A Conversation With Noah Cyrus: Riding The 'Roller Coaster of Emotions' and Making Her Best Music Yet
During a year in which her love life made headlines, the teen singer-songwriter unlocked a style that showcases her talents. Now she wants to share her sad-pop with the world
As a line forms around the block outside of Irving Plaza in New York City, Noah Cyrus is in the upstairs dressing room, explaining why she can no longer use Trader Joe’s soap.
“I’m talking about the peppermint soap from Trader Joe’s,” the 18-year-old clarifies, referring to the Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap carried by the grocery store chain. The final song on Cyrus’ latest release, the Good Cry EP, is “Topanga (Voice Memo),” a melancholy folk tune that includes the line, “I can’t wash with that soap anymore/ Because it smells just like you.” Cyrus co-wrote “Topanga” with her friend, singer-songwriter Ilsey Juber, a week before the EP was released in late September and recorded it in one take, with Cyrus placing her iPhone on the ground near the backyard of her house and letting an army of crickets chirp beneath her voice.
“Topanga” is the true story of a broken dream: Cyrus croons about how she can no longer visit the Topanga canyon outside of Malibu because she and an ex planned on moving there together someday -- they used to roam its hills side by side, she explains. Cyrus wrote the song after telling Juber “some news I heard of stuff,” which may nod to the lyric, “One of our friends say you got a girl/ And that she looks just like me.”
And then there’s the soap. “If I smell it, it makes my eyes water,” Cyrus says of the peppermint. “I went and showered at my mom’s house, because some work was happening at my house. That old shampoo was in the shower, and I took a shower with it. I just started crying in the shower because of the smell. That’s when I started writing the lyrics of ‘Topanga’ in my head.”
The easy assumption is that “Topanga” was written about Lil Xan, the SoundCloud-bred rapper whom Cyrus dated over the summer. The couple made a viral-ready debut at the MTV Video Music Awards red carpet in August, but a little over two weeks later, they were no more, as IG accusations, hickey forensics and Charlie Puth memes coalesced into a chaotic breakup that played out publicly just days before the Good Cry release (“well… due to the circumstances i think i named this EP appropriately,” Cyrus tweeted in the wake of the split).
But “Topanga” is not about Lil Xan, and neither is the Good Cry EP; Cyrus has clarified in previous interviews that the project focuses on a two-year relationship that ended before she rebounded with the rapper. As she sits in the dressing room on a mid-October night a few weeks removed from the breakup, Cyrus does not want to go into detail about her time with Xan, or what she describes as the “roller coaster of emotions” of the past few months.
Instead, she’s focusing on a task that’s ostensibly more difficult than healing from a breakup, even one that has served as tabloid fodder: making her career not about who her big sister is, or who her father is, or, now, who she used to date. Before she was the girlfriend of Lil Xan, Noah was colloquially known as the kid sister of pop superstar Miley Cyrus, as well as the daughter of “Achy Breaky Heart” auteur Billy Ray Cyrus. She wants to forge a musical identity of her own, and hopes that Good Cry -- an impressive 19-minute rhythm-pop exploration, anchored by Cyrus’ vulnerable vocal delivery -- is the start of that path forward. But Cyrus knows that the preconceived narrative will take a while to shed.
“It drives me fucking nuts,” Cyrus deadpans when asked what it’s been like to have Miley and/or Billy Ray mentioned in every interview she’s conducted (including this one) since launching her singing career. She pauses for a moment and thinks. “But like, I mean, what are you going to do? It’s the reason I talk to a therapist three times a week, I swear. It’s crazy. It’s just like, it’s annoying whenever you put your hard work into something and people don’t recognize it for what it is.”
The soft launch of Noah Cyrus’ music career occurred two years ago, when she recorded a downtempo duet, “Make Me (Cry),” with British singer-songwriter Labrinth. The non-single was floated out to introduce the 16-year-old, who hadn’t shown any interest in music while Miley was conquering the Disney Channel but had gravitated to the studio beginning in 2015. Yet with a killer hook and authentic moodiness, “Make Me (Cry)” was more successful than Cyrus or her team could have predicted, peaking at No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100. “That song made my career,” Cyrus says now with a nod. “I have plaques on my wall because of that song.”
Since “Make Me (Cry)” took off, Cyrus has yet to return to the Hot 100. She haphazardly performed “Stay Together,” a middle-fingers-up electro-pop anthem, in front of a skateboard half-pipe at the MTV Movie & TV Awards last year, and the fuzzed-out XXXTentacion collaboration “Again” amidst strobe lights on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The giddily nihilistic “We Are...” (which was initially titled “We Are Fucked”) was co-produced by Max Martin and supposed to be included on a debut album called NC-17, but the full-length never came. Cyrus says the songs planned for the album will still be released someday, though there’s no timetable for an album release.
“We were going to take our time,” she explains. “See how [the music] reacted. That’s how we’re still doing things: I put out a song, see how it reacts. If it goes, it goes. I wasn’t really worried about anything. I just wanted to make an album. It took me two years to get here.”
Comparisons to Miley’s career path have inevitably dogged Noah as she has made her first forays into pop, rightly and wrongly; “Make Me (Cry)” connected two years ago for its unexpected dose of teen pathos, whereas “Stay Together” sounds like it could have existed on a Bangerz sequel that never came. Yet Cyrus’ latest music is pretty far from mainstream pop: Good Cry possesses a certain pensiveness -- call it emo, Cyrus doesn’t mind -- that feels natural for her.
The excellent “Good Cry” waltzes around a soulful guitar riff as Cyrus declare sadness an emotion worth understanding, “Where Have You Been?” is a bleak lullaby that evolves into a cloud of vocal harmonizing, and on the mope-pop banger “Sadness,” Cyrus can’t help but declare, “I feel too much sometimes/Is that so wrong?” The Good Cry EP takes its cues from the hushed prettiness of “Make Me (Cry)” instead of attempting to expand Cyrus’ appeal; she settles into herself on the project and ultimately finds success.
Although much of the media focus on Cyrus last summer had to do with her relationship with Lil Xan, she also made a more substantial change in interviews and on social media by speaking candidly about her struggles with anxiety and depression, as well as the importance of therapy to her mental health. It’s a personal choice that informed the content of the Good Cry EP and, she says, has brought her closer to her fans. There are teen girls at her Irving Plaza show wearing black t-shirts that read “#SadCyrensClub” who no doubt appreciate the lane that Cyrus is carving out for herself in pop.
“I was telling the truth about myself,” Cyrus says about the decision to open up about her depression. “I was telling people how I really feel and how I really am, and the reaction from them was, ‘Yeah, me too.’ And that’s what I wanted, for us to be able to talk about it.”
Cyrus is warm and chatty in person, game to discuss the High School Musical 2 soundtrack as well as her affinity for lurking in the comments of Gordon Ramsay’s Instagram. She hopes to perform at Coachella someday and win a Grammy Award... or, at the very least, attend a Grammys ceremony. “I don’t care if it’s a performance, I don’t care if I’m just sitting there,” she sighs. “I want to be able to wear a pretty dress and go.”
After spending the fall on the 19-date Good Cry headlining tour, Cyrus is committed to releasing more music in 2019 and continuing to establish herself as a musician first. Her songwriting is getting stronger -- we spend so much time discussing the soap line from “Topanga” because it’s such an evocative observation -- and her net of collaborators is widening to include artists like Gallant, LP and Alan Walker. She’s still making news for her past romances (last month she earned headlines for calling her relationship with Lil Xan a “mistake”), but Cyrus wants to showcase the talent that can transcend those stories.
“Just a whole bundle of shit happened like a hurricane,” Cyrus says before cracking a smile. “But, I’m getting better.”