Boulder sound

River Mann album cover by Nate McCoy

Boulder’s music scene has fostered nationally recognized names in bluegrass (Hot Rize), jam (Leftover Salmon), rock
(Big Head Todd) and electro (3OH!3) — and it just keeps on giving. Local musicians say the DIY space is alive and well in the city, not to mention supportive and innovative, with house shows and locally owned coffee shops filling the gaps in performance space in the city. The ultimate goal for young Boulder artists is a show at Fox Theater, offering a world-class stage to test run material — from pop to punk to folk — in front of eager enthusiasts. Let us suggest getting out there and experiencing these exciting artists live in intimate venues you know and love. 

Anna Cutler: The science of song

Anna Cutler during a performance.

It’s Friday — ski day at Horizons Charter School — but instead of chatting with her friends on the bus to Eldora, Anna Cutler is studying. 

In a time before ubiquitous smartphones, the seventh grader sits with a notebook and iPod dissecting early works by Taylor Swift as she and her classmates bounce west on 119. 

“I would memorize all her songs,” Cutler says. “At lunchtime, I would circle all the words that rhyme and where she went high and went low, internal rhymes; I was trying to figure out why does this song work?”

Cutler is still learning the math of melody: She’s just come back from Song School at Rocky Mountain Folks Fest when we catch her. This is the beginning of a period of “introverted song writing” for the 26-year-old folk pop-oriented pianist. She’s played since she was 6 and performed since she was 13. In a gap year before college, she traveled internationally with Denver-based cultural exchange nonprofit Up With People, and just this month, at Folks Fest, her song “Candle” — a pleading ballad searching for meaning in the wake of heartbreak — was chosen from 400 submissions nationwide, snagging Cutler a Main Stage performance at Planet Bluegrass. 

But Cutler says it’s time to get under the hood of her music and really learn what makes it work. 

“I’m gonna take a couple months to study theory and learn,” she says. “I’m hoping that next summer I can book some bigger shows and grow as an artist.” 

A disciple of Norah Jones and John Craigie, Cutler is as much a performer as she is a songwriter, cracking jokes between verses of re-imaged cover songs, like a lounge-ified version of Fergie’s 2006 uber self-confidence anthem “Fergalicious.”

“I love performing,” Cutler says. “One of my favorite things about being a musician is being on the stage. I would love to be a little more locally known. I would love to play more festivals. … I don’t want to be famous because I don’t want to give up my normal life.”

Understandable: In her 9-to-5, Cutler works as a food scientist.

Pamela Machala: Talk about pop music

Pamela Machala

Back on Planet Bluegrass, just a few tents down from Anna Cutler, singer-songwriter Pamela Machala also fine-tuned her craft at Song School this summer. 

“It’s just one of my favorite weeks of the year; it’s so much fun,” the pianist says of her fifth time at the multi-day workshop experience at Folks Fest. “It’s a great reset.”

Machala, who has called Boulder home for nearly 10 years, is gearing up to release a four-track EP called Scorpio this November.

“There’s a sex song and a death song and a jealousy song and a song about being sensitive,” Machala says. “It’s these qualities of myself that are stereotypically associated with that particular star sign that are hard to talk about. I’ve done a lot of work in therapy around accepting myself, and the idea behind the EP was [the] normalization of talking about uncomfortable, sort of shadowy things. And perhaps me being honest about this will resonate with someone else and help them feel less shitty.”

Machala’s vulnerable lyrics — supported by slinky soul backbones and polished to a high gloss by impeccable indie-pop sensibilities — have resonated with writers at American Songwriter, who in 2018 awarded Machela an honorable mention in the bimonthly pub’s lyric contest for her original ballad “Cardboard Cutout.” The following year, her R&B-tinged “Bleeding Me Dry” received the Grand Prize in the SongDoor International Songwriting Competition. 

“I don’t know how much longer I can risk my heart,” Machala sings in the bridge of the penultimate track from her 2020 LP Something Simple. “Am I too old for missing some vital part? / I don’t know if I’ll ever be good enough / And it feels like forever I’ve been hanging tough / And I can’t do this anymore, I’m giving up … My dreams are bleeding me dry.”

“I really love R&B and soul. I love pop music. I love musical theater. I love jazz and folk,” Machala says. “I have all these wide-ranging things in my head. But the place that I always felt hemmed in was trying to release music and craft a brand. When you’re releasing music, you have a drop-down menu of genres in Spotify and you have to pick a box as you’re digitally distributing your songs. And there are artists who have gotten around that, like Carsie Blanton, who was at Folks Fest [in 2022]. I think she’s a great example of someone who’s a genre chameleon, but she’s made a great name for herself and found her fan base. So yeah, when I say I make pop music, I’m not trying to headline arenas.”

River Mann: Mythical and mystical

Nate McCoy River Mann album cover by Nate McCoy

Forming just over a year ago, River Mann has stunned local audiences with what lead guitarist Gabriel Anthony calls progressive folk rock.

“But I would say the heart and soul of our music is Will [Thomas’] songwriting,” Anthony says. 

Thomas, a graduate of Naropa University’s literature program, spins mythical stories supported by the mystical sounds conjured by Anthony, Madelyn McCoy (violin), Cole Sexton (bass) and Ben Wasterson (drums). 

Drawing inspiration from sources like Chinese philosophy and the beat-era poetry of Diane di Prima, Thomas creates moody, engrossing worlds that shift as time passes. What starts out as a somber Irish folk song might turn into a raucous, fiddle-fringed hoedown.

“Gone are the days when the carnal fire burns,” Thomas sings in a demo on Bandcamp. “Corpse’s apology, act like they never knew / You were the one who held all of the keys / But you set the locks and now nothing is free / Scared they’ll discover the lie that you told / The guard of the prison: Love’s not a rose / The apple was golden, the spark still remains / And the words of the sermon were written in vain.”

“We want our music to move people and take you on a little bit of a journey,” Thomas says. 

The journey is guided by River Mann, a nod to Charon, the ferryman of Hades who carries the souls of the dead across the rivers Acheron and Styx. While often dealing with the heavy subjects of love and life lost, River Mann’s music is vibrant, danceable and uplifting. 

Part of that is a reflection of the music community in Boulder, which Thomas says has fostered the band’s growth. 

“I feel like there’s a revival of some kind going on in Boulder’s music scene,” he says. “And it’s cool to see everyone supporting each other. It feels very organic.”

Two Pump Chump: Psychedelic punk rockers

Courtesy Two Pump Chump Two Pump Chump jump!

A college music scene is nothing without some gritty punk rock, and Two Pump Chump is more than happy to fill that role in Boulder. 

The four-piece purveyors of “psychedelic garage rock,” as the band has dubbed their sound, blend the raw emotion of punk with complex technical proficiency the genre often eschews.

“I think the sound of punk rock has definitely evolved,” says drummer Rob Balsewich. “We’re trying to incorporate different time signatures, surprising structures, dynamic changes, putting in a lot of guitar solos and extending out those sections so it’s not just 4/4 [time] all the way through. I think [songwriter Grayson Dollarhide’s] songwriting process tries to capture that raw emotion, but we strive to develop a unique sound.”

Balsewich and Dollarhide met at CU Boulder’s Jam Society, where musicians can meet, mingle and collaborate. Dollarhide had already formed Two Pump Chump, but, according to Balsewich, needed a dependable drummer. After Balsewich joined, the band quickly picked up steam, playing house shows on the Hill and eventually landing a gig at Fox Theatre as a supporting act for local indie rock outfit On the Dot. Come September, Two Pump Chump will take the lead and headline their own show at the storied venue on the Hill. 

“The music scene [in Boulder] is honestly, from my experience, absolutely unreal,” Balsewich says. “In terms of the DIY scene, seeing people turning their houses into music venues has been really impressive to see.”

The band has five or six new songs they plan to debut in their Fox show, and, come fall, Balsewich hopes they’ll be able to record tracks for an EP.