Interview: Noah Kahan Talks ‘Busyhead’ & The Slow Grind Of Making It
Noah Kahan established himself as One To Watch with 2018 viral hit “Hurt Somebody” (100 million+ Spotify streams) and then continued to expand his following, one acutely-observed, emotionally bruising song at a time. The 22-year-old’s much-anticipated debut LP, Busyhead, arrives today (June 14), and it charts the hopes and fears of someone trying to make it. From the rousing “Young Blood” to the deceptively upbeat “Mess,” the breakout star has curated one of the most cohesive and compelling albums of 2019.
I recently spoke with Noah about the making of Busyhead and his brutally honest approach to songwriting. He opened up about the highs and lows associated with being on the brink of very big things, and explained the heartbreaking story behind album highlight, “Carlo’s Song.” Other topics of conversation included his approach to internet trolls, touring with James Bay and working with super-producer Joel Little (Lorde, Taylor Swift etc.). Get to know the rising singer/songwriter a little better in our Q&A below.
It feels like you have been chipping away at Buyshead for a long time.
Yes, it’s been a long fucking time. It’s cool that it’s finally here. You wait forever. I got signed and I was like, “I’m going to make a million dollars tomorrow. My music’s going to come out tomorrow.” It has been four years now and it’s finally coming out, but I think the wait has been well worth it for me.
Are you nervous or excited?
You can only be so nervous. You have to just forfeit yourself to the world and if they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. I really have given 100 percent on this on the album and I’m proud of the work I did, and the work that so many people have done to make this happen. I went out there and I was honest. I gave it everything I had and that’s all you really can do. Or you can make better music but I’m too lazy for that. I’m just going to write sad songs and, hopefully, that’s enough.
“Cynic” and “Mess” share a similar theme, namely fatigue with the music industry. You’re still at the very beginning. What’s going on?
I guess it’s a bummer that I’m already so jaded. But it’s definitely an exaggeration of feeling. All the songs are kind of an exaggeration of inward feelings. I wrote “Cynic” at a time when I felt like I was being shuffled around from city to city. I got the feeling that the work that I was doing wasn’t showing immediate results and that was freaking me out. You go to LA and you’re impressed by everything. The rooftops, the fancy dinners, the clubs and the VIP tickets. It was so cool and I fell in love with that lifestyle.
I was trying to figure out what was important to me and I wasn’t sure. That freaked me out, so I wanted to write a song about it. Whenever I’m feeling something scary or something that’s hard, or it gives me value, I like to write about it because it gives me a kind of catharsis. “Cynic” was one of those moments. I wrote the song and it felt like a weight had been taken off my back.
“Mess” goes a step further and fantasizes about giving it all up. Did that ever seriously cross your mind?
I idealize going back home. I think when you’re overwhelmed by something, the easiest thing to say is, “I want to quit and I want to go back home.” I feel overwhelmed a lot and I feel like this is all too much at lot. I wonder if I was to go back home, would I be happier or is the grass really greener? I wanted to explore that feeling. There are times when I do feel like giving up. There are times when this shit’s hard and the travel’s hard and this expectation is hard, and the pressure is a lot.
If there’s one thing I want to do with this record, it’s that I want people to understand the reality of living your dream and what comes with that, the good and the bad. I don’t want to sugar coat it and pretend that once you make it in the music industry that everything’s golden. This is a real job and there are real stresses. I just wanted to be honest as I could. I wanted to tell my story. There are moments where I do feel like giving up, but there are totally out-balanced by the moments that are so wonderful and amazing that I’ve had for the past four years.
How are you going to spend the album’s release day?
I’m probably going to sit in my room going through Twitter and take any slight insult as a huge blow to my confidence. Just a lot of over-analysis probably and hoping that people like it. Also trying to not respond too shortly to the texts from my mom and my grandma. It’s a stressful day, man. I’ve heard these songs so many times before and it’s like, “Am I hearing these songs the same way that these people are hearing the songs? How are they going to feel about this shit?” I’m super stressed about it. It’s freaking me out!
Do you pay attention to what people say about you online?
I see it. I don’t really take much stock of it. I do care a lot about what people think about me, which is one of my most unattractive qualities. I don’t really let it affect me, but I definitely see it. Most of it is overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and I think it’s done more good than bad for me. I try not to let it affect me too much, but a hurtful comment can sting, especially when they get really real, dude. Someone will be like, “Man, you’re so depressed. Fuck you.” It’s like, “Oh, you’re right. Damn it.”
That’s where the block button comes in.
I’m on that block button all day, dude, blocking people left and right. Sometimes I’ll ask them a question and I’ll block them before they can respond. They don’t even get the catharsis of responding. It makes me feel good.
How many songs did Joel Little produce on the album?
Joel Little has done at least six songs on the record. He wrote a couple of them with me, and he produced six of them. He makes up the bulk of the production of the record. He’s amazing.
How did you connect with him? He’s a busy dude these days.
I’m always surprised when he gives me the time. I don’t know, he’s so busy and he’s so great, but we connected through a writing session in LA when I first started out. If you meet Joel, you’ll know what I mean when I say this. He’s the funniest and coolest, most down to earth guy you’ll ever meet. He’s absolutely hilarious. We got along on a really personal level. I think he respected my songwriting and I obviously respect and trust him so much. We paired well. I was lucky enough to be invited back and to keep making music with him.
He has kind of transcended my sound. I’m so grateful for his effect on my project and on my career, so far. He’s absolutely fantastic. He’s a very busy guy, so it’s crazy he has taken time for that. If I had to choose between me and Taylor Swift, I would choose Taylor Swift every single time.
Joel has a clever knack of making alternative music a little more accessible. Does that also apply to your project?
I’ve always tried to make my music accessible. That’s one of my biggest goals. One of my strengths is saying personal things and making them accessible. I think Joel sees that in the songwriting and he takes that same approach to the production, which is why it’s so fantastic. He’s able to make it unique, but also make it so people can relate to it and can consume it. I think that’s what’s fantastic about Joel, and I think that’s why we work so well together because we’re both sharing this common goal of creating interesting music and accessible music.
Who is Carlo? “Carlo’s Song” is one of my favorites on the record.
Carlo was one of my best friends in the world. Two years ago, he passed away. His death was so fucked up. I didn’t get to spend enough time with him before he died. I just had a lot of regret about it. It was something I had to get out of my soul. It’s my favorite song that I’ve ever written and I knew it had to be in the record. I dedicate a lot of this record to my buddy Carlo and his family because it’s definitely earth shattering to lose somebody and it changed my perspective on a lot of things. It’s an important song. He’s an important dude.
Is it hard to perform the song or is it a cathartic experience?
It’s hard sometimes, but I feel close to him when I sing that song. I feel like I’m remembering him and that’s so important to me. It will be important to him, and I just know that he would want me to play it. He was the coolest dude ever and he loved music. I just try to honor him with it. I don’t think it’s something I’m doing for myself, I think of it as something I’m doing for him. That makes me excited to play it every night singing for my good buddy, Carlo.
Busyhead is almost a mini-greatest hits. How do you decide on the final tracklist?
I just wrote songs and they all seemed to fit together in a narrative. The songs that stood out the most are the ones that ended up on the record. It just happens that they all fit this concept I was thinking about and fit the narrative of this journey I’ve been on. There wasn’t really a situation where we were picking songs. I was like, “Man, we wrote a lot of songs but these ones feel like they go with this kind of feeling in the best way.” They kind of picked themselves. It wasn’t a crazy hard process actually.
You don’t feel protective of songs that don’t make the cut?
Songs that don’t make it usually don’t make it for a reason. All of the songs on this record are the ones that I knew had to be on the record. You can always release other songs later and there are places for other songs. I think if you’re releasing an album, it has to sound like an album. It has to sound like a body of work and Busyhead is a cohesive narrative instead of just great songs stacked on top of each other. I’m sure the songs that didn’t make it will find their place in my career someday.
You have toured with so many artists I love. What was the most exciting tour to be part of?
I enjoyed all of them. There are all so fun, I’ve learned so much from each tour and I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given touring with some of the best artists in the world. I think the James Bay tour that I did in March was the highlight of my life so far. I’ve been a James Bay fan forever. When I signed to Republic, I was so excited because it was James Bay’s record label. Being able to hang out with him, and take advice from him, and play with him was so fucking cool. He has the voice of an angel.
What’s your favorite thing about being on tour?
I love being able to see Europe, Australia and parts of America that I never otherwise would have gone to. I absolutely fell in love with these cities, and the people in these cities. You meet these amazing people who have such rich stories to tell you and you get this opportunity to be with some of your best friends, and some of the coolest dudes in America. You get to play every night and the high of playing every night is so amazing.
Touring for me is exhausting, but I miss it every day when I’m off the road, just being able to be this nomadic person traveling the world with your friends, seeing it and experiencing it together and sharing these really unique and fucking wild experiences together. It’s an awesome high. It’s something I can’t replicate any other place in my life. Being on tour is my favorite thing.
Congratulations on the album. It’s great.
Thank you so much for the support.