The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr had released his band’s third and best album, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, and was recording their fourth. Dave Grohl and his band, Nirvana, had the number one album in the world and were headlining festivals. Dua Lipa had won two Brit Awards and topped the UK singles chart twice.
These musicians achieved all those by the time they turned 23. At the same age, Noa Mal has already released 14 solo albums — the latest being Her Satanic Highness, her fourth (!!!) full-length in 2023 alone.
In case you haven’t heard of her yet, it’s probably because this indie rock/lo-fi artist rarely ventures outside of her bedroom in Lucena, Quezon — save for the occasional gig in Manila with her live band. She does have a considerable cult following in the local indie scene, as well as a sizable fanbase in Japan, where her records have been released in all physical formats by the independent label Galaxy Train.
Considering her already impressive and consistent discography, which ranges from grunge-inspired guitar rock to lo-fi synth pop, it’s high time that Noa Mal is given the spotlight. We recently got in touch with this young artist and songwriter to get her insights on her creative process, what inspires her music, and why she prefers to work alone.
Billboard Philippines: At what age did you start taking making your own music seriously?
Noa Mal: I started when I was 13, but the tracks I made during that time were extremely experimental recordings that will probably never see the light of day. When I turned 16 I became fascinated with lo-fi music — not the [Fender] Rhodes [piano]-driven ones, but guitar music and garage rock-inspired material. That’s when I started to release conceptually-planned collections of tracks on Bandcamp. I think I put out several EPs before recording my first album when I was 19 — right before the pandemic started, which I’ve always thought was a pretty odd timing and coincidence, because I became addicted to making albums during the lockdown stage. I would attend my online classes and think about recording; I couldn’t take my mind off it. I can’t see myself doing singles; I’ve always found albums really interesting from an early age.
I can’t say with a straight face that I do take my music seriously, but creating is a natural and important need that I have, and I’m very happy with my whole current discography and all the things that I did with it.
Can you describe the moment in which you discovered that you could record your own songs?
Noa Mal: I simply can’t because I have no recollection of how it first happened. I just remember trying out different DAWs and plugins and being really, really amazed by what I can do with just a computer and a sh*tty mic.
How long does it normally take you to create an album, from writing to mixing?
Noa Mal: I usually have a limited window to create. I can’t work on something too long because it means it bores me and it’s not worth it to continue doing it. All the albums that I made, I had a deep urge to create and to finish. They were made seamlessly and without frustrations. I think other creatives call it a flow state but I’m not sure. When people ask me about my process I can’t really describe it fully. I usually tell them I have an entity inside of me that tells me what to do and what to write. And let’s be real, that comes off as weird, but honestly, I think that concept is actually just an extension of myself and not a separate thing from me, but who knows. Anyway, I think the longest it takes me to write and record is probably two weeks and a half. Impostor Syndrome was made in a week and maybe three days but that’s only because I was very inspired. Also, it’s not a very lengthy record.
With the amount of output that you release every year, what is your quality control process like? Do you actually have songs that don’t make the cut?
Noa Mal: I can’t use old material for the latest album that I work on; I basically just discard them because they’re not relevant anymore. The whole point of my music is to be a semi-fictional depiction of my life given that I use metaphors and various lore to describe my current situation. If a song I made a year ago didn’t make it to the album it was supposed to be a part of, then it’s only meant to be thrown away. I do reference some hooks from my previous albums, though — because it’s a fun way to reflect. It’s very important to me that I have discipline when it comes to creating. I think I just tend to be obsessive with the whole thing but that’s sort of ironic, too — because I make really intentionally flawed tracks.
What was it like to be picked up by a Japanese label (Galaxy Train)? Is owning physical releases of music something important to you?
Noa Mal: It’s incredibly nice; they were one of the first ones to believe in me and in what I do, and I find that very inspiring and amazing. It also makes me feel happy that people from Japan like my music. At one point in my life I became a little obsessed with analog gear — there’s just something really special about actually having tangible things; owning physical releases of music is important to me. Although I really am thankful to have modern technology that makes it easier for anyone to make music [or] listen to music, enjoying the experience of owning physical music is a joy that I wish everyone could have at some point in their life.
Your 2023 releases seem to be moving further from the ‘90s/grunge influence of your earlier albums, with a more synth-laden, lo-fi indie pop sound, especially from Suspended Animation onwards. What led to this shift? Did you acquire new gear or discover any artists that inspired your music this year?
Noa Mal: I tend to get very bored with my old sound and I wanted to discover as many textures and possibilities this year. Suspended Animation is basically an album about false death, being frozen, [and] living in a wasteland, and I wanted to give the listener that experience through sound and my writing. I actually want to do more of that next year — I sort of did that too with my other albums Fear Fiction and You And Your False Religions but it would take me a long time to go into detail on that.
Two of my albums this year were actually guitar-heavy like my previous ones. In 2021, I had a thing for roughness and all that raw stuff in recording, and it clearly manifested in my albums. This year might just symbolize that I am slowly letting go of some of my anger and recklessness and allowing myself to be vulnerable and tender. Writing and music are very effective ways to express your inner thoughts and feelings — I mean, at least for me. My latest album, Her Satanic Highness, is probably my most personal one and I wanted it to sound very vulnerable and fragile. The vocal part of that album was my initial priority; I didn’t want it to be drowning in guitar tones. Instead, I wanted to be singing about my pain while a playful piano and beat patterns play on top of that to highlight my need for irony and self-contradiction.
Do you have any dream collaborators to work with? Why or why not?
Noa Mal: Collaborating is beautiful — exchanging ideas, making new discoveries, etc. In 2021, I did a lot of features for my album Nerve Damage and it was an awesome experience. But I also learned that I am a loner, and working alone and isolated works the best for me. I had a thought the other day that I found really funny — people seem to like my song, “Isolation,” and what’s funny is isolation and solitude are the two main things that I find really really essential for my creativity and productivity. Anyway, lately I’ve been navigating towards artists and bands who I relate to when it comes to the process and essence of making music — John Grant, The Divine Comedy, They Might Be Giants, Margot and The Nuclear So and Sos, plus some more I can’t mention anymore — they all really inspire me artistically.
What’s next for Noa Mal? How far along are you into your next album?
Noa Mal: Like any other year, I only want to document my experiences and my existence through sounds, writing, and albums. I’m thinking of moving somewhere but that’s not decided yet.
I’m not working on anything right now; after every release I really make it a priority to relax and not do anything. Interestingly, it’s easier to do that now, too; I think maybe it’s because the whole process has become a routine to me, and releasing music literally releases my feelings about existence and it makes me softer, which is always a good thing. I seriously don’t know what my life would look like if I didn’t have the privilege to make music.
Listen to Noa Mal’s latest album, Her Satanic Highness, below: