Take a moment to meet Birmingham, Alabama’s NoEL, a singer-songwriter formerly of the band The White Oaks. Enjoy listening to a few of his tunes while reading this interview about his debut solo album.
1) When did you get your start in music?
When I was 14 my friends and i started a band to play at the school talent show, but we got our first gig before the talent show even took place, at a birthday party. I was the singer. We played the Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynrd Skynrd and Guns n Roses. But less than a year later we were in a recording studio in Birmingham recording ten original songs. The band was called “The Royal Nonesuch.”
2) Your bio mentions a deeply religious upbringing. How did that influence your musical formation? Did you play and sing in church a lot?
Some of my earliest memories are of being alone in a Sunday school room, improvising on the piano while my parents were in choir practice. And I was in children’s choirs from the age of four or five, learning how to sing harmony. It was a big church with a choir and orchestra and built-in pipe organ, and we performed yearly recitals which continued in some form all the way up until i left high school. Also we had tons of visiting musical acts like gospel quartets and blues singers and harp players and all sorts of things. But the most profound impact of my upbringing was the deep impression upon me of the noble impulse to approach the sacred through music.
3) Your track “I Won’t Answer” is full of religious imagery. Is that something you feel yourself embracing in your career or are you moving away from it?”
The idea for the chorus “I won’t answer to no one else since I’ve seen the Lord” came to me as an expression of something i was feeling deeply, but it also seemed to me like something a crazy person would say to justify abhorrent behavior or fanatical beliefs, which then made the song idea much more interesting. I wanted to re-invigorate the religious imagery in the lyrics from what I hoped would be an unusual perspective. I doubt i will again use so much blatantly church-based imagery in a single song but it really connected with the sentiment of this one.
4) Your album claims to connect the “sensual and the sacred.” How did you intentionally attempt to make the album connect those ideas?
Well, there’s comparisons in the lyrics between communion and the behavior of lovers, and there’s a song about the sacred aspect of the breath, and, in general, the stories in the songs reflect the process of discovering how the road to the infinite goes through the physical, and how, in that way, the potential of our mortal experience is to expand our perceptions beyond the surface or carnal to the significance of the more subtle energies active in the fabric of reality. Being a physical creature could be seen as a jumping off point in the path to becoming spiritually alive, just as religion represents the souls’ search for a truth that no religion can actually contain.
5) How do you write music? Do you write in a flurry, or as a day by day grind?
I embrace all methods. Sometimes i write in my notebook for days, or play the guitar everyday at the same time for a month. “I Won’t Answer” came to me while on my daily jog, to the rhythm of my footfalls. Sometimes i sit down with the guitar and a song springs out from beginning to end, already complete. What i have attempted to cultivate above all is the ability to discern immediately whether or not an idea is inspired. All the rest are just practice.
6) Several of your songs have a high reverb tone to them. Are you trying to conjure a nostalgic feel in your music? If so, how do you think it enhances the sound?
Those choices on this album were made by the producer, Armand Margjeka. I typically go for a drier sound with a heavy backbeat, and Armand likes dark, washy sounds. At first i thought the really strong reverbs on certain songs were too much, but now i really enjoy it. It does indeed give “The Kingdom,” for instance, quite a nostalgic feel, which i now can hear serves the song quite well. I’m not specifically after nostalgia unless it serves the song.
7) Would you consider your sound, at times, soul? Your genres seem intertwined. How do you categorize your music?
I certainly would love to be considered as a type of soul music. I don’t know how to categorize it. I like to make up ridiculous sounding genre names like “Entheogenic Hunky-Dory,” but i don’t want to come off with so much pretense. It feels to me like some kind of dark soul-rock, gospel-blues music, especially on this album.
8) With roots in Birmingham one might expect deep southern gospel, Muscle Shoals soul magic, or classic southern rock… but instead you have a sort of hybrid alt rock sound. How did you go about developing your unique style?
Many of the songs were written specifically inspired by old blues and gospel song forms, with my own lyrical approach. Then as we recorded them we tried to surprise ourselves and get a few steps past the obvious to look for inspiration. That is something that Armand is particularly good at. “White Bread Black Oil” was specifically inspired by John Lee Hooker’s music, for instance, so we ended up struggling with it until we got this indie, synth-rock thing out of it. That was a pain at times, but well worth it.
-Anything you’d like to tell our readers about your album?
I’d like to tell people that from my view, God is Love. The dark apocalyptic vibe on the album is an attempt to make something interesting and beautiful out of the folly and misgivings of mankind.