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It’s hard to imagine Noël Wells was at a crossroads given her previous successes. In the years prior to now, she was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, the inimitable Rachel on Master of None, and the writer, director, and star of the award-winning indie feature film Mr. Roosevelt which continues to garner fans in the streaming space. After juggling roles in the worlds of comedy, television, and film, Wells never let her creativity or ambition pause. Which explains why now, with her debut album It’s So Nice, an 11 song LP that cinches Wells’ as not just a talent to watch, but a multi- hyphenate artist finding her voice.
“It kind of came as a surprise,” she says, referring to the songs that would eventually make up the 11 song LP. While Wells participated in band in middle school, and considered herself relatively musical, she had never actively entertained a career in music. But after experiencing an emotionally volatile 2016, including career frustrations, a breakup, and the national tumult that surrounded the election, she found herself writing poems to cope, and after buying a guitar and taking lessons, she eventually started writing songs. “They were just pouring out of me. I have always been somewhat of a songbird, but when I would sing it felt like I was imitating someone else, and so I never pursued it. Out of all this heartache I suddenly found I was singing in what felt like my real voice, there was no pretense, there was no filter. I felt almost possessed, like I had to get them out.” She spent the next year polishing the songs, taking guitar lessons, and eventually looking for collaborators to help her record. “I knew the songwriting was really good, and the songs were saying things I wanted to say much better than if I just said them. I wanted to do them justice.”
It’s So Nice is an engaging catchy song experience that saunters through a diverse set of folk pop songs, country ballads, and bonafide indie rock earworms. While beautifully and tastefully produced, what’s most striking is the songwriting. At times deceptively simple, the tightly composed lyrics are filled with timeless aphoristic one- liners, sometimes serious, sometimes political, sometimes lighthearted and witty, akin to songwriters like John Lennon (Sunrise) or Tom Petty (Brighter Day), both whom Wells’ cautiously sites as influences. Under the guise of her playful persona, she deftly and poetically addresses the very confusion, patronization, and heartbreak that got her behind the guitar in the first place. “It’s easy to blame your unhappiness on something outside of you, the world is messed up. And I am totally aware and can make fun of myself about how many songs there are about being a woman on this record, but I really was going through it man. Like, oh wait, maybe life is hard not because there’s something I am doing wrong. Maybe it’s hard because culturally we really have this deep hatred of women, all of us. But then again, who is responsible for making me feel better? And I realized, at the end of the day, what if most of my woes really stem from how much I really don’t like myself? It’s a floodgate that had to be reckoned with.”
It’s this kind of vulnerable honesty that can be seen as the through line of the creative work Wells’ has done to date, and while a heartfelt examination of self-loathing may seem like a predictable area for an artist to undertake, there’s an air of unexpectedness to the album, ping-ponging from earnest childlike hopefulness to astute and acerbic political observations which keeps you on your toes, done so smoothly and effortlessly you may miss it. But on careful listen, you realize this isn’t an actress making a record for fun. It’s a musician and artist finding her voice in a time of need.
Wells fits in alongside peers who similarly get lost in thought. The dark folk sighs of opener “Played For Keeps” echoes with the stirring vibrato of Weyes Blood. The country-tinged “Burn It All Down” sees Wells cooing in the vein of Neko Case. Armed with an omnichord and an acoustic guitar, she channels her inner Sharon Van Etten on the lonely “Follow Me.” Instrumentally, these songs build to subtly catchy choruses that showcase her natural singing voice, often verging on the casual talent of a virtuoso like Andrew Bird. But there’s no more obvious comparison to draw than that of Jenny Lewis, an iconic musician whose lackadaisical songwriting style and innate melodies go down easy. Wells does the same with her own unique flair on “Star,” “It’s So Nice,” and “Brighter Day” — so well that it’s tempting to listen to them again as soon as they’ve ended.
It's So Nice took roughly a year to make, with the bulk of the recording happening on and off in Los Angeles with producer Chris Nelson and engineer Branden Stroup, finishing in her home state of Texas with producers James Jones and Dave Jones in Austin. By the time she wrapped, Wells had largely worked through her troubles and found herself in a more confident headspace. This positions It’s So Nice as a retrospective album that contains a timeless authenticity and honesty she hopes helps listeners navigate their own complicated times. “I really feel like we are in a sort of dark ages. The world is flipped upside down, it’s very easy to get defeated. Optimism and hope aren’t in vogue, but that’s what I want to lead with because it’s the antidote to the gaudy seriousness that is tearing the fabric of culture,” says Wells. “It’s kind of incumbent on all of us to figure out how to put something positive into this world, everybody has the capacity to. Part of that is embracing our fears, embracing our natural playfulness, and for me, embracing a femininity that is normally seen as a weakness. We could stop rejecting feminine attributes and the optimism we had as children. Instead, we could all simply agree to have fun, to drop this emotion-blocking baggage, and the next thing you know that’s what we’d be doing.”
It’s this distinguished, singular way of living that sets Noël Wells apart from her contemporaries. True to her method of comprehending intricate emotions by way of writing, the spirit of It’s So Nice is best summarized by a lyric from “Follow Me”: “No I wasn’t trained to jump for joy / Or how to change the key / But I’m writing my own story now / And I hope you follow me.”