Last Spring, singer-songwriter Noah Kahan was supporting Irish star Dermot Kennedy on his UK tour. By the autumn, he was headlining his own UK tour, which culminated with two nights at 02 Kentish Town Forum. And by the start of 2024, he clinched his first UK number one.
The 27-year-old American released his third studio album Stick Season back in October 2022. However, it wasn’t until he released the deluxe version Stick Season (We’ll All Be Here Forever) in June last year that his life changed in ways he couldn’t have possibly imagined.
The album took on a life of its own with the hit ‘Dial Drunk’ going viral on TikTok and hitting the charts. Kahan quickly became a bona fide superstar, headlining stadium shows, making collaborations with some of the biggest artists in the world, and becoming a musical guest star on Saturday Night Live.
Before Stick Season, Kahan predominantly made indie-pop, but during the pandemic, he embarked on an introspective journey of self-reflection, which led to making a folk album.
“There was no adulteration in the process at all; every single part of this album was just following my heart. There’s so much when you’re making an album that gets taken away from you creatively; your passions change, or when you write the songs a year before and then you record the album you can be a whole different person.
“But with this album, the music was in my soul and an important part of who I was creatively. I was able to express that in a really pure way and that has allowed me to feel connected to it even after all this time,” he tells me over Zoom from his hometown of Strafford, Vermont.
Kahan is undoubtedly having his breakthrough moment. What makes it even more gratifying is that the music has remained authentic to him. He’s not trying to chase a trend or an algorithm – but rather create something timeless.
“The success of a song can really take over your life. It can change it in ways that you didn’t want it to,” says Kahan. “If you’re going to take the risk of having something that forces you to travel or to spend time away from home and your family then you might as well make it something that you really love and you’re proud of because it makes all of that feel worth it.”
Folk music has a rich history of poetic storytelling. Inspired by songwriters like Sam Fender and authors like John Steinbeck, Kahan used Stick Season as a writing exercise to “step outside” of himself and “expand his worldview” by looking at narratives from a different perspective.
“I’m always finding real pain, memory and experiences to draw from, but on this album in particular, I was excited to be able to tell a story that wasn’t my direct life experience,”he says. “I wanted to be able to step outside myself and try to think of characters and a narrative, but always making sure that the songs feel real to me and about things that I can relate to because I never want to make music that I feel disconnected from.”
Noah Kahan performed a rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ alongside the Milk Carton Kids at the 2023 Americana Honors. This was a proud moment for the artist as he cites Simon as a huge influence on his songwriting and career.
“What drew me to Paul Simon was his storytelling: the vivid imagery he uses, the specificity and his turn of phrase. He’s never afraid to be wordy, which I love as I can be wordy with my music too. Sometimes people say, ‘You have so many lyrics.’ But it’s important if you care about the lyrics and the story that you should feel comfortable putting them in there.
“Paul Simon never struck me as someone who was sacrificing a lot of lyrics, and I definitely don’t either, because of his music and his courage in those songs. Paul has inspired me in so many ways and just really set the framework for storytelling in folk and pop music.”
During the studio sessions for Stick Season, Kahan would keep voice notes of riffs and various memorable moments. The artist recently listened back to these recordings, which he described as a bittersweet experience. “There was a time when the album was just mine and it meant so much to me because it was my own. Not only was I really proud of it, but I was also very connected to it in a way that felt very personal and intimate to me.”
“Realising that I had to release it was exciting because I knew people were going to be interested in the songs but I also had to let go of this little part of me that I had cultivated and created and fell in love with. It was a sad departure and I had to let the songs go into the world.”
He added that the response to the album has been “incredible” and every opportunity that has arisen out of the fan’s response is meaningful to him, as the music has taken on new life and new meaning for him. However, he notes: “Sometimes I listen back to the voice memos and I remember the innocence and the purity of just having those songs for myself not being clouded by success but just having those songs be songs that I really cared about.”
Stick Season has been out since 2022, but Kahan breathed new life into certain tracks with some A-list collaborations, including Post Malone for ‘Dial Drunk’, Hozier for ‘Northern Attitude’ and Kacey Musgraves for ‘She Calls Me Back.’
“Everything in art is a work in progress and I like to see the work continue to evolve and see how people interpret it. I don’t hold that attachment that ‘this is my song and no one can touch it.’ A huge part of Stick Season’s success has been the collaboration with artists and on TikTok, which I thought was really cool because it allows you to let art be transformed.
“If you’re too precious about your music or think that no one can touch anything, then you lose the point of releasing music, which is to reach people and connect with people. Whatever way people want to connect with my music is great by me.”
The high-profile collabs also allowed Kahan to work with people he admires and who have experienced a similar rise to stardom that he is currently going through. The New Englander has received plenty of nuggets of advice during these sessions, but the most valuable was the power of saying no – something he is still learning to do.
Kahan describes himself as having a “scarcity mindset”, which means he can feel that if he doesn’t take certain opportunities then they might never happen again and as a consequence, he ends up over-committing himself.
“I need to learn to say, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m too tired and I need to preserve my energy.’ I need to be OK with whatever that leads me to because I have to prioritise my mental health and my joy for what I’m doing. Putting that at risk for the sake of continuing the success is a deep irony that I would rather not invest myself in.”
It would be no exaggeration to say that Stick Season has changed Kahan’s life. After years of hard work and dedication, the artist became an “overnight success” and last year alone had 1.4 billion streams on Spotify. He’s incredibly proud of his music, and rightfully so, but he was surprised that it blew up in the way that it did.
“I’ve always felt like I was a lesser-known singer-songwriter and was happy being known in this capacity, playing to a thousand people across the country and in Europe. That was always enough for me, so to see the crazy response… it was not something I had in my plans at all; it rocked my world in a multitude of ways.”
Kahan is adamant that he doesn’t want to look too deeply into the reasons behind his success, as that would “lose the innocence” of what he is doing that brings people to his music and that it can occasionally push him away from the process. Despite the rapid rise to fame, he has managed to remain grounded. Much of this demeanour comes from his upbringing in his hometown of Strafford, Vermont – a small town with a population just shy of 1,100 people.
With such a big star coming from such a small town, it would be easy to assume that returning home might feel overwhelming and disorientating. In fact, it is quite the opposite and Kahan described his hometown as “respectful” and “supportive”, which helps him stay grounded.
“One thing that I’m always concerned about is exploiting or commercialising a place that is so many people’s homes and livelihoods,” he notes. “It’s important for me to not centre myself in that. My experience in Vermont is my experience and I don’t expect people to necessarily agree or love it. I go home with an open mind.” He says it’s the “best feeling in the world” when people from his hometown approach him and say how his music has helped put the town on the map.
Kahan’s music has touched millions of people and earned him many fans along the way – including megastar Olivia Rodrigo. The Grammy Award-winning artist performed a cover of Stick Season on the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, which came as a surprise to Kahan. Rodrigo hadn’t told him about her plans to do this; instead, he found out when he checked his phone one morning to see one of the biggest artists in the world had covered his song.
“The nod of approval goes a long way for me. Olivia, like so many artists, is so fucking busy – so to take the time to do that and make an effort to pay respect to something that she admired in my song is really special and I’ll be grateful for that forever.”
Noah Kahan was recently in London, performing at 02 Kentish Town Forum to an audience of 2,000. It was the last night of his European tour and he let loose, having his Keith Moon moment and smashed up his guitar onstage. Next time will be slightly different as Kahan will be headlining two shows at OVO Wembley Arena and two shows at the 02 Arena, to a combined 65,000 people.
He said that ahead of these big shows he goes into “survival mode” but ensures that he and his band perform with the same energy with 50,000 people as he would with 500 people. “It’s important for us to keep that same energy and to make sure we’re always treating every show like it’s at The 02 or Wembley,” said Kahan. “It makes it more fun when you get to be in those big rooms and you feel comfortable and enjoy it instead of being nervous.”
These shows are important for Kahan. Not only does he perform for his fans, but he finds answers to the question he regularly asks himself, “Is my music relatable in a real way or is it relatable regionally or to a specific type of person?” He added: “To see this huge turnout in places so far away makes you remember that music is universal and that these themes in the songs can reach out to people outside of Vermont or New England.”
To top off an incredible year in his career, Kahan was nominated for ‘Best New Artist’ at the 2024 Grammys, alongside the likes of Coco Jones, Ice Spice and Fred Again.“You can feel something about music and a lot of times the world feels a different way. It can be hard to love something dearly and then to feel like it doesn’t get received the same way. It makes you question yourself sometimes.
“I really love this album, it’s an album that I care a lot about and I hope that the sky’s the limit for this album. So to get a Grammy nomination feels like, ‘Woah, I was right!’ I feel the same way that other people feel. It felt like a vindication and also an emotionally satisfying moment.”
So, what’s next? It is a question that Kahan has been asking himself a lot.
“I had a revelation that I need time and space to decide. I need to feel the same way I did about Stick Season; that’s the only way I want to make music anymore is if I feel inspired and if something drives me forward,” said Kahan. “I never want to go back to writing for the sake of writing or to meet a deadline or to stay relevant.”
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