After a solo tour in Europe this February of 2017, Elizabeth Moen is back in the Midwest and ready for touring with her bandmates Justin, Blake, and Dan. Elizabeth was raised in Vinton, Iowa and recently graduated from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. She began playing guitar as a teenager, though it was thanks to the writing community of Iowa City that she was inspired to write her own music. Her sound and songs are inspired by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, and modern acts like Angel Olson, Esmé Patterson, Alabama Shakes, and Shakey Graves.
After writing her first eight songs released on her first EP in January 2016, she now has a repertoire of forty-plus songs. She released her first full-length on May 13th, 2017 on William Elliott Whitmore and Luke Tweedy's (of Flat Black Studios) Long Play Records. This album is a mixture of old and new with various inspirations from old jazz, to modern indie-rock. Featured on the album are collaborations including contributions from twelve very talented Iowa musicians.
Moen has had the opportunity to share the stage with acts such as Houndmouth, Lake Street Dive, Margaret Glaspy, William Elliott Whitmore, Lucy Dacus, Caroline Smith, Nicole Atkins, and more. Moen's 2017 schedule includes Mission Creek Festival, 80/35 Festival, and Camp Euforia.
Moen will be touring this Summer and Fall of 2017 with her full band. For booking information and questions, contact at her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Moen: Our Very Own Songbird
Technically, Elizabeth Moen is a small-town girl. She grew up in Vinton, a home to 5,000 people in western Iowa. It has flat front yards perfect for hosting a game of cornhole on Football Sunday and setting up lawn chairs to watch fireflies twinkle in the summer. It is beautiful and quaint. It is prone to floods.
Moen, 23, now resides in Iowa City, and has for the past five. Liz, as most people know her, has long blonde hair and big round Twiggy eyes. She stands five feet, eight inches tall and slings her guitar around her left shoulder. She sorts Sephora’s lipstick collection from high to low when she’s looking to treat herself and likes to wear a puffy white robe while online shopping, sitting on her living room couch. She prefers whiskey to clear alcohols when performing and uses a Katharine Hepburn accent to order her Jameson waters. She looks up to Johnny Cash and down on no one. She speaks fluent French and has an alluring singing voice that turns heads and fills venues. She is kind and caring. She’s mysterious in a way that makes you always wonder what she’s thinking, but ethereal enough that you’ll be satisfied with never knowing.
Iowa City has been Moen’s home since she decided to attend the University of Iowa and, in the last year and a half, she’s made a name for herself in the indie music scene. Little Village magazine has described her as being situated “in the singer-songwriter tradition alongside Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian and Judee Sill,” and has appeared on IPR Studio One’s “Java Blend” twice in the past eight months. She’s developed a style that makes her sound like she should be opening for Gary Clark Jr. at a packed outdoor venue with wooden paneling and string lights in Austin, Texas. Four years ago, she was toying with new chords in her dorm room, and now she’s supporting herself from performing all over the Iowa City area: at theaters, bars and restaurants, like The Mill, where she will be tonight.
It is an evening in early September; University of Iowa students are getting used to their school schedule and the locals are getting used to the spike in late-night noise. The sun has set, and with it the mugginess of the day. People trickle into the back room of The Mill, a downtown restaurant that doubles as a performance venue. Posters advertising the event are taped and stapled around town, on windows and walls and coarse telephone poles, over layers of staples which remember all those who came before her. Moen’s name is sandwiched between Jennifer Hall, a Chicagoan whose powerhouse voice seems contradictory to her small stature, and Dagmar, a raw and eerily harmonious duo from San Francisco lead by Gemma Cohen and Miranda Mallard. Some call tonight’s lineup a “ladies night” — a nod to female musicians who may not have much in common between them besides a passion for music and a similar vocal range. The heavy piano in Jennifer Hall’s upbeat sound doesn’t match Dagmar’s dark, repetitive harmonies, but Moen is the bluesy and soulful glue that holds them together. Each act brings its own individual talent into the feminine camaraderie while the nature of female competition positions them to bring their “A game” to stack up well next to their female colleagues. Moen is dressed for the part - an olive shirt tucked into black high-waist shorts, dark tights holding her silhouette together and thigh-high boots with an intimidating 4-inch heel.
Moen is standing by the bar, talking with a small group. Her bassist, Blake, is close by and soon appears at her right. There are about twenty people or so in the room, some standing, some sitting, some drinking, some eating. The lighting is dim except for the stage, which glows a little bit brighter than most of the seating. A slab of hardwood floor sits in front of the stage where Moen hopes her audience will come to dance whenever her tempo picks up. There are six wooden support posts scattered around the room that people will crane their necks around to get a good view. The Killers are playing softly over the muffled sound system, beer glasses clink, and the bartender pours Moen a fresh glass of Jameson as her friends go find a place to sit.
At 8:10 the bartender leaves to scrounge around a back room for a pen and paper. He comes back with a sharpie and three sheets of paper just as Moen situates herself on a stool. She uncaps the marker and positions the blank pages that will become her setlist in front of her. She crosses her legs, pushes her hair behind her right ear, and looks to Blake, signaling that it is his time to help.
The list is made in a very technical manner. Moen is exceptionally conscious of what will make for a good show for her audience, and believes that the right order of songs can accomplish that. “It’s all about keeping people locked in,” she says. Tempo, mood, popularity of song are all taken into account, with Blake resting his elbow on the bar and looking over her shoulder, offering reassurance and criticism of the working draft. A known hit, like her debut single “Songbird”, a cover of Drake’s “One Dance”, a few new songs, a favorite off the album, another cover, her single “Mars” that she had released just a few days prior to this evening, followed by another new song that will surely impress her audience. The paper fills with strikethroughs and scribbles as she tests different combinations to find a working mix. The point is to keep the audience interested and give them the two things that they want from her: the old and the new.
Moen grabs her drink from the edge of the bar in her left hand and gives a copy of the finished setlist to the sound technician with her right. She and Blake move their pre-show preparations to the green room, where Jennifer Hall is sitting in an old wooden corner booth, writing something down in a journal with a thin-tipped black pen. The green room walls are split between wood paneling and deep red paint. There are authentic and faux vintage posters of every size thrown up on each of the four walls. The carpet is dark and the room is lit by a half-burnt-out ceiling fan, a table lamp and two floor lamps. Moen wants to run through the song that she and Blake had written together, recently enough that she worries she may not remember the lyrics. Blake turns his bass upright and Moen situates herself on the room’s only couch, fiddling with her iPhone, getting it ready to record the run-through they are about to do. After a nod from Moen, Blake starts strumming. The bass line is elegant, deep and catchy. She closes her eyes and relaxes her face, letting her dark lips part just enough to show a bit of her front teeth, and listens to the collection of notes all the way through their run, twice. Her eyes open wide and lock with Blake’s seconds before chiming in with the words she had written only a few days prior. Jennifer Hall’s foot taps the floor while she thumbs at her phone. Moen doesn’t break eye contact with Blake until the singing is through, as if the gaze locked in concentration.
Once Moen exits the green room, Dagmar takes the stage and the night begins. Moen takes a cigarette break and talks with some friends outside, but she makes it quick so she doesn’t miss much of the opening set. She orders another drink from the bar when she comes back inside, tapping her left foot on the carpeted floor and faintly swaying her hips to the music, all while keeping an eye on the door for familiar faces coming in. During Dagmar’s last song, Moen finishes her drink and weaves through the tables, which are now still in a warm darkness in contrast to the brightness of the stage lights, back to the green room where Blake, her drummer Justin and guitarist Dan prepare to take the stage.
There are adjustments to the mic stand and drum kit layout after Dagmar leaves the stage. Moen and her bandmates lean in and speak softly to each other before gathering themselves into position. Moen taps the mic once with her index finger. “Hi, everybody,” she purrs.
Elizabeth Moen first started playing guitar at the age of twelve, although the interest was buried in a long list of other activities: school theater, choir, debate, improv and cross country, among others. “That’s just what you do in a small town because you can,” she says, “you don’t have to be the best of the best, you just have to participate.” She tried her hand at golf. She served on student government. Choir strengthened her voice (which had already been a well-known talent of hers). Improv, her self-proclaimed favorite, boosted her creative confidence. Still, she carved time out of her schedule for music. She taught herself basic chords and learned to play by ear on her grandfather’s acoustic guitar.
A year of living in France offered Moen the chance to designate music as a higher priority. Her uncle’s participation in the Rotary Club opened the door for her to be a foreign exchange student in her choice of countries around the world. She jumped at it. “I had always heard sophomore year was the boring year, so I skipped it,” she says. With less than a year of French under her belt, she chose to go to Orleans, France, a town two hours South of Paris, and lived with three different host families during her time there. At an age where most of her friends were still relying on their parents for rides and hanging out at the Cedar Rapids mall for fun, Moen was boarding a plane across the ocean. She opted out of the second suitcase the airline allowed her to instead bring her acoustic guitar. “That’s how I was going to make friends,” she recalls, cracking a smile.
While in France, Moen noticed that her school, Lycée Charles Peguy, didn’t have a music club of any kind - so she started one with the help of a friend. The club organized a concert at end of the school year, like a talent show, where students and other members of the community had a chance to share their music with others. Most of her afternoons were spent in the park by her school with other musicians, everyone taking a turn to bring the guitar for the day. They would play melodic hip hop beats and use their textbooks as drumheads with Moen’s vocals adding the top layer. Because she was still a French novice, she mostly sang in English. “They liked my voice,” she remembers. “They couldn’t understand what I was saying, but they liked my voice.” In those moments, her confidence as a performer in her own right blossomed; she hadn’t had much experience playing guitar in front of others or singing in settings outside of a school theater. Maybe the anxiety of performing was blurred with the stress of studying abroad, or maybe she just had a knack for it. Regardless, it laid the foundation for the artistry we see today.
After coming back to Vinton after her year abroad, Moen’s passion for music took a backseat. Because of the enormous growth she had undergone in Europe, both socially and artistically, keeping up with her music was difficult. “I came to my small town and didn’t feel comfortable with my music or developing that style” she recalls. She had outgrown her hometown. Moen went back to doing musicals and choir, but it wasn’t what she was passionate about, besides a few exceptions. “Cats was the shit,” she says. Moen didn’t continue to explore her own style until she came to Iowa City. She credits the inspiration for and growth of her music to the experiences that this city has allowed her: playing at known venues like The Mill and Englert Theatre.
Her first album, eponymously titled Elizabeth Moen, was released in January 2016 on her Bandcamp page and on CD, a mere five months after she began to write her own music. All eight songs were recorded at Flat Back Studios, a recording hub that sits on its own 8 acres of land just south of Iowa City. Downtown arts and retail store White Rabbit printed the album cover — a sketch of a bird atop a well-known Iowa City bar — on tricolor jersey tees. Her release party had a full house.
It’s 9:40 and Moen greets the room — a mixed audience of fans and those who are about to be. People who are sitting at the bar grab their drinks and join their friends’ tables near the stage to get a better view. She begins playing, following her setlist front to back, hitting songs that the audience wants, as well as the ones that they didn’t know they wanted to hear until they heard them. Her premiere single “Songbird” is the second that she plays, and one of her most recognizable. As her first single, it had developed Moen’s initial public image, and gave her listeners an idea of who she was. In the chorus, she sings I’m singing at the top of my lungs, trying to get through, which is, in a nutshell, how Moen approaches her music. In the middle of her set, she moves away from her first album to play a cover of Drake’s “One Dance.” She ends the set with a song she had written with the help of a friend, in an emotional fervor just three nights prior to tonight.
They were sitting on couches on opposite sides of the living room, guitars resting on their laps. The room was dimly lit as the evening darkness pressed against the windows. The angry sentiment that was left hanging in the air after their conversation about Moen’s then-boyfriend manifested into an inspired set of chords, which Moen started strumming. Her friend picked up on it and began mimicking on his own guitar — a moment of collaboration that would turn into the chorus of the song. The lyrics of the chorus flowed out after they had the melody down, the rest of the song to be built around it: Tell me when you’re drinking, who you gonna call? Tell me when you’re sleeping, do you see me at all? It was catchy, and Moen was confident in it. That confidence was validated tonight with an audience of undivided attention, bobbing heads, smiles, whispers between friends, and furrowed brows about the lyrics’ candor. “When you’re drinking the real shit comes out,” Moen says. It is, she thinks, the first song she’s written that she can imagine playing on the radio.
Moen walks off the stage after saying her appreciative ‘thank yous’ to her audience. Her platinum-blond hair catches the light just right and illuminates her movements through groups of people and tables and chairs to the side of the room opposite the stage. She hugs her parents. She talks with people and takes pictures with them. Then she slinks outside again as if she hasn’t just captivated the entire room. And while she does this, a fourth of the audience gets up and leaves, despite Moen being the second of three acts.
Elizabeth Moen’s fandom goes beyond her obvious talent and relatability. She’s an up-and-coming indie folk artist at a time when the genre has never been so popular and appreciated, with artists like Bon Iver and Mumford & Sons sneaking onto the Top 100. Of course, people are going to be drawn to songs about a breakup because we’ve all gone through breakups. Of course, people are going to like that she is from Iowa City just like them. Being in a state with no major sports teams of their own, people here take pride in the University of Iowa’s Hawkeyes above most else. And whether you’re a sports fan or not, the importance of teams bleeds into other areas, like extracurricular clubs or music. Moen’s locality makes it seem like if we were on a giant team, she’d be on it, she’s on our side, she’s with us. The admiration, wonder and pride we find in her lies in her ability to express the feelings that we can’t, or won’t, ourselves. She doesn’t hold back. She doesn’t feel shame.
She personifies the post-feminist wave of action, almost phenomenon, of reclaiming one’s vulnerability as a strength instead of brushing it off as a weakness. Being the pessimist, the cynic, the “downer” of the group isn’t cool anymore. We retweet screen-capped dialogue of Daria but wouldn’t dare repeat the words with any sincerity. Instead, we are learning to praise that which makes us distinctly human: our emotions. Even in popular media, the cynicism trope is broken down and revealed as impossible in instances of true emotive passion — something we cannot live without.
Moen’s long blonde hair and tall black heels make it seem like she can lure a man’s heart in with ease, then stomp on it without a second thought. In short, she looks like a badass: a bombshell with long legs and dark lips who won’t take your shit. When she sings, she emulates the opposite. In “Forget me in China” she sings, “What could I give, what could I take? My heart’s in your hands and you’re watching it break. When she seethes about what has hurt her in detail and in front of a large audience, it’s as if she is saying, “Yes, this hurt me. I got hurt, I cried, and maybe acted a little crazy. But I looked at the situation, accepted it, felt it, and then wrote the song on it.” This is why we like her. She looks like our fumed and beautiful past and sounds like what we want our future to be. “I like it when she gets angry,” one audience member says to another as Moen snarls a bit on stage.
In looking towards the future, Moen says her new album will be less sad and more focused on manifesting feelings into action. “I want to write a song that not only forms a connection, but inspires people to get out of that [wallowing] mindset. That’s the goal. You know, like Florence [and the Machine]’s “Shake it Out” —that’s the kind of song that gives you goosebumps and makes you feel like you can do something” she says. Sure, it’s easier to wallow. Sometimes sitting with our emotions can be beautiful - in the appreciation that we even have the capacity to feel and experience life so richly. What isn’t easy is acting on that lesson in the real world. It’s so hard for us as social creatures with egos and pride to not only accept defeat, but to accept that defeat as a building block of our ever-growing, experiential identities. Florence sings, I've been a fool and I've been blind, I can never leave the past behind. Moen is shifting her focus to rolling with the punches, and she encourages us to do the same.
Elizabeth Moen’s “That’s All I Wanted” will be available for both digital and vinyl purchase on May 13th, 2017. The album release party will be at Blue Moose Tap House in Iowa City the same day, with appearances from River Glenn and Waldemar.