Singer-songwriter Noah Kahan may have toured the world, but he’s just your average 22-year-old. He still misses home, gets nostalgic for high school and worries about what the next 10 years of his life will look like.
“You know, growing up I was just like any other kid,” Kahan said in a recent phone interview. “I went to school, I fucked around and got in trouble and hung out in parking lots with my friends.”
Kahan’s down-to-earth demeanor can be attributed in part to his humble upbringing in Strafford, Vermont. With a population of 1,000, Strafford is hardly a breeding ground for pop artists. Without the exposure of a New York or Nashville, Kahan’s decision to sign with Republic Records in 2016 is all the more impressive.
Kahan had to adjust to the industry quickly as he joined a label with a star-studded roster that included Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Drake.
“It’s insane when I think of the people that have been at this label, and the people that I can have connections with now,” Kahan said. “I don’t think it ever really sank in. I think I just went into survival mode and have kind of been there since.”
After collecting hundreds of millions of streams, a world tour and the recent release of his debut LP, it’s hard to imagine that Noah Kahan was simply trying to survive. Still, he acknowledges that the first year was tough. He wrote for a year and a half to sharpen his skills before releasing any music.
“It was a really hard year because I had expectations of instant success and gratification that simply were not the realities of the industry,” he said. “Looking back, I’m really glad I took that time to develop because the songwriting got so much better during that time.”
Eventually, the hard work paid off. Kahan released a series of singles in 2017 that propelled his career forward. Among these was “Hurt Somebody,” Kahan’s breakout hit.
“Hurt Somebody” exemplifies Kahan’s style, both musically and lyrically. An acoustic guitar is ever-present, mingling with shiny pop elements to create a clear and crisp sound. However, Kahan uses an upbeat setting to tackle difficult subject matter. In the case of “Hurt Somebody,” it’s about the consequences of breaking off a relationship with someone he cared about.
Budding pop star Julia Michaels lent her vocals to the track and the song blew up quickly. No one was more surprised at the song’s success than Kahan himself.
“We wrote the song in about 15 minutes and, to be honest, I didn’t think I would ever hear about it again,” he said. “You do so many sessions, and you don’t usually walk out and think, ‘That song’s going to be a hit.’”
A testament to the reach of music in the modern age, “Hurt Somebody” was certified double platinum in Australia of all places, launching Kahan’s career and leading him to tour the world with Dean Lewis in 2018.
“Probably the most inconvenient fucking place for a song to be a hit is Australia,” Kahan joked. “But I’m not going to complain at all about going to Australia. It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but it’s just funny how far away it is.”
The success of “Hurt Somebody” is in part what allowed Kahan to release his debut album Busyhead in June. A collection of his thoughts, experiences and anxieties, Busyhead is an assured debut with a surprising level of maturity.
“Your first album is always your life’s work, so it’s just crazy that it’s out in the world. It’s going to hopefully change my life,” Kahan said.
The songs on Busyhead are heartbreaking at times and triumphant at others. Most impressively, the album’s subject matter works alongside Kahan’s own journey, chronicling the thoughts of a young songwriter on the cusp of fame, still struggling with the anxieties that we all do. “Cynic” deals with the harsh realities of music becoming a job rather than a passion, while “Mess” sees Kahan daydream about giving everything up to move back home and live a simple life. These stories never come across as trite or disingenuous, a feat that is difficult for any singer-songwriter, let alone one releasing his first record.
“I’ve been very honest in my lyrics, and I feel like I’ve had a catharsis where I’m able to say exactly what I have been feeling over the past two years,” Kahan said.
A recurring topic throughout Kahan’s discography is mental health and anxiety. On Busyhead, he locates these feelings in the midst of his rise to success. He astutely observes that fame does not make anxiety disappear. Kahan doesn’t shy away from sharing his fears and insecurities and in the process hopes to help others dealing with depression and anxiety.
“I think talking about mental health is one of the most important things anyone with a public platform can do,” Kahan said. “I truly do think I have helped people by addressing my own issues and speaking about my experience with mental illness.”
The success of Busyhead in 2019 will play a part on how big Kahan’s platform gets to share this message.
“My goal is to have this be a successful record and have people connect with it and to have a platform to start creating the next batch of music to share with the world,” he said.
Kahan’s story continues in September, when he is set to embark on his North American tour.
Follow writer Matthew Eaton at Twitter.com/MattnSoCal.