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Musician Noah Kahan reflects on 'Stick Season,' New England and his Boston Calling debut

Noah Kahan
Courtesy
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Patrick McCormack
Noah Kahan

This segment originally aired on WBUR on May 26, 2023.

More than 50 acts will take the stages at the Boston Calling music festival this Memorial Day weekend. One of them is a young, dyed-in-the-wool New Englander named Noah Kahan. The singer-songwriter's star has been rising meteorically with help from a viral song about Vermont. There's a pretty good chance you've heard "Stick Season," but the 26-year-old's love for the entire region has become a constant muse for his music.

Kahan said he started writing songs when he was a just little kid in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Growing up in a small town I was surrounded by a lot of land and a lot of space,” he recalled, “I wasn't a great student. I found it really hard to focus on school and I kind of ended up imagining a lot.”

Kahan said his mother Lauri Berkenkamp, who's an author, helped him hone his way with words. He went on to record poppy folk tunes with friends in high school and posted them on SoundCloud. It wasn't long before a manager, then the company Republic Records, discovered Kahan's talent. “I remember walking to my high school soccer practice after I got this message from my manager,” he said, “and being like, 'Oh, my God, I think this is my big break.'”

Kahan signed with the company in 2017 and deferred admission to Tulane University so he could pursue a career in music. It kicked off with a bang. Kahan released his first single "Young Blood" that year, and he was invited to perform the song "Hurt Somebody" on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in 2018.

Kahan's work took him to Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. But he really missed home, and flew back as often as he could to see his parents who moved to the tiny town of Strafford, Vermont (population 1,094 in 2020). Kahan was also feeling disenchanted with the music industry life he was living. Then, during the pandemic in late 2020, he started penning a song inspired by where he really wanted to be.

“I wrote a verse and a chorus, and I uploaded it to TikTok and I almost deleted it because I was like 'this stinks,'” he said. “And I was really gleaning a lot of my confidence from how people responded to my songs.”

@noahkahanmusic This sucks and I feel guilty buying weed from high schoolers #foryoupage #foryou #depressedjasonmraz #prozackeanureeves ♬ original sound - Noah Kahan

Well, Kahan was wrong — over 75,000 people listened to that tease of what would become “Stick Season.” Then the full song, released in 2022, went viral with hundreds of millions of streams worldwide. Now it's something of an unofficial anthem for Vermont.

Kahan explained how stick season is the grim, transitional time between autumn and winter, when the foliage has fallen and the snow hasn't arrived. For him, the song's emotionally raw lyrics — about the ghosts of a dead relationship and feeling left behind — shed light on life beyond beautiful leaves and maple syrup.

“What I really appreciate is when I'm in Nebraska or Missouri and people are singing those words because it reminds me that music is universal, and that people can feel isolated in their environment no matter where they are,” Kahan said. “And I do think that's part of the reason that people connect to that song.” He added it's definitely how he felt when he wrote it.

“Stick Season” sparked an epiphany for Kahan. It validated the pull he felt to write from his heart about the region he loves. So Kahan set out to craft more small-town, New England stories and characters for an album — also titled “Stick Season” — that's topped the charts since dropping last fall.

He explained how an older, single man's search for companionship in rural Vermont drives the song “Northern Attitude.”

“I find people in New England, a lot of times, can come off as, you know, a little bit bristly and reserved,” he said. “But these people still are human, are looking for love and can seem like tough nuts to crack. But people still want to have that connection.”

Kahan explores deep, often dark feelings through his writing. The lyrics read like poetic journal entries. “There are parts of me in all these songs,” he said, even if their narratives aren't biographical.

The artist talks openly about his struggles with anxiety and depression. With his family's support, he's been in therapy since he was young. But, while his lyrics often channel loneliness, longing and a sense of despair, the music is deliberately upbeat.

“I wanted to use chord progressions and production that lifted people up and allowed them to think about these feelings without feeling negative about them all the time,” Kahan explained. “And I wanted the music to provide some of that hope for people when they listen to the lyrics.”

His songs are like musical road trips that take us on highways, down dirt roads and past lighthouses. Before “Stick Season” became a sensation, Kahan released an EP that's an ode to another New England state called “Cape Elizabeth.” He said the song “Maine” was inspired by boardwalks and parks near the seaside town where his girlfriend's dad lives.

A lot of Kahan's fans have tattoos of the lighthouse depicted on the “Cape Elizabeth” album cover. That loyalty wasn't lost on Boston Calling co-founder and curator Brian Appel when he noticed Kahan's star rising last year and booked him for the festival.

“The growth trajectory on him is just through the roof,” Appel said. “Sometimes these singer-songwriters just end up connecting with an audience in a way that, you know, is like tattoo worthy. And I think he's got some fans that are going to be with him for life, just coming out of the gate the way that he did.”

Kahan's savvy but down-to-earth social media marketing has helped. He's consistently posting on TikTok, and just dropped a tune titled “Dial Drunk” ahead of his upcoming, deluxe version of “Stick Season" that's slated for release on June 9.

Ahead of his debut at Boston Calling, Kahan said he's excited, and a little nervous. “The more I think about it, I start getting all sweaty,” he said with a laugh. “Playing songs about New England in New England's biggest city, I'm just really over the moon about it, and cannot wait to get out there.”

Kahan is happy his family will be there when he hits the stage. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts now, not far from the festival's fields. Kahan's girlfriend is a teacher in Roxbury.

After Boston Calling, he and his bandmates will embark on a sold-out, four-month, North American tour that includes stops at Radio City Music Hall, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. One dollar from every ticket sale will be donated to the singer's newly announced mental health initiative, called The Busyhead Project — which plays on the title of his 2019 album and the fact that fans refer to themselves as 'busyheads.' Kahan will work with national and local organizations to raise awareness for mental health and democratize resources.

While on the road, Kahan knows he'll miss New England, and especially Vermont. But he's relieved his German shepherd Penny is going along for the ride. “I'm hoping it'll be okay,” Kahan said. “But if you catch me in like two weeks, I'll probably be, like, crying for maple syrup.”

Andrea Shea