June 29 2016 10:10 AM

Local artists mingle with national talent at Common Ground Music Festival

Michigan native Billy Strings, who moved to Nashville earlier this year, returns to Lansing for this year's festival.
Photo by J. Gillespie

If Common Ground Music Festival gave out an award to the artists performing farthest from their hometown, the guys from Civil Twilight would likely be this year’s winners. Hailing from Cape Town, South Africa, the indie rock band came to the U.S. in 2005 to pursue a career in music.

“When we left, there was nothing going on there,” said Steven McKellar, lead singer for Civil Twilight. “There was no chance to make a career there.”

So the band made the 10,000-mile trip from South Africa’s west coast to America’s West Coast.

“We thought about the U.K., but we wanted to tour, and the U.S. is the holy grail of touring,” McKellar said. “We moved to L.A. because we knew three people there who would let us sleep on their couches.”

The band performs Tuesday, the opening night of this year’s Common Ground Music Festival. McKellar likes the way that festivals bring established artists and up-and-coming acts together.

“Festivals are like the public toilet for musicians — the great equalizer,” he joked. “The big bands and the small bands are all in the same place, using the same areas.”

Civil Twilight is usually labeled “indie rock.” Once used to describe alternative rock acts on independent record labels, the term has become a catch-all for bands playing almost any flavor of modern rock.

“There’s drums, piano, guitar — it’s just rock,” McKellar said. “I like to mess with people and tell them that it sounds like the Atlantic Ocean — like the ocean of the Western Cape.”

On the other end of the distance spectrum, hip-hop artist Diamond Jones, who performs July 8, will take the stage just miles from where he grew up. A graduate of Everett High School, Jones turned to music when a career in basketball didn’t seem likely.

“I realized sports wasn’t going to work for me,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t have the height for it.”

Jones, 22, began improvising raps at 14. By 16, he was constructing rhymes and writing songs. While he grew up listening to aggressive artists like Eminem and Atlanta rapper Dolla, Jones’ sound draws more from introspective contemporary rappers.

“My sound is like Drake and J. Cole, with a little bit of Lil Wayne,” he said.

Jones’ debut album, “Still Not Famous,” was released on digital outlets last year. Since then, he’s released a string of new songs via his YouTube channel. For independent artists like Jones, the accessibility of digital music outlets has changed the music industry landscape.

“It’s very beneficial,” he said. “It gives us a chance to be heard. You can get my music the same place you get Drake’s music.”

While the big names like Tim McGraw and A$AP Rocky will sell the most tickets, Common Ground Music Festival is bolstered by a slew of Michigan acts. Among those is Linda Tellis, aka Lady Ace Boogie, a Grand Rapids-based hip-hop artist. Born in Atlanta and raised in West Virginia, Tellis came to Michigan in 2010. While she originally came to Grand Rapids to pursue a relationship, the culture of the city eventually won her over.

“The music and arts scene has kept me here,” she said. “It’s a great community and a really dope music scene.”

Tellis is an anomaly in West Michigan, which isn’t known for it’s hip-hop scene, but she doesn’t feel out of place.

“There’s definitely room for more hip hop,” she said. “But I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll. I wasn’t really exposed to hip hop until seven years ago.”

Tellis released her debut album, “Feel Good Music,” last year. She’s working on a follow-up album, which she hopes to release in September.

“There’s a message in my songs,” she said. “It’s not always super serious, but it’s a positive vibe.”

Tellis draws inspiration from the recent crop of socially-conscious rappers.

“I’m a huge fan of Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. And J. Cole is dope,” she said. “They balance what people want to hear and what people need to hear.”

Tellis takes the stage July 8, opening for headliners A$AP Rocky and French Montana. She is excited to perform in Lansing but admits that festivals are not her favorite venues.

“Personally, I prefer more intimate spaces. I like to be able to reach out and touch the crowd,” she said. “But I’m becoming more comfortable with bigger spaces. It’s a different energy.”

Also representing the Michigan scene is the aptly named Michigander, which plays Tuesday. While Michigander is a full band, the group is largely shaped by the vision of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Singer.

“Michigander is a rebranding of a solo project I was doing for a few years,” Singer explained. “There’s a consistent band that plays shows with me.”

Singer grew up in the Saginaw area and lives near Midland, but he met his bandmates while he was living in Kalamazoo. The band formed in early 2015 and released its debut single, “Nineties,” earlier this month. Singer is working on a full-length album he hopes to release next year.

“We’re taking our time,” he said. “We’re making sure what we put out is perfect and something we can be proud of.”

Performing at this year’s festival is a milestone for the young band.

Grand Rapids-based hip-hop artist Lady Ace Boogie performs July 8 at this year's Common Ground Music Festival.
Courtesy Photo

“Playing Common Ground was on my bucket list,” Singer said. “I didn’t expect it to happen this year. A lot of things are happening quickly.”

For bluegrass artist Billy Strings, real name William Apostol, performing at Common Ground is a homecoming. Apostol, who moved to Nashville in January, was born in Lansing and grew up in Michigan.

“I’m always excited to come home,” Apostol said. “It’s always good to see my family and friends in Lansing.”

Apostol, who plays July 7 at Common Ground, appreciates the world-class musicians he can work with in Nashville but said that his day-to-day routine hasn’t changed much.

“I’m on the road all the time,” he said. “The only thing that changed is where I keep my stuff.”

Apostol released a solo EP, “Billy Strings,” earlier this month. The recording is a mix of traditional and original tunes, with one cover song thrown in.

“We didn’t really rehearse. We just met in the studio and ran through the tunes a few times. It was really loose,” he said. “We had a blast. It was such a fun session.”

Apostol is looking forward to bringing his new bluegrass band up to Lansing.

“I’m going to bring some of these Nashville cats up to Lansing and tear it up,” he said.

Common Ground Music Festival

July 5-10
Day passes start at $35/$12 children 6-10;
week passes $112/$35 children 6-10;
children under 5 FREE
Adado Riverfront Park
(877) 569-7767, commongroundfest.com