Summer of Chicago music: Nine up-and-coming acts to see now

It’s summer festival season. Go for the headliners, but stay for these local up-and-comers worthy of their own spotlight.

Mila La Morena, Ausar,  Ca$h Era, Deeper, Ariel Zetina and Nina Tech.
Some of the local acts on the summer must-see list: (top row, from left) Mila La Morena, AUSAR and DJ Ca$h Era; (bottom row from left) Deeper, Ariel Zetina and Nina Tech. Courtesy of the artists
Mila La Morena, Ausar,  Ca$h Era, Deeper, Ariel Zetina and Nina Tech.
Some of the local acts on the summer must-see list: (top row, from left) Mila La Morena, AUSAR and DJ Ca$h Era; (bottom row from left) Deeper, Ariel Zetina and Nina Tech. Courtesy of the artists

Summer of Chicago music: Nine up-and-coming acts to see now

It’s summer festival season. Go for the headliners, but stay for these local up-and-comers worthy of their own spotlight.

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Get your day packs, sunglasses and set lists ready, because Chicago’s summer music festival calendar is about to kick off.

Starting Saturday with Sueños Music Festival, the barrage of events this year brings to town big names such as Feid, Kendrick Lamar and Billie Eilish. But if you take a moment and squint at the festival posters, you’ll likely see local performers among the smaller printed names down toward the bottom. That doesn’t mean you should leave them off your “must sees” — on the contrary, you might want to catch the local up-and-comers now before they become headliners.

Here are nine acts to not miss and a handy Spotify list where you can sample each musician’s sound.

The band Deeper
Deeper plays Pitchfork on July 22.

Deeper at Pitchfork (Union Park, July 21-23)

Background Riding high on the success of a debut record in 2018, the post-punk band Deeper was deep into the making of a second album when tragedy struck. A friend and former guitarist, Mike Clawson, who had left the band halfway through the recording, died by suicide.

The band would ultimately finish the record, Auto-Pain, in 2020, but the death of a former bandmate left the members of Deeper shaken and impacted the reception of the project. That strange launch was compounded with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The week the record came out, everybody was more focused on sanitizing their groceries than listening to music,” said guitarist Drew McBride.

There’s momentum once more. Last month, Deeper announced it had signed with the major indie label Sub Pop, and the band is touring with groups like Future Islands. The group also has new music to share with fans, including the most recent single “Sub”. “We’re excited to see the reaction to playing a couple new songs for people for the first time in three years,” said McBride.

The sound In Deeper’s music you certainly hear the influence of ’80s post-punk acts such as Gang Of Four and Joy Division. “This Heat” off of Auto-Pain, for example, would fit naturally next a song like “Damaged Goods.” What is remarkable about Deeper, however, is the precision of their arrangements on guitar and the provocatively raw and spare lyrics from lead singer Nic Gohl.

A silver lining from the pandemic days, the band says, was that they discovered a new way of working. In isolation, Gohl and McBride could send each other demos, allowing the other to marinate on guitar parts or lyrical ideas for an extended period of time. “I would have nothing to do for the day. I have this set song or loop, and I would basically just play a guitar riff until I found it worked within everything…and maybe accentuated lyrical spots,” said Gohl.

This care to detail and stripping away of excess results in sharp songs that are exhilarating, profound, yet remarkably danceable.

Where to see them On July 22 at Pitchfork Music Festival

Ariel Zetina at Pitchfork (Union Park, July 21-23)

Ariel Zetina
Ariel Zetina is a resident DJ at Smartbar and will perform at Pitchfork. Photo by Colectivo Multipolar / Courtesy of the artist
Background DJ and musician Ariel Zetina was first drawn to electronic music through the theater. “I was always using it on the side when I was directing or writing plays as the score,” she said. Eventually, she decided to write the score for a production herself.

“When I started doing performance art stuff I was, like, ‘Oh I want to make it exactly like I want’ instead of having to source it from somewhere.” Initially, that meant teaching herself Garageband and easily accessible DJ software.

Fast forward several years and now Zetina has become a mainstay of Chicago’s nightlife, perhaps most notably as a resident DJ at Smartbar in Wrigleyville.

The sound Zetina’s 2022 album, Cyclorama, is a perfect encapsulation of what has made her such a distinctive artist and clear pick for a Pitchfork debut. The record masterfully weaves together classic sounds from ’90s house and techno with a vulnerable depiction of her experience as a trans woman.

The song “Have You Ever” is a true standout. Featuring a stirring vocal feature from Cae Monāe and frenetic production from Zetina, the track explores feelings of anxiety that a trans woman and cis man might have in their attraction to one another, repeating the refrain “have you ever been with a girl like me before?” In some respects, Cyclorama is a pride-filled album, but it’s also rich with complexity in its depiction of trans identity. “I think it’s celebratory, but in a different sort of way. It’s celebratory by being a mirror rather than a firework,” Zetina said.

Where to see her Zetina plays on July 23 at Pitchfork Music Festival.

DJ Ca$h Era
DJ Ca$h Era will play Saturday, June 17, at the Hyde Park SummerFest. Courtesy of the artist

DJ Ca$h Era at Hyde Park SummerFest (Hyde Park, June 17-18)

Background Even though CaSera Heining — who spins under the moniker DJ Ca$h Era — has been rocking clubs from SoHo House to Scarlet Bar in Boystown for years, she still finds herself getting nervous before shows. “You’ll catch me pacing; my hands are sweaty. I don’t talk much, I don’t eat much, I get so nervous,” she said.

Heining, who is chatty and at ease with herself when not on stage, has been steadily building her reputation in Chicago’s club scene over the last nine years. Her career began when she took an introductory DJ course at Columbia College. (An adviser told her the class would be an easy A). She took to the craft immediately and was soon hired to DJ parties and events, work she juggled with full-time coursework, jobs and internships.

Her intention was to go into radio, initially as a host. She credits her mom with pushing her to build her brand as a DJ throughout college. “My mom was in my ear: ‘You should get a DJ name, you should get a logo, you should use this credit card to buy this equipment in case you do get a gig,’” she recalled. Facing graduation and with no radio job lined up, Heining realized that the bulk of her income was coming from DJ gigs and decided to pursue a career.

The sound A DJ Ca$h Era set can really run the gambit. You’ll hear music from across eras and genres, whether it’s ’80s and ’90s pop and R&B bangers, gospel, or Chicago house and juke. Something that Heining prides herself on is creating outlandish mashups. One of her favorites is bringing together gospel artist Kirk Franklin’s “Revolution” with Khia’s “My Neck, My Back.”

“When they hear what it transitions into a lot people turn around and stare with their jaws open because they can’t believe I had the audacity to do it. People often tell me I’m going to hell for it,” she said.

Where to see her Heining will play June 17 at the Hyde Park SummerFest. You can also find her Thursdays at Renaissance (4641 S. King Drive) in Bronzeville, on the second Friday of the month at Emporium (839 W. Fulton Market) in West Loop and on Saturday nights this summer at Scarlet (3320 N. Halsted St.) in Boystown.

Anthony Bruno poses with his saxophone.
Anthony Bruno will play the Logan Square Arts Festival in June. He also has two ongoing local residencies. Photo by Faith Decker / Courtesy of the artist
Anthony Bruno at
Logan Square Arts Festival (Logan Square, June 23-25)

Background Anthony Bruno’s recent self-titled album is an introspective, R&B-tinged jazz record, but this saxophonist and composer’s musical origins could not be more different. While many of his contemporaries talk about seeing some of the jazz greats growing up, the Elk Grove Village-raised Bruno was on a different wavelength. “I was going to the Fireside Bowl. I was going to Warped Tour, I was seeing bands like NoFX, Alkaline Trio and Less Than Jake,” he said. He eventually settled on saxophone as his primary instrument toward the end of high school and made his turn to jazz composition.

Leading up to the writing of his most recent record, Bruno worked as an in-demand session musician for artists like Wynton Marsalis and The Temptations, as well as a music teacher. But when the pandemic hit, the floor fell out from under him. “I went through a really bad break up,” he said. “I lost everything that was important to me. I couldn’t play live anymore because the gigs were taken away, I couldn’t teach anymore, I couldn’t see my family, so I was literally, like, ‘I have nothing left. What am I going to do?’”

Bruno turned to composing this most recent record for catharsis. 

The sound Bruno’s new album has its reflective and mournful moments, but it does not lack energy. On the opening track “Hang Glide,” bassist Andrew Vogt lays down a fat and funky groove that swings with Bruno’s woozy sax. On “Feelings (Outro),” the music builds to crescendos of emotion as drummer James Russell Sims pushes the pace.

Bruno has such a discerning ear for melody that at times, it sounds like there are words, even though the compositions are fully instrumental. “A lot of instrumental music is hard to sing along to, but all the melodies I hear in my head are quite simple and you could easily put words to or hum along with,” he explained. In the case of the song, “Thankful For You,” Bruno has even written lyrics, but you won’t hear them: He transposed them to saxophone.

What also makes Bruno’s compositions stand out is his use of synths alongside electric piano. An example is “New Mexican Hash,” in which keyboardist Julius Tucker sets the melodic line with a synth patch reminiscent of something off an early James Blake record. Those textures add a modern flavor to the quartet and accentuates the album’s pop elements.

Where to see him Bruno plays June 25 at the Logan Square Arts Festival. He also currently performs regularly in Chicago through two residencies: on Tuesdays at Dorian’s (1939 W. North Ave.) during jazz happy hour, and on Thursdays at Andy’s (11 E. Hubbard St.) as part of the Late Night Concert Series.

Mila La Morena
Mila La Morena will perform at the Logan Square Arts Festival. Photo by LunaFel / Courtesy of the artist
Mila La Morena at
Logan Square Arts Festival (Logan Square, June 23-25)

Background As far back as she can remember, Mila La Morena has been making up songs and singing. “My mom was a teacher, so I would go into the music room after school, not knowing how to play piano or anything, but would just be hitting random things and singing little melodies to myself,” she said.

She would go on to pursue music at Columbia College. At first, she focused on the business side of the industry. But after taking a songwriting class, she said she began to feel more confident that she could earn a career as an artist.

The sound Since then, La Morena has been releasing singles that bring together reggaeton, latin, R&B and electro-pop. Frequently you’ll hear La Morena flipping between English and Spanish in her lyrics. “I love that I have a bigger vocabulary and can use slang in both languages. It’s so f****** fun,” she said.

La Morena also demonstrates an impressive musical range. One could easily hear “Sagitario” in the club with its KAYTRANADA-esque production stylings that mesh wonderfully with her breezy vocal performance. Contrast that with a romantic ballad such as “Amarres” or the classic R&B “In Luv With U,” both of which showcase the artist’s ability to channel profound feeling in her singing.

For many musicians, performing at festivals can be alienating because the stages do not provide the intimacy of more confined venues. But La Morena says she relishes having that bigger stage and the energy of a large audience. “My favorite part of being an artist, and where my real artistry lies, is the performance,” she said.

Where to see her La Morena will perform June 25 at Logan Square Arts Festival. You can also catch her on July 13 at Cobra Lounge (235 N. Ashland Ave.) and on Aug. 11 at Navy Pier (600 E. Grand Ave.).

Ausar wears a hat that says 'Chicago everywhere.'
AUSAR will perform June 25 at Summer Smash Festival. Photo by S7eev / Courtesy of the artist
Summer Smash (Bridgeview, June 23-25)

Background Ausar Bradley was writing songs early in his life. His mom started him on piano lessons when he was 5, and, by 7, he was writing songs when he was bored and stuck in his house in South Shore. He said he didn’t start rapping until he was introduced to hip-hop by his older stepbrother, Nick. Bradley, who now uses the stage name AUSAR, wasn’t allowed to listen to rap in the house — only gospel music — but that didn’t stop him from steeping himself in Chicago artists like Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), Rhymefest and Common.

When Bradley attended University of Illinois, he became involved in a group called Writers Organizing Realistic Dialect, or WORD. The group held a concert each semester and encouraged him to perform. The success of that initial show gave him the confidence to start taking his craft more seriously and eventually decide to pursue music as a career.

Initially, he said, this choice to become a rapper was not met with enthusiasm from his family. “Not a single person was happy about that announcement,” he recalled. “Until they saw the material results like me working with Wyclef Jean. Now I think there is a lot more respect for it.”’

The sound AUSAR has regularly released singles and EPs for the last six years, and his 2020 EP, Flight of the Honeybee, earned critical acclaim. A skilled wordsmith with a keen sense of flow and rhythm, his most recent single “DON’T DATE RAPPERS.” demonstrates this mastery well with its catchy chorus and seamless shifts in cadence from stanza to stanza.

He has also made himself stand out with the conceptual level of his albums. Flight of the Honeybee, for example, uses the insect as an overarching metaphor.

On his forthcoming album I.N.K (I Now Know), Bradley said he gets personal in a way he hasn’t on previous records. “I’ve always been closed off about my own personal experiences. I’ve been vulnerable about how I feel emotionally about what’s going on in the world, but never about me as a person.” Those attending Summer Smash may just get a sneak peek of what’s to come.

Where to see him AUSAR will be performing on June 25 at Summer Smash Festival. A summer tour will follow for I.N.K but dates have not yet been announced.

Nina Tech
Nina Tech takes the stage June 23 at Summer Smash Festival. Photo by V Sidaugaite / Courtesy of the artist
Nina Tech
at Summer Smash (Bridgeview, June 23-25)

Background Zerricka Burton — who performs under the stage name Nina Tech — grew up in Englewood surrounded by music. Her mom was a DJ and made a point of making her daughter a student of music history early on in her life. It’s how Burton got turned on to Mary J. Blige — whom she says is her favorite artist — as well as TLC, Missy Elliott and Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Starting in middle school, Burton began playing clarinet in jazz and marching bands at school, along with her friends at their houses. Rapping, however, didn’t come until later on in high school at King College Prep, but quickly went from side project to main focus as she went off to college.

Looking back, Burton says pursuing music as a career was inevitable, but it took her a while to find the confidence to make the leap. “Once I got a little older and got around people who supported me, who pushed me to be my best self, it made me feel like ‘OK, I can do this’,” she said.

The sound If you came across a Nina Tech single from earlier in her career, the influences of 90s R&B wouldn’t be obvious. Sonically, songs such as “Run Around” and “Hocus Pocus” lean heavily into trap and drill, with Burton delivering brash and salacious verses about her prowess in the bedroom and the studio.

“When I was making that music, I was a rougher person for real,” she said. “I was still growing and learning about myself and felt I needed to assert myself in that way.”

Nonetheless, Burton’s talent for catchy verses and addictive flow shine on those early records. But her most recent singles demonstrate a wider musical and lyrical palette. On her 2023 single “We Made It,” we hear a softer side from Nina Tech, where she sings about falling in love. “Honestly, I’m on some lover boy s***. It’s definitely a song about my partner. It’s just crazy when you find someone you really care about and can lock in with.”

Burton says she’s working on a new project that is set to be released later this summer.

Where to see her Nina Tech will perform on June 23 at Summer Smash Festival.

Horsegirl at Summer Fest (Milwaukee, weekends in June and July)

Background The young trio of Chicago rockers made a big splash with the debut album Versions of Modern Performance, which was released in June of last year. The three members — Penelope Lowenstein, Gigi Reece, and Nora Cheng — were all friends during high school who bonded over their mutual obsessions with bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth, and other classic groups from the ’80s and ’90s alternative rock scene.

Eventually they moved from hanging out together and attending shows to forming a band. After releasing some initial singles like “Ballroom Dance Scene” and “Forecast,” it wasn’t long until the band was selling out those same venues they had attended as fans just a couple years prior.

Now the band is set for another major U.S. tour. The Summerfest stop kicks it all off in July.

The sound Horsegirl signed a record deal in April 2021 with Matador Records, a natural fit given that many of the label’s biggest artists like Yo La Tengo, Belle and Sebastian, and Interpol, influenced the band’s music. Horsegirl is part of a growing group of bands in Chicago carrying the torch of fuzzy alternative rock, along with contemporaries such as Lifeguard and Friko.

But while the influences of their post-rock forebears are immediately present, there is also something remarkably fresh about Horsegirl. Sometimes they sound extraordinarily confident, yet, they also manage to give the sense they’re simply having fun, unselfconsciously. Whatever they’re going for, it’s working.

Where to see them You can catch them on July 6 at SummerFest in Milwaukee and on Aug. 13 at Thalia Hall (1807 S. Allport St.).

DJ Miriam at Sueños Music Festival (Grant Park, May 27-28)

Background Since she began DJing in 2019, Miriam Paz — who performs under the stage name DJ Miriam — has become one of most popular Latin DJs in the Midwest. After a decade working behind-the-scenes in the venue and booking industry and with Chicago’s V5 Group, she started building a following online by DJing sets on Twitch and Instagram. Her big break came last March, when she opened for the Puerto Rican rapper and reggaeton star Bad Bunny when he came through Chicago as part of his Último Tour Del Mundo.

Along with continuing to perform at larger festivals and events around the city, Paz helps organize Sorry Papi, a women-exclusive event that provides a safe space for women to party and dance.

The sound If you’re itching to bust a move to Latin rhythms, DJ Miriam is not to be missed. She is a master of her craft with complete command of the pacing of her mixes. Her sets feature superstar artists such as Feid, Bad Bunny, and Becky G, but she’s also attuned to up and coming acts such as Young Chimi.

Where to see her DJ Miriam will be performing from 4:40 to 5:10 p.m. on May 27 at Sueños.

Andrew Meriwether is a freelance journalist and producer in Chicago.