Elizabeth Moen has forgotten that I can see her. “‘Scuse me,” she giggles, taking a bite of her egg and looking sheepishly toward the camera. We’re on opposite sides of the world, so the Iowa singer-songwriter and I are attempting to catch up over Skype (at my own insistence, face-to-face interviews are always better). Murphy’s law, my laptop camera is broken, making the visual experience distinctly one-sided.
Moen and I met in a pub in Dublin three years ago, on a night she sang one of the best covers I’ve ever heard (Prince’s “Kiss,” FYI). In that same pub, Moen met a bulk of the artists who flew to San Francisco to help record her sophomore album, which is yet to be released. “This whole band was sponsored by Bourke’s!” she says, while we talk about its legendary Monday night songwriter sessions. “I've been so lucky to work with so many people I connect with, not just on a musical level but as friends. It just makes the music even better. It's going to really resonate in the album, there's a lot of good energy and thoughtfulness.”
A couple years ago, Moen sold most of her belongings, bought a van – affectionately called Vanny DeVito – and decided to split her time between Dublin, Iowa and San Francisco, three places that all feel like home to her. It’s a hell of a vagabond lifestyle. “It's definitely hard,” she admits. “I don't want to belittle that. I never stay in the car, but I'll stay with friends for a little bit, and then get to Dublin, or San Francisco.”
Does she ever feel displaced, I wonder? "I'm really thankful that I have people who will let me stay in their homes. It's been really nice to just be in one bed," she says. "For a while I was thinking, 'you can sleep in a different place every night! You're Go-With-The-Flow Liz.' Which is true. But,” she pauses to think for a half-second, “what did my therapist say? 'Being grounded!’ When your schedule is constantly fluctuating and you're travelling all the time, it's really hard to find grounding within yourself. I kind of didn't believe her at first. But it eventually hit me that I didn't feel grounded at all."
Moen is a big advocate for therapy. “I don't want to belittle all of what I just said,” she muses, “but I have to take a step back and say: 'your job is to play music now. And to hop in your van on a plane and play with people you love.' Whenever I do start to feel really anxious, or those bad emotions welling up, I try and remember why I'm doing what I'm doing. And being able to call my therapist has really helped.”
Grounding techniques definitely come in handy, especially because Moen is almost constantly on tour. In fact, I haven’t ever really known her to not be either (a) on tour, or (b) gigging while she records. “Even before I was a musician,” she tells me, “In school, I was in three choirs, musicals, group and solo speech, debate, sports…I overworked myself. I've always thought overwork equals success. There was a month or so on the calendar where we didn’t have any shows planned, and I just felt that if nothing was on the calendar, it was a lull–which isn’t good. My manager had to talk me down, and tell me that it’s not a sign of things going poorly, that maybe some down time is good. And I had to be like, 'alright, you're right. You're a great manager.'”
It isn’t that all this hard work hasn’t paid off. Quite the opposite, in fact. Moen has a steadily growing fanbase, in part due to the fact that she gets around so much. Another reason for her success is, of course, that she is a certifiable talent. Her latest NPR Tiny Desk submission, a track called ‘Headgear’, boasts glittering guitar and Moen’s trademark effortlessness. Her voice in turn soars and floats, while still–somehow–grounded in an old-school, bluesy grit. Her conversational songwriting creates a rare brand of intimacy. It's a craft that can take artists a lifetime to develop, but it seems to come to her easily.
There was, however, a time when Moen didn’t feel like her music would have a place in the industry. “It wasn't that I thought my music was bad, it was that I was so conditioned to think I was this kid from a part of the States that people don't really think of as a ‘music hub.’ I definitely am working on finding that nice person in my head.”
She's come a long way from feeling insecure about her music in the last three years. Among her ever-growing group of supporters is none other than Bernie Sanders, who regularly invites Moen to play Iowa rallies. "Are you a Bernie gal," she asks excitedly? I'm slightly nervous to admit that I prefer Elizabeth Warren, given how tense the pair's respective supporters tend to be with one another. Turns out, I needn't have worried. "She's also amazing," Moen enthuses. "I wish some Warren and Bernie people would be less hostile toward one another. I know people care about it, and I really care too. But going into a conversation with anger probably won't go as well as you want. But I understand why people are so heated at the same time."
Acceptance and letting go play prominent parts in Moen’s latest music video, “Ex’s House Party.” The guitar-driven, vintage blues track is semi-autobiographical, about navigating staying friendly with your ex. “It's like, you're a person I want to be forever in communication with,” she says. “That's why the final line of the song is 'It's hard to look you in the eye and know that this was never really more than what it is now'. I built it up thinking it was a romantic thing, but it was never going to be anything. That was really hard to realize, but it was a beautiful realization.”
I spot some ink on Moen’s left arm. “I got best friend tattoos with two of my friends from college,” she laughs. “They wanted to get snakes, and they wanted really badass snakes. And I was like, 'I want to get these tattoos, ‘cause I love you guys. But I'm not a cool snake gal. I need dorky, looks-like-a-worm snake.'” The aforementioned snake is a one of a few animal-related tattoos: "I'm ashamed to say I have the bees knees. I have bees on my knees," she says, rolling her eyes.
Her irreverence is infectious, no doubt part of her self-professed easygoing attitude. Whether she’s singing about putting her mouthguard in or talking about past relationships, she does so with a dry, self-deprecating humour. She's in the middle of making fun of her "bees knees" and she stops, reminding herself of another piece of wisdom from therapy: "'The way you talk to yourself, would you ever talk to someone else like this?' God, no! We're all our own harshest critics." Truthfully, I can't find much about this girl that isn't endearing.