For years, thought leaders in tech, music, film and more have flocked to Austin, Texas, for its South by Southwest (hence, SXSW) festival.
Over time, the annual gathering has become a go-to for on-the-rise music artists to showcase their talent and gain some grassroots fans with live shows.
2016’s music drew acts from across the country. Here are six mainstream acts that hit up Austin this year who you should know if you don’t already.
How you know him: His breakout single, “7 Years,” is No. 3 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart and still climbing.
What you need to know about him: Already a star in Europe, 27-year-old Graham and his band will release their self-titled debut LP in the U.S. on April 1. The Denmark native grew up in a liberal, self-governed commune near Copenhagen where Molotov cocktails and police violence were seemingly as common as the arts and yoga.
Now that he’s touring the U.S., he looks forward to seeing the whole country.
“I’m looking forward to see the real America,” he tells PEOPLE. “It’s kind of like when people come to Copenhagen, they think they’ve been to Denmark, and a lot of Europeans go to New York and L.A., and they think they’ve been to America. But I’ve met Americans, I know that L.A. and New York are nothing like the rest of the country, so I’m really looking forward to getting down and dirty and trying different food and just meeting people. I’m a people person.”
How you know her: Her single “My Church” is climbing the country and Hot 100 charts.
Why you should know her: The native Texan, 25, had been recording and releasing music for a decade before she found success with her 2015 self-titled EP. Now she’s gearing up to release her first major label full-length this summer.
And playing SXSW was particularly meaningful for the country belle.
“When I was 15, I played around Austin when SXSW was going on, so now coming back 10 years later to actually perform at SXSW has made me feel like everything has come full circle,” she tells PEOPLE. “Being from Texas and returning home to have my fans sing ‘My Church’ back to me has been so wonderfully overwhelming. It’s been an incredible few days!”
How you know them: They sang the hook on The Knocks’ 2014 hit “Classic.”
Why you should know them: The funky pop duo (comprised of Mike Del Rio & Crista Ru) are touring with alt-rockers X Ambassadors after releasing their Legendary EP last year.
Working on their forthcoming LP, Del Rio says they’re experimenting with several genres – and, though they’re based in L.A., have found inspiration in the Big Apple.
“New York in the ’70s was just a really interesting time for art: So much colorful music came out of that era that was so dark and kind of demented in New York. And there was a new way for pop or punk or disco or hip-hop,” says Del Rio. “All that really colorful music came out of that twisted period of time in New York. There was so much crime and blackouts and riots and gang wars – so that always spoke as an interesting start point for Powers.”
Why you should know about them: Their 2015 album, For Life, is a ridiculously catchy – and unjustly underrated – collection of day-brightening throwback synth-pop.
“Even the sad songs are super happy. And you know why that is: It wasn’t our intention, it’s just kind of what happened because the truth was before we wrote these songs and before we made this record, things weren’t good. We were all pretty unhappy and we didn’t know if we were gonna continue making music together,” lead singer Z Berg tells PEOPLE.
“Then it was so fun to write, we had so much fun writing and recording and making the whole thing, but you can’t take that out of the record. That fun is infused in every note.”
How you know her: She opened for Ellie Goulding on her European tour.
Why you should know her: Hartman, 20, had live in New York her entire life – until, at 19, she moved to Berlin to pursue her passion, music. Now 20, she’s got a major label deal and has already released two singles – “Stranger in a Room” and “Two Feet Off the Ground” – this year. With a voice in the vein of Sara Bareilles, the frizzy-haired performer is inspired by both her contemporaries (best new artist Grammy nominee Courtney Barnett) and classics (Nina Simone).
And going from small stages to playing arenas has been an eye-opening experience for Hartman. “I had to pinch myself quite often while I was opening for Ellie Goulding,” she says. “I felt like I had to be dreaming when I was on those stages. I had some really moving moments during the tour, the energy that comes from that many people is really powerful. My songs are very personal and for the crowds to respond so well and so openly brought me close to tears at a few shows.”
How you know them: The folk-rock band’s name comes from its duo’s middle names: “Alexander” from Dancing with the Stars alum Mark Ballas and Jean from his fiancée, songwriter BC Jean, best known for her pop songwriting credits (including Beyoncé‘s “If I Were a Boy”).
Why you should know them: Both have experience in the music biz, but the twosome – who plan to release their upcoming EP independently – say they’ve upped their game since they began collaborating.
“It’s super natural,” says BC Jean. “We bring different strengths to the table, and we’re both very honest with each other. I think we both just respect and trust each others’ opinions so much as artists and musicians that when one person believes, ‘This is great,’ and the other’s like, ‘I don’t know,’ we just trust whoever has the strongest instinct – it’s working so far.”
How you know her: Her spastic single “Jitter” – an avant-garde combo of speak-singing and hip-hop-tinged electro production – was named one of the most ambitious songs of 2015.
Why you should know her: The Portland native’s Raceday was a critical success, and 18-year-old Mitchell is working hard on her major label debut.
Between touring and SXSW, she’s on the road a lot – but she’s found a way to find some normalcy: “I bring my yoga mat on tour with me to kind of keep my own consistency,” she says. “I feel like it keeps me centered.”
• With additional reporting by SARAH MICHAUD