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SXSW Music Preview


Let's talk music now because the annual South by Southwest music festival kicks off tomorrow. Thousands - and I mean thousands - of musicians and fans of said musicians and people who want to discover new artists to love will flock to downtown Austin, Texas. For those of us who cannot make it, our friend Stephen Thompson from NPR Music is here to talk over his Austin 100 playlist. Every year, he listens to more than a thousand songs and pulls together a list of what he considers the best to give us a taste of what the South by Southwest Festival has to offer. And he's with us now before he journeys forth.

Welcome back, Stephen. Thanks for coming.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: This year, you've selected a few international artists to talk to us about. Who do you have first?

THOMPSON: Yeah. More than half the artists on the Austin 100 this year are outside the United States. This is an especially international festival this year, which is really exciting because you want to go to a festival like this and see bands you wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to see. So we can go all around the world in this segment.

MARTIN: So who do you have first?

THOMPSON: Let's hear Ace Tee, a rapper and singer from Germany.


ACE TEE: (Singing in German).

MARTIN: But what excites you about her?

THOMPSON: Well, partly that it sounds like TLC. I mean (laughter), what is wrong with that? I mean, you hear an artist who was actually born after TLC made a lot of its music but is synthesizing a lot of that sound - that kind of buoyant and sunny and blissed-out sound - and filtering it into something that feels modern.

MARTIN: And so looking out for German hip-hop. And what else have you got?

THOMPSON: A band from LA called Illuminati Hotties.



THOMPSON: They're so great.


ILLUMINATI HOTTIES: (Singing) All my favorite socks are getting holes in them. All my favorite people got a load on them. But I heard that you feel better, better than ever.

MARTIN: How would you describe this sound? How do they describe it?

THOMPSON: They describe their sound as - and I quote - tenderpunk (ph) - a little portmanteau there that kind of captures the sunny quality mixed with a certain amount of aggression. And you can kind of hear in the lyrics it's conversational and clever. But then, once it slams into the chorus, you just get these big, bright harmonies - so charming and fun. And it's - the band is called Illuminati Hotties. What could be better?


ILLUMINATE HOTTIES: (Singing) It's not to say that I'm unfortunate, or that I haven't been succeeding...

THOMPSON: You just get a sense of joy. And I just can't wait to go to a show and just experience that communally because it's just going to be so fun.

MARTIN: So Germany and the U.S. Where are we going next?

THOMPSON: Well, we'll go to an artist who actually straddles several different continents. She was originally based in Ghana. Her name is Jojo Abot.


JOJO ABOT: (Singing in foreign language).




THOMPSON: She's throwing a lot...


THOMPSON: ...At her speakers at the same time...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...Which for me is really exciting. I just love to hear - sometimes, I just love to hear an artist just open a fire hydrant of ideas, and that's what Jojo Abot's doing. It's kind of this avant-garde, experimental hip-hop. And she is such an interesting figure. You know, she is a rapper and an activist and a fashion icon. If you Google a picture of Jojo Abot - J-O-J-O A-B-O-T - and just look at the combination of fashion and art that is put into her presentation, she's very intriguing.

MARTIN: I know. I'm feeling inadequate already.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Just making me feel really - like, OK. And I think we have time for one more artist. Give us one more, will you?

THOMPSON: If you want to hear potentially one of the next biggest country singers in the world, why not go to Sydney, Australia, and see Rachael Fahim?


RACHAEL FAHIM: (Singing) Tire tracks stretch from here to who knows where. Smell of car still hanging in the air.

MARTIN: How did we find her?

THOMPSON: Well, she won the 2017 Toyota Star Maker competition in Australia, which a few years ago was won by Keith Urban - so clearly, a pipeline from Australia into the country charts. That song, "Brake Lights," eventually just smashes into this absolutely gigantic chorus.


FAHIM: (Singing) 'Cause I was hoping for brake lights flashin' red in the middle of the street, and the door opens. And you get out, say you don't know what you were thinkin', never gonna leave. But no, I didn't even see brake lights.

THOMPSON: And one thing that I really like to do at South by Southwest is not just find the coolest bands but also to find bands that do very, very popular music very, very well but haven't yet necessarily found a massive audience in the United States. And so when I listen to Rachael Fahim, I'm, like, this is the biggest country hit of 2020. And that's exciting for me, too - to kind of feel like I'm getting in on the ground floor of artists who have this incredible commercial potential.

MARTIN: You know, you've given us some just great selections - just these four right here. How do you do it every year? And do you have to listen to a bunch of junk - let me just put it that way...

THOMPSON: God, yes (laughter).

MARTIN: ...To get to these gems? I mean...

THOMPSON: Yeah. I listened to about 90 hours of music - something like 1,400 songs. South by Southwest is programmed in such a way that they're trying to smash together as many genres as possible, as many parts of the world as possible, as many artistic perspectives as possible. And so I'm trying to put together a playlist that reflects that experience and to give people some of which they might find familiar and some of which will be completely new to them - not only new artists but new sounds. And so I'm just trying to kind of pass that sense of discovery along to as many people as possible.

MARTIN: That's Stephen Thompson of NPR Music giving us a preview of the South by Southwest music festival that starts tomorrow. And you can check out his Austin 100 playlist at

Stephen, thank you so much for doing this.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Michel.


JOJO ABOT: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)