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An aspiring music artist wins NPR's Tiny Desk Contest

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Every year, NPR Music hosts the Tiny Desk Contest. Songwriters share their best work, and judges choose just one. Past winners have gone on to sign recording contracts, write music for Broadway and even win Grammys. And right now, NPR's judges are about to crown the 10th champion. NPR Music's Bobby Carter is with us, and he's one of those judges. Welcome.

BOBBY CARTER, BYLINE: Hello, Steve. How you doing, man?

INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. It's good to talk with you. I guess we should remind people the Tiny Desk concerts are events at NPR headquarters. They feature big music stars. And the Tiny Desk Contest is for people who are aspiring to be big stars. So how's it all work?

CARTER: That's right. So, yeah, the Tiny Desk Contest is our nationwide search for the next great undiscovered artist. The winner gets to play a real Tiny Desk concert. And also this year, we received nearly 7,000 entries...

INSKEEP: Wow.

CARTER: ...From artists all over the country and in Puerto Rico. So we are more excited than ever. For me, you know, this is probably my fifth year judging the contest. And without a doubt, this is my favorite year. This is the most competitive year when it comes to just quality, exciting and moving performances. This year was unbelievable.

INSKEEP: Is there a way to define what you're looking for other than you know it when you see it?

CARTER: You know when you see it, but you also know when you feel it. It's about feeling. Like, watching a video, I want to feel some type of emotion. And that happened time and time again in '24.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should remind people this is audio, but it's also video. People post their entries on YouTube. So let's get to the big reveal here. Do the honors. Who is it?

CARTER: The winner for the 2024 Tiny Desk Contest is none other than The Philharmonik out of Sacramento, Calif.

INSKEEP: All right - with a K, Philharmonik.

CARTER: Philharmonik. And the song is "What's It All Mean?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?")

THE PHILHARMONIK: (Singing) I was told I could be anything that I wanted to be. Work hard so you can make money and fulfill your dreams. But if you look at the people that are better than me, trying to find a way around this power scheme, what's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean?

INSKEEP: All right. I love the sound instantly.

CARTER: Yes.

INSKEEP: Now, let's also talk about what this looks like. What's going on in this video?

CARTER: I mean, there's - he just completely sold it, the lead singer. His name is Christian. And they were in an office setting, totally playing out, playing up to what we do here at the Tiny Desk at NPR.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

CARTER: It's just a big office setting. He walks up. Before he sings a note, he sets up his desk. He checks a couple of email. And he just gets straight to it on that keyboard and starts singing this song. But I want to be very clear here. It's not the video that sold it. It's totally the performance, and it's the song. It's soulful. I like to think of it as a modern classic. Like, I can hear this song in the '70s and '80s, but it feels...

INSKEEP: Oh.

CARTER: ...Right right now. We can all relate to a message about working hard and wondering, what are we doing it for? What's it all mean? I think we landed on something really, really special with Christian and The Philharmonik.

INSKEEP: I had the same feeling you did. It feels old. It feels classic. But it feels...

CARTER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Like it speaks to me now.

CARTER: And that's soul. That's what soul music is. It just - it spans genres. It spans generations. It's very soulful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?")

THE PHILHARMONIK: (Singing) If I keep it slow and steady, then I'll win the race. Got my eyes on the prize. Let's take it day by day. Even though on this journey we might fall on the way, if you fall seven times, make sure you get back up eight. What's it all mean? What's it all mean? That's what it all means. What's it all mean? What's it all mean? That's what it all means.

INSKEEP: What can you tell us about The Philharmonik?

CARTER: Yeah. Well, the Philharmonik - it's a band, but the lead singer, again, his name is Christian - they're from Sacramento, Calif. He's a very charismatic performer. I learned that he plays multiple instruments. He raps. He sings. He writes. And he adds something really, really special and really unique to our legacy of winners at the Tiny Desk Contest. So we're really, really excited to get them and get him behind the desk. There's about, I think, eight or nine members of the band.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

CARTER: But I can't wait to see them live behind that desk.

INSKEEP: They're going to be crowded behind that desk.

CARTER: Yeah. We're going to squeeze them in there, but I think it's going to work.

INSKEEP: So this blows my mind. You mentioned they get an actual Tiny Desk concert at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. But if I'm not mistaken...

CARTER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...That is the beginning of a tour that they get?

CARTER: Yes. That's just the beginning. We're on a 10-city tour this summer - D.C., Seattle, LA, Petaluma, Brooklyn and a few others. They're also going to be paired with a mentor, an industry insider, to kind of help them walk through this crazy thing we call the music industry for a little bit of wisdom and guidance. We're going to be with them. They're part of the family now. So we're going to help them throughout the year navigate this huge spotlight that's about to hit Christian and The Philharmonik. So it's going to be a busy, busy year.

INSKEEP: Bobby Carter of NPR Music with the winner of the 2024 Tiny Desk Contest, Christian Gates, also known as The Philharmonik. He will be on All Things Considered later today. And Bobby Carter, thanks for joining us this morning.

CARTER: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?")

THE PHILHARMONIK: (Singing) I was told I could be anything that I wanted to be. Work hard so you can make money and fulfill your dreams. But if you look at the people...

INSKEEP: You know, for those who don't know, I mean, the Tiny Desk concert is a thing. You're here in the office. There's this rumble of people, and suddenly Taylor Swift is here.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Well, yeah, you know, I was in the train station - the main train station in Romania - last year. And these kids came running up to us and said, Tiny Desk.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And I'm like, yeah, and?

INSKEEP: People know. And I talk to, like, political figures, like, serious people and - can you get me into a Tiny Desk?

MARTIN: And we can. But, you know, I'm still waiting for Beyonce. Beyonce, if you hear this, please come.

INSKEEP: OK. Consider yourself invited.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?")

THE PHILHARMONIK: (Singing) Broken hearts torn apart, making sure you're closed off and avoid getting hurt to preserve your self-worth. What's it all mean? What's it all mean? What's it all mean? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Bobby Carter is a leader on the Tiny Desk Concerts team for NPR Music. He's brought an ever growing roster of big names and emerging artists through NPR's HQ to squeeze behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and record standout performances, including Usher, Mac Miller, Noname, Anderson.Paak and H.E.R.