This year’s nominees for the Best New Artist Grammy are an unusually eclectic bunch, from Aussie indie rocker Courtney Barnett to Top 40 pop singer Meghan Trainor to hip-hop-loving country star Sam Hunt and more. We called up the nominees to hear how they think they’ll fare on Monday night and more.
Who: The 22-year-old singer-songwriter, who began singing in church as a child, recorded three indie LPs while still in high school and signed with Epic a couple of years ago. Someone with four albums, who was already up for Song of the Year at the 2015 Grammys, may not seem like a “New Artist,” per se – but Trainor disagrees. “I’m fresh,” she says. “I’ve just been in this game for a year. Those first three albums I made in my bedroom.”
The Hit(s): Trainor’s single “All About The Bass” shot to Number One in late 2014. It’s a female empowerment anthem that celebrates women with “a little more booty to hold at night.” She followed it up with “Lips Are Movin” and “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” proving she was no one-hit wonder.
Her Chances: “My bestie Jojo woke me up the morning the nominees were announced,” Trainor says. “I just cried and hugged her in my bed. I was nominated for Best Song last year, but I’m more thrilled about this year because my true goal has always been to be the face of my music. I’m hoping I win, but if not me then I’d like to see James Bay take it.”
The Competition: “I’m nominated with such dope people,” says Trainor. “My whole first tour, I used to listen to James Bay and Tori Kelly every day with my makeup artist. I’ve known Sam Hunt ever since I was a young songwriter. He’s been in my head forever and I’m dying to meet him. The one I didn’t know about was Courtney Barnett, but I looked her up and she’s very cool.”
The Big Night: Trainor will perform Lionel Richie’s “You Are” as part of a multi-artist tribute to the former Commodores frontman. “He’s going to sing with us at the end, and that’s my biggest honor ever as a songwriter,” she says. “I’ve been practicing every day and I can’t wait to meet him, but it adds to the stress of the night by about 500 percent.”
Who: The 28-year-old Melbourne indie-rocker spins funny, rambly inner monologues about mundane topics from staring at the ceiling to asthma attacks without ever sounding boring. She’s also nominated at the upcoming Brit Awards and for the Australian Music Prize, a big deal back home. “There’s definitely a level of satisfaction and all that stuff – it’s not, like, a punch in the face,” Barnett says of the recognition. “I guess I don’t write music for the hope of getting those things, but it’s definitely nice when they happen.”
The Hit(s): Perhaps Barnett’s most well-known song is “Pedestrian at Best,” an epic check-list of emotions that come with newfound fame (“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”). The track has some of Barnett’s best wordplay: “I must confess, I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success /But I digress, at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess.” But her 2015 debut LP Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is a delightfully acerbic blast meant to be heard in its entirety.
Her Chances: Barnett is practical – very practical – when asked what she thinks her chances are of taking the category: “Um, about one in five?”
The Competition: Barnett is facing off against far more mainstream acts like Bay, Hunt, Kelly and Trainor – acts she is so far unfamiliar with. “Yeah, I don’t know who they are,” Barnett told Billboard. (Asked if she would check them out, she said, “I probably won’t.”) But Barnett doesn’t want to sound too blasé about being honored. “It just feels nice, I think, for the type of music I play, and where I’ve come from,” she tells RS. “Putting out my own records, doing the artwork, still running my record label from my house in Australia – to then be suddenly on this level of recognition on the other side of the world feels really nice.”
The Big Night: Barnett says she expects the Grammys to be “pretty strange for me. My band is coming. We think it’ll be fun. It’s totally not our world. Well, I mean, I don’t know that. I can’t really judge something I’ve never been to. But from what I’ve seen of it, dressing up and wearing fancy clothes and stuff, we don’t really do that, so that’s a start. It’ll be an interesting life experience.”
Who: Before he turned 25, English pop and folk singer James Bay rocketed into the top spot on the U.K.’s album charts with his debut, last year’s nuanced and soulful Chaos and the Calm – a record that reached Number 15 on the U.S. Top 200. He’s toured with Taylor Swift and Hozier, jammed with the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood and taken home the Critics’ Choice trophy at last year’s BRIT Awards. Now, in addition to Best New Artist, Bay is up for Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song at the Grammys. He’s the definition of a breakout artist.
The Hit(s): With its urgent chorus about self-discovery and its gentle instrumentation, “Let It Go” is an emotionally moving experience that shot into the Hot 100 and became a gold single. Interestingly, though, it’s “Hold Back the River” – a breezy number about drifting apart from a lover – that the Recording Academy nominated for Best Rock Song, even though it didn’t chart.
His Chances: “Do I feel like I have a shot?” Bay tells Rolling Stone. “Of course I feel like I have a shot. That said, it feels like a win to be nominated. You don’t want to say that, but it’s true.”
The Competition: “I think Tori’s got one of the best, most absolutely phenomenal voices in new music,” Bay says of the singer he’ll be duetting with during the ceremony. “It’s a fine example of range. She’s killer. I don’t know a lot about Sam Hunt, if I’m completely honest. And I only know so much about Meghan Trainor, who’s been in people’s consciousness for a little bit and is clearly a great pop star. Courtney Barnett, I’m really quite a big fan of. I think her stuff’s great. She puts on an incredible rock & roll show. I suppose there’s me, and he’s all right. But I don’t know if I’d count on it.”
The Big Night: Although the Best New Artist recognition excites Bay, he’s more honored to have made it into contention for the Grammys’ two rock categories. “As a teenager, I grew up playing guitar in my bedroom to the Rolling Stones, to Kings of Leon to rock & roll bands,” he says. “And I love a lot of other music – Carole King, James Taylor, Bill Withers, soul, folk – and it all filters through into my sound. But first and foremost it was about rock & roll to me. So to be recognized by of all people – the Grammys – in not one but two rock categories really does mean a lot to me.” Plus, as we remind him, he can compete against Slipknot. “As I’ve always dreamed,” Bay rejoins.
Who: Country crooner Sam Hunt is the most successful artist to fuse Nashville sounds with R&B and hip-hop since Nelly. He has a Drake sensibility mixed with a Brad Paisley musicality, as heard on the talk-sung singles “Take Your Time” and “Break Up in a Small Town.” Prior to his 2014 debut album, Montevallo, Hunt had writing credits for Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire. Since launching his solo career, he’s successfully crossed over into the pop sphere, with his album rising as high as Number Three on the Billboard 200 and his singles topping the country charts.
The Hit(s): “Take Your Time” is the best distillation of Hunt’s strengths as a songwriter, singer and storyteller.
His Chances: If he wins, Hunt will be the first country artist to be crowned Best New Artist since Zac Brown Band in 2010. He’s also up for Best Country Album. “Just to be a part of the Grammys, it’s really humbling, but also going to be one of the highlights of my life,” he said in a recent Associated Press interview.
The Competition: Everyone in this year’s stylistically diverse group of nominees will have to fight to be noticed, but that’s just how Hunt likes it. “You want to stand out and be unique and do something different,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “I always try to zig when they zag – I guess it’s a football term, but it applies to a lot of different areas of life.”
The Big Night: Hunt will perform at the Grammys with Carrie Underwood, who won Best New Artist in 2007. “Hopefully I don’t get in her way, because she’s a superstar,” he told the AP.
Who: Tori Kelly’s career has been in the works for nearly a decade. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter began sharing her talent on YouTube at age 14 and auditioned for American Idol two years later. Two EPs later, the breaking star saw her career gain traction with single “Nobody Love” and her debut album Unbreakable Smile, which debuted at Number Two on the Billboard 200. Kelly is currently prepping for a headlining tour this spring; she will also perform with fellow nominee James Bay at the Grammys ceremony.
The Hit(s): The soulful “Should’ve Been Us,” which she stripped down for the VMAs, is Kelly’s biggest single to date.
Her Chances: Kelly is diplomatic about the possibility of a Best New Artist win. “I’m going to be honest – it sounds so cliché, but I think any one of these artists could take it,” she says. “It’s going to be cool to just enjoy the night. We all have something to celebrate no matter what.”
The Competition: Kelly is friendly with both Bay and Trainor. “The first song I heard of James’ was ‘Let It Go,’ which we actually get to sing together. And I’ve always loved Meghan. We were texting each other right when we found out and freaking out! It’s fun to kind of geek out with them.” As for the other nominees, she adds, “I’ve met Sam once, and I think he’s awesome. I haven’t met Courtney yet, but I’m sure I’ll meet her on the night. She seems really cool, too.”
The Big Night: “I know my friends in this group Pentatonix are up for an award,” Kelly says. “I hope they win, because that would be cool!” She also cites Hiatus Kaiyote (“a band who are a little more underrated”) and Andra Day (“another one of my good friends”) as her top picks for the night. “I’m hoping that they all take home.”