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These Tiny Desk Contest Entrants Bring Mini-Symphonies To The NYC Subway

Jun 29, 2019
Originally published on April 24, 2020 8:37 am

Quinn Christopherson was named winner of 2019's Tiny Desk Contest and although the contest only has one winner, there were many impressive and touching performances submitted for the judges' consideration by the 6,000-plus contestants. This summer, Weekend Edition is highlighting some of the stand-out entries.

Among those entrants is the New York-based trio Bandits on the Run, who submitted the original song "Love in the Underground" to the Contest. The group consists of Sydney Shepherd on cello, Regina Strayhorn on melodica and Adrian Enscoe on guitar. That said, the three members often go by their literature-inspired aliases: Roy Dodger for Enscoe, Clarissa for Strayhorn and Bonanza Jellyfish for Shepherd.

Much of Bandits on the Run's work centers around the New York City subway system. The group often plays for in-transit crowds as they wait for their trains. In keeping with that practice, in their video submission, Shepherd, Strayhorn and Enscoe perform "Love in the Underground" on a completely empty subway platform. The video's credits specify that the song was performed "without permission from the MTA" — after fending off a disgruntled MTA officers for 30 minutes, the crew was asked by police to leave the scene, since they didn't have a permit to film there. Luckily, by the time the officers arrived, the Bandits had already finished the shoot.


Even the band's origin story is tied up with the New York subway. Shepherd and Enscoe, who are in a romantic relationship, met on a platform where Enscoe was busking about five years ago. "She was listening to me, and we just started chatting about playing music and art and that kind of thing," Enscoe recalls of that evening. "And one thing led to the next, and we ended up having a long conversation that extended deep into the night."

Bandits on the Run assembled when Strayhorn, a college friend and musical collaborator of Shepherd's, moved to New York. Shepherd had told Enscoe all about her friend and the music they had written together in college, and Enscoe was eager to carry on that work as a trio. "So once Regina ended up moving to New York City, Adrian was like, 'OK, we're starting a band now!'" Shepherd says.

As for being the non-coupled member of this three-person band? Strayhorn says she doesn't mind. "It's obviously a lot of fire, and I think that fire makes good music."

Listen to the full aired conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Recently, we've been listening to some of the standouts from the more than 6,000 entries into this year's NPR Tiny Desk Contest. And today, it's Bandits On The Run. In their video submission, the trio performs on a completely empty New York City subway platform.


BANDITS ON THE RUN: (Singing) I - I spent my ticket to ride going nowhere on a train past midnight. Bright city lights flicker in my eye...

MCCAMMON: Bandits on The Run is Sydney Shepherd on cello, Regina Strayhorn on melodica and Adrian Enscoe playing guitar. And they join us now from, no surprise, our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.


ADRIAN ENSCOE: Thanks for having us.


MCCAMMON: And I should note, you all have aliases, right? Adrian, you go by Roy Dodger, I'm told.

ENSCOE: That's right.

MCCAMMON: Regina, you're known as Clarissa.


MCCAMMON: And, Sydney, Bonanza Jellyfish - what's that?

SHEPHERD: That is correct (laughter).

MCCAMMON: Should I even ask why?

SHEPHERD: Well, we all sort of based our banded aliases on things in literature or pop culture that inspired us. And one of my favorite books is "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" by Tom Robbins. And there's a character named Bonanza Jellybean in there. So it's kind of a homage to that.

MCCAMMON: OK, so onto the music. Your submission to NPR's Tiny Desk Contest is called "Love In The Underground." And as I understand it, there is indeed a love story here. Is that right?

ENSCOE: (Laughter).


ENSCOE: Yeah, that's right. Me and Sydney actually met on a subway platform in New York City about five years ago. And I had been busking around town frequently. And Sydney had come down late at night on a platform where there were also very few people. And we just - she was listening to me. And we just started chatting about playing music and art and that kind of things. And one thing led to the next. And we ended up having a long conversation that extended deep into the night. And we knew that we were musicians. We started kind of collaborating a little bit. Sydney and Regina had had written a lot of songs together when they went to school before.

SHEPHERD: Regina and I went to college together, so we go way back.

ENSCOE: (Laughter).

MCCAMMON: So Sydney and Adrian, you sort of start dating and the band sort of forms from that.


ENSCOE: So we learned, I think, three songs. And then I was like let's go down into the subway. And we just started playing these songs in the subway.

STRAYHORN: And we played those three songs over and over again because the audience left every 15 minutes. So it worked out.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about - more about your music in a second. But real quick, Regina, I got to ask. What's it like being, you know, the third member of the band when the other two members are a couple?

STRAYHORN: Oh, my. Well, you know what? It is good. It's all - you know, obviously a lot of fire. And I think that fire makes good music.


BANDITS ON THE RUN: (Singing) But we're not strangers now. Finally found love in the underground.

MCCAMMON: Well, you three have some pretty intricate, complex harmonies. You know, how do you - what's your process like? How do you develop those sounds?

SHEPHERD: We all actually didn't go to music school. We went to acting school. So I feel like a lot of the sort of music that we end up creating is very intuitive. So a lot of the harmonies, like, sometimes we don't even know what note we're singing, but we know that it feels right.


BANDITS ON THE RUN: (Vocalizing).

SHEPHERD: And then it's a lot of repetition. And it's a lot of experimentation with that. And we know each other's voices so well by now that it's actually a very fast process, which is interesting. Like, sometimes we're writing the harmonies as we're writing the music. Like, it's sort of baked in to the fabric of the songwriting. It's not really just something that comes afterwards as an arrangement. And we don't really have like a set - like, you always do bottom, you always you middle, you always do top. Like, our things very much weave in and out of each other. And I think that's what keeps the sound interesting. I don't know. It's an interesting alchemy with the three of us.


BANDITS ON THE RUN: (Singing) What a strange and sudden sound. But we're not strangers now. Finally found love in the underground.

MCCAMMON: The New York City subway is such a part of your story, it sounds like, you know, from your origin story even to how you put your music together. So it's fitting, I guess, that the song that you submitted "Love In The Underground" is filmed underground in a New York City subway station. So it's really fun to watch, I have to say. But I kept watching it and thinking how did you pull that off, how did you manage to find an empty train station in New York.


STRAYHORN: Well, it was late at night, first off. But it was funny. We set everything up. And there - one of the MTA workers came up and was very disgruntled and was like, you need a permit. You need a permit for this and do you have a permit? And we just went no (laughter).

SHEPHERD: But we were so - we were so not subtle about it, either. Like, our sound engineer brought down, like, all these microphones and, like, we were kind of, like, taking up a lot of space. So we couldn't really play dumb too much because we were just like, oh, yeah, we're definitely shooting a video down here.


SHEPHERD: It's, like, very obvious.

STRAYHORN: And so the - and the MTA worker left. But then 30 minutes later, the cops came. But it was actually a very New York moment because it turns out that I knew them. I'd served them coffee at a coffee shop close by, like, a million times and given them a bunch of free coffee. And so they were like, hey, sorry, it's all about money, but you can't do this. And we're like it's OK. We already got the takes. So have a great night. Thank you.

SHEPHERD: (Laughter) So then...

MCCAMMON: So that 30 minutes was enough.


ENSCOE: Oh, yeah.

SHEPHERD: (Laughter).

ENSCOE: Every single take, though, we were wondering...

SHEPHERD: We were a little nervous.

ENSCOE: ...Are we going to get arrested for this?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The next L train is now arriving on the Manhattan-bound track.

MCCAMMON: That's Sydney Shepherd, Adrian Enscoe and Regina Strayhorn of Bandits On The Run - one of our standout entries from this year's Tiny Desk Contest.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

ENSCOE: Thanks for having us, Sarah.

STRAYHORN: Thank you.

SHEPHERD: Thank you.


BANDITS ON THE RUN: (Singing) In the city of a million doors, open one, there's a million more, so what is it that you're waiting for, waiting for (ph)... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.