Stripped down from grand optics, props or accompanying band instruments, Neffy sings into a microphone while playing her guitar and sitting behind a desk. The simplicity of the setup leaves nothing to hide behind — and Neffy doesn’t need anything. Her captivating, rich vocal depth and control, along with the poignant lyrics of her original song “Wait Up,” shines through in her three-minute NPR YouTube video entry.
There’s a power behind her voice that is both haunting and moving. For anyone who watches the clip, it is no surprise that Neffy beat out thousands of unsigned artists who submitted original songs and videos to NPR’s 2021 Tiny Desk Contest.
An Arlington native, Neffy’s win last month brought local pride for the DMV and was years in the making. Neffy previously submitted entries to the Tiny Desk Contest in 2018 and 2020. With such talent, it’s a mystery how the folk-soul artist only now is getting noticed. One difference this year was her approach.
“I kind of just submitted on a whim,” Neffy says. “I wasn’t 100% sure if I was going to do it again or not. And then last minute, I decided to submit.”
Her last-minute decision paid off. Not only did she win, but she is receiving wide praise from listeners. Scrolling through the winning video’s comments is exclusively positive for both song and singer — a miraculous feat in the digital age.
Finding Inspiration in Uncertainty
Neffy was inspired to write “Wait Up” following her return to the DMV. After five years living in New York City and studying at The New School, Neffy moved back to Arlington to live with her parents during the pandemic.
“I was really inspired by the environment that raised me,” Neffy says, who also noted her love of the area’s nature. “I felt disconnected from here while living in New York. The pandemic gave me the chance to come home, and come home to myself. That was the grounding force for writing ‘Wait Up.’”
The song evokes both fatigue and longing to be home with the lyrics: “I’m stuck/and the city’s got its grip on me/and I’ve had enough.” A reflection on her personal experience, “Wait Up” resonates for many. In our turbulent times, people yearn for home — and finding home continues to be prevalent.
“I think everyone at some point in their lives gets disconnected from home, wherever home is,” Neffy says. “It doesn’t have to be a physical sense. It can be a spiritual or emotional state of being. Life can tousle you, and pull and push you into places you might not really want to be in. You look back and can’t believe how far away you are from where you came from. So, the song could be a testament to wherever someone is in their life.”
Neffy’s profound storytelling through lyricism is a signature feature in her work. Her self-released 2020 debut album “I Don’t Miss You” is centered on the different stages of going through a breakup: mourning, grief, resentment and acceptance. While breakup songs are not new, each song’s words grip your soul.
She laughingly notes, “Songwriting is pretty much writing in my diary.”
Her pain is visceral with every tonal inflection in her song “Like You Did,” which she sang as the opener in her Tiny Desk Concert performance. Inspired by singers like Adele, Jacob Banks and Amy Winehouse, she has mastered how to elicit emotion through her vocals.
Hitting Her Stride
At 13, Neffy began writing songs and coming up with melodies and learned the guitar soon after. Although no one was a musician in her family, their love for listening to music led her to make it her passion and career.
“Music was the foundation for me growing up,” she says. “I remember sitting at home with my dad listening to music. He was a jazz head. My brothers and mom had an influence as well. I come from a musical family in terms of our appreciation.”
Despite her impressive vocal control and tone, Neffy is not classically trained. She credits her musical knowledge and skills to her high school choir.
“I was in a choir called Magicals. The only reason I wanted to go to that particular high school was because I heard them sing when I was in middle school at a concert. I was in the school’s top choir and I got in my sophomore year.”
From there, Neffy had opportunities to travel to New York City and Orlando for competitions and build a supportive network with her choir teacher and friends.
“Choir is all I really cared about. I had my studies and everything, but when I look back at high school, everything else fades away because choir was the one thing that sustained me.”
This positive experience led her to move to New York City for college and later pursue music. Before the pandemic hit, Neffy performed over 100 concerts on the East Coast, which were a crucial part of her development as an artist.
“I love in-person shows, of course, because I am in a physical space with other people,” she says. “That’s how I started to be seen and get much more professional. I always like seeing the couples who cuddle or kiss, or seeing someone spill their soda on the floor. These elements make me very comfortable.”
Not able to perform onstage during quarantine, Neffy found livestreaming as the best way to still reach audiences. Livestreamed performances offer people the chance to comment and react in real-time.
“Livestreams are great because they help fill the void of not having in-person shows. We are definitely still in a weird limbo in a lot of aspects of our lives.”
Neffy ultimately viewed the pandemic as a time for her to continue working toward her musical goals. She also won a fellowship in 2020 from Emergent Seed, a local organization that supports emerging music artists through grants and by offering a platform to perform.
“The pandemic definitely pushed me to become more of who I was as an artist,” Neffy reflects. “I felt an obligation to myself to continue the work I was already doing for five years as an artist — pandemic or not.”
After well over a year-and-a-half, Neffy sang at her first in-person performance last month at Brentwood Arts Exchange. While no shows are planned for November, Neffy is looking forward to hopefully touring and performing more live in the near future. In the meantime, we all can watch her Tiny Desk Concert performance, which dropped on October 27. As to whether she has plans to move back to New York City, Neffy is in no rush.
“I’m happy where I am right now,” she says. “I like this area because it’s a lot quieter than New York City. It allows a chance to be a bit more introspective, which helps me continue to write my songs.”
Listen to her album and single “Wait Up” at neffy.bandcamp.com and stream her latest single “Youth” on Spotify. Check out Neffy’s Tiny Desk Performance at npr.org or on NPR Music’s YouTube channel. To learn more about Neffy, follow her on Instagram @byneffy.
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