Like most of the music industry, Noah Kahan spent much of the past year in some form of quarantine and trying to make sense of the wild year that was 2020.
He recently chatted with Variance's Ethan Ijumba, as they talked about getting creative during stay-at-home orders, his recent surprise EP and new music, including collaborating with Dermot Kennedy and an Amazon Original cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World."
The cover is out today and can be found below, along with the conversation with Kahan.
Ethan Ijumba: To start, these past months have been crazy with quarantining, stay-at-home orders, and just political affairs but how's everything been for you?
Noah Kahan: I mean, it's good and, you know, some days it's great, some days it's bad. I think that's kind of the experience that everyone's having right now, things have been productive recently, which has been positive and, you know, for so long, there is kind of a stagnant and creativity and stagnant work for me to do. Basically, I was just sitting at home, like drinking beer and doing Instagram lives. But yes, for months I've been recording a lot of it while I was in L.A. for months and making music and it feels nice to be busy.
EI: Yeah, I saw that you did some live streaming events as well and I know it’s been a big trend for a lot of artists, coining phrases like “OnlyJams” or “Quarantine & Chill”, but you had your own called “Couchella” right?
NK: Yeah there was a lot of stay at home concert names and titles that I feel like everyone was just pretty much battling for it, but no one wanted to copyright it since now. Exactly. Well, I got a copyright claim from the people that do Coachella, my DM, and I thought that it was a thought that was a joke or like one of those like Instagram hackers. I responded just with a bunch of dog gifs or whatever. And then I got an email and then a letter in the mail that was like, yo yo take that shit down. We're going to sue you. This is serious. Like, I don't know if I'm going to play Coachella. I don't know. We'll see. I feel like there's some bad blood there. I'm hoping that my goal is to headline it eventually. So hoping that they can let bygones be bygones and just appreciate the creativity a little bit.
EI: I mean, Coachella has got like some time away from happening. I mean, I feel like it'll be good. I'm sure some time will pass where everything will be like water under the bridge between the two of you guys.
NK: I mean hopefully, it's just all right so let's just sweep this as the time heals all wounds.
EI: Despite potential lawsuits, you’ve been doing great as of lately with your music, you also released a surprise EP back in May which was your first titled Cape Elizabeth, correct?
NK: Yes, so like since then everything solo, because, I mean, pretty much this was the best time and I feel like to release music just be like, OK, we're going to do it.
EI: So was that the same motive you were going into or did you just want to like put out something for your fans because it could potentially be a while to see live concerts and events take place, what was your process when making Cape Elizabeth?
NK: It was a pretty natural response to what was happening. I feel like everything was so fluid at the time. You know, I was writing and recording a lot of music in New York where I was living at the time, and I was making a lot of pop music, and suddenly we were told to go back to our kind of to evacuate New York essentially, and back to like my small town in Vermont. And it felt like there was this kind of influx of just like solitude that people are going through.
EI: Regarding the EP’s sound, it’s very traditionally folk-influenced throughout your lyrics, production, and overall theme of the project, what exactly was the motive to experiment with the folk-based sound compared to your last project being more pop-oriented?
NK: So I've had a history of writing folk music, and coming back home brought me back to that kind of inspiration. I was doing all of these live streams and I was playing some of these songs that I had been writing for a while that was folkier, that were kind of songs that I just like to keep to myself and mess around with and people responding to them. And you know it was like holy shit, who knows when I can be able to tour again let's just make some music. And then I started to kind of record these folkier tunes with a buddy of mine who lives close by, and it just became this beautiful organic process and I was blessed to be able to release some of these songs on a bigger scale. And yeah, I’ve been really happy with being able to have that freedom and being able to kind of take a situation as it comes and react and make it a positive.
EI: With that side being said, do you feel you have an interest in going a new direction musically for your upcoming projects, or has folk been the sound that you want to give more focus towards again, or do you feel like you just want to like, do whatever feels right?
NK: So yeah I feel like this period and this project was very crucial for my growth and understanding of my place in the world of songwriting, the world of music, and it's every realization that I'm able to do folk music. I think it's not something that I should just put aside so much to kind of stick to the more poppy stuff that I have a kind of lean towards in the past. But at the same time, I kind of have an aptitude for pop music and a tendency to lean into that world. So being able to make something that's important to me now and being able to find the balance between the two and taking the time to kind of make it go as far into a folk project. So I think this time period allowed me to kind of dig into doing both and accessing both of those different genres more and not having to choose one or the other. And it's made a lot of freedom for me creatively being able to kind of like go into a mindset of today making folk music or today and making pop music. It's allowed me to not kind of lose any of the good stuff by having to kind of blend the two too much.
EI: Based on the differences in genres, do you feel that when it comes down to making music that your songwriting process do you keep the same when making folk or pop music? Or do you have a specific process that you do for either? For example, when it comes to rap music some artists go about freestyling first and see what happens. Or for R&B or pop-based records, some prefer to start with the beat first and see what comes through. But do you see or go about a specific method between folk, pop, or just music in general?
NK: That's a great question. I think as cliche as it sounds like I kind of just let the feel of it direct me, but I think there are some circumstances and situations in which I kind of go in with more of a—you know—the mindset of like, what's at the beat or the melody, really aid the song and be the standalone thing that hooks people in because, you know, pop music, I feel like you have a little less time to attract a listener, to keep them engaged. I think you need to kind of have something catchy and melodic and beautiful to make people stay or like a hokey rhyme or a specific phrase, turn of phrase, hook idea, concept. Whereas with folk music, I try to kind of tell a story. Folk music is obviously grounded in storytelling and it takes a little longer to develop. So I think if I'm feeling impatient, I'll start to make some pop music and see what happens. But if I'm feeling a little more chilled out and relaxed, I want to make folk music and try to create a narrative and write something that has a story to it. and storytelling is super important to me just in my life and in my music.
EI: Do you ever consider yourself as a songwriter first then singer, cause every artist has so many different roles and capabilities that require them to perform a multitude of tasks. But for you, your ability as a songwriter seems to be the niche that you perfected your craft to master.
NK: Yeah, I think the behind the scenes stuff overall between songwriting and recording is where I find most of my strengths. I feel like being able to write a great song is something I really pride myself on, I always make sure I can do and I kind of expect from myself. people to do that and also to record a great vocal take or make a great guitar, take something I expect from myself, whereas I give myself a lot of leeway with the live performance is such a different kind of art and different style of craft. And it's something I have always had the least experience with since I've been writing songs since I was eight and performing live with a band only in the past, like five years or so. And I like to think that I'm getting a lot better and I am good at it. But, I don't hold myself to such a high standard, and that in that place, which has been great because it's allowed me to develop naturally and not be stunted by my expectations.
EI: Agreed, I think that's like the best process and development point for how you put it, it should be something that you grow and get better and practice because it's kind of like just because when you’re a champion at what you do, that doesn't mean you stop training, there's always going to be somebody to compete with. And with that being said, do you feel that with the new wave of songwriters such as Julia Michaels, Benny Blanco, Jon Bellion, and Joel Little. While it used to be Scott Storch, Max Martin, Shellback, and Ryan Tedder among a huge array of others, do you see yourself as trying to compete with other songwriters in terms of more records than another or just trying to develop a deeply personal story for people to relate to?
NK: Oh, God, yeah. Honestly, for so long I was just focused on not having to go work at a farmer's market or some shit that I was like, I don't care what I do. As long as I can keep a job in songwriting at all, I'll be happy. And, you know, I kind of revert back to that survival mindset so much. And I think sometimes it limits me from achieving my true potential. So I never think about myself as beating someone else, getting more hits, and somebody else writing better than somebody else ... it's all about being the best version of myself as a songwriter that I have a unique style and way to write and tell my own story.
EI: So based on how you've been developing more as an artist, you've already collaborated with others now throughout your music, such as Chelsea Cutler, Julia Michaels, and mxmtoon on your most recent single titled, "Pride." Right. Regarding its composition, how exactly did “Pride” come about?
NK: Prior to the song, I wrote it in New York with this songwriter named Scott Harris, who was fantastic and yeah, it's kind of about that feeling of being blown off. And then, like, I got blown off and then I saw the person later that day and I was like, holy shit like that. I just felt really bad. And it was kind of just a unique but also relatable experience. And it just seemed like one of those kinds of quirky, fun stories to tell us all about. Pretty uncomplicated prose. That's really I was just like, hey, this thing happened to me literally last night and we wrote a song about it. That day was all the other songs I write kind of take a long time to kind of fester and develop emotionally. But so that was it was nice to have the process go easily. And then you know I sent the song to Maia and she loved it, and I think she did a great job and was really happy to have her on it and I think it sounded good.
EI:That’s major, I think artists normally have a perspective when it comes down to doing collaborations. Some are like, I will take people who I just know are right for the song and we'll make this perfect record, but then there's also a side of artists where it's like I really, really want to work with this name one day and have it as like a bucket list. For you, are there any main names or or collabs you look to have with anyone one day in the future?
NK: So in the past couple months, I've worked with three of my favorite artists and I got to work with this band that I'm just in love with and I'm so grateful I got to go work with them. It's been incredible and I wouldn't have had without this process of corn. And I've been able to connect and take time to form relationships. I worked with Dermot Kennedy around October, and he's my favorite artist ever and I got to do a song for Cat Stevens that's for his Tillerman 50th anniversary album. So yeah I got to work with people that I loved and there's a lot more I think I have a lot more stuff to focus. I think people that I'm really interested in working with and I'm hoping that I can kind of take this time off touring to kind of really explore the relationships and continue to to collaborate with people that I love. Hopefully, hopefully I can do it, It's really fun collaborating with somebody.
EI: Cycling back to how you compose, when you do write songs you said it takes a longer process. Do you just have it as your pen and pad, or do you have a specific method or process when composing?
NK: Usually the process is more like emotional development, kind of like I'm just like feeling things and like letting them sit and like I feel like the song usually comes out after, like I've sat on and kind of contemplated an experience, whereas with the song it just felt like it came because it happened last night and I decided I want to write about it, which was interesting. And I think that the mode I go into, it's just kind of trying to understand what's going on in my life and what each experience means in a larger way. And if other people have had that experience before, if that's the way I can make people relate to it, I don't really have a process that every time works. I think if I'm if I'm feeling comfortable like if I feel like the situation I'm in is comfortable, if I'm in my home or if I'm in my apartment if I'm surrounded by friends, I'm able to kind of write a little quicker and a little more emotional because I don't feel like that pressure or anxiety. So it's like it kind of inspires me in terms of folk music as if I'm in L.A. or New York like pop music just feels more natural because you're kind of surrounded by the city and the more exciting noise and more kind of like, I don't know, this interesting environment. So it just depends where I am.
E: In regards to how you’ve been growing, developing, and getting back into this new sound, what's next for your career? Can we expect anything new or upcoming such as an array of singles, a compilation album, another EP, or do you want to go for album number two?
NK: Yeah, I got a lot of music on the way. I'm not sure how much I can say about what I'm releasing, but I have a ton of new music and, you know, a lot of it kind of treads that familiar territory of like mental health and, you know, exploring yourself and exploring this new world that I'm in a lot of it's a little more I think there's a lot more kind of like a lot more upbeat music, all which I've been kind of happy about.
EI: Was there any specific influence that made you want to go in a more positive direction musically?
NK: I just feel like you don't want to get pigeonholed as like the dude with the acoustic guitar all the time. And I feel like I'm exploring musically a little more, but also making a lot of folk music with really specific storylines that kind of fits into a larger narrative, which I've just been so pumped honestly and really passionate about telling large stories, kind of like bands like The Lumineers have done in recent history, like kind of telling us a larger story. So that's been something really fun. But there's a ton, a ton of music on the way, and a lot of stuff that I'm pumped about just thinking of some of the best stuff I've ever done, so I'm excited.