluster of lyrics scattered. I sort of mushed them together and came up with a melodic hook for the verse. The chorus we wrote was based off a run Kal took that day. I also remember coming up with a part of the chorus bass line and Kal took the bass from me and finished it. We kinda just came in there and boom a song was made.”

At the beginning of 2020, the band escaped to Outlier Inn for two weeks in upstate New York to record songs with the studio assistance of the prolific Luke Temple. Kalbells crafted and co-produced ten bright, layered tracks of psychedelic synth-pop. It was also Traver’s first time mixing an album. The result is a prismatic display of experimental pop. From the soft flute touches on opener “Red Marker” to the fluttering saxophone on “Flute Windows Open In The Rain,” each song holds a delicate surprise. Brooklyn-based rapper and multimedia artist Miss Eaves hops on “Pickles” for witty wordplay. On the elastic closer “Max Heart,” sprinkles of piano and bouncing percussion lock into each other. Brecher reveals that the band was grooving so hard that she felt like she wasn’t even drumming. “I was just watching us move along with the beat. It was kind of trance-like. Of all the songs on the album, this, to me, was the most fun to record.”

Traver’s visual songwriting is part of what gives Max Heart its whimsy.  On “Bubbles,” Traver envisions that one’s fears  “take flight on a destination vacation” where later they’re fed peaches beside a fire.  Later, we’re invited into her subconscious on “Diagram Of Me Sleeping.” Her voice is low and sleepy with sand as she sings, “I woke up with a fishtank in my hips/tropical clouds of neon floating little dreamy fish.” Traver’s image-focused lyricism is a way of tapping into her emotions. “I feel like the visual for me is really generative,” she says.  “That’s just a way to get me talking about my feelings more, and I think it can be hard to talk about your feelings. The little visual things are little entry points.”

Max Heart is a portrait of these badass women harnessing their improvisational magic. They dispel any sexist assumption about jamming. “When we play grooves together it’s like some spiritual experience. It’s really empowering,” Traver says. “I think, there’s an unspoken thing that women don’t groove. That men groove and women are the singers and that our groove would be not viable or not as cool,” Traver explains. “Once we’re all together it’s like frickin sparks fly.” Common groove language is a rare medicine to happen across, which is why, as a group, playing with each other has been not only exciting, but restorative. “Kalbells is a living, breathing, healing, grooving movement,” Pedinotti beams. Max Heart harnesses this magnetic power for a collection of songs that are packed with inspired tension and daring surreality.