Unsigned and on Fire: Alexis Saski of Tennessee Muscle Candy Writes Her Future

What would you do if you were a young musician with a record label interested in you — but you realized that your future with the label meant singing songs you didn’t believe in? Would you somehow make it work? Now let’s up the ante: you just moved to Nashville, you’re far from home, and you have no means to support yourself. What would you do?

If you’re Alexis Saski, leader of the Nashville band Tennessee Muscle Candy, you turn your back on the label even if it means performing in the streets to make ends meet.

“When I first started out, Sony wanted me to be a Christian artist,” she told me in a phone conversation on a recent Friday afternoon. “They moved me to Nashville to work with a producer for a month. But on my first night out in Nashville, I met two brothers from a rock band known as the Gills, Matt and Andy Prince. They had the most dynamic rhythm section I’ve ever heard. I realized I didn’t want to be a Christian artist. I wanted to play my own music.”

So Alexis dropped Sony and started her own band on her own terms. She learned how to sing live on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, performing for tourists and the homeless. Today, she is one of the most charismatic, powerful singers I’ve ever heard perform live, singing as part of a loose collective of musicians that includes popular guitarist Ricky Dover, Jr. She is Tennessee Muscle Candy’s undisputed leader and chief songwriter with a singing style that evokes Brittany Howard, Amy Winehouse, and Tina Turner. When she sings live, as she did recently at the Cobra in Nashville, she owns the floor, twisting her curvy frame, shaking her head, spinning like a tornado, and dropping to her knees at the lip of the stage.

Her band is unsigned, and her future is uncertain. But she is doing what she loves, creating art on her own terms, and performing concerts that can make you put down your drink and run out to a dance floor.

Riding a Wave of Energy

“When I am onstage, I feel like I am literally riding a wave of energy, and I just follow it,” she said. “Everything you see onstage — my confidence and my attitude — came from playing in the streets of Nashville. It’s weird that I had to leave a major label to find that. I had the freakin’ dream. I had what everyone wanted. But I was not happy at all.”

When I saw her onstage on May 4, my wife Jan and I were hanging out at the Cobra watching different acts take turns with short sets. We had no idea who was playing that night. We’d spent the day as tourists bombing around the city and wanted to chill out. We were tired and tempted to head back to our Airbnb. We were glad we stayed. From the moment Alexis, three guitarists, a keyboardist, and drummer hit the stage, they generated an electric garage-band energy that ignited the narrow, sweaty room. Ricky Dover, Jr,. and guitarist Matthew Paige (also of the Blackfoot Gypsies) traded licks with a ferocity that made me think of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous double-barrel guitar sound. Alexis dominated the stage with her muscular singing, while giving everyone around her room to shine.

Jan and I both rushed to the front of the stage, drawn to the grungy rock sound, immersed in a crowd that moved with its own energy force field. I had not felt this motivated to move in a very long time. Afterward, Jan and I lingered. Post-show, Ricky Dover, Jr., and Matthew Paige were quiet and courtly, but Alexis was effusive. She accepted our hugs and basked in the energy her band had just created.

When our trip to Nashville ended, for all the great music we experienced that weekend, I thought most of Tennessee Muscle Candy. Where did this band come from, and where were they going? I just had to know. It was easy to find Alexis — one Instagram private message to the band’s account was all it took. We set up a time to talk, swapped a few texts, and I listened to her story.

“Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes”

She told me she was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and raised in Rockport, a beach town with 7,000 people that was recently ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. Music was her world from the start. Her dad drummed for a Christian rock band and instructed her to write a song a day. Her mom performed for a rock band that played everything from Heart to No Doubt. Alexis remembers doing her homework while watching her mom rehearse.

“I was completely in awe of my mom,” Alexis said. “None of the other kids’ moms were in rock and roll bands. I basically wanted to be my mom.”

She loved singing as early as age 5, when she sang hymns in Sacred Heart Church. By age 15, she was organizing a praise and worship band in her local church, where her mom is choir director to this day. She taught herself how to play guitar, while earning recognition for her talents. She won a music scholarship to study at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Music to her was about singing gospel songs, although hearing Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?opened up her ears to the power of rock and roll. After hearing Hendrix, rock called to her like a distant siren — and just might have gotten under her skin.

“Growing up, I was Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes,” she said. “I was a role model. But it was a lot to maintain. It really is tough living up to expectations, especially in a small town. You can make no wrong moves.”

She would shatter those expectations before going to college — in fact, her first night away from home. At a bar she saw 311, the rap-rock band from Nebraska that was becoming a national phenomenon, with albums such as Music and Grassroots. After their performance, she hung with the band.

“I partied with them all night before my first classes began,” she recalled, noting the irony of meeting the band at the same bar where her mom often performed. “After that, the only class I attended was surfing.”

She was consumed with a passion to perform — not four years from now, but now. So, she dropped out of college. When her parents asked her what she was going to do with her life, she replied, “I’m going to sing.”

She traveled to Las Vegas to sing in a contest, Talent Rock, where she won a car. She sold the car to finance an R&B demo that she shopped around to different record labels. Warner Bros. Records came calling.

Nashville

Everything was happening so fast. At an age when her peers were either in college or working local jobs in Rockport, Alexis was tasting the first fruits of commercial success. As Bruce Springsteen once said about being an unknown talent, when you get your shot at making it, you say yes to everything, even if saying yes to everything isn’t always in your best interest. Warner Bros. introduced her to a record industry executive who asked her how she would feel about singing Christian pop music, at the time enjoying an explosion of popularity.

“I said, ‘Fine,’’’ she recalls. “I answered without thinking.”

The next thing she knew, she was in New Jersey making a Christian music demo with Anthony Krizan of the Spin Doctors — yes, the band that gave us “Two Princes” back in the day. The demo caught the attention of Sony Records. Sony sent her to Nashville to start recording songs for its Provident label.

Land-locked Nashville held little appeal to a woman who grew up in a beach town. But she needed to surround herself with talented producers and musicians to break through, and Music City is where they are found. Sony put her up in hotels and then a lake house to work with different songwriters and producers. She was paying her dues and finding her voice as a Christian pop artist. But just as a chance encounter with 311 changed her life, so did her random encounter with Matt and Andy Prince of the Gills, unleashing her passion for rock music. And so began her education on the streets of Nashville.

Alexis and the Prince brothers decided to try performing together. So Alexis moved out of the lake house.

“The lead singer of the Gills, Jesse Wheeler, stealthily helped me move my stuff out of the lake house,” she remembered. “It was like an escape.”

Alexis moved into a house in Antioch with the band and practiced. It was January. They were broke. They could not afford to pay their heating bills. Things got so bad that they used an open oven to keep warm. They decided start performing in the streets to earn enough money just to pay the bills.

Lessons from the Streets

“Playing in the streets is the best education you can give yourself,” she said. “You have to play for people who don’t have any reason to see you. You have to send a charge of energy to attract them. I felt like I had this power in my chest, like a magnet in my heart: energy force, engage!”

The band played covers such as Jerry Ragovoy’s and Bert Berns’s “Piece of My Heart” (made famous, of course, by Janis Joplin), Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” If you search YouTube, you can find amateur footage of the trio playing on the sidewalk. Her talent is evident even in the rough fan footage. In her cover of “Piece of My Heart,” she nearly drops to her knees as she caresses the microphone like Tina Turner, then uses the microphone stand like an instrument. She is pure energy, drawing a crowd around her.

In 2011 fan footage of the band singing “Rock and Roll,” you can hear the random passers-by gasp and break into spontaneous dance, while Alexis jumps and sings.

“Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable,” a voice exclaims.

But Alexis believed.

“A Bottle of Soda That Was Being Shaken Forever”

“I was a bottle of soda that was being shaken forever, and then someone finally took the lid off,” she remembered. “Playing in the streets took the lid off.”

People began to ask them who they were. They needed a name. Tennessee Muscle Candy resulted from a prank Facebook status that the Prince brothers posted.

Nashville was, as it is today, a large collective of musicians who are always hustling side gigs in addition to their main careers. If you need to find band mates to play with, it’s a wellspring of talent so long as you accept the fact that the guitarist you perform with in April might not be the same one you record with in May. Soon Alexis started meeting other musicians and playing on their gigs, such as Magnolia Sons:

She met guitarist Matthew Paige at the High Watt club in Nashville after a Blackfoot Gypsies show. Paige asked her to sing back-up vocals on a record (she continues to sing back-up for them today). After that, she met Ricky Dover Jr. while she was gigging with Magnolia Sons. Meanwhile, Andy Prince joined a band full-time, Manchester Orchestra. Matt Prince got married and moved to Pensacola, Florida. (“We will always be family, but our paths are different,” she noted.) Tennessee Muscle Candy evolved.

Songwriter

She also began writing songs, which capture a vibe all their own. Her first single, “Walk That Walk,” produced and co-written by Reno Bo, is described on the band’s Facebook page as a “catchy three-minute jolt of psychedelic garage pop,” which is an apt description, especially with the theremin solo that whines like a drone. That fuzzy theremin evokes Jimmy Page’s theremin solo on the live version of “Whole Lotta Love” you hear on Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.

“Weird Around You,” is all rock and soul. But “Lights On” and “So Good” grab you with a full-on Led Zeppelin-esque wall of sound. In “So Good,” Alexis unleashes a furious, tough bluesy vocal that sounds even earthier live.

These are songs made from the gut and meant to be played loud and live. The Tennessee Muscle Candy line-up we saw May 4 did the songs justice, with a tight set that sounded as if they had been playing together for years, which is impressive when you consider how often local bands like theirs change personnel.

“Everyone brings their own ingredient to the mix,” she said. “It’s not always easy to define our sound. We’re a mixture of punk and those old 1960s garage bands.”

“You Have to Own That One Thing”

When I told her the band’s live sound reminded me of early Doors, circa London Fog 1966 or Led Zeppelin on their first tour, she laughed. She recalled playing Led Zeppelin covers such as “Whole Lotta Love” and mentioned that the Doors are an influence.

“A lot of people want to be Jim Morrison,” she said. “But no one can be Jim Morrison. You have to own that one thing that you bring that no one else can.”

That “one thing” for her is being the uncorked soda bottle onstage. Somehow, she manages to own the stage without suffocating everyone else playing with her, though. When other bandmates play solos, she even kneels beside them, as if offering a tribute. How does she pull off that balance?

“It’s about empathy,” she replied. “A lot of front men go wrong that way. They can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what other people in the band are feeling when they are onstage with you. Empathy is in my nature. When I kneel in front of them, it’s a chance to thank them.”

But make no mistake: she commands the stage, draws energy from the audience, and shoots that energy across the room. “You have to go big,” she said. “Performing with my body is like strutting as animals do to attract others.”

She added, “I don’t have to be ashamed of my body. I am not heroin chic. I am a full-figured woman. There are a lot of young women who approach me after the show and thank me because of who I am. Performing is great for body positivity. It’s good for young women to see someone with body confidence. It’s a feeling that this is what I am meant to do. It feels really good.”

And now, ahead of her, comes more recording and possibly touring. In June, she will record in Nashville studio Bomb Shelter with a line-up that will include Matthew Paige and her regular guitarist, Jon Little. Her producer (and owner of the studio) Andrija Tokic, recorded the Alabama Shakes’s breakthrough album Boys and Girls.

“I would love to tour,” she says, “Building a following happens with touring. We need to get a good single out and hit the road with that.”

“A Foolish Sense of Hope”

And, ultimately, what does Alexis Saski want? How will she define success?

“I just want respect, and I want to support myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be self-sufficient. We’re over the dream of being fabulously wealthy.”

She has no health insurance and not enough money to support herself. So why do it?

“A foolish sense of hope,” she laughed. “My love for music.”

I’m on Twitter @davidjdeal

Why the Next-Generation Google Assistant Could Be a Game Changer for Google

The business that monetizes the voice ecosystem will lead the voice-first economy. During Google’s I/O developer conference May 7-9, Google previewed a major development in its fight with Amazon to be that leader: the launch of a faster Google Assistant, described as “game changing” by Gartner Research Director Werner Goertz. A Google Assistant that responds more effectively to voice commands is certain to make Google a more appealing utility as people continue to use the voice interface to accomplish everyday tasks. And offering a utility remains Google’s chief strength as a brand. The only question is whether Google will move quickly enough to capitalize on its advantage by making the next-generation Google Assistant widely available.

Google Launches On-Device Speech Recognition

Google announced that Google Assistant, Google’s voice assistant, is getting faster with on-device machine learning. In other words, Google devices using Android will offer a voice interface directly through the device rather than rely on the cloud.

This news might have come as a surprise to people who assume that their conversations with voice assistants are managed on their devices solely. In reality, the software that manages Google Assistant actually resides on the cloud. Similarly, when you use the Apple Siri voice assistant on your iPhone, Apple relies on the cloudAnd so does Amazon when you use Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant on an Echo smart speaker. By moving the voice assistant software from the cloud to your phone, Google says Google Assistant will deliver answers to voice requests up to 10 times faster. According to Manuel Bronstein, Google’s vice president of product development, Google Assistant:

Running on-device, the next generation Assistant can process and understand your requests as you make them, and deliver the answers up to 10 times faster. You can multitask across apps—so creating a calendar invite, finding and sharing a photo with your friends, or dictating an email is faster than ever before. And with Continued Conversation, you can make several requests in a row without having to say “Hey Google” each time. 

He also wrote, “This breakthrough enabled us to create a next generation Assistant that processes speech on-device at nearly zero latency, with transcription that happens in real-time, even when you have no network connection.”

The next-generation Google Assistant will become available on Google Pixel phones later in 2019. Google has not yet announced its availability beyond the Pixel. Now that Google has taken the wraps off the improved product, Google needs to act quickly to make Google Assistant more widespread across the Android world while Google has first-mover advantage. 

Why a Faster Google Assistant Matters

Making voice faster and responsive is crucial for Google to be a leader. Years ago, Google became synonymous with the entire search category because the Google search engine offered (and still offers) a utility. Users could type commands and get useful, reasonably accurate answers quickly. Fast-forward to 2019. Google still dominate traditional search. But Google does not lead the voice-first experience as it does traditional search. For example, in the United States, Amazon owns 63 percent of the market for voice-activated smart speakers (although its share is declining). Globally, Amazon and Google are neck and neck in this category

Google has a strong motivation to overtake Amazon: the use of voice assistants is expected to triple from 2.5 billion digital voice assistants in use to 8 billion in 2023. With on-device voice:

Google Can Make Voice More Reliable

Google Assistant has been evaluated as being a more reliable assistant than Alexa based on accuracy of responses. By making Google Assistant faster, Google makes its voice technology even more reliable, thus building on its strength. At Google I/O, Google demonstrated vividly just how useful voice technology can be with the faster Google Assistant:

As Andy Boxall noted in Digital Trends, “Speed is everything, because with it comes convenience. Without it, there’s only frustration. You can reply to messages now using dictation, but you have to go through a series of steps first, and Assistant can’t always help. Using voice is faster, provided the software is accurate and responsive enough. Google Assistant 2.0 looks like it will achieve this goal, and using our phones for something more than only basic, often-repeated tasks may be about to become a quicker, less screen-intensive process.”

With speed and reliability comes trust. As consumers see just how useful voice can be, they’re going to move beyond the current state of using voice to do simple things such as check the weather and move on to more doing more complicated tasks such as making purchases — and businesses are eager for that day to come.

Google Can Make Voice a Better Mobile Experience

Google Assistant is available on one billion devices, up from 500 million in May 2018. Why? One big reason: mobile phones powered by Google’s Android operating system use Google Assistant by default. Android has acted as a Trojan horse to make Google Assistant live on mobile phones. As Manuel Bronstein told The Verge “The largest footprint right now is on phones. On Android devices, we have a very, very large footprint.” And here Amazon can’t touch Google, whose real rival is Apple for leadership of voice on mobile phones. 

Now, mobility means more than using our phones, as evidenced by Amazon, Apple, and Google fighting to embed their voice assistants in automobiles. To that end, at I/O, Google also introduced driving mode, which makes any Android-powered phone using Google Assistant more valuable for driving. As Google announced,

In the car, the Assistant offers a hands-free way to get things done while you’re on the road. Earlier this year we brought the Assistant to navigation in Google Maps, and in the next few weeks, you’ll be able to get help with the Assistant using your voice when you’re driving with Waze.

Today we’re previewing the next evolution of our mobile driving experience with the Assistant’s new driving mode. We want to make sure drivers are able to do everything they need with just voice, so we’ve designed a voice-forward dashboard that brings your most relevant activities—like navigation, messaging, calling and media—front and center. It includes suggestions tailored to you, so if you have a dinner reservation on your calendar, you’ll see directions to the restaurant. Or if you started a podcast at home, you can resume right where you left off from your car. If a call comes in, the Assistant will tell you who’s calling and ask if you want to answer, so you can pick up or decline with just your voice. Assistant’s driving mode will launch automatically when your phone is connected to your car’s bluetooth or just say, “Hey Google, let’s drive,” to get started. Driving mode will be available this summer on Android phones with the Google Assistant.

Now, consider how a faster Google Assistant could help you as you’re driving and using your voice as a device for wayfinding, making restaurant reservations, and communicating. It’s easy to see how faster replies matter even more when you’re driving, especially when you drive through an unfamiliar area or cities with complicated routes. 

Insanely Powerful, But Can’t Be Used

As noted, the faster Google Assistant will first launch on Google’s new Pixel phones, which are reportedly the fastest-growing smartphones in the United States. So far Google has not yet said when widespread availability beyond the Pixel will happen. But Google will need to make the faster on-device Google Assistant available on any Android-powered device to make a real difference. As Yahoo! News wryly noted in a recent headline, “New Google Assistant is insanely powerful, but can’t be used.”  It’s hard to believe Google would restrict an on-device Google Assistant to Pixel phones. Google cannot afford to do so. The opportunity is too great, and the stakes are too high, for Google to play conservatively.

The Prize

What’s the monetary pay-off for Google making Google Assistant smarter? As I noted earlier this year, being the backbone of voice protects the company’s online advertising business, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Google’s revenue. Google needs to keep giving people reasons to use products such as the Google search engine, Google Maps, and Google Chrome. That’s why in 2018, Google launched Google Duplex, an AI-powered bot that mimics the human voice to book reservations and perform other tasks with businesses. (Google Duplex was launched on Pixel phones and is now available on the web.) By keeping people on Google’s ecosystem, Google can continue to deliver audiences to advertisers and learn from audience behavior.

As Amazon’s own advertising products take flight, and with Amazon stealing consumer search traffic from Google, Google is under tremendous pressure to protect and extend its reach in the home and on the go. As we move toward a voice-first world, is Google moving quickly enough?