"Almost every other week I was thinking of some reason why we needed to come back to St. Louis," says Tawaine Noah, speaking of his last year spent in Portland, Oregon, living in self-seclusion. Nestled in an apartment complex twenty minutes outside the city, he and partner Carissa Rose gestated, separated from the river city they knew so well.
To date, Noah might be best known for his tenure as the leading man of Union Tree Review, which saw several releases, most notably 2013's Enjoy the Weather. The EP was a somber yet gratifying death knell for a band that enjoyed flush success within the city's cross-section of folk and indie rock. Noah's songs of longing earned him praise, but he felt the heavy weight of expectations -- even after the band dissolved.
"When I write, I see faces of specific people. And it can be stressful. Being so far away made me feel like I could be free and ignore all that," Noah says. He and Rose left St. Louis in September 2014, bearing in mind that they would return one day.
Through the eight months that followed, the pair used Portland as a home base, exploring the region through camping trips and tiny expeditions. Noah found work through a temp agency, supporting his travels and time spent secluded, working on new material.
"It was freeing because people in St. Louis weren't paying as much, if any, attention to me," he adds. But when Noah was nominated by RFT readers for a Music Award, specifically for his work as a singer-songwriter, he was left humbled.
In the time between Union Tree Review and the move, Noah performed a short stint of shows alone, or with the aid of one or two players -- a far cry from the full backing band.
Before leaving the Pacific Northwest, Noah and Rose collaborated on "Sleep Weight," a video project in three distinct movements. Anchored inside the pair's apartment, the piece shows their new life together with subtle cracks of surrealism, all bathed in three instrumental arrangements composed by Noah. This microcosm of their time spent in Portland can be viewed in full below:
Noah could never quite shake his homesickness. After one of his grandparents fell ill, he and Rose finally had that final push needed to return to St. Louis. After arriving in May, both focused on family first and settled back into their old lives with fresh perspective.
While late nights in Portland were spent planning and writing, Noah is now home for real and ready to play again -- with Rose lending her talents as a performance artist.
"We've always done shows, so we thought 'let's do something out of ordinary, over-the-top and something that might even be a little embarrassing to talk about in twenty years.' But it's going to be an amazing time," he says.
The video above shows Tawaine Noah during his short stint as the drummer for folk outfit Amen Lucy, Amen
Don't call it a musical, In Distant Cities is a concept set split into two halves: The first explores a journey while the second part involves an all-inclusive campsite. Besides the band -- which includes musicians Stephen Lightle, Jenn Rudisill and Nick Horn among many others -- actors will bridge the gap, helping to suspend disbelief. A huge tent acts as a portal for performers between back and center stage.
"All of the ideas for stage, set and theatrics come from both of us, but most of that is handled by me," Rose chimes in. This night marries her work as a performer with Noah's songwriting, so the elements carry a deep cohesion. But she is quick to state that this isn't a strict performance:
"Even though we have a definite idea of what the structure is, improv is a good word to use," Rose says. In addition to the songs, musicians and actors alike are given a loose script to help maintain a visual narrative. "And that's what we wanted, because it doesn't make sense to have a really strict camping trip," she adds.
Noah's circle of past and present collaborators are set to hit the stage at Off Broadway, which will be transformed with logs, props and the kind of detritus one might find at a campsite. Rose assures us, the friends on stage won't be the only ones in on the action:
"We can't say exactly how yet, but the audience will also have fun with us."
Bo and the Locomotive is set to open the show with Noah's cousin F.L.Y performing on the outside patio between the two sets of In Distant Cities.
In Distant Cities Thursday, July 23 Off Broadway 8 p.m. | $10