“How is it that this person can SAY something… and the music itself is great, but if I read what he wrote, I could feel it so deeply in my bones that it became some sort of therapy or some kind of spiritual experience?,” asked Jonah Kagen, a Savannah, GA born and Nashville based singer-songwriter on the state of the singer-songwriter genre, led by the effervescently popular Noah Kahan. “To me, that is what music is all about. To see the re-rise of that folkier and more earnest sound in popular culture with people like Noah, Zach Bryan, and Tyler Childers is, selfishly, the best thing that has happened for my career, but also for people craving the real, raw story that a song can portray. It’s artistic. It’s poetic. But it’s strong, and it communicates something people deeply and viscerally relate to.”
Like the artists he tips his hat to, Kagen is multi-faceted, delivering a solid electro-pop feature on Matoma’s club-ready “Summer Feeling,” breezy mid-tempo acoustic pop with “barcelona,” Vance Joy-style cuts with “graveyard shift,” and more. Lyrically, such as on 2022 single “broken,” he paints vivid pictures depicting real-life emotions: “I’m lonely, it’s been so long / Since I’ve felt loved, smiled, felt strong / And what can I do when I’m not friends with my reflection when I don’t understand affection like you do?”
His career-defining new song “The Roads” is out now.
Whether the supposed aura of the singer-songwriter genre is accurate or sensationalized, Kagen’s aesthetic, in both his content on social media and his music, is similar to that of NYC-based rocker Patrick Droney. Both artists seem slightly unapproachable… lost in the art and/or just too naturally gifted, therefore put up on this imaginary pedestal. To those looking in, the music is, perhaps, as intimidating as it is entrancing. However, their personalities reflect their truest, more vibrant, and socially driven selves.
“The presentation and the front-facing appearance, at least to the public, is definitely intentional,” said Kagen. “The cohesiveness in which you have to operate is important because the music is very serious. It’s not super playful… It’s very introspective, maybe it’s brooding sometimes. That’s a very real part of me. But at the same time, I’m goofy. I’m happy. I’m a normal person. It’s really important to me to maintain that balance.”
“Some people watch golf on TV…”
Kagen, a Cornell grad, is a critical and analytical thinker. “Anybody can wake up and say, ‘I’ll be there for you! I’ll do this, I’ll do that,’ but the way Noah describes it is, ‘Darling, I get scared for you and I’m not busy anyway,’ he explained, diving deeper into his appreciation for Kahan’s ability to craft lyrics expanding on simple messages which, in turn, inspires his own writing. “The way he says it, it hits you more powerfully than just saying it in a normal context. Same thing with Billie Eilish, and SZA, and Lennon Stella.”
Stella’s song “Golf On TV” was a topic of discussion. “The message they’re trying to say there is, ‘I don’t understand why one person isn’t enough for some people,’ but what they SAID was, ‘Some people wanna switch it up / Like just one love is never enough/Some people watch golf on TV / And neither of those things makes sense to me.’ That’s a weirdly poetic and unique way to say something that just hits you in a different way.”
From the opening line of his new song “The Roads,” he establishes a deeply personal and prolific experience of his own: “I got a message from a friend / Said, ‘You’ve been quiet since the day you let her in / And we’d love to know just where you went.’” The track, which he says was developed over a long period of time, is one of if not his most well-executed and is the first of a new batch surrounding that experience. “I didn’t just write one song, I wrote many, many songs about this thing,” he said. “I do think that is one of the tools that the songwriter has. If you’re writing songs every day, you can only stretch out one concept for so long. Finding the poetry or the art in everyday, mundane things is exactly how a songwriter works. I’ll spill my coffee and be like, “Hmm, there’s something there.’”
Joking aside, “The Roads” is an artistic and emotional milestone for Kagen: “You’re still in my skin / I’ve done all I can do / But I chose to let you in / Now the roads lead back to you.” “That story was a very significant part of my life,” he said. “The writing happened fairly quickly… I identified the things I wanted to say, and I said it. It’s the production that I really leaned in on. I saw ‘The Roads’ as this opportunity to turn the tides and say, ‘This is who I am… how I like to write… how I want to sound like.’ Everything is live… the vocals are raw, the percussion and strings are live. Being very intentional about making it raw to make a statement with this song being like, ‘This is it.’”
A song of this nature allows for existential, candid conversations and queries. For Kagen, not only does it allow him the chance to observe his power as a songwriter, but also as the individual behind the songs and stories he gets to tell. “Being a songwriter, you are tasked with constantly evaluating your own emotions if you’re writing from a real place,” he said. “As I’m writing and thinking about this person, it digs up old wounds and makes me think about what MY role was in that. That came out in the song… there’s that line that says, ‘I chose to let you in.’ I specifically changed that line to say I, myself, did that. That line shows the debate I’m having in my head… thinking about my current relationships and just making sure that I’m not being the thing I’m writing about.”
Kagen says his next release, which is coming soon, is “the ace in my pocket.” He’s also heading out on his first headline tour this fall, playing venues such as New York’s Mercury Lounge and Charlotte, NC’s The Evening Muse. “I feel so connected to it now,” he said, still being semi-new to the game with two opening slot tours under his belt. “You get to actually see people in front of you. It’s not just a number.”