Last week, Noa Zimmerman dropped a pair of new singles—“Palindrome King” and “Invisible Strings”—that see the San Francisco singer-songwriter tackling mental health challenges with tenderness and humility.
“Billions of stars prove we’re small,” Zimmerman sings in “Invisible Strings” over a lilting violin. “Nothing’s as big as you think it is / Nothing’s as big as you think it is.”
“Both of these songs were written about relationships I’ve had with people who struggled with addiction and mental health issues,” Zimmerman tells American Songwriter over email. “I was always fascinated by them because I could see myself mirrored in their thought processes and behaviors. I wanted so badly to help but it was really difficult not to get dragged down with them. The version of myself that was in those situations had a lot less perspective than the version that wrote these songs.”
“I’ve been studying eastern philosophy, specifically Hinduism and Buddhism, since I was 17,” she continues. “I’ve had my own struggles with mental illness and dependency, but I’ve learned how much freedom and peace comes by letting go of your ego and attachments, and acknowledging your insignificance. The songs take a spiritual perspective on mental illness and addiction: ‘Invisible Strings’ has a lot of nature and space imagery to show how small we really are. ‘Palindrome King’ acknowledges the dualities of ourselves and our emotions, and the importance of finding a balance.”
Zimmerman recorded and produced the songs herself over the last two years in a process that she says “involved two apartments, two or three school studios, and my makeshift mixing setup in my brother’s old bedroom.” Cole Mitchell would eventually mix and master the tracks.
“Palindrome King” and “Invisible Strings” follow Zimmerman’s latest single “Rapture” and her 2017 releases Night’s Gentle Crash and On the Bright Side of Oblivion. Zimmerman says she writes her best when she doesn’t “think at all about my words being heard by anyone ever.”
“This was a lot easier before I went to music school,” she explains. “I have a lot of trouble accessing that place now because I get into my head too much. But there are some writing experiences where it doesn’t feel like I’m coming up with anything; like the words were already there. That’s one of the best feelings in the world and that’s where the most honest and profound creations come from. Both of these songs had aspects of that feeling, I think I wrote them both in under an hour. It’s only happened a handful of times since then.”
For Zimmerman, “Palindrome King” and “Invisible Strings” also share a message about “the importance of finding perspective and balance so you can be more at peace with yourself and the world around you. We could all use that right now,” she comments. “At the very least, I hope that these songs can take people to a calmer place for a few minutes.”
Zimmerman cites Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon as the songwriters and musicians she most admires, but a recent favorite is Michael Kiwanuka. “His self-titled album truly changed my life,” she says of the British singer-songwriter’s 2019 album. “His lyrics are simple yet incredibly profound, his voice is so soulful, and the song arrangements are masterpieces. Most importantly,” she continues, “his music has a message: he advocates both for self-love and for loving one another, regardless of race, sexuality, and socioeconomic disparity. I think he is one of the most powerful voices out there right now.”
It makes sense that these themes resonate for Zimmerman. The 21-year-old musician recently co-founded an artist-activist organization called The Artivist Foundation, of which she’s now the executive director.
“We’re working to create a virtual community platform to amplify the voices of activist artists to fight for social, racial, environmental, and economic justice,” she says of the organization. “It was born from me and my friends’ frustration with existing social media platforms that value and propagate narcissism and insincerity, and drown out art with commercial content. We want to create a space for activists to share and sell their work, connect with each other, and mobilize to create change on a local and global level.”
Two artists whose activism has particularly inspired Zimmerman are Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. “They stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963,” she says. “They understand the responsibility of artists and use their voices and platforms with integrity and selflessness. There’s plenty of others, especially in that generation like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the list really goes on. I think with the BLM movement and all the injustices that are coming to the surface in a powerful way in this moment, artists are really stepping up and realizing the impact they can have with their voices, which has been amazing to see.”
Zimmerman, a current college student, hopes to do the same thing with her own music. “I’ve learned in the last couple years that knowing what you want to do is a lot less important than knowing who you want to be,” she reflects. “I want to use my voice, creativity, and energy to inspire others to create positive and meaningful change.”
“Palindrome King” and “Invisible Strings” are out now. Listen to both songs below and learn more about The Artivist Foundation here.