When our panelists convened to choose a favorite Massachusetts entry to NPR's Tiny Desk Contest, Kaiti Jones and Katie Lynne Sharbaugh were clear favorites. Though their songs sound nothing alike, both capture, with vivid poetry, the anxiety and solitude of the present moment. Variations on a theme, you might say — much like the authors' first names.
Kaiti Jones, "Daydreaming"
The first lyric in Kaiti Jones’ “Daydreaming” doesn’t waste any time. “I’m sorry I did not answer your question/ I was busy writing my eulogy,” Jones sings — a wryly relatable line in the anxious era of COVID-19. But the one that got me comes in the next verse, when Jones finds herself “thinking ‘bout babies, the ones that I have not held since Thanksgiving.” While life is on pause, time moves on. Children grow up, and we miss it. “The distance is starting to wreck me,” Jones sings.
Jones is a Cambridge-based singer-songwriter with two EPs and one full-length album, “Vows,” which came out in 2017. She performs “Daydreaming” with fiddle player Emily Baker around a single microphone, her laptop propped up next to her on a stool. The video doesn't look that different from a lot of the entries we watched — acoustic guitars and sad songs are pretty popular among Tiny Desk contestants. But that can make it especially hard for a musician like Jones — who specializes in quiet, story-driven compositions — to stand out.
But stand out she does. “Daydreaming” chronicles a wandering mind in stressful times. It opens unassumingly, with a finger-picked intro. Then the melody starts to wander, spiraling breathlessly upwards before falling, inevitably, back to Earth. Grief, loss, a yearning for human connection — Jones encapsulates each with a gentle, precise touch. For a few short minutes, she offers us the reprieve so many of us crave.
Katie Lynne Sharbaugh, "Amelia"
If you’re going to write a song that invites comparisons to Stevie Wonder, you’d better be good. Luckily, Katie Lynne Sharbaugh is up to the task. Her song “Amelia” evokes those distinctly Wonder-ish chord progressions, and she pulls off some impressive vocal runs. A propulsive keyboard riff plus a charismatic melody make for an irresistibly hummable song.
A Berklee College of Music student who sings, writes and plays multiple instruments, Sharbaugh clearly has chops. But what sets this song apart is its storytelling. No doubt Sharbaugh chose the name “Amelia” for its melodic quality; in truth, it doesn’t matter what she’s called, because Amelia is an everywoman, trapped at home while a pandemic sweeps the globe. “Amelia dances with the shadows along her floor,” Sharbaugh sings, drawing, in a few deft strokes, the dreary solitude of life in quarantine. The song is wistful, yet resolute. In the final verse, “Amelia takes it day by day." A more relatable line has never been sung.