Picking one Tiny Desk Contest winner from the thousands of amazing entries we received this year wasn't easy. Over the past few months, we've spent time with early standout entries; asked our judges about their top picks; and celebrated tons of creative videos. And after all that, one entry rose to the top: a song that our judges said stopped them in their tracks and commanded their attention.
Today, we're proud to announce the winner of our 2021 Tiny Desk Contest: Neffy!
Neffy, born Mecca Russell, is a singer-songwriter from Arlington, Va., whose tender work and singular voice captured our judges' ears from her entry's opening lines. On "Wait Up," Neffy's winning song, she sings about slowing down and rooting herself in nature during a trying and tumultuous year. "I wrote what I needed to write for my soul," she told us about her entry.
"From the first line that Neffy sings, it's easy to get lost in her rich vocal timbre," Contest judge Jewly Hight of member station WNXP says, noting the singer's "understated dignity that draws a profound sense of melancholy right to the surface of each note."
Linda Diaz, who won last year's Tiny Desk Contest and served as a judge this year, agrees. "Her voice is so unique, and kind of timeless," Diaz told myself and NPR's A Martínez on today's broadcast of Morning Edition. "Her vocal delivery was incredible and seemingly effortless." She adds that Neffy's song about homesickness and self-discovery was "the perfect song" for this moment. (You can hear that interview in the player above.)
Neffy is no stranger to the Tiny Desk Contest — she also entered in 2018 and 2020. You might recognize her from an early episode of our Tiny Desk Contest Top Shelf series, where she talked with Contest judge Phoebe Bridgers and me. We noted that, in her video, her recording is sparse — just Neffy and her acoustic guitar — and she explained that she learned to work with what she had during the pandemic. For me, that stripped-down nature is one of the things that makes performances behind my Desk so special.
You can hear more from Neffy this afternoon on NPR's All Things Considered. We'll be recording Neffy's Tiny Desk (home) concert soon, and when it's safe to do so, we can't wait to welcome her to perform behind my Tiny Desk at NPR's headquarters.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
One of the coolest programs at NPR is this video series from NPR Music, Tiny Desk Concerts. You probably heard of it. Before the pandemic, musicians of all kinds would stop by our D.C. headquarters and put on a little show in the middle of our office. Employees from all over the building would gather to watch, and NPR Music would record the whole thing and put it online. Now, of course, performers are no longer coming into the building. They're sending videos, though, from wherever they are, artists such as Miley Cyrus...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FADE INTO YOU")
MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) Fade into you.
MARTINEZ: ...The Isley Brothers...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETWEEN THE SHEETS")
THE ISLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) Sharing our love between the sheets.
MARTINEZ: ...And so many other bands, including unsigned artists, because each year since 2014, NPR Music has held a Tiny Desk Contest, where unsigned groups compete for the chance to be featured on the series. So let's listen to some past winners.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST IN A CROWD")
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: (Singing) I know that neither one of us, no, neither one of us can survive it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUICK")
TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) I see him looking a mile away. He like my body, don't see my face.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN TEA ICE CREAM")
LINDA DIAZ: (Singing) Cherries in the spring, long walks, long nights, green tea ice cream - it's all so good, so good, so good to me.
MARTINEZ: Well, today we're going to announce a new winner, and joining us are two of the judges - Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered and creator of the Tiny Desk series. Also with us, musician Linda Diaz, who won last year's contest. Bob, Linda, welcome.
DIAZ: Thank you.
BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: Thank you, A.
MARTINEZ: So how were the entries? Bob, let's start with you.
BOILEN: Well, first of all, thousands and thousands of them, so it's an awful lot of amazing videos to watch. The scope and mix of people and styles of music is all over the map. There's humorous ones. There's deep, tear-your-heart-out ones. But these last few years with pandemic, it was more challenging. So people had to sometimes do it on their own and try to figure out how to be expressive without their friends and bandmates. We have so much talent in this country, and the contest is a way for me and for others - 'cause you can still go online and watch all the entries. It's an amazing rabbit hole to go down.
MARTINEZ: Linda, did winning this change your life in any way?
DIAZ: It did, incredibly. My whole music career has completely changed. I have so many more listeners, a lot more opportunities for concerts. I get paid a lot more for performing (laughter), which is nice, especially in a pandemic. So, yeah, super grateful.
MARTINEZ: All right, Bob, let's hear about the winner.
BOILEN: Well, after lots of deliberation with our contest judges, the winner of this year's Tiny Desk Contest is an artist known as Neffy, and her song is called "Wait Up."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT UP")
NEFFY: (Singing) Deep in the pocket of your coat, there's a letter there that I wrote. We both know that this cannot work, not when the river's calling. Oh, the river's calling. Don't have a fancy job or fame, but I hear the river knows my name. And that is all I could ask, to be held in the valley's grasp. Oh, wait up. Is there one last chance to dance in the river, dance in the river? I'm stuck.
MARTINEZ: Wow. She did not give anyone an opportunity to settle in on the song. Right off the bat, I think it was just, I'm just going to reach into your soul and grab you right now, and listen to what I have to say. Bob, I mean, tell us about Neffy.
BOILEN: Well, she's a young artist. She was living in New York City during the pandemic and, like many of us, for 18 months of isolation. And I'm sure for her, just the desire to get back to nature in some way, just to connect in some other way than the city and just to break out and find your soul.
MARTINEZ: Linda, I mean, from a vocal aspect here, I mean, wow. I still kind of can't get over how I still feel about that.
DIAZ: Yeah. I mean, her voice is so unique and kind of timeless, which struck me. It was actually one of the first entries that I watched, and I kept thinking about it and singing the melody in my head and being like, where do I know this song from? So, I mean, aside from obvious songwriting technique, I think just her vocal delivery was incredible and seemingly effortless.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT UP")
NEFFY: (Singing) Oh, it seems that I've lost my mind. Wait up. Is there one last chance to dance in the river, dance in the river? I'm stuck.
MARTINEZ: And she was her own backup singer, too.
BOILEN: Yeah, she overdubbed a couple of harmonies. She used what she had, which is that voice and her guitar. For me right now, having something that intimate feels so much more powerful. Right now, that's the stuff that just resonated with me.
DIAZ: Yeah, I think a lot of people can relate to this song, but there's enough room for interpretation, also. You know, it's about missing home. It's about wanting to go home and finding your soul and your family. And being homesick is something that's relatable, and not just in a COVID context. I feel like this song would have hit home in any context, and it just so happens that this one is perfect.
MARTINEZ: So, Bob, when will she perform her Tiny Desk Concert?
BOILEN: Well, this is an interesting proposition. And, in fact, Linda - it's now over a year later - hasn't come into the office yet...
BOILEN: ...To perform her concert behind my desk because we haven't done any. We did it on a rooftop. Where was the rooftop that we shot your winning...
DIAZ: In the Javits Center in New York.
BOILEN: At the Javits Center. Neffy lives not far from where NPR's headquarters are, but we will find someplace, maybe by a river, and shoot the Tiny Desk and put it up sometime in October.
MARTINEZ: You know what I'm hearing? I'm hearing duet - Neffy, Linda Diaz. I'm hearing some duet of some kind.
DIAZ: I would love to, yeah.
BOILEN: (Laughter) Oh, my gosh. You've just come up with a brilliant idea, A.
MARTINEZ: The winner of this year's Tiny Desk Contest is Neffy with her song "Wait Up." Today on All Things Considered, we'll meet Neffy. Bob Boilen and Linda Diaz, thanks very much for joining us.
BOILEN: Thank you.
DIAZ: Yeah, thanks for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT UP")
NEFFY: (Singing) The valley's where you'll wait for me, oh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.