It’s midday on the final day of September when singer-songwriter Elizabeth Moen calls from “the middle of nowhere,” just outside Los Angeles. She’s in the midst of a monthslong tour as a member of indie musician Kevin Morby’s backing band — her first time on a tour of this size, and a chance to pick up tips from Morby on how to be a good bandleader.

As exciting as this may be, it’s a precursor to Moen’s own tour in 2023, in support of her new album, Wherever You Aren’t. She’s gearing up with release shows at the Empty Bottle on December 9 and Schubas Tavern on December 16. “The connection with people — that’s what really got me into music and playing,” says Moen. “There’s just a connection that you can’t get when you’re just recording alone in the studio.”

Audiences connecting to her soulful sound is nothing new. In 2019, she gained attention from her NPR Tiny Desk Contest entry “Headgear,” a song playfully comparing how hard it is to get through the day to wearing a mouth guard at night. NPR also put her on its 2020 Austin 100 list, highlighting its most anticipated acts for that year’s canceled SXSW, and she’s had tracks placed in the TV shows Shameless, Couples Therapy, and Roswell, New Mexico.

Moen, 28, started teaching herself how to play guitar as a teenager in small-town Vinton, Iowa, and honed her singing through choir and musical theater. She wrote her first song as a senior at the University of Iowa and spent a few prepandemic years performing wherever she could and crashing on couches; during this time, she self-released two full-length albums and a smattering of EPs and singles.

After moving here last year, she found a new level of stability and focus. “There’s this community-based rather than career-based mentality in Chicago,” Moen says. “It’s a lot of helping one another. There’s so many people who are out there wanting to hustle and make music, and that’s definitely kept me going.”

Elizabeth Moen

Moen draws from an eclectic range of influences, including country, rock, folk, R&B, and soul. “When I’m writing a song, I’m never trying to sound a certain way. I just write a song and see where it goes,” she says. “I don’t see the point in putting your music in one box if it’s not naturally doing that.”

That’s evident on Wherever You Aren’t, her first album in four years. The LP’s initial sessions began at Dublin’s Hellfire Studios, where Moen recorded the album version of “Headgear” with a backing band that normally plays punk. “That song definitely brings out my love for rock,” she says. “I chose them because they all separately said that if I came back to Ireland they would want to play with me. They’re all amazing players
and wonderful friends.”

Other tracks for the Kickstarter-funded album were recorded stateside, including at studios in Iowa and California, where Moen brought in local friends to play. “There’s this really special connection you get when you’re making music with a friend,” she says. “Even when you’re just jamming — warming up in the studio or noodling around together. It’s like your brains are talking to each other and connecting in a way that, as cheesy as this sounds, talking can’t do.”

Not surprisingly, many of the songs on Wherever You Aren’t touch on friendship as well as themes such as seeking a balance between reflecting on your past and feeling anxious about your future. “It’s almost like ‘wherever you aren’t’ is the only place you are, at least in your head,” says Moen. “Hopefully through some growth and growing up, you figure out how to just be where you are and not where you aren’t.”

And where Moen wants to be next year is touring across the United States and Europe, doing it DIY-style: “I’m just going to book a bunch of stuff and hop in my van and just not give up.”