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Tiny Desk Contest: Celebrating The Artists Who Keep Coming Back

Justin Trawick and The Common Good entered the 2020 Tiny Desk Contest with the song "Goodbye."
Justin Trawick and The Common Good entered the 2020 Tiny Desk Contest with the song "Goodbye."

The 2020 Tiny Desk Contest closed for entries on April 27. We've seen entries from every state in the country; from big bands and solo artists; and from a huge range of styles and genres — and now, our judges will start to comb through our entries to find a winner. In the meantime, we've been sharing some of favorite entries to this year's Contest.

We love welcoming new faces to the Contest each year — but there's something especially exciting about recognizing the artists who come back to the Contest for many years, giving us a little window into their growth as musicians year after year. Even if they don't win, these artists often go on to be part of our Tiny Desk Contest On The Road tours, be featured on the radio or even play Tiny Desks of their own. So this week, we're highlighting a few musicians who have entered the Contest three or more times since we launched in 2015.

Dirty Bird, "A Dangerous Dark"

Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Brooklyn-based band Dirty Bird has entered the Tiny Desk Contest every year since 2017, and the group has come a long way: Its first entry featured three members and one acoustic guitar, crowded into a corner of a room; its most recent featured seven members spread throughout as many locales. What hasn't changed is the band's polished folk sound, earnest spirit and gleaming harmonies. This year's entry, "A Dangerous Dark," is "about a longing for simple intricacies that feel unforgettable after loss," the band told NPR in an email. "With so many doubts as to how to keep making music as a seven-piece band in the middle of a global pandemic, Tiny Desk permitted us to break down any circumstantial barriers and do what we love most in the safety of our homes."

In 2018, we liked Dirty Bird's entry so much we invited the band to open for Naia Izumi at our Tiny Desk Contest On The Road show in New York City. The band says the experience "was our first source of real validation as a young band, and every year since then has presented a new opportunity to challenge ourselves and measure our growth as we continue to write and play music." —Marissa Lorusso

Justin Trawick and The Common Good, "Goodbye"

Hometown: Arlington, Va.

Justin Trawick has entered the Contest every year since its inception in 2015, but says it wasn't until this year that he found a way to really stand out. Trawick's 2020 entry, "Goodbye," includes a few more group members than his 2017 entry; after performing at a small Washington, D.C., venue back in February, Trawick and his bandmates moved to the floor and asked audience members to record their next song on iPhones, creating what would be a completely fan-filmed video.

Trawick elaborated on the scrappiness and heart behind the last-minute decision to record this way. "It's low-budget. It's bad lighting. The shots are grainy," he told NPR. "But it was created by the people who were there to see us, to hear me sing my songs. I think that's the part that's special."

To Trawick, who is a staple in the D.C. folk music scene, part of the magic of Tiny Desk concerts is that "heroes play on the same level as their followers, performing as equals, often broken down to nothing but the bare essentials." Trawick's Contest entry captures a similar magic and feels especially salient at a time when many of us are missing the communal atmosphere of live shows. —Elle Mannion

Aubrey Hays, "Parachute"

Hometown: Austin, Texas

Throughout four years of entering songs to the Contest, Aubrey Hays has always paid careful attention to her heart. Her 2020 Contest entry, "Parachute," has a dreamy, romantic lilt that floats across your chest, effortlessly capturing the twinkly-eyed, rose-colored tenderness of falling in love.

"It's about that feeling of wanting to dive deep into loving someone, but outfitting yourself with protection so you don't get hurt," Hays told NPR, "suspending that dizzying floating feeling for just a little while longer amidst the disquietude." When asked about returning to the Contest each year, Hays says, "Each video acts as a marker for where I'm at in my career and path as a songwriter. This Contest inspires me to create emotionally and unabashedly. It's what I aim to do with all my art now." —Pilar Fitzgerald

The Break Lights, "To Say Goodbye"

Hometown: Parsippany, N.J.

The Break Lights has entered the Contest every year since 2016 – and really caught our attention in 2017, when its entry "Holiest Ghost" was one of our judges' favorites. While the band usually performs as a five-piece, this year's entry features just two musicians: Jake Roggenkamp and Michael Saiewitz – the same musicians who played in the band's very first Contest entry. This year's video also features what appears to be the very same desk from its first entry, too. It feels like a full-circle moment for the band which, despite its reduced numbers, still delivers an energetic performance of "To Say Goodbye," complete with a harmonica solo. —Marissa Lorusso

Darby Wilcox, "Mantra"

Hometown: Greenville, S.C.

Darby Wilcox has entered the Tiny Desk Contest every year since 2017, but says it's not the possibility of winning that keeps her coming back. Wilcox told NPR she looks forward to the Contest year after year because it inspires her to create new music and learn from other artists. "Each year I feel welcomed to be unapologetically raw, to be supportive of others, and to celebrate original music," Wilcox says. "This energy stretches beyond the contest."

This unapologetic honesty is expressed in her 2020 Contest entry, "Mantra." While Wilcox wrote the song while going through a difficult time, the tune offers an antidote to that suffering. When sung by Wilcox and group member Lisa Stubbs, the song's simple message and hopeful harmonies feel like a comforting embrace: "I want to feel good here in my skin / I want to love who I am in the end." —Elle Mannion

Como Las Movies, "Shoegaze Cumbia"

Hometown: Austin, Texas

I had the pleasure of seeing Como Las Movies live last summer in Austin, when the band opened for our 2019 Contest winner Quinn Christopherson on our Tiny Desk Contest On The Road tour. Its music, which the band describes as "IndieCumbiaPop," draws from those three genres to make a colorful, cultural soundscape from a unique blend of instruments. Although the pandemic created some challenges, the band came together to put out a kaleidoscopic quarantine edition of its hypnotic song "Shoegaze Cumbia," making this its fifth time entering the Contest. "At this point it's become a tradition for us and an institution for the wider music community," the band told NPR. "It's been a great way to discover new music, create new content, and learn new ways to make our own media pop." —Pilar Fitzgerald

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.