Artist Spotlight: Elanor Moss

    Elanor Moss, a singer-songwriter originally from Lincolnshire, started crafting her first body of work while living between York and Leeds as an undergraduate in Medieval Literature. Although she grew up in a musical household, it wasn’t until university that she began writing and performing her own songs as well as collaborating with artists including Benjamin Francis Leftwich, The Howl & the Hum, and Rosie Carney. Ahead of the release of her debut EP, Citrus, last Friday, she had only shared one song, ‘Soundings’, a devastating track that showcased her ability to evoke powerful emotions against spare acoustic instrumentation. As a whole, the 5-track collection, which was co-produced by Brooklyn producer Oli Deakin, further highlights Moss’ knack for intricate, resonant storytelling, dealing with themes of depression, substance abuse, and violence that are offset by lush arrangements and delicate melodies. As dark as her songs can be, Moss always seems aware of achieving that balance – not just in an effort to make them lighter, but also to carve out space for hope and catharsis.

    We caught up with Elanor Moss for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her relationship to writing, her earliest musical memories, the Citrus EP, and more.

    Have the past couple of months changed your perspective on the songs you’ve written or making music in general?

    The past year since making the EP, I’ve focused on writing. I haven’t had much time to write recently, I wrote a little bit while I was in isolation but the COVID brain fog is so thick you can barely string sentences together. But the past year, really, was all about craft. The Citrus EP, a lot of it was stream-of-consciousness-y, they’re some of my earliest bits of writing. At that point, it was entirely what I would call instinctual songwriting. But the focus over the past year has been on the craft of it. I think the songwriting that’s on the next record is a little bit more finessed, and trying to find that balance between that instinctive sort of writing that is entirely feeling and the more crafted writing that is a little bit more intentional. I think that’s probably the main difference. I’ve collaborated with a bunch of people, I work a lot with my friend Sam Griffiths of the Howl & the Hum. He helped me write some of the songs that are coming out on the next record. I just feel like I’ve been learning a lot about writing.

    How do you go about balancing those two sides, keeping things raw and instinctual but also more deliberate and collaborative? Was there something that made you feel more comfortable in that mode of writing?

    Yeah, I think so much of it has been about finding my voice and the thing that makes my songwriting mine and not someone else’s. And that’s going to be a career-long battle. I think every writer has that struggle of like, what is the thing about this that is me, that is honest and true? My experience of co-writing and the way that I do it – I really struggled with it at first, but it’s the most useful thing that I could have done in terms of learning about the craft. Because you can’t be that shy, you’ve got to be comfortable with writing really bad songs for a while. And it helped me learn more about what it was that was my voice, working with other people and seeing how they write and the things that in a session you go, “I can tell that it’s probably a good song, but it doesn’t feel like me.” There’s something about it that just doesn’t feel honest. And those sessions are just as valuable as the sessions where you leave with a song and it’s like, “I love this song. I think it feels totally right for me.” So I think bouncing off of other writers has helped me on the journey of finding my identity as a songwriter and the things about my writing that are mine, because it’s still such early days.

    What part of your voice do you feel like you’ve discovered that you weren’t so aware of back when you wrote the Citrus EP?

    I deal with a lot of quite dark themes, and I’m quite interested in this knife-edge of human nature; the darkness that can thread through certain things that on the surface level might seem normal or nice. I think I’ve always been drawn to that. But something that I’ve quite enjoyed that you’ll see a little on the next record is I’ve started like using humour [laughs] as a tool to tap into some of that, which is a hard thing to get right and I hope that I do an okay job on it on this next record. But humour is such a good way to bring a little bit of levity to darker themes. And the way that I sort of did that on the first record, bring levity to darker things, was musically balancing moments of lightness with the darker themes of the stuff that I’m actually talking about. Sonically there’s lots of bright and dreamy moments that are delivering quite dark sucker punches. Whereas I think with some of the newer stuff, where before I would just be delivering that contrast musically, I think I’m trying to find ways to deliver it lyrically as well.

    Before we talk more about the new EP, I was wondering if you could share any fond memories that you have of enjoying music at an early age.

    Both my parents are really musical. My dad is a brilliant guitarist, and he’s a poet and an English teacher. We always were very musical growing up, I’ve got five siblings, all of them very musical. We had family friends over and we would do traditional folk songs – my dad would play the pennywhistle, we would play guitar and sing. My brother played the fiddle at the time. It was like the hobbits or something, I don’t know. [laughs] I’m trying to think of a good comparison. But it was really fun. And I used to sing with my sisters quite a lot. If you’re going really, really early, we would listen to Taylor Swift records in the kitchen while we were doing the dishes and sing along to that. But I’ve always been a singer and a performer, I did school talent shows and things when I was very, very little. It’s always been an impulse, I guess, and I’ve always been in that kind of environment. My mom is an amazing singer as well, but she hasn’t done it since she was probably my age. The guitar that I learned to play on is this beautiful ‘70s Guild guitar that she was given when she was like 21 or 18, one of those two birthdays, and it’s the same guitar that I played on the Citrus record.

    Was there a specific moment that made you realize you were interested in writing songs?

    I don’t think there was ever like an aha moment. I think that music has always been a form of play, and it’s always been playful in its nature to me. It was always so natural that it never felt like a big reveal. I wrote my first full song when I was in university, I actually came to it some might say relatively late. I started writing songs when I was 18 whilst I was studying English. Before that, I performed a lot and I played guitar a bit and sang. And I’d written – I’d written short stories and scraps of poetry and things like that.

    Why do you think songwriting specifically came later on?

    That’s a really good question. I’m not sure. I think that songwriting is a very different discipline to short stories and any other kind of writing. And I think that the musical element means that you can communicate something beyond words. For me, that’s the magic of it. As a tool for storytelling, it’s kind of unmatched. There’s a level of, you don’t necessarily need to be explicit to effectively tell a story with a song. And I think that for the sort of confessional vignettes that I was doing at the time, it helped me communicate things that were almost too difficult to say completely explicitly, perhaps. I think it came when I needed it. I don’t know if that sounds weird, but like I said, it’s always been a form of play that is quite natural, the musical aspect of it. Writing songs themselves came a bit later but I think it was necessary at the time, and it was something that had captured my imagination. I was doing it because it was new and exciting, but also a tool for expressing myself at a time when I needed it.

    What kinds of music or storytelling did you gravitate to early on?

    In my house, it was my oldest sister Kate that ruled the roost musically. She was the cool older sister who had her finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on. She used to make mixtapes for my mom and we would listen to those in the car, and that was where a lot of my musical interests grew from. When I was growing up, that was when Feist released her iconic Reminder record. We listened to that a lot. There was a lot of Bruce Springsteen, my dad’s a big Bruce fan, so I grew up with a lot of him. Joni Mitchell, obviously, big Joni Mitchell fans in our house. And you know what, we were actually obsessed with the Maroon 5 Songs About Jane, which is just a lot of great pop songs. [laughs] And then when I was in uni, I discovered Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, The Beatles – we were not a Beatles house growing up. I discovered a lot of stuff later when I came to uni.

    But in terms of stories, my dad was studying a PhD in English when I was growing up, and it was in how literature helps form children’s moral imaginations. So he was big into lots of really good books, and so was my mum. And they shared that with us from a really young age. I was always really drawn to fairy tales, and I think that that shows. I was really into these Scandinavian books called the Moomintroll books. Very beautiful, very dark stories. The Brothers Grimm, famously dark, but very beautiful. So I guess I have always liked stuff that has that sort of balance.

    You were talking about those early inspirations in terms of what was playing your household. When it came to discovering your own musical identity, was there something you felt uniquely interested in or drawn to that the rest of your family wasn’t?

    Yeah. I mean, growing up, I was the fifth of six, so I’m the second youngest. And I always just jumped on the bandwagon of whatever my older sister was into, which drove her insane. But I also decided, when I was like 12, my oldest sister was really into Taylor Swift, so I was like, “She stinks. I hate Taylor Swift.” Secretly loved Taylor Swift, still love Taylor Swift. So I guess there’s always been an element of that, like if my older sister really liked something I would be like, here’s the more indie version of that’s way cooler. And it never was way cooler, it was just me being a younger sister. [laughs] I’m not sure that I ever really fully artistically rebelled against anything in my family or that other people liked. I think I just kind of went through grumpy phases with most of the things, but eventually always came around to the fact that Taylor Swift rocks.

    Speaking of Taylor Swift, I wanted to ask you about the title track on your EP. You reference the song ‘Calgary’, and I was wondering if it’s the Bon Iver song.

    It is the Bon Iver song, yeah. Great song. [laughs]

    I assume Bon Iver was an early inspiration as well?

    Yeah, I should have mentioned actually – the For Emma, Forever Ago album and the Bon Iver, Bon Iver album completely transport me back to my childhood. Totally central to my musical imagination at the time, and still, probably.

    And now he’s worked with Taylor Swift.

    I know, it’s amazing. It’s been so cool to see how Justin Vernon has continued to innovate. At the time, For Emma and Bon Iver were such innovative, imaginative records. And even though the sound has changed a lot, the essence of it to me hasn’t changed at all. The essence is still innovation and telling stories through interesting, intricate soundscapes. It’s just the palette has changed. I mean, a lot has changed, I’m probably being reductive, but it’s been great to watch.

    I saw that you launched a meme competition on Instagram, where you’re encouraging fans to caption photos of animals eating citrus fruit. And I’m also seeing the fruit in the background there, which I appreciate.

    [laughs] Oh, this one? This one’s an accident, I’ve had COVID and I needed vitamin C. We can make it look like less of an accident. [Places the fruit next to her] There you go, now it’s not an accident.

    Have you been getting any good submissions?

    I have, I’ve had absolutely hilarious memes from it. There’s one where one of the pictures of somebody handing a monkey an orange, and the monkey before is really sad, and then when the monkey gets the orange it’s really happy. And someone used the lyrics from ‘Soundings’ to caption it, because the opening line is “Give me ready to go home tonight,” and the orange is the reason to go home tonight. And then me, I’m the monkey, and it’s the listener who is handing me the orange. It’s amazing. I feel like I have to say this because I stole the idea from another artist who did it. I’ve been following this artist, Anna B Savage, she released an absolutely amazing record, A Common Turn, last year and it was amazing. She did a meme competition and I was like, “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I have to do that.” And so I did. I’m not sure if she was the first, I imagine she wasn’t, but if she was, great idea and I’ve stolen it.

    But it’s been really nice to see people responding to it and sending in funny things. My presence online is obviously still growing, but the songs are so emotive and a lot of them quite dark – I don’t want anyone to think that I’m like a miserable person who just walks around being sad and miserable all the time. It’s nice to be able to connect with people with an aspect of my personality that is different to my songs, if that makes sense.

    It goes back to the humour and playfulness that we were talking about. I don’t mean to overanalyze it or anything, but you posted one that you created with the three frogs clinging to the fruit and the caption “hot, sad girls.” Obviously, the sad girls trope can sometimes be reductive, but I was wondering if that is a way for you to playfully reclaim or lean into that.

    You make a really good point, because actually, sad girls make the industry go round. I think that fangirls and sad girls and girls in general get a bad rap. I feel like it can be used as a derogatory term, but there is nothing about it that is actually derogatory. People should be allowed to enjoy things collectively as a fan base without coming under any kind of scrutiny for the type of music that they like or the overall identity of that kind of fandom. But I feel like “hot, sad girls” has become a thing across the internet. It’s already been reclaimed, it’s no longer anything derogatory, as far as I’m aware, with the rise of microcultures and things on Tik Tok. It’s all shifted a lot, I think, since the Tumblr days of fandoms.

    From a musical point of view, do you think it can be reductive to use that term?

    Yeah, I think that there’s always so much more to a song that has been labeled a sad song than sadness. I think that the craft and nuance and intricacy of certain types of songwriting can be overlooked if you’re quick to label it something like “sad girl,” especially if it’s gendered like that. It does leave room for elements of it to be overlooked. But something that writers like Mitski, Rosie Carney, Adrianne Lenker, and Laura Marling have in common is the female gaze. Most women who write music in that genre – although they are all different artists, I think they all fall under a similar umbrella, and the way that they view the world and the way that they write about love and sex and life is all through that female gaze. And people writing about similar things through the male gaze, I don’t think they would get slapped with a label like “sad girl.”

    What appeals to you about making music that’s intimate and vulnerable while also focusing on the female gaze?

    I think that in the kind of music that I make, the way I’ve described it before, as a woman you don’t often control how men look at you. How you are gazed at determines an awful lot, and there isn’t a lot that you can do about that. But a form of subversion is inviting people to look at you, and inviting people to look at you on your terms, and in a certain way, and in your own words, as it were. And I feel like the kind of music that I make invites you in to look at me in a certain way. And I think that being vulnerable and trying to tell the truth in some ways is a quiet act of resistance and quietly telling your story. Sometimes a whisper is just as effective as a shout, but I think that you need both things. We need Self Esteem to be doing what she’s doing,  we need other women who are doing it brashly and loudly – and brash is a word that I’m using in a reclaimed sense. But I also think that there’s room for whispering your truth as well.

    Given that a part of performing is being seen, what was it like sharing these songs in a live context?

    As most songwriters will say, once you’ve written something with the view to perform it, it’s no longer yours, really. And for me, taking them on stage helped me work through certain emotions and feelings. And it also highlighted to me that telling stories is a way to connect with people. When you’re on stage and you’re connecting with a roomful of people – if it’s your own show, they’ll be there because they know who you are and they want to share that story with you, but on support tours or opening for someone else, as I have done a lot of this year – you’re in a room full of people who have no idea who you are, they’re not there to see you. And if you are able to win over even one of those people and they resonate with your story and your song, it’s an amazing feeling. And I love it, I love it when people come speak to me after a show and they hadn’t heard me before. I get a lot of people come talk to me about the title track, ‘Citrus’. I often close my set with it live, and it opens up important conversations with strangers. I’d always hoped that telling little bits of my story and contextualizing them in a way that felt more universal would be a way to connect people and connect with people and open up difficult conversations.

    Do you mind sharing any specific moments of connecting with someone who’s listened to your songs?

    I had someone come to me after a performance. It was really powerful. I was opening for a New York folk singer called Elijah Wolf, and he was playing at the Brudenell in Leeds. Someone came to me after my set, a woman from the audience, she was in floods of tears. And she just said, “Can I hug you? I want to talk to you about your last song.” And then she gave me some statistics, I think she must have worked in a sector that deals a lot with male violence against women. And it wasn’t actually ‘Citrus’, it was a different song that I sang, but it was on a similar topic. With that particular track, I always like to contextualize it culturally and give a little bit of a chat about why I think it’s important that we talk about these things. And she thanked me for saying that and thanked me for the song. And we talked about how difficult it is to be a woman at – just how difficult it is to be a woman. It felt really cathartic to connect with a stranger who I hadn’t met before so deeply, even though it was only a five-minute conversation. I felt lighter for it, and I hope that she did too.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Elanor Moss’ Citrus EP is out now.

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