After spending the last two years searching for clarity, Noah Kahan is reintroducing himself in his sophomore album, I Was / I Am.
On Monday morning, I was greeted with a readily self -deprecating comment from the one and only, Noah Kahan.
After thanking him for being on the cover of MUD’s September issue, he said, “Are you sure? Really think about it. Really.” Even through a computer screen, his down-to-earth personality and unwavering sense of humor quickly made me feel right at home.
Noah Kahan stepped into the music scene with his hit single featuring Julia Michaels, “Hurt Somebody” back in 2018, which is how most of us discovered the Vermont singer. Since then, he’s established his footing as a pop/folk songwriting god, releasing several pieces of work including his debut album Busyhead, and, most recently, his sophomore album, I Was / I Am.
Hailing from a small town called Strafford in the Green Mountain State, Noah recently uprooted his life to move to the quaint neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn. For the flannel-wearing, mountain-loving artist, this move may seem off brand, but Noah is confident that New York is the best place for him to be in this moment–as a musician and a person.
“It’s a compromise right now. Eventually, I want to just live in the woods with nobody around me, but I gotta make some money first,” Noah said.
Switching up cities is not the only change he’s made over these past few years. He also got a dog, a German Shepherd named Penny, who loves to walk around the neighborhoods and parks of her new home. The past year also gave Noah a chance to reconnect with himself outside the studio. After two years without it due to touring and traveling, he’s gotten more comfortable with therapy, and accepting that he can’t always solve his own problems. How else has he been coping? He took up cooking (his specialty is a Mexican rice bowl). While he admits that’s the only dish he can really make, he thinks it’s so good that he could publish his own cookbook. He jokingly said he’s “on some Martha Stewart shit.”
And last but not least, Noah’s shifted his focus from trying to be “the best songwriter ever” to simply creating things that he’s proud of.
“I always wanted to be the best, be ‘The Man’ and sell out every show, and I think that was my ego. I was never going to be satisfied no matter what happened. I’ve had a lot of unbelievable, fortunate successes in my life, I’ve gotten things I’ve wanted since I was a little kid and met people I’ve never thought I’d meet, and to be honest, none of it ever actually satisfied me in the way I thought it would. It was always, ‘oh now I want this next thing and this.’ Now, I just try to be happy with what I have and understand that no amount of outward success is going to truly satisfy me, so I try to find things that make me happy and things that I can be proud of forever,” Noah said.
He’s taking the emphasis off the high artists usually get from mainstream success, and instead he’s choosing to do things that fulfill him. Sounds like a plan for longevity and happiness.
His second musical child, I Was / I Am, is a product of isolation, change, and growth.
For example, “Godlight” is about Noah looking back on his past self with warning and disdain for letting all the eyes and attention get to his head, instead of just focusing on the music. In a way, it’s clear that he wrote this song to make his younger self proud.
When I asked him to describe the album in a few words, he said, “Ironically, we made an album about changing, while staying in one place.”
“In my life, I feel like I’m struggling behind people that are working really hard and I’m always trying to just fight my way back to zero, and COVID hitting felt like everyone was there at zero with me, and I felt very comfortable in that space of being like ‘what the fuck is going on?!’ It’s chaotic and confusing and that’s how I always fucking feel,” Noah said.
How close do you feel to the artists you rave about? At times, the space between the stage and your seat at a concert, the space between their voice and your ear, can feel abysmal. That’s what’s different about Noah Kahan. His sheer honesty and relatability are part of what make him so likable and lets us know that we’re all more similar than we think. If nothing else, COVID taught us to appreciate rest and work at our own pace. To create beautiful things for the sake of creating, rather than to expect others to love and understand them as much as we do.
“As shitty as it was, I’m really grateful for the time. It was a lot of taking time to reflect on myself. I always barrel forward because I’m always just trying to survive, and COVID forced me to look in a fucking mirror. And that led to a lot of the feelings on this album,” Noah added.
So, how does Noah feel about the release of his second album? He admits that he’s heard it so many times, dissected and sequenced it, that he’s just leaving it to the mercy of the people that are going to listen to it. Even though Busyhead and Cape Elizabeth were both received with love, Noah admits he can’t help the anxiety that comes with releasing an album into the world. Half-joking, he reveals that his biggest fear is people secretly thinking the album sucks. The fact that we’re talking about this just goes to show how vulnerable and authentic he is.
As if we would ever say that his music sucked. As if.
“I just want people to feel like they relate to these songs the same way they’ve related to other songs I’ve made,” Noah said.
If you loved Busyhead, you’re in for a treat. I Was / I Am is just a bigger, grown up, more mature, sexy sibling of his first album. “I think that with music I’ve always tried to just tell my story and be honest about my life in its current form if possible, and I do think this project does that job.” He doesn’t prefer one album over the other, that would be like picking a favorite kid, and this is not Sophie’s Choice. He adds, “Just like how I thought Busyhead did that job. [The new album] is not better or worse, it’s just what it is. It’s my life right now.”
Sonically speaking, I Was / I Am, takes a few steps forward. It’s more emphatic, it’s louder and it’s definitely built for bigger venues and crowds. As Noah put it, “it has a few bangers on it.” As always, a lot of the songs are sad, which is a Noah Kahan specialty. Sad, sorrowful, introspective lyrics with a happy, upbeat production sound. He’s been experimenting with a few different sounds: folk, soul, and pop. Noah’s expansion of self awareness manifested itself into the creative journey that is I Was / I Am.
“It’s about growth and recognizing where you are, where I am, and what brought me there in the past. I find that I dwell on the past a lot, and I’m constantly thinking that the person I’ve been defines everything about me, but I’m realizing that it’s really just a way I got to where I am right now, and using that data to figure out what I want to be in the future,” Noah said.
Along with his inspirations shifting from Ed Sheeran, James Bay, Passenger and other soft, acoustic singer/songwriters, to artists like Bon Iver, Bruce Springsteen and Mt. Joy, he’s also given up holding himself to a crazy standard. For Noah, writing everyday and having the bravery to say anything he wants and not fuck up too bad is something that comes with time and practice. Trial and error.
We ended the interview by discussing his favorite venue to play; a place called Higher Ground in South Burlington, VT, which happens to be the venue he grew up watching shows at. Despite Higher Ground being located right off exit 14 of Interstate 89, it’s simultaneously engulfed by the Green Mountains. Hidden behind a row of stores, this small venue allows for the most intimate of shows, only permitting 650 people max. Each ticket is GA as there are no seats, which helps heighten the spirits of the concert attendees even more. “Everytime I get to play there I’m like, ‘this is fucking crazy.’”
He receives the warmest of welcomes there, it’s like Vermont’s personal legacy. Full circle.
If you’re going to listen to Noah’s new album, which you all should, he recommends listening to the entire thing all the way through, back to front, preferably during a long car ride or road trip. And after spending a morning talking about life with him, I honor this. Noah Kahan has ripped a piece of his soul and used it to ink his happiest and saddest memories into an album that will live on for years to come.
Listen to I Was / I Am now, available on all streaming platforms, including Spotify. Make sure to follow Noah Kahan on Instagram and visit his official website to learn more about tour dates, purchase merch, and receive the latest news.