Casey Noel Interview by Mason Winfree and Shana Baldwin. Featured photo by Shana Leigh Photography.
Looking deep into the process behind a songwriter’s words is such a thrilling exploration into understanding not only where songs come from, but also the plethora of ways an artist finds inspiration. Earlier this year, Casey Noel released a new single and accompanying video called, “Playing God.” Subverting the traditional murder ballad, Casey Noel presents a narrative that goes beyond the crime itself, requiring the listener to think about the lingering cloud of repercussions that looms after such a crime has been committed. I had the chance to have a conversation with Noel about the story that inspired the new single and beyond. Check it out below.
Americana Highways: You recently released a brand-new single called, “Playing God.” The story contained within the song is one of a true crime that happened many years ago. Tell me about the story that inspired the song and how you discovered it.
Casey Noel: I discovered the story on a true crime podcast. I’ve been into those for such a long time. This story was just one of those that really stuck with me. It was dealing with an issue that is still relevant today, but back then there were extra complicated layers to it. Guilia Tofana was a 17th century serial poisoner. She was in an abusive marriage and to escape it, she poisoned her husband. Before her, her own mother poisoned her father for the same reasons. They were both in abusive relationships. Guilia learned (most likely from her mother) how to make this poison that was untraceable. You could dose a person over a couple of weeks and it would mimic the symptoms of other ailments so that no one would think anything of it. Domestic violence has always and sadly will most likely always be a thing, but in that time period, it was even more complicated to escape because in that day and age there was no such thing as divorce. You were stuck in a marriage till one of you died. Whether right or wrong, she understood that there were many women who were probably desperate to get out just like she was, so she started disguising her poison in makeup compacts and selling it to women who also found themselves in similar, dangerous situations. She worked with a priest to keep the operation going and she had a daughter of her own who also helped with the business. It went on for decades until a woman who was going through the process of killing her husband got cold feet and told her husband what she had done. Gulia Tofana was eventually executed and it is believed she is responsible for the death of 600 men, which makes her one of the most prolific serial killers you may have never heard of. In some ways this is a generational murder story. The story concerns ethics. You hear a lot of true crime stories, but this one stuck with me because typically you side with the victim, but I found myself in this weird gray area of not condoning but also not straight up condemning either. I had empathy for these women and for Guilia. I’m sure there were some who used Guilia’s help for the wrong reasons, but there’s no doubt that Guilia’s poison helped many women save their own lives and the lives of their children and because of that I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer of right or wrong and I think that’s part of my fascination with this story.
AH: How did you realize that the story could be a song?
CN: I just felt like Guilia was such a strong character and it was a story that wasn’t easily forgettable. My goal going into it was that if people didn’t know the story that it could stand alone. I wanted the listener to be able to follow it without prior knowledge and then leave them with a question. “Does pretending to be God, put you in the Devil’s seat?”
AH: In a way the song taps into a tradition that goes all the way back to the old country – the murder ballad. The typical murder ballad featured women being murdered by men, but this song subverts the roles. Was that something you were conscious of during the process of writing the song?
CN: I wanted to flip it on its head and do the complete opposite. I liked that the story was older than most of the stories depicted in murder ballads and it was also a story that was about a woman murdering a man instead of the typical man murdering a woman. I felt like it was a story that needed to be told.
AH: Were you inspired by the history of murder ballad as a way to share news?
CN: I was inspired by the fact that you rarely ever heard about women being the killers instead of the victims. I think there’s a lot to learn from old songs and their messages. I’ve always wanted to write a murder ballad, especially one that is rooted in truth.
AH: What does the song mean to you?
CN: I’ve always had a huge heart for victims of domestic violence and I think it is one of those topics where there’s a lot of misunderstanding. Like back then it wasn’t acceptable to leave no matter the situation. Now statistics show a woman is in most danger after she chooses to leave, so sometimes it’s really not as easy as “just leaving him.” It’s been something that I have wanted to write about. This was a story where the woman takes her power back; right or wrong, she takes it back.
AH: Where was the song recorded and who were the musicians on the track?
CN: Electromagnetic Radiation Recorders in Winston-Salem with Doug Williams. The electric guitar player Mason Keck, drummer Seth (Fluff) Aldrige, and bass was Keith Ingles.
AH: You also made a video for the song that serves as a live performance? Talk a little bit about that. Where did you record that?
CN: I recorded the music video in the same place I recorded the song. Since the song ended up having more of a rock and roll feel, I thought a live video of us playing it really fit the vibe.
AH: One thing I want to mention is the beautiful artwork that was created for the single. Who was the artist and how did that come about?
CN: John Firesheets did a painting. He is mainly known for his portrait art. He does pastels. I met him at a gig at a house party and he gave me a sketch of myself and I thought it was amazing. I was already in the studio thinking about what I was going to do for art. When he gave me that picture, it clicked and I asked him if he would be willing to do some artwork for the project. He asked me if I would sit for a portrait. I met with him a couple of times and discussed what I was wanting. I told him the whole story and told him that I wanted it to be in the Renaissance style. He came up with a rough sketch of me in the role of the woman from the song. He nailed it. It was exactly what I wanted for that.
AH: Is the song going to be part of an upcoming album or project?
CN: It might be part of an EP. There are two songs I have finished recently and I think I might put that one out with those as part of an EP in the fall. We shall see.
AH: What are some things you are looking forward to in 2022?
CN: I am playing Byrds Creek Music Festival, FloydFest and Bristol Rhythm and Roots and I could not be any more stoked! I have some wonderful musicians playing with me and I am so excited to be sharing some new songs as well as some other surprises!
Check out Casey Noel with her single, “Playing God,” below!