Elizabeth Moen rides the waves, releases new album 'Wherever You Aren't'
Iowa native Elizabeth Moen talks about her move to Chicago, touring with Squirrel Flower and Kevin Morby and her new album Wherever You Aren't.
“A lot’s happened, and also not a lot’s happened.”
That’s how Iowa native Elizabeth Moen began our conversation when we recently spoke for the first time in at least a couple of years.
On paper, she’s been very busy. She’s toured regularly, both in support of her own music and as a backing musician for both Squirrel Flower and Kevin Morby. She sang the National Anthem at a White Sox game, along with Julia Steiner of Ratboys. And her new album, Wherever You Aren’t, is finally making it's release after being completed for about three years.
Wherever You Aren’t, out Friday, is Moen's fourth album. It was almost completely finished before the pandemic at Flat Black Studios in Lone Tree, Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco, California and FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album was funded via Kickstarter, which enabled Moen to do a lot of things she’d always wanted to do. It's easy to hear on the record: the album is a big step forward for Moen, with an overall bigger sound than she's had on previous albums.
“The intention of doing a Kickstarter was to record in a way I’d never recorded before,” said Moen. “I wanted to be able to experience new studios, and play with all the various instrumentalists and singers I’d come across over the years, who’d played live with me. There are a lot of parts: there’s horns, pedal steel guitar, and layers of harmony. There’s so many little details I’d never tested out. It feels big, and also the songwriting is stronger too.”
Indeed, the songs on Wherever You Aren't are classic Elizabeth Moen. But her sound is emphasized by details that make the album have more depth than previous recordings, and by her witty but also profound lyrics. On this record, you'll hear horns, some strings and pedal steel.
"Synthetic Fabrics," the second song on the album, opens with the line "Made plans for when I was 16/when I was about 8 or 9/making plans for my mid 30s/since I turned 25." The line sets the tone for the album of someone who's trying to navigate life the best they can and learning to "ride the waves." Of course, Moen's distinctive vocals and guitar playing take center stage here and sound as great as ever.
Despite the added production values of Wherever You Aren’t, not to mention a strong set of songs, Moen had difficulty finding someone to release the album and ended up doing it herself.
“I really wanted a team for the record,” said Moen. “I had this dream of a label, a booking agent, a manager. I kept just waiting and waiting. But then I was like, ‘Hold on!’ I have an amazing, super-supportive fan base, who have already donated to the record, who wanted to hear it. So I decided to just put it out myself! That’s what I’ve always done.”
She has no regrets about the way it all turned out.
“Once I just let go of those expectations or the record, on the business side of it, I got excited again! I listened to the record, and I was like ‘these songs still feel strong to me.’ That’s the sign of a record I’m proud of, where years later, they still feel good.”
In addition to the CV listed above, Moen also made a big move since the last time I spoke with her. She’d been “couch surfing” for a couple of years, due to her touring schedule, but the pandemic left her without a place of her own. She found it was actually cheaper to move to Chicago than get a permanent place in Iowa City.
“Chicago always felt like the next step,” said Moen. “I was like ‘all right, if I don’t do it now, I probably never will.’ I love Chicago, but I also still very much love Iowa - and feel very connected and attached to Iowa and my friends who live there.”
Iowa connections lead to cross country touring
One of those connections that Moen made while living in Iowa was with Ella Williams, a.k.a. Squirrel Flower. Moen and Williams became friends when they both performed at a show in Grinnell, where Williams went to college. Williams asked Moen to play her guitar on Squirrel Flower’s tour last fall.
“I’d played guitar for people here and there in the studio, but that was my first hired lead guitar gig,” said Moen. “It really got me out of my shell and my comfort zone as a guitarist, and I’m forever grateful to Ella for trusting me.”
The tours with Squirrel Flower and Kevin Morby were Moen’s first experiences as a “hired gun,” working with other musicians. Aside from how much fun she had, Moen found the experience inspiring and educational.
“I’ve learned a lot from (Morby) about what it means to be a good bandleader,” said Moen. “He gives all of us moments to really shine, and you look back on the Instagram stories, and you see him pointing at the person taking the solo. It’s been really special, and it makes me appreciate my bandmates even more, as a bandleader.”
While she firmly believes that it’s important to “not be a bully to yourself if you do nothing,” she’s also learned that these “waves” are part of a career in music, pandemic or not.
Advice for artists: ride the waves
“Most musicians, and artists in general, would agree that it all just comes in waves,” said Moen. “You get a wave of nothing, and then everything is happening. And then you get a wave of nothing, and then everything is happening again.”
After Moen got the message asking her to be a part of the Kevin Morby tour, she had dinner with her good friend and fellow Chicago musician Liam Kazar, a friend of Morby’s who introduced the two. “(Liam) gave me the best piece of advice, that I’ve been really taking to heart: ‘Those waves will always be there," he said. "'Even if your career goes as far as you want it to go, there’s still going to be these waves. The whole job is to ride the waves and not give up.’ Ever since then, I’ve really leaned into just riding the waves.”
Moen has also started getting some well-deserved recognition for her guitar skills in recent years. Squirrel Flower was specifically drawn to her “reverby, ambient” slide guitar sound, which Moen had the opportunity to demonstrate in a video for the Fender guitar company. I told Moen that it seemed like she “demystified” slide guitar, and she agreed that’s important.
“When Fender reached out, I was like ‘I’m a beginner! So if you want a beginner to talk about the beginning of slide guitar, let’s do it,’” said Moen. “I think with slide guitar, songwriting and really anything musical, demystifying it is a goal of mine. The more it’s demystified, the less intimidating it is for people to try and do it. I think sometimes, some people, unintentionally or intentionally, try to make it a cool kid’s club. Music shouldn’t be intimidating, it should be something that people feel very welcome to stepping in and trying.”
Album release shows
Moen has a couple of shows coming up in Iowa in support of the record: an album release show at Gabe’s in Iowa City on November 26th, and an appearance on IPR’s All Access Live! on Dec. 8, which will be broadcast live on IPR from the Raccoon Motel in Davenport. Moen will be accompanied by her old Iowa City friends and bandmates for both shows. She’s already hard at work planning tours for 2023 but is also making time to herself and plans to “enjoy being off the road.”
“I want to keep growing as a person, and as a musician. Maybe I’ll pick up a new hobby. Who’s to say?” she asked. “As long as I’m doing what I’m doing and it still feels good, that’s really all I want to do.”
Elizabeth Moen is IPR’s Artist of the Month for November. Her new album, Wherever You Aren’t, will be available Nov. 11 on Bandcamp and streaming services.