Noel Herbert is a singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and composer located in Los Angeles. He is one of those rare artists that have the ability to deftly bridge the gap between personal introspective pieces and singles-savvy Top 40 fare. The prodigious songwriter and composer recently sat down with us to discuss his family, educational background, making it as a working musician in Hollywood, and the power of music as a vehicle for healing.
Eric Harabadian: Can you talk a bit about your background growing up?
Noel Herbert: I grew up in Farmington, Michigan. The very first groups that I listened to on my own were The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. The only music that was heard in my parents’ house was classical music and Irish Celtic music from my father’s side.
When I was seven years old, my father had a stroke and was severely disabled. It was definitely rough on me and my mother. I went from Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel into darker music like Marilyn Manson, System of a Down, Lamb of God, and stuff like that. But I always thought of myself as a folk singer, though. The first instrument I played was the glockenspiel. I always liked to sing and made up melodies. I started guitar lessons at 10 years old. Within the first three months of lessons I wrote my first song. At first, this was an outlet for me being a caregiver, with me and my mother taking care of my father.
EH: When did you get into performing music?
NH: Right before I turned 18 I had a group of friends who were all musicians. And we all sat around and thought we’d try and put some kind of thing together just for fun. I was the only folk singer out of a group of hip hop artists and rappers. So, that was particularly interesting and I started writing lyrics for them. I was also playing acoustic shows at this time. But, at that age, I was interested in becoming a rock star. I never thought about getting into electronic music whatsoever.
Around 19 or 20 I put together my first band which was me and a friend who played guitar and drums. He would alternate between the two for live sets. That band was called Illumination. And that lasted mid-way through my attending the Detroit Institute of Music Education (D.I.M.E.). Actually, I went to Boston for a while and attended the Berklee School of Music before I went to D.I.M.E. I released a single while I was there. At this time I stopped playing live because I was going to college to hone my skills as a songwriter. I started looking at what kind of songwriter did I see myself as. Did I see myself as writing commercial pop music or more on the artistic side? And I really struggled with this until I figured why couldn’t I do both?
EH: Is that a question you posed to yourself or was that something your college instructors would ask?
NH: It was a question one of my instructors asked me. I was supposed to come back with an answer the following week. But I really didn’t have a good answer to that until two months later. And at that point I had already written my first single with my project called Grass Bat. The song was called “Cigarette Showers.” So, I could do pop songwriting and do Grass Bat which was an artistic outlet where I could express how I felt. Grass Bat was very much like MGMT, Animal Collective, with sounds drifting into ‘80s rock like Depeche Mode, The Cure, and New Order.
EH: You graduated from D.I.M.E. in 2018. Was your plan to move to L.A. right away? Did you have work out there?
NH: I live in East Hollywood and I was considering coming out here a year before I did. I was dating somebody in Detroit at the time but really wanted to move to California. I decided to move shortly after graduating. I had this plan to come out here prior to dating this person so I wanted to stick to my plan. I was also contacted by a filmmaker that wanted me to work on a score for his film out here. That ended up falling through but was a little more of a push for me coming out here.
EH: So, tell me about your group and your latest single.
NH: It’s not even a group, it’s just me. Sometimes I’ll work with other songwriters, but mostly I’m doing all the lyrics, production, engineering, and instrumentation. This latest single “Favorite Worst Enemy” was a different song for me to release. I actually finished the song about six months to a year before I decided to release it. I was thinking about releasing it on an EP with other songs. But there was the challenge of what the song meant to me. At the time I was writing it I didn’t know what it was about. It was kind of stream of consciousness. It wasn’t until later that I figured out what was going on in my head at the time. I had fallen into a pretty depressive state that had been creeping along for some time. And that’s what that song is about. Having a favorite worst enemy is really just my own struggles within myself. It’s more of a dance-y type song compared to my previous releases. That has to do with really coming back to the Detroit techno scene. But also the only time I felt free from myself was going out and having a good time dancing; pretty much anything to get my mind off the fact that I wasn’t feeling very good. So, it’s a song about escapism, but holding onto those feelings very close to me.
EH: Without getting too personal, did you find this was coming from a certain place, perhaps an incident from the past?
NH: As far as something particularly from the past, not really. It’s very much a song dealing with me in the present.
EH: Well, mental health is certainly a relevant and timeless issue that manifests itself in different ways.
NH: Yeah, many people do deal with mental illness and depression. I started opening up to family and friends about what I was dealing with. It had only been a month and a half since I released the song that I started opening up to people about what I was dealing with. And once I started opening up to people, I realized they had their own stories. And they had similar issues and not feeling comfortable talking about it with people. I guess the campaign of this song, if you will, is to be open about your mental illness because it really de-stigmatizes the way people view it. People deal with anxiety, depression and all sorts of things. It’s much more common than anyone would think. So, I’m hoping by putting myself out there it will help at least one person to open up to others. And maybe it will make their life easier because I know it has for me.
EH: That’s excellent, man! Good advice. Being located in L.A. and Hollywood, are you currently playing live shows?
NH: Currently, not right now. At this point I’m strictly a recording artist and songwriter. I’m writing songs for Grass Bat but also synch licensing songs for corporate videos, television, and movies and submitting them to music house catalogs. I am also working on an independent film score that’s coming up fairly soon. And I should start working on that in a couple months. I also do side gigs and record other artists in my studio and host songwriting sessions to help people with their songwriting. All these little things you do to be able to live in Los Angeles.
EH: Well, you’re making it happen, man! A lot of people talk about quote, unquote “making it.” But, you know what, you are making it! You’re doing everything in your artistic and musical realm to make a living. And you’re following your passion. Not everything is always built around a hit single, if you know what I mean.
NH: No, not necessarily. Going back to what I said earlier, do I see myself as an artist or a Top 40 songwriter? I see myself as doing both. But I appreciate you saying that. There are different levels of making it. I’m 25 years old and I’m living in L.A. and getting by. That’s more than a lot of people can do out here.
EH: And you being from the Detroit area and involved in electronic music, there is a rich history of that coming out of Detroit.
NH: Yeah, Detroit and Berlin were where techno really took place. And I think there are arguments on both sides which one actually started electronic music. But I’m not gonna get into that. People know where I stand considering where I’m from.
EH: Tell me about your songwriting and composing process. You said you were gonna be working on a independent short film. Are you working with the director on that?
NH: You definitely work very closely with the director. In this case he is also the writer of the film. I’m gonna be on set with him later this month seeing how the film is being put together. I’ve seen some scenes and already know the storyline so I can start to wrap my head around what sounds would work best for the different sections of the film.
EH: And with songwriting you like to write for other artists, correct?
NH: When I write indie electronic stuff I usually know that will be for me. But if I’m writing more of a top line where melodies, lyrics, and chords are written on piano or guitar, it generally is inclined to be a song for somebody else. Generally co-writes are either for the other person or to pitch to another artist or A&R person.
EH: What kind of keyboard and audio gear are you using in your studio?
NH: I work a lot with my Roland 88. I take a lot of sounds that are on there and add different sorts of effects. My primary DAW that I used on “Favorite Worst Enemy” is Ableton Live and Push. I also use a multitude of in-computer synthesizers. While I mostly record with digital gear I do have experience with analog synthesizers too.
EH: Well, that’s something I’ve noticed about your Grass Bat music. You are a well rounded musician, and I hear that in what you do. Your stuff doesn’t sound synthetic or antiseptic like some electronica can be.
NH: Yeah, and also knowing how analog synths sound compared to digital synths. Digital synthesizers can sound really really pure. That sounds more synthetic to me. I’ve been trying to create more of a lo-fi tone to my synthesizers where it tends to be a little more distorted live.
EH: So, is there anything you have going beyond what we talked about?
NH: I’m working on a largely collaborative project, with multiple producers, songwriters and instrumentalists. I’m not sure if this will be an EP or an album. There will be a number of different people I know on it, but I still will be doing a lot of my own writing and production.
EH: When are you looking to release this new recording?
NH: Probably sometime within the next six months. There’s a lot of funding, marketing, and branding that has to happen first.
EH: Finally, what’s your take on the state of popular music today?
NH: Well, being an independent musician today, it is easier than ever to get your music out to anyone. It’s all about if you have the knowledge to reach the right people. It’s about finding your fan base and who wants to listen to your music. But there is such an influx of music on the internet that, in some ways, it’s never been easier and also never been harder to reach people.
Contacts: Instagram: @no_lmusic Facebook: www.facebook.com/noel.herbert.7902 Soundcloud: www.soundcloud.com/noelherbertmusic . You can also find his music through all the usual online sources: Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Prime.