WATCH: Musician Noah Kahan performs 'Stick Season' and dishes on TikTok stardom
This hour, the Strafford musician will join host Mikaela Lefrak live in studio for an acoustic performance and discussion. We'll ask him how his Vermont roots influence his songwriting and what it's like to watch other people singing his words. Also this hour, Vermont Public Classical's James Stewart shares a compilation of his Timeline series exploring why humans make music, and how making music benefits our relationships, bodies and minds.
Mikaela Lefrak: We're here in Vermont Public’s Stetson Studio One performance space with a musician Noah Kahan, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter grew up in Stratford, Vermont, and Hanover, New Hampshire. But people all over the world know his name, and the lyrics to his songs.
He's released two full-length albums and two EPs, and his music blends folk traditions with upbeat pop riffs and heartfelt lyrics. He’s been building his career for a number of years no, but recently, he hit a new level of success when his latest single, “Stick Season,” went viral on TikTok, and then on other streaming platforms. The song has more than 21 million Spotify streams to date, and his upcoming fall tour includes three concerts at Higher Ground in South Burlington, and all those nights are already sold out.
Noah, your name seems to be absolutely everywhere these days. And for those of us who have never been TikTok famous, how does it feel?
Noah Kahan: Unfortunately, for me, it feels the same as not being TikTok famous. I'm trying to enjoy the moment as much as possible. But it's kind of hard to fathom, you know, it's a very detached feeling. I'm seeing my name on the songs, on the videos on the page, but I'm not yet feeling it. And I think that's why I'm so excited to get out on the road, and really feel what has been such a successful release so far. But it's amazing. I'm very grateful.
Well, we want to talk a bit about your upcoming tour and some of the new music that you'll be putting out later in the hour. But first, we'd love to get to know you a bit more. And it's always nice to see a homegrown talent make it big. So, you were born in Strafford, Vermont, to Jewish parents. And you have three siblings, I think. What was your family like?
So, I was born to a Jewish dad, a Christian mom. But I grew up in Strafford, and then moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, where I went to school. I've got three siblings, a younger brother, an older brother and an older sister. And we all kind of do what we said we would have done when we were little kids. My sister is a doctor, my older brother is a firefighter, and my little brother is currently finding a job in tech.
We live kind of all over New England, but we're a really close family. I grew up with a lot of music in the home. I grew up performing. And when I moved back to Strafford, I started to seriously pursue music, and ended up getting a record deal when I was 17. And from there, I started playing shows and touring the country, and I’m fortunate to be where I am today.
When did you start writing your own music?
I started writing when I was about eight years old. And my mom had the greatest music on her iPod ever. She had like the Counting Crows, and she had Paul Simon and Cat Stevens. And I remember listening to those songs as a really young kid and just wanted to write like that.
My mom was a best-selling author. My dad was a great musician. So, having music in the home was really important and inspired me to write from a really young age. The songs were terrible, though. I will admit.
Was it one of those iPods that kind of ticked when you swirled it around?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I got carpal tunnel switching the songs on that thing all the time.
So, when you first started writing songs as a little kid, what were you writing about?
Wow. I actually look back at some of the songs I wrote when I was eight and nine, and I'm shocked by the morbidity and the depressing lyrics.
I wrote a song called “Wednesday's Are the Worst Days of My Life.” I think I must just really have hated Wednesday's when I was younger. But they were all kind of sad and introspective. I listened to a lot of Green Day when I was younger, and I remember feeling the angst and those lyrics and really trying to recreate it. Even though, at eight years old, there's not a ton of material to use to create angst. I dunno, I think I wrote about people not coming to my birthday party and stuff. I didn't have a lot of life experience at the time. But I would write songs that sounded like the songs I loved to listen to. I tried to.
You've talked in the past about having anxiety and depression and how some of those feelings have fueled your songwriting. Is that something that you started to feel at an early age, as a songwriter?
Yes. I struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life. I was very fortunate, though, to be in a family where talking about your feelings was encouraged. Where seeing therapy was encouraged. There was a really positive environment in my household around a conversation about mental illness, and that helped me never really feel that discomfort around writing about it. It was really natural for me to write and speak about my experiences with anxiety and depression. And I didn't realize until later in life, that that's something that not a lot of people are fortunate enough to have growing up.
There's obviously a real stigma around mental health in this country. And in Vermont. And I think it's hard to talk about, so I was lucky to be able to talk about it. And it made it really natural for me to write about it. And one of my greatest honors in my career is being able to try to connect with people who haven't been able to speak about it so much through my music.
Right. And I feel like during the pandemic, as well, this conversation around mental health really gained new traction. What was that like for you, to kind of see the conversation shift?
I think it was nice to see people being vulnerable, in a way, like that. I think a lot of times with social media, it's really easy to present a kind of a “false front.” And if all you're consuming all day is people's highlight reel, it seems like your life stinks in comparison. So, I think everyone kind of being connected by this trauma that we're going through, and of having to kind of shut our lives down and shut our careers down, for some people, united people in a way.
It's nice to feel, especially as someone personally who's felt behind my entire life—I always feel like I'm not doing enough, or that I can't find the energy to do enough—it felt kind of affirming to see everybody else in the same place for a second. As awful as it was, it felt comforting to know that other people were also going through this with me. And I think it brought people together, in a really interesting way. Obviously, people moved apart during that time. But in that one way, I feel like we were unified for a second. So, as someone who was seeing therapy before the pandemic, it was nice to see people taking that step because what happened.
I'd love to hear more about Noah in high school, you went to Hanover High School, and that's when you really started seeking this career in music. How did that go? Like, you tried to have a normal high school life, and then also, trying to make it outside of New England?
My plan was always to be a musician. I was an okay student. I was very obnoxious, always acting out, I was really bored by school. And I think the realization that this could be it, like, I might have to do school for four more years after this, and then who knows what I’ll have to do after that … it really inspired me to focus seriously on making music happen.
I was surrounded by a lot of talented people, and a lot of teachers who really helped guide my writing and my music. But a lot of friends in the area, and friends of the school, were great music producers. So I would work with them, and there was always kind of a narrative in my own head that I was going to make it, somehow, before I had to go to college.
And I remember getting into, getting accepted to Tulane [University]. And that same week getting offered a record deal, and having to be, like, I have to make a choice here.
And the choice, for me, was really easy: I'm not going to go spend thousands of dollars in college tuition to eventually become a dropout. I'd rather take the record deal. So, it was nice to see that narrative find justification after so many years in high school trying to make it outside of New England.
How did your parents feel about that choice?
Oh, they were thrilled! They were like, “we don't want to waste money on you to go get C-pluses at college, please go be a musician, we don't want to spend the money!” They're sending three other kids to college, and they were completely supportive of my music from the very beginning. So, they were thrilled. They were thrilled to have me be able to pursue it.
So, how old were you when you first went on tour?
I went on tour for the first time when I was 19 years old. I opened up for a band called Milky Chance. And they were like one of my favorite bands in high school, so it was a really amazing experience.
That must have been so exciting, but maybe overwhelming, to be out in the world, outside of your comfort zone.
Oh yeah, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was going to cities I'd never been to, or otherwise never would have gone to. It was really scary. I mean, the biggest show I'd ever played was my high school acapella performance, and playing at places three or four times bigger than that right off the bat was a challenge.
But in a lot of ways, it was a really great way to cut my teeth. The truth is, you kind of do get thrown into this business, and the touring business, and it was a good way to start that process for me. And, you know, I learned a lot. I was really bad for a lot of the shows. I got mono, but I ended up coming out with an understanding of what touring would be like for the rest of my career.
Touring really got put on pause for so many artists during the pandemic, and I'm guessing that was a time when your career was really starting to flourish in a serious way. But you still managed to make music and connect with fans. Can you tell us a little bit about what that moment was like, when you realize that, you know, you're going to have to start canceling shows and socially distancing from your band, and from friends and family who have supported you, in order to stay safe?
Like so many people, it was a massive shock. And it all happened really quickly. It felt like it all happened in like four days, life just completely flipped upside down. I remember having a phone call with my manager who told me like, we're moving the tour to fall. And I'm like, “Oh, my god, I kind of expected that.” And I remember the phone call about moving it to the spring, and again, and again. And it just was always really, really depressing to know that the end zone just kept getting pushed farther farther back.
It was difficult for a lot of people, and the realization that life could just be different forever was really tough to swallow, and forced me to adapt my mindset about what I valued in music, and why I was doing this, in a lot of ways.
Well, one of the things that you did do is write an EP, Cape Elizabeth, that you released—or, I think, you wrote—in a week. Is that right?
Yeah, so we recorded it in one week, I recorded it at my friend’s house. And it's funny, his older brother is actually one of my old high school friends who I made music with before I got signed. So, it was just a really cool, small town, full circle moment.
And we gave ourselves a week, because we didn't want to overthink it, and we just wanted to release something raw. And I was doing these Instagram Live [videos] where I was playing some of these songs. It just felt like a spur-of-the-moment, fun thing to do. And there was so much of that in those first early weeks of the pandemic. So, it was definitely born out of the pandemic. And it took us a week, and we were really proud of what we came up with.
You've kindly agreed to play us a song off of it, “A Troubled Mind,” is there anything you'd like to say about the song before you play it for us?
“A Troubled Mind” is basically about my experience with anxiety in the beginning of the pandemic. My mom always said that she felt like it really encapsulated the anxiety that a lot of people were feeling. She posted a video of me my little brother singing the song on Facebook, and a bunch of people kind of loved it, and so they told us to release it, and so it inspired me to record the song and release it. And to me, it speaks about what we were going through in that time.
Let’s dive into the “Stick Season” era a little bit. Now, for context, this song has peaked at number one on Spotify’s songs chart, and it’s been covered by artists like Zach Bryan and Chelsea Cutler, as well as many more amateur singers on TikTok. Tell us about writing this song. What first came to you, the lyrics or the melody?
Well, I was spending a lot of time in Vermont during November, which anyone who lives in Vermont during November knows, can be kind of an ugly time. It's usually pretty cold. It hasn't yet snow, you don't have the beauty of the winter, and its kind of past peak foliage. So, it's kind of that middle time.
And I think, in my life in a lot of ways, I was feeling very in-between. I had finished writing my second album, and it was during the time of the pandemic where people were starting to tour, but I hadn't gotten on the road yet. And so, I wanted to write a song about transition and change.
The colloquialism “stick season” in Vermont is such a cool term. I think it perfectly encapsulates what the area looks like, in that November period, and it also felt like it encapsulated something about what my life was looking like at the time. And so, I wanted to write a song about it. And I wrote the song in about an hour and a half, and I put it on TikTok. And I remember waking up the next morning and being like, “I should delete that. I don’t think anyone likes it and this is lame, no one knows about stick season, and everyone thinks Vermont is in Canada, what am I doing?!”
And then it started to kind of go semi-viral on the platform. And, unfortunately, so much of my confidence right now is derived from TikTok success. And so, I was like, “this is great!” And it started to become a song I played at shows, and a song that I shared with friends. And it felt really special to me, it felt special to my friends in Vermont, New Hampshire. And on tour, it ended up really connecting, so it kind of told its own story in that way.
I just want to pause there because you just mentioned something that I think so many of us feel. About this very tight connection between self-confidence, and what kind of feedback we receive online, on social media platforms. How has your relationship with social media changed over the years? And does it feel like it's in a healthy place now?
I mean, me either. (laughs)
Yeah (laughs). I think I can safely admit that I have an unhealthy relationship with social media. I think a lot of us do. And I think the way that marketing and music, and marketing and in lots of different careers right now is trending is that, it's an attention economy.
If you can get people to pay attention to you, and if you can get people to look at what you're doing and raise your profile, then using TikTok, using social media, is a great way to do it. I think it could be a really healthy tool for collaboration. TikTok is great, I've found so many amazing songwriters and artists and actors on TikTok that I love.
But I also think that it's a new landscape for a lot of people, and that some people aren't really as good at navigating as others, and maybe aren't as interested in navigating as others. You know, I never found myself to be a great content creator-influencer, despite my good looks. But, I feel like that's kind of the what you have to do now, to find mainstream success in music, is be great at coming up with creative ways to market your music. And that's not something that comes easily to a lot of people.
So, the more I work on it, the more I have to be on the app. And the more and I'm on the app, the more I kind of live and die by it. And that scares me a little bit, that my success on this on this dancing app is going to affect the rest of my career, and the way I approach music, but I'm learning every day on how to how to get better at it.
Well, many of our listeners are on TikTok, and many are not. Could you explain a bit how a song like “Sticks Season” can get so big on a platform like TikTok, and the ways that other artists and other viewers have interacted with it, that have like felt particularly special to you.
I think one really cool thing about music on TikTok right now is that you can see, in real time, the way people perceive lyrics, the way people consume music. And it's different for everybody.
Some people hear lyrics and they want to re-write the song in a way that connects to their own lives. That's happened a lot with Stick Season, people have taken the song, the melodies, erased all my lyrics (laughs) and then have written their own versions of it, that speaks to their lives. And I think it's a really beautiful thing, because people are able to take a melody that brings everyone together and create a unique story for themselves. So, that's been a really big part of what “Stick Season’s” success has looked like on TikTok. It's been a lot of people covering it, and a lot of people creating their own versions, other artists that I really admire creating their own versions or putting their own spin on the song.
I think on TikTok, when a song starts to trend, or a song starts to have a lot of videos be made about it, it kind of can catch like wildfire. And that seems to have really happened with “Stick Season.” People are kind of like, this is the song this month that we're doing, and then everyone does it, then they'll move on to something else. But yeah, that's kind of how it works.
You mentioned you were initially a little worried that people outside of New England wouldn't know what sticks season is. I feel like stick season and mud season are very, you know, Vermont-specific or at least New England-specific times in the year.
Have you had any interesting conversations where you've had to explain to someone in, I don't know, Kansas or Korea what exactly it is that you're referring to?
Yeah, at all my shows I'm trying to kind of spread the gospel about sticks season. A lot of people think that Vermont is just in Canada. And so I'm trying to let people know that Vermont is a U.S. state! And it's beautiful! And people think “skiing” and “leaves,” and no one really thinks about the in-between periods like spring and stick season in Vermont.
So, I've had a lot of conversation with people, like “what is that?” And honestly, I've had some people be like, “I live here and I have no idea what that is.” But, there is a Wikipedia entry about it
That song has such incredible lyrics in it that feel both very universal and very specific. The boots you mentioned, forgive me this reference, but reminded me that now very famous scarf in Taylor Swift's “All Too Well.”
And I wonder if the lyrics to the song were born out of personal experience or a personal relationship, or something that kind of just felt like a more universal feeling for you at the time.
I think there's always a little bit of myself in all my songs, but particularly on this next upcoming record, it's kind of a mix of personal experience with universal feelings. You mentioned Taylor Swift, who does an amazing job of writing and creating great stories, about things that may not have personally happened to her, but still have connections to her, and her spirit. And that's something that I'm trying to do. My favorite authors are able to create entire worlds out of nothing. And that's a thing that I've always been interested in trying to do.
And in “Stick Season,” I wanted to write a song about this feeling that I truly felt in my life, just feeling like left behind, or stuck, or being the guy that stuck around home or whatever. And turning into a song about a relationship, while relating it to transition and change that we all experienced here in Vermont with stick season. So, it's part personal experience and part made-up lost relationship.
I think during the pandemic, a lot of people had that feeling. Even though everybody was kind of going inward, in a way: staying home, moving back home with parents, this feeling that perhaps the world was still going on without you, and you were missing out or missing valuable time.
And, for you, during the pandemic, you moved back home for a while. Did that feel like a positive experience, in the end, or one that was difficult?
I think with every experience in life, especially during that really tough time, there were lots of negatives, but there were also a lot of positives. I always like to put the caveat of, I didn't think the pandemic was a good thing. But, for me, there were a lot of important things that I had to go through because of it, that I'm the better for.
Going back home was something that I had been doing the year before, I was kind of always finding myself drifting back to Vermont, and having an excuse to be there for months at a time. Eating my dad's groceries. Living at my dad's house was great, and being able to reconnect with Vermont in a way that I hadn't before. And, you know, the pandemic started in March. And stick season, mud season, March in Vermont can be a pretty ugly time.
So, going back in Vermont to Vermont in March when it was like half-snow, half-mud, and kind of being surrounded by this place that I kind of felt a little bit depressed by, and having to kind of come to terms the fact that I was going to be there for a long time was important. And it was a good opportunity to reconnect with family members and friends and take stock of what I loved about the place, and it really reinvigorated my love for the state, and maybe want to stay there forever.
Noah, what does it feeling like getting ready to embark on this big tour that's ahead of you?
It's really exciting. This is like the first time we've had a tour that's almost completely sold out. I've toured for like six years now, just nonstop. I’ve played a lot of rooms with not a lot of people. And to get to this point is amazing, and a testament to the community that kind of formed itself around this music. I'm so excited to be able to play some of these new songs. And this is definitely the most enthusiasm I've ever felt from a song. So, I'm excited to play this one on the road after having it be out for a couple months. I'm just over the moon, I can't wait. I'm just so grateful and honored to be able to do this job.
And I've seen on your social media accounts, you have a very cute dog. Is the dog coming with you on tour?
Penny is not the biggest fan of my music. When I first got her, she would just scream whenever I would play guitar. And now I've got her to just kind of walk out of the room when I start doing it. So, she might come on the bus for a little bit, but she's not going to hang out inside the venue. (laughs)
We got a question from a listener named Dave from Hinesburg, who says, “our family traveled from Vermont to Colorado last week and saw you at Red Rocks. We were right up close watching. How did you feel playing at this iconic venue?” And for listeners who don't know, Red Rocks is a beautiful and iconic venue in Colorado.
Playing Red Rocks was one of the most surreal and amazing experiences in my life. We used to go and walk up and down the stairs there when we pass through Morrison, Colorado, when I first started touring. And I would just look at the stage and I would try to envision myself on it, and I couldn't, because it was so big, and the occasion seemed too momentous for me to be a part of.
So, being able to do that was really, really special. And I just want to thank everyone that came to see me, and thank Amos Lee, who was the person I was opening up for, for the opportunity. It was an amazing, amazing experience. I can't wait to do it again.
Well, it's not as cool as Higher Ground in Burlington, right?
Yeah, it's like comparable, for sure, with Higher Ground. They don't have Al’s French Frys across from Red Rocks. So, yeah. Can't compete.
Broadcast live at noon on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.