Songwriters wield immense power: they share perspectives on life and people emotionally and publicly. They are authors, while the world and those within it are subjects. But what happens when a subject has a say in its own artistic rendering? Running In Borrowed Shoes, the project of Nashville-based singer/songwriter Leah Nobel (winner of the 2012 Indie International Songwriting Competition and staff songwriter at Big Yellow Dog Music), explores that question.
Equipped with a sign that read, “COME TALK TO ME! I am interviewing people on the topics of (joy, loss, fear, vulnerability, etc.) AKA: How does it feel to be human?,” Nobel sat in public places to draw strangers for interviews. Later she transcribed and pored over their conversations, finding stories and themes from which she drew the inspiration for a new and entirely non-autobiographical record.
Nobel spoke to 100 people, half in person and half over the internet, attempting to reach as diverse a range of individuals as possible (including 10 percent international folks). Eschewing small talk, Nobel went straight for what she calls “big talk”: questions like, “Is there a memory from your childhood that you replay in your mind a lot as an adult?” It’s this question, in part, which inspired “Christmas in My Mind,” the initial single off the forthcoming album, which Paste is excited to share for the first time today—listen here.
It sounds like a holiday song, but it isn’t. It’s the conflation of two of the patterns Nobel noticed in the interviews: one, regret at witnessing parental conflict at a young age, and two, the comfort and solace that the holiday season (specifically Christmas, for interviewees who mentioned it) often represents.
“This project has taught me how to be an empathetic songwriter rather than a sympathetic songwriter,” Nobel tells Paste. Below, she talks about playing songs for the people by whom they were inspired, further describes the forthcoming album (which will come out sometime in 2017), and explains why this project couldn’t be more important for our current political moment.
Paste: You’re someone who wears a lot of musical shoes, so to speak, with your work for Big Yellow Dog and your “dark pop alter ego” Hael; it seems like the idea of writing music from a variety of perspectives fits you well.
Leah Nobel: I [used to] write music that I considered fictional, but it was always in this way where I would imagine myself in fictional scenarios. Whereas this project—I mean, of course there’s bits of me in these songs, I wrote them—but instead of imagining myself in a different scenario, it was me imagining somebody else. I tried to leave my judgments and the things I knew out of it.
Paste: Was that difficult for you?
Nobel: Honestly, I had a lot of fear in the beginning. I was afraid I wasn’t going to find people to interview, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to write, I was worried that I couldn’t do people’s stories justice. But this amazing thing happens when you allow yourself to be open enough to receive all those stories. It sounds silly, but it was just this magical, easy thing for me. And I have enough inspiration and content from my interviews, I could probably write like 10 records. I like the idea of having 12 songs on the record, and maybe, if the opportunity presented itself, like, a B-side with more content. I want as many opportunities as I can to get that music out and be able to share it with the people who inspired it.
Paste: Have you done that at all yet?
Nobel: Yes. About a month ago, when I finished my interviews, I emailed everybody and gave them a little update, and I got a bunch of emails back from people that were really special. For example, this woman about to have a baby—I sent her this song that I wrote from a parent’s perspective to their child.
Paste: What was her reaction?
Nobel: Um… she cried. [laughs] Yeah, there were a lot of tears during this process from everybody involved.
Paste: Well, I imagine it also must be really moving for people because the idea of having your life, struggles and thoughts represented in song is kind of the dream, you know? And not everybody’s a songwriter.
Nobel: Totally! And also on a more general scale, I think people just crave to be listened to. I can’t tell you how many people said, “Nobody’s ever asked me questions like this before.” And it ended up being, I think, 80 percent of the people I talked to were strangers. There’s this kind of comfort and freedom that talking to a stranger brings to people. They almost feel safer in a way, because they feel like I don’t have a reason to judge them.
Paste: What kinds of questions were you asking?
Nobel: My favorite question to ask was, “What do you want people to not know about you?” I would ask people that question, and they’d be like, “Oh shit. We’re going deep!” [laughs] I liked asking questions like, “When do you feel most alive?” or “When have you felt most broken?” or “What is your greatest struggle right now?” Another question was asking people what they loved most about themselves. I never asked them what they didn’t like, because I feel like we talk about that enough. I would also throw curveballs in there, like, “How do you think that you’re going to die?”
Paste: Oh my god. [laughs] How did people answer that one?
Nobel: Most people were like, “I don’t really think about that, but I do think about the way I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to burn to death, I don’t want to drown,” and things like that. I really just wanted to make something that felt bigger than me. Bigger than—I call it “my universe of personal struggle.” So the questions were designed to give me information about feelings or experiences that I haven’t had. Like, for example, I wrote a song about depression because a lot of people talked about depression. I assumed this position of knowing nothing, and that I wanted everybody to be teach me what certain things felt like.
Paste: What is it like to go from that humble position of being the student and then needing to take on a more active role and actually create something out of that? Were you ever feeling uncomfortable about representing other people?
Nobel: In the beginning. But another thing to remember is that some of [these songs] are very specifically based on somebody’s story, or include things that people actually said to me, and others are about these reoccurring themes. And maybe the theme—like, depression—is the bones of the song, but I’m creatively filling in the details, like a filmmaker would when they say, “This film is based on a true story,” or “adapted from a book.” So, it is important—and I will reiterate this to everyone who participated when I start sending songs out—to remember that these songs are based on our conversation, but this isn’t a biography of your life. It’s hopefully just something that you will be able to relate to because it was prompted by a theme that you mentioned or something that you expressed.
Paste: What about listeners who are not involved? People tend to imagine that songs are autobiographical, which is not necessarily correct; do you think that there’s something different we can get from a song that is written from the personal experience of an artist, versus something that’s written from someone else’s experience?
Nobel: I think that every song is based on human experience and the human condition—unless it’s written by a robot. Anytime a record comes out, you know that people are gonna take what they want from the song, and they’re gonna believe it’s about a certain thing. That’s not something you can ever really control. I like the beauty in that. But I do think that my project is stronger not when the music and the story is separated, but when it’s together. If I wrote a song from my point of view about depression, somebody would listen to it and be like, “Leah and I can relate.” But if I’m writing a song about depression in the structure of my project, hopefully they can look at that and say, “Wow. So many other people feel the same way I do. It’s not just me relating to the songwriter, it’s me relating to lots of people.” It’s this idea of building community and making people feel less alone.
Paste: Cheers to that!
Nobel: I want there to be this sense of community with the record, because there already is. Because a hundred people sourced it. You figure out, well, if this concept or emotion is reoccurring in a hundred people, then it sure as hell is reoccurring outside of that group.
Paste: Yeah. You’re talking about building empathy, building community, relating to other people—do you think there’s a particular significance in doing a project like this right now, in our current divisive political climate?
Nobel: Yes. I feel like the timing of my project coming out could not be—it basically could not be more needed anytime than now. Our current social and political climate [has] given us a lot of credence to feel really divided and even hateful towards each other. So anything that inspires people to think outside of their reality and to practice empathy—to me that’s peace work. I feel like empathy’s really undervalued in our culture. We don’t talk about it that much, when it’s actually a strategy for solving a lot of issues. Yeah, so, the fact that everything that’s happening right now has created this tension—I do feel like the timing of the project is apt.
Listen to “Christmas In My Mind” here, and watch the trailer for the Running in Borrowed Shoes project below. Look out for the full album sometime next year.