“Keri Noble’s new album grosses her out. But in a good way.”

By Jason Tanamor

“I'm so excited about this new CD that I'm starting to gross myself out!” Keri Noble said. “I never used to be this much of a positive person, but I guess that's what comes with finally finding yourself doing what you know you were born to do and connected to people who want to help you get there.”

Noble, a multi-talented singer-songwriter whose family got her into music at an early age, used the Detroit culture to draw inspiration for her music. She recently chatted with me to talk about her road through the music industry.

Q - You're from the Detroit area. With its rich history of music, did you always see yourself getting into the music business?

A - No. Not at all, actually. I never had focused goals of being a musician. I definitely danced around my living room with an oversized spoon or hairbrush, singing (and directing my fictional band) whatever songs I knew. But, I really wasn't much of a dreamer. Or, if I was, I kept it to myself or from myself, if that makes any sense.

And as far as the Detroit connection, I believe that I drew from the rich cultural environment, but was never exposed to the great Motown artists and the music that put Detroit on the map. That's just not the environment that I was raised in.

Q - How did you get your start in music?

A - My mom made me take piano lessons, which I hated. She had the kitchen timer on top of our upright piano, and I would dread every moment of practice until, finally, time would be up and I could stop.

It wasn't until around the time of the Lilith Fair that I started hearing female singer-songwriters. Someone gave me Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and I lost my mind. I loved everything about it.

I started writing and re-learning the piano (by ear) and getting gigs in coffee houses and bars.

I moved to Minneapolis in '01 and got my first manager and almost two years later, after several industry showcases in LA and NY, I got a record deal with EMI/Manhattan and that was the beginning of it all.

Q - Describe your music for those who don't know about you.

A - Well, I would say that it's a mix of singer-songwriter/soul/and pop music.

Q - Who were your musical influences?

A - I loved musicals when I was growing up. My mom would let me check out as
many as I could from the library. She also introduced me to the Beatles (which may very well have been my only real exposure to "secular" popular music when I was really young). Of course, there was a lot of contemporary Christian music (Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, etc.).

When I got into high school, I fell in love with R&B and hip-hop. And, finally, when I graduated high school, I discovered Joni Mitchell, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, and Carol King.

Q - So you tinkered around in Detroit but then later moved to Minneapolis. What was the musical landscape like in Minnesota AND what did it offer you?

A - When I was starting to play music in Detroit, I didn't really know many people who were doing the same kind of music that I was. I wasn't plugged in to any artists' community and, therefore, felt like I was spinning my wheels.

I met some musicians from Minneapolis, and I came to the city to play a show with one of them. I immediately fell in love with the city, the people, and the sense of artistic community here. It felt organic and real and welcoming.

I was young and not afraid and decided to give it a shot. That was almost 8 years ago and I feel like it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Q - Are you still in Minneapolis?

A - Yes.

Q - In 2003 you signed with EMI/Manhattan. How much of a change was it going from being an indie musician to one that was signed by a major label?

A - Truthfully, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't really know that I was considered an "indie" artist. And all I knew when I got the record deal was that I wanted to do everything I could possibly do to make them happy that they'd chosen me. There wasn't really much of me that saw myself as an artist or made decisions from a place of artistic
integrity. It was more of a situation where I felt lucky and maybe even a little bit like a fraud...like I had fooled people into thinking that I was an artist when I was really just a regular girl who happened to have a streak of luck writing some songs that people seemed to like.

Q - What did they make you do different?

A - If I understand the question, I think you're asking what was different about being signed to a label rather than doing my own thing, right?

They were a big machine. They had meetings about my career. They had divisions within the company that focused on specific aspects of my artistry. I really had no idea what any of it was about. I just felt the overwhelming need to pretend that I knew what was happening and make people happy.

I got to open for some really amazing artists (Cyndi Lauper, B.B. King, Jonny Lang) and travel the world. I felt so unbelievably lucky to be able to do these things simply because of the songs that I'd written. But I was always operating under the fear that it would all go away and that my ability to write songs would dry up.

Before signing with them, I was openly floundering, trying to find what I was supposed to be doing. After I was signed, I had teams of people telling me what I was supposed to be doing. It was very different and, also, strangely similar. Through it all, I just felt lost.

Q - When "Fearless" came out, it didn't make that huge splash in the States. Was there ever a point you start to question the validity of what you're doing?

A - I questioned whether or not I was a priority at the label. Like I said before, I had no pre-conception of what would happen with “Fearless.” I went to a label Christmas party before my CD dropped, and the head of radio assured me that "every song could be a hit...they were all that good. The only difficult thing would be to pick one." Of course, none of that happened. But it really never sunk in because it was all just happening too fast and I didn't know what to expect.

I spent every opportunity that I got on the road and at some point, I began to question whether the work that I was doing was actually making any difference. If the label wasn't backing me, then I just felt like I couldn't win.

One thing I did know, that I discovered and learned to trust while I toured, was that when I played live, people responded. They actually spent their hard-earned money buying my CD's, and at many venues I broke records for an opening act's CD sales. So, I was beginning to trust that what I was doing resonated with people. I think being on the road taught me how to be an artist. Take away the "suits" and the politics and what do you have? Are you reaching people? Is it filling you up as an artist? I found the answer to be yes for both of those questions.

Q - How have you evolved as a musician and songwriter?

A - When I came to EMI, I was a girl who sang love songs, for the most part. When I toured, I realized that I couldn't just do slow ballads. I knew I'd lose the audience. So, I had to learn real fast how to have range as an artist. That really opened the door to exploring more of my capabilities.

When I left EMI, I felt so free to do whatever I wanted. I didn't have anyone telling me what to do or how to sound. It was in those two years that I wrote the material for my full-length debut release on Telarc. And I think you can feel the freedom in the songs.

There's a strong theme of emancipation on the new CD, even though that was not a conscious thought or agenda. I was simply exercising, for the first time, my full power in the studio. And it felt good. I didn't have to stick to being any one thing, which freed me to explore soul, gospel and R&B, as well as love songs and pop.

Q - What's the best lesson you've learned?

A - You never know how things will play out. So, try not to burn any bridges, but never compromise the essence of what makes you unique.

Q - Tell me about the new album coming out in February.

A - It's been a long time coming! Even though Fearless was technically my debut album, I believe this new record is my real "coming out" debut. It's fully inclusive and representative of what I think my strengths are as an artist. I think that there are many different stylistic flavors and yet there's also fluidity to the collection of songs. If I am gonna come out, I'm gonna come out swinging. And this is the record I'm proud to be doing it with.

Q - What challenges did you face with this new album?

A - Really only the challenges of walking the path that led to the songs. Once the songs started coming, it was, for me, undeniable and therapeutic.

I guess maybe a challenge might have been my own fear of committing to getting back in the "game", so to speak, by signing with another label. I was pretty resolute about never signing again. But then I flew to Cleveland and met a lot of the people at Telarc and knew before the end of the day that I was artistically home.

Q - What do you want your audience to take away with this new album?

A - Empowerment. Freedom. Emancipation. It might sound cheesy, but it really is where I'm at today. I have a new-found sense of what I want to accomplish and how much more protective I am of my talents. I want people to feel inspired and empowered when they listen to my songs. By the way, I don't mean in an Anthony Robbins/self-help kind of way. I mean in that feeling you get when some part of you wakes up inside and realizes, for yourself, that you can change the direction you're going, that someone else feels what you feel and understands.

Q - What would you like to accomplish as an artist before you hang it up?

A - You mean besides performing on the Oprah show? Hmmmm. Seriously, I guess I'd like to be an old woman and have made a living doing what made me feel alive. So, in the present moment, I guess that means just keep doing what I'm doing. Taking risks. Trying to stay open to what's possible. And stay out of my own way.


Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous."

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