Noah Cyrus: Doing the Hard Things – American Songwriter
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Family means a lot to Noah Cyrus. This becomes immediately obvious when Cyrus begins to coo over a photo of her 1-year-old nephew, Bear, shortly after the conversation begins. His picture is actually the lock screen picture on her phone. “I literally love [being an aunt] more than anything,” she tells American Songwriter. She also is wearing a picture of her late grandmother, Loretta Finley, set in a circular pendant that hangs from her neck. Cyrus mentions that she gave her mother a matching necklace.
Yet, Cyrus doesn’t ignore the elephant in the room when it comes to her family. Music is the family business, and the Cyruses are pretty damn good musicians. But with a successful, multi-generational music dynasty comes enormous public scrutiny—scrutiny that Cyrus has felt intimately.
All of the scrutiny and the pressure came to a head during the pandemic-induced lockdown for Cyrus. “I had been struggling with addiction to prescription pills, and through quarantine and lockdown that addiction really spiraled. And I really fell into that addiction,” Cyrus says. Her spiral took her to a dark place, an emotional castle that barricaded Cyrus from her feelings. Sometime around December 2020, she decided she couldn’t let herself fall into the arms of addiction any longer.
“I decided I really wanted to do the work to get off of the prescription pills. And so going into the new year of 2021, there were a lot of new changes for me. I got new management, I was newly off of these pills. I was going through a really hard time just trying to stick with it and the anxiety that I was experiencing at the time.”
Maneuvering through these changes led Cyrus back to the studio. (Cyrus’s last solo release was her 2020 EP The End of Everything.) There, Cyrus was able to channel all of her anxieties and fears. She also found that she had already subconsciously begun to collect the pieces of her story. Now she just needed to tell it, but to tell it honestly, in such a way that she had not told it before. Thus, The Hardest Part, Cyrus’s debut studio album, was released on July 15.
“I think all across the record, you just find honesty,” she says. “And that’s always been something that’s been important with me and my music from the beginning. But I think what was important for me in this album … it felt like my fans knew me but they kind of knew me from the surface. I never felt like they really knew the inside parts of me.”
So, in a figurative game of Operation, Cyrus pulled out her raw experiences and formatted them for song. The result? Eleven new songs that created the album The Hardest Part.
Yet Cyrus wasn’t alone in this process of honesty mining; she didn’t pull a Henry David Thoreau and go on this journey by herself. It takes a village after all. Mike Crossey—who has worked with the Arctic Monkeys, Ben Howard, The 1975, Jake Bugg, and others—produced the album. Cyrus also co-wrote the album with singer/songwriter and trusted collaborator PJ Harding. The two songwriters previously worked on a side project together, an EP titled People Don’t Change, and Cyrus greatly trusts Harding’s opinions when it comes to their music.
“[It] brings me a lot of joy and a lot of comfort, as well, having him part of the record,” Cyrus says of Harding. “Mike and I got to develop this amazing relationship too,” she continues. “I really felt and saw how much Mike loved the music from the first time I walked into his studio just to have an introduction. I played him ‘Stand Still’ and I immediately could see him completely get inside of the record. I saw these tears going into his eyes, and I knew that right then that he got it. And I felt like, ‘When do we start?’”
“Stand Still” is the opening song on the record and its contents immediately set the tone of hopeful truth-telling. When I turned 20 / I was overcome / with the thought that I might not turn 21, Cyrus sings on the track. And my father told me / Noah, / When you don’t know where you’re goin’ / just stand still.
Even before fans heard “Stand Still,” Cyrus dropped “I Burned LA Down” as the lead single off of the album. The track was inspired by the ruthless, indiscriminate power of the California wildfires where Cyrus currently lives. She likened the natural phenomenon to the feeling of chaos that swirls around right after a breakup. It’s a dramatic but crystal-clear picture of how the singer wanted the outside world to reflect her internal struggle.
And remember Cyrus’s necklace for her grandmother, Loretta? Well, Loretta was the inspiration for another song on the record, “Loretta’s Song.” The track takes somewhat of a sonic left turn as Cyrus leans into her family’s Tennessee bluegrass roots. “I wrote that record in memory of my grandma, Loretta. I wrote it specifically to give to my mom,” Cyrus says. “When my grandma had passed away, I was really deep into prescription pills, Xanax, particularly … So that made me quite absent emotionally and physically during the time when she had passed away. I really wish now I had been able to give more of myself and be there more for my mom.”
Cyrus continues to explain that Loretta had adopted her mother, Tish Finley Cyrus, when Tish was a baby. Loretta was Tish’s only family for a long time until Tish had a family and children of her own with Billy Ray Cyrus. (Tish and Billy Ray have separated at the time of this writing.) With this history in mind, Cyrus felt a strong desire to be there for her mother in her grief. But the pills wouldn’t let her.
“When this time came [to support my mom] and I wasn’t, it ate at me for such a long time. I felt so guilty and I really was hurt by my own actions. And in that, I remembered all of the things that my grandma had taught me and the rest of my siblings and my mom. My grandma was a woman of God and lived her life to spread the word of Jesus and to love everyone and to accept everyone. [She] really was the best example for us as kids and for my mom. She raised such a beautiful woman in my mom, and so I wanted to honor her and remind my mom of the meaning of Loretta’s life.
“I wanted to remind my mom of all of those things that I really didn’t get to verbally tell her when she was actually going through the process of losing her mom,” Cyrus concludes.
Another introspective song on the album is the ever-vibey country/pop song “Mr. Percocet.” As the title suggests, the song speaks about the hold of addiction. You can even hear the jangling of an unknown bottle of pills at the beginning of the track. “But the addiction go[es] further than that one drug,” Cyrus says. “Mr. Percocet” tells the story of how addiction can consume one’s life. In Cyrus’s case, it was a relationship with a significant other. “I felt like [with] my partner at the time, I would go to sleep and wake up to somebody who I felt didn’t love me anymore.
“That was very confusing for me,” she continues. “I never really knew whether to take it personally or not, and it caused a lot of confusion and turmoil in the relationship. Granted, a relationship where both partners are deep in substance abuse really doesn’t call for a healthy relationship from the jump. And so that’s where the idea of the song came from and what I was wanting to write about the day of [when I was] in the studio.”
Other songs on the record include “Every Beginning Ends,” a perfectly paired duet with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and the title track “Hardest Part.”
“Every single song was like a labor of love,” she says. “A lot of joy went into it and it was a lot of fun to make and create each song because there’s so many layers. But I would say probably creating the music for the title track of the album, ‘Hardest Part,’ that was a really fun one. And from the jump, Mike and I knew where we wanted to go.
“But also on this record, I feel like I got to really grow in my musicianship. I really fell in love with arranging music, and really being involved in the production process,” she adds.
The 22-year-old singer was heavily involved with the instrumentation on The Hardest Part. “I really wanted to create a live record,” Cyrus says. “And so this was my first time creating a fully live record with live instruments and everything is played by a human being.” Cyrus was particularly involved with the production of “My Side Of The Bed” and discovered her fondness for the pedal steel guitar on “Mr. Percocet.”
“Pedal steel became a reoccurring instrument in the album. I love pedal steel. It’s my favorite instrument, I would say,” she says. “Mike had never worked with the pedal steel and neither had I really, so that was really cool to have Drew in and doing the pedal steel playing across the whole record and on ‘Mr. Percocet.’”
So, as far as how all of the songs and sounds came together, Cyrus is “really excited.” “I mean, obviously, I haven’t put an album out yet, it’s only been EPs, and this is something I’ve been excited for since the beginning of my career,” Cyrus says, “and I think something my fans have been looking forward to as well. I’m just really excited to be able to share the music with them and experiences with them.
“There’s just a lot of memories that I have from this record that I get to take away. I’m really happy because this record also saved my life in a way,” she adds. “Going to the studio and working with Mike and having this album to look forward to and to go and create really did save my life and gave me such hope and so much happiness that I needed at the time.”
Photos by Clyde Munroe
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