Nouela Finds Her Comfort Zone

I admit it, I typically don’t like solo female artists. As a woman, I’ve always felt like I was somehow letting the ladies down by disliking most of what I was hearing. With the exception of Ani Difranco, Joni Mitchell and a select few… I just couldn’t take it.

Nouela at Sunset Tavern

Nouela at Sunset Tavern

To my delight, a couple years ago I found People Eating People (PEP) and added one more voice to my very short list. PEP was dynamic, dark and spoke to me without feeling too preachy or, for lack of a better term, girly. Nouela (pronounced New-el-ah) Johnston, the singer/songwriter performing under the PEP moniker, had balls and they came out in her performances (metaphorically… come on). I listened to that album relentlessly for the next year, hungry for the sophomore installment. Unfortunately, like Nouela’s previous project Mon Frere, it wasn’t what she was looking for and so she fell off the face of the planet. Luckily, she’s recently emerged in a third, seemingly more powerful and permanent project, dubbed simply, Nouela.

Though this new foray seems named for a solo project, she’s not the only member of this new musical adventure. Helping round out her intense yet vulnerable voice and piano parts are a second keyboard, guitar, bass and drums. While the melodies and general feel of the songs on her new release Chants is similar to the work in People Eating People, the lyrics move in a new direction. Whereas PEP seemed to be a bit angrier, working through a lot of frustrations and turbulence, Nouela is about moving forward and finding where you belong. It’s a great album as a whole, but I have yet to find a tune as catchy as People Eating People’s “Rain, Rain.”

Although Nouela had yet to release her album when she played the Sunset late last week, she performed to a surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowd. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to chat with Nouela while she was traveling in a van on her way to Vancouver. She spilled about her musical past, future and some interesting things in between. 

Music as a part of her life
It’s definitely been a necessity. I’ve been deeply involved with music since I was four–I had my first recital when I was four. Starting there… I joined jazz band, in high school I was playing shows in the jazz band. I was convinced that I was going to be a jazz performance major or jazz history major. It’s always been something I’ve had to be a part of. But this is the first time it’s been 100% on me and I’m making  a solid push to make it happen.  I wanted to [major in jazz], but I didn’t get accepted into my number one school pick, so I just figured it wasn’t meant to be and went to audio engineering school instead… which I then dropped out of to go on tour.  I’m interested in the recording process and setting up a studio in my home, but as far as being hired as an engineer for a studio, that doesn’t interest me at all and I learned that very quickly.

About her new album, Chants
Right now I’m just excited about it coming out and hearing what people think about it. I believe in it a lot and I’m very proud of it. I’m excited to see their reactions; hopefully, they’re all positive. When I was recording it, I didn’t really think there was a lyrical theme, per se. I think musically speaking it’s kind of like a drive in the wilderness. It’s a really dark, really moody record, but I found it interesting. I didn’t plan it out to be that way, it just kind of happened. Maybe that means I’m a dark and moody person. I probably am.

Understanding her music and writing
I feel like the [People Eating People] record looks at all the specific, terrible things that happened to me over the last year. This new record is more redemptive. I feel kind of like I’m laying it all out there. I feel like I know what I’m whining about now as opposed to “my heart’s broken so I’m going to write a love song”. I feel like I know myself and I know who I am now. Making art is very, very hard… it’s growing and adjusting to the person that you are. I feel like I’m here now and I know what I want and I know what I want to do. I quit drinking and other things that are considered very bad for you. I feel like I’m in a good head space for the first time, possibly since I was twelve. I’m 26 and I just decided that this year was the year to stop fucking around. I feel too old and ridiculous to do that anymore. Not that 26 is old, but I just feel like I’m done with that part of my life.

Best lesson learned being a musician
The best lesson I’ve learned is not having an ego of any kind. Just to be a mellow, nice person. Not too demanding of people. The musicians that I admire the most are the people who have built their career slowly, brick by brick, album by album. That’s the kind of career I want to have, starting now.

I actually learned a lot from touring in Say Hi with Eric, kind of the way he manages his band. I really found him inspiring and he’s done it all himself. He’s become very successful at it. Any successful band that I’ve come in contact with, like Cursive or the Minus the Bear dudes… they’re extremely hard working people. Then there are rock and rollers that get wasted every night… I don’t know.

Going out on tour in support of Chants
It’s going pretty well. We got to stay in Portland last night and we’re on our way to Vancouver right now. Last night was the best show of the tour. I love playing Portland. There are more people in Portland that are more appreciative of music [than in other cities]—they’re all quiet and nice.

Being an unknown band performing in most cities
I hate to generalize entire cities. At many other shows it’s obvious that [people are] there for the other bands or headlining band. So, seeing a band without even a release yet… it’s hard to get people to show up to see us. But last night everyone was very respectful and appreciative of us playing before the other bands.  It was a great show.

Most surprising or exciting part of the tour
We got a burrito in Los Angeles that was wrapped in a quesadilla. Other than that, getting to tour with a Swedish band and getting to know Deer Tracks pretty well. They’re teaching us swear words so that’s pretty exciting. We’re getting along pretty well.  They are our labelmates, [so we were hooked up with them] through the label guy.

Most unique/interesting thing in her home
I have a piece of the wire fence that separates North and South Korea in a frame, so that’s pretty cool. My sister found it in a thrift store and we thought it was weird, because our family is from North Korea. I also have a bust of Tchaikovsky that I’ve had for years and I have no idea why I have it.

What makes her do the happy dance
I have a dog. I fuckin love my dog. His name is Presto… like “Presto, Chango.” He’s mentally deranged and requires a bunch of work, but we help each other out.

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