1. Chanti Darling (91 points)
SOUNDS LIKE: A world where Michael Jackson never died, disco never went out of style, and the night never ends.
NOTABLE VOTES: Holocene booker Gina Altamura; Tender Loving Empire co-owners Jared and Brianne Mees; DJ Beyonda; promoter Coco Madrid; singer Reva Devito; Máscaras bassist and former Rontoms booker Theo Craig.
Chanticleer Tru is a man of many obsessions.
Over beer and whiskey at Beulahland in Northeast Portland, the Chanti Darling frontman mentions several of them, and not in an offhand way—it's often how he explains who he is, as an artist and a person. He talks about drawing creative inspiration from reality television shows, especially the "ratchet" ones. When asked about the breakup of his old band, Magic Mouth, Tru references something he heard on his favorite podcast, StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, about how indifference can end a relationship faster than contempt. Describing his mindset as a songwriter, he doesn't cite another musician but comedian Amy Schumer, and her ability to "pull you into her brain, almost."
But his greatest obsession—the one he gets the most worked up talking about—is R&B. Not the kind being made on laptops by suburban shut-ins, but the stuff he grew up hearing his mother play around the house: Prince and Evelyn "Champagne" King, Janet Jackson and Sade, Sylvester and Morris Day. For Tru and his bandmates, Natasha Kmeto and Damon Boucher, it's an important distinction.
"The whole premise of Chanti Darling, really, is me, Natasha and Dame saying, 'Fuck all those little indie dudes that are calling themselves R&B,'" he says with playful impudence. "We want to give proper tribute and respect to this genre that hasn't gone any damn place."
One glance at Tru, with his hypercolor wardrobe and stage-trained charisma, and it's clear that he's the person for the job. And that's before he opens his mouth to sing, revealing the show-stopping vocals he honed in church choir as a kid and the musical-theater productions he toured with after college.
On its face, Chanti Darling doesn't seem like a band with an agenda. Its plush synths and late-night grooves appear designed purely for dance-floor escapism, and Tru acknowledges, for the audience, that's precisely the intent. But for him, it's something bigger. In his estimation, R&B has been disrespected far too long—co-opted by hipster new jacks, reduced to a punch line by the Andy Sambergs of the world. With Chanti Darling, the goal is to reclaim the form, not just through the music, but in the look, performance and all-around concept. Tru has no problem calling it a "throwback," at least in part. In his case, looking backward is a means of pushing the music forward.
On a personal level, Tru says Chanti Darling represents "the most fully realized art I've put out to date," the thing that pulls his disparate interests closer together than ever before. In terms of pedigree, the band could legitimately be called a "supergroup": Boucher is a well-known producer in Portland's queer hip-hop scene, while Kmeto, who placed on the Best New Band list as a solo artist three years ago, has a rising national profile; the band's live iteration also includes Gossip drummer Hannah Blilie and Rebecca Cole of the Minders and Wild Flag on keytar. But everyone involved agrees that this is Tru's project, first and foremost.
"When I signed on to do this, I was very much a proponent that this is Chanti's vision," Kmeto says. "I just want to assist in making that come to fruition."
A military brat, Tru—whose given name is Stephfon Bartee—spent his childhood bouncing around the globe, from Germany to Okinawa, to England and Guam, and didn't really stop until he landed in Portland five years ago. Within months, he'd formed Magic Mouth with three acquaintances, and set forth scorching stages with sweaty, ecstatic live shows. But as someone who'd spent his whole life to that point in a constant state of movement, it wasn't long before Tru started getting restless. "I'm easily bored," he says. "If there's a box at all, it's boring to me."
As that band dissolved, Chanti Darling started in earnest last year, beginning as a group thrown together for a Sade tribute show. It piqued Tru's interest in doing something less visceral and more stylized. "I didn't want to stop," he says, "and Chanti Darling gave me something different that I wasn't getting from Magic Mouth." Having Kmeto involved was a given: She and Tru were mutual admirers stretching back to a "song swap" they did for a Red Bull promotion, and she, like him, worships at the altar of '70s, '80s and '90s R&B. Boucher, meanwhile, had already been working with Tru on some boogie-funk-oriented tracks, though having been raised in a conservative Christian household, he has a different relationship to the specific references Chanti Darling draws from. "It took me a while after growing up to go back and hear all these influences Stephfon was talking about," he says. "For him, I think it was exciting because he got to show me a lot of stuff, because I didn't really know a lot of it."
So far, Chanti Darling has only two songs online, but they exemplify the band's aesthetic, the smooth-gliding rhythms, neon-lit keyboards and soft caress of Tru's voice invoking an air of nocturnal glamor. More recorded material is on its way. But the best way to experience the band is in person, with Tru, often wearing something most of the population could never pull off, voguing through choreographed routines alongside two dancers. Tru talks a lot about wanting to inject a sense of lighthearted fantasy into a world whose reality is growing increasingly dark.
"Escapism exists for a reason," Tru says. "Anyone who's dwelling on all the fucked-up shit that's happening in the world is probably going to live a good five, 10 less years than anyone else. They need to calm down and come get this R&B valium over here."NEXT SHOW: March 11 at WW's Best New Band Showcase at Mississippi Studios.