SXSW Music: Next to the Big Bands, Some Serious Singers

While some Austin crowds drift towards the biggest sounds, TIME singles out some singers that will be wowing audiences with more subdued shows

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Sharon Van Etten, one of the featured performers at this year's South By Southwest Music Festival

The roar on the corner of East 6th St. and Trinity is already deafening. From the guitars being shredded to the unrelenting bass and the drums going wild, South By Southwest 2012 is back in full swing. (See TIME’s complete coverage of SXSW 2012)

For most attendees — already one or two hangovers into the swing of things — the festival is all about cheap beer and pizza, little sleep and an endless tour through the deafening sets of bands going for the bold. And yet while the rock scene seems to win the sensory battle (check out our picks for five buzz-worthy bands playing this week), there are scores of other musicians and groups who use SXSW as a forum to create something more intimate, revealing and even sparse. Once upon a time, the bulk of these cooler heads were singer-songwriters; nowadays, it cuts across all genres. (MORE: The 100 Best Albums of All-TIME)

Here are five of our favorite singers storming SXSW this year, all with songs that tend towards the emotional, confessional and unshakable:

1. Brendan Benson: The Raconteurs regular and singer-songwriter returns with a new record and a new single awash in nostalgia for ’70s rock that already has fans and pundits. He plays 11 p.m. Thursday; here’s his new heartfelt single “Bad For Me:”

2. Sarah Siskind: It was Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon who turned me on to Siskind. After covering her song “Lover’s For Fools,” the two teamed up during a European tour, where they played it as a duet (check out this phenomenal performance). Siskind arrives to Austin with new music, and she’ll be performing 10 p.m. Thursday. Here, a new cut, “Feeling for You:”

3. NO: As I poured over new bands for this year’s SXSW, I don’t think there was a song that haunted me more than “Stay With Me,” by Echo Park’s NO. From frontman Bradley Hanan Carter’s seductive baritone to its raw and emotional chorus, this is a sound that stuck with me — a track I’ve had on repeat while traveling down to Austin. The group has a prime performance slot at 10 p.m. Saturday:

4. Frank Turner: Here’s a musician who comes recommended by other musicians. Known for his relentless, DIY work ethic, and his bracing, kinetic acoustic style, Frank Turner is widely known in England for his folk-punk style. But his multiple appearances at SXSW this year (his final performance is 5 p.m. Wednesday evening) should bring him even more fans in America. Here, his hit “If Ever I Stray:”

5. Sharon Van Etten: The Brooklyn singer-songwriter released her third album (in four years) just last month. Known for heartfelt melodies, plainspoken lyrics and an introspective folk style, she arrives in Austin for her Thursday night performance touting her latest hit, “Serpents:”

Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.

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