Singer Courtney Noelle might be in the process of working on her debut EP, but she’s hardly a newcomer to the art of soul. Hailing from Pittsburgh—where she’s signed with Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang Entertainment—her Love on the Run mix-tape introduces the 27-year-old’s velvety voice over dreamy synth productions that recalls computer blue Prince protégés (Jill Jones, Taja Sevelle) from the 1980s as well as the One in a Million girl.
“I used to watch Aaliyah videos and make up dances with my cousins,” says Courtney, whose raunchy single “Just F*ckin” samples the late singer, says. “She had a tomboy edge, but she was still sexy. Although Aaliyah was laidback and cool, you could tell she wasn’t a delicate flower.”
While Courtney is a stunning beauty, she too can take care of herself. “I grew up on the east side of the city in Point Breeze,” she says. “I come from a pretty big family. I have four little sisters, two brothers and a bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s not a bad neighborhood, but I grew up around a lot of guys, so they taught me to be tough. I figured toughness could come in handy in the music business.”
Although Courtney is joking, she’s really not. On her futuristic sounding mix-tape Love on the Run, it’s obvious that both schools of soul (old school and experimental) have had an influence on her sound. Writing her own lyrics since she was a girl, Courtney confesses, “I am a love enthusiast, because that’s my favorite subject to write about.”
When not writing about cupids and valentines, Courtney can also wrap herself around the anti-love sentiments as she does on “Recollect,” a wonderful song about a brother with a bad memory.
Listening to everything from Dionne Warwick and Rose Royce to Aaliyah and Missy Elliott, the soft-spoken Courtney says, “I started writing poems when I was 12.” She also cites the pop lyricism of Mariah Carey and Sade as inspiration. “There were some boys next door who had a singing group that was like Dru Hill,” she says. “They asked me write them a song for them, so that was my first song. I was pretty mature when I was 12.”
A few years later, Courtney was recruited by legendary producers Trackmasters (Faith Evans, Keyshia Cole) to be on their upstart label. “I moved to New York City for two years beginning in 2007, but the label never took off,” she recounts. “We never could get the business right, but I still learned so much from them. There was group of us artists living in a mansion. We had vocal coaching, we worked in the studio, and I even learned a little about mixing. It was a great training process.”
She adds, “Right now, I want to learn how to produce, so I can have more control over my music.” Still, trying to survive in one of America’s most expensive cities wasn’t easy, so Courtney came back home. It was also during this period that her grandmother got cancer, and Courtney helped to care for her.
“I was ready to give up my dreams, Courtney says. “I got a regular job working as customer service, but I was still going to the ID Lab Studios to record.” It was on one of her sojourns that she ran into her old buddy Wiz Khalifa in the room next door. “Wiz and I grew up together,” Courtney says. “After ‘Black and Yellow’ came out, he invited me to perform with him in New York. I got fired from my job, but it was the best thing I could’ve done.”
Since then, Courtney has toured and recorded with the platinum-selling MC, who appears on “You Got Me,” the sprung-on-lust centerpiece song of Love on the Run. “Wiz is like my brother,” explains the official First Lady of Taylor Gang. “The Love on the Run mix-tape was done to be given away while I’m working on a Love on the Run EP that will feature new songs and remixes, and will be released this summer.”
In addition, this summer Courtney Noelle will also be on the Under the Influence of Music Tour, with Wiz Khalifa, Young Jeezy, Tyga, Ty Dolla $ign, Iamsu!, Sage the Gemini and Mack Wilds. “Wiz often encourages the Taylor Gang family to stay true to who we are in the music, and that’s what I’m determined to do. Right now, I’m very happy.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.