Over the years, in between support slots with the likes of James Bay, Leon Bridges, and Dean Lewis, Noah Kahan’s been busy working on his debut album Busyhead, with the success of singles such as “Hurt Somebody” and “False Confidence” causes anticipation for its release to grow exponentially. Noah Kahan’s undeniable knack for crafting catchy yet deeply sincere tracks has led him to play to colossal crowds, in venues with capacities which exceed the population of his hometown of Strafford, VT (Population: 1,045). Noah seems to be taking his momentous rise in a stride and his story thus far is exquisitely chronicled in his debut album Busyhead. On the 10-track album, he effortlessly interweaves enthrallingly engaging lyricism, rooted in both the excitement and uncertainty of venturing into adulthood, with compelling production which serves the perfectly his track’s stirring sentiments.
His single “Mess” perhaps best exemplifies his unique talent, with the juxtaposition of boisterously upbeat production and lyricism provide an engrossing account of a longingness for the safety and security of home. While his latest single “Cynic” sees Noah long for a youthful optimism that’s been slowly been eroded away by the inevitable trials that life throws at you. While a fair few of his songs see Noah bathe in the comforting warmth of nostalgic longing, there’s an indisputable emotional immediacy to his work that’s utterly captivating. We sat down with Noah to discuss his journey so far, touring and, of course, his anticipated debut album Busyhead.
First of all, congrats on the album! It’s amazing. How does it feel to be releasing it so soon? It feels great. When I first got signed, I thought I was going to release an album the next day so I’m just really glad that I’ve taken so much time to develop and to have experiences that have really important in shaping my world view. I think this record is a great documentation of the story I’ve been on for the past few years and I think it’s finally ready to come out. The songs are where they need to be, I’ve said what I need to say and I’m excited for people to hear it.
The album combines both new and old songs. Was it a difficult choice to decide which ones made it on the album? The reason we choose the songs that I’ve already been released is that I wanted this album to tell the story of my life for the past four years and I think that the songs that we’ve already released are integral to my story and to my sound and my vision as a musician. Songs like “False Confidence,” “Mess,” “Hurt Somebody,” and “Youngblood” that you’ve heard already are such a massive part of my story. They all play a big part in my life and have a lot of meaning to me. I think they also speak to the greater message of the record and I wanted to make sure those songs had their place on the project as well.
These new songs also play into that but it’s also great to give people new music. I have so many songs I want to release and those are the ones that we felt fit the vibe well.
Busy Head is obviously the title of the album and the first unreleased song you hear. At what point did you come to the realization that that’s what the album is going to be called? I’ve had the word Busyhead in my head for a long time and when I wrote this song, I didn’t really envisage it being the lead of the record. But, actually, the content and lyrics of the song really spoke to the idea of being a Busyhead, which comes from a story when I was in high school and I got arrested for smoking weed and drinking. They send you to this counseling place called diversions, where they can remove it from your record if you get mandatory drug and alcohol counseling.
So they sent me to a drug and alcohol counselor, and they’d ask you about risk factors for depression, mental illness, and drug abuse. If you checked off enough of the boxes for the risk factors, you were put into a category called the Busyhead category and I checked off almost every single box, so they stuck me in that category. I felt like it really kind of captured my story and who I am.
You’ve obviously supported Dean Lewis, James Bay, and some other incredible artists. Does it feel different as a performer to support rather than the headline? Supporting and headlining are both such valuable experiences; I’m really grateful for any experience to play in front of people. The thing about supporting is that you get to play in front of a larger audience and you kind of get to see how crowd that doesn’t necessarily know you reacts to your set. So, you kind of have a more objective experience as a performer. You also get to take advice from great artists that you’re touring with, which is amazing, and I love that part of supporting.
What’s great about headlining is that obviously people are there to see you and the energy is crazy when you’re out there and people are singing the words to your songs. You can just feel the kind of warmth from all the people who are buying tickets and coming to spend their hard-earned money to come and see you play.
“Mess” is one of my favorite songs of yours and touches on that sort of hometown longing. What’s the story behind that track and do you experience that sort of longing quite a lot? Or it just quite intense sometimes? It depends. I really idolize where I grew up, in Strafford Vermont, and I think about it all the time. You’re doing all this crazy shit and you’re all over the world travelling being around all these people and the idea of being back in Vermont seems kind of seems attracting and appealing.
The reason I wrote “Mess” was that I wanted to write about the longing for home and I wanted to ask the question of whether or not I could go back home and have things still be normal for myself. Also, if the grass really was greener on the other side. Kind of approaching this idea of not belonging in either place, not belonging her in the music industry and maybe not belonging at home anymore. Just asking myself what home meant to me and it’s also an ode to Vermont.
Your lyricism is absolutely incredible when something emotionally impactful happens, do you feel the need to like immediately to write about it or do you take your time to process the situation? I think it depends. Sometimes I’ll sit down, I’ll write about it right away and all the feeling and raw emotion are all there, which acts as a platform for the rest of the song. But I think I need to process things and gain perspective on things actually to write that has a conclusion, a message and some kind resolve. So I like to process things and I do like to write about what I’m feeling and when something really emotionally hits me, whether it’s joyful or traumatic, I know I need to write about it to get that experience out. But I want to do the song justice and make sure I’m able to process it clearly and when you’re thinking clearly that’s when you come up with honest lyrics.
Some of your tracks have sort of, I guess, a poppy-inspired catchy chorus but there’s simultaneously such an emotional gravity to them. When you’re writing or working on the production for a track, do you ever encounter any sort of difficulty combing that more poppy sound with the emotionally resonant lyricism? Yeah for sure, I think that’s the most difficult part. Being real and being satisfied with your honesty and not sacrificing lyricism for any kind of consumable melodies. I really try to do a lot of work to make sure that everything is consistent, in terms of the standard I set myself lyrically and emotionally. I try to incorporate catchy pop melodies, but I want to make that the lyrics are the grounding point of the song.
How’s trying to incorporate a singer-songwriter style with more sort of poppy, expansive production? Singer-songwriter is a very broad term and I want to make music that’s grounded in guitar and vocals but adding cool production can really transform a track. What’s most important to me is making sure my music sounds unique, making sure it doesn’t really perfectly fit into the singer-songwriter or pop genre. For example, Joel Little, who did a lot of stuff on this record, does a great job of making sure the music seems fresh but also that it maintains a grip on the folk-songwriter world.
The album ends with “Carlo’s Song” and starts with “False Confidence,” why did you choose the bookmark the album in that way? I thought “False Confidence” was a great start to the record because the opening line of that line is “don’t take yourself so seriously” and that’s the first thing I wanted to say. I’m trying to be as real and honest as possible but also not take myself too seriously. I like to be able to kind of have a really genuine take on things that’s kind of what I try to do in the record, trying to be as possible and as raw as possible.
I think “False Confidence” is a great way to start because it questions the idea of faking who you are and not being genuine. Then Carlo’s song is just such an important song to me personally and I think it’s so beautiful, in that it’s such an ode to my friend and I wouldn’t want to finish the record any other way. I think it has the most emotion of any song on the record. It just naturally concludes it and leaves you thinking about what grief means and what life means but also maybe leave you feeling grateful for the people in your life.
“Save Me” is an absolutely stunning tune, what inspired you to pen that track? I really appreciate that you like that song, I love that song too. I wanted to write a song that was more of a ballad, I mean all of them are kind of f**cking ballads dude, but I wanted to write a ballad but I also wanted to touch on the idea of someone seeing something in you that you might not be able to see in yourself. There’s a lyric in the bridge that says, “I pray that maybe I’ll change into who you think I am”. That’s kind of the whole vibe of the song, someone that loves you for who you are, when maybe you don’t know who you are or maybe you don’t value who you are. I felt like that sometimes in a relationship where I’ve felt like I’m worthy of love and there’s just so many good people out there that are willing to take a chance on you. I just wanted to kind of pay paying homage to those girls or guys in our lives that see something in us that we might not be able to see at the moment.
Where there any songs that inspired you to explore that lyrical sentiment? Not right off the top of my mind, is there one you’ve got in mind?
There’s an artist called Ruti who recently released a song called “Change Places” that’s amazing. Ohhh cool, I’ll check it out. I love that concept. What I love about songwriting is being able to take familiar concepts and turn them around a little bit. For example, on my song “Hurt Somebody” I talk about the other side of the breakup and in “Save Me” I’m asking why a relationship has been happening and almost asking the person to let you go. Just approaching things from a different angle can be kind of cool and fun. Doing that a pop context and making it consumable and relatable while making people think is what I like to do with my songwriting.
Speaking of “Hurt Somebody” how was the experience of having Julia Michaels jump on that track. She’s obviously phenomenal. Yeah, it’s crazy man. You don’t expect someone of that stature to come in and ask to be on a song you wrote. Having her on the track totally transcended the record and I think pushed it to the place where it could become a hit song. I’m so thankful for her contribution, she’s totally changed my life and, and her contribution and the collaboration has made me into a more competent songwriter and also has brought me to places I never would have gone otherwise. It was a very cool experience and I’ll always be grateful for her contribution to the record.
Some of your tracks are hitting on millions and millions of streams, how does it feel to be putting an album out when today’s music landscape has, in some respect, eroded the importance of albums? Basically, what does it mean to you have a body of work that can show who you are as an artist? I think it’s really important that artists are still able to release records and release albums, or otherwise, it feels like we’re all going to be working to write singles or release songs that are going to fit a formula. I think that Spotify is important for artists but manufacturing music for a streaming service can kind of set a dangerous precedent, are we writing for a formula? Or are we writing to make music?
I think what’s an album is that hat you’re able to put down a body of work with a narrative like people have been doing for hundreds of years. Well, maybe not hundreds but a long time and say something and not have everything be kind of cookie cutter. Not every idea has to be three minutes and thirty-five seconds. Instead, an idea can be released as a part of an entire record and each song could be a part of an idea and a part of a story.
I’m very grateful to my record label and I’m just grateful that I’m able to do that. I’m able to release a record where not every single song has to be a single, some songs are going to play a small part of a bigger whole instead of having to almost give you what you want right away. I don’t need all the songs to be on the radio. I just want all the songs to work towards one goal and that’s saying what I have to say, and I think my record does that. I think a releasing record is an important thing for me. It’s always been important and, in this day and age, I’m lucky to be able to do it.