One of the most elementary aspects of the banjo is its outright complexity. With just five strings, a drumhead for a resonator, and the long arc of African folk music as the impetus for its creation, it is an instrument that has more secrets than stories.
Some of those secrets are revealed, though not completely, on the first release by Moab musician Haley Noel. Her debut CD, Wanderings, is a meandering journey through songs she has written — and a song composed by rock greats Pink Floyd for good measure — all peppered with her unique voice throughout.
Noel’s first offering is nothing short of intriguing as it combines a rambling gypsy singer’s voice and the dulcet five-string tone not many musicians would dare attempt.
In short, she goes for a brass ring floating above most Moab musicians.
In the third track off the album, La Lluvia (Que Nos Limpia), Noel titles the song in her second language of Spanish to tell the story of cleansing rain, though without words. The jazzy chords she utilizes on the banjo might elicit a feeling akin to a Steely Dan or Doobie Brothers tune if it weren’t 2018.
With Wanderings now in stores around Moab and available online, Noel opened up about why she recorded the album.
“There were so many reasons,” Noel said. “First, is that I missed having a consistent musical outlet in my life. I used to play at least once weekly with a group of friends who challenged me as a musician. Right before I moved to Moab I realized that I was stuck ... without the inspiration and challenge of my previous bluegrass jam-mates, the underground and constantly shifting band scene in college and living with other musicians I felt caught in a rut. So I decided I would try to write and play more. Leading up to and after my move to Moab I’ve been writing more, I’ve been producing new songs and having the opportunity to play more in public ... a challenge when you’re used to performing in a big jam with as many as 14 other musicians.”
One of the joyous aspects of Pink Floyd’s music, from their uber-psychedelic days to the release of The Wall, is that their music can be translated into almost any genre. With her rendition of “Wish You Were,” Noel delves into familiar territory but makes it her own with verve, flair and an accurate rendition of David Gilmore’s guitar riffs on the banjo.
A key inspiration in Noel’s musical life is Abigail Washburn, the virtuoso banjo and vocalist with husband and fellow player Béla Fleck.
“Abigail Washburn is definitely a musician I really look up to,” Noel said. “She’s a brilliant banjo player and is not afraid to use her voice either. I think there are so many women musicians who I am inspired by: Brittany Howard, Eva Cassidy, Janis Joplin, Kaia Kater, and the list goes on ... but the way Abigail pulls from so many different influences and isn’t afraid to use her voice to tell a story is really compelling. I’m a vocalist before I’m a banjo player. I think that’s why Abigail is such a role model. She can pick with the best of them, and the best of them being mostly old, and potentially deceased, white men. Besides her talent, I think it’s the fact that she holds her own with an instrument which has been touted by and associated with men. Players like Earl Scruggs, Steve Martin, Lester Flatt, Béla Fleck, Ralph Stanley, et cetera.”
Noel recorded the album with Moab artist, musician and recording engineer John Olschewski. She said the process went quickly and professionally — and that she is pleased with the results.
“The recording went so, so smoothly and John was great and intuited exactly what I needed before I even said anything,” Noel said. “I didn’t need any real bells or whistles, I didn’t want to produce a sound that I don’t produce live; I’m a live musician first, recording is secondary. John really took that to heart in the way he recorded by simultaneously grabbing banjo and vocal audio. After each cut, I’d bounce back behind his booth wall and we’d listen together. It didn’t feel hard because John was so easy going and because I imagined I was playing through just another set.”
Noel, a Maryland native, said she grew up listening to blues, classic rock and ‘90s pop on the radio and bluegrass at church picnics and the county fair. She moved to Moab a little more than a year ago to take a position with Moab Valley Multicultural Center as their volunteer coordinator.
Noel’s album is available locally at Back of Beyond Books and Moab Made, and can be found online at haleynoel.bandcamp.com.