Noah Kahan has just smashed his guitar.
It’s the final moments of his show at London’s O2 Forum Kentish Town, when he smiles at the crowd and throws his instrument on the floor, splintering the instrument into millions of wooden shards. Tonight is the final date of Kahan’s 2023 Stick Season tour supporting an album that has restarted and wholly upended his stalled career. It deserved a finale to match.
“[It’s] hard to process,” the 26-year-old Vermont-based singer-songwriter says of his massive year over Zoom. “I’ve been doing this for seven years now so I feel I’ve worked hard. I’m just trying to enjoy the success that comes from the grind it has taken to get here.”
After years of releasing music to moderate acclaim, Kahan is now living his rockstar dreams. It’s all thanks to his monumental third studio album, Stick Season, whose anthemic indie-pop songs grounded in folk-driven lyricism have become a bonafide phenomenon. They’ve been covered by Olivia Rodrigo (with Kahan returning the favor) and actualized collaborations with Kacey Musgraves, Post Malone, Gracie Abrams, and Hozier — the last of whom Kahan calls an inspiration. (His voice on “Northern Attitude,” Kahan says, makes “you think it’s one of those AI-generated songs for TikTok.”)
But that’s all nothing to his most meaningful accomplishment which arrived in the early morning of Nov. 10. Sitting alone in a room, as his viral emotional reaction video showed, he heard his name called for the Grammy’s category Best New Artist and exploded with screams and tears. “I can’t even talk about it without crying,” he says of the moment now, his first-ever nomination, beaming in a hoodie from his touring support act Tiny Habits, his dark brown hair free from its usual plaits. “Ever since I was a little kid I practiced my Grammy speech in my bed before I fell asleep, so it’s unbelievable.”
As recently as a year ago Kahan was facing very different circumstances. Though he’d made a name for himself playing the folk-music circuit since 2017 and garnered a modest, loyal fanbase with his first two albums, Busyhead and I Was/I Am — his ambitions for major success felt impossible. When he released Stick Season in October 2022, “It was [after] years of nothing,” he says.
As the story goes, the record’s existence was wholly incidental. Rooted in hyper-specific experiences, with even its title only making sense to native Vermonters, referring to the period between Halloween and the year’s first snow, its 14 songs were a distinct turn away from the poppier music he’d been making. Instead, it was populated with New England-themed stories told through raspy warm vocals, banjos and mandolins, and engaging, internal musings about small-town anxieties, depression, familial conflict, and an unconditional love for his dogs. “A song you think is going to be funky [is actually] a sad song about parents or mental illness,” he says of his songwriting on Stick Season, which he likens to a Trojan Horse. It turned out this style of intimate relatability was all he needed for his songs to skyrocket onto the charts — charts they’re still climbing over a year after their release.
“When it happens you have to balance the amazing parts with the hard parts that you don’t see coming,” he says of this sudden critical acclaim. “I’m just trying to keep my head on straight and surround myself with people that keep me grounded.”
The amazing parts have been coming in fast and plenty, but it’s those hard parts that are preoccupying Kahan now. Given the dark themes his music occasionally orbits — suicide and losing your religion — he’s wrestling with feeling a new responsibility toward his fans, which he says is a bit scary. “Fans come up to me and say, ‘You saved my life,’” he says. “I’m trying to figure my own shit out and I hate feeling responsible for other people’s mental health.”
“I want to have success, but I don’t want people to know me.”
Still, advocating for mental health awareness has become a core part of his mission as it’s something he’s been exposed to since childhood. Growing up in Strafford, Vermont, he says his parents always encouraged talking “around the dinner table about medications and what we were feeling, nothing was off limits,” he remembers. It’s part of the reason why this past year he launched The Busyhead Project, a charity fundraising for affordable access to mental health care. “Mental health is something I feel like I really know,” he says about the project’s inception. “[Because] I have all these people looking at me, it’s something that I should talk about.”
But Kahan knows this is only the beginning. Two weeks from our interview, he’ll stand beside Emma Stone as the musical talent on SNL. (“Apparently the host has to pass off on the musician, so I like to think Emma Stone chose us to be there,” he says.) And next year, when he comes back to London on tour to perform at The O2 Arena, it’ll be to a crowd of 20,000, instead of tonight’s 2,300.
His own thoughts about his ever-growing spotlight is complicated and something he touches on on “No Complaints,” a previously unreleased song from Stick Season that arrived on the deluxe edition, Stick Season (We’ll Be Here Forever), released this past June. “In love with being noticed, but afraid of being seen,” he sings on the cathartic and confessional track. Is this really how he feels?
“I do like when people pay attention to me but I hate when people get close,” he admits. “I want to have success, but I don’t want people to know me. It’s always been that way.”
For now, he’s trying to soak in all that he can. “I hope [Stick Season] is an album that in five or 10 years I can look back on and hope that I’ve grown from vomiting out these feelings,” he says of its legacy. “I could really take a second to think about what I want to learn from this experience, this year, and who I am now.”
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