Noah Kahan has come to be one of the most dominant figures within the world of modern acoustic music. His rich voice, crushing lyrics and sense of humor have endeared fans to him. Noah and I spoke last fall ahead of his second album, I Was, I Am, after we’d chatted ahead of his debut album. This album addresses growing up and surviving dark periods. In the interview, Noah was his typically self deprecating self, often sounding uncertain, though less exhausted than in our first interview.
Throughout our conversation, Noah references being content with his career being smaller, which is amusing now that he’s greatly surpassed his initial expectations a year prior. His passion has been recognized by an entirely new fanbase, as his success on TikTok has led his career to absolutely explode. His song “Stick Season,” became one of the most popular songs on the app. It peaked at #1 on Spotify’s Viral Songs Chart, climbed up the Spotify US Daily Top 50 & US Daily Top 200 charts, currently sits in the Top 20 at AAA Radio. The song has racked up nearly 30M Spotify streams to date.
Noah’s upcoming track “Northern Attitude,” which drops on September 16, reflects further on themes of isolation. As Noah prepares to release his second album, we revisit our discussion from last fall.
From the Affinity Archives: This interview took place in November of 2021
H: To start, let’s talk about what are you most looking forward to about touring and getting back on the road?
Noah: I’m most looking forward to just the opportunity to play live again, it’s something I think I took for granted a little bit in the past. I just did so much, did so much touring from 2018 to 2020 that I was kind of burnt out a bit and then not being able to do it for two years has really shown me how much I’ve missed it. So I’m just excited to be able to have the opportunity to play live again, play in front of fans. And a lot of this new music is definitely written to play live. So I’m excited for the first time playing these songs that I wrote during quarantine or during the pandemic that I haven’t gotten to play for anyone yet.
SFrom that experience of burnout, did the pandemic offer any kind of comfort or break?
Speaker 2: Totally. The pandemic totally reinvigorated my, you know, my love for making music and my excitement about what my musical career could be. I think before I was very much writing just to kind of stay afloat and just going through the motions, a little bit of songwriting and it felt like a job and the pandemic happened. And, you know, everything stopped and I felt like I was finally able to connect people in the world or understand how it feels to always be struggling to get to zero and trying to stay above water. And everyone was feeling that I felt very comfortable and free to go at my own pace. And there wasn’t a lot of pressure and I found exciting ways to connect with my fans. I got a chance to write more kind of down to earth folk music, and it definitely reinvigorated my love for songwriting and my passion as an artist, really?
Where do you get your folk music interest or inspiration?
Yeah, I just grew up listening to a lot of Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, who are kind of folky singer songwriter legends. And as I grew up, I discovered artists like Greg Ryan, Isaac Cobb, and, you know, artists like Hozier and The Lumineers and some of the greats of that era and that really served as inspiration for me in high school trying to write songs that sounded like them. And, you know, being in New England, just a very naturally beautiful setting, lent itself to folk music for me.
Kind of going back to making music during the pandemic. You released the Cape Elizabeth EP, and from what I’ve heard of your album, it’s very different from the EP, at least to me. How did you make the choice to start developing the EP? During the pandemic.
Yeah, well, the EP was definitely different! I think I Was I Am is more a continuation of Busyhead, which is definitely more pop leaning, more anthemic pop than Cape Elizabeth, which is definitely a very raw, primarily acoustic project. I think in developing the EP, I kind of had two sides of this already I like to do. I love making pop music, but I also love making folk music, and I guess these folk songs have been kind of inside me for a long time. And I had written some parts of them and I just never really signed up to release them and knowing the freedom of that first couple of months of the pandemic allowed me to release that music. It definitely opened the door to people hearing me as a folk artist. And so that was really cool. But at the same time, you know, I’ve been writing many songs that are more poppy, and I wanted to find a place for those two in this next project is that is where that is, where they stand. So I think I like to be able to do both and the freedom to kind of make music that feels real to me in both genres is really cool. So I was grateful for that: The folk EP and I’m also very grateful that I keep getting on a bigger, grander level.
You made that album at home with your brother, your friend. How did that differ from working in a more professional environment?
There’s a couple of things that are really nice about working in a really professional environment.You rise to the occasion for sure. And you know, you’re equipped with the best possible sound people that have had years and years and years of experience, which is super helpful. But what I really liked about working with my friend Finn and my older brother Simon and a couple of songs to help sing some parts was it just felt really raw and grounded. And that’s exactly what the project needed to sound like. I think if you’re trying to make a grand, expansive pop record that has a bunch of different stuff going on, you know, doing that in a professional studio is probably the right fit. But for a project that felt real and raw and down to Earth, doing that with a childhood friend and my little brother was the perfect, perfect venue.
In the same vein of a different collaboration, you have a new collaboration coming out with Joy Oladokun. What was the process like for making that track?
So that song I wrote, was the only song I’ve written completely on Zoom, which I was really… with a writer in Nashville named Todd Clark, which is really cool because I didn’t like Zoom at all, and I felt super intimidated by it. So being able to have that pretty decent song come out of a Zoom session was awesome. And it was just a really soulful song that felt clever and cool and very singer-songwritery. And I’ve been a fan of Joy’s for years, and her voice to me felt like a great fit. And when I finally heard it on the actual track, it was perfect. She’s just an incredible singer, an incredible artist with an amazing story and perspective, and I’m super grateful for her jumping on the song. I think it’s going to transcend the whole thing, so I’m hoping that other people think so too. But I’m just grateful to get to work with artists that I love and that I look up to. So she definitely fits that category.
What does it mean for you to have another person featured on your album and to include them in that project?
I’m just incredibly grateful. I think you’re only as good as — as for me, I feel like having recognition from somebody like Joy who is really, really talented and gifted and could do anything with anybody. Having her decide to work with me on a song is a real compliment to me, to the song. And that’s really special for me, and I’m very grateful for that. In terms of the scope of releasing a song with somebody else, I think what having a feature can do is open people’s eyes up to you. You listen to my voice for 10 tracks and hearing another voice in a song with me can kind of provide a new perspective and a nice shake up in the sonics of the actual project. So I think it just allows people to escape me for a second and listen to somebody else singing.
The album does center around a lot of growth and change, especially bad luck contrasting being 20…Were there specific experiences that were inspiring these tracks and changes?
Yeah, definitely. I think the pandemic forcing you to kind of look backwards a little bit instead of just barreling forward all the time was a really big, a really big eye opener. I had to recognize a lot of parts about myself that I didn’t like and think about why I actually am the way I am now and whether things in my childhood and things in my past that kind of propelled this version of me forward and taking stock of that was something the pandemic definitely forced me to do. For “Godlight,” for example, it was a lot about touring experiences on the road that I was considering. [I was] thinking about who I was as a younger person looking up to a newer version of me and what I would think. That was definitely based on real experience, and I think every song has a piece of me in it. Some of them are more narrative or more stories about somebody else, but they have parts of me in them. But I think every song really is built on experiences of understanding change and accepting where it came from. So there’s definitely real experiences in each of the songs.
What’s it like sharing these, really very small, very intimate reflections with listeners?
Sometimes it’s really scary putting a song out. That is uncomfortable for me to even write and have other people be able to hear it and look into me, it’s hard to opening stuff up to people because then it gets…I grew up with siblings and it’s always been like telling people the truth opens up ammunition for other people or a way people can look at you and, you know, they have this little thing on you that you said yourself, and you can’t deny it, and that just scares me. It’s a real insecurity of mine. But what I have seen is other peoples’ songs and that willingness to be vulnerable like help other people. And so I feel an obligation to continue to put out honesty that I know has an effect for the positive on people that are struggling with the same issues. So it’s really scary, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it 100 hundred times. I continue to do that as an obligation to my fans and to people that are listening to my music as a way to get through their own shit.
You talked a lot on the album about dark times and brutality. Was it inspired by the pandemic or did that just offer the opportunity to relate to it now?
I think like the shit that happens to us in our lives and you kind of and you internalize it and it comes out in one way or the other. I think, like I wasn’t thinking like, ‘Oh, it’s a pandemic. I want to write these songs about like mortality and recognizing the fleeting nature of like happiness or whatever.’ But I think it did affect me in that way, and I think it sounds kind of like a subconscious that can have subconscious effect on the songwriting. I think everyone’s been affected by this, and I think it comes out in different ways for people. For me, like I diet and like my eating, my drinking and my diet got way worse and I didn’t realize what’s happening because of the pandemic. But it’s like it makes it make sense of this crazy event has had an effect, a traumatic effect on people, and I think that came through in the music as well. At the end of the day, like in the process of like putting instruments down, like this angst in it and there’s like tension in it and there’s like a feeling of uncertainty for sure in the music. And I think that definitely comes from the pandemic. And I know it’s affecting people all over the world in many different ways. And that’s how that’s how it affected me, for sure.
What was your process like while recording this album?
It was cool. It was very, very 2020. So I recorded it with Joel Little and Mark Rankin. Mark, who was Joel’s place in L.A., and Joel was in New Zealand. So he was on a monitor and we would go to the studio at 3 PM when it was morning time in New Zealand, and we would record it with Joel kind of taking the reins and telling me what to do, and it was very cool to record it remotely. And Joel was really gifted at making himself feel like he’s a part of your artistic passion, even if he’s not in the room. And that really came through it. And it was really cool to be able to know that he was so far away, but still feeling right there, while being able to have his guidance musically and be so intimate, even though he was so far away.
What’s it like working with such massive names in music? I know you’ve been working with Joel for a while, but is it ever intimidating?
No, no, not at all. He’s an incredibly down-to-earth guy. He’s known me for a long time. I mean, I’m a massive fan all the way back to ‘Royals’ by Lorde. Every day going into the studio gets you a little bit intimidated. But I don’t know. I’ve long since dropped the notion that I was going to be…like, I’m not like a superstar kind of person. I just am happy that I get to work with someone that likes the music. And I really think he propels the music forward. And I know that he isn’t looking at me like, ‘You’re going to be the next Dua Lipa!’ He’s like, ‘You’re Noah,’ and he knows what he needs to do to make my music sound like me. And I’m grateful for how much his work has advanced what I’ve done.
What music would you say sounds like you?
I think usually the songs are pretty anthemic. I think [they’re] pretty self-explanatory, lyrically driven. A lot of them are kind of hard on your sleeve musically, big booming choruses and introspective verses. I guess emotional music. Songs that feel kind of brutally honest, sometimes pretty soft. Sell some self-deprecating themes in there, for sure.
Do you think that your sound itself is changing? What changed in the last few years since your last album?
I don’t really know, it’s a really good question, and I think my sound is…I think what I try to do when I make music is, I never approach things to make a different sound. I think as I evolve as a person, the music changes and it slowly changes and the things I’m listening to inspire what I’m trying to make. So there’s definitely some evolution of sound. I don’t know. I feel like saying yes would make it seem more complicated than it is. I think I’ll leave it up to the fans, but I feel like there’s definitely evolution in the lyrics and the concepts, and I think the sound has definitely changed and gotten a little more mature. But I guess we’ll see.
What would you feel this album is different from from your last, Busyhead?
I think Busyhead was very uncertain…[it was] a record about uncertainty and kind of feeling like a fish out in the sea a little bit in the middle nowhere, in terms of my emotional state and my place in the music industry and my place in the world. And I Was I Am, I think, is more grounded in an understanding of where I’m at and that’s accepting that I don’t know where I’m at. And I don’t know where I’m going to be or who I want to be. But I know that I’m in a place where I can accept who I am, what I’ve been through and try to start taking steps to get better. So I think I Was I Am is more grounded in an understanding. Busyhead was kind of like, ‘Where the f*ck am I, what’s going on?’ and I Was I Am is like, ‘All right, here I am. It’s f*cked up, but hopefully it’s going to get better. And at least we know we’re at.’
When we last talked over two years ago, you discussed putting this immense pressure on yourself. How has that changed? Has it changed? Are we going to hear that in any music?
You know, I don’t think it’s changed that much. I definitely still put a lot of pressure on myself. I think releasing Cape Elizabeth was super helpful for that, though. I was able to just do one week of recording a project, putting it out, not knowing when anyone’s going to think and not expecting a lot and people really liking it was like, ‘Oh, OK, I don’t have to like completely annihilate myself all the time to make music that everyone in the world doesn’t think is amazing, like I can just make music that I love. And if my fans like it, that’s enough for me.’ So that was definitely helpful. I still put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and to make successful songs, and it’s usually a pretty fruitless effort I’m realizing. I never end up actually being satisfied. So I’m trying actively every day to be, you know, more grounded and just be happy with the fact that I’m going to make music that some people connect with and that I like.
Connecting to that and the final question, what do you want fans to take from this album?
I would love for people to hear this album, maybe we reflect a little bit on what brought them to where they are in life and how your past shapes you and to maybe let go some of that. I think letting go of the past while also acknowledging it is a really healthy tool for moving forward, and I hope that — I’m still working on every day — and hope, and I hope that people hear this project and give themselves some freedom to forgive themselves for whatever happened in their lives. They should forgive others and move forward and try to be better. Otherwise, I hope that they like it and then come to a show and buy a T-shirt or something.
Noah Kahan is touring with Stephen Sanchez this fall. Tickets are available now, though he’s sold out 26 of 27 cities. You can get tickets so you can come to a show and buy a t-shirt.