Sea Lion Spotlight of the Week: Meet Noël Tsoukalas

Noël Tsoukalas and her partner for acoustics Logan Manning Photo courtesy of Tsoukalas

With four singles, an appearance on American Idol, over 11,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and shows across the West Coast as well as Nashville, Tennessee, singer-songwriter and pianist, Noël Tsoukalas is a third-year commercial music major with a minor in business marketing at Point Loma Nazarene University, and she is making a name for herself. 

Tsoukalas’s parents are unlike most and they’ve played prominent roles in her life.

Her father, Steve Tsoukalas, is a former lead singer of his rock ‘n’ roll band Tsouky & The Memories where they toured in Boston, Massachusetts, for 20 years before going to school to become a world religions professor.

 “I think that’s where I got it [singing] from,” Tsoukalas said.

 Steve still performs gigs to this day.

Sandy Richter, Tsoukalas’s mother, is a world-renowned Old Testament scholar, author, international speaker and current professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, teaching Old Testament, Hebrew and environmentalism.

With professors as parents, Tsoukalas never settled in one place growing up as her parents’ careers involved frequent job changes to different universities.

Tsoukalas was born in Wilmore, Kentucky and lived there for six years, until she moved to Madison, Mississippi where they lived for four years, then Wheaton, Illinois for her middle school years until eventually settling in Santa Barbara during her freshman year of high school. 

Tsoukalas found that moving around was a significant part of shaping who she is now.

“It was hard because we never stayed put and I had been to so many different schools, but I think it really taught me how to go into something that’s scary or unusual and dive into it,” Tsoukalas said. “It taught me how to be friends with anyone and be able to relate to a bunch of different people from all over.”

Tsoukalas noted that living in Southern California jump-started her music career.

“I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a career in music anywhere else. This is the place to be,” Tsoukalas said. “I’m very thankful for that.”

Having a father with experience in the music industry and a passion for the career, Tsoukalas feels like she was able to both learn from him and grow individually as an artist.

“I got the gift from him and he’s so incredibly talented. Seeing him be a musician in my life very much influenced me, but it was also me finding that this was my passion by myself,” Tsoukalas said.

Throughout high school, Tsoukalas was a member of the choir. However, where she loved singing was at home with her piano. 

“My piano at home is my sacred space,” Tsoukalas said. 

Making the decision to study music in college, Tsoukalas came down to studying either at Berklee College of Music in Boston or PLNU. 

“Berklee is an incredible opportunity but it’s constantly music which can get really draining and competitive,” said Tsoukalas. “Going to Point Loma [Nazarene University], it’s been nice because I can have friends who aren’t musicians.”

Tsoukalas said PLNU’s location was the smarter choice for her.

“Los Angeles is where everything is happening. It’s two hours away, so I can play gigs on a school night; whereas Boston isn’t really where the music is,” Tsoukalas said.

Coming into PLNU, initially as a business and music double major, Tsoukalas wasn’t confident in fully embodying music as a career yet.

“I was really scared to dive into music in college because there’s no certain career path for it, but they [Tsoukalas’s parents] were both so supportive,” said Tsoukalas. “They were like ‘It’s time for you to dive fully into it. You’re young, and you love it; just do it.’ And that was a very monumental moment for me.”

PLNU’s monthly event, Musoffee, was Tsoukalas’s first-ever show in front of a large audience as a first-year.

“After my first Musoffee, I just thought I want to do this forever, this is so fun,” Tsoukalas said.

Tsoukalas joined PLNU’s concert choir in her first year and is still a member. According to Tsoukalas, she’s gotten to experience opportunities such as traveling abroad to Europe while also applying what she learned to her own career.

“I’ve learned how to learn music quickly, sight read, and blend,” Tsoukalas said.

Tsoukalas’s friend and a fourth-year in PLNU’s music department, Logan Manning, is one of the people who inspired her to begin taking her music seriously. 

According to Tsoukalas, they were in the music room one day and he encouraged her to play one of her originals for him. She played a song she wrote her junior year of high school, “The Girl in Your Story.”

“I was not very confident in my music abilities. But my friend, Logan Manning made me play it and said ‘We need to get this out.’ He just believed in me,” Tsoukalas said.

“The Girl in Your Story” is Tsoukalas’ first single, produced in 2022 with the help of Manning.

Ever since then, according to Tsoukalas, they have been performing gigs and working together to produce her songs.

The summer after her first year of college, Tsoukalas began performing shows at the restaurant she worked at back home in Santa Barbara named Longboards. 

According to Tsoukalas, she suggested investing in live music for Longboards as it was on the pier, and that became her weekly gig where she performed twice a week with a band.

To improve her sound outside of campus involvement, Tsoukalas began online vocal lessons with her teacher Corinne Dekker out of high school, and continues today. 

Dekker was who got Tsoukalas the opportunity to audition for the singing competition and television series, American Idol, in the summer of 2022. 

Dekker had a friend, who was one of the casting producers for American Idol, from the Berklee College of Music get Tsoukalas a FOL [front of the line pass] that allowed her to audition first out of the state of California. 

The audition to compete in American Idol, according to Tsoukalas, was held over Zoom where she was in a breakout room with nearly 600 other people for five hours.

Eyes glued to the screen ready to audition at any second, Tsoukalas remembers, she got a notification that read, “The producer will take you in 20 seconds to a breakout room” where she sang her best for 15 seconds and was told she was moving on to the next round of that audition.

After three rounds she was finished for the day and received a call the next day where she needed to be on another Zoom with the producer and performed “The Girl in Your Story.”

On the third day of the audition, the casting producers told Tsoukalas she’d be flying to New Orleans, Louisiana in October to audition in front of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie for season 21 of American Idol.

“They played it up and said ‘We have some bad news, you’re going to have to miss some school to fly out.’ It was just crazy,” said Tsoukalas.

Her audition day was very hectic, according to Touskalas.

 “I was so nervous. I didn’t even know when I was going and a random producer pulled me aside and said ‘You’re going to go soon,’” Tsoukalas said.

She performed “The Girl in Your Story” on the piano for the judges.

“It [‘The Girl in Your Story’] was very personal and that’s scary to show to people. But I really wanted to stay myself through this whole experience and what better way to do that than sing the first song I ever wrote,” Tsoukalas said.

After her performance, according to Tsoukalas, Katy Perry asked her to perform “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles. “Luckily I knew the song but I had to pull chords out of thin air and play and sing. I think it was adrenaline because I didn’t know how to play it,” Tsoukalas said.

According to Tsoukalas after both performances, she received all three yeses and got a ticket to Hollywood for the second round of the competition.

A key takeaway from that experience for Tsoukalas was Lionel Richie encouraging her to write more songs. 

Two months later in December, Tsoukalas made her way to Hollywood where she worked with Bruno Mars’ pianist Phredley Brown to perform “Anyone” by Demi Lovato. 

She made it to the top 150 before being eliminated, according to Tsoukalas.

“Everyone there was so talented. Most of them were signed with record labels and one of them was a pop star in a foreign country,” Tsoukalas said.

Tsoukalas formed many connections with other artists during her time there.

“Those connections have stayed with me and it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” said Tsoukalas.

One of those connections got her a show in Nashville, Tennessee.

From the experience as a whole, Tsoukalas walked away a developed and humbled musician.

“I learned that you never know when your moment’s going to happen and you just need to be ready for that,” said Tsoukalas. “You need to be kind, humble and supportive. It taught me there are so many talented musicians in the world, but what makes you stand out is if you’re ready for that one little moment.”

To increase the chances of her audition getting aired on national television, according to Tsoukalas, she needed a new single so listeners and viewers could find her and listen to newer music. 

With the season having aired in February 2023, Tsoukalas got her second single “Middle of May” produced in March.

 “It was kind of a rushed thing, but I love the song — it’s one of my favorites,” Tsoukalas said.

In July of 2023, “Hobby” was released with help from Manning and brought Tsoukalas the most traffic she’s had so far in her career with over 80,000 streams on Spotify. 

More recently in November, her song “Hobby” was released as an acoustic version. 

According to Tsoukalas, the person she worked with on her original “Hobby” tracked the acoustic guitar and had that version, so she decided to release it.

 “If it’s [“Hobby”] doing well, I might as well just put it out. And I like it a lot,” said Tsoukalas. 

Music is more than an art for Tsoukalas, it engages with her mind and life.

“It’s my way of processing my emotions. I think it’s so cool that you can take something, like an experience that you want to remember, and put it into a song; something that people can relate to,” said Tsoukalas.

Songwriting is a different experience every time for Tsoukalas. According to her, “Hobby” was written in a day, but that’s not always the case. 

“I start at the piano. But sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and write down a lyric or take a voice memo in my car,” said Tsoukalas. “But if I really need to get something out, I’ll go to my piano, close the door and experiment with different chords and start putting melody to lyrics.”

At least once a week, Tsoukalas performs somewhere in San Diego whether that’s through Sofar Sounds or at Winstons Beach Club.

Looking to the future, Tsoukalas is currently working with producers and songwriters from Texas, gaining material to potentially produce an album.

“The goal is to get six good songs bundled and start developing my sound,” Tsoukalas said.

A piece of advice Tsoukalas would give to someone who is hesitant about taking that first step into pursuing music is to just start somewhere. 

“Get your stuff out, start writing, don’t be afraid that it’s not good. Life is too short to not go for your dreams — cheesy, but true. We’re 20, 21, some of us 18, we’re so young. Show people your music,” Tsoukalas said.