Noah Cyrus wasn’t nervous about her first awards show performance until 10 minutes before it happened. Two days prior to the May 7 live debut of her new single “Stay Together” at the MTV Movie & TV Awards, the 17-year-old was relaxing in a gym at the back of a Van Nuys, Calif., studio, after hours of rehearsals alongside four backup dancers. Cyrus said that she had expected the performance to be “laid-back”; when she hit the stage in a baggy white tracksuit and a mesh top, however, her choreography appeared awkward, her hip-hop swagger tentative and her vocal prowess muted by the spectacle of the skateboard half pipe onstage behind her.
“I had so much fun, but I am not a dancer,” says Cyrus with a laugh two days after performing. “It was the first time I worked with a choreographer, and I was out of my comfort zone. I’m still testing the waters a little bit every time I go onstage.”
Four years ago, Noah’s older sister, Miley Cyrus, dominated an MTV awards show by wagging her tongue and twerking. Yet Noah is not Miley, and the younger Cyrus is not barreling toward a Bangerz-esque promotional cycle. She censored the F-bomb while performing “Stay Together,” a summery toast to fleeting party thrills, and confesses that she was too busy fangirling over the Stranger Things stars in the crowd to focus on pushing FCC boundaries.
Although Noah describes herself as “not a very provocative person,” she hasn’t shied away from studio risks during her short career. Her debut album, cheekily titled NC-17 and likely arriving this fall, was first previewed with “Make Me (Cry),” a somber duet with British artist Labrinth. The downtempo song was issued last November as a non-single but peaked at No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Stay Together” was a sharp turn toward pop upon its April release, but NC-17 won’t necessarily linger in that space. There’s a torch song that’s more seductive than “Make Me (Cry),” a country track that addresses a troubled relationship and an electronics-driven ode to adolescent apathy that has huge hit potential.
“The one thing I’d like to get across about my album is how personal it is,” says Cyrus, who speaks about her first serious romantic relationship with an ease beyond her years. “In the beginning of last year, I was going through a breakup while writing. But now, I’m not heartbroken anymore — it was for the best and I think a blessing in disguise.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Cyrus was content remaining on the sidelines of Miley’s Disney stardom, aside from a few cameos on Hannah Montana. A 9-year-old Noah once hesitantly joined Miley onstage for her song “Hoedown Throwdown” during her 2009 tour, but the younger Cyrus was goofing around backstage and going through Miley’s fan mail instead of preparing her own pop turn. That year, she spent a summer on tour with her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, and raved about her love of horses for most of the trek. When they returned to the family’s ranch in Nashville, Billy Ray bought his daughter her first saddle, and Cyrus soon became a skilled equestrian. “Noah is fearless,” says the “Achy Breaky Heart” singer. “She took those years of riding horses and applied that fearlessness to being a musician.”
It wasn’t until she saw her musical idol, U.K. singer-songwriter Ben Howard, perform in Los Angeles in 2015 when she was 15 that Cyrus (who was home-schooled, and recently graduated) was inspired to pursue music. She waited 12 hours in line to be at the front of Howard’s crowd at the Shrine Auditorium, the same venue of her MTV awards performance.
“I wanted people to connect to me on that level,” she says, “where I can write about anything, but it would still make someone feel a certain way.” Cyrus had grown up with Adam Leber — whose Maverick Management has worked with Miley, Madonna and Britney Spears — and Leber started putting her in writing sessions. Less than a year later, Cyrus signed a deal with RECORDS, the joint venture between Barry Weiss and SONGS Publishing. “From the first moment we heard Noah’s unique and distinctive vocal tone, we knew we had to sign her,” Weiss says. “Then we met her and saw her dynamic personality and artistry, at which point, it was game over.”
Miley’s next album is also due this year, but Noah says the two haven’t been seeking each other’s opinion. The sisters are close (in March, Miley introduced Noah at the iHeartRadio Music Awards as “the person I want to be when I grow up”), and Noah is eager to step out of big sis’ shadow. “I’m doing my thing, and Miley’s doing hers,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be my own person. Even when I was ‘Noah who rode horses,’ I wanted to be Noah Cyrus, not anyone else or a family member.”
But following the MTV performance, Cyrus admits that she’s not ready to go toe-to-toe with Miley’s arena tours — although she does want her stage show to expand into an elaborate production, after starting out with intimate performances in 2016. “I’ve been figuring out who I am as an artist,” she says. “If I could borrow anything from Miley, it would be her stage confidence. For me, that’s just going to come with time.”
Noah Cyrus talks about “Stay Together,” shattering her phone, not being a romantic and which skill she’d like to borrow from sister Miley in the video interview below: