Johari Noelle packs years of soul into her first five songs | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Johari Noelle packs years of soul into her first five songs 

The Chicago native’s polished debut EP benefits from years of choir and theater, half a season on reality TV, and nearly 18 months in the studio.

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Johari Noelle - PHOTO BY JAMES MCCARTER
  • Johari Noelle
  • Photo by James McCarter

Singer-songwriter Johari Noelle lives in a South Shore apartment that's filled with art. Colorful paintings—slices of nature, simple human figures, abstract symbols—cover the wall between her kitchen and living room, most of them her own work. They're complemented on the adjoining wall by an array of black-and-white photos and several photography backdrops, courtesy of her boyfriend and manager, James McCarter. Noelle's resumé includes acting, musical theater, and reality TV, but for the past 18 months, the 23-year-old Chicago native has focused less on bringing other people's visions to life and more on creating a musical statement of her own. Her resulting debut release, due May 31, is the sleekly produced EP Things You Can't Say Out Loud, whose five soulful songs dissect relationships with conversational ease.

Born Johari Noelle Dodd, Noelle developed an early understanding of pop history while growing up in South Shore, thanks to her parents' mammoth vinyl collection—a by-product of her father's college DJ career. "It was very important for him to make sure that we knew who people were, and knew where stuff comes from," Noelle says. "Because you hear new music, and you're like, 'Oh, this is amazing. This person invented this sound.' He was very big on making sure we know—'No, it started here.'"

Noelle and her twin sister, Jamila, are the oldest of her family's four children, all daughters. Her parents enrolled them in a smorgasbord of activities beginning at an early age—including choir, dance, and gymnastics. "They literally put us in everything you can think of," Noelle says. "What stuck to me most was musical theater and choir." She discovered a gift for performing, and refined her talents throughout elementary and high school—though she stresses that she's had no formal vocal training aside from what she got through these extracurriculars. She further developed her acting and public speaking skills by competing in speech tournaments, and during her senior year she capped her student theater career by playing the lead role of Scheherazade in Homewood-Flossmoor High School's production of The Arabian Nights.

After graduating from high school in 2013, Noelle studied corporate communications at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, hoping to parlay her speaking abilities into a career asset. But at the same time, she was also working on her own earliest songs. "I was young, so the things that I was talking about, none of it was super serious," she says. She collaborated and performed with other members of NIU's artistic community, including fellow Chicagoan Matt Muse, who's since become a rapper and producer as well as a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors. Noelle also demonstrated her range with vocal covers, which she shared on YouTube and Instagram. Though most have since been scrubbed from the internet, a few traces remain—including a dead link to a cover of Lana Del Rey's "Young and Beautiful" that Noelle posted on Del Rey's Facebook page six years ago.

During her junior year at NIU, Noelle got a message from someone claiming to be a producer who'd noticed her through one such cover. The alleged producer complimented her sound and invited her to audition for a group that Destiny's Child alum Kelly Rowland was assembling. Noelle was initially skeptical. "I thought it was a big scam, and I was like, whatever," she says. She was convinced only after hearing from multiple people affiliated with the project, who sent her information and forms for setting up an audition.

Noelle flew to Atlanta, where she learned that she was trying out for the BET reality series Chasing Destiny, a Making the Band-style competition with Rowland in the Sean Combs role. (The five-piece girl group Rowland eventually put together is called June's Diary.) Noelle was one of 60 singers called back for a second day of auditions, where she tried to break Rowland's poker face—she sang solo, delivering a cover she'd prepared of Monica's "Love All Over Me," and in a randomly assigned group that worked up an arrangement of the Whitney Houston hit "I Will Always Love You." There were 30 singers left standing at the end of the audition, Noelle among them, and she traveled back to Chicago to await final word from Rowland. "I'm pins and needles the next three weeks," she says.


Johari Noelle, Christian JaLon, Krystal Metcalfe
Wed 6/5, 7 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. West, 312-801-2100, promontorychicago.com, $7, all ages


Noelle got the good news two days before Christmas 2015, when Rowland FaceTimed her to invite her to Los Angeles for filming. "I of course screenshot it," Noelle says, laughing. "She was like, 'I hope you're a team player. I would love for you to come out.'" Noelle's parents were enthusiastic too, even though she'd have to leave college to join the show. "My parents were like, 'What are you still doing here? Go.'"

Noelle spent the first six weeks of 2016 in Los Angeles, competing with 17 other women for a spot in the final group and learning from famed choreographers Frank Gatson Jr., JaQuel Knight, and Chris Grant. "It was really cool to learn from all of them, and just be a sponge," she says. Though she was eliminated from the show five episodes into its ten-episode run, Noelle appreciated the grueling rehearsals, which typically ran from 10 PM to 4 AM six days per week. They taught her the importance of preparation, and she emerged more confident in her own talents. "Being picked out of all those girls—and they're all so talented—I often had this feeling of, like, 'Why did you pick me? I'm just starting. I'm not classically trained. I just sing because I love to,'" she says. "It really taught me to recognize that I have my own gift, and I have my own message, and that's what makes me special."

Johari Noelle appeared on the first five episodes of the reality series Chasing Destiny in 2016. - JAMES MCCARTER
  • Johari Noelle appeared on the first five episodes of the reality series Chasing Destiny in 2016.
  • James McCarter

Things You Can't Say Out Loud is the first iteration of that message. Noelle uses her lyrics to unpack the emotional nuances of navigating a romantic relationship, focusing on individual drops from a stream of consciousness: the moment you suspect you're being cheated on, for instance, or the moment you muster the courage to tell your partner exactly what you want.

Noelle is the sole songwriter on the EP, adding her words and melodies to instrumental tracks from several different producers. She's direct and conversational, and she always addresses a "you"—it's a simple, effective way for her to convey her personality in each song. Her favorite songwriters are either behind-the-scenes figures from the pop-R&B industry (Tayla Parx, James Fauntleroy, Kevin Garrett, Priscilla Renea) or stars who also excel at writing for others (Stevie Wonder, Frank Ocean, James Blake, Bruno Mars, Terius "The-Dream" Nash).

Opening track "CrazyLonely" uses a trick straight from Ocean's 2016 album, Blonde: it's two dramatically different songs stitched together. In the first section, busy drums knock and bump under piercing synth smears, but in the second, reverberating guitar arpeggios dominate an arrangement that moves at half the tempo. The beat switch mirrors a shift in perspective: The first part is about how "we let our thoughts get the best of us," Noelle explains. "You may see something on your partner's phone, and your mind just starts to wonder. So much festers because you don't say anything." The second section is about hoping your partner stays true in a long-distance relationship. "I hope that you don't do anything crazy just because you're lonely. Don't go and call up the girl off Instagram just because you're lonely," she says.

The two halves began as distinct songs, but Noelle found a thematic thread to connect them. "They're both hopeful. The first one is like, I'm hoping that I'm not crazy enough to kill you. The second one is, I'm hoping that you're not crazy enough to make a mistake that could make me kill you," she says, laughing.

The arresting background vocals on Things You Can't Say Out Loud were arranged by local musician Manasseh Croft, though Noelle overdubbed them herself (except on "Release," which uses both their voices). Croft recalls his thought process while working on "CrazyLonely": "If the conversation of the song was a hallway, what would you hear walking through that hallway?" He picked up a "spooky" vibe from the song's second half, and decided to draw on the horror-film trope of off-screen singing by creepy, wispy children's voices. "It's like in scary movies when you walk down the hallway and it's like, 'One, two, buckle my shoe.'"

Noelle met Croft by chance, after filming on Chasing Destiny had wrapped and she'd returned to Chicago. She was holding down a day job, but she was also working hard to immerse herself in the local music scene—and in May 2017, Chicago rapper L.A. VanGogh invited her to a recording session for his song "& Effect" at Fort Knox Studios. He'd invited Croft too, and the two of them hit it off right away. "We became arrangement buddies," Noelle says.

"I instantly just loved her because she's so sweet," says Croft. "I said, 'Ooh, on this song, we should make you sound like a 90s girl.' I started putting together these different layers for her to sing, and the finished product was amazing."

Chicago engineer Matt Hennessy, who mixed the VanGogh session, was similarly impressed. "There's something about her smoky, low-mid register that just makes me smile every time I hear it. It's very authentic to her. Very beautiful sounding and warm and mellow, something that I don't hear a lot—from not only new, local, young talents, but across the national scope," he says. "Her voice sounds much more seasoned and mature than it should be for the years that she has on her."

Hennessy offered Noelle time at his own facility, VSOP Studios in Noble Square, which has also hosted the likes of G Herbo, the O'My's, and Jamila Woods. Hennessy acted as executive producer, helping select the best of Noelle's demos to develop further and mixing each of the five final tracks. "CrazyLonely" is his favorite, because of the way the two-part arrangement "chops and screws itself."

Noelle began recording her debut in earnest in late 2017. VSOP has five studios, and she used one of the smaller complexes so that she could take the time to riff and write over instrumentals. She didn't want friends dropping in and going live on Instagram, so when she worked, she was joined only by VSOP engineer Sheepman (who also contributed production to "CrazyLonely"). "I don't want any distractions or to be thinking about, 'Oh, this person's in the room,'" she says. "I'm very protective of my music, so I'm like, 'I don't want you to record my recording session.'"

Noelle most often writes to prerecorded instrumentals, building songs around beats. She put together "Regrets" while home with strep throat, and was so taken with the result that she went to VSOP to record her initial takes while still sick. When an engineer wondered why she didn't wait, she replied, "Just let me get this idea out."

Johari Noelle spent months revising the songs on her debut, seeking feedback from trusted friends and audiences of strangers. - DANNYXPHOTO
  • Johari Noelle spent months revising the songs on her debut, seeking feedback from trusted friends and audiences of strangers.
  • Dannyxphoto

Hennessy guesses that Noelle spent a year writing her debut. Because she had no deadline she hadn't given herself, she could accumulate ideas organically and revise songs from session to session—in one case, she cut out Manasseh's backing-vocal arrangement to leave more space for the lead. "You'll hear something later, and you're like, 'OK, This was cool in January, and in March I want it clean,'" she says. "I appreciate his patience of that, because I'm like that with a lot of things."

Lead single "Show Me" was one of the last things Noelle recorded, but she insisted it be released first. The song makes for a great introduction to the EP, as the narrator lays her cards on the table: "Fluent in your native tongue / I wanna be the only one / Whether we're forever or not / I wanna give it all that I got." Noelle cites "love languages" as inspiration. "There's so many different ways that people connect romantically," she says. "I feel like the best way to really keep it strong and keep it going is to learn, and you're constantly learning."

"Release" is a classic slow jam. It's about opening up to emotional and sexual intimacy, and Noelle's voice cycles through a tension-building tune, accompanied by sticky, sensual 6/8 guitar lines. Croft contributed relatively minimal backing vocals: "The empty spaces in the song actually allow the song to breathe," he says. He was pleasantly surprised that Noelle didn't replace his voice with hers in the final mix.

Not every song was inspired by romantic relationships. "Regrets" arose from a platonic form of FOMO—that is, being sick and missing out on work and time with friends. And "Too Much" arose from Noelle's frustration with a manager she'd had while working at a south-side gym. "One day, we had a really bad falling-out, and she was like, 'If you want to quit, you can quit,'" she says. "When she said that, I was like, 'Oh, I should really think about this, because this woman is really trying to bring this demon out.'"

Noelle developed the melody for "Too Much" on the way to the studio, stuck in traffic and seething. She estimates she pieced together the final song in an hour. "Everyone has had a crappy boss, but it also speaks to just encountering someone who's got a really crappy energy. If you put up with it long enough, it starts to create that feeling of, like, I have to address this," she says. "Healthy confrontation." The video for "Too Much," released May 10, is Noelle's first. It's directed by Bradley Murray of Chicago company Square56 Productions.

Noelle looked outside the studio for feedback as she worked on Things You Can't Say Out Loud. Once she had recordings to workshop, she turned every visit with friends into an impromptu listening party. She also tested new ideas at Sofar Sounds shows, where she was backed by just a guitarist. "It's really great feedback to have an unbiased audience that doesn't know you. They don't know you from Adam," she says. These performances also gave her the opportunity to return to covering songs made famous by other artists, such as Amy Winehouse and Erykah Badu.

  • Johari Noelle covers Erykah Badu's "In Love With You" at a Sofar Sounds concert in March 2017.

She's relieved that the months of revision are over and that Things You Can't Say Out Loud is mixed and mastered—she's been forced to let go of her impulse to continue tweaking the songs. "I can be really indecisive as an individual, anyway, and I own that wholeheartedly," she says. "Add music to that, and just being a critical artist, and it's like, I'm losing it. So I can't tell you how happy I am to be done, and not be able to kink or change anything."

Noelle is a full-time musician now, and has turned her attention to rehearsing for her record-release show at the Promontory on Wednesday, June 5. She'll lead a five-piece group, with Croft singing backup. "It's a family affair," he says.

Croft is happy that Noelle shows off so much "vocal shine" on the EP. "Sometimes you'll get a project, and you'll have to pick through the music to really hear the vocals, but on this project, you'll be able to hear her vocals and what she's doing and what she's capable of at this point in her career," he says. "Of course, this isn't the final stop for her."

Hennessy is similarly pleased with Things You Can't Say Out Loud. "It's the best thing in this business when you get to see an artist really stretch out into their own space and become what you hoped that they could become," he says. "From the first song when she came to the studio to where we are now with this release, I feel like she really did that."

Noelle already has her eyes on goals further down the road. She hopes to play festivals locally and collaborate with more musicians, and she's started learning piano to help her writing process. "It would be cool to just be able to arrange my own melodies," she says. "Just becoming more independent, as far as my creative process." She dreams of creating a song entirely at home, without relying on an outside producer. She'd also like to tour.

"I want to have traveled and brought my music to different cities and groups," Noelle says. Last year, she points out, she was working a day job and didn't have any music released. "This year, I'm releasing a project, and I released my first video," she says. "That growth itself has been great. So that's my big goal—to constantly be growing and evolving."  v

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