“MEET NEON MOON, WHOSE MUSIC WILL SCRATCH ALL YOUR TWANGY COUNTRY ITCHES.” MOTHER CHURCH PEW
Back on their 2017 debut EP, 6:53, Neon Moon delivered a set of tunes steeped in the Americana of the moment—songs that fit snugly on playlists between Margo, Nikki, Sturgill & Stapleton. But as much as they were down with the zeitgeist, the Nashville-bred husband-and-wife duo’s hearts have always walked the line between downhome country gold and the more polished sounds of the Music Row establishment. Their group, after all, is named after a Brooks & Dunn hit.
Balancing these passions, Neon Moon’s Noelle and Josh Bohannon hit East Nashville studio Forty-One Fifteen last year to cut a trio of new singles with producer/bassist Taylor Bray, front-of-house engineer for chart-topping road dogs Dan + Shay. Also appearing on the sessions were Lucy Dacus / boygenius producer Collin Pastore on pedal steel, guitarist Jesse Isley (Will Hoge, Tanya Tucker), keyboardist Mike Hicks (Rascal Flatts), Michael Kight (The Voice) on backing vocals, and drummer Chris Benelli (Ruthie Collins) who also manned the kit on Neon Moon’s 6:53. For the Bohannons, there was no grand plan or deadline, just a desire to take their time and do the songs justice.
“The further in we got, the more we started expanding on our initial ideas,” Josh says. “We’d go off looking for just the right utility player to come in and put this very specific touch on a section of a track, but it was worth the wait to get things just right. The growth we experienced by allowing ourselves the time to explore—it was a very positive thing.”
To understand just how refreshing the relaxed pace of these sessions was for Neon Moon, it’s important to consider their roots. When they first hit the scene in 2015, they made quite an entrance with their 52 Songs Project, an exercise where for the duration of a year, they wrote a new song every week. “It was an important step for us,” Noelle says. “We proved to ourselves that we could do it, and ever since then we know that, if we sit down and make ourselves, we can write a song no matter what. Of course, it’s been nice to slow down and have a little more focus.”
When Neon Moon wrote and recorded the first of their three new singles, “Darlin’,” they’d been listening to a whole lot of Willie’s Roadhouse on SiriusXM, and challenged themselves to try tapping into the essence of iconic country songs like “Crazy.” “We wanted to create something that could fit in with material from that era,” Noelle says. “I’ve always been obsessed with the scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn plays ‘Moon River’ sitting on the fire escape. When we were in the studio, I played it for Taylor and the band—we were trying to capture that kind of feeling, sweet and nostalgic. The idea I had in the back of my mind was that someone had gone off to war and stopped writing or stopped getting letters along the way, but then they finally made it home and it was like, ‘I miss you. I’m sorry I lost touch’—just really hoping to recapture what it felt like at the beginning of the relationship.”
Noelle Bohannon’s quivering vocals on the track are packed with genuine longing. It’s heartache you can believe. The way she delivers the stark, unadorned poetry of the lyrics is arresting, her melodies brushed atop the canvas of a pensive nylon-string guitar that reads almost like a ukulele in some ‘60s exotica tune, complemented by subtle echoes of pedal steel that radiate down like sunshine through late-morning clouds. It’s fitting that the video for “Darlin’” was shot through gauzy filters in the subtropical paradises of Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.
Flipping to the opposite side of Neon Moon’s countrified coin is “Smoking Gun,” a CMT-ready minor-key stomp with pop sensibility for days—a love ‘em and leave ‘em anthem as catchy as it is persistent. It’s a fresh take on a familiar theme—fear of commitment—but in Neon Moon’s twist it’s the woman protagonist, voiced by Noelle, who has a perpetual aversion to getting too close. “As soon as she feels like it’s the real thing, that this could be a great, lasting relationship, that’s the moment she gets scared and runs, and you’re left holding a smoking gun.”
The third and final single from Neon Moon’s Forty-One Fifteen sessions, the timeless “Dive Bar Romance,” bridges the sonic gap between “Darlin’” and “Smoking Gun,” Pastore’s steel guitar drifting like smoke from a tavern ashtray before Nick Haynes’ blessedly drunken mariachi horns stumble through the door. This is tropi-Americana, fresh-squeezed, with plenty of pulp and a shot of vodka to ease the hangover’s edge. As with “Darlin’,” the video for “Dive Bar Romance” was also shot in Mexico, only this time by Atlanta-based production team Coyote Kills (Wille Nelson, Shovels and Rope, Margo Price). In gorgeously saturated hues, it depicts falling in love both with a bar, and in a bar.
“Dive Bar Romance” was inspired in large part by the Bohannons’ days spent hanging at legendary East Nashville hole-in-the-wall Dino’s, which—despite the above screwdriver metaphor—does not carry orange juice or any other mixers… or vodka for that matter. Just cold beer, whiskey and tequila. Neat. “Dino’s was our home away from home in Nashville,” Josh says. “When you walk in, you get this joyous feeling. Being there so often, we met and became friends with a lot of good people. It always felt warm, and we built the song around that vibe.”
It’s a time in their lives Neon Moon can appreciate fully now from the remove of their new home base in Los Angeles. “I think it’s been good for us to get away,” Noelle says, “just to get some perspective. We do miss Nashville, but we’re having a great time in L.A.”
“It’s been a good move,” Josh agrees. “The distance has allowed us to see what we’re doing more clearly and understand what we could do better. Right now, we’re four months in, and I feel like we made the right decision. You don’t immediately think of L.A. being a big country-music town, but it really is. When we tell people we moved from Nashville to L.A., they think we’re doing it backwards, but now that we’re starting to play here and get acquainted with the scene, it makes perfect sense. Even Dwight Yoakam had a hard go of it in Nashville the first time through, and he moved out to L.A. opening for punk bands before he ever made it as a country singer. The country & western and Americana scene here is great. Everybody we’ve met is within one degree of each other. Everybody knows everybody—they all play together and hang together. We really like that kind of community and we’re excited to be a part of it.”