Now/It's: An Interview with Monica Moser

While Nashville’s near decade long boom in popularity has reinvigorated the nickname “Music City, USA,” bestowed upon it circa 1950 courtesy of 650 AM WSM host David Cobb, there’s a glaring omission in many of the West side, East side, indie rock, outlaw country, and pop conversations of Nashville’s music scene - contemporary christian music, otherwise known as “CCM.” CCM served as one of Nashville’s music industry lifeboats when country music took a brief dip in popularity around the late 1990s and early 2000s. Granted that was a brief dip, but CCM help carry some of the burden. Sure, CCM has more than it’s fair share of industry-related criticisms, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss today. The general connotation and associative pitfalls of being in and around CCM in Nashville specifically was however a point of conversation with Monica Moser, who had her own share of dalliances with the genre, but never laid roots within it. She realized that those aforementioned pitfalls were of concern enough to not dive directly into that arena. But despite such a fact, it did and has wizened Moser in her journey as a songwriter in Nashville, more realized in what drives and motivates her as a songwriter, and how she interprets experiences into song, ultimately leading to her latest LP, Your Absence. A Closeness (which is a killer album title, for the record).

Now/It’s met with Monica Moser at Revalator Coffee in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood of Nashville.

N/I - Well how are you?

Monica - Hanging in there. I’m trying to get over this cold. It’s so hot, it’s just not a good combo. I think it’s just a sinus thing. How are you doing?

N/I - I’m well. Busy, but things are starting to settle down for myself now that CMA Fest and Bonnaroo are over. You were dealing with all of that as well, correct?

Monica - I was. I went to some showcases at CMA Fest, and then went to Bonnaroo. I missed Paramore, but got to see Bon Iver’s first set.

N/I - Nice! I saw Bon Iver’s second set. It was phenomenal, but it was different.

Monica - That’s what I heard.

N/I - I loved it, but I’m also aware that people are split on Bon Iver at this point. Some of the newer, hip-hop, trap music leaning stuff is a departure from “Skinny Love.” And it was amusing, because this second set was mostly the newer style of Bon Iver, and a number of people at the set were there to see “Skinny Love” and songs more in that vein. I did feel bad when they waited all night only to not hear the song they came for. I thought it was cool to do two sets.

Monica - Definitely. I like the newer stuff too, but the first set he played “Holocene” and “Towers” which was great. I also missed Sylvan Esso, but I got to see Eminem, which was pretty fun. I went to some EDM shows, but I only really need one of those and I’m satisfied.

N/I - I’m the same way, I showed up on Friday night and decided to go shoot photo of Bassnectar just for the hell of it, and it was hilarious. I’m not super into his music, but to shoot photo of the crowd made for some truly entertaining photos.

Monica - I bet.

N/I - Anyway, enough of the Bonnaroo stuff, but keeping on Bon Iver - in listening to your music, it sounds like For Emma, Forever Ago has some distinct parallels. Would that be out of the question to say Bon Iver is an influence on your music?

Monica - Yes. But I’d say the self-titled one is probably the biggest one, because that was the one I listened to as a senior in high school. I like his music a lot. I’m a big lyrics person, and sometimes I don’t understand what he’s saying….

N/I - He can be pretty cryptic.

Monica - Which is great, because I like cryptic. But for the most part, it’s the mood he can evoke, which is cool. You don’t have to understand what he’s saying to feel it.

N/I - So were you already writing music when that album came out?

Monica - I probably started writing music when I was thirteen or fourteen, but I wasn’t sharing anything until the end of high school.

N/I - It can be tough to share anything when you’re thirteen.

Monica - Exactly. But that’s probably when I started writing. I think the first thing I shared was at a coffeehouse at my school, and after I sang my song, teachers were asking me what it was about. Then I realized I didn’t like people asking me about that, and I retreated. The first thing I shared - one of my best friends, she was diagnosed with cancer when she was sixteen. It was stage four, really scary. She’s alive now and doing great.

N/I - Oh wow. Stage four is typically terminal. I’m glad to hear she’s doing well.

Monica - It was a while before they caught it, and it was a rare one too - Ewing's-Sarcoma, which pretty much no one has heard of - it was really scary. I was writing about it, because that’s how I deal with things naturally, and I guess I was playing it on our piano, and my mom heard it and said “You need to share this.” That’s the moment when I realized it’s kind of selfish to not share it. And when you’re doing it for other people, it can be a lot more comfortable. It’s not about you. So I played it for my whole high school, and that was about the first thing I did originals-wise. So fast forward to me applying to Belmont for music business, and my parents pushed me to look at the songwriting program, and I said “Yeah, maybe.” I ended up submitting some songs and got it. Coming here, it was so weird, I hadn’t taken a single class yet.

N/I - How is that?

Monica - Most of the classes don’t start until sophomore year.

N/I - Had it ever occured to you that you could even take songwriting classes?

Monica - No. It’s a very weird major. It happened sophomore year to beginning of senior year, basically in the middle. Freshman year, I felt like I didn’t have a major or anything. I was just taking random classes.

N/I - Trying to knock out the gen ed classes?

Monica - Exactly.

N/I - It’s probably trying to know you’re there to study songwriting, but in your first year, you’re too concerned with studying biology and a walking class or something.

Monica - [Laughing] “I’m learning so much about songwriting in biology!” Yes, I was learning stuff in class, but it was really more about being here in Nashville than the major itself. You get to pick people’s brains and all that. It’s invaluable.

N/I - So when you got to Nashville, was there an adjustment period to everyone that comes to Belmont and Nashville in general…. You’re from where?

Monica - Fort Worth, Texas.

N/I - Texas, okay. I feel like Texas is probably a little inflated in Tennessee. Anyway, everyone that comes here at one point or another learns the realities of “Big Fish, Small Pond Syndrome.” When I was in high school, it was “Sean has great taste in music.”

Monica - He’s the only one.

N/I - And then you meet everyone else, they’re all like that. So then I learned to just take it all in, and not try and boast or belittle or anything other than observe and respect. Did you experience anything similar to that?

Monica - Absolutely. I went to a really small high school. It was college prep - academics were the main focus, which I’m so thankful for. There were some arts, but I was one of three people that did anything like that. I was probably the only person that played guitar. So when I got here, I was overwhelmed, and I’m never one to be like “Listen to my stuff.” or “Let’s jam in the lobby.” I was very turned off by that.

N/I - That stuff kills me. It’s rough.

Monica - It made me second guess whether or not I was going to like it. Everyone in my dorm, when they found out I did do music, they all admitted they thought I was a nursing major. No one knew what I did, I didn’t tell anybody. So freshman year, I wrote in my room, by myself. I wrote all the songs I put out on my first big EP, which was five years ago.

N/I - Well I noticed that. Even though it was five years ago since the EP, you’ve kind of had a prolific output.

Monica - [Laughs] It was that and a bunch of singles. But it’s getting more focused again. But that was great, because it humbled me and had me going to shows all the time, and listening to friends in the same boat. Taking it all in, like you said. It was so great. Because once I headed into my sophomore year, I was ready, and those songs I submitted to get in were not good compared to what I had grown into within a year. I never would play them ever again.

N/I - Let’s say your freshman year, when you’re writing these songs alone in your dorm. Would you equate that to your version of the 10,000 Hour Rule? You were writing constantly, and I would imagine slowly but surely figuring out what drives you as a songwriter.

Monica - Totally. When you’re in middle school or high school, you write when you want to, but when you get here, you realize you have some turnover in terms of production. I was writing way more than I ever had, and it was a special time. The only people I shared them with were the close friends I was making, and it was great to get small encouragements from them. Eventually I became more upfront with songs.

N/I - That’s great. Let’s fast forward to when you’re out of school - was that another learning curve? Or new adjustment period? At that point, you’re just a songwriter. Where do you go from there?

Monica - My path is kind of interesting, because I came out of school knowing I wanted to work in the industry, but also make music. I didn’t want to do the thing where you work in a restaurant and write all the time. I know for myself, I’d be really discouraged by that. I have the most respect for people who can do that.

N/I - I can imagine that would be exhausting.

Monica - And how can you maintain inspiration doing that? I was working for Noisetrade for a while and now with streaming promotions, which has been nice, because I know my worth in work, but when it’s music time, it’s something I really look forward to. So I could go a lot of different ways, but didn’t know which way to go. I started doing the co-writing thing, which I had done in college, and it can be good, but I didn’t want to write for country. The only thing I would go for was worship. I have a handful of writers from that who I really work well with, and we write pretty consistently. So in pursuing that angle, and the artist thing. I know writing by myself is the way to do it.

N/I - Well in talking to a lot of different people who make music, the co-writing process fascinates me. Because the type of writing that I do is the most solitary writing. Not out of a closed off place, but because if I’m writing an intro to an interview, I interviewed you, I can’t ask a friend to write what they think about you when I was the one who talked to you.

Monica - Why would you even consider it? I get it.

N/I - Keeping with the worship music - that appealed to you? Or it at least seemed to click in some capacity - do you fear the contemporary christian music association might affect your solo work in some way? I don’t mean that as a knock against the genre - obviously, it drives Nashville’s entertainment scene just as much as country does, if not more so. But I know some people worry about that.

Monica - Totally. This is the perfect example - my junior year of college, I did the pop showcase and that was also a crazy experience. It was a last minute decision, and then it was like “Oh shit, I made it.” It was my first full band show ever, and it was pop showcase at Belmont.

N/I - Which is a huge showcase.

Monica - But that was an amazing experience. I did that, and senior year, I decided I was going to try for the Christian showcase. I got through to the live audition round, and performed our song, but after, they take you into a separate room and interview you. I feel like the reason I got the pop showcase, there was only one judge, and she and I really connected, and she liked my writing. But with the worship one, there were four people there. It’s really intimidating. They’re asking me about typical things, and then I felt very pressured to say I wanted to be a worship leader.

N/I - Like the ultimate aspiration of your career is to become Hillsong United?

Monica - Yes. And they wanted - one of my songs didn’t have a clear hook, but I call it a certain name, and they suggested I call it something else, and why don’t you make it more concise.

N/I - So they were straight up giving you critiques?

Monica - Absolutely. The Christian songs I played were mostly Switchfoot and Needtobreathe, which can appeal to all viewpoints.

N/I - It’s funny, those are the safe, edgy bands you could listen to growing up in the South.

Monica - Which is funny to look back and laugh at some of that stuff now, but Switchfoot and Reliant K are still two of my favorite bands today. So that’s more of my worship artist entity, so I was really turned off by their suggestions. But part of me gets it. They want someone that’s tailor made for that genre and make something of it, whereas, I’ve been very persistent in not wanting to be pigeonholed anywhere.

N/I - As you should.

Monica - So all that to say - yes. I feel like my artist music has that underlying influence, but you could also listen and not pick up on that at all.

N/I - Again, going back to Bon Iver, he’s someone that brings in all sorts of different religious tableaus and what not into his songs.

Monica - And then OneRepublic, Reliant K, they add some nuance.

N/I - It’s definitely not out of the realm of possibility. I feel like a lot of people fail to manage to look at it the way that you do. There’s an influence, and if it’s a part of your being, then absolutely it should be a part of what you’re writing about.

Monica - You should be afraid to do that. I feel like a lot of music is going that way. Look at someone like Chance the Rapper. Yes, I am putting out something that’s going to have one cuss word in it, which I’ve never done, but my music is never going to be really edgy and raunchy. So it is a concern a little bit, but mostly from a branding aspect.

N/I - And branding is huge now…. So with this EP/mini-LP you're putting out - the curse word scenario - the fact that you even pointed that out; how do you approach that? Do you go back and consider it from a standpoint of adding or omitting it?

Monica - So it’s actually the first song, and early on in the song. It was also the song I wrote the quickest. It was kind of based off of a dream I had the night before, and so I went out onto my porch and started writing, and it all just came out.

N/I - So it was very stream of consciousness.

Monica - Exactly. Then I figured out what I was going to do with melody and everything, and as I played it, I tried to substitute any word I could think of, but realized that it’s not going to give the feeling I want with any other word than it.

N/I - The substance behind it carries weight.

Monica - And even when I played it for the people who produced it and played on the song, I asked if they could find a way to change it or make it subtle, and they said “It’ll be fine. Chill out.” It wasn’t like I wanted to put a cuss word there just to do so.

N/I - Sure. I don’t want it to sound like I’m going “Oh boy.” It’s just a different type of writing.

Monica - It’s like a tv show. When Game of Thrones first came out, you were like “Geez.” But then they cut it back, because they needed it to show how barbaric that world was. It wasn’t exploitative, it was representative.

N/I - So the people who played on the record - have they been along for the ride most of the way?

Monica - The guy who did my first record lives in New York now - his name is William Smith - I got connected through him from my friend Corey Kilgannon. William was great. He played all the instruments, did all the production, did an amazing job. But I wasn’t really instrumental in any of that. So this time, I wanted to be able to be one of the producers on it giving ideas and adding a lot of input. There’s also a guy named Andrew who did all the tracking, and then my friend Dylan who I’ve worked with for a long time, we’re finishing up additional production. Andrew is a little more rock and Dylan is a little more poppy, so adding those elements has been amazing. One of the songs, I started writing like ten years ago, and it was the first song I ever put on the Internet, on Myspace.

N/I - Oh wow.

Monica - I rewrote it recently - I kept the hook and the first line - and I finished it, and played it live at the show, and the way everyone played it was perfect, so we went straight into the studio and recorded it that way. We live tracked and did a little overdubbing. It was all one take and really cool. Some others are a little more pop. It’ll be eclectic, but I think it’ll work altogether.

N/I - As long as there’s a thruline that isn’t the fact they’re all under your name, I figure you’re good. Is there a primary thruline that you hope people gather from the record?

Monica - That’s a good question. It’s three songs I already put out, and three new ones, but I sequenced it in a way - because all the songs are about or influenced by dreams. They were telling me about something happening in real life. And then a lot of them also have to do with letting things go. Like a relationship, or a lie. It can be seen as steps toward that. The first one - the “cuss” one - it’s filtered through a more angry lens. Not “angry” angry, but definitely a little more bite to it.

N/I - It sounds like it’s raw. Like you didn’t allow yourself much time to step back and process. Not in an emotionally stunted way, but rather….

Monica - “This is it.” I haven’t shown it to anyone. I haven’t played it for anybody. Because I wanted it to be “Here it is.” So it starts with a slight negative bent, and the other songs are small microcosms. And then last one is the most hopeful. I kind of want it to be very personal, but also something that allows the listener to let things of their own to let go. To embrace a process and begin a journey with it.