It takes both taste and skill to cannibalise your sorrows and rearrange them into art others can enjoy. Noa Mal may be only 20 years old, but so far, she’s proved she has both in spades.
“With music, it’s easy because it’s the only outlet I know,” the indie artist tells NME. For Noa Mal (a moniker that condenses her real name Norma Jean Claire, plus the first three letters of her last name), music is a crucial means of expression. “I have a bunch of thoughts, emotions, even delusions, that if I wasn’t able to do make music, I think I’d go fucking insane,” she muses. “I find freedom in writing, not fear.”
Mal has been writing, recording, and self-releasing songs from her bedroom in Lucena, Quezon – not out of any sense of necessity due to COVID, but because she loves DIY music for what it is. “I’m really obsessed with home-recorded music,” she says. That fixation has led her to put out five EPs since 2016 and four solo albums since March 2020, the latest being February’s ‘Imposter Syndrome’ – all while studying engineering in uni. That’s on top of playing bass for her two-year-old band The Esthers, who now call themselves The Bleaching Hour (“We kept getting associated with Christian groups!”)
While there’s little mainstream buzz about Mal locally, her debut album ‘Hang Man’ and its follow-up ‘You Know, I Was Saved.’ were met warmly on Bandcamp — amassing her a following of mostly foreign listeners.
“I once received a message from Ireland that expressed how much they liked ‘You Know, I Was Saved.’ and it blew me away,” Mal recalls. “It’s funny because most of the messages I’ve been receiving from people expressing fondness for my music aren’t from here. They would be from the US, Japan, Malaysia. It’s really taken me aback, how there’s so much support coming from abroad as opposed to the local scene.”
This may come as little surprise for an artist who isn’t part of the Philippines’ Manila-centric music scene. Lucena City, where Mal is based, is more than a two-hour drive south of the metro. When she and her friends formed The Esthers in 2019, and before the pandemic relegated live gigs to online streams, they would play shows in a couple of universities in Lucena and neighbouring town Tiaong.
“I’d say the Lucena music scene was much more reserved than that of Manila,” she says. “Not a lot of people would go to shows of underground artists, we rarely played live. There was one time we played in a basement, the audience was small but it didn’t matter.” But Lucena musicians are not to be sniffed at, she adds: “Bands and acts that we supported live were TIM ÅWÅ/Midwife, and Spell The Words, among others.”
“When it comes to music, I want something that’s real”
Mal produced her first solo album while juggling schoolwork, carving out time to work on ‘Hang Man’ every Saturday. “I wanted the first album to have a very weird mixing procedure. I didn’t use an audio interface – I recorded everything using a single mic and an Epiphone amplifier and everything was analog so I didn’t use any digital plug-ins. It was an extremely satisfying experience,” Mal tells NME.
“I wanted to see if people would still listen to it despite the weird mix. People my age seemed to enjoy it, which was weird because my audience has always been older people,” she adds.
The resulting record, released last March, is a breathy, synthy collection of songs that feels like a soundtrack to unyielding sadness. Call it, Mal says, ‘sadcore’ or ‘slowcore’. Four months after ‘Hang Man’, Mal released ‘You Know, I Was Saved’. “Powered by my sarcastic view of religion”, the record pivoted from downbeat melodies towards grunge.
Her grunge stylings and self-aware honesty come through more clearly on succeeding album ‘Hypocrisy Runs Deep, But I Am Shallow’. And even more so on ‘Impostor Syndrome’, where she sounds most like Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis – similarly crooning confessional, tongue-in-cheek verses over infectious guitar riffs.
Mal operates from a place of vulnerability, fending off perfectionism by constantly creating. “When it comes to music, I want something that’s real. I believe in rawness and authenticity,” she asserts. “Nothing wrong with being polished, but I prefer to be honest. I just got a thing for unpolished music.”
That means releasing a song when she’s satisfied with a mix, even if her cat’s meowing remains in the recording (as on the intro of ‘Don’t Be Nostalgic’). She has no problem tossing a song that’s taking too long to write (“If I can’t finish, it’s not meant to be so I throw it out”), and she’ll put out a track even if she “finds the lyrics quite bad or cheesy”.
Mal even goes as far to call the ugliest lyrics her favourites. One example lies in ‘Hypocrisy Runs Deep’ track ‘Zealot’, where she softly sings: “I have two phones now, I use them for different reasons / I don’t wanna use them anymore / I’ve had my own deal with it, and I can’t sober up.”
“Those things don’t add up,” Mal says, laughing, “But they sound OK to me at that point and for that song.”
“As humans, we have the desire for argument. If there’s no other person in the room, it has to be with yourself”
‘Impostor Syndrome’ also seesaws between ambiguity and lucidity. The songs aren’t so much stories as they are correspondences; “most of my songs are letters to myself or someone else – people who’ve hurt me, and people I’ve hurt,” Mal says. On her latest album, Mal has set these letters to music that’s less weepy, more upbeat, and – despite the album’s title – more self-assured.
This self-confidence is a pleasant irony, given that on the title track ‘Impostor’ Mal seemingly outs herself, wailing, “Impostor / Impostor / I’m hiding in a sweater / And I know that I know you / But do you know about me too?” Mal sings about a “sickness” she’s been “fighting… running from” most of her life – a tug-of-war negotiation you can hear in the songs themselves.
“For me, ‘Impostor Syndrome’ is basically having contradictory conversations with yourself, and if you listen to the album, it’s almost like each song is a response to the previous track,” Mal explains.
On the thumping track ‘Isolation,’ she talks about missing someone and being “willing to go through desperate measures” to be rid of loneliness. She swiftly dismisses this longing in the next song ‘Don’t Be Nostalgic’ as she ponders: “I don’t know what’s up with you / when I’d ask you said you were blue” before cheekily rallying, “Don’t be nostalgic, baby!” in the catchy chorus. It should leave you confused, but it doesn’t.
As Mal puts it, “It’s like two parts of yourself or your brain talking. Because as humans, we have the desire for argument. If there’s no other person in the room, then the argument has to be with yourself.”
Reading between the lines and hearing this inner “argument” unfolding throughout ‘Impostor Syndrome’ is a rewarding exercise – but really, you don’t need to try very hard to enjoy Mal’s new album. It’s an indie gem with arguable mainstream potential: the lyrics are catchy but never static and the guitar-heavy riffs are easy to bob your head to. Mal’s sweet vocal styling playfully contrasts her unapologetic verses. Its raw charm tells you that the young singer-songwriter could be set for bigger things – though that has never been her goal.
“My goal is just to release what I think sounds good to me. I’m aware that I have the luxury of not having a record producer tell me that my music sounds like shit,” Mal confesses. “But I didn’t go into this to go big or write hit songs, I’m doing it as an outlet for my thoughts and emotions. I’m just happy that people can relate to it.
“I feel like a lot of songs aren’t being released because they’re vulnerable or sad. But I think especially now, we shouldn’t invalidate our feelings. When everything you do is raw and authentic, I think there’s beauty in that.”
Noa Mal’s ‘Impostor Syndrome’ is out now