Elizabeth Moen describes recording the video for her latest single as “honestly just a really good day in general.”
It appears many who have seen the “Headgear” performance agree.
The video, which she entered in National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest, has been viewed more than 12,000 times. It also became one of six performances in the annual competition for unsigned bands that NPR Music “can’t stop watching.”
Local music fans can hear the Iowa-based singer-songwriter and her band perform “Headgear” and other songs by the prolific composer when they perform Tuesday, Sept. 17, at The Plus in downtown Eau Claire.
“I think it was just like the energy in that room was so good that day, and all the musicians were just really vibing and we were making a lot of eye contact with each other,” she said in a phone interview. “We were in San Francisco, it was beautiful out, the harmonies felt really good. Our friends let us use their art space.” Appropriately, the song itself is propelled by a sunny, upbeat melody.
Moen spoke as she and the band were driving from Iowa to Missouri in similarly enjoyable weather, as she said skies were clear and temperature was about 80 degrees.
Besides the positive vibes during the video, Moen said, a new approach to her vocals also proved helpful. Previously, she said, “I was afraid of making weird faces when I was singing and that really inhibited me from actually sounding the way I sound. And I think that video kind of showcases kind of weird (things) my face and neck do when I’m playing, and a lot of people commented on that but in a positive way. Maybe some people commented in a negative way. But the whole video is … everyone’s relaxed.”
“Headgear” reflects both the mundane — the dental guard mentioned in the title — and deeper emotion content.
“The song is kind of silly because it’s a mouth guard that I’m supposed to wear at night so I was always having headaches in the morning,” she said. “And someone was like, ‘Well, you’re grinding your teeth,’ like grinding your teeth at night can give you headaches, and so I was thinking of, ‘Oh, these simple things are the answer to why these things are happening.’ But then the other side of the song is kind of like waves of emotions you can get and also being more open with yourself and others about your mental health.
“They’re pretty slim lyrics in the song,” she added, “but that is the gist of the song: trying to keep it lighthearted and fun, but not be afraid to show the other side of your emotions in the same song.”
Her band helped her settle on the song’s title.
“I was calling it ‘Mouth Guard’ for a hot second, and everyone was like, ‘Hmm, no.’ Then I started calling it ‘Headgear,’ and we were like, ‘Huh, yeah!’”
While “Headgear” has proved to be Moen’s most popular song so far, she said, others from her catalog have connected with listeners.
A self-titled album came out in 2016 followed by “That’s All I Wanted” in 2017 and “A Million Miles Away” in 2018. Songs that have gained traction include “Red” from “A Million Miles Away” and two cuts from “That’s All I Wanted”: “Mars,” which also was featured in the Netflix original teen comedy “Candy Jar,” and “Tell Me When.”
Besides putting out albums in three successive years, Moen has written about 50 songs over the last year, mostly from the time she and the band have been touring behind “A Million Miles Away.” She credits the creativity in part to time on the road.
“When you get home from it, you just feel really inspired by all the things you see and all the things that happen,” she said.
Another aspect to that is an important life change.
“This year I’ve also really started taking my mental health seriously,” she said. “And trying to, I think, focusing on that has been an inspiration for a lot of the new material as well.”
More to the point, the new compositions have proved to be “almost therapeutic.”
“It’s a way for me to process my emotions and to write them down, and then playing music does that as well,” she said. “So it’s a great combination to work through the feelings and thoughts.”
In short, Moen doesn’t take that inspiration for granted.
“I’m definitely just trying to ride the writing wave as long as I can,” she said. “I’m grateful that my brain’s still busting it out.”
A look at the Press section of Moen’s website makes it clear that, in addition to her songwriting, her vocal talents stand out. NPR Music said Moen “has remarkable control over her voice that reflects the emotional candor in her lyrics.” Iowa Public Radio noted that she is “(a)rmed with a jaw-dropping singing voice, tasteful guitar playing, and songs that stay in your head for days.” And Little Village, a publication based in Iowa, calls her voice “one of passion and heartache.”
Moen attributes her vocal gift to, as a child, singing along with her parents’ CDs, among them classics by artists such as the legendary Motown roster as well as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith and “a lot of old country.”
“I think just singing along to a lot of different kinds of music as a kid helped me not sing in one certain way, and also songwriting is not one certain thing,” she said, adding that all her band mates enjoy an eclectic mix of music as well, which “translates into how we play our instruments and how we play them together.”
Not coincidentally, the inspirations she lists on her website include Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks but also newer artists whose music pays its respect to the greats, including rock- and R&B-influenced groups Alabama Shakes and Lake Street Dive along with Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, singer-songwriters who have expanded the sonic palette in which folk music thrives.
The show at The Plus will mark Moen’s debut at a public venue in Eau Claire. Her group has played a house show that drew a large number of college-age attendees. They also were scheduled to perform here earlier this year, but inclement weather canceled the trip.
“Last time we were here there were really good vibes,” she said. “Really, really nice town.”