Noah Elliott on Shared Trauma, Bon Iver, and Debut Single “Never Feels the Same” [Q&A]

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Noah Elliott is a name that you may not know yet, but you will. The Oregon native, singer-songwriter is in the process of releasing his debut album, Songs for the Optimist, and we were lucky enough to get a sneak preview. 

One of the major aspects that immediately strikes you about this record is the refreshing honesty of the lyrics. Elliott did not hold back his feelings while writing these tracks, allowing listeners to not only connect with his words but also deeply relate relate. We've all experienced some version of heartbreak, and Elliott's forthcoming album touches upon lingering pain in a beautiful and lyrically intricate way.

"Never Feels the Same" marks the first single from Songs for the Optimist, and it is nothing short of a spellbinding introduction. The first verse brings us in with sorrowful chords and melody, then transitions into a bass-driven, four-on-the-floor chorus that's a little reminiscent of a Shawn Mendes pop stunner but with a more alternative feel. We had the pleasure to sit down (virtually) with Elliott to discuss his debut single, quarantine, and the drawbacks of feeling unique. 

Ones to Watch: Who is Noah Elliott?

Noah Elliott: That's me! I'm a 23-year-old singer-songwriter from a little town in northwest Oregon called Hood River.

What was it like growing up in Hood River, Oregon?

Hood River is this tiny town on the Columbia River Gorge. It's full of super fit, outdoorsy people. Not a big music community, so I was a bit of a black sheep. In hindsight, I think it made me feel unique and that was nice. The drawback of feeling unique, though, is that it's easy to feel isolated. So, I was always trying to straddle the outdoor-culture world and the music world.

How did you first become interested in music?

Right before I was born, my parents fell in love with Zimbabwean music and got immersed in the culture around it. Growing up, we'd always have these Zimbabwean bands stay at our house and teach masterclasses and play gigs, so I was learning that music through osmosis. At age four or so, I started playing and touring with a few different Zimbabwean-style marimba bands.

What does quarantine life look like for you?

When Los Angeles announced the lockdown, I was super nervous about what my mental state would look like if I were stuck in my apartment for an undisclosed amount of time. I go bonkers when I'm cooped up… I guess a symptom of growing up in a place where big open blocks of nature are so accessible. Anyway, I decided to drive up to my hometown to spend the time with my family (mom, dad, brother). I'm so grateful to have a family I was able to come back to. I've heard so many horror stories about people who have it MUCH worse than I do, but no matter your circumstances, a lack of social interaction will do a toll on your well-being. We're social creatures. So I've been trying to find this balance between working on projects and staying busy, but also not putting too much pressure on myself. I'm a serial workaholic, and without my friends hitting me up to do something, I kind of get lost in the zone… so I definitely haven't found that balance yet.

“Never Feels the same" is the first single from your upcoming debut album. Why did you pick this song specifically to introduce yourself?

I love meeting people who give off such an intense first impression that you feel like you have a clear picture of them from the start. It might not even be a good first impression, but because it's so transparent, you can trust that the person isn't faking it. It sets the tone and the boundaries of what you're going to experience when you're around that person. That's why I decided to release "Never Feels The Same" first. It's a blunt and transparent introduction to the rest of the album.

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What would you say has been the biggest influence on your music?

When I was in high school, I took an English class that had a really lasting effect on how I create. The teacher had a jean jacket framed on the wall with the words "say what you mean and say it mean" ironed onto the back. To me, that quote is about being clear and unforgiving in the message you’re trying to convey. I'm not going to sugarcoat anything I'm writing about, anything I'm feeling. It would be a disservice to myself and the people listening. 

What message do you want this record to portray to its listeners?

Music has this crazy ability to help turn trauma into shared trauma, which is much easier to deal with. I remember listening to "Holocene" by Bon Iver for the first time and just bawling my eyes out but also feeling so understood. That song makes me feel so sad, but at the same time, so aware that there are tons of people who feel the same emotions I do, hence shared trauma. In this record, I’m sharing all the nasty things I've been through and think about, things that I'm sure many other people have experienced but don't yet feel comfortable to share. I hope, by putting my trauma out into the world, it can help others come to terms with their own.

Which song from your upcoming album, Songs For The Optimist are you most excited about releasing? Do you have a clear favorite?

I think I'm most excited about releasing the song "Empty." I'm excited in sort of a masochistic way, because I'm also incredibly nervous to release it. It's about being cheated on and the self-sabotaging defense mechanisms that kick in when I get hurt. It feels like the most blatantly honest song I've ever written, and that is a HORRIFYING thing to show people.

Can you describe your writing process?

I'd love to understand my own writing process! I guess I'll start with describing what it isn't. Writing isn't easy for me. It rarely feels magical. It's usually very challenging. But I write tons of songs and most of them will never see the light of day. Some of my now-favorite songs on this record are songs that I thought were garbage when I first wrote them. And some of the songs that didn't make it on the record I thought were hits when I first wrote them! But that's why I'm so addicted to writing - I feel like a complete novice every time I do it.

Who are your Ones to Watch?

Oooh well to be honest, I'm usually pretty far behind the curve. I've been listening to Nick Leng's record LEMONS. The song "Lonely Shade of Blue" destroys me every time. Ben Hon's song "Tsunami" is killing. And Carter Vail's "Velvet makes me feel really good.

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