Noble Effort

Singer-songwriter Keri Noble steps into the limelight again with her second full-length CD

IT’S SHORTLY AFTER 10 on a wintry morning and Keri Noble is about to perform live on public radio. Perched on a piano bench in a warm sound studio in downtown St. Paul, the singer-songwriter clutches a cup of hot water and listens intently as the host of MPR’s Midmorning asks about her new recording, due out this month. She’s dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved tee, and fleece-fringed boots. She banters easily with the host (“I used to think Lynyrd Skynyrd was a person,” she confesses), but inside the 33-year-old is a jangle of nerves, as tightly coiled as the ringlets in her hair.

Only when she turns to the keyboard and begins to play “Emily,” a catchy, raw-edged tune that she co-wrote with singer Kristen Hall, formerly of the acclaimed country group Sugarland, does Noble seem to relax, the emotion flooding out of her. Almost simultaneously, the switchboard in the studio’s control room lights up. “We have callers!” the show’s producer exclaims. “More callers than when the Cowboy Junkies were on!”

If you can’t quite remember who Keri Noble is, here’s a memory jog: She’s the Twin Cities singer who stepped into the limelight in 2004 with the release of Fearless, her first full-length recording. Her single “Talk to Me” played repeatedly on radio stations across the nation, and the album sold more than 100,000 copies—no small feat in an age when the vast majority of acts sell fewer than 10,000 units per album. Critics called her music “utterly gorgeous” and argued over whether she sounded more like Sarah McLachlan or Norah Jones.

Noble was delighted yet daunted. She suddenly found herself on the fast track to stardom: discovered by the legendary Arif Mardin in 2003, signed by EMI that same year, and then pushed to record all of Fearless in the span of just two weeks. “But I didn’t know what was expected of me or how to do anything,” she recalls.

Another thing Noble didn’t know was that success could have a downside. The two years of nearly nonstop touring that followed the release of Fearless took a toll, mentally and physically. What’s more, the execs at EMI seemed uninterested in any of her songs that didn’t fit the Norah Jones template. “People are pretty nervous if you don’t have some super cookie-cutter notion of ‘This is who I am: I’m a singer songwriter or I’m an R&B singer,’” Noble says. In 2005, exhausted and frustrated, she asked EMI to release her from her contract.

And so, Noble vanished from the spotlight almost as fast as she’d surfaced. Part of it was by design: She wanted to experiment, to expand her range, adding shades of country, R&B, and even gospel to her sound. She was, after all, a native of Texas who’d grown up in Detroit, raised by a Southern Baptist minister originally from Peru. All that made for a multifaceted musical heritage that Noble was just beginning to explore when she moved to Minneapolis, in 2000. Some time off the road at home, she thought, would allow her to refocus and decide how to proceed without EMI’s backing.

But life also intervened. She fell in love, got married, and then—almost as quickly—found herself in a painful divorce. “I don’t think anybody gets married thinking that they’ll get divorced. It felt like a death,” Noble says. “I couldn’t write anything for nearly six months.” At the same time, mysteriously, her voice began to deteriorate. “When I tried to hit certain notes, only air would come out,” she recalls. After months of medical tests, doctors traced the cause of the problem to mold in her musty old Uptown apartment. She moved out and her health gradually returned, but she was still spooked. “Any time you’re faced with something that could potentially damage or end what you do, not only creatively, but for your livelihood, it’s pretty scary,” says drummer Matt Novachis, a member of Noble’s band. “Fortunately, Keri has a positive core outlook. That helps.”

Keri Noble, the new recording, is laced with lyrics that hint at her resilience. She’s most defiant in “Watch Me Walk,” a song about recovering after a breakup. And “Go Proud,” with a funk flavor and a small army of instrumental and vocal artists providing musical (if not emotional) backup, delivers a can-do message that sounds like it might have come straight from Martin Luther King Jr.—or Oprah: “You can go proud, you can walk tall,” Noble exhorts listeners. “And you can face your god, ’cuz you gave it your all.”

But there’s fragility, too. “Last Warning” is not just emotionally raw-edged, it’s stripped naked musically as well, reduced to nothing more than a keyboard and Noble’s slightly raspy vocals. “Keri’s an amazing songwriter,” says Jason Linder, vice president of marketing at Telarc, the label that signed Noble early last year. “She has a way of capturing emotion while still being catchy.” Adds songwriter Kristen Hall, “She’s got one of those voices where you can feel the pain.”

But whatever trials and tribulations Noble has endured, the pain is not apparent when Noble takes the stage for a holiday concert at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis in early December. She’s bubbly, self-deprecating, and even funny as she talks between songs, endearing herself even further to her mostly female audience. “This is a song about a dysfunctional relationship,” she says at one point. “Anybody ever had one of those? No…I’m probably the only one.” She flashes a sly smile.

“Her stage presence is undeniable,” says Eric Roberts, her agent. “There are some acts that can make a good record, but it just doesn’t translate on the stage. With Keri, it’s right there.”

But it’s her sound, not her stage presence, that has won Noble a loyal following among listeners across the United States and—oddly—in Japan. (She recently wrapped up a week-long tour of the country, where she’s had two top-10 hits. A major cosmetics company uses one of her songs in its advertisements, and fans often greet her as she’s getting off trains, she says, with a CD for signing and a Sharpie in hand.) And it’s her music that has made her a YouTube phenomenon. (Search her name and you’ll turn up roughly 100 amateur videos with her songs added as background music.) Noble hopes, in fact, to further burnish her reputation as a songwriter, so that the kind of touring she’ll be doing this spring to promote the new album—to Chicago, New York, Portland, Phoenix, and elsewhere—will someday be a thing of the past. She’d prefer to spend the bulk of her time writing songs—some for herself, some for other artists.

But that’s the future, Noble says. Right now, she’s focused on promoting the new release, waiting to see if the choices she has made and the songs she has written will please her old fans and win her new listeners.

“I have a lot to prove with this record,” she says. “But I feel in my bones like it’s right.”

Joel Hoekstra is managing editor at Minnesota Monthly.

Joel Hoekstra writes frequently about design and architecture for Midwest Home and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including This Old House, Metropolis, ASID Icon and Architecture Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis in a 1906 Dutch Colonial that is overdue for a full remodel—or at least a coat of fresh paint.