Elizabeth Moen w/ Hex Girls, Good Morning Midnight
Octopus College Hill, Cedar Falls — Thursday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m.
Elizabeth Moen Album Release Show w/ Hot Tang, Young Charles
Englert Theatre — Friday, Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Elizabeth Moen w/ Peanut Ricky
Triple Crown Whiskey Bar and Raccoon Motel, Davenport — Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m.
While in France trying to make friends, a 15-year-old Elizabeth Moen buried a language barrier beneath guitar chords and a rising voice. She returned to the United States with budding spirit and, after five more years, played her first show — an open mic at The Mill. At 21, she wrote her first original song. Moen has since become a staple of Iowa City’s music scene, cementing a place in the hearts of local music lovers that, at 24, is still surreal for her to hold.
“I think people in Iowa City can see how hard I’m working and they can appreciate that. There are a lot of really hard-working artists here in town,” Moen said. “It’s the kind of place where I think everyone’s building off of each other’s energy rather than making it a competition.”
Moen sees bands supporting bands and serious young musicians stepping onto the scene more so than she’s witnessed in the past. A strong music community starts with the musicians, she said. And Moen is right at the forefront, an unintentional yet inspiring leader.
While the actual record dropped Sept. 1, Moen will play a show at the Englert on Sept. 14 to celebrate the release of her third album, A Million Miles Away. The occasion marks her first headlining show at the iconic downtown theater. And that makes her incredibly nervous. In spite of her nerves, the show promises high energy stemming from Moen’s burgeoning confidence as a performer and a writer. Her live shows being, as she puts it, “attainably heavy and loud,” the setting for the release couldn’t be more perfect.
“There are moments when [the show is] so quiet,” she said. “But if you can hear everything happening, it’s really meaningful. Then there are moments when it’s loud and I’m screaming my ass off. I think the Englert’s going to be a really great space for that, where you can hear all of those things.”
Lilting with flavor yet strong as espresso, Moen’s voice is one of passion and heartache. I was cut to the bone by moments of levity on the heels of affective intensity. A Million Miles Away achieves a more mature sound while keeping a taste of youthful woe, worn like a badge of sentimentality. No one feels pain like the young. And no one creates a feeling within their music like Moen. There is a tenacity surrounding her newest melodies — sure guitar riffs and leading lines command the ear wherever Moen desires. Two conceptual giants propel Moen’s newest to a higher level: growth and realization.
“This album is bigger,” she said. Moen knew what she wanted from this album. Musically heavy and more curated, the big steps the album takes show prominently and are wholly amazing.
Every song she chose fits the theme: realizing within yourself that there is a mountain to climb and accepting that. “Time Is a Shitty Friend” emerged as the biggest change for her musically.
“The song is about if time were a person, it’s trying to steal someone away from you,” Moen said. “And then right as I say, ‘Time doesn’t always have your back/time changes everything,’ there’s literally a time change in the music. It happens unintentionally — but it’s moments like that where the melody kind of mimics the lyrics … That song really showed [me], ‘OK, yeah, I wanna do this forever.’”
Her tone is world-worn, aging finely as she crosses Midwestern and European stages on her summer tour. She made herself heard, and people paid attention. Moen’s still-humble charm and native Iowa affectations make her stand out as all the more real in a crowd. She is fine being popular in the Midwest. But her forecast calls for more.
Moen already released A Million Miles Away on vinyl in Dublin while playing a smattering of shows there (mostly planned, a few spontaneous). Though technically out before her U.S. release date on Sept. 1, only those in Ireland who bought the vinyl could hear the record at that time. “There’s this like three-week period of this record’s life where [it was] super old fashioned,” Moen said dreamily. “You [couldn’t] just look it up online or get a CD or anything — it’s super retro. I just realized that. Right now.”
More than the fact vinyl is having a revival, the choice to release on the format stemmed from friends’ insistence that having an actual physical copy of the music she’s created would be magical. Moen went along, slightly skeptical. Once she got the test press, however, it was all worth it.
“I can see the grooves and that’s my music,” she said of the moment.
Her music will be heard soon enough at the Englert, Moen’s last show in Iowa City for the better part of a year. For seven or eight months after Sept. 14, she and her band will tour in Europe for a few more shows and then elsewhere in the Midwest.
“I get really into each song I perform,” Moen said. “For each song, I have to go back to the moment I wrote it even if it’s really sad. There’s definitely a lot of emotion in the set. There are times when, even if it’s about something I’m totally over, it’s chill, that’s a thing from the past, I can still get back in that moment and tear up because I’m just really into it.”
Ideas of devotion act as the backbone of her music. And she is likewise devoted to it. Luckily for her and listeners, music has a grip on Moen that won’t let go anytime soon.
Alex Kramer is a University of Iowa undergrad and freelance journalist. She specializes in music writing, traversing genres and states. She also writes on political issues regarding gender and sexuality. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 249.