The sweet sound of chaos

CAROL NOONAN REFLECTS ON SONGWRITING, THE DIY MOVEMENT AND THE STONE MOUNTAIN ARTS CENTER

On an unusually hot Wednesday in June, singer Carol Noonan is hard at work on a song. The celebrated folk singer is musing on the melody, considering how to piece together disparate ideas in an interesting way. But instead of writing about heartbreak or adventure, as she often does, she’s writing about something different today—real estate.

“I’m creating a spoof song for a function for Realtors and I want it to be funny,” she explains from her home in Brownsfield. The event will take place later that day at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, the bucolic concert hall that Noonan runs (with a little help from her husband and a small staff, of course). She books acts, cooks for visitors, plans the schedule and hosts performers of all stripes on their sprawling green property. “I live a very chaotic life,” she admits. “Either I’m frantically busy or—like sometimes in the winter—there’s nothing for me to do. But I get to book the acts that I want, like Ani DiFranco or Brandi Carlile. And I get to play my own music and sleep in my bed at night.” Later Noonan adds, “I’m busy, but it sure beats touring.”

She would know. For years she toured with her band, Knots and Crosses, which she formed in the 1980s with two like-minded musicians she met while attending the New England Conservatory of Music: Alan Williams (on keyboards and vocals) and Rick Harris (on guitar and vocals). In 1997, she decided to go solo, and soon after, she began releasing music through her own website. “Everyone was dabbling in DIY back then,” she explains. “Being in a store didn’t matter anymore, and I didn’t want to be on a label, not even a small one.”

Although she humbly describes her success as the result of “getting wicked lucky,” there is slightly more to it than luck. Noonan built a following amongst music critics, winning praise from critics including Dave Marsh, who called her a “brilliant modern folk singer,” and Steve Morse, who wrote, “Carol Noonan seems to exist beyond time.” Her soaring voice and soulful delivery have also landed Noonan appearances on NPR’s Weekend Edition and favorable write-ups in Playboy and the Portland Press Herald. Noonan no longer tours, but she plays more than just silly ditties for business functions. She continues to write and record, playing frequently with her band on stage at Stone Mountain Arts Center, where the high ceilings and exposed wood beams provide a fitting backdrop for her evocative yet traditional ballads.

When she’s not working to keep Stone Mountain running smoothly, Noonan spends her free time writing songs, both for herself and for others. This process, she explains, is highly intuitive for her.

“Most of my best songs I’ve written within an hour or less,” she says. “They come to me quickly. I’m not sure exactly how it happens. Sometimes it’s a melody that was lurking in the back of my head that comes out. Sometimes it begins with a little guitar riff and grows from there.” Like many highly creative people, Noonan thrives on messiness. “The more chaos around me, the better my work,” she says.

She is also drawn to dark stories and odd melodies. Among her biggest inspirations are folk legends Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Women, she says, have always had to overcome more obstacles than their male counterparts in the music world. “Women tend to be more worried about their voices than men,” she says. “So many great male songwriters don’t have great voices. A woman can’t get away with that so easily. That’s what makes female singers different—their melodies, their lyrics and how they write for their own voices.”

But despite the challenges, Noonan can’t imagine having lived any other life. “It was a crazy thing we decided to do up here,” she says of her Brownfield home and performing arts space. “But it ended up so good. I feel blessed with what has happened to me throughout my career. Maybe on paper it never should have worked, but it did.” Later, after talking briefly about the many musicians she’s had the pleasure of meeting over the years (including Lyle Lovett), she adds, “If I died tomorrow, I would have lived a full life.” Her next album is due out this month.

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