Noa Mal took a few seconds to survey the Zoom window screen after which she offered a curt “hello” that opened the interview.
Dressed in black with a little eyeliner on, she didn’t give off any goth feel. Instead, she looked right out of the Nirvana music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – as a young rebel with a cause who will take a swing at the world at large with her guitar.
In a world of Swiftie wannabes, Madonna clones, and an endless factory line of tweetums girls on a guitar, it is refreshing to hear and listen to the raw grunge of an angry and rebellious teen spirit.
Noa Mal, a stylized nom de guerre of Norma Jean Malabanan, channels Veruca Salt and grunge with her lo-fi rock. Her album from last year — “Dead Girl” — was just released this past July on vinyl and compact disc by Japanese independent label Galaxy Train Records (as they have for all her physical releases on cassette, compact disc, or vinyl).
The initial press of 500 copies of “Dead Girl” sold out with many purchased by Japanese and foreign fans. Even the second presses have sold out as well (there is no word if it will go to a third printing). The album itself was prominently displayed not only on the racks at Tower Records in Shibuya, Japan, but also on posters on the street.
“That surprised me,” Noa Mal, who hails from Quezon, said. “Just as much as when Galaxy Train reached out to put out my music in physical format. The music I write is just for myself and when people like it, I am surprised. More so when they are from other countries and older music fans.”
For the older set, it’s that familiar fire asking questions about life, religion, love, and you can throw in how the world has changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These themes have universal pulls.
“Dead Girl” is an expression when the walls are closing in and you need to breathe and kick down the doors. It is when your life has been put on hold with no idea when it would resume (this was written and recorded during the early days of the total lockdown from the virus), and you’re pissed, and you need to scream into the infinite abyss.
“The album crystallized my feelings about existing during the time of the pandemic,” bared Noa Mal. “Being in college but being unable to attend physical class. Being a young person and not being able to experience what my parents did during their college years. The main theme is being isolated and it’s angsty.”
Noa Mal makes no apologies about the grunge influence of “Dead Girl”.
“I absorbed the music that my father listened to when I was younger but it only manifested as I got older,” she said. “Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Hole. Nirvana … You can hear that influence in my songs. But there’s also the influence of edgy indie artists like Lana Del Rey.”
When Noa Mal writes her music, she has these rules she follows.
“When I write my albums, if it takes me more than three months to finish everything, I discard them. I feel they are not meant to be. When I was making ‘Dead Girl’, it was easy to write. It took me about five weeks,” she said.
“My other rule is when I make music — I want it to be as raw and authentic as possible. No layering or overdubs. Even if the lyrics sound corny, I wouldn’t change it. I know I could do a more polished or slick album. Whether unpolished because it was about myself at a moment in time.”
And that music was discovered by Galaxy Train Records in Japan.
“I put Dead Girl out online in mid-2021 and the label discovered my music through Bandcamp. They asked if they could release my music.”
It wasn’t the first time a foreign label came calling. A Malaysian indie label, Gerpfast, put out her debut album, “It’s Sunny Outside” on cassette.
“My main goal, as cliché as it sounds, is to document my life. Not all my songs are based on experience. Some are just what it is. But the physical copies, I did not anticipate that. It’s great when people want to enjoy the music.”
The third rule is that the black and white, or monochrome, photography that graces her albums is a starting point.
“If I want to create an album, I want it to become an art form,” pointed out Noa Mal. “I want the cover album to be related to the album. When I see pictures of myself and I feel, ‘Oh, this could be an album cover’ — that is when I begin writing and recording. It’s not just a collection of songs but also an artistic thing.”
“ ‘Dead Girl’ is my favorite so far,” she summed up.
Noa Mal has some newer recordings, but it is “Dead Girl” that she thinks is her best — “It’s my homage to grunge and the Seattle scene as well.”