As of press time, Carolyn Malachi had 1,365 followers on Twitter, and 206 had liked her artist page on Facebook. When she put out her "Lions, Fires & Squares" EP in August, the most notable piece of American press was a One Track Mind column in Washington City Paper. That release’s best song, “Orion,” had 541 plays on MySpace.
The songs on "Lions, Fires & Squares" are very good. And Malachi plans to be very big. The 26-year-old D.C. native wants to live off her music. She wants to tour the world -- she’s already been flown to South Africa twice to perform. She wants to open schools. But she isn’t there yet.
So how, then, did “Orion” get a Grammy nomination in December?
On its merits, most likely. “Orion” is spacious yet disarming, an exercise in jazzy, cooled-down space pop and weird-ass allegory -- not unlike the eccentric retro-futurism of Janelle Monáe, who, it happens, also has a song nominated in the best urban/alternative recording category.
It speaks to the ways in which the world’s most eminent music prize has become more accessible, and therefore less predictable, in an era in which album sales plummet by double-digit figures every year. For artists like Malachi, the Grammys aren’t a recognition of success so much as a vehicle to achieve it.
The Grammy’s tastemakers didn’t stumble upon Malachi. She’s a voting member of the Recording Academy, which means she can submit work by herself and others for consideration. She applied to join the academy in 2009 after self-releasing her basement-recorded full-length, "Revenge of the Smart Chicks II: Ambitious Gods," on the suggestion of another local artist with a Grammy nomination to his name, the rapper Kokayi.
The barrier to entry has relaxed in recent years. Traditionally, artists have had to demonstrate six credits on a commercial release sold through a recognized retailer in order to join the academy. In 2006, the organization allowed artists to alternatively use digital credits, but with a requirement of 12. "Smart Chicks II" has exactly 12 tracks, and was released through iTunes and CD Baby.
In 2009, Malachi submitted "Smart Chicks II" to the awards' pre-nomination list, but had no luck past that. But almost immediately, she saw some returns on joining the academy, whose dues are $100 a year.
Attending a downtown mixer for members of the academy’s Washington, D.C., chapter, she met James McKinney, a producer who is an influential figure in the Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing. (He’s also a trustee and governor of the D.C. chapter, as is Malachi’s manager, Billy Zero.)
“We talked about music, the goals I had, and then we just started to forge a bond,” Malachi said. “Now he’s big brother James.” McKinney ended up working with Malachi in the studio, and produced "Lions, Tigers & Squares."
While it’s doubtful Grammy voters would’ve gotten behind “Orion” if they didn’t think it was good, it’s easy to imagine that McKinney’s production credit on the song helped catch their ears. (Name recognition is important, said Kokayi, who submits his work every year and netted a nomination in 2009. “My name has consistently been on the pre-nom ballot since I’ve been a member,” he said, so each year more voters will recognize it.)
Malachi’s songs can be out-there, and her attitude is unflappably earnest. She cried when she found out about her nomination. But she’s also shrewd, and sees the academy and the D.C. chapter for what they are: networking opportunities. Her great-grandfather, John Malachi, was a legendary D.C. jazz pianist, but most of her family’s background is in business. “You’d hear in my household, ‘Plan your work and work your plan,’” she said. Knowing her industry and having access to artists and producers who know the ropes, is important, she said. “Being able to network builds your foundation.”
The Grammys are having a fairly indie year -- 273 of the 542 nominees aren’t signed to major labels, although “indie” now includes major acts like Paul McCartney that have jettisoned their long-standing deals in favor of independence they can afford. The moody orchestral pop band Arcade Fire is nominated for album of the year. The best new artist category includes nominations for Mumford & Sons and Florence & the Machine, big acts in the U.K. with sub-mainstream appeal here.
Closer to earth, Malachi’s very indie category -- best urban/alternative performance, which, like the vast majority of the categories, won’t be televised -- is getting indier and indier.
In 2003, the first year of the category, the nominees all had national followings: India.Aire, Erykah Badu, Common, Raphael Sadiq, D’Angelo, Cee-Lo and Floetry. More regional acts have snuck in recent years, including some D.C.-chapter artists, like Alice Smith in 2008 and Wayna and Kokayi in 2009.
Call it a symptom of the music industry’s fracturing mainstream. More artists seem to be releasing music every year, even as sales are plummeting. And the Recording Academy says its membership has “diversified” since adjusting its application requirements. Amid the Grammys’ somewhat-Byzantine voting process, that likely means more artists are getting fewer votes. And that means more dark-horse nominees.
The D.C. chapter has fielded plenty of dark horses in recent years -- Wayna and Malachi are good examples. The chapter covers the District, Maryland and Virginia, and has about 850 members. (The academy has around 20,000 members total, spread among 12 chapters.)
“We’ve seen an uptick” in nominations for D.C. artists in recent years, said Shannon Emamali, the chapter’s executive director. Around a dozen D.C.-chapter members have netted nominations in each of the last four years, and this includes famous names (Jason Mraz, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris) and relatively obscure ones.
Malachi is easily the least-known of this year’s D.C.-chapter nominees, which also include Chuck Brown, BT, John Mayer and his engineer Chad Franscoviak, Dave Matthews, Raheem DeVaughn and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
But Emamali said that if any larger forces are affecting the awards, it hardly matters. “The key is it is a peer award,” she said. “Through the process each member receives a ballot -- it’s based on their best knowledge of the music they’re voting on.”
What’s a Grammy nomination worth?
For starters, here’s what one costs: A flight. A hotel. Transportation. If you can’t find a designer to sponsor you, threads for the red carpet. “I’ll look at the receipts when I get home,” said Malachi, both laughing and wincing. Paid gigs she’s booked in Santa Monica and L.A. will defray the costs a bit.
Kokayi flew himself to the Grammys in 2009, after he and local singer Wayna were nominated for “Loving You,” a collaborative Minnie Riperton cover from Wayna’s album Higher Ground, in the urban/alternative category. There was an increase in single sales around the time of the nomination, Kokayi said. But “more often than not it impacts your shows,” he said -- because the tag “Grammy-nominated artist” is a bargaining chip when dealing with bookers. “It’s forever.”
Local hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon was nominated last year in the best musical album for children category for Banjo to Beatbox, his collaborative project with the duo Cathy & Marcy, who already had two Grammys.
Bacon hired a local PR firm, Clarke & Associates, to help him out leading up to the awards, and did spots on local news channels and interviews with The Washington Post and The Washington Examiner. He flew out with a small team, including publicists and staffers from the Strathmore arts center, where he had been a resident artist.
And there were connections to be made. He met Nicolay from the influential hip-hop/electronica duo The Foreign Exchange, for example. “I saw ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, too,” he said. “Just seeing him had me completely lunching.”
At one point, Bacon “saw Beyoncé five or six people away from me, taking the same pictures that I was taking. That really helped break the veil of fame for me. I realized at that time that what I do and what they do is all the same. If I don’t do shows, I’m not gonna be able to pay rent. The same with them.”
After her nomination in December, Malachi signed on with Clarke PR indefinitely, and she’s been making the rounds on the local interview circuit. A small entourage accompanied her to L.A.: publicists, managers, a makeup artist.
So what’s a Grammy nom worth to Malachi? It’s hard to quantify. The nomination probably won’t generate huge record sales. It won’t allow Malachi to quit her 9-to-5, at least not yet. She hopes it’ll facilitate booking some international dates when she gets back, and generate a few more listeners by the time she releases her next project, a full-length produced by McKinney.
“[The Grammys] creates access, it gives me information, it gives me insight,” she said. “It validates the process.”
Want to know more about Carolyn Malachi? Check back at Arts Desk tomorrow for a look at her career to date. Photos by Darrow Montgomery.
Prize Fight: Want a Grammy? Join the Club. Literally. was originally published by Washington City Paper on Feb 9, 2011.