NPR contest prompts MSUM collaboration


by Josie Gereszek

A tiny desk, a good tune and a YouTube channel. For the last two years, National Public Radio has set these as criteria in offering thousands of musicians the chance to be heard by millions. For two years, accordingly, Fargo hip-hop troupe D Mills & The Thrills has taken the radio giant up on its offer.

The band’s video entry last year had minimal production, recorded by one person on a point-and-shoot camera. But that didn’t stop the group from landing on NPR’s selective Tumblr feed of Tiny Desk Contest entries and being included in some videos recapping them. The band’s first non-concert YouTube video, a performance of “Make it Flow,” has garnered close to 5,000 views.

“We got some attention,” said Diane Miller, frontwoman of D Mills & The Thrills. “We figured we might as well do it again … It’s such a good way to market your band, just having a video on YouTube that anyone could see.”

The former MSUM music major said the 5-year-old band’s love of NPR was also motivation for getting involved with the free-to-enter contest.

This year’s music video, “Soft Spot,” was produced by downtown film company Grassfire Storytellers, located within the Red Raven Espresso Parlor on Main Avenue in Fargo. Miller’s friendship with Preston Johnson, a producer at Grassfire, inspired this year’s entry being more production-intensive.

MSUM film senior Michaela Fitzgerald directed the music video, her “first big gig” working for Grassfire. She started working for the company last semester.

“I’ve made my own (music videos) just at home with some random equipment, but I’ve worked on other people’s music videos, too — mostly just school-ish projects, a couple through the film department,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s kind of something that I’ve always been doing.”

Though Grassfire and Fargo company Media Productions ensured this year’s entry had a higher production value than the previous, Miller said she was glad the video still had “that rawness to it.”

The film’s location was reflective of its music, Fitzgerald said.

“It was an old garage for motorcycles, but it had been emptied,” Fitzgerald said. “We had to clean it up a little bit, but I liked that it was kind of random and dirty and grungy … (It’s) basically a song about someone falling in love with someone else and not really wanting to and it being almost a toxic relationship, so that kind of matched the place we shot.”

One of the band’s latest songs, “Soft Spot” vied for the contest judges’ attention alongside more than 6,000 others.

The contest’s winner, fellow Minnesota musician Gaelynn Lea, was announced Thursday and awarded the opportunity to perform a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., appear at a taping of “Ask Me Another” and go on a U.S. tour.

This year’s judges included NPR personalities Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton; members of last year’s winner, the band Luscious; and musicians Son Little and Dan Auerbach.

Though D Mills & The Thrills didn’t win or receive quite as much national attention through this year’s entry, Miller said being mentioned on Minnesota Public Radio made up for it.

“We haven’t shown up on the Tumblr feed this year, but whatever,” Miller said. “The most exciting thing about us entering the contest this year was we got on MPR, and (because of) that, I was screaming, because that’s a big deal. We reached a big audience.”

The roughly minute-and-a-half-long radio brief featured “Soft Spot” and was part of Cathy Wurzer’s “Morning Edition.” Wurzer mentioned how D Mills & The Thrills’ two lead singers, Miller and Andi Thoreson, would be performing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” at last Saturday’s DylanFest, an annual event Miller helps organize, at the Fargo Theatre.

“It’s amazing to see how we’ve progressed, and it’s really cool to see that people like it and people enjoy our hip-hop,” Miller said. “It’s encouraging. The support for the band has really fueled us to keep going and keep making music.”

Though Miller moved to Minneapolis several months ago and now works for City Pages, it’s her love of Fargo that keeps her coming back and playing with the band.

“It’s only three-and-a-half hours (away),” Miller said. “I’ve been back quite a bit because, for one, all my closest friends are here. My family lives here, and I still absolutely love this city. But I also love living in the Twin Cities.”

The former High Plains Reader editor said her moving has been a benefit to the band’s networking.

“We do want to reach out into a broader audience,” Miller said, “so I think it’s beneficial to us because, obviously, the Twin Cities’ music scene is really huge and really, really loves hip-hop.”

Miller said the Tiny Desk Contest has helped D Mills & The Thrills’ influence spread.

“We’re just delighted that NPR gives the opportunity to people,” Miller said. “(This year), it’s already been really rewarding for us to work with the community … It was just really fun to connect and collaborate with people.”

The band has a couple shows coming up. It plays March 25, 10 p.m. – 1 a.m. at Sidestreet in downtown Fargo and performs a Beastie Boys tribute April 20 at Fargo Brewing Co., also in downtown Fargo.

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