By Zach Schepis
Album art for Noelle Tannen’s Survive.
Noelle Tannen is a spirited woman whose presence seems to encompass a harmony of forces that, in anyone else, might seem at war with one another. But war is something Tannen peacefully obliterates. She has a casual serenity that sets others at ease and an electric crackle that burns to the surface when she performs. A keen diligence to compose dense arrangements coupled with a wild abandon sets her careening off into spontaneity.
She might be hard to classify, but that’s the point. Tannen carries along a rich musicality steeped in vibrancy and an upbringing that engrained within her a boundless well to draw from. Her first album of original material, Survive, employs her talents as an arranger (she composes the strings, horns, and other melodies) and also as a talented vocalist. Tannen realizes the importance a song can harness towards stirring social awareness, and isn’t afraid to touch anything.
BTR sat down with the musician to talk about her songwriting process and inspiration throughout her years.
BTR: You started singing in churches along the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the age of four. Do you see the spiritualism of that environment ever creep into your music?
Noelle Tannen (NT): My dad is a very spiritual person, not even necessarily just as a Christian either. He would take me along with him to a lot of different churches. For a while he took me to sing at a Baptist church in Harlem. That type of soulful music has definitely influenced me.
BTR: Do you have any early memories from those days?
NT: I remember singing “Oh Happy Day” at Carnegie Hall. They took our whole church choir there to sing, and I was really excited because I loved and still love “Oh Happy Day” (laughs). It’s just so uplifting.
BTR: You also began cello training at the age of six. I imagine your parents must have had a pretty musical influence on you.
NT: My mom’s entire side of the family is classically trained instrumentalists. My mom is actually a cello instructor, although she didn’t teach me.
BTR: What are some of your biggest nonmusical creative influences? What inspires you?
NT: I feel very passionate about humanity–the way people treat one another, which sometimes can irk me. I feel like I need to write about it, because it’s all around us.
BTR: A lot of your songs take a stance on important social issues, how do you feel about music’s ability or power to harness social awareness?
NT: Music as an art form can touch people where it can hurt the most. I also feel like there’s an undercurrent tribal element to music, more so than any other art form. I think it’s important not to lose that part of it, which can happen when we twist it to be all about the ego. Music is meant for people to come together.
It’s great to have a lot of dedication, of practice and skill, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I just go to campfires and sing all of the time. I practice, write, and compose, I went to music school. But none of those things eclipse the tribal, communal power that music holds for us all.
BTR: Speaking to your songwriting, your bio says that writing lyrics comes to you quickly, sometimes in the span of a half hour. A lot of artists will wait for “inspiration” to strike them before they write. What’s your take on inspiration–is it something you wait for or do you have to find it?
NT: It’s definitely a balance, but lyrics specifically are things that will always come to me in the moment when I’m writing. When I’m arranging… not always so much (laughs). I mean I’m still inspired, but it’s not as guttural. When I’m writing lyrics I’m responding to something around me in the world that either ticks me off or makes me happy.
BTR: How would you describe your new album Survive, for someone who hasn’t heard it, and what was the process like making it?
NT: It was my first album that was a solo endeavor for me. I wasn’t playing alone, but it was the first time with all of my own music. Before that I was playing with a group called the Louisiana Sun Kings for a few years.
The music is very politically and socially conscious. I wrote it in the time span of a year, arranged them, and then recorded them in another year at SUNY Purchase. The string arrangements, the horn arrangements, and even some of the bass lines I all wrote.
BTR: Random, but I heard you once found yourself playing cello naked in a bungalow. Any truth to this?
NT: My best friend Marissa Provenza passed away recently, but she wrote that in the bio. She’s travelled with me and we spent so much time together. One night we were in Nashville, and at the time I was touring with the Sun Kings. She met this guy who was absolutely infatuated with her, because she was amazing and everyone was infatuated with her in some way or another. We snuck into the roof of someone’s house, and this guy said he knew them but I doubt it.
Anyway, there was this upright bass just sitting there, and before I knew it I was so drunk, and so naked, and playing away on this bass for like three hours. I ended up passing out on the couch with my tit out (laughs).
BTR: Has her loss found its way into your art? Do you use music to channel those memories and feelings?
NT: Definitely. I think a lot of the things that I’m writing now are about the afterlife. Death is crazy, our time here isn’t limited but it goes so quickly. Life, you think it’s this thing, but it can just come and go. I don’t think it’s possible that everything is suddenly over. I can feel her still with me, but it’s not even something I can begin to explain. It’s beautiful.
All photos courtesy of Noelle Tannen.