Billie Eilish's Horses! Lizzo's Flute! Surprising Facts About the 2020 Grammys' Best New Artist Nominees

There are eight nominees this year for the prestigious prize and you're going to be the most informed fan at your viewing party once you've read this

By Natalie Finn Jan 21, 2020 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Lizzo Leads 2020 Grammy Nominations With 8

OK, now what does Best New Artist mean to the Recording Academy again?

Because it certainly doesn't mean you just started making music sometime during the prior 12 months.

Well, according to the rules, you must have released a minimum of one album or at least five songs, but no more than 30 tracks or three albums. You can't have been included in the category more than three times before as a member of another entity or doing something different as a performer. And, perhaps the one that resonates the most: you "must have achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and impacted the musical landscape during the eligibility period."

Check, check, check, check, check, check, check and... check.

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Then and Now: See the 2020 Grammys Nominees' First Red Carpets

From the names you couldn't have avoided even if you were in a coma, like Lizzo and Lil Nas X, to the less heralded but critically acclaimed likes of Black Pumas and Yola, the 2020 nominees for the Best New Artist Grammy run the gamut in style, but with all signs pointing to a new frontier in how music is made, how listeners are finding it, the messages the artists are striving to communicate, and the ways in which artists are connecting with their fans.

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"It's just crazy to me because I grew up as a fan and I still am a fan, you know," Billie Eilish, who just turned 18, told the Recording Academy in 2018. "I'm a fan of so much music and art and artists and stuff, and I grew up with their sort of mindset, and now, I'm seeing it from the other side, but also, being on the other side, it's weird. It's just something that doesn't happen, so when it happens, it's like, 'What the f--k?'"

Not only that, but now she has six Grammy nominations, too.

And since not everyone in the Best New Artist category has been as ubiquitous as Eilish, you'll impress everyone at your viewing party after you've read this primer on the teen and her fellow nominees:

Billie Eilish

• Her full name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell.

• The 18-year-old from Los Angeles' Highland Park neighborhood is the youngest-ever artist to be nominated in all four top categories: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Not to mention the nominations for Best Pop Solo Performance for "Bad Guy," Best Pop Vocal Album for When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and the LP is also up for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.

• Her big brother Finneas O'Connell produced her album and they co-wrote the songs together. He was 4 when Billie was born and "Pirate" was what he wanted to call her. Finneas bought a house that's about four minutes away from where Billie and their parents live.

• She signed her first record deal at 14, with Interscope imprint Darkroom, but they waited a couple of years to "give her space to grow and figure it out," Interscope CEO John Janick told the LA Times. Eilish passed her high school equivalency exam and got her diploma at 15.

• She's the first artist born in this millennium (2001) to have a No. 1 album. She told Rolling Stone she has never purchased a CD.

• She's already signed a $25 million deal with Apple TV+ for a documentary about her life.

• Eilish's concerns about the future of this planet are well-documented. A vegetarian forever, she's been vegan since 2014, and she has had voter-registration booths and info tables for Global Citizen and Greenpeace at every stop on her arena tour.

• When battling anxiety and depression, she found horseback riding particularly soothing, but stopped riding some years ago due to the cost. She's hoping to be around horses more often again nowadays.

• None other than presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren defended Eilish when she caught heat online for not knowing who Van Halen was. Warren knew, "but you don't have to," she said on The Tonight Show. "Let's ease up on Billie." (As of December, Eilish had not decided which of the slew of Democratic candidates she would support in the primary, now that she's old enough to vote.)

• Her hair color is listed as "Other" on her driver's license.

Tank and the Bangas

• The members of the genre-busting funk-soul ensemble first met at an open mic night at a since-closed club in New Orleans.

• Tarriona "Tank" Ball is on lead vocals, backed up by musical director Joshua Johnson on drums, Norman Spence on bass and synth keys, Jonathan Johnson on bass, Merell Burkett on keyboard, Anjelika "Jelly" Joseph and Kayla Buggage on background vocals, Albert Allenback on alto saxophone and flute, and Etienne Stoufflet on tenor sax.

• They won the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Contest after their performance clustered around the desk of All Things Considered host Bob Boilen was deemed the best of the year by a panel of musicians, including Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, and NPR staffers.

• Tank Ball, who is also a poet, first performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon as a backup singer for Norah Jones, so it was quite a moment to return as the leader of her own band in 2019.

Black Pumas

• They're a Texas-based duo consisting of guitarist-producer Adrian Quesada and singer Eric Burton.

• They met in 2017 through a mutual friend who knew Burton was looking for a musical collaborator, and their self-titled debut album came out in 2019.

• Quesada has a Grammy already—Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album—from when he was a member of Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma, which won for its 2010 album El Existential.

The Guardian called Black Pumas "the answer to the exciting question of what it would sound like if Sam Cooke or Neil Young joined the Wu-Tang Clan." 

Rosalía

• The Spanish artist, born Rosalía Vila Tobella, is also nominated for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album for 2018's El Mal Querer ("Toxic Love," basically), her rather immediate follow-up to her 2017 album Los Ángeles.

•  Her mother, Maria Pilar Tobella Aguilera, opened Motomami S.L, a representation firm, to help look after her daughter's blossoming career. Sister Pilar (aka stylist Daikyri) is also on her team.

• She didn't enter the flamenco-pop arena flippantly—she studied flamenco for eight years at the Catalonia School of Music in her native Spain and with local legend José Miguel "El Chiqui" Vizcaya.

• She has two Latin Grammy wins, for Best Alternative Song and Best Urban Fusion/Performance for "Malamente," off of El Mal Querer. At the show, Rosalía shouted out some of her biggest inspirations, including Björk, Kate Bush, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. 

Her song "Di Mi Nombre"—"say my name"—is indeed a nod to Destiny's Child, another favorite.

• Director Pedro Almodóvar was a huge fan and gave her a small part in his latest film, Pain and Glory, which has been nominated for the Best International Film Oscar, after seeing her perform in 2017. They're now good friends.

Lizzo

• Melissa Viviane Jefferson was born in Detroit and moved to Houston with her parents and two older siblings when she was 9.

• She formed her first rap group at 14, the Cornrow Clique, and her nickname morphed from "Lissa" to "Lizzo" because the Jay-Z song "Izzo" was so popular at the time.

• She's a classically trained flautist and has been playing since her junior high marching band days. For awhile she played in a prog-rock outfit called Ellypseas and her instrument is named Sasha Flute, after Beyoncé's I Am Sasha Fierce.

• Lizzo attended the University of Houston on a music scholarship but dropped out in her junior year.

• She made her acting debut in 2019's Hustlers, playing a high-end stripper alongside Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu and Cardi B.

According to The Cut, Lizzo keeps in touch with her dad, who died in 2010, through a medium she sees when she's in Los Angeles.

• She leads the Grammy field with eight nominations, including Album of the Year for Cuz I Love You (Deluxe); Record and Song of the Year, as well as Best Pop Solo Performance, for "Truth Hurts"; Best Traditional R&B Performance for "Jerome"; and Best Urban Contemporary Album in addition to Best New Artist.

Yola

• Born Yolanda Quartey in a small town just outside of Bristol, England, the Afro-Caribbean-country-pop-soul singer-songwriter defies genre.

• In addition to Best New Artist, Yola is nominated for Best Americana Album for her debut, Walk Through Fire; and Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song for "Faraway Look," which she co-wrote with Dan Auerbach (who produced the album) and Pat McLaughlin.

• The title of her album is on the literal side: Yola survived a house fire that threatened to engulf her.

• Her parents weren't particularly supportive of her decision to pursue music. "My mother was not keen," Yola told the Los Angeles Times. "It's quite a typical thing in black and brown parentland. You're either a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, or don't even bother." Her mum, who was from Barbados, did come to appreciate Yola's music before she died in 2013.

• Brandi Carlile invited Yola to be an honorary member of the Highwomen, the singer-songwriter's super-group with Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, for which "you get a lovely golden necklace," Yola said.

Maggie Rogers

• She grew up in rural Maryland playing the banjo and folk music.

• While in college at New York University, she had a "spiritual experience with dance music" studying abroad in France, and that influence cane be heard in her debut album, Heard It in a Past Life. (She has degrees in music engineering and production, and English literature.)

• A video of Pharrell Williams getting emotional while the two of them just sit there and groove out to her music during an NYU Masterclass propelled Rogers to the next tier of fame. "I have zero, zero notes for that," he told her. "And I'll tell you why: you're doing your own thing."

• Not exactly a newcomer, the 25-year-old saw her first single, "Alaska," chart in 2016.

• She calls Brandi Carlile and Sharon Van Etten her "musical big sisters."

Lil Nas X

• Born Montero Lamar Hill, he's the youngest of six. His parents split up when he was about 6, then he lived with his mom and grandma in an Atlanta housing project, and then when he was 9 he and his brother went to live with their father in the suburbs. He told Rolling Stone in May 2019 that he had lost touch with his mother years ago and hadn't heard from her since his career took off.

• He leased a beat made by a Dutch teenage producer named YoungKio that sampled banjo from a Nine Inch Nails track for $30, which provided the foundation of "Old Town Road."

• The "Old Town Road" remix with Billy Ray Cyrus was a legit smash, bridging genres, media (the song gained traction online but a snippet on TikTok took it to another level) and spending 17 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. He first learned it has hit No. 1 on his 20th birthday.

• Not everyone in his camp thought it was a good idea for him to come out as gay right when he had become a household name, but he "wanted to be someone that [people] are proud of," he told the Los Angeles Times.

• Along with his Best New Artist nod, Lil Nas X is up for Album of the Year for 7; Record of the Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Music Video for "Old Town Road;" and Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Panini."

• His first-ever public performance was at the 2019 Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif. During the drive from L.A., they had to stop at a CVS because Nas hadn't packed socks.

• Past jobs include cashier at a fast-casual chicken restaurant and ride attendant at Six Flags.

Whoever wins will join a swell club that includes Dua Lipa, Chance the Rapper, Adele, Carrie Underwood and Alicia Keys, who returns as host for the second straight year.

Watch E!'s Live From the Red Carpet 2020 Grammy Awards coverage Sunday, 26th Jan. starting at 11pm. Catch the repeat show on Monday at 7am only on E!