Is there a ‘new’ Jewel or blink-182 among the 2023 San Diego Music Awards’ Best New Artist nominees?
The list of long-established artists whose names have appeared on the San Diego Music Awards ballots over the past four decades includes such once-obscure bands and solo artists as Jewel, blink-182, P.O.D., Slightly Stoopid, AJ Croce, Mojo Nixon, Rebecca Jade and Rocket From The Crypt. The list also includes 2021 Oscar-nominee Andra Day and at least three Grammy Award-winners — Jason Mraz, Nickel Creek and 1997 SDMA Best New Artist victor Switchfoot.
It remains to be seen if any of this year’s Best New Artist contenders achieve similarly long-lasting success.
But each of the nominees — Ash Easton, Coastal Wolves, Mercedes Rides Out, Strange Bouquets, The Plagues, Swive and Zavala Sol — is eager to make a bigger impact. And one of them will be in the spotlight on April 25, when winners are announced at the 32nd annual edition of the awards fete at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay on Shelter Island.
“What makes the San Diego music scene stand out is the support we have for each other,” said San Marcos-born singer-songwriter Easton. “You can go out any night of the week and you’ll run into fellow musicians and bands. They go to your show, you go to theirs. We’re all cheering each other on.”
Those sentiments are shared by Sidney Merritt, an associate clinical professor of pediatric anesthesiology at the University of California San Diego. The Maryland-born singer and guitarist is a member of the four-piece alternative-rock group Swive, another of this year’s Best New Artist nominees.
“There are dozens of bands that I am excited to go see play, so there’s always a good show happening,” Merritt said. “People are really supportive of each other in the music scene here.”
The celebration of homegrown music — and the support many local artists show for each other — has fueled and been fueled by the SDMAs since their debut in 1991 at the now-defunct Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla.
“Imagine if all the musicians in Hollywood could just be themselves without worrying about what a bunch of dumb record label execs thought. That’s San Diego,” said Coastal Wolves guitarist and founder Heath Farmer. “At the end of the day, the only thing that’s ‘hot’ is authenticity, and in San Diego there is no shortage of authenticity.”
That contention will be handily borne out by the performers at this year’s edition of the SDMAs.
They include top jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, rising blues-rock guitarist Anthony Cullins, vocal dynamo Earl Thomas & The Gospel Ambassadors, the earthy harmony vocal band Daring Greatly and the Americana-championing Jeff Berkley & The Banned (whose leader and namesake won the 2000 Best New Artist award as half of the duo Berkley Hart).
Also performing will be the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, guitar wizard Mike Keneally, whose SDMA stage debut was in 1995 at the Spreckels Theatre. Keneally couldn’t be included in last year’s awards show because he was on a national tour with The Zappa Band and King Crimson.
Alas, none of this year’s Best New Artist nominees will perform at this year’s edition. But each will eagerly await the tallying of the votes, which this year topped 84,000 for the first time in SDMA history.
“That’s by far the most we’ve ever had and Instagram is now the biggest driver of votes for us,” noted Kevin Hellman, the nonprofit event’s founder and producer.
“It doesn’t matter to me who wins or loses,” he continued. “I’m proud we have been able to discover and boost new talents, a number of whom have gone on to bigger and better things. Most important is that we have raised $746,192 for students in schools across San Diego and we have put over 2,000 guitars in more than 120 schools. That what the event is all about.”
Those unable to attend this year’s event at Humphreys can watch the April 25 livestream on the SDMA YouTube and Facebook channels. An edited, two-hour version will be televised June 4 on Fox 5 KSWB.
Late bloomers and veterans
What makes the 2023 crop of Best New Artist nominees especially notable is that two of them — blues-rocking Zavala Sol singer Carrie Zavala, 49, and punk-rocking The Plagues singer Chris Bevier, 50 — are late bloomers who only began performing within the past year or two.
“I’ve been around the punk-rock scene since 1984 and known a lot of guys in punk bands in Orange County,” Bevier said. “I’ve lived and breathed that music for so long. But I didn’t have the confidence to do it myself because drugs and other stuff got in the way — until I moved to San Diego, got with the right guys and we put it all together.”
If Bevier’s entry into music is worthy of a more in-depth article, Zavala’s could merit a screenplay.
She attended her first concert in 1988, when she was 15, in Los Angeles. It was by the gangsta-rap group N.W.A., whose best-known song was “F— Tha Police.” She began working in law enforcement four years later.
“I became a deputy in 1994, when I was 21. I served 22 years — 12 as a gang unit detective — and retired in 2017 due to a bad injury on the job,” said Zavala, a Colorado native who grew up in Vista.
She first served with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, then with the Carlsbad Police Department. Zavala now divides her time between weekend gigs with her band and working three days a week as a driving instructor.
“I always kind of knew I could sing,” she said. “I would volunteer to sing the national anthem at police academy graduations and did that probably 50 times. I also sang at police officer memorial services. And I got to sing the anthem at Petco Park before a Padres game in 2005, when my son was 3.
“I sang on stage for the first time on March 20, 2022, at a blues jam session at MJ’s Social Club in southeast Los Angeles. I thought I was going to make a fool out of myself, because I was so new to music, but it went over extremely well. People asked me to take pictures with them and were recording me singing. … There’s no better feeling in the world.”
The youngest nominees, solo artist Easton and Coastal Wolves guitarist Heath Farmer, both in their early 30s, have been making music since before they were in their teens. Strange Bouquets mastermind Rory Morison, 34, was 17 years old when he began taking guitar lessons in Tijuana from Javier Bátiz, who had previously taught the young Carlos Santana.
Besides Bevier of The Plagues, at least two of this year’s other Best New Artist contenders are in their 50s and have decades of music-making under their belts.
“If a band has started in the last 12 months, that’s what we consider a ‘new artist.’ A lot of new artists have been in other bands,” said SDMA honcho Hellman.
“About six of our San Diego Music Academy members analyze the nominees and ballots to make sure they are right. What’s really hard is making sure the nominees all live in San Diego (County) and it’s not an Orange County or L.A. band, with one member who lives in Oceanside — and that kind of thing happens, repeatedly.
“We try to do the best we can and do as much research as we can. We got a heck of a lot more Best New Artist submissions this year than are on the ballot.”
How fluid is the San Diego music scene?
Coastal Wolves guitarist Heath Farmer has played in the backing band for singer Easton. Her current group features Farmer’s fellow Coastal Wolves guitarist Steven Crowle.
At any given time, as in other cities, a musician here may be juggling playing in several bands concurrently. And if one of those San Diego bands recorded for the first time in the past 12 months, they might just be one of this year’s Best New Artist contenders.
Here is a look at the seven 2023 nominees.
Singer-songwriter Ash Easton
Most recent recording: The album “Rough & Tough” (August 2022)
Band members: Guitarists Davis Mills and Steven Crowle, drummer Nick Fulsher and bassist Aaron Hook
Earliest musical inspirations: “I started listening to Johnny Cash when I was around 7. When I was around 12, I was looking for girls who did rock ‘n’ roll and I discovered Janis Joplin.”
Current musical inspirations: Selena, Brandi Carlile and Chris Stapleton
“I loved that Selena was so feminine and alluring, but so completely herself. Plus, she was a fellow Latina playing music. She revolutionized the industry.”
First gig of note: Opening, at 17, for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 2005 at a balloon festival in Ogden, Utah. “I used to do pageants when I was young — I’m in therapy now for that! —and I sang ‘These Boots Were Made for Walking.’ Seeing the crowd reaction blew my mind and I knew I wanted to always sing.”
Upcoming gig of note: May 12 at The Pourhouse in Oceanside
Ten years from now: “I hope to be celebrating a Grammy win with my band while we headline Coachella.”
Coastal Wolves guitarist Heath Farmer
Most recent recording: The single “Hurts Like Hell” (September 2022)
Band members: Guitarist Steven Crowle, drummer Carlos Beltran, bassist and synth bassist Tim Frankeny
Earliest musical inspirations: “My dad really encouraged my brothers and I to learn piano and guitar at an early age, so I’m super grateful to have had that support from him and my mom as well. Also, a big shout-out to my first piano teacher, Ms. Debby, who would munch on some weird vitamins during lessons like they were popcorn ….”
Current musical inspirations: Paul McCartney, Danny Elfman and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala
“Paul McCartney will always be at the top of my list; someone who it would appear has always had the drive and vision to create masterpieces, and who seems like such a good human being to his core.”
First gig of note: In 2000, age 10, as a fourth grader, with his brothers at the Brywood Elementary School talent show in Irvine.
Upcoming gig of note: Album-release show this summer, date to be announced.
Ten years from now: “With my wife and future kids, buying the next Coastal Wolves vinyl record at that Korean barbecue joint in Tustin.”
Swive singer/guitarist Sidney Merritt
Most recent recording: Earthling Sessions EP (June 2022)
Band members: Guitarist/singer Indio Romero, bassist/singer Mike Santos and drummer Charlie Brownell
Earliest musical inspirations: “When I was 18, I managed to talk my way backstage at a 1984 Oingo Boingo concert, where (lead singer) Danny Elfman gave me my first guitar lesson. He was an awesome mentor; he treated me with serious respect and gave me advice about the industry. He could have just laughed at this silly teen, but he treated me like I was a peer … That interaction impacted me for life.”
Current musical inspirations: Built To Spill guitarist Doug Martsch, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Gaelynn Lea.
“I love Gaelynn’s musical style and voice. She looks so confident and comfortable on stage despite the fact that she has osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) and has a very different type of body that most. She plays her violin like a cello because of her physical stature. She’s also a vocal advocate for the rights of the disabled community. She’s rad.”
First gig of note: “At a party in 1986, when I was 21, with my all-girl punk band Weenie Roast in San Francisco.”
Upcoming gig of note: May 27 at 2 p.m. at the North Park Music Festival.
Ten years from now: “I hope to be making the 10th Swive album!”
Rory Morrison, aka Strange Bouquets
Most recent recording: The song “Masquerade” (November 2022)
Earliest musical inspirations: “I think my first experiences with music in Mexico inspired me to be a musician. My family would host parties where marimba bands would set up on the patio. Mexico has such a dramatic and musical culture that you can’t escape sounds of expression. Looking back, those ‘convivios’/parties had a lasting impact and became something I sought out. It fascinated me, these magical exchanges where celebration, community, food, conversation, culture, dancing, politics, and conflict were expressed — and music was what colored those experiences.”
Current musical inspirations: Miles Davis, Omar Rodriguez Lopez and John Dwyer.
“All three are musical visionaries who evolved and created their own path because of the trust in their artistic expression. They are notorious for fostering young talent and collaborating with a wild cast of musicians and venturing into other art forms, such as painting, poetry, photography and cinema.”
First gig of note: At Brick by Brick in 2008, at 19, with The Circadian Rhythms of The Mountain Top Prayer Healers (“CRMTPH for short!”).
Upcoming gig of note: This summer, date and venue pending.
Ten years from now: “I hope to be in my own studio helping to produce artists that I believe in, working on my albums, movie scores, art and then touring internationally half of the year.”
Online: instagram @strangebouquets
Mercedes Rides Out singer Mercedes Carvajal
Most recent recording: The single “Sweet Thang” (June 2022)
Earliest musical inspirations: “My mom. I grew up listening to her play guitar and sing. I was in junior high and wanted to be in the school choir and had to audition. I didn’t make the cut the first time around. My mom worked with me for the whole summer on performing with feeling and authenticity. I came back to school and made the audition due to her believing in me. She was my inspiration!”
Current musical inspirations: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant
“For me, growing up and wanting to be an artist and wanting to perform, there had to be something emotional and gripping that had some kind of grit. Being introduced to Led Zeppelin at an early age and hearing Robert Plant sing was so emotional. I wondered: ‘How can someone capture that in their vocals?’ The way he took charge on stage and the way he sang, he was a true rock ‘n’ roll icon.”
First gig of note: In 1986, age 17, at the Spirit Club as the drummer in the all-female band KrozzKut.
Upcoming gig of note: July 8 at Full Circle with the band Sweet Soul Sister.
Ten years from now: “I hope to be making music and touring the globe.”
Zavala Sol singer Carrie Zavala
Most recent recording: The album “Zavala Sol” (December 2022)
Band members: Drummer Jon Price, guitarist Mike VanDuyn, bassist Karl Dring and keyboardist Brandon Ross
Earliest musical inspiration: “I have always loved music. It’s the only art that really speaks to me. I chose blues because I’ve always been drawn to it.”
Current musical inspirations: Janis Joplin, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton
“There will never be another singer like Big Mama Thornton. Her voice and the notes she’s able to hit are unreal. … When I first started singing blues, people told me: ‘You need to cover Big Mama and Etta.’ I have that kind of raspy voice and soulful energy. People who played with Big Mama have told me I sing like her. That is a huge compliment, because that woman could sing her ass off.”
First gig of note: “My best gig was a few months ago at the December Nights concert in Balboa Park. It was the biggest show we have ever done and the biggest audience we have ever had.”
Upcoming gig of note: May 13 at 11 a.m. at Gator by the Bay.
Ten years from now: “I see myself on tour with the guys in Zavala Sol. I’m hoping to add a horn section, too! I’ve set goals for myself and I’ve accomplished a lot, but I have a few more goals to obtain. The guys in my band deserve to be on the biggest stages, performing to the biggest audiences. They are ridiculously talented and I’m so very grateful for every one of them.”
The Plagues singer Chris Bevier
Most recent recording: The album “High Crimes and Cheap Lines” will be released in May by Last Punk Rock Records and is now streaming.
Band members: Bassist Chris Bieck, lead guitarist Travis Cregal, rhythm guitarist Mick Rossler and drummer Brian Celli.
Earliest musical inspirations: “My dad was really into music when I was a kid and had all kinds of records. He had been in bands and we had everything from a piano to a saxophone in our house. He turned me on to Parliament-Funkadelic, the Rolling Stones, Devo and more. When I was 10, my folks got me a surfboard, a skateboard, a record player and punk-rock records by the Sex Pistols, Blondie, X, Fear, Oingo Boingo. It was a turning point for me for sure.”
Current musical inspirations: Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys and Lords of the New Church, Nick Blinko of Rudimentary Peni and Joe Strummer of The Clash.
“I really like Stiv and the way he wrote music for The Dead Boys. His lyrics and the way he moved as a front man was a real inspiration to me. He was punk and snotty, and gave it his all.”
First gig of note: “This is my first band. We performed our first show in our friend Todd’s backyard in City Heights.”
Upcoming gig of note: April 28 at The Doll House in Anaheim.
Ten years from now: “I hope to be traveling with my band throughout Europe and the states with other amazing bands. And, of course, making more music with my friends.”
32nd annual San Diego Music Awards
When: 7:30 p.m. April 25
Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
Tickets: $40 (general admission) and $125 (VIP)