It’s feeling a bit like a Monday, so that means Musical Mondaze!
This time out we’re sitting down with Tim Noyes, the brainchild of Spotify sensation Handsome Ghost. Over 30 million streams and counting is quite a feat, but don’t let that number distract you. What’s important is that the teacher-turned-songwriter is creating music that extends well beyond the streaming world. He’s writing songs that are not just driving up digital counters in an impressive manner, but he is writing songs that are leaving a lasting impact on listeners in profound ways and that’s what art is all about, isn’t it?
We recently sat down with Noyes to discuss his songwriting process, how personal he gets when creating music, and James Taylor going metal!
TrunkSpace: We read a recent Tweet of yours that said it’s been a strange few months for you with a lot of high highs and low lows. Are you someone from a songwriting perspective who taps into those experiences and integrates them into your songs?
Noyes: Yeah. Absolutely. I tend to write more about the low lows, to be honest. Just because with the good times I’m more willing to go out and have fun and experience things. It’s the tough situations that are a little more inspiring to sit down with a guitar.
TrunkSpace: Is songwriting a form of therapy for you?
Noyes: Absolutely. It’s been that way for me now for years. It’s the easiest way for me to kind of get that all out. I don’t write a ton, but when I do, it’s 10 or 12 songs at a time. I kind of bang them out and then stop for awhile.
TrunkSpace: When you’re going through that songwriting sprint, is it structured and disciplined or do you work as the inspiration strikes?
Noyes: I just try to ride it as far as it can go. It’s usually like a month or a month and a half where I’ll start with a guitar and then I kind of build the songs around the guitar and vocals. I haven’t written in a few months, so I’m actually excited to get back at it. I’m feeling inspired.
TrunkSpace: When you look at your songwriting now and compare it to when you first started writing songs, where do you see the biggest growth?
Noyes: Well, I think I’m a better songwriter now because the more you do anything, I think the better you get at it. I can remember when I first started, I wrote a lot of bad songs. But I wrote some good ones too. Just because I didn’t really know anything about it. I just kind of lucked into it. And that can be nice too because you’re not really thinking about, like, “Oh is this good or is this bad? Does it follow any rules?” So, I try my best not to think too hard or try too hard. Just like anything, it’s a progression and now having done it for several years, I’m pretty comfortable with it. I do kind of miss that innocence of when you’re just starting out though.
TrunkSpace: In those early days you’re not directly influenced by anyone or any particular ideological focus. You’re a clean slate.
Noyes: Yeah, it’s definitely different when you don’t expect anyone to ever listen to it… ever. There’s definitely something cool about that, but I prefer knowing that there are people who are going to be interested in the songs. It does come with a little more pressure. It’s not quite as intimate.
TrunkSpace: You said you write more about the low lows. Do you ever hammer out a song and then have to step back and question if you’re putting too much of yourself into it?
Noyes: I typically write relatively abstractly. It’s all personal, but it’s pretty rare that I’ll write something explicit and just really straight ahead. But yeah, I think about that sometimes. I’m always kind of balancing how personal I want to get because songwriting is a really personal thing. If someone asks me a question about a song, I don’t necessarily want to share my deepest, darkest secrets… unless it’s someone that I’m close with. So yeah, I do think about that, but I also don’t want to trivialize anything or have everything just be kind of general. I guess there’s just a fine line between being personal and letting people in, but also kind of keeping some things for myself.
TrunkSpace: Well, and by not being so explicit, doesn’t it enable people to take from the music what they interpret as opposed to what you’re telling them?
Noyes: That was my favorite part of music when I was growing up and before I started writing myself… that I could listen to a song and just kind of take what I wanted out of it. Those are the kinds of bands that I was obsessed with… the writers who are less direct and more image based and allow you to pull out what you want. I think about when I was just starting songwriting it was a lot of bands like Death Cab for Cutie or I was really into The Shins, Band of Horses… those kinds of bands. Like a Shins song, I could never figure what those things were about and I used to love that because I could just pull out little lines and take what I wanted and I think that influenced my writing. The songs are for me, but I love hearing when people can take their own meaning and it’s kind of refreshing when they think they know what it means and then it’s totally off. That’s always kind of fun.
TrunkSpace: And that’s the beauty of music and we talk about that all of the time here. It’s the connective tissue between people who would never have anything in common otherwise. Two people can be standing next to each other at a Handsome Ghost show and they’re both there for you, not for any other reason.
Noyes: Yeah and I think that’s a really great thing about music. Whether it’s at a show or if you’re just listening on your headphones, I think that’s great.
TrunkSpace: When you look at your music as a whole, where do you think you’re the most critical of yourself?
Noyes: I think it’s the songwriting. The vocals for me… they are what they are. I know how I sing at this point. If you like my voice, great. If you don’t, I can’t really change that. But the songwriting is tricky because for our band where we’re kind of somewhere in-between folk and pop and indie rock… we’re kind of somewhere in no man’s land, which is a really good place to be, I think.
TrunkSpace: That’s great today, but back in the days of record stores it would have been difficult finding you a home on the shelves. (Laughter)
Noyes: (Laughter) Right. You’d be like, “What do we even do with these guys?”
I still feel like there’s an element of that. It’s not quite as the way it was when you’d literally walk into a record store and go to the pop section. But I still feel like there are some listeners, and not all of them, who really like to know exactly what they’re listening too. I try not to allow that to seep into my head, but I think that’s the most difficult thing… just writing and not worrying about who’s going to like it. Particularly with pop. I like to write melodies that are catchy, but that’s where I want to leave it. I don’t want to push it any further towards traditional pop music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not for me. So that’s just kind of the fight… just write how you want to and if people like it, great. If they don’t, then you’ll just listen to it. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: It seems like one of the most difficult things about being an artist is that once you’re established and people connect with your sound, you’re never really allowed to grow as an artist and try new things. You end up becoming what they know you as in that moment that they first fell in love with you.
Noyes: Yeah, that’s actually a pretty amazing thing. When I started writing, I played in a folk rock band for years and I started Handsome Ghost specifically because I wanted to get away from that. And now after having been in Handsome Ghost for a couple of years, I’m finding myself wanting to kind of get back closer to that. And it’s funny because you think you have it figured out and then time just kind of changes your tastes and your inspiration. You’re right, no one wants to make the same record 10 times because it just gets kind of boring.
I think it’s the rare band that can progress or change sonically and not alienate and have their fans accept it. I do think that’s interesting though. If you listen to a Neil Young record, you may want “Harvest” eight times, but it’s hard to ask someone to do that.
TrunkSpace: At the same time though, if you’re a James Taylor fan, you probably don’t want to listen to James Taylor playing heavy metal.
Actually, I would be really curious to hear that. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Handsome Ghost’s music has been a streaming machine since you started releasing it. As an artist, how do you translate those streams into the business side of things, turning it into income in order to maintain your career and continue to release new music?
Noyes: That is the million dollar question right there. I think we’re lucky and grateful that we’ve been able to kind of crack into the Spotify world and get a lot of streams, but for me right now, we’re focusing on the live shows because at least to this point, that is something you can count on. People still want to go see live music. I mean, I’m one of those people. I love to go to live shows. So, we’re trying to figure out how someone who listens to us every day on Spotify… how we can convince them to come out to a club. So far the results have been pretty promising. We just did our first little headline run and we’re starting our significant headline tour next month. I think we’ve seen a lot more people come out who had heard us on Spotify than I expected. We’ve been opening for other bands for the last year plus and we don’t get to talk to people after the shows. I just really had no idea whether anyone was coming to see us who had heard us on Spotify, but it does seem like we’re seeing some good response there.
And then in terms of how to make it a living, the touring is really important because you can continue to do it and you can kind of plan it out.
TrunkSpace: You can control your own destiny a bit in that regard.
Noyes: Yeah. If you want to go do a tour, you can book a tour. The streaming stuff, I honestly just try not to think about it because it’s just not… if it’s significant, wonderful. But if it’s not, I have to find other ways to keep the band afloat and to keep us healthy and continuing to make music.
Handsome Ghosts’ latest release, the 6-track EP “The Brilliant Glow” is available now.