9. Coco Columbia (26 points)
SOUNDS LIKE: Sia after receiving a crash course in progressive jazz from J Dilla.
NOTABLE VOTES: Photographer Jason Quigley, former Habesha Lounge booker Brandon Nikola, previous Best New Band finalist Sama Dams.
At first glance, it might seem the cotton-candy-blue Lolita wig Coco Columbia wears onstage is simply a piece of marketing. But it actually began as a security blanket.
"I had never sung in public in my life," she says, recalling the first shows fronting her own group two years ago. "I was super-nervous, and I thought I would find something funny to wear that makes me feel like a different person when I perform."
Columbia knows about needing change to make things work. A Bend native who grew up studying jazz drumming, she dropped out of jazz programs at the University of Oregon and Portland State University before trying her hand at songwriting.
"After I dropped out, I started teaching myself how to sing and make beats, and messing around on piano," she says. "I'd never played a show without drumming before."
Wanting to play venues other than jazz clubs, Columbia set her sights beyond the musical genre she grew up studying. On her latest record, 2016's When the Birds Begin to Walk, songs like "Weight on Limb" swirl with intricate guitar harmonies and drum loops, balanced by searing, Sia-esque vocals. The rest of the album offers other gems, like a deeply rhythmic cover of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" and "Lionhearted," an acid-jazz odyssey with lyrics influenced by the Hayao Miyazaki film My Neighbor Totoro.
Audiences often don't know what to make of Columbia at first. But the range of influences in her songwriting—and her extremely talented band—typically wins them over. In the few years since she first put on the blue wig, Columbia has grown more comfortable in her own skin. But forcing people out of their comfort zones remains a high priority.
"I like music that has to grow on you," Columbia says. "It lasts longer."
NEXT GIG: March 18 at Mississippi Studios for WW's Best New Band Showcase.