Dean: Kayleigh Noble Makes Woozy R&B Music For Conditions of the Heart

Dubliner Kayleigh Noble vamoosed to London a few years ago after struggling to make her mark in local music circles. “Nowadays there is definitely a scene for it in Dublin, but as for me being involved in it … I don’t really know,” she admitted to Plain Sailing in 2020. “I’ve found my feet more in London. It’s a little more open and accepting and then [sic] are more opportunities here, I guess.”

Such a quote should spark some soul searching amid our industry gatekeepers. Never mind that for now, though, because Noble is back living in Ireland and has just released her debut EP.

Hot Mess is six songs that look to the kind of sultry R&B that the UK has been stronger than us at making in recent years: there’s Jorja Smith, the very underrated UK group S4U, even sections of Jessie Ware’s blessed catalogue. But the most obvious analogues are in the US. Specifically, Noble’s style will appeal to fans of SZA, Kelela and Syd. Hot Mess is dark-edged R&B: woozy soul-noir, sultry and atmospheric, the kind of music you could throw on at the end of the party and allow yourself to pass out on the sofa to.

Noble’s been releasing music since as early as 2018. There is “Stay”, her collaboration with MYFAULT, a hands-in-the-air summertime tune with pulsing Moog-style sounds and synths that resemble waves crashing against a beach. A couple of 2020 singles with Irish musician 1000 Beasts followed: the warbling organ, dragging snare drum, and slippery guitar playing of stoned tune “Le Marais”, the bouncy “Tokyo”. But Noble has since been hard focused on her solo career. Ditching co-credit, the title to single “Ride On My Own” felt like a declaration.

Now we have Hot Mess. The EP feels like a chronicle of a fleeting romance with all the key moments happening after nightfall. Moments of intimacy are punctuated by raw, suggestive lyrics. The writing is conversational and unfussy, which helps keep it relatable. When Kayleigh Noble’s music hits, people in healthy relationships immediately feel like they’ve been going through some things.

The title to opener “Hiyah” is so gloriously understated, it’s appropriate to start this short saga – romances, both wonderful and doomed, often begin with an innocuous greeting. Here, Noble steps to a guy she hasn’t seen in a while with an offer of her phone number and promises they can get together to smoke a blunt. Yet on the song “I didn’t care, until”, she charts a heartache that comes from just a single day spent with a new beau. Her soft voice, clotted with bittersweet ache, matches the slick, soulful beat. You can feel the smoke coming off the keyboards and drum machines.

On “Imaginary Boyfriend”, where she lays out her BF wish list: “Spoil me, love me/ Give me all your money/ Hide me, save me/ Only call me baby.” But over the song’s second half, this phantom man snaps into focus. “If we stay friends, does this all end, just know I can’t, I can’t play pretend.” He’s real, if beyond Noble’s grasp.

The video to “Imaginary Boyfriend”, directed by Tadhg McDonogh Cunningham, affirms the themes of the song as Noble is led through a forest wilderness by an ambiguous figure never quite fully visible. In notes accompanying the release of the video, Noble laid out the biographical nature of Hot Mess: “I dated, I messed up and was a little heartbroken. As of now, I know in my head I want to stay single and keep growing and learning about myself, but I’m such a hopeless romantic and that always distracts me. I can be a mess, I’m owning it , but I’m also growing from it. I’ve accepted that I’m a hot mess.”

So there you go. Still, it would be wrong to call Hot Mess one-paced. The last two tracks are the eerie bleeps of “WTF”, as Noble laments a rubbish lay, and “MULA”, a more uptempo ode to cash. Even with these mild departures from the formula, sophistication seeps through the finale of this story, covering various conditions of the heart, performed by a woman who has developed a style that lets her tell it in the smoothest way possible.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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