Despite a long list of accomplishments — international touring, festival appearances, songs featured on Showtime’s “Shameless” — Iowa singer-songwriter Elizabeth Moen had never headlined at Gabe’s Iowa City.
Moen, who now lives in Chicago, returns to Iowa City Saturday night for a homecoming of sorts at the local venue with a launch show for her new album Wherever You Aren’t, which was released Nov. 11.
“Iowa City is extremely important to me,” she said. “It all started here and with some of these guys in the band I played my first shows and did my first tours, did my first whole band stuff.”
She’ll be joined by local musicians and former bandmates Elly “Penny Peach” Hofmaier, Blake Shaw, Dan Padley and David Hurlin – or, as Moen affectionately dubbed the crew, Iowa City’s “all-star team”.
The self-taught guitarist with a soulful, distinctive voice performed at the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City earlier this year.
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‘Wherever You Aren’t’ is 10 tracks of life lessons and personal growth
“Wherever You Aren’t” was written in Moen’s twenties while she was touring. The first track, “Headgear,” was released in 2019, the same year her submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest was recognized as the Most Popular Submission.
A lot of the songs are about learning things the hard way, like she said, from managing mental health, cultivating relationships, or dealing with breakups. Moen draws from both personal experiences and the experiences she experiences with her loved ones.
“I’m definitely still learning the hard way here and there,” Moen said. “But I’ve definitely grown since I wrote those songs, but it was definitely through those experiences and through writing those songs that I was able to grow.”
The singer still makes mistakes, she said, and is still learning the hard way, but in a different way.
Songs from “Wherever You Aren’t” like “Where’s My Bike” and “Ex’s House Party” explore the challenges of early adulthood through the lens of diverse relationships.
Parents, lovers and friends all make an appearance, especially in the former of the two songs.
“‘Where’s My Bike’ is about this post-college existential crisis of living at my parents’ house and being back in their guest bedroom,” she said.
“They downsized after I graduated, so I’m in my parents’ spare room thinking about what the heck I’m doing with my life and that I’m also thinking about some friends of mine who are in a similar situation to where we all are just say, ‘What do we do? What’s happening?'”
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Working on an album over the course of a few years means Moen revisits her songs at different stages in her life.
For example, “Soft Serve” is a love song. She wrote it when she was just beginning a relationship. But she wasn’t in the honeymoon phase when she finished the song, so she decided to take inspiration from her friends’ relationships.
These cases are either opportunities to go back to what she experienced and felt while writing this song and stay true to it, or adapt it to reflect where she is right now.
A mix of indie and country sounds, the album is about personal growth. A lot of growth, Moen said, comes from seeing people and relationships for who they are. It’s about learning not to place your expectations on others or situations.
“Even in that retort of really seeing yourself, it still can’t work, but at least you’ve at least really tried… the truth can suck, but at least you see it,” she said.
Like so many artists, Moen was working amid a global pandemic, following vocals and overdubs from across America, Canada and Ireland, according to a press release. She had to cancel dozens of performances.
A Vinton native, she wrote her first songs while studying at the University of Iowa and quickly became a household name, both locally and beyond.
It’s understandable given Moen’s impressive vocals coupled with her often vulnerable and relatable songwriting skills.
That’s shown in full in Wherever You Aren’t.
“This album showed me that I have the ability to grow,” she said in a press release. “I’ve grown as a songwriter, guitarist and person. I’ve learned a lot about life through hard times and good times. Not giving up, growing or loving is the best thing I can do and I hope I will always try.”
Visit the Englert Theater website to purchase tickets to Moen’s album release party at Gabe’s. The show starts at 9pm
Listen to “Wherever You Aren’t” on streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify.
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.