Optimism can be tough to maintain. You look around at the world and there’s so much negative to focus on. Climate change, political turmoil, a resurgence in ugly, hateful behavior, and more all dominate news cycles every single day. It’s easy to get dragged down into a pit of despair. While all of these things are important to keep track of and take seriously, it’s equally important to keep hope and optimism alive. Every day is a new day for each of us to go out and do the best we can, help out where we’re able, and maybe learn something new that will help ourselves and those around us. Noël Wells has always been a person of great talent, having written, directed, and acted in a variety of notable endeavors (SNL, Netflix’s Master of None, and 2017 film Mr. Roosevelt, to name a few). With her debut album It’s So Nice!, Wells pushes her talents to a new level in picking up music and showing everyone that there’s something to be said for keeping the hope alive.
I talk to Wells early during the week of release for It’s So Nice!, and like any seasoned artist, she is relishing having the finish line in sight. “I honestly feel kinda burnt out, but I’m really excited,” she says of sending the album out into the world. She explains that the process of creating the album has been so much work largely on her own that she’s happy to put it out and hear opinions and thoughts about it that aren’t her own.
Listening to It’s So Nice! is a stroll into a wonderfully-scored folksy wonderland. The many ways Wells utilizes her guitar, from the deliberate strumming of “Sunrise” to the lazily pleasant “Brighter Day,” invoke a sense of wonder and hope. You’d be forgiven for thinking she has a lifetime of music experience, but that’s not the case. Wells had next to no experience in music when work on the album began at the end of 2016. Her only prior experience? Middle school band, where she recalls with a laugh “I played clarinet, and then I spent one year learning how to play every single saxophone because I took jazz band.”
She says she’s grateful to have even had the resources to even begin thinking about making a record, and stresses how new to all of it she was when she started. “The recording process, writing songs, really making a real go at this and really trying to keep it elevated, that was certainly all very new,” she says. In fact, she says that it was only within the last few years that she began listening to music in a deep, critical manner. She had a small inkling of how a process like this might work, as she’s edited her own videos before, which helped ease the way into the album. “When I started writing these songs I was actually very surprised at what was coming out of me because it wasn’t very logical or rational or forced, it felt very organic. And because it felt so natural, it was also very easy for me to follow it because it really seemed like the next logical step to take,” she explains.
The thing Wells does have experience with is writing, which she sees as the “through line” of all of the work she’s ever done. That was her main frame of reference heading into this experience, although not necessarily tying music into it. She recalls “it kinda started from me feeling like the best way to talk about how I was feeling was actually poetry. I was like ‘suddenly I understand why people do poetry.'” Poetry on its own didn’t draw her all the way in, but that’s where music took over. “Music was very exciting because there’s so many different ways you can plug into it,” she says. And her experience working in a more audio-visual realm served as a guiding reference for here. She describes seeing the album come together during the recording process as “like we were making the song bigger than what it was and what I had brought in.”
In relation to using her music to really say something about feelings, it’s a sensation Wells is still getting used to. She still hesitates calling herself an artist for fear of being “very self-aggrandizing,” she tells me with a laugh. At the same time, she does feel this is the right path for her and who she really is. “I’m an expresser. I’m a creative expresser, like that’s really what motivates me and whatever you want to call that whether it’s an artist or whatever medium,” she explains. This has always been the way she’s functions, and she believes that what an artist does as well. She describes an artist’s job as expressing human emotion and experience in a way that everyone can relate to, which helps us to connect and acts as a “service” for the world. “Not that I’m doing people a favor! You get what I’m saying,” she quickly exclaims after explaining this before bursting into laughter. Even with the album done and out, Wells is still learning how to navigate as a musician.
The sense of optimism and hope that permeates It’s So Nice was born out of a moment that horrified much of the country, a moment Wells saw coming with dread. “I was not surprised when Donald Trump got elected,” she remembers. She doesn’t downplay the damage and harm that have occurred over the intervening years, but she does strive to look for the light where she can. “It’s like through the crack, through these cracks is when you finally start connecting with what’s beautiful about existence,” she explains. She points out that all of American history has involved some pretty horrendous things and our enduring capacity to overcome them. On a personal level, she reveals she’s always been both an optimistic person and someone who feels things intensely. “I have very high ups and very low lows, but I’ve always maintained this sense of optimism,” she says. Tapping into it so deeply for the album tested her and had her questioning that optimism at times, but she’s pulled through as strong as ever. “I hope this remains a touchstone for me as I keep moving through my career,” she says.
The mood of It’s So Nice! is deeply intertwined with its folk sound and production. Again, this is a product of Wells’ learning curve as she literally figured out how to make music. “Because I was writing the songs as I was learning guitar they originally came out quite simple in the sense they were mostly folky feeling and a little country because that was sort of where they were living,” she says. While some of the track stayed mostly unaltered, Wells knew there were some things she wanted done she did not have the capacity to do on her own. She worked with producer Chris Nelson to help shape the album, and had a simple ethos for the project. She reveals “we came to an agreement about the arrangement of the songs and we fleshed out a couple songs that needed to be a little bit longer, and then we just started building from there and did what we felt was right and felt right for each song.”
If all of this sounds like a whole lot of work and effort to maintain over a course of almost three years, that’s because it is. “I’m tired” Wells dramatically sighs at one point in the conversation. While it might have been tiring, the experience reinforced a central core truth about her: she has a mountain of ambition inside of her. “It’s just like an inherent tenacity to get things done,” she says of her drive. While she describes herself as “a kind soul” (which our conversation more than backs up), she does not shy away from the scope and size of her ambition. More than her own personal drive, she also has a sense of duty to the culture we participate in as a whole. “I see a really big picture for a long view of what not only my career looks like, but sort of the way I hope things go creatively for our culture, and I have a sense of responsibility towards that, so if I stop or give up I feel like I’m failing. I’m failing my culture and I’m failing other people who might be aligned with me but they don’t know it yet,” she says.
Now that It’s So Nice! is out in the world, Wells gets to see how she impacts people as this type of artist, and how they see her. She recalls when releasing the first few singles from the record that people would tell her they were listening because they knew her from Master of None. While she’s quick to say she thinks that’s great, she does enjoy new people coming to this project with a blank slate about her. “What’s really exciting is now people are coming to it without having any preconceived notion of what I’ve done before, and it’s kinda like getting to reinvent myself in a way that it’s a relief,” she explains. She says people tend to project what they want to see onto an actor, and this new path allows her to get away from that. She describes music as “a more accurate reflection of how [she] want[s] to connect to people.” “I want to be able to share with people and be like ‘I’m a human being and I’m here. I’m in this with you,’ and for people to connect with me on that level is so exciting,” she says.
When it comes to maintaining optimism and learning new things in its pursuit, none of us have it all the way figured out. We have to put in the work every day and make it happen. Noël Wells has the powerful blend of ambition, talent, and cheerful hope necessary to make it happen, and it is proven on It’s So Nice!. If you ask her, she’s no secret wizard. “I’m just figuring it out. Just like recording this, just figuring it out day by day what it’s like to be me, and as I have a realization, I feel compelled to share it with people. And that’s it, just as simple as it is.” That’s all Wells, I, or anyone else can ask of themselves when it comes to looking towards a brighter tomorrow. That’s it, just as simple as it is.