The voice: The Suffers' lead vocalist, Kam Franklin | Photo by Max Burkhalter
WE’VE GOT OUR EYES (AND EARS) ON FOUR HIGHLY INDIVIDUAL CREATORS WHO ARE SHIFTING THE LOCAL MUSIC SCENE IN DIVERGENT WAYS. ANNE LEE PHILLIPS AND MATTHEW RAMIREZ LISTEN IN.
KAM FRANKLIN: LEAD SINGER, THE SUFFERS
It’s a good time to be Kam Franklin. Fresh out of a three-hour early-morning band meeting, she’s as cheery as ever on the phone. And why not? As lead vocalist of Houston’s signature band, The Suffers, Franklin is one of the city’s most recognizable faces. In a community known for a few dominant genres — chopped and screwed hip-hop, country and folk, a historically important noise and punk scene — how did a 10-piece rock-meets-ska-meets-jazz- meets-soul-meets-reggae group become Houston’s biggest band?
A major milestone took place in the spring of 2015, when The Suffers was one of the last bands to perform on the Late Show with David Letterman. Franklin, 28, describes the experience as the most surreal moment of her career.
“The past year has been a nonstop rollercoaster for the band and I,” she says. “We’re out chasing a dream we have all shared since childhood.”
She cites as personal inspirations Thom Yorke (“a dream collaboration”), Robert Plant, Prince, and Chaka Khan — kaleidoscopic names representative of The Suffers’ unique sound, which crisscrosses genres and eras as recklessly as Houston’s no-zoning laws.
Franklin, a native Houstonian, grew up on the southeast side near Hobby Airport, but has lived all over the city. She spent some time at Texas Southern University.
“Both of my parents are happily remarried to other people, and they all live in Houston,” she says. “They’re super supportive of my career.” Her father sang in college. “My earliest memories of him involve him singing Luther Vandross songs around the house. They always encouraged me to pursue music.”
Although Franklin is the personality most closely associated with the band, the group was actually founded by the bass player, Adam Castaneda.
“He and the keyboardist, Patrick Kelly, put together a group of musicians for a ska and reggae cover project,” Franklin says. “I don’t think they intended for it to be 10 people. It just kind of happened that way.”
Touring as part of a 10-member band is a laborious process. The chaos of coordinating so many people isn’t reflected in their music, however. Far from a cacophonous set, a live Suffers performance can achieve a cathartic level of intensity, funneled first through Franklin’s vocals — the most singular aspect of a band that cannot be pigeonholed.
She and the group took to Kickstarter to fund the release of their full-length debut record. “Be our record company!” the page declares. The group surpassed its lofty $50,000 goal by nearly $10,000. The Suffers aren’t hurting for grassroots support, which is reflected in Franklin’s optimistic take on the process of recording and releasing a record independently: “Houston is a great city with great independent musicians, and it’s time for the rest of the world to know what’s up.”
Since the album’s release, in February of this year, The Suffers have appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Jimmy Kimmel Live. This summer sees them play a variety of festivals, including the especially noteworthy stage of Paris’ Afropunk Fest.
For a full list of gigs, go to thesuffers.com/shows.
SUSIE CRINER AND ANNIE CRINER EIFLER: MUSIC WITH FRIENDS
On set with Susie Criner and her daughter, Annie Criner Eifler, at Criner’a River Oaks home, you can’t help but admire the quiet grace of the duo. These are not your typical music-business impresarios. Criner’s sojourn into the world of agents, booking boldfaced names such as Diana Ross, began in the ’70s with the redevelopment of the Heights, which fortuitously resulted in the redevelopment of the Houston music scene and introduced Criner to the biz.
Her husband, Sanford Criner, was restoring homes and revitalizing business along Washington Avenue, including the former Heights State Bank Building that was adapted for use as a nightclub, Rockefeller’s, which opened in 1979. The Criners felt the building was too grand to function as a neighborhood lounge and were thrown into the role of nightclub operators in order to make it viable.
They traveled to L.A. to introduce the venue to agents and managers and landed B.B. King, which resulted in more legendary bookings. The Criners went on to found music venues Fabulous Satellite Lounge and Club Hey Hey.
One night at Rockefeller’s, a customer approached Criner and asked if she could book the Four Tops — not only for the club, but also for his daughter’s debutante party. She delivered on the request, and Criner’s storied career in entertainment booking for deb parties, weddings and charity galas officially began.
Thirty-five years later, her company, Gulf Coast Entertainment, is the leading booking agency in Houston. Criner’s daughter, Annie Eifler, was recently appointed principal, and the company has relocated HQ to the River Oaks Bank Building. But it’s the launch of a completely new music scene, Music With Friends, that has proved 31-year-old Eifler’s professional prowess.
In 2014, Criner launched the Houston edition of the private concert series created by Larry Farber in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2006. Farber devised the concept with a handful of friends who desired the ultimate music lover’s experience of small venues with high-level entertainment.
Farber reached out to friends in other cities and for years tried to get Criner on board. Criner loved the idea but felt stumped on the venue; it was difficult to find a space that could support nationally touring artists, allow for first-class catering and provide valet and comfortable seating for 500 members. Finally, Criner had an epiphany: The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts’ Zilkha Hall and Grand Lobby offered the whole package.
Eifler was working in the nonprofit sector at Houston Center for Literacy when her mom convinced her to start helping out with membership part-time. When Farber asked Criner if she knew of someone to act as the membership director, Criner said she did.
“I explained that my candidate for the job was the most motivated, organized, beautiful, fearless and poised person I knew,” she said. “When I told him she was my daughter, he didn’t miss a beat, hired her and is counting his lucky stars. I am, too — not only because Annie has made the club a great success, but because she is the shining face of everything I hoped it would be: genuine, good-hearted and fun.”
Criner and Eifler barely had to whisper the words before hundreds of friends signed up.
The MO for Music With Friends is as follows: A civilized cocktail hour precedes each show. Sippy cups are distributed so music and wine lovers can take a roadie into Zilkha Hall and sit (or dance, if the music warrants it) while listening to Tony Bennett, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt or Boz Scaggs (all of whom played in Houston last year) and Diana Ross, who appeared in February.
During the after-party at Artista adjacent to the Grand Lobby of Zilkha Hall, members rehash the show over food and drinks.
Music With Friends, Annie Eifler, 713.899.3473, annie@musicwith friends.com. Anne Lee Phillips
HANNAH ANDERSON: SOLO ARTIST
When Hannah Anderson was 16 years old, she watched music videos on YouTube that made her cry. When pressed to name one such video — one that pushed her to tears and told her making music was the thing she wanted to do — she can’t remember specifically. For Anderson, the entire process of being inspired by music, writing and creating music, and wanting to share music is all about the feeling.
“I always really want to connect to the human emotion. I see how people live and act and react. I’ve loved to sing since I was nine years old,” says Anderson, now 22.
Sure enough, there’s an effortlessness to her music that seems organic. It can feel straightforward enough — spare, minimalistic piano and guitar chords drift in and out, drums keep time but don’t overwhelm, all creating a coffee-shop vibe reminiscent of Lana Del Rey, Justin Vernon and FKA Twigs — but an air of mystery keeps listeners on their toes. It’s as if she wants to tell you a deep secret but makes you guess before clearing the air.
Trying to pin down Anderson’s inspirations is tricky.
“I listen to pretty much everything, from rap to jazz to blues to pop,” she says. “I love pop music.”
This omnivorous appetite is very much a symbol of how young people consume and create — YouTube is the new FM radio.
“Music is something that’s part of my calling. Even if not done professionally or to make a living, it’s something to do forever,” she says.
That she calls music “part” of her calling is significant: Far from undisciplined, she’s a product of the generation that deems single-pursuit careers passé. Anderson has an Instagram follower count of well over 14,000, and the aesthetic of her account is as important to her artistic expression as the music itself.
“I love painting, I love dancing, I love expressing myself in general, and that’s what I want to be doing,” she says.
She was encouraged by her parents — her dad is an architect who filled the house with records by everyone from Sam Cooke to Barbra Streisand and her fave, Ella Fitzgerald, while her father home-schooled five children and supported their love of the arts. Anderson has roamed the globe, from Argentina to Paris, in search of inspiration.
“I’m inspired by how people live,” she says.
Born in Houston (her mother is from Mexico and her father is from San Antonio) and reared all over the city, Anderson is squarely in the middle of the five siblings in birth order. They are all creatives of some kind, from photography and fashion design to music.
“Sometimes a crazy situation happens, and an entire song will come out of it,” she says. “Other times, it just can’t be put into words … I let things sit for a long time.”
If everything — singing since nine, discovering music through YouTube, creating one of the city’s most progressively cool Instagram accounts — seems to be moving too fast for such a young artist, it’s not.
“Houston is growing so much. It’s prime time. I’d like to hope I can affect that in some way,” she says.
To keep track of Anderson’s new releases and any upcoming performances, go to hannahanderson.net. Matthew Ramirez