How Noah Kahan Seized His Moment

We caught up with the New England singer/songwriter about his smash hit Stick Season, writing about mental health and putting care and kindness into every record

Music Features Noah Kahan
How Noah Kahan Seized His Moment

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know all about Noah Kahan, the folk singer/songwriter from New England who’s taken the world by storm with his smash hit third LP, Stick Season. After breaking out with “Hurt Somebody” in 2017, the buzz around Kahan has never been louder, as he’s amassed over 11-million monthly listeners on Spotify, and the Stick Season title track alone has 172-million streams so far. He’s on a fast-track to a Best New Artist nomination at the 2024 Grammy Awards, and he recently finished the first leg of a sold-out tour that moved almost half-a-million tickets.

Last month, Kahan released the deluxe-edition of Stick Season, which features “Dial Drunk,” a huge folk track that has already racked up 37-million listens in its short life. Last night, he released a new edition of the song done in collaboration with Post Malone. With the next chunk of his North American tour itinerary restarting later this month, we caught up with Kahan to chat all things Stick Season, writing about mental health, sharing a bill with the Lumineers, putting care into every record he makes and how a performance of Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” spurred a lifelong love for performing.

Paste Magazine: I feel like you’ve taken over the world.

Noah Kahan: Man, I appreciate you saying that. I am sitting at my dad’s house doing chores for him, so I still feel very small. But I appreciate the perception.

PM: The origin story of Noah Kahan dates back to when you were 8 years old and writing songs about boat journeying. Do you remember a moment growing up where you gravitated towards music in a way that made you realize it was what you were meant to do?

NK: I think there were a few different moments growing up. As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a musician. My dad and I played “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens at an old folks’ home in Hanover, New Hampshire—which probably wasn’t the best choice for an old folks’ home, since it’s all about how old people don’t understand the youth. I don’t know why we chose that song, but it was the moment that I realized performing was something I always wanted to do. My first CD of my own was American Idiot by Green Day and I read the inside flap, I read every lyric. I just couldn’t believe that people were allowed to make music and tell stories and it could be a real job. I think playing that first song with my dad made me realize that there was a career there—and I never really wanted anything else from when I was seven or eight years old until now.

PM: I love “Father and Son,” but definitely not the best for an old folks’ home. It makes me emo and I’m 25.

NK: Hopefully they didn’t perceive it as my opinion on old people at the time. I was just like, “I love this song, my dad and I sing it together.” My dad taught me the chords and guitar, so it was just a really special thing to do with him. And it sparked that interest in music and performing.

PM: Aside from King Tuff, Grace Potter and Anaïs Mitchell, Vermont doesn’t have the musical history that is as forward in the cultural zeitgeist as a bustling hub like Chicago or California or New York. But what is it about the Green Mountain State that most folks should know about, in regards to its music community?

NK: There’s a lot of great players and performers from Vermont, and I grew up around a lot of amazing musicians. There were so many great musicians, a lot of great classical musicians and a lot of great band players. There’s some smaller bands like The Devil Makes Three, and that inspired me growing up. I would always do the Vermont singer/songwriter contests, where I got to see all these other people—that I didn’t realize had been making music in Vermont—get a chance to showcase their talents. It really inspired me, to see people that were from where I was from who were trying to do music—because, like you said, there weren’t a lot of huge influences or huge examples of people that had really forged a career for themselves. I think getting a chance to meet the local musicians and the people that were starting their own journeys in music when I was really helped inspire me to keep going and it showed me that there is a good music community here and you just have to find it.

PM: You and I, we are around the same age and we both were raised on the type of internet where virality was huge. You know, we watched Vine die and maybe, initially, felt like we hadn’t been invited to the TikTok party when it got big. As someone who is engaged online with his fans, be it on TikTok or Twitter, how have you witnessed the way the internet can, essentially, help cultivate parts of a career that simply writing and releasing music can’t?

NK: I think I learned on the go, like a lot of other people did. I was pretty late to TikTok. I always felt like, “Oh, that’s the dancing thing.” Even on Vine, I always fell out of the loop on what was going on. And TikTok, I certainly—initially—felt that way. I was just like, “I don’t know what this thing is. A lot of people are using it, but it seems like another way for me to waste my days away.” So I avoided it for a while and then I posted a couple of songs—little covers, a couple of vocal impressions and then some original stuff—and I started to realize how cool of a way it is to reach a new audience. I had really been building my audience on Instagram and Twitter, and it didn’t feel like I had a ton of reach. It would reach my fans and they were really dedicated, but TikTok was exposing me to new people, which I thought was really cool.

And then, as I kept making music and writing for this last album, I was able to demo songs on TikTok. I would write something and be like, “I think this is cool, let’s see if people enjoy this.” And people could really breathe new life into the songs and cultivate a lot of confidence in something and allow me to remember that it’s worth continuing to work on—because I have a pretty bad barometer for what’s good or bad. I’ll think something’s really good and then someone else might not like it. So, I’m like, “Okay, it’s bad.” And then people like it and I’m like, “Okay, maybe this is worth looking at again.” TikTok was a great tool for that. It’s been a great way to introduce myself to new audiences and also find out about a lot of musicians that I’ve since collaborated with. It’s been cool for discovery.

PM: Stick Season isn’t just a lyrically dense, rewarding collection of storytelling. It’s a turn from the indie pop you were making on Busyhead back in 2019. What was it that pushed you into the folk realm initially on I Was / I Am and then steadfastly on Stick Season?

NK: From a really young age, I was playing Cat Stevens and listening to Paul Simon. As I got a little older, I got really into the Avett Brothers and Counting Crows and Bon Iver and Phoebe Bridgers. These are artists that I’ve always loved, and I tried to—as I was making the more indie pop stuff—introduce some of the lyricsm and the storytelling that I really admired into the music. The indie pop felt like what I was always supposed to and it was where I started, but it got to a point where it no longer felt like what I wanted. I felt like I was trying to combine this folky storytelling with pop production, but then I realized the pop production actually wasn’t moving me anymore.

What was really making me happy was just going home after a session and writing a little story or a little folk song that, maybe, I wouldn’t show to the world, but it could work the muscle out that I started building when I was a little kid listening to that music. Going on Instagram live and teasing and workshopping some of these songs in front of a really amazing fan base, it really cultivated my confidence in the folkier side of things. I kind of just decided to attack it, because it was making me really happy. To just lean into it, it felt so right. Whereas, the stuff that I had been doing started to feel more like work to me than creative fulfillment.

PM: You just wrapped up the first leg of your Stick Season tour, which is sold out. I mean, almost 400,000 tickets have been sold, just so folks can catch you play these songs for an hour or two every night. When you get out on stage in front of everyone and they’re singing along and there’s this cord of love and healing between you and your audiences, does the energy or the reverence ever really fade away? Once you’ve shared that space with people, how does that spur you into the next phase of your life?

NK: I think I have a hard time coming home after tour. It’s a really hard transition, especially because, by the end of the tour, you’re like, “Man, I just need to get away for a second and escape.” And then, getting away and escaping, you don’t allow for a smooth transition from this really crazy lifestyle to this sedentary, slow lifestyle that is coming home to your own town. It can be pretty jarring for me. I have a hard time just adjusting. What I try to do is be around people that ground me, be around folks that are going to be excited for me but not allowe that to become the only topic of conversation—because the shows have been so incredibly special and have been so world-chaning. For me, just having spent a lot of time on the road and getting to this place and feeling like it’s all coming together and seeing people in the audience who look like they’re having the best night of their lives—providing that experience for people and having them provide such an incredible performing experience for me, it’s so special that it does feel hard to come out and try to block it all out.

So, I’ve been trying to let myself process how it’s been feeling and let myself remember the moments that made me happy, but also remember that there is a space for relaxation and letting go of that for a second. Looking at the schedule, I have a lot more to come—so I need to remind myself, in these moments that are off, that I have to be off and have to allow myself to take a second to breathe and not be on my phone so much and not be thinking about me as much. It’s a really self-centered job, to be a musician. Inherently, it requires a lot of self-promotion and self-analysis, and I think that can be healthy and good, but I also think it can be dangerous and inflating. I try to let myself deflate when I get home.

PM: Something I’ve always appreciated about your work and your musicianship is that you are always advocating for rest. You’ve talked about burnout and anxiety and mental health a lot in your career, even taking internet and press breaks while away from tour and recording. What has been your most surefire way of taking care of yourself when the industry turns into a competitive, exhausting fixture you have to be immersed in?

NK: One thing that really helps me is I have a lot of friends who work very different jobs and work very hard. I try to remember how lucky I am to have a job where I’m able to take breaks and where people have a lot of respect for mental health. I know it’s not as prevelant in the music industry as I think anyone would like, but it’s a lot harder in a lot of other places. The ability to take that space, what I’m incredibly grateful for is the understanding of my fans. I don’t think my fans are expecting me to be online all the time or always giving them all of myself—and I think that’s how it should be. But, in reality, they’re all very understanding and supportive. I’ve been given that freedom from them to take time for myself, which is really special.

I find that the most surefire way to decompress is just to, for me, talk to a therapist. I see a therapist when I’m on the road and I see a therapist when I’m off the road. It’s important to always be keeping a check on yourself, regardless of the environment. There are real challenges with being on tour and a lot of real challenges with being off of it, and I’m grateful to have a wonderful therapist who helps me get through those things.

PM: You’re also a big advocate for writing about family, whether that’s by deconstructing generational mental illness or singing lovingly about moms or dogs, etc. What is it about the immediate parts of your life that pushes you to unpack those intimacies in music? When does the therapy session of songwriting transform into a reflective answer?

NK: I think what helped a lot was, growing up, my mom is and was a best-selling author. My mom wrote amazing books with a lot of nonfiction and she was an amazing resource for me, from a writing perspective. She and my dad always allowed me to talk openly about what I was feeling and my mental health. We spoke a lot about their mental health being passed down to us. And that is how it is, right? You get a lot of stuff from your parents, and mine were always very open about it. There wasn’t really that taboo that exists in a lot of other peoples’ lives and a lot of cultures, about talking to your parents about mental illness. I never blamed them, it wasn’t their fault—just like it’s not my fault.

But, I was always able to understand that as where it came from, and I inherited many things from my parents, many wonderful qualities and also some qualities that are trickier to deal with. I’ve always felt very comfortable talking about them and talking about my parents is a good way for me to process my family life and my own life. I’ve always used music as my way of expressing how I was feeling. I think, sometimes, I would write stuff off when I was a kid. My parents would be like, “Oh, Jesus Christ, I didn’t know you were feeling that at all.” And I still feel like I need to do that. Having my parents go through their own challenges and being home for a lot of it and seeing that firsthand, music has just been a way for me to process that. And I do always try to do it in a respectful way towards their feelings and their privacy—and they’ve been just more than gracious about me approaching it that way. It helps me understand them and it also helps me understand myself and why I’m the way that I am.

PM: I want to talk about the song “Dial Drunk.” It’s such a beautiful track that wasn’t on the initial release of Stick Season. When you went to make this deluxe edition of the album, how did that song in particular germinate for you, and did you think it was going to hit #1 on different streaming charts?

NK: No, definitely not. I think the reaction surprised me. From the demo phase to the final transformation of the song, it started to come together for me and make sense as a single. But, you know, I wrote it with my guitar player, Noah Levine, in Boston in his apartment at Berklee. We were just having fun, and I wanted to write a song about someone that’s a villain but, sometimes, people can see themselves in. I think, a lot of times, it’s easy to be negative about yourself and to think about yourself in the worst possible way. So, the truth is always somewhere in-between. I wanted to approach the more negative side of somebody who’s being really toxic and getting drunk and calling somebody that, maybe, he doesn’t want to hear from anymore. But there is a sympathetic side of vulnerability in that, and a desperation that I think a lot of people can relate to. I know I can relate to the feeling that, even though what you might be doing is wrong, it still feels like something that is right for a relationship—even though that might be a really misguided thought.

I had fun with that, with writing the villain. It felt really simple, which I feel like all of my favorite songs are, and we finished the song and we sat with it for a few months. I would come back to it and play with my guitar player on the tour bus or I would just play it in my car. I almost feel like, after Stick Season, I was hesitant to even think of any new song as a single. I was still living so much in that record and trying to have my relationship with those songs. This new one came along kind of out of nowhere and, I guess, it just stuck in my head for long enough that it felt like it had to be recorded.

And when we recorded it in the studio for the final version of the deluxe, it really came together as a special song. Gabe Simon did an incredible job helping me bring it from more of a straight-forward folk demo into an almost pop-punk, folk sound—which I thought was really cool and unique. We had a lot of fun making it, and it definitely transformed a lot from the first time we wrote it to when we finished it. It became almost a different song, in that way.

PM: What made you want to go back to Stick Season and, essentially, release it again with seven extra chapters? Was there something left unsaid a year ago?

NK: There was so much more of the story that I wanted to tell. The feeling of creative freedom that I had on Stick Season was so potent and so—I don’t know—intense and addictive that I didn’t want to leave that space. I felt like I had more to give, musically. This was my first experience in a long time making songs that felt so creatively right and so fulfilling. I felt like I had a lot of control over my pen on [Stick Season], so I wanted to come back and give people more music. I wanted to tell a story that leaned more into accepting someone leaving and being gracious and kind. It’s someone who’s leaving their hometown or in someone’s relationship with their hometown—I wanted to introduce that side of it, as well. I felt like there was a lot of hope and beauty and understanding [on the original release], but there wasn’t as much as I would have liked. I felt like there was a lot of bitterness, and I think that’s okay—but I wanted to introduce a little bit of acceptance in the deluxe version. And I also knew that this was a record I wanted to tour for a long time. Having a few more songs on the record and givine people more music to consume and get excited about helped lengthen that touring cycle and keep peoples’ interests in mind.

PM: Your set at Boston Calling this year was huge, and you took the green stage right before the headlining Lumineers, who, really, were a part of that movement in the early 2010s that helped reinvigorate the cultural interest in folk pop. What do you remember about playing a hometown, New England gig in front of 10,000 people and sharing a bill with the Lumineers?

NK: That was a really amazing moment. The Lumineers made some of the first songs I ever covered on the guitar. My cousin and I would play “Ho Hey” at Thanksgiving for years. I watched every single video they ever made, obsessively and religiously, so to be on the same bill and actually be able to become friends with Wes [Schultz], it’s been a really amazing moment. I just appreciate them allowing that music to be created through what they did, through bands like Mumford & Sons—they stand on the shoulders of many other great influences. But, like you said, they really did popularize bringing back that folk pop into the zeitgeist, which I’m really grateful for. After a few years, the pendulum kind of swung away from that type of music in the mainstream—on the radio—for a little while.

I’m really glad that that music is getting a chance to shine, because I think it allows for great storytelling and it allows a lot of space for critical thinking. Folk music has always been at the center of protest music and music that critiques and reflects society—and I’m not sitting here and claiming to be doing anything groundbreaking or generational or revolutionary, but it allows for a space to tell stories that really speaks to truth. And I appreciate that. There’s so many great art forms that do that, but I’ve always thought that folk music was a really strong one. Bands like the Lumineers allow room for other artists like me to continue making this music.

PM: You’re a big fan of romanticizing your hometown, which I adore, because I, too, am from a place that’s not so distinctly in the eyes of the rest of the world—and perhaps I’m from a place that is sometimes forgotten. What is the artistic—or even humanistic—merit, from your perspective, of paying respects to the place you came from?

NK: I think, whether we like it or not, where we’re from will always play a part in our lives. I think we can allow more or less of it, but I think it will always be something that is a part of us. For me, in particular, my hometown has always been a very magnetic force. For me, it’s been a source of a lot of pain and a lot of moments of hardship. But it’s also been a source of so many moments of beauty. And, as I’ve gotten older, it’s always been a place where I felt comfortable. As a touring musician, I’ve always been shuttled around the world and I’ve lived in a few different places for a year or eight months at a time—but I’ve never really felt like that home was there, since I’m moving around so much.

When I come back to Vermont, when I hang out in New Hampshire, I feel comfortable in a way that I don’t in a lot of places. I also find that there is a lot unknown about the places we’re from. I don’t know a lot about the Rust Belt and I don’t know a lot about Ohio—and I’m sure there are a ton of musicians who have made music about it, but not a ton that are on major labels or having a chance to be in the mainstream. I’ve been really lucky and privileged to have a large platform. And I wanted to show people with that platform and with my exposure that I have to a lot of people, what it’s like where I’m from—and not just the good parts, but the parts that are tricky and hard.

What’s been really cool is seeing people from all different types of towns and all different types of small towns around the country—not just New England—feel heard and feel seen by that. That’s been a really cool victory for this record, and I think it’s allowing people to re-evaluate their own connections with their hometowns through this music, whether it’s about New England or it’s about somewhere in Europe or Africa. I think people find those connections to small town life everywhere, and that’s been really special.

PM: Stick Season is a year old, yet it’s blossomed into this huge musical phenomenon in the folk music circles. It’s made you a household name in a lot of ways. After getting attention with “Hurt Somebody” six years ago and then making two albums that didn’t break through in the same way, what do you learn about being a musician when a record, to put it simply, does blow up like Stick Season has?

NK: I’ve always felt incredibly supported and, in my own ways, known in any way that I’ve ever needed to be. Being able to sell 1,000 tickets in every venue, which I was able to do before Stick Season came out, was a lifelong dream and a complete miracle to me—so I’ve never approached it thinking like, “I need more, I need more.” But, what I’ve learned about music—and what I’ve learned is the most important thing—has been, in the past couple of years, I can do what makes me really happy and what feels fulfilling and have a real audience for it.

It was definitely a scary leap to think “Hey, I’m making a change, because this music makes me happy and it’s exciting to write and I don’t care who likes it.” To see people like it and respond to it is the most gratifying and confidence-building thing in the world. I think, keeping my North Star as creative fulfillment and happiness and knowing that it can lead to success is something that I’ll always approach music with. And realizing that the lyrics can be specific, that I can write a record about New England and have it connect all over the world, is the biggest signifier of relatability. I’ve always connected to specificity and I think that’s a really cool phenomenon, being able to relate to someone’s unique past. I’ve always thought that could be a really cool way for me to proceed, moving forward—being specific and being honest and watching people find their own connections to it.

PM: You recently tweeted something that I’ve wrestled with in my own creative work, which is that you’re trying to resist the urge to make your fourth album and let yourself go out and do the work of living through something first. When it comes to songwriting, how hard is it to keep up with the expedited cycles of writing and recording and releasing while also trying to consider all of the joys, wonders and difficulties everyday life brings to you?

NK: It is hard. I do have a real perfectionist, workaholic mindset when it comes to music. I’m always trying to write, and I’ll wake up and, if I’m not writing a song, I’ll be like, “What the hell am I doing? I don’t have a job.” And the truth is, I do have a job and I’ve been working hard on the road and I need to give myself the time. Life always finds its way to me, one way or another. There is something that will come and inspire me. And, even if I don’t feel like I’m waiting for it or ready for it, it happens. So, I’ve been trying to just force myself to not jump back in—and it really has been a process of “I can pick up a guitar today, or I could go fishing and hang out with a friend who I haven’t seen in a while.” Those are two very different things that achieve two really important things. I could sit down and write and not have anything to write about, or I could go out and fish and, maybe, have a conversation with my buddy that sparks a song that comes out a little later.

I think, just allowing for that space and allowing myself to have the ability to make a choice—instead of feeling like “No, I can’t do that. I have to sit at home and stare at my computer screen or stare at the notebook.” I think, whatever I do on the next record, I want it to feel as creatively fulfilling as this last one did. And I want it to feel as soul-filling as the last one did. I think that, if I sit down and force the record out right now, I could probably do it—but I don’t think I would care about it as much. I never want to not care again. That was the worst feeling, not caring. I just want to care.

Watch Noah Kahan’s Paste studio session from 2019 here.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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