After her Grammy nomination this week, we look back on our tmrw #36 cover story with Noah Cyrus.
From 12 to 17 years old, Noah Cyrus spent hours on end locked alone in her bedroom with the lights off. It was a safe place to hide from the bullying, the comparisons to her older sister, Miley Cyrus, father, Billy Ray Cyrus, or whomever else, and the cruel things strangers wrote about a preteen they had never met. She felt, before even having the chance to grow into her own, like her identity was never hers to start.
“Being in my room with the lights off, hiding from the world, that’s not a way to live for such a young girl,” Noah says from her home high in the hills of California. “So, you know, whenever I think about how many other people are going through the same thing –especially at the age I was at – there are so many more people out there. I think that whenever I see other artists like myself speaking out and talking about it, it makes me really happy because I didn’t really have that when I was growing up.”
At 12, Noah began experiencing anxiety and depression. Body dysmorphia soon followed. For as long as she can remember, it has been nearly impossible to look in the mirror and see what everybody else sees—beautiful, brave, capable, gifted, with her wildest dreams at her fingertips. Seeing herself as Miley described while introducing Noah and Labrinth’s performance of Make Me (Cry), her debut single after signing with Columbia Records, at the 2017 iHeartRadio Music Awards? Forget it.
“This next performer is without a doubt the coolest person that I know,” her big sister gushed to the crowd at The Forum in Inglewood, California. “Her voice? Oh my God. Her voice is amazing. Her songwriting is beautiful and totally relatable. She knows exactly what I’m going through. She is who she is as an artist. I cannot wait for the entire world to get a load of her vision. She’s who I want to be when I grow up.”
Three years removed from that performance, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter has built a fan base full of people worldwide who would gladly scream into a microphone on her behalf the way Miley did then.
She is trying every day to convert herself into one of them.
Noah is asked how she fits the bill as a game-changer and rule-breaker, mischievously redefining the norm. She first cautions against trying to tie her to one thing, noting that she always trusts her gut and pushes boundaries to follow what she thinks is best regardless of general consensus.
Perhaps the bravest example, from the outside looking in, can be seen in how she has turned something inherently internal into something completely external by voicing publicly her evolving relationship with mental health. She is not just a blossoming artist; she is a 20-year-old young woman still growing up, still learning herself, and using music to reach out to those who are still learning themselves, too.
“I’m very headstrong in what I think, my decisions and what I do, especially in my music and stuff, she says. “I like being able to step out of that boundary and write about what makes people sad or uncomfortable. What is that uncomfortable part of writing my music that makes listening a little bit sad or uncomfortable?”
Writing down the most honest lyrics as possible has always been second nature to Noah. July, Lonely and fuckyounoah, released in that order from last July to last Halloween, showcase her in her element. They each hold the potential to make a listener sad or uncomfortable, and they hold the same potential to make another listener feel seen and understood.
Folksy smash single July was written poolside in Bali with Peter Harding and a guitar. The song was inspired by a toxic two-year relationship that ended on the Fourth of July in the past. Her smooth yet textured voice outlines how she chose to stay for so long with a partner who made her feel inadequate because she was afraid of change. Noah arrived at that pool in Bali wanting to write something different from anything she had done before. She was locked on writing “something like Brandi Carlile” but wrote something that could not have been written by anybody other than Noah. She and Harding needed only 30 minutes to piece lyrics together while strumming chords on the guitar.
It had to be the best confirmation in the world, especially for someone who has felt so rejected by the world for so long, to have this song that felt the most natural and reflected her truest self received so widely and so well.
“One thousand percent.”
A nagging void within Noah persisted, though, that rousing success couldn’t fill.
July – which has been remixed to feature Leon Bridges, one of Noah’s labelmates and personal favorites, as well as given an animated video directed by her – was followed by Lonely. The chorus-backed, powerful ballad was sparked when her therapist vocalised during a session that she was suffering from loneliness.
“When I wrote that song, I was really, really, really sad,” she says. “I had just gotten off a tour. My brain just wasn’t right at all. I was not sleeping. I was so depressed. I cried and cried and cried, day and night, about literally just honestly everything about myself. I had turned into my worst enemy – to the max – and I kind of realised that the people around me were limited, and how actually lonely I was. Once someone had pointed it out, hearing somebody else say it, I was like, Yes! That is it! That is exactly why I feel this way! We wrote down the song, and honestly, when you write a song like that, it just feels good coming out. To be honest. It feels good [to] use anxiety for good and not evil.”
July and Lonely have 165.5 million streams on Spotify and counting, but evil threatened for July, Lonely or any song by Noah Cyrus to never see the light of day.
Noah’s anxiety, depression and self-loathing spiraled toward a breaking point shortly after wrapping The Good Cry Tour in late October 2018.
She had reason, it appeared, to feel on top of the world. She had just finished her first headlining tour and was one year removed from opening for two months of Katy Perry’s Witness world tour in late 2017. Instead, she was seriously contemplating whether she had the heart or mental strength to make music anymore.
“I literally felt so not wanted by the world and not [like] it even mattered,” she says.
People were seeing her now – knew her name, sang her songs, liked her Instagram posts, flooded her YouTube – and finally recognizing the value she always possessed. Still, she struggled to shake the way she had been treated as disposable in her formative years. There were countless times she had been approached and either called ‘Hannah Montana’s sister’ or asked if she was Miley Cyrus’s younger sister.
“Somebody not even coming up to you and calling you by your name?” says Noah. “That’s going to really fuck you up as a kid, make you feel like you don’t fucking even matter to the population – for them to not even know your name.”
Noah walked away from her brightening spotlight to shine a flashlight on the shadows inside her. She put in the work. She asked herself questions that might seem minuscule to some people but were monumental to her.
How can I control my anxiety when I want to leave my house?
How can I not turn around and feel like I’m gonna throw up on my way back home?
How can I look in the mirror and see something different from what I‘m seeing?
Noah will never shy away from pushing boundaries, but she knows her limits. During her time away from making music, she learned the importance of allowing herself to indulge in activities that don’t put pressure on her to perform or produce. Of letting herself simply be.
“If I’m not feeling able to write or record, and I’m not feeling good, I don’t force myself to,” she says. “That’s kind of the good thing about me. I know when to go home. So if I’m not feeling good about myself, or my anxiety or depression chooses to challenge me that day, I honestly sometimes just say, ‘I can’t go today. I can’t write in the studio today,’ because that’s the healthier option for me. To just be around my family or my friends or go to therapy or do something I can do to help myself.”
Music is still there, just in a different way.
Noah has gotten into the habit of putting on a favourite album or artist when she’s crying, when she’s having a panic attack, when she needs to feel better or when she needs to take her mind elsewhere. Her all-time favorite band is the Arctic Monkeys, and her all-time favorite songwriter is Alex Turner, so their discography is utilised often. She will close her eyes and sing along to songs she has memorised, which frees her up to focus on her breathing – in for seven seconds, hold for eight seconds, out for 10 seconds.
As relentlessly as her demons and doubters tried to isolate Noah away from music, she could not and would not let them win.
She found power in manipulating her fears in her favour – from inking a spider tattoo between her collarbone and neck despite having extreme arachnophobia to launching the LONELY apparel collection in partnership with the Crystal Campaign, proceeds benefiting The Jed Foundation’s mission to protect the youth’s emotional health and prevent suicide.
“I think once I got out of that, or saw a little bit of light through the tunnel. I’ll say that because every day is still its own mountain, I think there’s ways of conquering it. I really do. I think there’s a way to conquer it and not let it win,” she says, and later adds, “When I kind of saw a little bit of difference, a little difference went a long way. I was like, I gotta speak out about this. I saw so many people struggling.”
Noah hasn’t stopped speaking out since making that decision. She’s most focused on helping as many people as she can moving forward.
“I’m always there to talk to my fans whenever they need to talk,” she says fondly. “It’s really cool when we’re at meet and greets and I get to talk to them for a minute and really get to hear their stories. That happened when I was in London. In my meet and greet we just all started talking for the longest time, and it was just so cool to be able to hear them and talk to them like that face-to-face. Yeah, it’s me being honest no matter really what I’m feeling. Everybody makes mistakes sometimes, so I feel like dealing with something like that, it’s like, don’t expect me to be perfect ‘cause I’m not perfect. I love to talk about my mental heath and everything like that, I’m still not perfect. So I ask people to handle this with kindness. Be kind to other people. Not just myself. That’s the biggest issue in the world, I feel like, is just we don’t have enough love or kindness.”
Noah recognizes that this was all born from music. After all, her father has been showing her songs to sing and unknowingly preparing her to fulfill her purpose since she was as young as four years old. The thing Noah feels most confident about is her voice.
There’s a line with rebellion that should never be crossed, and that’s when rebelling against others’ expectations for you means sacrificing your gift.
“I felt I was put in this really unique situation of growing up in the family I grew up in,” she says. “Very different. Not being able to go to school, not being able to do a lot, it really was a different way of growing up. I feel like now is my chance to all the people that were so awful to me when I was so young publicly, and everybody that called me what they called me. I feel like it’s kind of my time to prove them wrong, make them feel stupid, and that’s kind of how I feel right now. I just want to do things for me and make me happy. All the people that told me I couldn’t, prove them wrong and show them that I could.”
January 26, 2020, was a dark day.
Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash alongside Gianna’s basketball teammates Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, as well as their parents, Sarah Chester, Keri Altobelli and John Altobelli, an assistant coach, Christina Mauser, and the pilot, Ara Zobayan. The group was en route to their Mamba Sports Academy basketball game – Kobe was the head coach of his daughter’s team – but crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, California just before 10 a.m. local time.
That night, Noah attended the 62nd annual Grammy Awards with her father at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, known as The House that Kobe Built. Nobody felt right being there to celebrate music mere hours (and miles) removed from nine people tragically losing their lives. But Noah and Billy Ray walked in, held hands and kept saying to each other, “For Kobe and Gigi.”
“My dad will always hold my hand,” she says with conviction while soberly recalling that night.
That awful night together, which she repeatedly calls “really, really sad” and “tough,” reinforced how grateful she is to have her dad.
Billy Ray won two Grammys for best pop duo/group performance and best music video as the featured artist on Lil Nas X’s record-breaking single “Old Town Road.” He joined Lil Nas X, BTS, Diplo, Nas and Mason Ramsey on stage to perform the viral song, too. Nobody would have blamed him for zoning everything else out, but his primary concern was making Noah feel comfortable with being herself.
“I was wearing this mesh dress, right?” Noah says, giggling. “People were giving me shit, whatever, I don’t give a fuck. My dad’s like, ‘It’s OK! I’ll just tell them you were wearing your bikini with a coverup, and I was wearing a speedo underneath my suit!’ He’ll just always say shit to make me feel better, and it’s really sweet. I notice it, and it’s really cute and sweet. My dad says shit just to get me to not give a fuck about what people are thinking.”
(Noah’s rebellious nature had to come from somewhere, right?)
Noah is primed to carry forward Billy Ray’s legacy, which took off in 1992 with his debut album Some Gave All. Her career began roughly two decades later, at 16 years old, after spending her life to that point with a front-row seat to how negatively someone’s health could be affected, how the business chewed people up and spit them out into oblivion. If not for music, she believes she would have nothing to do with the public life her family leads. She imagines she might be working with animals, drawing from how she loves animals and riding horses. But this is in her blood. She was motivated to make music for a living and conquer whatever obstacles arose as a by-product.
“My dad got me ready without even knowing it, and it just happened that way,” she says. “I just wanted to. No one ever made me. No one ever asked me. The last thing my parents ever would want to do is make me be in this industry ‘cause they know how hard it can be.”
A lot of times, the hardest part is completely out of her control. Can she pinpoint the misconceptions spewed about her just because her last name is Cyrus?
“I think that list goes on fuckin’ forever,” she says. “I think what’s weird about people on the internet is that they think if you have a well-known last name that whatever they say to you may not hurt your feelings or that whatever they say about you couldn’t possibly make its way to you or hurt you. There’s no mercy from people who see you only as public. I would say what bothers me the most is that people think that they can just say whatever the fuck they want, and it doesn’t really have a consequence to it or it doesn’t affect anything ‘cause it’s said over the internet. There’s so much power to the internet. Whether you’re well-known or not, it still fucking hurts somebody so bad to read the shit that I’ve been reading since I was so young. So many people get that every day, and it’s so fucked up, man.”
To be sure: Noah is forever proud to be a Cyrus. She shares an identical CYRUS tattoo with Billy Ray, Miley and her 31-year-old brother Trace. She loves her family unconditionally. That needs to be made clear first and foremost. That said, she refuses to let her last name overshadow her first name.
“I’ve always understood that I had a ‘powerful’ last name, or a well-known last name, so that’s not really what I wanted to be tied to,” she says. “I always wanted to be tied to Noah.”
Noah fell asleep last night as Frozen 2, a 2019 film that she had watched upwards of five times already this week, played on her big-screen television. She has chronic difficulties with sleeping, so she has crafted a running list of what she calls her comfort movies.
Maybe sometimes she’ll lie around for hours with the lights off. Don’t we all? When she does it these days, she knows how to soothe herself. Invite friends for a sleepover. Watch the original Frozen, Frozen 2, Titanic, The Fault in Our Stars, down the list.
“It feels good to cry for a minute,” she says. “Get it out.”
It feels good to cry at something tangibly in front of her. That everybody else can see, too. It feels good to cry at something other than her own pain.
People across the globe feel this way about Noah’s music. She is giving other people what she needed for so long: something to hide in their bedroom with until they feel strong enough to take on the world themselves.