I ask Noah Cyrus whether she considered, when launching her music career, the possibility of using just her first name, Adele-style, or choosing a different name altogether.
“I came up with so many aliases. I think I wanted to wear a mask so I didn’t have to deal with my insecurities,” the 20-year-old admits. “But I’m very happy I didn’t do that. I’m not going to let anything run me away from my name. That’s not fair. I would much rather come out stronger.”
Hers is a surname that makes people think of plenty of things before they consider the youngest sibling’s burgeoning pop status. There’s Miley of course, older by seven years, the teenage star of the TV series Hannah Montana turned twerking, hot dog-straddling controversy magnet as she set about smashing up her wholesome Disney image. She’s so famous that it seems she’s now rhyming slang for the coronavirus.
Big brother Trace had a top 40 album in 2007 with his rock band Metro Station, and then there’s dad Billy Ray, best known for having an Achy Breaky Heart in the early Nineties but now even bigger, and a belated Grammy winner, thanks to his part in Lil Nas X’s mega-hit Old Town Road.
That’s a lot of baggage to clamber over as you try to carve out a place all your own in the music world. Noah certainly looks the part of the modern pop star as she strolls over to meet me in the lobby of Soho House’s White City outpost: small entourage of managers, record company people and stylists in tow, thick black hair down to her waist, baggy everything, fingernails like steak knives and constellations of small tattoos all over. It says “bad boy” on her hand – a spontaneous decision because a friend was getting “good girl”. She’s friendlier than I was expecting, given that her team have already warned me to avoid asking about her sister, and her music to date makes her sound consistently unhappy. In fact she’s anything but a closed book.
“I was born into this. That’s what I’ve been working through in therapy,” she tells me. “How can I come to terms with everything that affected me when I was so young? You see articles about your parents on the shelves, with a big ‘X’ across a picture of them. That’s really painful for a little kid. And I was 11 years old when people started writing articles about me.”
She went to a small LA school of about 45 children, mostly young actors, though apart from a few small appearances in Hannah Montana, she was more interested in riding her horses than acting. “I hated going to school and hearing about Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus all the time. It made me feel embarrassed,” she says. “I wanted to blend in. I just wanted to be Noah, not Hannah Montana’s sister.”
She says she signed up to Instagram “when it came out”, so around the age of 11, and soon regretted it. “The comments started bothering me. People started saying things, making memes about me, pointing things out about my face and my body. It made me look in a mirror in the morning and cry. I stopped reading the comments when I was about 17, but the damage had already been done.”
That damage is audible in a number of her songs so far. Her debut EP, released in 2018, was called Good Cry. Two singles from last year are particularly bleak. There’s Lonely, a gospel piano ballad on which she sings, “Please, someone help me/I don’t care, anyone, anything’/Cause I’m so sick of being so lonely.” I’m particularly startled by one called simply fuckyounoah. It’s a barrage of self-loathing R&B that sees her singing, “I’m a narcissist”, “I’m a hypocrite” and “I’m a piece of shit”.
“I was in a really hard relationship for two years. A lot of hurtful words were thrown that have stuck with me. That’s what inspired that song – me wondering if all those nasty things were true,” she explains. “My vision of myself has been destroyed because I believed what others say about me so much.”
So why go into the music world at all? Why not stick with the horses, who won’t compare her to her sister and don’t know how to make cruel memes? “I did want to work with animals, but one of my horses died, really tragically. It honestly really scarred me. Riding horses was hard for me after that. And there was something else inside me. Whether it was going to see musicals or singing in the car, I always loved music. I wanted to see if I was capable of doing it.”
She released her first single, Make Me (Cry), when she was 16. It’s a duet with Hackney singer-producer Labrinth, another sad one, with a clever “drip” noise instead of the word “cry”. “I was so nervous. I felt like the world didn’t know who I was but it hated me anyway. He helped me to write a song that I could put out and feel confident about.”
She gained a bit of early buzz and started talking up a debut album, to be called NC-17 after the American film certification because it was going to come out when she was 17. But things have moved more slowly than that. She says her second EP will come out this year, but nothing bigger. “It’s too late for NC-17 now. I’m 20! It’s time to move off of that. If it didn’t work out it was never meant to be.”
In her recent work, it still seems like she’s deciding what to sound like. There’s been gospel, edgy pop, a collaboration with rapper Lil Xan (another ex-boyfriend) and her most recent single, This is Us, a fairly schmaltzy duet with country singer Jimmie Allen. But it’s her song July that, for me, suggests that she’s on her way to building a body of work that’s significant regardless of the surname. It’s an acoustic breakup song, recently reissued in a new version with soul singer Leon Bridges joining in, which is seriously beautiful and far too short at two-and-a-half minutes.
I haven’t been permitted to hear an advance recording of the song that’s about to come out now, but she says it has a similar live, acoustic feel. It’s called I Got So High I Saw Jesus. “It’s about the damage to the planet, and the world moving away from tradition, and getting this ‘Come to Jesus’ realisation that it’s all gonna be all right,” she explains. So it’s an optimistic song? “I don’t know. It depends on who the listener is, whether they’re a ‘half-full’ or ‘half-empty’ type of person. I’m usually a ‘half-empty’ girl, I have to say!”
No kidding. She’s arriving in the music world from a dark place, known for her name but not as an individual, and is the first to say how hard it is. She could walk away, but in a strange way, all this sad music is helping. “A lot of the songs I write are about heartbreak, coming to terms with yourself and your depression and anxiety. I’ve been struggling for such a long time and it’s so nice to write it down and get those thoughts out,” she says. “The biggest question was: am I strong enough to do it? Because the public judgement does hurt me so much and I really wish it didn’t. I’d ask for everyone to be kind-hearted. You don’t have to like my music, but don’t tell me to drink bleach in my comments. So I didn’t know if I was gonna be capable of doing this, but I am – barely.”
July is out now LLC/Columbia