Noah Kahan talks I Was / I Am and album process with At Capacity
Words: Caylee Robillard // Photo: Aysia Marotta
Today Noah Kahan released his sophomore album, I Was / I Am, and I was able to catch up with Noah earlier this week to talk about the album, his fans, and how change is centric to human growth. It’s never easy coming face to face with who you are but Noah was able to beautifully express his journey of growth over the last few years through this piece of work. (Interview to follow)
CR: This album is very reflective of the last two years of your life… Were all of the songs written within that period or are there some songs from the archives?
NK: There are a couple that are from the archives, a few of the songs I had started writing back in 2018 and finished in the pandemic, a couple were written in the pandemic, and a few were notes or memos that were completed in the pandemic as well. What was nice about the songs that are older is they still fit the theme of the album and the songs that I chose for it were specifically picked for the concept that I had in mind. It’s definitely a span of a few years.
CR: Aside from the songs from the archives, was there anything you were listening to, reading, etc. that inspired you during the writing of the album?
NK: I listened to a lot of artists like Sam Fender, Springsteen, guys that are telling stories that are relatable yet specific was definitely something I was going for on the album. I also got really into Phoebe Bridgers - finally. I spent a really long time for some reason resisting what I knew would be a very intense Phoebe Bridgers phase. I dove in head first in the pandemic, she has a really beautiful way of speaking about her experiences in a way that is personal and meaningful to her but also means something to other people. I don't think these songs reach that level of specificity that those artists get to but I was definitely going for it. So, that's really what I was listening to that guided the process/intention for this project.
CR: The storytelling is super apparent in the album... Is there something that you really hope your listeners get from this album or what you want to convey that is different from your previous pieces of work?
NK: There is a deeper understanding of myself in this album, Busyhead had a lot of uncertainty. It was a very uncertain time of my life, and I feel like this project is more situated in honesty and reality. I hope that it comes through in the music and it feels like I've advanced musically - in my songwriting and personally that I'm in a place where I understand myself and my surroundings. So I really hope that it comes through. The music feels mature and realized, the songs feel realized. I want it to still feel raw and real and fresh but I also want it to feel like I'm planting myself in this world that I'm trying to create around the music.
CR: I feel like that’s the beauty of your early 20s, just trying to figure out who you are and what on earth is going on.
NK: I definitely don't feel like I have it all figured out, like every day I'm like “Oh I've figured something out!” and then I learn some horrible lesson and realize I don’t know anything. But, I think each one of these songs has at least one little piece of “I think I have a grasp on what's going on right now” - I hope that comes across.
CR: I think it definitely does! One thing I saw in the pandemic is you were really able to connect with your fans/followers through Instagram live. I saw what it meant to your fanbase but what did it mean to you finding solidarity in those live streams during a time that for a lot of people was really lonely?
NK: It completely reinvigorated my love for what I do and changed my life in a lot of ways. Before the pandemic I was totally burned out and I didn’t feel connected to anything. I didn't feel connected to myself, I didn't feel connected to making music. I lived in this feeling that I was struggling behind everyone else in my life who was making music and those in my life who weren't making music, I just felt far behind. Then the pandemic hit and everyone was living in the chaos that I felt like I had been living in for so long. Just not knowing where I stood or what the future was gonna look like and the uncertainty - it felt universal. I would never wish it on anybody but it just made me feel like I wasn't just fighting my way to zero and it kinda leveled the playing field. But, doing those lives and being able to connect with the fans in that way felt really special and a once in a lifetime experience that we were all sharing together.
The fans did most of the work, creating their community, making little jokes, and seeing what they liked and what songs they enjoyed and the format of the whole show, the festivals I did, the interviews, all of it. It inspired me to keep going and it just felt like I was finally doing something that I was in control of and that I knew was good and that I was capable of doing. The future didn't seem so uncertain, I knew I had fans that wanted me to do this every week. I'm so grateful for those experiences and so thankful to the fans and everyone who tuned in and made it a whole event. People would send me videos of them projecting it onto their walls and dressing up, it was just really special. I’ll always think about those days. It made me realize that music is something that is crucial to me. The way I can bring people together, I have to do it for the rest of my life.
CR: Absolutely, so I bet this live album will be next level…
NK: Oh yeah, I definitely wrote it to be played live. The songs are bigger, and we were just rehearsing in Nashville a couple weeks ago and my band was excited because they’ll get to actually play. Like they're all insane musicians and a lot of the songs that I have are really lyric-y so they aren't actually jamming. So the chance for them to actually get to play the music is super cool so I'm excited for the live element of this album.
CR: So, the whole central theme of the album, at least to me, felt very growth-based and figuring out who you are and what the music means to you… Do you feel like the growth you've had since Busyhead and Cape Elizabeth changed your songwriting or do you feel that it's stayed the same with the way you tell stories and just growth within your experiences?
NK: It’s hard to say, I think the song writing has changed, in that I can't fake the feelings I'm having. If my process is to write the way I’m feeling it will always change as I evolve and mature and you know, get therapy for certain things I don't like about myself. I think it has changed, but I don't think it has changed for the worse… There’s always gonna be a hint of introspection and self-analysis in the music.
That honesty about myself will always be there. I felt so lost in my anxiety when I was in my late teens and I feel like I'm getting healthier with it, so that part of things isn't as present in the music and that to me is symptomatic of health and growth - that part of it is cool. It’s changed, but in good ways. Ask me any other day, some days I'm like “Oh I suck, I can’t write a song at all.” and other days I’m like “I’m the best songwriter in the world.” I never really know, I think it's changing everyday. Depends on when you ask me, honestly.
CR: I’m the same way about photography, the imposter syndrome is real.
NK: Oh yeah and then you’ll think the last good thing you did is the best thing you’ll ever do. The self-sabotage is real.
CR: Okay, so there’s major themes around water. Aside from just the song ‘Fear of Water’ you mention the ocean frequently, was that intentionally a theme?
NK: Water to me has always been a great metaphor for mental illness, relationships, and life in general. I’ve always been drawn to metaphors of the ocean and water in songwriting. I don’t really know why, I think it just works really beautifully. If you think of a certain feeling - you can dive into it, you can drown in it, you can learn to swim, you can build a boat - to me it feels like a very accessible metaphor that’s really beautiful. I’m not like a huge sea person like I’m a decent swimmer, can’t sail, can’t fish. I love the ocean but I don't have a particular affinity for water, it just fits really well and always has felt beautiful to me. I really hammered home the ocean metaphors in this album, glad you picked up on that!
CR: ‘Fear of Water’ truly might be one of my favorite songs by you, it was really jarring for me but in a really cathartic way. Seriously a beautiful song…
NK: Thank you so much, I tried to be really vulnerable with that tune, it’s about knowing that someone is going to be in your life and deal with my depression. Living with me through that and the burden I put on them and someone being willing to be with you through that is a very special thing. It’s a little sad, it’s like this is my life - I'm fucked up. But, I’m glad you’re willing to come in with me, it’s hard. That song is really special to me. My mom loves it and whenever my mom loves a song, I always like it more.
CR: That’s the ultimate validation, I think.
NK: Yeah it is and she’s a really great writer so when I was younger she’d be like, “This isn’t good” and my dad would be like, “You wrote this yourself?!” and she’d say, “You gotta fix the chorus, fix the verse…” So, she’s my hardest critic but also my biggest fan.
CR: That’s what moms are for, right? So, I did want to talk about Godlight because it was truthfully one of my favorites releases of the year. It encompasses losing yourself and the journey to finding it again. I remember you saying you had to fight to get it on the album - why did you feel it was so crucial to the story of this project?
NK: It’s one of those things that I think people expect this grand artistic vision and I don't think I had it until this song came into my life. We had done most of the album and I had texted Joel and said, “Dude I think we need to put this song on the album.” It’s really meaningful and I feel like it fits the concept. It was one of those songs that once we recorded it and they heard it, they were like “Oh my god - this puts all the pieces of the concept of growth together.” It took me like two years to fully write that one, I started writing it on tour with Dean Lewis and finished in 2020.
It felt like I wasn't able to finish it while I was on that tour because I hadn't done the work of growing yet, but once we hit the pandemic and I did some self-reflection, I was ready to finish it. I asked myself, “Would I be proud of myself when I was younger?” and “Is it okay if I’m not proud of myself now that I’m older?” I was really able to look at myself with clarity for the first time in a long time. That’s the coolest fucking thing about art, when you’re able to discover something about yourself while you’re making something. That moment felt very special, and needed to be on the album for that reason. I’m grateful for that tune and I can’t wait for people to hear it live.
CR: Yeah, that one to me felt more transparent to me than anything I had heard in a while. It was really refreshing, just knowing that in this industry people aren’t always writing their own stuff or pulling it from a real experience. In the way you compared to Phoebe Bridgers, the full transparency of the experience was in the lyrics and that’s how Godlight felt to me.
NK: Thank you, that’s a massive compliment. That’s always the goal. I want people to feel heard. That vulnerability is becoming mainstream and not being shunned by music. It takes people like Phoebe to show executives that people relate to really tough shit. I definitely have enough sadness to go around, don’t worry, there will be plenty more.
CR: Good to know, so the song “Someone Like You” featuring Joy Oladokun drops this week too. What can you tell me about her?
NK: She’s an incredible singer-songwriter. She has an amazing story to tell, and she is super soulful. She is about to do amazing things, she has a profound ability to share the things that she goes through in a way that anyone can relate to, which is something I strive for. Her stamp of approval on the song is something I hold really close to my heart. If you haven’t listened to her stuff, definitely dive in. She just did a NPR Tiny Desk that blew me away. I hope more people find her through this song, because she’s an artist everyone should be listening to. She’s speaking out about issues within the LGBTQ+ community and women’s issues - she accesses political activism in a really cool way. I admire her a lot for that, she stands for amazing things. I’m grateful to have someone so outspoken on one of my tracks.
CR: That’s awesome. Last question, what is the perfect setting to listen to this album all the way through for the first time?
NK: I feel like when you're driving and it's raining and the drops are just racing down the window pretending you're in a music video… But, I think hearing it live would be a really cool way to hear it live for the first time. I think the songs will be at their best when played live. Come see me live if you wanna hear them the best way!
CR: That’s all I’ve got, thank you for catching up!
I Was / I Am is streaming now on all platforms. I urge you to listen to what I believe to be one of the best albums of the year. Check out more on Noah and his latest release below!