Live music might not be a thing in Washington right now, but that hasn’t stopped Seattle artists from getting noticed. While the 2020 festival season and the rest of musicians’ moneymaking live gigs have been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least two local artists have had dream-come-true moments amid these often difficult and uncertain times for artists.
In the past few months, Seattle rock vet Ayron Jones and genre-fluid pop singer Dempsey Hope have signed big-league record deals with a Big Machine Label Group imprint and RCA Records respectively — well-heeled labels capable of giving their music significant signal boosts beyond the Northwest.
The two homegrown artists sit on opposite ends of the local music spectrum: Jones is a club-proven guitar blazer who’s been a rock-scene fixture for a decade, earning co-signs from some of the city’s biggest names in music along the way. Meanwhile, Hope had yet to make his name on the Seattle club circuit when the Nathan Hale High School graduate had a viral hit on his hands before he even finished writing it. Here are their stories.
For Jones, there’s a bit of a mental disconnect that comes with signing with a high-powered record label during a pandemic. As his first single with Big Machine/John Varvatos Records — a punched-up version of his scorched blues-rock basher “Take Away” — made inroads at rock radio this summer, the success didn’t feel as tangible without being able to get in front of crowds. Till then, he’s balancing dad mode and taking Zoom calls with important industry types at his Alki Beach home.
“I broke into the top 40 after my second week on the mainstream [rock songs] chart and here I am changing poopy diapers,” says Jones, a father of three. “It’s weird, I’m super excited. I know what’s happening is huge. But it’s hard to really see it without being on the ground, on a tour or something to see it happening before you.”
It could be a while before the hard-rock fusionist is able to get back on the road — and his debut album with the label group once home to Taylor Swift will likely wait until the vaccinated coast is clear. But Seattle fans have long known of the aural might of the new-school guitar hero, who’s shredded stages all over the city throughout the past decade. Having the backing from some of Seattle’s biggest stars hasn’t hurt either, with Sir Mix-A-Lot producing his first album in 2013 and recording with the Levee Walkers — a supergroup featuring Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan and Screaming Trees drummer-turned-jazzman Barrett Martin. Martin also produced, played on and distributed Jones’ last album, 2017’s “Audio Paint Job,” through his Sunyata Records label.
Last December, fashion designer John Varvatos got a look at Jones strolling into his sold-out Crocodile show with McKagan. Varvatos was scouting Jones for his fledgling rock imprint with Big Machine, the major-esque independent label famous for working with modern country stars like Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum. The McKagan connection, in part, helped rocker-dude Jones feel comfortable signing with a label group known for its Nashville success.
Jones, a grunge disciple who turns 34 this month, was too young to have experienced Seattle’s defining rock movement in its infancy, but the music and his ties to some of the era’s major players have helped shape his sound and career.
“I remember going to school dances — and you know how awkward middle school dances are, kids don’t know what to do with themselves,” Jones says. “But then as soon as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came on, everybody lost their mind. It was just in your blood to have that sound, man.”
Also in Jones’ sonic DNA is the gospel and soul music he grew up around, being raised by his religious aunt in the Central District. His father was never around and his mother, who had Jones at 19, gave him up while dealing with addiction issues — an emotionally turbulent upbringing Jones addresses on “Take Me Away.” The soaring rock anthem encapsulating Jones’ determination and musical refuge is a fitting intro to both his life story and his amalgam of blues-heavy hard rock and soul, with occasional chamber rock strings and hip-hop elements.
“’Take Me Away’ was just the embodiment of that, what the time meant to me, what the music meant to me,” says the dues-paid rocker. “I don’t have to be the thing that they tell me I need to be — I don’t have to be the statistic I’m supposed to be.”
The night his deal was inked, there was no big night out or the party with friends you might expect from a 20-year-old celebrating a major-label record deal. Age of social distancing or no, that might not be Hope’s style anyway.
“I’m a total homebody, so I was really just here with my family,” Hope says, calling from their Lake City home. “We’re quarantined at the moment because my sister is pregnant right now with her first upcoming child, so we’re really locked down. But we were just celebrating as a family, screaming and playing cards.”
Despite the not-so-wild night in, future Uncle Dempsey has spent his summer in the fast lane, going from a relative unknown to signing with RCA (Justin Timberlake, Khalid, Doja Cat, Dave Matthews Band) in a matter of months. While Jones’ grind took him through every bar and club in town, Hope’s was largely done from the seat of his car, a mobile sanctuary that often doubles as his writing room. There he cooks up the stickiest of melodies faster than Minute Rice, recording short a cappella videos to post on the social media platform TikTok.
Popular among teens (and suits longing to understand them), the video-sharing app — which has Microsoft mulling an acquisition — holds significant influence over the music industry these days. Looking to capture lightning in a meme, label brass increasingly mine TikTok for new acts, while established artists like Seattle rap star Lil Mosey have boosted songs with viral dance challenges and other quick-hit content.
For Hope, a hip-hop-inflected pop singer for the streaming era, TikTok also offers market research in real time. The former Nathan Hale hooper, who was on the 2017 boys basketball squad that was named No. 1 in the nation, often posts snippets of unfinished songs, the likes and comments letting him know which are worth completing. The typical in-car clip receives anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 views. But one particularly hooky June video, featuring the melody that became upbeat breakup tune “Time Flies,” clocked 150,000 in one day. Sensing the interchangeability of the would-be chorus’ lyrics, Hope solicited personal stories from his followers, which he’d then craft lyrics around and post. One of those follow-up videos quickly racked up more than 3 million views.
“The next day it was like, ‘All right, it’s time to make this a real song,’ ” he says.
(Note: This video contains explicit language.)
Two weeks after “Time Flies” hit streaming services July 3 as an actual, and infectiously lean, pop song, RCA announced it had snatched up the former child busker who once made $800 at Northwest Folklife Festival (and blew it all on carnival games). Hope’s debut EP is expected this fall.
Hope’s sound — which blends the bedroom-pop-with-a-budget vibe of Rex Orange County with cadences informed by the current wave of singsong rappers ruling Spotify — was honed working with Seattle producer Jake Crocker, who’s become a force on the local scene the past few years. Two years ago, Hope started nagging Crocker for studio time, initially booking short trial sessions between Crocker’s slots with other artists. After knocking out three or four demos a pop in several 45-minute windows, things got serious.
Crocker’s fluency in hip-hop, EDM and pop has served Hope well thus far. On Hope’s first proper singles, all released this year, Crocker’s rich and clean productions transform the savvy young pop singer’s tight, TikTok-vetted hooks into fully formed songs.
“One thing I love about Jake is how big picture his music and his beats sound,” Hope says. “It just makes me think movies — major motion pictures.”
Together, the duo’s banked a sizable trove of unreleased music, some of which will see daylight this year. While his career is just taking off, so far Hope’s enjoying the ride.
“It’s really surreal, man,” he says. “It’s been nothing but a dream come true.”