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Interview with Elizabeth Moen

Friday, May 12th, 2017

Elizabeth Moen stopped at the KMCN studio on Sunday May 7. I had heard great things about her and her music, and couldn’t wait to talk with her.
Billy Rose: Welcome to Midwest Revue LIVE! It’s nice to finally meet you.
Elizabeth Moen: Thank you! This is a great place to be playing music…got a nice view…
Billy Rose: Yes, out among the cornfields.
Elizabeth Moen: No really. It’s a beautiful day one of the few days we have in Iowa with that perfect temperature and sunshine, and this is a great atmosphere. Thank you for having me.
Billy Rose: It’s my pleasure. So, you’re an Iowa girl from Vinton.
EM: Yeah, I’m from Vinton Iowa…I don’t know, how far is Vinton from here?
BR: Well, is it West of Cedar Rapids?
EM: It’s a little North.
BR: Okay, it’s about eighty miles to Cedar Rapids.
EM: I’m from Vinton, but I don’t live there anymore. I went to the University of Iowa for college. I graduated from there in December. I’ve been there since. I’ve been in Iowa City for almost five years now.
BR: Do you like Iowa City?
EM: I do. It’s the best. It’s a fun place, especially in summer…I like in summer…to be honest, when most of the students…they leave. It’s a lot less crowded, more families tend to come down town. It’s just a more rounded atmosphere. Sometimes it gets a little crazy on the weekends during the school year…but you know everyone has that time in their life when you go to college and go to bars and all that jazz.
BR: So, you were a student for what, four years?
EM: Four and a half. I took an extra half lap.
BR: What was your major?
EM: French and Spanish, and I was almost done with an International Business Certificate. But, I had enough hours to graduate so I graduated, so I could just do music. That’s what I’ve been doing since.
BR: So, did you change mid-stream or what pushed you to music.
EM: Well, I thought I wanted to be a French teacher here. Then I thought I wanted to be a English teacher in France. Then I thought, maybe I’ll just be a translator. Then last fall, I started writing music, and I thought no, I’m gonna be a musician. So, it has changed a few times but all for the better I guess.
BR: So, how long have you been playing music?
EM: I’ve been playing guitar since I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I didn’t really take it to seriously. I taught myself to play by listening to the radio and play along with tings or listen to CD’s and just kind of figure out what was happening. Then actually, I went to France for a year. When I was fifteen. I was a foreign exchange student. We were allowed to have two suitcases. Well, instead of bringing an additional suitcase, I brought a guitar. That’s kind of how I made friends, just dinking around on the guitar. Eventually I started to really learn songs and play with my friends. Always covers. But I love covers.
BR: Oh, there are so many great songs out there.
EM: Yes, exactly. Then I finished high school, went to Iowa. In my fourth year at Iowa, so the fall of my senior year, I finally took a break from all of the part-time jobs I had. I just focused on school and music. That’s when I finally started to write music. Then I finished school, and I’ve just been doing that (music).
BR: I don’t know if I’m saying something I shouldn’t be or not, but I went out to check out Flat Black Studio near Iowa City and I was talking with Luke Tweedy. He asked me if I knew who Liz Moen was? I said no. Luke then told me about how fantastic you were and told me “you need to play her stuff”. So for several months now I’ve been wanting to meet you. Anyway, Luke told me you called him and set up an appointment to record some songs. You walked in with your band. You had just met these guys the night before at an open mic show. So, he wasn’t sure what to expect. But he said you guys sounded great.
EM: Yeah, Luke Tweedy is great. I have him and William Elliott Whitmore to thank for helping me get this record out. So, I recorded the first eight songs…I wrought like four songs or so, and I thought I want to record these. So, I e-mailed Flat Black Studio or Luke and I said, hey I’ve got four songs that I wrote and I’ll probably have four more in about a week. Can I come and record them. Luke didn’t know me and was like…um sure. Those eight songs were on my first CD. That is just self-titled, some people think it is called Songbird. If they want to think that, that’s cool too. It’s just called Elizabeth Moen, but the main song on it is called Songbird. We did those eight songs, and ever since I’ve been going out there every few months with songs and I’ll record them and after going out four or five times I picked the top…not the top eight songs but eight songs that kind of set a certain mood, certain tone. They kind of tell a story. I chose those songs and we put it through Long Play Records which is through Flat Black. We release it on vinyl on digital and CD. We will release it next Saturday, May 13th.
BR: So, was the original, the first disc released on Long Play Records?
EM: No, I just did that one by myself. It was recorded at Flat Black. The new one That’s All I Wanted is on Long Play.
BR: How did the recording go? Did you like the place?
EM: It’s great going out there. It’s a studio in a barn. It’s so cool…I was actually one of the first people to record out there.
BR: I was going to ask you if it was all recorded at the new place?
EM: Yeah, I think I was like the second or third person to record out there. It was still…the building was finished but there was still a lot to be done. Now to see it finished, honestly, it’s been a little over a year, maybe a year and a half since I originally went out there. It’s so cool, I mean they have a super nice bathroom and there is a loft up in the attic for people to stay, there’s like a living room, and of course the rooms for recording and the sound booth. It’s just a great place. The fact that it is in Iowa and very very moderately priced. It’s a rare thing to find.
BR: So, you have been a pretty busy lady. You graduated, you recorded and released your first CD, you toured Europe and now you’re ready to release your second disc That’s All I Wanted.
EM: Yeah, I graduated in December, finished the record in January and in February and March I did a solo tour in Europe. Ireland, France and Germany.
BR: How did the tour go?
EM: It went really well. I still had connections from living in France. In Ireland and Germany I was able to stay with friends or friends of friends. You know on couches and what not. Then My graduation gift from my parents was credit card miles. All my stuff was already in storage, I had credit card miles, I had places to stay, no school so I went over there and just played music for a while. It was really nice.
BR: Do you find it easier, now that school is out of the way?
EM: I do. Before music really took over, I really did like school. I think I channeled a lot of my energy into school. Finally, when I started writing music, it was hard to channel energy into both. But I’m glad that I finished. Right now, having all of my time dedicated to playing music I’m lucky to get to do that. I want to do it for as long as I can.
BR: Do you remember writing certain songs? Do you have memories that specifically go with this song and opposed to that one?
EM: I do. I used to have an apartment above and Italian restaurant in Iowa City and most of these songs were written there. Then I lived in a house in an attic with a bunch of writers. So, I was just kind of the little music ghost in the attic. A lot of these songs were written after a breakup. They’re all breakup songs. But you know, somebody’s got to write ‘em.
BR: You have a soulful sound. Your voice. Do you try to get that sound?
EM: It just kind of happens. I grew up doing choir and musicals and just theater. I kind of grew up thinking that I had to sing a certain way. I didn’t grow up doing that, just mostly in high school. Then when I finally started playing covers for fun in college, I kind of just started letting my voice do whatever it wants. I think it just depends on the song. I think however my voice sounds is just the emotions that are coming out. You have to control you voice to a certain extent but I think the fun part of playing the music I play is letting go. I love musical theater, I love opera. I love hearing voices that are so…that are so strict, so impressive. I mean it’s so cool. I appreciate that kind of music. The stuff I play, I think, it’s more about the emotions coming out while you’re writing a song, and then trying to re-create that whenever you play it.
BR: Well you can definitely feel the emotions while listening to your songs.
EM: Thank you. Thank you for having me. This is a nice thing to do on a Sunday afternoon.
BR: Getting back into your writing. You said you lived with a group of writers?
EM: Yeah one of my friends…my best friend is a poet and she had a pot available in this house she lived in. So, I said I’ll take it. The other two guys who lived in the house as well, they were also friends of mine, they were all writers. They were attending the writer’s workshop.
BR: The “world famous” Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
EM: Yeah, they are very good writers. Well, I started writing before that. A few friends of mine who were in the workshop, we would all hang out together and I would always play cover songs. One of them said “stop playing covers, write a song”. I was like, no I just don’t want to. So, eventually I tried but I felt kind of weird about it. One of my other friends said, “We’re all weird about it too. Just do it. No one sets out and says I’m gonna be a writer now. You do it and then you think, oh okay I am one now”. So, they definitely kind of helped to push me to write lyrics.
BR: Did they give you any advice on any songs?
EM: One of my really good friends, who isn’t a poet, he’s a fiction writer. I wrote a few songs and I said hey, I know you don’t write songs, but if I came over and played these for you could you give me advice? I think a lot of my songs do tell stories, so in the end having him help me worked out great. One of my songs on the first CD is Songbird and there were little things in lines…like where I said “I wish you would climb up this old Oak tree. He said instead say a tree with two syllables, that sounds nicer. So, I changed it to Maple. Originally it was like (sings) “I wish you would climb up this old Oak tree”, that sounds nice but try two syllables. Now it’s like (sings) “I wish you would climb up this old Maple tree”. Just little things like that. It was true that I was looking at an Oak tree when I wrote it. He said, “it doesn’t have to be completely true. That’s the beauty of writing a song, it doesn’t have to be completely true, it can be partially fiction. You’re not writing a memoir”. A lot of things in songs are based on things that happened. A lot of things come from like…heartbreak, a breakup. When you’re writing a song and you’re in that mindset it’s easy…you can be quick to romanticize things.
BR: So is it easier for you to write sad song as opposed to happy ones?
EM: Yeah! A lot of my songs even if they sound happy they’re very bitter. The thing is I’m lucky that a lot of my family is still around. A lot of my friends have moved, that’s what happens in a college town. Your friends kind of move elsewhere. But I still have a lot of friends in town and I’ve got my boyfriend. I would say I’m a pretty happy person. But I still write all these sad songs. I’ll write a new song and people will ask, “Liz are you alright”. I say oh yeah, I’m great, they say are you sure? ‘Cause you used to write sad songs when you were sad, and now you seem alright but you’re still writing sad songs. I guess that’s just what I end up writing. I am trying to write happy songs. I think writing a happy song that doesn’t sound cheesy is the hardest thing to do. (laughs) Really though, it’s so easy for a happy love song to sound cheesy. When you do it right, those are the best songs. I think lately, sometimes I try to push myself to write a song like that. Then it doesn’t sound the way it should. You have to think of one line that is just right on the cheese factor.
BR: Well, I am very impressed with your songwriting.
EM: I think a lot of my songwriting has become kind of therapeutic. Almost necessary. With all of these songs coming from a very honest place it means a lot when people can feel…there’s something cool about writing a song and someone really understanding it at a personal level. Obviously, they didn’t experience my experience but they can kind of relate to it. I think that’s why I got into this so quickly. Once you write a song and even one person says I totally feel you. And I’m like…really. I want to do it again. I always really appreciate it when people enjoy the song. People listen to songs at different levels. Those levels aren’t better than any other, but some people tend to listen to songs where they’re just listening to the melody, some people just focus on the lyrics. Some people do both. Most people do all of those things at different times. Melody or lyrics. Whatever they do enjoy, that’s the point.
BR: Speaking of that, do you have an easier time with melody or with lyrics?
EM: It all kind of happens at once. Most of the songs I’ve written, I’ve written by myself. Just sitting on the couch and just strumming my guitar. I’ll start humming and thinking of things. All of a sudden, I’ll think of a line. I’ll think to myself, that could be in a song. I don’t even think of a hook first. That is not what always comes first. I’ll just be thinking and it all just sort of happens. That’s when I know a song should be written. Every time I sit down and think, I’m gonna write a song today, I don’t write a song. I write many songs that I end up throwing away. Here lately, finding my bandmates, you know I think we’re gonna be playing together for a while. We’ve been having band practice and just work on chord progressions and just kind of creating songs. Then I’ve been taking those and creating melodies and lyrics over them. It’s been harder for me, because I don’t think of lyrics on their own. I think of a song as just an all in one sort of deal. It’s a three for one package usually. It’s fun and it’s stimulating to write songs in different ways. You know just try it out. The past year and a half I’ve just been doing it alone on my guitar.
BR: When you take a song into the studio, do you know what it’s going to sound like? You know does it sound the same after it’s recorded or does it change from the original conception?
EM: I think for the most part, whatever we go in with is what it sounds like in the end. Sometimes we go in and it sounds totally different, but that’s just because we don’t have the final mix yet, or we haven’t added the effects yet. But we always have a vision for the song. That’s why this guitar that I have with me today is so important. I think it has really helped me write the songs.
BR: That’s a nice guitar. I love the tone you get from it.
EM: It’s a Gibson ES 340 hollow body all wood guitar from 1968. So I had written those songs and I had released those first eight songs and I thought if I’m really gonna invest time in music I really need to invest in a real guitar. And I always had this sound I was looking for. It’s gritty, but it’s an older gritty sound. With…I love reverb and trem but not too much to where it sounds futuristic. There was a certain sound I had in my head. So, about a year ago I went to The Chicago Music Exchange and I played, and I’m not just saying this, I played twenty to thirty guitars. I gave them a price range, and they said we just got this thing in, we’ve been hearing you play, and we think you might like this guitar. They brought it in and I started playing it. It was the exact sound that I had in my head. Now that I have it my songs do sound different. I think these are the songs I’m supposed to write. So, it was really cool to find a guitar like that. I’m sure all instrumentalists can …really anyone. When you find a thing that you need, to create what you want to create. You know I have friends who are photographers and they have that one camera that helps them get that one shot that they really want.
BR: By the way I saw your new video.
EM: Oh yeah! My good friend Joshua De Lanoit did that. He’s a great buddy of mine. He’s a filmographer and he makes…he’s been getting into music videos and he made that video. It was all his idea, he did the filming, his girlfriend did the animation part. It is really well done. There are a lot of great artists in Iowa City. Not just musicians, people of all sorts of mediums. It’s a pretty cool place.
BR: So, you have a busy schedule coming up here, with the release of That’s All I Wanted!
EM: Yeah, we are doing some shows with River Glen. The guys in my band also play with River. So that makes it easy for us to do shows together. We have this new record and then White Rabbit, a really cool store in Iowa City, made our merch. They designed these really cool shirts for us. So, we have all this new music, new gear, new songs. We have been writing songs. Since we finished the album in January, we have be working on new songs. So, we have songs that we will be finishing this week that we will be playing live at the shows.