NPR Tiny Desk
Since 2008, NPR has hosted an eclectic range of artists in its Tiny Desk concert series—from superstars like Adele and Lizzo to Broadway casts and international bands. NPR launched the Tiny Desk Contest in 2015 to offer a chance for undiscovered artists to showcase their work at the eponymous desk. Several artists have emerged as contest winners to build impressive careers, such as Gaelynn Lea and Tank And The Bangas. Over time, NPR has worked to build the contest community by featuring entries on their website, social media, and newsletters. In 2020, NPR started the Top Shelf podcast with a rotating roster of contest judges selecting and discussing their favorite entries, sometimes bringing in the artists. Over the years, several Nebraska artists have entered the contest. This miniseries covers a few of those artists.
Jessica Hanson has been teaching violin and fiddle at the Omaha Conservatory of Music since around 2014. She contributes to recording projects for local and national musicians, including Nebraska-based artists Andrea Von Kampen, and has performed locally with Daniel & The Deliverance, Aly Peeler, Domestic Blend, and more.
Hanson performs regularly with Von Kampen and will be touring with her this summer opening for Avi Kaplan. Recently, they played NPR’s Mountain Stage.
Outside of collaborations, Hanson creates and performs her own original music. Awareness of current events often shapes Hanson’s works. In 2020, she collaborated with Culxr House to organize the Elijah McClain string vigil, and in 2021 the North Side Story string event.
Her entry for this year’s NPR Tiny Desk Contest, “Shadow Man,” speaks to a debated local issue: the downtown branch of Omaha Public Library.
“Shadow Man” arose from the news that the W. Dale Clark Library had been greenlit for demolition to make way for a new skyscraper, in an effort to revitalize downtown and alter the city skyline.
Hanson mourns the loss of this community meeting space. “The library, in a way, is more than a structure full of knowledge and the access to it. It is a place of connection, of safety, and warmth during the freezing cold winds of the northern Midwest for those who need it most.” Within a one block radius, she noted, there are three sectional units that provide low-cost housing to the most vulnerable.
The library is being moved to a new location much further from important services, including public transportation.
“While I honestly can say I believe in progress and development and not letting situations that remain untreated and dilapidated to continue to worsen, I don’t think enough concern was given to the community it would impact the most,” Hanson said. “I cannot put my neighbors and friends out of sight and feel okay with this.”
Hanson also tries to help these communities through volunteer work and donations, but she said that sometimes, it’s hard to know how to help low-income or unhoused populations.
The video was filmed at Culprit Café, not far from W. Dale Clark. “Shadow Man” is haunting and ethereal against the background of people going about their daily lives. With her violin, Hanson can create rich texture and color, especially through looping stations.
She grew up as a classical violinist, and for a long time, the idea of making her own music with a violin was daunting. She started with a small one-track loop pedal, and that opened the door to making music by herself. With a looping station, she can layer multiple violin parts, as well as vocals, to create a lush, cinematic soundscape—without a band or ensemble.
Hanson is experimenting with another instrument as well. She has been studying hardanger fiddle for about 18 months. It is a very different experience than the traditional violin. The strings are tuned differently, with sympathetic strings resonating alongside the primary strings to create a fuller sound. Also, the tunes are traditionally learned by ear, rather than sheet music.
Hanson is currently working on a collaborative album of meditation music and an original EP.