Noah Kahan Swings for the Fences

The rising Vermont singer-songwriter on selling out Fenway, facing his demons, and not being too cool for Mumford & Sons.

Noah Kahan Swings for the Fences

Asyia Marotta

Noah Kahan isn’t exactly sure how he got here.

Sure, the New England-raised singer-songwriter has been gigging pretty much nonstop for the better part of the last few years. And yes, the self-described “anxious Jew” knew the songs on his most recent album, 2022’s soul-baring Stick Season, were unlike anything he’d previously written — more vulnerable, more specific, more in line musically with the sort of acoustic-anchored folk music he’d long loved.

But selling out stadiums and arenas, as he’s already done for next year’s We’ll All Be Here Forever tour? Playing his dream gig (multiple sold-out nights!) at Boston’s Fenway Park next summer? It’s all a bit much for the self-deprecating Kahan to comprehend right now. “I’ve definitely gotten to a place of complete surrealism where I feel like I’m living in The Truman Show or something and everyone is playing a joke on me,” Kahan tells GQ one recent October morning from a Florida hotel room. “I have a hard time believing any of it.”

Only a few years ago, Kahan was a virtually unknown songwriter struggling to emulate the trendy indie-pop of the moment. “And then I was like ‘But I hate this,’” he says. “It wasn’t making me happy. So I went back to making the type of songs that I grew up on and loved — storytelling.”

His heart belonged to folk-leaning, strummy lower-case-r rock music, full of banjos and mandolins and group sing-alongs. But as a lyricist, Kahan specializes in unfiltered confessionals, addressing all the things that make life complex—depression, anxiety, fractured family dynamics, and occasionally even happiness. He’s the sort of artist fans feel they know intimately, and even as his shows swell in size and he collaborates with massive artists from Post Malone (“Dial Drunk”) to Zach Bryan (“Sarah’s Place”) and Kacey Musgraves (“She Calls Me Back”), he strives to maintain that connection.

“I think the community is really building itself and they’re doing all the work. So much less of it is me than them,” he says of his exploding audience. He pauses and laughs. “I can’t speak to what they’re seeing in the music, though. I have no idea.”

GQ: Your life and career have recently been thrown into chaos — the good kind, I think. At what point did you notice things were really changing?

Noah Kahan: Obviously it’s not overnight. It’s more like a long afternoon. We were touring for a while and we were progressing. I think by the time Stick Season came out we were doing like 2000, 4000-capacity rooms, which is unbelievable — a crazy amount of people. And then suddenly, you could tell, in the rooms we were playing, the people there were really excited. It felt like we could have fit more people in. People were lining up for a long time. We started putting these shows on sale and started thinking, “Could we go bigger than this?” So we’d upgrade a venue and it would sell out instantly. How big could this actually be? We were just testing the waters. But I think when I felt the change the most was probably when I released the deluxe version of Stick Season [this past June]. Then suddenly we’re talking about playing Fenway Park and Madison Square Garden. I literally told my managers, “If I ever play Fenway Park, I’m going to retire.” That’s it. That’s the only dream of any New England musician — to play Fenway Park. I think. No matter what anyone says: you can talk about Gillette [Stadium], you can talk about TD Garden. But I think Fenway Park is like the Mecca. Suddenly there was a real conversation, like, “Well, fuck—are you gonna retire?”

Your fans display a level of dedication to you and your music that’s borderline obsessive. Did you ever feel that way towards any artists? And what do you think it is about your music that inspires such commitment?’

I’m a huge fan of music but I’m also an anxious Jew. I don’t want to be around hundreds of people, I hate lines, I hate when people cut me, I hate having to be around strangers; I don’t like it. So I’ve never done fandom in that way. But I was a huge stan of certain artists growing up. I stanned Green Day: I was in the Green Day fan club when I was a kid. And Bon Iver. My connection to artists has been more internal and been more of a private experience. Which I think leads me into what I think really has become so cool at my shows and was making the popularity happen. It’s the community forming amongst these people at these shows, amongst these crowds waiting in line. And amongst people on the Internet. People are hearing these songs that sure have some tricky themes — ones that deal with mental health or parental trauma, addiction — and are connecting with each other on it. I think people are finding that maybe this is the first time they’ve connected with people on these things. It creates that bond of solidarity and shared experience that can lead to lifetime friendships. Finding that at a show is so cool because it’s a connecting moment for these people. I see that in the crowd. Every night I’m like “Who came here alone?” And people raise their hands.

I imagine it’s hard to maintain that intimacy and connectivity, though, when you start gigging at venues like Fenway.

It is. It’s a challenge. It’s hard. I used to recognize every single face in the venue. And I could pick someone out and we’d have a conversation. Or I could smile at somebody. I could see every single soul in the room. Now you don’t get that anymore. If it was up to me, I’d go and say hello to every single person in every lawn seat, every nosebleed. I’d be out there hanging out. But things have gotten bigger so we’re trying to find ways to connect in the ways we’re setting up the shows. Last night we played in Tampa and people make these hilarious signs and I start to interact with people in the crowd. I still try to make it feel like it’s a small show. And make people feel like they have a chance to be heard or their sign to be read.

You recently shared the stage with one of your favorite artists, Mumford and Sons. You’ve also performed live with some of your other idols, including Hozier and Gregory Alan Isakov. Do you feel like you’re in a lineage with the contemporary folk-leaning artists who came immediately before you? The so-called “stomp and holler” revival?

I feel like I stand on their shoulders. Their music was fundamental to my childhood and my understanding of storytelling. And I think for a time it became the butt of the cultural joke. That kind of music became really, really hated in pop culture for a while. I was like “Whoa. I love this shit and this isn’t cool anymore?” But it made me really happy. I think if you talked to someone like Mumford and Sons they would say they just made music based on the artists they grew up listening to. You’re just trying to be like your heroes in a lot of ways. That’s what I’ve been trying to do the past few years: make the kind of music that inspired me when I was a kid and made me feel that pure joy for songwriting.

Now it’s led me to meeting some of these people and getting a chance to thank them. It’s an amazing feeling to look the person in the eye that you grew up watching and say ‘Thank you very much.” And to show that kind of respect. I certainly don’t see what I’m doing as carrying the torch, but I guess in some ways I’m just trying to feel the same way I felt watching Mumford and Sons’ Live At Red Rocks or watching the Lumineers. I am trying to create that because it made me so happy to see that as a kid. Now I want to provide that for some younger musicians. There is some intention in it, but I certainly don’t compare myself to any artists. I never feel worthy of being in the same conversation.

Zach Bryan, with whom you recently collaborated on the track ‘Sarah’s Place,” is one of music’s biggest success stories this year. You’re both proof that an earnest singer-songwriter can find stadium-level success in 2023.

It’s incredible. What an amazing privilege it is to be able to have fans connect to music that doesn’t need all the other things that you would think make a stadium show. [Zach] is a songwriter’s songwriter. He’s literally addicted to writing songs. He lives for the craft and he makes music that is true to himself and tells his story — a story that not many people might have heard: a young guy from Oklahoma singing about his life, his past and his future. He doesn’t sacrifice anything. And I really look up to him for that. And when you see that guy selling out arenas and stadiums, I know it inspires me to make music that doesn’t sacrifice anything and that makes me happy. But again, it inspires more artists to take this path and take chances on themselves and to tell stories and to be specific and relatable at the same time and allow that to lead the way. Madison Square Garden to me was like, you have to be like Rihanna or Britney Spears. Or it has to be a Paul McCartney-like huge production to make it happen. But people respond to real stories now. And that’s an incredibly cool thing because you can be anybody. Everybody has a story and you can find yourself on that same stage if you know how to tell it and tell it from your heart. It’s a cool blueprint for artists to come.

I was struck by this line from the essay you wrote for TIME about your journey with mental health: “Sometimes I look at the crowds of people at my shows and feel an emptiness within myself that infuriates me. What do they see that I can’t?” People like to talk about music as being therapeutic for those that make it, but it sounds like you’re describing the stardom you’re now experiencing as almost detrimental to your healing.

I’ve really been struggling with that. The ego of it all. And as I stand onstage in front of screaming people I have to remember why I wrote these songs and what they meant to me. And in a way, they start to become obscured by a lot of success and a lot of attention. It changes the way I look at these songs and it makes me feel like I’m just a robot performing words and lyrics that maybe aren’t mine anymore. In a lot of ways, it’s like I’ve relinquished these songs to my fans. And in that way, I’ve lost a little bit of what they meant to me. So being onstage you see these people connecting in such an incredible way and shedding their shame and their guilt and their insecurities and screaming these words and you’re like “Man, I wish I could do that again.” What did that for me was writing these songs and exploring these feelings. And now that I don’t have that right now it feels like I’m just providing it for them. Which is enough for me right now. But sometimes I just wish I could be feeling what they’re feeling and as connected as they are. Some nights I do feel that way but a lot of nights I don’t. And it’s sad. Because you want to see yourself the way they’re seeing you. And it’s not easy to do that.

You’ve been pretty transparent about your own mental-health struggles.

I owe it all to my parents. And my brothers and sister. The way I saw the world with my parents’ guidance was that it was totally normal to talk about your mental health. We would all talk about it. At the dinner table we’d talk about how we were all feeling and what medication we think someone should be on or whether they should go to therapy or why they might be feeling that way. There was really no off-limits conversation. That was so normal to me and it’s such an incredible luxury and privilege to have that kind of experience growing up. I don’t think I realized that until I left home and people were like “We never talked about any of that. I can’t even admit it to anybody.” That was always normal to me — it felt like breathing to talk about my mental health. It felt like the transition from speaking about my mental health to writing about my mental health was very simple. I was guided by my mother’s philosophy on being open but also on being creative. It always felt easy to me. For me, even with that kind of honesty and with the active therapy I was given, I still had this internal turmoil and a lot of times writing songs was the best way for me to understand what was going on with myself. I would write a song and be like “Jesus Christ. I’m so depressed. I didn’t even realize that until I wrote that lyric down.” I think it became my greatest medicine for myself and my greatest catharsis — writing things down. And I took that into my career the best I could.

How does that now translate to your songs?

I was never really interested in writing about big love stories or breakups. I was always exploring myself and my feelings and how people might be feeling in this life. I kept trying to write music that felt like I was asking myself questions. It sounds kind of selfish or self-focused, but it was the way I approached music. And then to see people connect with those lyrics and then think about how they might feel about their own lives and their own mental health is fantastic and has inspired me to continue down that path. When I was a kid and I would hear an artist talk about their depression, it would change my whole life and I would fall in love with that artist for being honest. I try to do it hopefully for some other kid out there.

What artists do you recall speaking openly about their depression?

Conor Oberst. Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning— that whole record really grappled with this kind of cynical, resigned feeling. But also I felt like there was hope and innocence in the lyrics and the way he sings. I remember reading an interview where Conor Oberst talked about being on medication and writing music. One of the big grapples with taking medication for me was my creativity and feeling like creating and writing were going to be affected by that. So it’d be like “Man, I’ll be willing to suffer to write something good.” But then I’d get so depressed I couldn’t write anything at all. So I would look up “Is there anyone else in this business that is on medication and making music that I respect?” Conor Oberst talked about taking medsand it felt nice to hear someone else that was in my situation and was doing it.

Your fans are clamoring for new music. Are you finding any time to write and record among all the chaos?

I have, like, no time at all. It sucks. That’s been another really hard thing. Being creative for me is a huge outlet and a huge way for me to process how I’m feeling. And now I don’t have a ton of time. Between having to rest my voice or do press it just cuts into my time to be creative and it’s hard to present a relatable experience when you’re out on the road. It’s a very cushioned and protected lifestyle where you’re not really living in the real world: I’m in hotel rooms or I’m on a bus or at a venue. And I don’t think I have anything to say about it right now that would be important for people to hear. So it’s been hard. I’ve been trying to find time and I’m writing here and there and always making sure I’m practicing songwriting but it’s been frustrating. The collaborations have been really exciting because it allows me to flex creatively and work with other artists and not have to be dedicating time to making whole new songs. I’ve gotten to work with incredible artists and there’s more to come which I’m excited about. But I haven’t had a ton of time and I’m hoping when I get break between tours I can start to write new music and be excited on the road to play new songs. I think a big part of me is scared of what comes after this. This album has obviously done so much for my career and my life that the next thing is scaring me. But I think I have to just dive right into it and face that demon early before it becomes a big brick wall.

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