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BEST NEW ARTISTS SPEAK: A GRAMMY ROUNDTABLE

Competition for the Best New Artist Grammy features a distinctly disparate group of musicians, two of whom took the indie route in their 20s, two who started as children and a country singer whose youth was more about sports than songs. HITS was curious about what led them into music.

Sam Hunt, the elder of the group at 31 years old, says he grew up with Country radio in the 1990s while his listening was balanced between Texas singer/songwriters  Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark on the country side and the R&B of Otis Redding, Usher, R. Kelly, Boyz II Men and Dru Hill.

In Australia, Courtney Barnett learned to play music by accompanying her father’s jazz and blues records, and when she started writing in her early 20s, she incorporated her brother’s tastes, specifically Nirvana and The Beastie Boys.

James Bay gave HITS a healthy dossier: He studied Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn to develop his guitar chops; listened to Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Ray LaMontagne and Joni Mitchell for ideas about lyrics; and drew inspiration for his singing from Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Caleb Followill and Adele.

Meghan Trainor, just 21, who recorded three albums as a teenager in Massachusetts, lists Sam Smith as a Best New Artist winner she hopes to emulate in success. And Tori Kelly, who turned 23 in December, tells us, “I knew I loved to sing since I was four years old. When I started singing on TV shows at age 10, it quickly became something I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

One thing none of these impressive newcomers has learned yet: to avoid us. 


What’s the significance of a Grammy nomination to you?
Sam Hunt: The integrity associated with the Grammys is something I’ve always been aware of, even when I was growing up and not as attuned to the music world—I didn’t really dive in until I was older. I was consumed by athletics; I’d liken it to something like the Heisman Trophy.

Meghan Trainor: This nomination is extra special. All my life I’ve wanted to be an artist, but because I was insecure I never thought I could do it. To have the Grammys acknowledge me as an artist is such a dream come true.

James Bay: The Grammys are unique, an award by musicians for musicians; nothing else interferes. And that’s what sets it apart and keeps it so significant for musicians and music lovers alike. Like so many, I’ve grown up with the Grammys, so to suddenly be recognized and receive not one but three  nominations is pretty overwhelming and an amazing feeling.

Tori Kelly: It’s the craziest thing that’s happened to me, and it feels like the most perfect way to top off this incredible year I’ve had. I’m so thankful!

Courtney Barnett: It’s great getting that level of recognition for my first album. Super cool. 

Each of you had breakthrough years. What changed for you over the year?
JB: My ability to entertain and command bigger and bigger audiences. I genuinely feel like I (and the show) have improved drastically, and the shows just get better and better, night after night.

SH: The traveling. The whole nature of this thing has completely changed for me, getting to play music for people every night.

MT: I realized that you can actually achieve all of your goals if you work hard enough. 

Any specific highlights?
CB: Releasing an album, playing at huge festivals, performing on TV and sharing my stories with peeps all over the world.

TK: Putting out my debut album was a dream come true. Performing on the VMAs was a huge step for me.

JB: Ronnie Wood joined me onstage recently at one of 
three sold-out shows in London, and it’s a moment I will never, ever forget. I’m a huge Stones fan, but we played a Faces tune—I wanted to do something less expected. 

What were the keys to making the album you wanted to make? What came easily and what element was tough?
MT: Fewer rules! I could say whatever I wanted, because it’s actually me saying it. I can finally be honest. It’s hard hearing a lot of opinions about what you should do with your career.

TK: I think, as a songwriter, I reached a lot of breakthrough moments. It was important for me to be able to talk about each song and really own them, not just sing and perform them. 

Courtney, you have a stronger rock element in your work than the other nominees. What is your sense of the state of rock these days and where it’s headed?
CB: There’s room for everything at the table, and it’s a big fucking table. There are so many different ways to make music, and everyone likes something different, so who cares. I just make the kinda music that I like to listen to. 

Whom do you consider your mentors?
JB: My two managers, because they understand me the most. I think the best mentor has to know who they are mentoring, not just to pass on their knowledge but to know how to deliver it to the particular individual.

CB: Sometimes when I’m making decisions, I think, “What would Jimi do?” 

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