I know, I know. It’s been a long time since my last article and now the first new thing I’m writing is a music review? And not just a music review, but a review of an album by a 15-year-old YouTube star? Well, yeah. That’s exactly what I’m doing. And I’m just as surprised as anyone!
While I would never claim to be as much of a melomaniac as some of my peers, I am an avid listener with a healthy iTunes library of music from the 1930s to the 2000s. From Gershwin to Grizzly Bear. From Ella to NWA. From classic Disney Soundtracks to Hamilton (The Musical)…well, you get the picture. But even though I swore I would never be one of those people who weren’t on top of the latest bands and trends, for some reason my audio collection stops around 2012. I think St. Vincent was the last artist that made me take notice and go on a run finding her entire output to that point (and isn’t it a great feeling when you have those kinds of sudden discoveries?) But when it comes to what’s being played today I don’t know Billie Eilish from Billy Eichner.1In part I think my new car was responsible; the presets for Sirius XM only had six spots and of course I had them set chronologically from the 1940s to the 1990s as any rational person would. Why am even I telling you this?
Anyway, as a charter member of Generation X, I’ve been bred to be cynical and unimpressed by pretty much everything. And I am! It’s served me well in life!2Not true. So with the advent of podcasts to keep me company during my 2+ hour daily commute I didn’t realize that I was missing new music. Truth be told, I was dismissing much of it out of hand as “American Idol” bred pop. And while I’m being honest, it wasn’t just music that had grown stagnant. Life, in general, has been at a standstill for many years: same job, same house, same dogs, same friends, same routine. Every day. Every year. Rinse, repeat. The only non-work creative thing I’ve done in ages was a quick, barely fleshed-out game concept.3 Although I still want to make this game!
So that’s the way it was as of a few weeks ago when a YouTube clip hit my Facebook feed; a cover of “La Vie En Rose” by some kid in her bedroom.4 I should mention here that I love cover versions, especially songs from the 1950s and 1960s. Somehow we lost the days when major artists would routinely cover hit songs or turn more obscure songs into hits with the covers. It would be commonplace to see multiple people have the same song out at the same time. Thank God YouTube artists have brought this tradition back around. If I didn’t like the song so much (and already owned so many covers of it) I never would have watched this:
Adorable, right? And when YouTube suggested I watch another of her videos, a cover of Panic! At The Disco, I was intrigued.5 Yes, I did listen to Panic! At The Disco when they first hit. They were inescapable on alternative stations, and their Musical and Pop influences made them stand out, especially on their second album which totally aimed for “Beatlesque” and ran with it. But then there was a nasty breakup, and I followed Ryan Ross over to his new group, The Young Veins, and holy cow did this kid want to be part of the British Invasion! But I digress. And then I watched a few more videos, finding this young girl, Chloe Moriondo, more endearing with each one. The covers were perfectly fine, if uneven, as some fit her voice better than others6 And here’s where I have to say I HAD NO IDEA who most of the people being covered were. #OldMan but what shone through was Moriondo’s very distinct personality. And about that time she announced that she had an album for sale online, so I bought a copy on iTunes…and forgot about it.7 I do this a lot, actually. Not having kids or anything I tend to reflexively support people who impress me or donate to GoFundMes for those in need. Because that could be me one day and karma and all that. About a week later I’m having to spend my Sunday painting germs for work (don’t ask) and fired up iTunes to play while I paint. I honestly hadn’t expected to do much more than skim this kid’s songs and move on to my standard random playlists. And then it starting playing.
I ended up letting it loop the whole 7 or 8 hours that I was painting. I was not expecting to hear such a polished effort and one, on the whole, that was fairly different from the covers Moriondo posts. Let’s get the caveat out of the way: this is the first work from a 15-year old artist.8I really hate myself for including a caveat; It’s not like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is a work of great lyrical complexity (to say nothing of the songs The Beatles were really writing when they were 15!) But many of Moriondo’s songs feel more ambitious than pap like Justin Bieber going “Baby Baby Baby” and more experience will help her hit the goals she’s aiming for a bit better. And it shows…but only in the ways that a more mature singer or composer can draw on experience to create a richer composition. To be fair, I don’t listen to original music made by High School kids that often. But I have known many musicians throughout my life, and I can’t say that hearing any of their music has ever hit me quite the way this album, Rabbit Hearted, has.9 I’m so sorry, you all know I love your music! From the very first song, Waves, it’s obvious that there is a dark undercurrent running through the album (which, if you know me, you know how that speaks to my black heart.). Even before Moriondo posted “liner notes” on the YouTube posts for each song it was evident that these songs were very personal and dealt with subject matter from her own life. Yeah, that means that you have the usual high school subject matter of Unrequited Love and Joy Rides10Still universal subjects!, but there is a higher concentration of themes of Anxiety, Disassociation/Depression, and above all else, this pervasive sleep imagery that conjures a mental picture of both the highs of dreams and lows of insomnia. And in the title itself, Moriondo refers to anxious feelings being analogous to rabbits’ hearts beating super fast (i.e., someone who is always anxious would be “rabbit hearted”).
You might think that means these songs would be downers. But no! I tell you; many of them are quite upbeat. Using mainly a ukulele11 I tried to learn the ukulele a few years ago when it was all the rage. It’s now a nice present to my co-worker’s kids. C’est la vie. and layers of her voice, Moriondo creates an incredibly dense sense of atmosphere to these songs, making them almost haunting. Usually, when I hear young artists singing with a single instrument I think about how much richer it could sound with a band or full orchestration. But these songs sound perfect already. And with nearly 25 years of enervating sleep problems and my own intense bouts of stress, songs like “Exhausted” spoke to me very deeply. And “Stagnant” could very well be a snapshot of my life, in general, these days.12 Ha ha. Kill me now. “Spaceland” isn’t the work of someone who has read about neurological disorder it’s the work of someone who has lived it, sketched out in particular, vivid language. And it sounds beautiful at the same time. The very best of these songs have clever turns of phrase throughout; again, these are incredible for a first effort. And that’s not to diminish the craft of these songs, just acknowledging Moriondo is still very young, and it’s reflected in her lyrics. 13 Any mentions of being in Math Class or catching the school bus was a stark reminder of the reality that I’m a 49-year-old listening to a 15-year-old. So much fun. Sigh. But the hooks are there. These might not be catchy pop sing-a-longs, but they are pervasive little earworms. I found myself playing phrases and choruses in my head all week while we were moving offices. Rabbit Hearted even joined my commute playlist!14 And the cover art by Sha’an d’Anthes is wonderful as well!
And you know what really sells these songs? Her voice. Watching the covers on YouTube, Moriondo’s voice is tough to pin down: she’s singing live (-ish, there is a fair bit of polishing being done in post, but I don’t think she’s sweetening her basic vocal track at all), she’s adapting to other singers’ styles15 When I first heard her cover Billie Eilish I thought she was having trouble singing until I actually HEARD Eilish herself and realized that Moriondo was just mimicking her very breathy delivery. , and it’s hard to divorce watching her perform with just hearing her voice, isolated. Listening to the album, however, is a whole other experience. While Moriondo’s voice can sound more girly or more mature from song to song, her voice is always very natural and has such a dreamy character to it, for lack of a better word. In three or four years this might translate more to a sultry quality, but for now, it’s such a unique quality where nothing feels forced or whispered, it’s simply clear and smooth and…dreamy. Not to throw shade on Lana Del Rey, but I listen to her, and I always feel that she’s trying to force a specific sultry “noir” sound to her voice that just sounds unnatural. Chloe is the opposite of that. I’ll state again that I don’t listen to contemporary artists (maybe they all sound like this), but to me, her vocal quality is much more akin to singers from the 1940s than her peers. I think this is why her rendition of “La Vie En Rose” has resonated with so many people (it’s her most popular video with 3.5 million views) and her second highest viewed cover is P!ATD’s homage to Sinatra.16Out of all the covers, and I enjoyed being introduced to many new artists, this one was my favorite. Oh, I just checked and Creep by Radiohead was the second most views, because of course it was. I stand by P!ATD. I also think she would be well-suited to covering songs in that same vein occasionally, and there are lots to choose from (even ones that carry a dream motif!) I made a playlist with some apt selections, but I’d really love to hear her own arrangement of a song like “Stay Awake”, from the great Disney concept album of the same name. I think she’d kill it.
As an aside: there is a rich tradition of young singers like Paul Anka or Hanson hitting it big through contacts in the recording industry or by dropping out of school at an early age and street performing, etc. With an act that is signed and pushed by a Studio, it feels natural to listen to their music or see them on a Late Night show plugging their latest record (after all, we watched Taylor Swift at 14 doing this exact same thing.) Now, however, YouTube levels the field in such an incredible way, opening up an audience directly with the performer. Labels and Management have always needed talent more than talent has needed them, but now Talent has the means to do it all themselves and cut out middlemen entirely. (Probably not wise to cut out a good financial manager, though!) I’m sure it’s different for the generation that grew up with social media, but I struggle a bit with the sense of intrusion watching performers in their homes (even if they are explicitly inviting us in). Moriondo seems to understand this, too, with her standout “Little Moth” reading as both a comfort to her fans and a tacit caution to not try to intrude into her life too far.17Or is she the Moth in the song and needs protecting? Metaphors are fun! And I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to go through high school today dealing with mental problems in addition to social media, even though Moriondo seems pretty smart and self-aware, definitely more than I was at her age. Props to her parents for a strong support system. 18I mean, I’m making an assumption here, but all in all, she seems like a great kid and kids don’t raise themselves. AmIrite??
But back to me: hearing this album really knocked me for a loop. After doing the ‘same old’, ‘same old’ for so long you forget what it’s like to accidentally discover something new and wonderful. And it really made me depressed! I couldn’t believe that someone so young had made such an accomplished work, while I had barely made anything for ten years or more. I went to sleep that night pretty bummed. And woke up at 3 am with my first migraine in 4 years (and the first one EVER that I could recall happening while I was asleep.) I’m not going to assume the events were related (the germ thing was pretty stressful) but when I finally woke up the next day I felt like I had had a real moment of clarity: I remembered back to when I was 15 and was painting canvases nearly every single day. When I was compelled to CREATE, all the time. Making movies, writing stories, drawing, drawing, drawing.19 I had started writing a long “in my day” passage here about how I had to use a silent Super 8 camera and edit with a razor blade for 3 minutes of grainy footage while kids today have iPhones and Final Cut to make pro-level videos when I realized that being an early adopter of Photoshop let me jump over the old guys using markers to color Xerox copies who probably thought the very same thing about me. The circle of life, it moves us all. And I wasn’t depressed anymore. Heck, I was almost euphoric. Sure, I could wish I was 15 again20Lord, do I wish I were 15 again! But it’s not my age that has changed me from that naive, idealistic, driven young man. It was very, very clear to me that the only thing holding me back was me. It’s a decade of conformity, of choosing security now over potential rewards later after 20 years of chasing dreams. I can’t stress enough how much it felt like I was awakening from a fog that I didn’t know I was in for the first time in a long while. I want to create FOR ME again for the first time in a long, long while.
And THAT’S why I’m writing this review. Is this album meant for me? Probably not. But as a wise person once said, “Like what you like, don’t what you don’t,” and I LIKE this album. I don’t expect many people to see this; I’m writing it to write something. To get moving, to be productive. I’m writing it for me (like everything else on this site). And I’m writing it to show the impact that even a small artist can have on someone they never met. In retrospect, ANY chain of events leading to a singular moment looks like fate in reverse; I don’t know why I saw that video when I did, right before she dropped an album that I would never have heard in a million years. But it happened. And now we’ll see if any real change will take hold. (And at least I did the illustration at the top of this article! That’s something, right?)
As for Chloe Moriondo, I see big things ahead for her. It’s no accident she’s blowing up right now or that she has a bigger subscriber base than some of the very artists she’s covering. And I don’t know if it’s by design or instinct, but her online persona is a marketer’s dream (and I say that as a marketing exec!21Although I market Twizzler and Takis, not musicians. Alas. ) The glasses, the ease of conversing with her audience, the yellow room, the building of a brand with her use of repeated gestures and great custom thumbnails…it’s the same reason why Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift are where they are. Good music will get you noticed but being unique will make you a star. Just…stay a kid as long as you can. Surround yourself with good friends and steadfast protectors. Aggressively have fun. Go to college; the world will wait. (And just to throw it out there, Chloe Moriondo was made for Austin, Tx. Or New York. But Los Angeles grinds down talented people.22My Angelino buddies might disagree, but I saw it all too much in the seven years I lived there.)
So Rabbit Hearted is very good and if I’m grading on a curve made up of albums from teenagers it’s a 5 out of 5. (But I’m not going to give grades to someone still in school!) I can’t stop listening to it right now. And I’m really excited to see what she does next, and in 3 years, in 5 years and so on. But I think at that point the world will be watching along with me. And dreaming.
TL;DR – This kid is amazing! Go buy her album!!
One last note: if you like a YouTube artist, watch the ads before their videos all the way through. They don’t get much for them in the first place and they get nothing if you hit skip. Just FYI.23That said, I refuse to not skip the ads on half the poorly made shit on YouTube. That’s why I like stuff like Patreon, so I can actually pay the artist for each video and only steal from corporations.