On the Rise: Local Musicians You Should Know

Meet five music acts carrying themselves, and Mobile’s music scene, to new heights.

Yeah, Probably // Photos by Matthew Coughlin

Among the antique furniture and curious knickknacks of Daphne’s La-La Land Boutique, MB spent the better part of a day with five acts of the Bay area music scene, each one as unique as the eclectic trinkets surrounding them.

Though different, every musician who entered the shop on that rainy day — Symone French, Melody Duncan, Laurie Anne Armour, Wendell Kimbrough and four members of the band, “Yeah, Probably” — do share a commonality in that each is on the brink of something new, whether it be the current recording or impending release of an album.

Their personal momentum mirrors that of the local music scene. With the reopening of the Alabama Music Box and the emergence of music-friendly locales in the past few years (think Haint Blue Brewing, Kazoola, Cedar Street Social Club), it’s a good time to be a music lover in Mobile.

That’s why, on September 5, Mobile Bay Magazine is hosting “On the Rise: A Concert of Musicians to Watch” at the Steeple, featuring the following homegrown musicians. So, before taking your seat in the audience, learn what makes each of these artists tick — and why we think it’s a good idea you learn their names.

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Symone French

Symone French has more style than you.

It’s nothing to feel bad about. You’re grouped in with about 99 percent of the world’s population, after all. How can you be expected to compete with a musician of such versatility? Such funk? A woman whose very nickname, “Spoon,” was bestowed by singer Bonnie Raitt herself?

“I met her when I was working at the Saenger,” French says. “I was all starstruck, saying, ‘Oh my God, Ms. Raitt, the concert was amazing. I’m Symone.’”

“Spoon?” Raitt responded. “What a cool name!”

“Now I’ve got a spoon tattoo and everything,” French says, pulling up her shirtsleeve to reveal her forearm. And her guitar is named, you guessed it, Bonnie.

It’s hard to believe that French, who seems to radiate self-confidence, ever had to be goaded onto the stage. While working as a waitress at Mellow Mushroom, she was dragged to the microphone by the Mobile-based group The Deluxe Trio every Wednesday night. Because of that experience, she shares the same advice to anyone else struggling with stage fright. “Just get your ass up on stage and do it,” she says. “You never know who you’ll touch with your gift and with the words you sing.”

The ingredients were already there: a father with a music collection ranging from Eric Clapton to Jay-Z, a mother with an ear for funk and soul. And of course, there’s French’s voice, which effortlessly carries the weight of whatever emotion she’s pushing into the microphone.

In 2014, French joined Infant Richard and the Delta Stones. Over the next three years, the group recorded two EPs and established a formidable following in the Gulf Coast region before French set her sights on a solo career.

“At that point, I started musically dating,” she says, “which helped me find the band I have now.” That new group, Symone French & the Trouille Troupe (trouille is French for “funk”), is at work cultivating its musical style, a tall task considering the versatility of its lead singer.

“Sometimes my style is rock, sometimes it’s jazz … it really just depends on what day it is,” French jokes. Whatever the method of sonic delivery, the music is always backed by emotional authenticity — French is no stranger to shedding tears on stage. “I want people to know it’s not just you,” she says. “We’re all a mess at some point.”

French says her clothing style, which she describes as “pretty funk,” was her first artistic avenue. “It was how I could be creative without being on stage,” she explains. “I’ve always loved vintage clothing. Everyone knows that if you have a death in the family, I’ll take their clothes,” she says, laughing. “I’d love to rock your grandma’s sweater.”

Look for Symone French & the Trouille Troupe to “hopefully” start recording some songs before the year is out. After all, French says, there’s a lot of work to be done. “I still have stories I want to tell,” she says.

Yeah, Probably (Joe Pizzolato, Quintin Ayers, Shea White and Phillip Baggins)

Yeah, Probably

Yeah, Probably consists of Shea White, guitar / vocals; Joe Pizzolato, guitar; Quintin Ayers, bass; Phillip Baggins, drums / vocals; Ike Kessee, keys / vocals (not pictured); and Blake Nolte, saxophone / vocals (not pictured).

Yeah, Probably is a band that’s “done sitting ‘round wasting time.” At least, that’s what singer Shea White belts in the group’s catchy 2017 single, “Wasted Time,” and it’s easy to believe the lyrics. Since then, the once-three-piece band has upped its roster to six and is planning a studio session to begin work on a full album.

“This album will be about the rebranding of Yeah, Probably,” White says, referring to the musical growth that comes with the addition of personnel.

A homegrown band through and through, Yeah, Probably originally consisted of Bay-area natives White, bassist Quintin Ayers and drummer Phillip Baggins. White and Ayers met while attending Fairhope High School, and the pair found Baggins and his drum kit in jazz band at Faulkner University. The band lifted its unique name from a punch line in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” a comedy series about a New Zealand duo’s fruitless quest for a foothold in the music scene.

Since adding its three new members (Joe Pizzolato, Ike Kessee and Blake Nolte), Pizzolato says the group has been in a “soul-searching period” as it feels around for its musical groove.

“We’ve been trying to just find our sound through the new members who have joined,” White agrees, and by all accounts, they’re pretty close to finding it.

“The general consensus [among the group] is that we’re ‘indie pop soul,’” White says. The “soul” descriptor, which encompasses their jazz and funk, immediately calls to mind the addicting brass lick in the chorus of “Wasted Time.” (Symone French, profiled on page 48, brought up that lick without prompt, saying that it sneaks up on her and sticks around.) The “pop” aspect is most evident in the band’s catchy melodies — the ingredient that makes you tap a foot to their songs without even realizing it. The group’s capability to dabble in so many styles is a direct result of the vast musical tastes of its six members.

“Our influences are all over,” White says. “I was never dead set on a genre or anything. I’ve always been open to anything that sounds cool to me.”

The songwriting process is a collaborative effort, they explain. Someone might arrive at rehearsal with a song structure or even a melody written years before, and the group gets to work polishing its rough edges.

“The best songs come out of organic moments when you’re not forcing it,” Ayers says.

As they set their sights on booking studio time in order to record a full album, the band stays busy with live gigs on both sides of the Bay and in Mississippi, Florida and as far north as Birmingham. Although there’s a “comfortability” about the recording process, White says he prefers the stage because “there’s something about feeding off of the crowd’s energy.”

“And that’s what we want our album to be,” Ayers adds. “We want to replicate that live sound.”

Melody Duncan

Melody Duncan was about 4 years old when the violin captured her heart. Watching with wide eyes from a church pew, she was hypnotized by the woman onstage, who seemed almost magical in her ability to create such wonderful noise on a tiny wooden instrument. It was the most enchanting sound Duncan had ever heard. “I thought, ‘That is the coolest, and that’s for me. That’s what I’m going to do with my life.’”

That realization, however, was hard to articulate as a 4-year-old, and Duncan didn’t have a chance to pick up the instrument until she was 14. “I stole a violin out of my brother’s room and just taught myself to play in our basement,” she remembers. Discovered by her mother one day, Duncan was soon taking formal lessons.

Asked if her parents were a large musical influence in her life, she says her father “plays every instrument there is” and her mother is a professional vocal and piano instructor. “And, well, they named me Melody,” she says with a laugh.

Duncan is impossibly pleasant in person and on stage; she plays violin with her eyes closed, a soft smile on her face, and a whole lot of dipping and swaying. Her distinctive, curly blond hair, which she describes as her “dad’s fault,” dips and sways with her. Her musical style can be described using any combination of the words “indie,” “folk,” “eclectic” and “rock,” a versatility that has allowed her to fit within several bands over the years, namely Roman Street and the Mulligan Brothers. Get her in front of the microphone, with her mature, sometimes-rollicking voice, and the room is hers.

Mobile-born, -raised and -educated, Duncan attended the University of South Alabama by day and performed with a rock ‘n’ roll band by night. “Music was what I wanted to do,” she says. Duncan says she’s been “blessed” to be a full-time musician for the past several years, but she’s definitely paid her dues, having worked as a waitress, lawn-cutter, barista and even a dog groomer to support a life in music. Now, as she records her first solo album to be released this fall, Duncan looks forward to sharing her latest creations with the world. Asked for the album’s title, she says, smiling, “I know I’ll change my mind, so I better not say.”

Like Duncan herself, the writing process is fluid, unpredictable and fun. “Some days you have a major muse and then some days you really have to just bow to the muse and do the work anyway,” she says. “I write a lot when I’m driving down the road … that’s where I get some of my most fun ideas.”

However, it’s taking those songs to the stage that brings Duncan the most joy. “I love that handshake and a hug and hearing what music means to somebody in the audience,” she says. “Sharing music is just to encourage somebody. If music can give them a break from the everyday or a sense of encouragement, yeah, that’s pretty awesome.”

Laurie Anne Armour

Laurie Anne Armour recently came across the first song she ever wrote, an elementary-age effort based on the animated movie “Anastasia.”

“I couldn’t even spell the word ‘chorus’,” she says, laughing. Obviously, Armour’s songwriting, and spelling, have come a long way since then, but that natural impulse to express herself in song, to set emotion to melody, isn’t leaving any time soon.

Known as “LA” to her friends and fans, Armour (pronounced “armor”) grew up in Hollinger’s Island just south of Brookley. She learned to swim in Mobile Bay and was free to “disappear into the woods for hours” as a kid, as long as she and her brother stayed within earshot of her dad’s whistle. Armour’s father Smitty had a long career in Mobile radio and was employed with 95KSJ (where he worked under the name Michael P. Sloan) when she was born. “So my foundation is good, early-90s country,” she says. Since then, Armour has thrown in some Beatles, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Sara Bareilles, Brandi Carlile and Otis Redding for good measure.

With curly brown hair just past her shoulders, friendly freckles and a wholesome smile, Armour comes off as charming and homegrown as her music. She’d place herself in the contemporary folk category, although, like a lot of musicians, she’s wary of limiting herself to a single genre. In slow, swaying acoustic ballads, Armour navigates the ups and downs of life in a clear and delicate singing voice. She picked up the guitar at 14, having already fiddled with piano and flute, and began writing songs in earnest while studying human services at the University of South Alabama.

“I wrote my first real song when I was 19,” she says. “That was after my first heartbreak. A lot of my songs are very emotion-based, of course, about heartbreak and love, and eventually they moved to a faith-based, spiritual aspect.”

Armour’s job as an administrator at Housing First Inc., a nonprofit aimed at eradicating homelessness in Mobile and Baldwin counties, also informs her songwriting. “People deal with a lot on a daily basis,” she says. “You have no idea what somebody’s going through and what they’re dealing with internally. So if my songs can let them feel peace for just a little bit, then I feel like I’ve met my purpose.”

Armour has been a regular at venues such as Manci’s, Page & Palette and Callaghan’s, where she performs covers as well as tracks from her first EP, Ebb & Flow. She sheepishly admits she still struggles with stage fright, although “whiskey helps.” She’s busy at work on her first full-length album, entitled “Led by the Light” and slated for a March 2020 release.

“This whole journey has been about being comfortable with myself … creating something and putting it out in the world. It’s not about trying to appear one way or another. It’s about being comfortable with how God made me to be.”

Wendell Kimbrough

Wendell Kimbrough experienced two epiphanies in his musical life, the first of which took place in rural Maryland, among the pews of an African Methodist Episcopal church. Kimbrough, a recent college graduate and history major participating in a Christian study program, had been raised in the Presbyterian church, where, he says, the music on Sundays felt “dry and rigid.” But on this particular Sunday, in a church miles from Alabama, Kimbrough was swept away by music that seemed as emotionally honest as it was authentic.

“It allowed me to feel my feelings, to get more in touch with my inner self,” he says. “I came out of that experience knowing that music was important for me and for the world.”

Behind large, wire-rimmed eyeglasses and underneath a mound of curly brown hair, Kimbrough recounts the journey that led to his current gig as the artist-in-residence and worship leader at Church of the Apostles, in Fairhope. Born in Ozark, Alabama, but raised in Mississippi, Kimbrough remembers flipping through his father’s record collection, a catalog of songwriters from James Taylor to Randy Newman that would shape his musical sensibilities. Music, however, was a hobby, not a serious career consideration for Kimbrough, so he graduated from Furman University with the intent to pursue a Ph.D. and a life of academia — then he visited the church in Maryland.

It was in Washington, D.C., while working as a part-time musician at a church and building a singer-songwriter career in his spare time, that Kimbrough experienced his second musical revelation in the form of poetry older than Christianity itself.

“The psalms have been a bridge for me,” he says. “They’re these 3,000-year-old poems in the Old Testament that would have been sung originally, but we have no idea what they sounded like. They’re very raw, very honest. Some of them are angry, some are laments. I have found incredible life in figuring out how to express all these different emotions and bring them into church.”

By reimagining the psalms, putting melody to ancient poetry, Kimbrough found that he could, to an extent, replicate the emotional authenticity of the music he encountered at the African-American church in Maryland. Reinvigorated, he jumped at the job opportunity at Church of the Apostles, relocating to Fairhope with his wife, Hahna, in 2014.

Kimbrough’s 2016 album “Psalms We Sing” and his 2018 album “Come to Me” have earned him invitations to play at churches around the country. His audience, however, isn’t limited to churchgoers.

“I think the psalms are important for everybody, not just people in church,” he says. “Part of what I love about the psalms is that they give you a space to take your anger and grief, but it’s not a reckless space. Ultimately, they draw you into a constructive conversation. In the psalms, it’s a dialogue with God, but if you can start that reflection in church or privately, you can start to have those conversations with your friends or your family.”

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