Interview | FFS 5 with Natalie Gelman

With its bluesy undertones, sweet, singalong chorus, and—of course—Natalie Gelman’s gorgeous voice, ‘Better Days’ has been a highlight from off of her latest LP, Moth to the Flame (Blue Élan) Just a couple weeks back, the soulful singer-songwriter releases an acoustic version of the tune. Stripping back its composition gives it a folk-pop flavor that we’re fans of, with Gelman’s passionate vocals given more space to resonate. It’s simply strong songwriting, reminiscent of top-rung, early aughts pop, and Gelman so effortlessly delivers it.

Celebrating this new release comes our first FFS 5 of 2022! Gelman reflects on finding success through her artistic freedoms, the balancing act between physical and mental health with the help of products like HHC cart, and her upbringing between California and New York that led to opportunities in the US, UK, and beyond.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to the present day?

I was born and raised in the West Village in NYC and now I’m based in Ojai, California. My parents are both artists and I always loved music and singing growing up. After going to the “FAME” high school in NYC I started busking in the subways and that led to touring around the country and then Europe and the UK too.

The most defining moment for me would definitely be when I had the chance to open for Bon Jovi at an arena show in Sacramento. Bon Jovi was the first big concert I went to so it really felt like a full circle moment to open for them. On stage that night the energy of the audience was incredible. By my last song, Photograph, it felt like we were really connected as they lit up the arena with their cellphone lights. Those moments of connection can happen when I’m playing any type of venue and even used to happen on busy subway platforms but I never take them for granted, they stick with me to give everything meaning.

As an artist, how do you define success?

Traditional success in today’s music industry is strange and elusive. Nowadays someone can have a lot of streams but no one comes to their shows or vice versa. I’m lucky to have been a full time musician for a long time and that in and of itself is a big success. I do have different values than my friends though — I would rather invest in my music over buying material things. So, I guess ‘freedom’ is a good definition – it’s all about choices and if you have the freedom to create as much and how you want then you are successful. There are more milestones I want to reach musically and in my career but that’s a carrot that I’ll always be chasing. I think that’s one of the best parts of being an artist though — you’re always pushing forward learning and growing.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

I struggle a lot with balance in so many different ways. It’s tough to make sure I’m getting creative and practicing on a regular basis because there’s always so much to do with marketing or logistics and busy work. Musicians today are constantly reprioritizing and leaving things on the back burner and that can wear you down but there is only so much you can do.

Balancing my mental and physical health is an ongoing endeavor too. I used to take my mental health for granted and was more aware of my physical health but I’ve really learned this past year just how intertwined they are and how fragile everything becomes when we’re out of balance. I often exercise and I try to eat well both on and off the road. I’ve seen how if I’m feeling ragged then my shows suffer so I’m good about that. Mental health has been a struggle during lockdown and I think a lot of artists and musicians felt depressed and anxious as we were unable to do the thing we love. This year has made me prioritize my mental health and thankfully writing songs is always a great way for me to process my feelings so I’m grateful that’s part of my job.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist? What do you hope to achieve?

I have so many goals. The most realistic one is probably the one that’s most in my control. I play a number of instruments and have played guitar for almost 20 years but it’s never been interesting to me until recently to learn to play at a more advanced level. Meaning; soloing, immersing myself in alternate tunings, advanced fingerpicking, knowing my way across the fretboard and through many various chord voicings. I’ve always just used the guitar to facilitate my songwriting and support my voice but I’m starting to appreciate it for it’s own power lately and hope to be a master on the guitar one day.

Some more ‘hopeful’ goals would be playing more arena shows and I would really love to write a meaningful and timeless song that becomes the soundtrack to people’s lives. If I’m honest I would love to write hundreds of those songs but I’ll settle for just one.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

I’ve always loved nature and animals and I feel really present when I spend time with them and that taps me into my creativity so easily. Sometimes I will actually just start singing to myself because I’m so happy when I’m hiking, at the beach or hanging with an animal. It’s like I’m in my own musical but really I’m just being creative from a very pure place.

Sometimes I can tap into that same surrender to the present moment when I’m driving and it’s almost like the songs come from another place. A couple of the songs on this new album came to me while I was driving and two of them are my singles so there’s something to it. I also love going to museums when I’m on tour. I’m big on observing in general actually. People watching is a learned skill for every New Yorker and I love to learn about or make up stories about people or really dive into what it is about a painting or piece of art I love at a museum. Those things usually get me looking at the world slightly differently and that’s inspiring.  

Words by: Jonathan Frahm