After winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, Utah band Little Moon is ready to make a big noise

The Springville-based band will headline a national tour, but will play Fork Fest in American Fork first.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Moon performs at the Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 2, 2023. Emma Hardyman.

Music has always been more than something Emma Hardyman just did for fun.

“As a child, I had a difficult time articulating myself and talking,” Hardyman said. “I developed a lot of weird stories and anxieties around that — and music became a form of therapy to help me articulate emotion.”

The nation — at least the part that listens to NPR — heard Hardyman’s emotion, and her multi-octave voice, when the Springville singer-songwriter and her band, Little Moon, beat out nearly 6,000 other entries to win NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest last month.

The band’s winning entry, “Wonder Eye,” is a luscious track that Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen called “a dynamic and explosive tune with a deeply emotional story.”

Hardyman, speaking over Zoom and choosing her words with care, said the song “was written in an effort to highlight and give homage, reverence, to the parts of grief that maybe aren’t always as honored.”

Hardyman said she and her husband, Nathan — who’s also the band’s bassist — wrote the song when Nathan’s mother was in hospice care in Idaho. The couple, she said, also were in the process of leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Starting in January 2021, Hardyman said, the couple spent a lot of time on the four-hour drive between their Utah home and her mother-in-law’s hospice. During those drives, she said, she started pondering, and coming up with the melody of “Wonder Eye.”

“When I’m feeling big emotions that I don’t have words for it, that’s when I start writing and creating melodies,” she said.

“I typically don’t always know what a song is going to be when I first write out a melody, but at some point, it starts solidifying,” she said. “In this particular moment, it was in the midst of hospice, that I realized this melody was a song about death.”

Nathan quickly wrote the lyrics after his mother died, Hardyman said.

“There was a lot of various forms of death happening in our lives, and there was a lot for us that we needed to process and grieve,” Hardyman said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grace Johnson of the band Little Moon performs at the Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 2, 2023.

Connecting to emotions

Both of Emma’s parents are musicians, she said, so music has always been a constant.

“My dad would teach voice lessons at home, my mom would be playing classical music 24/7.” To this day, Hardyman said, if you visit the family’s house, you’ll find a radio station playing quietly in the background.

“Music was a really sacred thing to my family,” she said. “My mom and dad wanted music to be a form of outlet for us.”

So when Emma’s mother noticed that her daughter was having anxiety about communicating, she would turn to music to help decipher what her daughter couldn’t find the words to say.

Hardyman imitated her mother, angrily banging on a piano. “‘Do you feel this?’” her mother would ask. “Then I could nod my head, and she would be like “‘Angry? You’re angry?’”

Over time, Emma said she used the banjo, ukulele, mandolin and guitar as her instruments of conversation. It’s something that persists, to some degree, to this day.

Hardyman, who grew up in California, said she initially took “Little Moon” as her stage name, and used it for a long time while performing solo. In 2015, while she was attending Brigham Young University-Idaho and going through a faith crisis, she said, she took up her sister’s invitation to move to Utah. She said she did it on a whim.

“I knew that I wanted to do music,” she said. “I was, like. ‘You know, there’s definitely more of a music scene in Provo than in Rexburg, Idaho.’”

It wasn’t until she met Bly Wallentine — now Little Moon’s keyboardist — that Hardyman thought of starting a band, she said. Their first line-up featured 12 musicians, because of their tendency toward lots of orchestration. Ultimately, though, it was impractical because of everyone’s schedules, she said.

The band now is a sextet, with Emma Hardyman as lead singer and guitarist, Nathan Hardyman on bass, Wallentine on keys, Chris Shemwall on drums, Grace Johnson on electric guitar, and Bridget Jackson on harp — another sound that separates Little Moon from most bands.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bridget Jackson, harpist for the band Little Moon, performs at the Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 2, 2023.

Fourth time’s the charm

Little Moon’s first concert in Utah after the Tiny Desk win wasn’t as much of a victory lap as the band probably wanted.

The performance — as an opening act at the first Twilight Concert Series show of the season, June 2 at Salt Lake City’s Gallivan Center — was marred with technical difficulties. There wasn’t enough space for all six bandmates onstage, and the audience couldn’t hear Jackson’s harp on the first song.

The set was mellow, with Hardyman, Jackson and Johnson performing four songs together — and Hardyman singing solo on the fifth, her acoustic guitar adorned with a rainbow strap.

Hardyman kept the vibe pleasant, making jokes and remaining lighthearted.

“You are my family,” Hardyman told the crowd, which stopped talking among themselves when she let out her soprano wails. The band got a few cheers when they started “Wonder Eye,” and some more when Hardyman mentioned their Tiny Desk Contest win.

Little Moon submitted to the Tiny Desk Contest for four years in a row, though Hardyman said they never expected to win.

“It just sort of became a form of almost ritual that I look forward to each year, of being able to just participate and kind of practice out this other realm of presenting myself musically and artistically,” she said.

When the band learned they won, Hardyman said it was hard to believe what was going on.

‘’Have you ever moved to a new place and you’re physically in this new place, but another part of you just hasn’t quite caught up to that reality of being there?” she asked. “It kind of felt like that — where we were kind of instantly transported to this other realm, this other location almost, that my body and my brain just was having a hard time keeping up with the reality.”

That new reality includes headlining on an eight-city concert tour from June 20 to July 8, arranged by NPR, with other performers who competed in the contest as opening acts. The Tiny Desk tour won’t stop in Utah — the itinerary was set before the winner was announced — but Little Moon will be performing Friday, June 16, at Fork Fest in American Fork, which Hardyman sees as a kickoff for the NPR tour.

Hardyman said she feels really grateful for the community — the same Provo club scene that launched Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees — that has supported them.

When Little Moon won, Corey Fox, the longtime owner of Provo’s Club Velour, posted his congratulations on the venue’s Facebook page.

Hardyman, Fox wrote, “is someone who both sings and acts like an angel.” When the club hosted its Les Femmes de Velour festival in February, spotlighting women musicians, Hardyman “showed up every single night to give flowers to all of the other performers,” Fox wrote.

When Little Moon won the contest, Hardyman said, a coffee shop in Provo put up a big banner congratulating the band.

“It’s like a Hallmark movie, a little small town,” she said. “I get really touched.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Moon performs at the Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 2, 2023.

The ‘why’ of ‘Wonder Eye’

Hardyman said she can’t peg why “Wonder Eye” won them the Tiny Desk Contest.

“I wonder if touching on grief and touching on death is weirdly empathetic to a lot of people these days,” she said. “Coming out of a pandemic, that’s a form of death that people have gone through, physical death, death of leaving an organization or a family. … There’s maybe a collective understanding that ‘Oh, death is kind of happening all the time.’”

The song has the sonic qualities of church music — in Hardyman’s haunting vocal range, the angelic backing vocals, and the thoughtful use of orchestral instruments to lift the song.

When asked about the song’s similarity to hymns, Hardyman smiled and said, “anything any artist puts out is a product of what has been put in.”

The song, in addition to its themes of grief and detachment from one’s religion, also pays some homage to the Hardymans’ Latter-day Saint upbringing.

“The thing that I wanted to leave with the church,” Hardyman said, “was breaking out of the idea that it was all or nothing — that you’re either 100% in the church, or you’re 100% out of the church; the idea that a person is is either 100% good, or 100% bad.”

Her Latter-day Saint upbringing, she said, is as much a part of her heritage as being half Latina (equal parts Peruvian and Bolivian) and half white.

“A lot of what [I] care about in my own music is honestly kind of disappointing everybody,” she said with a laugh.

“This has been a product of my life — not being Hispanic enough for my Hispanic friends, not being white enough for my white friends, not being Mormon enough for my Mormon friends. … I have to hold my ground in my own sense of values … it’s a constant exploration of trying to see all parts of myself seeing everything that’s there.”

That exploration is summed up neatly in a line from “Wonder Eye”: “To where we are and where we’ll go.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Moon performs at the Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 2, 2023. Emma Hardyman.

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