Words by Andrew Ryan Fetter
Montreal-based musician Cedric Noel described releasing a record during COVID as “both normal and a little weird at the same time. I release music to survive so that part was normal. However, the social aspect of music is different and you feel like you’re in a bit of a silo. I have no idea if people are listening, I just have to trust that they are.”
His latest record Hang Time is a reflection of a struggle many have with learning about their identity and discovering what makes them who they are. He talks about how being a black musician releasing an indie-rock record weighed heavily on his mind, trying to find what his place could be in that world.
Off Shelf: This is your first release for Joyful Noise. They have a pretty unique approach to music that they release and the artists they work with. What was it about working with them that appealed to you?
Cedric Noel: To be honest it was quite a few things. This is my eighth record, so it obviously wasn’t my first attempt to try to release a record on a label. My experience working with labels and talking to other ones, most of them have a specific category of music that they want to put out. What I like about Joyful Noise is they seem to just put out whatever they liked, and whatever they liked is all pretty different. All of the artists aesthetically are far off doing their own thing and Joyful Noise is basically what unites them. And that’s how I see myself as an artist because all of the records I write are different. I’ll put out a solo guitar record, then an ambient record, then something like Hang Time. That’s how I understand music and that’s my experience with it.
Still, the fact that they were interested in putting out my music was pretty wild to me because I wasn’t sure if I fit into the vibe of that label. But it was clear in talking with them that I was wrong about that. Another reason is when they reached out to me they were just real people and very straightforward about what they were doing and what they wanted to do with me. I was very upfront that I was someone who was going to try to put out a record every year and every record was going to be different. They didn’t bat an eyelash which was shocking, they were actually excited about it.
OS : With Hang Time, you said that you wanted to “take ownership of your identity on your own terms.” I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit in terms of what you wanted to accomplish?
CN: I’ve been asked this a few times already now, which is cool because it’s making me think about it more. I think in the past musically, as a black man, what I’ve written has been from that perspective obviously. But I had never really thought to write about my experience as a black person and I never really saw my perspective reflected in the music styles I listen to or the music community that I’m a part of. So it was a way for me to understand my identity through music. Also coming out of my mid 20s and a few different friendships and musical relationships that made me think more about how I was and how I wanted to be reflected back into the world. Those things I think are universal and I just wanted to write about that. I’ve never really set out to write about anything specific before but this time around it was clear that I had to.
OS: Being able to stand back and look at the album after it’s done, in what ways do you think you accomplished that?
CN: That’s a really good question. I can clearly see that I accomplished some musical goals. I’d been wanting to write an “indie rock” record for the past few years and I felt like that one accomplished that and it was awesome. But in terms of my identity, I think it helped me understand where I wanted to place myself in the music community that I’m a part of and how I understood myself. And it helped me remove the box that I had put myself in.
But it’s also a process you keep learning. I’m still learning a lot about who I am. But I think the record really did help me process a lot of things that have happened in the last eight years. Perhaps it was more about letting go of baggage and now relearning and having new experiences that will help me learn more about myself.
OS: Almost immediately you get this vibe of urgency and vulnerability in the writing. Was writing from that frame of mind a hard process for you?
CN: At times, yes. I did have to go through a few different versions of writing this record. Some songs that are circling around the same ideas that weren’t as good originally. But I had to keep writing to get to those songs. So in that manner it was a challenge. I could see what I was getting at, but I had to get through all the excess to get to where it is now. When I wrote “Allies”, it was a quick song but it was clear how heavy that was… “A Hold On Losing” was tough too. So maybe it was “hard” in a sense, it just felt very heavy. I really enjoyed writing in that moment and I’m so happy that I wrote something that I like. And at the same time this is subconsciously coming from a place of pain and that’s tough to see. I liken it to seeing a friend that is hurting or if you’re a parent and you see that your child is hurting. I feel like that’s a similar perspective to what I experienced.
OS: Oh yeah I can definitely relate to that as a parent. I have two teenage sons and they’re both really going through it. And it is tough to see, but there’s also a joy when you see them get through it.
CN: Right and it’s not to say that it’s worth that pain, but the silver lining gives it a sort of positive spin I guess.
OS: I noticed the way that you write is you build on a simple, core idea and then just layer everything on top of it, as opposed to writing different parts and stringing them together, is that an intentional part of how you write?
CN: Yeah, with this record and a few previous it’s been that way. I don’t know what made me so intrigued by the use of repetition and building. I think I was listening to a lot of music that did that. It seemed fresh and cool to write that way and also perform with that slow progression. The more I talk to people about my musical upbringing, a big part of it comes from improvised and ambient music. I’m always really struck by moments in a concert where you’re lulled into something and then all of a sudden there’s this big moment and you’re not really sure how you got there. I think the use of repetition is how you get there. So my use of it was very intentional. What’s exciting is that I’m not writing like that anymore. But I’ll probably come back to it 10 years down the road.
OS: The video for “Allies” was sort of my introduction to you as an artist. I found it really powerful because it closely follows the musicality of the song where it starts with the core idea and then just builds and builds until there’s this intense and sudden ending to it. How did the idea for that come to you?
CN: It actually came to me almost right after I wrote the song. It was just trying to keep that idea in my head. I wrote Ali Vanderkruyk, who directed the video, a synopsis of what I had in mind. She interpreted it very differently than how I saw it in my head, which was kind of cool, but kept the same energy. I wanted it to be simple and I felt that with the song’s message the video didn’t need to be anything heavy handed. A lot of songs I write I tend to find out their meaning a while afterwards and the same is true with this video. So I think I see a person on their knees for that song not as weakness but inviting the person hearing it to meet at that same level. I also perform this song that way so it conveys it in that setting as well. There’s something powerful to me about someone admitting that humility and lowering themselves rather than trying to be higher than the person they’re talking to. So that’s what I took from it, but I’m still learning what I was really trying to say through the video.
OS: Your life story has been interesting to learn about. You’ve lived in different parts of the world, your family is really diverse. I’m curious if that was part of you exploring your identity as well and seeing how that shaped you as a person?
CN: Yeah definitely. I think I still have a good amount of thinking to do on that. I have really thought a lot about what my life was like and my family is like, we’re all different races and from different continents. When you’re in your own little bubble it makes a lot of sense. And having that life you do end up meeting a lot of people with similar experiences. You don’t question it that much. And now that I’m not in that bubble anymore, every week or so something will pop up that will make me realize how weird that experience was compared to what others have experienced. I’m sure it’s something I’ll continue to write about, but I don’t feel like that same reckoning coming that I had with my black identity, but the two are definitely connected.