Meet Neffy, The Winner Of The 2021 Tiny Desk Contest

Sep 14, 2021
Originally published on September 14, 2021 8:33 pm

Judges for this year's Tiny Desk Contest waded and watched and debated through thousands of entries, but today we finally have a winner: Her family knows her as Mecca Russell – we'll come to know her as Neffy.

Today "has been absolutely wild," she tells All Thing Considered's Mary Louise Kelly in a conversation this afternoon, following the announcement of the news early this morning. "My mom is bursting at the seams," she says, adding that her parents are "really happy, and that makes me happy."

She says her winning song, "Wait Up," was written only a month and a half ago, in the wake of a move from New York, where she'd spent the last five years going to college, back home to Arlington, Va. Her reflection of her half decade in the big city is obvious enough in the song's lyrics: I'm stuck / and the city's got its grip on me / and I've had enough.

Neffy's winning song is sparse and deep, recorded in a mode that's comfortable for her. "It's always just been me and my guitar – I've never had a huge band play behind me ... and being alone at that table sort of reflects the reality of a lot of people during this troubling time. But to be simple, it's just me and my guitar. It's always been that way."

Hear "Wait Up" below, and listen to our full conversation with Neffy above.

To watch a live chat between Neffy and Tiny Desk-haver Bob Boilen on Fri. Sept. 15, you can RSVP here for a reminder.

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We have a winner. Judges for this year's Tiny Desk Contest sifted through thousands of entries. They have chosen a song called "Wait Up" by an artist named Neffy.


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.

KELLY: Beautiful - and Neffy herself joins us now. Welcome and congratulations.

NEFFY: Hello. Thank you so much for having me. I'm so grateful to be here.

KELLY: What has today been like for you so far?

NEFFY: It has been absolutely wild and sort of in, like, a half stage of in - still in shock and disbelief and also in a half stage of just trying to soak it all in. My mom is bursting at the seams.

KELLY: Aw, great.

NEFFY: And my parents - and collectively are - they're really happy, and that makes me happy.


NEFFY: (Singing) Wait up. Is there one last chance to dance in the river - dance in the river? I'm stuck.

KELLY: So tell us about your song. When did you write it? Why'd you write it?

NEFFY: I wrote "Wait Up" about a month and a half ago. I had just come from living in New York City for a while, and then I got the chance to return home to my roots in Arlington, Va. And that really gave me the chance to reflect on the last five years that I had been living in New York City for college and how much that took out of me spiritually and mentally and physically. And it was something that I really needed to write.

KELLY: One of the lines that you sing - I think this is the chorus. You write, I'm stuck, and the city's got its grip on me, and I have had enough.


KELLY: Which, I was experiencing the pandemic in a different city, but it felt pretty much like the chorus of the pandemic.

NEFFY: (Laughter).


NEFFY: (Singing) I'm stuck, and the city's got its grip on me, and I have - I've had enough.

KELLY: What was going through your mind when you wrote that?

NEFFY: It's pretty self-explanatory, to be, like, completely honest. I have had enough of all of the anxiety and the confusion and the excitement that comes along with living in a big city. And so I just needed a way out (laughter). And those were the words that I feel, like, encapsulated how I was feeling.

KELLY: The way you structure the song feels very of the moment. It's you and your guitar, that's it. The video you made is super intimate and simple. It's you sitting at this table at home. You're alone. And that felt like something that would resonate in this moment. So many of us have been sitting at a table at home alone.

NEFFY: Yeah. It's always just been me and my guitar. Like, I've never had, like, a huge band play behind me. But I think it might just speak to the broader sort of more ongoing conversation of isolation. And being alone at that table reflects sort of the reality of a lot of people during this troubling time. But to be simple, it just is just me and my guitar. It's always been that way.

KELLY: In fact, it's so just you and your guitar that you sing your own backup on this, right? Did you...


NEFFY: Yes. Yes, I do sing my own backing vocals. I just kept layering and layering and layering my vocals, and that was, like, a really fun process for me.


NEFFY: (Singing) I’ll rejoice in my own free will, in the tide where your waters run still.

KELLY: You sound like you come to this with tremendous talent and self-confidence already, but winning something like this when you're still so young, it must be kind of an answer, maybe, to any voices of doubt you ever had in your head over, gosh, this is something I can really do and make it real.

NEFFY: Yes, absolutely. A few weeks ago, I was not sure about, like, you know, the fate of my career and what I was going to do in the future because being an artist is quite uncertain. And this situation that I was fortunate enough to win and be put in has put some of that self-doubt away for me. So that has been really great.

KELLY: I'm glad. That is the winner of this year's Tiny Desk Contest. She was born Mecca Russell. She sings beautifully as Neffy, and she's been talking with us about her song - her winning song - "Wait Up." Thank you so much and congratulations again.

NEFFY: Thank you so much for having me. I'm just very grateful to be here (laughter).


NEFFY: (Singing) Held me tender as a child. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.