New Sensations

Ian Noe: ‘The Beatles don’t compare to Creedence Clearwater Revival’

Kentucky singer-songwriter Ian Noe has just released one of the finest Americana albums of 2022. Leonie Cooper talks to him about ‘River Fools and Mountain Saints’, the unlikely influence of MIA, and the time Jason Momoa asked him to sing on a skyscraper balcony

Sunday 27 March 2022 06:30 BST
Ian Noe: ‘The Beatles didn’t have a “Bad Moon Rising”'
Ian Noe: ‘The Beatles didn’t have a “Bad Moon Rising”' (David McClister)

I read something on Twitter not long ago about how The Beatles didn’t really even compare to Creedence Clearwater Revival and, you know, in a way they really don’t,” says Ian Noe, tugging on his baseball cap and smoothing out his blond moustache. “The Beatles didn’t have an ‘Up Around The Bend’. They didn’t have a ‘Bad Moon Rising’. It’s a whole different kind of thing, and they did that, most of the time, in less than three minutes.”

It’s fair to say, then, the Americana singer-songwriter is a bit of a fan. So much so, in fact, that when he was 18 and working at a local branch of Dairy Queen, he saved up for weeks to buy front row John Fogerty seats for him and his dad. That night, Noe wrote the start of what would become the atmospheric blues of “Burning Down The Prairie”, a tribute to the indigenous people of his home state of Kentucky. Fourteen years later, it’s finally getting to see the light of day on his new album, River Fools and Mountain Saints.

A collection of hand-hewn, heartfelt tales set in and around Noe’s native Kentucky, Noe’s second record links together the lives of the forgotten few, from Vietnam veterans and jaded drunks to the lost and lonely. But these vignettes of small-town life are fun too, with punchy, electric country melodies that sound like Creedence Clearwater Revival – naturally – at their most epic. Listen to the sensitive lyrics, delivered in plaintive voice, and you’ll be reminded, too, of the late, great John Prine, for whom he opened on Prine’s final European dates before his death from Covid-19 in 2020. Prine’s also the inspiration behind swinging album track “Lonesome As It Gets”, all about getting drunk at Christmas and having an “epiphany”. “John Prine was a huge, huge fan of Christmas,” explains Noe, 29. “He kept a Christmas tree around all year long. I was trying to do an anti-Christmas song there – a set-the-Christmas-tree-on-fire type of thing!”

Currently based in the Kentucky town of Bowling Green, Noe lives only an hour and a half from Nashville. That’s where he recorded the follow-up to his powerful 2019 debut Between The Country, and it’s also where we find him when we video call as he’s being driven around the hip east Nashville neighbourhood after a spot of rehearsal. Where Between The Country was stripped back and intimate, River Fools and Mountain Saints is altogether more outgoing, thanks to a newly hired backing band of Nashville all-stars featuring Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs on bass, and Derry deBorja of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on keyboard.

As well as these Tennessee session-playing titans, less obvious inspiration comes in the shape of MIA and her groundbreaking 2007 album Kala. “I’m a huge fan,” says the one-time oilfield worker. “Some people have said it’s one of the greatest records of the 21st century. It’s insane – she can make a melody out of a cash machine.” It’s MIA’s use of sampling that Noe has let seep into the complex patchwork of River Fools and Mountain Saints: “When I’m throwing in soundbites like when you hear at the beginning of “Strip Job Blues 1984” or Muhammad Ali’s voice in “Ballad of A Retired Man”, that is entirely her influence.”

The spirit of Noe’s much-missed grandfather makes itself known on the record too, in the shape of the potent, so-called “mountain wine”, which gets its dues on the rollicking, bluegrass-inflected booze ballad “River Fool”. It’s pretty simple to make your own wine, says Noe. “I can see how easy it is to make in prison, because it’s very easy to make outside. You get your yeast and your sugar and whatever you want; blackberries or elderberries,” he continues, sharing a DIY moonshine recipe taught to him by his grandad. “Then you let it sit and age. He made a very good white grape wine. It had a bit of a bite to it, almost like champagne. And I had some seriously good hangovers on it, too!”

Before he’d even released his feted debut, Noe found himself at the centre of a social media whirlwind after he wound up playing for the actor Jason Momoa at the star’s lavish Vancouver penthouse. “I’d flown out with my manager – she was going to meet him about somebody else. I was just there for the ride!” explains Noe. Momoa though, a “big music nerd”, wanted to hear Noe play too. The Aquaman star was so taken by Noe’s acoustic performance that he got his crew to record him playing on his balcony so he could “share the love and share the music” on his YouTube channel.

“It was about a million storeys down and it was raining!” remembers Noe of the somewhat extreme backdrop Momoa suggested for the video. “He’s a stunt guy all the way.” Fans rhapsodised about Noe in the comments, praising his voice for “touching your soul”. Three years later, and Noe and Momoa are still friends. “I texted him today, actually,” says Noe. “He hasn’t wrote me back, but he’s a pretty busy guy.” It won’t be long until it’s Noe who’s too busy to get back to Momoa.

‘River Fools and Mountain Saints’ is out now

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