Road Listening with Noah Cyrus and Mike Crossey
PHOTOGRAPHY by DANIEL ROJAS
At first glance what could the capital of Northern Ireland possibly have in common with the capital of country music? Aside from the surprising trivia that Belfast and Nashville are officially sister cities, they’re also the respective hometowns of producer Mike Crossey and singer Noah Cyrus. MARVIN covered the September release of Noah’s record, The Hardest Part in our last issue so it made sense to bring these two together for the Sound & Driven car test and learn more about where they come from, and where they see themselves going.
Los Angeles is practically a different planet from Belfast but Mike is used to the culture shifting. In fact, his formative years were spent as much in Belfast as moving away from it. “I’d just hop from one “next-biggest” music city to the next one. From Belfast to fifteen years in Liverpool, then to London and now Los Angeles.” Famous as a teen for putting together not-entirely-legal BYOB punk shows, one night he heard a band that inspired him to invite the band back to his studio. They took him up on it. That band was Arctic Monkeys and that fateful offer would mark the beginning of his illustrious mixing and producing career with musicians like Jake Bugg, The 1975, The Black Keys, The Courteeners, CSS, Ray Davies and Two Door Cinema Club among many others.
Noah of course, has it in her blood. As the fifth child of country star Billy Ray and his wife Tish, she had cameos on her sister’s famous show Hannah Montana at the tender age of two. Since then she’s starred on a variety of successful TV shows before releasing her debut single, “Make Me (Cry)” when she was sixteen. “I started music very early so I feel like a lot of my journey has been finding my voice and trying out a lot of different sounds. In 2020, I released an EP called The End of Everything. I feel like that record is where I discovered a lot of myself. In the beginning, I wrote a lot and that got me confident enough to write the music that I’m making now.” By which she means songs that are authentically personal.
“Noah’s extraordinary because she’s just so full of honesty. From the first time I heard her lyrics, [I knew], she was totally prepared to bare herself and it’s quite inspiring to see someone who’s open like that. I definitely took something from that. Maybe it taught me to not be quite as guarded as I am because she’s an open book,” Mike laughs.
The Hardest Part is about loss and love, heartache and relationships. True to country roots, the music is about her own everyday life. “I mean I can definitely think of specific relationships. With this album, I touch on my relationship with addiction and drug abuse. I talk about my relationship with my family, my father and my home and going back. I also touch on a relationship that I was in during the pandemic, going through it together…then the relationship with my grandmother. There’s a lot of different inspirations that I draw from.”
There’s sometimes a melancholy in her voice when she sings about the ties that bind. “I think I am singing about things that make my inner child extremely happy, but also about this version of life as a child, and seeing it all grow and change… it’s extremely hard. I felt like I grew up rather quickly while also dealing with a lot of things publicly.”
The album took six years to finalize because writing it was clearly a complex process, though ultimately cathartic. “I mean, the most healing bit of it all was working with Mike. I’m not just saying that because he’s here, I genuinely mean that. Working with him just woke something up inside me, some passion and drive for myself and for music, that I hadn’t had in such a long time. I feel like I really found myself in his studio.”
She is after all, in the hands of an expert who’s been in the business for 25 years. Musicmaking is by most accounts a commingled spiritual experience but how a producer creates a prolific environment for a musician can make or break the album. “Every record you make is such an intense experience. You’re dealing with people’s hopes and dreams and aspirations every time. So I think every record that you make with an artist, you do come away with a little piece of their personality or their journey, you know. It’s really that intense, Well, at least if you’re doing it right,” he explains.
Upon hearing the track “Noah (Stand Still)” resound on Porsche’s speakers , Mike recalls how they approached recording it. “’Stand still’ was a phrase her dad used to say to her when she was a kid. And, we really tried to create an environment for that emotion to live in. You know, try and get the sound of her home into the record. And I think we really achieved that. There’s even recordings from her dad’s ranch with eagles in the background. You really feel like you’re there…really trying to paint that picture, with texture and music, was the challenge.”
“Yeah, exactly what make “Hardest Part” and “Stand Still” so special to me is how quickly they take me home,” Noah agrees before sharing some of her own artistic process around creating the ambiance of the record. “I had a number of videos from the last trip, like water running in the creek or there was a hawk circling its baby’s nest and screaming at me and my dad to get away while he kept circling, and it was just so beautiful. All these birds flying over the nest and singing and chirping. I sat there and filmed the hawk for a good three minutes, just of him flying. My dad was like, ‘He’s putting on a show for us.’”
New listeners will hear something different on the record on every listen, especially with excellent speakers. The songs feature a variety of bits and pieces from what Crossey calls his “magic box”, without ever getting superfluous. “Mike’s incredible at knowing when to not overdo it with production. He also taught me that you don’t always need to fill the space with something. I’ve kind of learned that empty space is sometimes good and to just leave it and let it breathe and let the song move and flow naturally.” But it’s more than that. As Cyrus continues sharing what makes their collaboration so valuable.
“Mike as a person is such a safe place. He allows me to authentically be myself, whatever that may sound like. And he’s also there to grow with me. We’re already thinking about album number two and listing names and song titles and what that looks like. We’re always thinking of what’s next or how we can grow from the sound we’re making. I would say Mike and I are forever teammates. He’s locked in and stuck with me forever.”
After Crossey spent time studying the sonics of BBC Radio One’s transmissions, frequency and compression (yes), he became renowned for being the producer who created customized radio mixes specifically suited for the channel. This kind of sonic prowess must certainly have heard of the car test?
“It’s as old as making music,” he laughs. “I think there’s real value in listening in an environment that’s not the work environment, not the studio.” He goes on to add a first when it comes to insights about listening to music in the car. “You’re distracted in a way. When you’re driving, you’re doing something else and you’re in a completely different head space.”
It turns out though that Crossey has company when it comes to being a sound connoisseur. “I love the car and the car test,” says Cyrus. “My dad is like the king of car tests. He’s who taught me to listen to demos while I drive around in the car. That’s the best place to hear them. Also, I get a lot of inspiration in the car. I like being able to feel the subwoofer and the bass in the car. I like testing it out that way and feeling how those react. I feel like the car is a place where I can kind of silence everything and just focus on the songs and drive and clear my mind.”
As their joy ride comes to an end, they experiment with the loudest they can go. “All right Mike. Let’s see what this Porsche can do. Here comes the bass!”
“Fruity isn’t it? The acoustics? Just blooms,” waxes Crossey.
“And all those harmonies. Listen, there’s so many harmonies on this freaking song!”
They both agree that the tracks pass the car test as they get sentimental about the release of The Hardest Part. “I feel like it’s the first time in a long time or maybe ever that I’ve ever been able to look back at something I’ve done and been extremely proud of it and myself. That’s almost unusual and a bit uncomfortable for me to even say out loud. But it’s extremely fulfilling to see something I’ve been working on for so long… it’s so fulfilling to finally see it going out and being able to share it with everybody.”
“We may need to take an extra drive.”