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4 Tiny Desk Bands On That Moment You Realize You Might Actually Make It In LA

A woman playing guitar and standing in spotlight before a microphone leads a band that includes two other guitarists and a drummer. They are on a darkened stage with an illuminated sign behind them that reads NPR TINY DESK CONCERT.
2022 Tiny Desk winner Alisa Amador performing at The Resident in Los Angeles.
(Chris Farias
/
LAist)
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While it’s true that Los Angeles can be a city of broken dreams, it’s also a source of endless inspiration both to those born and raised here — and to those who flock to a place known as the “Creative Capital of the World.”

So how do you know when you’ve “made it” here — or when you just might make it? We recently put that question to four bands who converged in L.A. as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk contest tour.

Jack Rabbit performing in Los Angeles
Jack Rabbit duo (Andy Leon and Mo Doneghan) performing at the Tiny Desk Contest at The Resident in Los Angeles
(Chris Farias, LAist)

For L.A.-based duo Jack Rabbit (Mo Donegan and Andy Leon), that moment came at Hotel Cafe in March 2020, just days before the pandemic hit, when they sold out a stage for the first time.

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“We could hear clinking and the bartender was making drinks and everyone was quiet. We could just sing and have our moment, and I think we realized we wanted to do it for real,” said Donegan. “It just felt like a big sense of community. It was just so magical.”

The two musicians embrace their Mexican and Texan roots through their indie-folk music. Each song reflects a journey through life and friendship. Check out one of their top songs:

For those unfamiliar with Tiny Desk, the competition begins with thousands of video submissions from artists vying for an opportunity to perform live at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It’s an unconventional stage they’re sharing with some of the biggest names in the industry, who have performed in the cluttered newsroom before them. That list includes Taylor Swift, Usher, Harry Styles, T-Pain, Adele and more. To be eligible, the artist or band must be an unsigned musician and at least 18 years old.

The 2022 Tiny Desk winner was Boston-based Alisa Amador. After announcing the winner, NPR decided to try something different this year, sending Amador on a national tour to four cities, with different bands accompanying her in each. For the L.A. stop, the concert took place at The Resident, a funky industrial-chic spot with outdoor space, and featured three L.A.-based bands: Jack Rabbit, Yosmel Montejo and The Pocket Queen.

For Montejo, that “Big L.A. Moment” feeling came when he performed at the Skirball Cultural Center during some difficult times in the pandemic. Montejo said that the performance was “amazing and put me on the map.”

Yosmel Montejo and his band perform at NPR Tiny Desk concert series at The Resident in Los Angeles
Yosmel Montejo and his band
(Chris Farias, LAist)

The Cuban-born musician combines the modern sounds of his native country with Latin jazz, some funk, and some R&B. He came to the U.S. in 2011, but most of his family still lives in Cuba. He said he uses his music to reflect on what is happening in his society.

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Here's one of Montejo's top songs:

Drummer and producer Taylor Gordon, AKA The Pocket Queen, said for her every day is a chance to continue discovering herself as an artist, and she likes to live in the moment. Gordon has been drumming since the age of 7, and she has already played with major artists like Michelle Williams, Beyoncé, Fifth Harmony, and Daya.

The Pocket Queen performing in Los Angeles
The Pocket Queen performing in Los Angeles for NPR's Tiny Desk Contest
(Chris Farias, LAist)

Sample The Pocket Queen's latest album below:

And Alisa Amador, the Tiny Desk winner? Amador has been submitting her music for the Tiny Desk contest since 2018. But right before trying again this time around, she had been considering putting her music career on hold. Her 2020 submission “Molinga Accidentalis the song that led her to the top spot.

Amador, who grew up in Boston, Maine, Puerto Rico, and Argentina, comes from a Latin-folk musician family and has been singing since she was 4. Her big moment was stepping off a plane at the Burbank airport for the Tiny Desk tour. She remembered looking out at the mountains on one side and L.A. on the other and feeling like, “Wow, I'm here. This is happening.”

Below you can read more of our conversation with the bands. The responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How has L.A. played a role in helping your discovery as an artist?

Pocket Queen 
L.A. is a place where you can easily just dive into so many different personalities and you can even lose a sense of yourself. I feel like it’s been the ultimate breeding ground of authenticity for me. It gave me really no other choice after I explored everything, trying to be everything else. The best thing I could be is myself.

Yosmel
L.A. could be rough, but at the same time, it brings a different kind of love. Being surrounded by so many cultures and experiencing so many moments will definitely help you reshape wherever you are coming from without loss in it. Adjusting and being open to the environment that you are in, can bring a lot. Especially for me. I’m talking about all the Mexican, Ecuadorian, Latino, and the Black community. All those communities bring a different energy and it helps me understand where I'm coming from, where I'm at and where I'm heading too.

Mo (Jack Rabbit)
In my experience, I’ve met the best people here. You hear rumors of people in L.A. being a certain type of way. But everyone we’ve met along the way in our career has been warm to us. Like I met our producer working at a coffee shop. He knew a guy from childhood who plays guitar for us. It’s like this person knew that person. We’ve been so lucky.

Andy (JR)
It’s kind of hard to find a community out here, and when we first got here, we were trying to figure out what neighborhood our people were in L.A. The more we got to know the city, met musicians, producers, artists and creatives, the smaller Los Angeles felt. Now we have this huge group of amazing people that we love that are all over. There’s not one single neighborhood that they’re all in. It makes L.A. feel a lot smaller because of the people that we love.

Alisa
L.A. is very important to me. When I first came here, I thought I was going to hate it. And then I cried when I left. I did not want to leave. The Latino presence here, the Chicano presence here, art of all kinds, and the social justice work is very visible in Los Angeles compared to Boston. It really moved me. The landscape, the connection to nature, all that really moved me on several levels. Especially because in Boston my dad is Chicano and I’m like the only one that has a Chicano parent that I know in Boston. Here it’s just so present. And thinking about Chicano history always happening and it’s really moving. It feels like I'm learning sides of myself that I didn’t know I had here. So it’s very inspiring to spend time here.

Q: Bad days exist for everyone, What’s your L.A. escape?

Pocket Queen
There’s a place on Lankershim called Verse LA. It’s run by Manny Marroquin, the legendary engineer. It has amazing sound and I like to go there and order bomb food and watch performers. I've never performed, but that’s because I don’t really want to. It’s just my spot.

Yosmel
I am a foodie guy. If I'm not in a good mood, I just go eat ice cream. My favorite place is Creamistry. You’ll see me there.

Moe (JR)
I love the bike path by my house. Burbank bike path. I love to just go get a tea. Go on the bike path. Maybe go on a hike.

Andy (JR)
I also love a bike path, but it’s a different one. It’s the Frogtown Bike Path, and I go roller skating. But also, I love a little French bistro in Los Feliz called Figaro. After a breakup, people can find me there. I’ll sit there with a glass of wine and my journal. It’s the best way to end a bad day.

Q: Three MUST-HAVE items when on the road?

Yosmel
My phone, my bass, and good music to hear.

Jack Rabbit
Both agreed: "Tea, a journal and headphones." Moe added that she needs to have her probiotics.

Alisa
Emergency snacks, chocolate, and a really good book.

Pocket Queen 
Shower. Bed. Sneakers! (feet hurt).

What questions do you have about Southern California?