The bright future of our young acoustic talent was showcased in north London tonight as the finalists of the Fender Undiscovered Artist Of The Year awards gathered to battle it out at the Globe. And they WERE all rather bright and rather young – almost disagreeably so – including the hosts and the judges and the compères. And as they introduced the evening’s entertainment, clarifying their position on everything from use of e-cigarettes to the #metoo campaign, your forty-something AUK representative who had somehow sneaked past the beauty police inched closer to the free bar in the knowledge that it could be a longer evening than anticipated.
The three finalists who had made it to Tufnell Park had, along with all the entrants to this year’s competition been urged to “take a step away from the musical norm and ‘Play Something Different’” and in the case of the ultimate winners that meant leaning towards an alternative country sound, but first a word on the two runners-up. First to tread the boards was the diminutive, slightly shy Roisin O’Hagan. Having described her lyrics as dark and dangerous it soon became obvious that she was speaking from a modern perspective as opposed to dangerous in the traditional ‘loaded six-string’ sense. Her shimmering vocals and bassy chords reflected her anxiety as she sang of living out her days in a dark and lonely room. The final song of her allocated three revealed the disclaimer as she introduced ‘Run’ with a passionate dialogue about snapping out of it, believing in herself and running towards life rather than away from it. With a debut EP and a reputation built on extensive touring, all achieved while studying for a full-time degree it seems she’s doing something right. With songs that stand up, emotionally delivered in a nuanced open tuning style, O’Hagan is an inspiration to dreamers, stoners and the bedroom brigade everywhere and deserves her place in the top three.
Tom Hyatt was a different proposition and took the initiative from the start with bright, bluesy chords that maximized the whole guitar fretboard. He had a body language that suggested he was an old hand. Lancashire by stock, Hyatt honed his mind at Oxford Uni before heading to ‘that’ London, guitar in hand, along the well-trodden path. He made a name at folk clubs and open mics before progressing to gigs at various festivals, including Bestival. His debut album was recorded live at Spiritual bar in Camden. Tonight he came across well, perhaps a little too slick if anything for what these particular judges had in mind. At times he slapped his guitar like a St Martin’s busker with a gleaming array of effects pedals standing constantly to attention underfoot. If that’s your thing then his funky blues progressions and Dickens like takes on present-day London life became quite spellbinding the more drawn into the experience you allowed yourself to become. A contender.
The winners of the Fender Undiscovered Artist Of The Year 2018 were sandwiched between these two acts and, truth be told, what with the quality of the music and the free bar convincing me I was just as young and beautiful as everybody else inside the venue, the evening was going better than expected. Lucas and King were, as mentioned earlier the ‘country’ leaning act of the night. Bo Lucas and Hayleigh King were nervous as hell when I met them backstage, mixed with a little relief at having managed to negotiate the complex system of public transport and taxis necessary to access the capital from Southampton with all their gear (not that I’m calling out Fender for appearing like the graceful benefactors while providing very little practical support for the artists).
The term ‘undiscovered’ is something of a misnomer here. It is, in fact, open to interpretation whether you consider a duo who have extensive radio play, performed at festivals including Cambridge, Maverick and Glastonbury and who have supported Ray Davies and The Yardbirds to be ‘undiscovered’. Nevertheless, they seemed a little flustered at first, taking a while to settle into their rhythm, but when they did it became obvious fairly quickly that here was a standout act. Lucas comes across like a Gwen Stefani/Tammy Wynette hybrid with her staccato vocals, swept blonde hair and white tennis shoes while King swayed next to her Sheryl Crow style, constantly licking the blues from her Stratocaster, just loose enough to create a spontaneous jam session vibe with enough structure to prevent crashing off the cliff edge (to coin a phrase). The performance wasn’t flawless; the impression is given that it’s not supposed to be. The guitars are stroked and picked with the kind of careless abandon that only achieves the right results when done with the correct amount of confidence and chemistry at its root. And for all their initial nerves, when Lucas and King find their groove they transcend the understood rules of musical techniques and allow their mutual understanding to flow through and make the connection. It seems the judges on the panel understood this because, before you could say “A big win for the UK Americana scene” they were being dragged back on stage and hailed by Fender’s Head of Artist Relations Neil Witcher, who praised all the contestants: “The level of talent in the contest this year was phenomenal and it was not an easy decision for us judges to make. We were looking for instantly recognisable potential and we truly believe that Lucas and King have that – we have no doubt that they will go on to great success and we can’t wait to support that journey.”
Lucas and King will be heading to LA as part of a package put together by Fender to take their music to an American audience. AUK wish them every success and urge them to remember us when they’re rich and famous.
You can watch the three performances here