Once upon a time, Chicago-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Elizabeth Moen was a college student, working three jobs and dreaming of moving to France to teach English when she graduated. Then, in her senior year, she wrote her first song and everything changed.
Armed with a vintage Gibson ES-340 and plenty of raw talent, she turned her attention to becoming a professional musician. Now, after having spent her fair share of time couch-surfing around the U.S. with no fixed abode, as well as working as a side woman, a guitar store clerk and an ad hoc teacher at rock camps, she’s poised to release Wherever You Aren’t – her fourth full-length record, and one that she crowdfunded to make.
Inspired by this untethered time, she tells us that we’ll find “some breakup songs on the record and a lot of mental health stuff.” But, it also charts the moments of hope and inspiration she found during the process of “just figuring things out” – all soundtracked by layers upon layers of beautiful tremolo-soaked guitars and tons of reverby indie soul goodness.
Speaking from a pit stop while out on the road working as a “hired gun” in indie folkster Kevin Morby’s band, we caught up with Moen to hear how “embracing the lack of direction” and a do-it-yourself attitude has helped the self-taught, self-made artist build her career from the ground up.
How and when did you first gravitate towards playing the guitar?
“I was always drawn to music that had guitar in it and my grandpa listened to a lot of old folk music like Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. For Christmas one year, he gave me an acoustic guitar and I just taught myself by playing by ear and listening to records over and over again, trying to figure out what they were doing. Basically learning the long, hard way!”
What do you think are the advantages of taking a self-directed approach to learning guitar?
“I think when you’re teaching yourself and you’re really alone with this new thing, it’s all about exploration and falling in love with the sounds. I vividly remember laying my head on the guitar for hours and just strumming the strings without even touching the neck – just getting super-into making noise and enjoying the process. There’s something very fulfilling about teaching yourself something and taking time to mess up.”
Being self-taught, have you ever experienced anxieties about knowing – or not knowing – so-called “correct” musical terminologies or theories? If so, how did you get past that?
“Yes, absolutely. I think the imposter syndrome definitely was, and sometimes still is, strong. But, I have to remind myself that some of the greats are self-taught and don’t know what a something-suspended-flat-blah-blah chord is.
“Some of my bandmates for this record are from Dublin and they went to music college. We were talking about this same topic when we were playing in L.A.. I was like, ‘Man, I wish I could talk the talk the way y’all can,’ and they said, ‘No, you don’t.’ Their take was that when you know so much music theory, and you know what a thing is ‘supposed’ to do, or what the next note should be because of the theory of it, it’s really inhibiting.
“I’m feeling inhibited because I can’t communicate, and they feel inhibited because they almost know too much. There’s pros and cons to both routes.”
It’s also interesting, coming from a self-taught background, that you have such a natural way about you as a teacher [check out the slide demo Elizabeth made for Fender on their YouTube channel]. Is teaching something you’ve done in a professional capacity alongside building your career as a recording/touring artist?
“Not consistent lessons, but I’ve taught guitar at girls’ rock camps. I love teaching guitar and songwriting – definitely beginner things. I think you really know something if you’re able to teach it.
“With the slide demo I did for Fender, I was like, ‘Yo, I’m self-taught and I’m still a beginner,’ but they thought it would be cool to have a beginner talk about beginner slide. Slide guitar shouldn’t be intimidating. I think because we’re all anxious little creatures, things can feel intimidating and I wanted to try and make it less so.
“All it is is the pitch, and practice makes perfect when you’re learning to just get to the line.”
You’re also a working musician and have served as a side woman to other artists. What has that taught you about your own writing and performance skills?
“My first hired gun gig was last fall, and I was playing lead guitar in Squirrel Flower who were touring as the opener for Soccer Mommy. It’s very indie rock, and a lot of the stuff I was doing was ambient slide. Getting hired to do the thing I was just talking about with Fender really pushed my imposter syndrome away, and it opened up the doors to playing with different tones. Their stuff is either very clean and ambient or gritty and I bought my first fuzz pedal, which definitely opened my eyes to the idea of getting a little more crunchy.
“Most of this year, I’ve been singing – I also play a little guitar and some percussion – in Kevin Morby’s band. I’ve learned, in doing hired gun work that’s not guitar, that I miss the guitar. I’m not used to being on a stage without one in front of me, so I’ve had the opportunity to learn to at least pretend to look comfortable without one.”
Beyond being a piece of wood with some strings and electronics, what is the guitar to you?
“I’m trying to think of how to say this in the least cheesy way, but in order to write songs, I need the guitar. It’s also so therapeutic, even just fingerpicking on one chord. I feel more anxiety in me when I take big breaks from playing. I feel better after playing. I feel less stressed and less tense and that’s how songwriting is for me, too. You write a song, look down and realize how you were feeling. It’s a good way to process stuff.”
That’s a strong argument for picking a guitar up…
“Yeah. Being a musician in a professional way and still finding an identity that is you is important. You are a musician, and that’s a part of you, but that’s not all of you. You have to experience things and live life in order to write a good song. You have to connect with people and do shit, otherwise it’s this algorithmic thing that you’re just getting off on doing. We all want to make money. I would love to make more money than I do, but that’s not why you do it.”
On the subject of which, does the “hired gun” work lean more towards being good business sense or an ambition to play other people’s music?
“It’s both. I had wanted to experience it. This whole record and my whole mindset for music in general is about connecting with people and I had never connected with music in this role. I also was in a place where there was nothing going on for me this year. I was having an existential crisis and then one of the coolest indie rock dudes out there [Kevin Morby] wanted me to be in his band!
“Also, being in other people’s bands, you really learn to appreciate who you hire even more. I already had a very deep respect for anyone I hire, but it made me realize how much they give when they’re giving to my music. I think anyone who’s the lead of a band should experience being a hired gun.”
Your new record Wherever You Aren’t is out this month. What can you tell us about it?
“It’s an accumulation of the strongest songs that I’d written during a chunk of time when I actually wasn’t living anywhere. I was crashing on couches and putting together a bunch of DIY tours. I write a lot. It’s quantity then quality. I get it all out there and see what’s best.
“It was my first time getting to really layer stuff. I’d never had the time and I think really taking my time with this one enabled me to keep adding stuff, or taking stuff away if it felt like too much. Space in songs and records is important. The title track is pretty spacious compared to, say, Where’s My Bike? which is chaos for four minutes straight.
“In that song, there’s the line: ‘I’m sick of singing songs about my exes / Should join somebody else’s band / play songs about their life instead of mine / be a part of a very marketable brand.’ The last year of my life has been just that. It’s full circle.”
Tell us about the guitars we hear on the record…
“This record is mostly my Gibson ES-340, which is essentially a 345. It’s from 1968. It’s my Excalibur. I actually would probably have a breakdown if this guitar was stolen or broken.
“There’s something really magical about it. Most of this record was written on this guitar and it’s on most of the songs – if you hear an electric guitar, it’s that one. It’s easy to play and the tone is great.”
What about amps?
“My co-producer, Scott McDowell, is friends with Tim Marcus who runs Milkman Sound, which is a boutique amp company. He loaned us a couple of amps to track through. He also built his own baritone guitar out of a Tele body and a baritone neck, and that’s on Clown Song and Wherever You Aren’t. It’s very subtle, but there isn’t bass on that one, and at the end, there’s a baritone part. I was listening to a lot of The Cure when we were tracking that song.”
Are you a pedal enthusiast, and if so, what’s always on your ‘board?
“I do love pedals. When I moved to Chicago two years ago, I started working at the Chicago Music Exchange – which is actually where I got my ES-340 before I even moved there – and I worked the front door, which is right by all the pedals. So I did start to use my discount and buy some, but I had to stop because it’s addicting!
“The Flint Tremolo & Reverb by Strymon is the pedal I will die with. For the stuff I do, it’s perfect. It’s that kind of vintage-sounding reverb, and the options for trem, it’s all I need.”
- Wherever You Aren’t is out now.