Pedal Steel Noah’s Covers Charm Fans Online. Up Next: His Own Songs.

Like many American teenagers, 16-year-old Noah Faulkner is obsessed with music. He will spend hours diving down rabbit holes, listening to every note played by his favorite artists and studying new discoveries. He recently emerged from a month-long deep dive on Clarence Ashley, a banjoist who recorded during the Great Depression and “makes me feel like he’s an old man,” Faulkner said. Ashley’s music “seems very creepy and I imagine it’s like an abandoned place somewhere.”

Unlike most teenagers, Faulkner is translating these influences into a dedicated music career. Using the name Pedal Steel Noah, he posts daily covers of ’80s New Wave and post-punk hits on instagram and Tik Tok, performing the work of artists like The Smiths and Tears for Fears on one of the most difficult instruments to master. Along the way, he’s drawn fans of Neko Case, Big Thief, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and many others to his emotional performance and charming setup: a large Texas flag in the background, his brother, Nate, 13 years, in the bass and a furry Aussiedoodle panting.

In March, the brothers and their father, Jay, played several shows during the South by Southwest festival in their hometown and opened the Black Keys’ keynote. Dressed in a Western shirt, a black cowboy hat and the colorful Crocs that have become his signature footwear, Pedal Steel Noah put a Texan stamp on the songs of Duran Duran and the Cocteau Twins.

“It was incredible,” he said via video call from the table, with his family gathered around him, “but it was exhausting. I hope I can give myself a party for my friends as a reward.” On Monday he will take the next step in his young career by releasing “Texas Madness,” an EP that includes three covers and two original songs.

Faulkner, who is autistic, has nurtured an intense curiosity about music for most of his life. When he was little, he spent hours every day at the piano, experimenting with the pedals and listening to the sounds each key made. Later, his mother, Christine, said: “We put him in speech pathology school and at the time he didn’t know words. One day the director runs out and says, ‘Noah sang a whole song!’ He sang before he actually spoke. That is their first language.”

Faulkner’s interest in pedal steel stems from an early immersion in country music. “I was listening to George Strait when he wanted to hear something that was joyful and faithful,” he explained. “I love the pedal steel in his songs. “I like how sustained and ambient it sounds.” Their music teacher, Bukka Allen (son of Lone Star artist Terry Allen), introduced the Faulkners to Lloyd Maines, who is something of Texas country royalty, having played with Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely and both generations of Allen.

Maines helped the family find a good pedal steel for beginners: a Mullen, the same brand he plays. After installing it in his house, he gave Faulkner his first and only lesson, teaching him how to hold the bar, how to carry the tines, and what each pedal does. “I played him an old Bob Wills song called ‘Steel Guitar Rag,’ which is a difficult song to play,” Maines recalled in a telephone interview. “It took him a while to figure out how to hold the bar, but he played me the basics of that song.”

Faulkner immersed himself in the history of the instrument, learning techniques by emulating his favorite players and exploring the range of sounds that could be extracted from its strings. After he began recording covers and original compositions on GarageBand and uploading videos to YouTube, his parents sensed an opportunity to introduce some structure into his son’s life and possibly put him on the path to a sustainable career path.

“He’s very good with scheduling,” said Jay, who played bass and guitar in a “group of no-name bands” in Austin. “So we challenged him to make a video a day for a year. It was just to help hone his craft as a musician. He started waking up in the morning, we would make a song and publish it. We would do it very quickly.”

Those videos soon involved the entire family. Jay usually played acoustic guitar just off-screen, and after football season, when Nate was out of practice, he learned to play bass and settled into a spot just behind his brother’s left shoulder. When her dog, Kara, kept wandering into shots of her, Christine kept her quiet with a piece of bacon next to the camera. “I’m very happy to be able to do what I enjoy with my family all the time, every day,” Nate said. “It’s the best there is.”

At first, Faulkner played country songs for a few thousand fans, but he soon branched out into new genres. Christine, who spent her teenage years in love with ’80s music, made a request of it. “After a lot of country covers, I said, ‘Can we play something that mom grew up with?’” She asked The Cure for something and they finally settled on “Just Like Heaven.” Faulkner transformed the song into a dreamy honky-tonk two-step, and his audience ballooned to the tens of thousands.

That song “sounds like a teenager’s life,” Faulkner said. “I like playing the synth parts. I found that some minor chords can build confidence and major chords are joyful and emotional. Emotional music is good for people.”

He has quickly become a sophisticated player, balancing technical mastery with artistic vision. Instead of simply recreating these old hits, he reinterprets them, using his familiar motifs to explore a particular mood or idea, an approach that dissipates both novelty and nostalgia.

Tim DeLaughter, who invited Faulkner to open his punk choir Polyphonic Spree, sees him as a distinctively Texan artist, one who takes the lessons and liberties of older musicians. “He Resonates in Texas,” DeLaughter said in a telephone interview. “Noah brings pop music from all over, but he puts that Texas feel to it. That really resonates with me, because we’re a crazy state that produces a lot of leftist art. At the same time, Noah does his thing. “There is joy there.”

Pedal Steel Noah’s EP, “Texas Madness,” reinforces him as an artist in that Lone Star legacy, even if his source material originates thousands of miles away. It turns Joy Division’s emotionally raucous “Love Will Tear Us Apart” into a dream trip through the Texas hills. His two originals, “Cleopatra” and especially “Lucy & Dixie,” have the emotionalism in capital letters of local post-rock veterans Explosions in the Sky.

The family recorded the EP at a studio near Dripping Springs, Texas, with Nate and Jay reprising their usual roles and Brian Beadle, a family friend, on drums. Despite never having worked in a studio, Pedal Steel Noah took immediate control of the sessions. “When he walks into the studio,” Jay said, “he’s like a machine. He was directing everything, telling me what to do, telling the engineer what he wants. He made 10 or 15 songs in three days. He is very motivated.”

His oldest son agreed that making music is hard work. “My arms get very tired. The best thing you can do is exercise. I do a lot of push-ups,” he said. “When it was all over, I definitely felt proud of myself.”

“Texas Madness,” named after an episode of the reality series Faulkner has been writing, will be released by Lightning Rod Records, a Nashville label run by a childhood friend of Jay’s. The label awarded the Faulkners a unique record deal, ensuring that all profits from Pedal Steel Noah’s releases, including the EP and a full-length album scheduled for late 2024 or early 2025, go directly to Noah Faulkner himself. .

“Once you turn 18, disability services practically fall off a cliff, and adults with disabilities suddenly have very few options,” her mother said. “When we started all this, we were just hoping that maybe Noah could be a studio musician. Maybe he could make a living. Maybe he could avoid the cliff. Now I hope this gives you a social circle. As a mother, that’s all I ever wanted: someone to play with.”

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.

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