Noah Kahan on TikTok fame, his sold-out arena tour and taking his mom to the Grammys
The Beatles taught us about Liverpool, England and Abbey Road. Prince had Minneapolis. Bruce Springsteen rooted us in New Jersey. For singer-songwriter Noah Kahan, it's all about Vermont and New England.
His 2022 gold-certified album Stick Season has hooks and chord progressions reminiscent of the pop-folk songs of artists like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers, with lyrics like, "I was raised on a little light." With a virality fueled by TikTok and his Gen Z fan base — who call themselves "Busyheads" in reference to his first studio album — Kahan has shot to arena-sized fame, performing on Saturday Night Live, selling out most of his 2024 tour and landing a best new artist Grammy nomination this year.
"It's like a combination of feeling like you're in a dream and feeling like you're finally living your dream," he says.
His latest release is an iteration of Stick Season that reimagines the songs with collaborators he's met along the way: Brandi Carlile, Gregory Alan Isakov and Post Malone are among them. "It's one final — I promise final — kind of goodbye to the Stick Season era, which I have just loved living in and never want to leave."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On Stick Season and transitions
"Stick season" is a term that I heard older neighbors in Vermont and New Hampshire use to describe the time of year between late October and the first snow. So all the leaves have gone, foliage is over in Vermont, which is obviously a beautiful time, and it's kind of this transitional time. It's a little bit depressing. It's usually gray outside. You can't go play soccer, you can't do too much hiking and you also can't go skiing. It was a term that was really specific to Vermont, but also I was reflecting on it in my own life and what it meant to me to be in this time of transition. I spent a lot of stick seasons in Vermont in my early 20s, and I was always feeling kind of in-between things in my life — between love and losing love and moving on to the next thing. That spot where you're figuring out who you are and how to reconcile what's just ended with what's to come.
On placeless pop music and the importance of details in songwriting
Writing pop songs, you go in and you have a concept and you want it to be this hugely relatable concept. It has to be relatable very quickly, and it has to be applicable to anyone's lives. I had a lot of fun doing that, but I eventually started to feel like I was no longer connecting to anything. I was just trying to be as universal as possible. And in doing so, I lost the specificity of my feelings and my life and my interpretation of where I was in life. I think to tell a story, you have to be specific and you have to be detailed.
How being home in Vermont during the pandemic shaped his music
I think deep down, I was trying to get back to Vermont and [the pandemic] kind of gave me a way to get home and to be back with my family and just gave me a break from the life I was living in New York.
I was really burnt out and exhausted, and I didn't know what I wanted out of my life, and I didn't know what I wanted out of my music and my musical career. So I went home, which was beautiful at first, but then you remember: You are home and you're interacting with your parents. My dad and I are arguing about what chores I'm going to do and I'm not paying rent. I felt like I was transported back into my high school years, my childhood. I was looking for the same kind care from my parents that I would have gotten as a kid, but they're like, "You're in your 20s! Figure it out. We're not going to stop our lives for you."
I was reconciling with this feeling of being so far away from my childhood, but in the place that I spent it in. It really felt like this hybrid version of my youth, which I think unlocked a little bit of that youthful, carefree songwriting that I had before I kind of stepped into it as a profession. Every day I found like three or four hours where I felt like I could just escape back into my youth. And it was magical, like, so magical. I felt so free. It was so cool. I wore my old high school soccer practice jersey around the house, and it was just like, I'm back, like the most washed up dude ever. It was awesome.
On working through his parents' divorce
With my parents splitting up, I felt like I was a kid still, so I was so hurt by it. And then I would revert back into my mature 22-year-old brain, and think, they are people too. It was just kind of letting go of this idea of a perfect family or a perfect life and having to adjust to that. It was complicated and hard to see, but there was also something intimate and beautiful about being able to see my parents growing and making decisions like that, that I might have to make in the future. It felt like we were just adults being adults.
I also learned a lot about my parents, and I was proud of them for how they handled it and how they seemed to come out on the other side, happier, still fully functioning adults. That's what the song "Northern Attitude" is about: What's next? Where do you go? I think people think about breakups and everyone sets those [songs] in their early 20s or late 30s or whatever. And, you know, these things happen at every age. And, when you've lived so much life, it can be hard to start over. I got to watch my parents do that and it was a really inspiring and a beautiful thing to see.
On selling out huge arenas like Madison Square Garden
It's like a combination of feeling like you're in a dream and feeling like you're finally living your dream. It's this beautiful moment and you also wonder if they're there for the wrong person. You're like, am I opening up or am I supposed to be here right now? And you see all these people here for you and you know, they can't all be from Vermont. They can't all be from New Hampshire. They're from all over the world and all over the country and it's an unbelievable feeling.
Finding an audience on TikTok
TikTok really was a major marketing tool and just an amazing thing for me. I was very hesitant to get on it in the first place. It was weird back then, to be fair. It was like people dancing around and like filters and stuff. But every once in a while I'd see an amazing song. And I was like, oh, that's awesome and that's a cool way to workshop songs. They were never full songs, it was always like someone's chorus or like a verse and that was perfect for me because I write kind of sporadic little chunks a lot. I usually write a first verse and chorus, and then I step away for a few months and come back to it. So I had all these verses and choruses, and I put them on TikTok and crowdsourced the album in a lot of ways. I would see a positive response [and think] okay, I'm doing something good and I can keep going with it. That would help me finish them. A lot of the success of this album is definitely born on TikTok.
On TikTok pulling Universal Music Group's music from the app, because of a contract dispute
I certainly hope that my music can live on TikTok eventually. I'm incredibly grateful to have spent the time building a fan base and that will hopefully, you know, transcend TikTok. I hope that developing artists know that it's going to be okay and that we're going to find a way for people to find the music and that great music wins, regardless of the platform.
On his new signature hairstyle: braided pigtails
I've had long hair for so long and it's just so unpredictable. At one moment I could look like Keanu Reeves, and the next moment I look like a f****** scarecrow. So I just needed something that stays in place. I was doing the bun for a while ... and then I started doing the Willie Nelson braid, and then I started kind of going for the Post Malone French braids and I've been really enjoying that. I don't think anyone's looking at me as a sex symbol or like, look how hot he is, so I'm just gonna look as crazy and unique as possible. I actually had my guitar player's little sister doing them for a while and now my neighbor from Stratford, Vermont, has been on tour with me, and she's been doing braids for me. It's been awesome; it's like camp counselors' stuff!
On bringing his mom to the Grammys
My mom, literally my entire childhood, was like, "When you go to the Grammys, you got to take me." She made me promise. I would not even let her talk about it until the day I found out I got nominated, and then I called her and I'm like, "We're going to the Grammys!" She deserves it. She drove me all around New England trying to get me places to play music and so the least I could do to repay her is to bring her to the biggest night of my life, at the Grammys.
Andrew Craig and Matthew Schuerman produced and edited the audio of this interview. Hazel Cills edited it for the web.
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.