Famous in a Small Town: Noah Kahan, ‘Stick Season’ and the Art of Looking Forward and Backward All At Once
“Sorry, this is turning into a therapy session,” laughs Noah Kahan, cutting himself off.
After speaking to Billboard for just 45 minutes, the 25-year-old New England-born singer-songwriter had already covered his experiences with alcoholism, childhood insecurities and his parents’ recent divorce – all topics that, in some way or another, color his highly-anticipated upcoming album Stick Season. Ironically, each of his songs read like transcripts from counseling appointments in which he and his listeners play both doctor and patient at the same time – especially the 14 new ones dropping Friday (Oct. 10).
“What ties this whole thing together is the shared experience of growing up with a lot of space and isolation,” he says of the new record. “I want people who live in small towns to know I hear them, I see them and I know what it’s like.”
Kahan has become one of the most recognizable forces in acoustic indie-pop over the past five years, thanks to his alpine voice and sucker-punch-to-the-heart lyrical style. That said, Stick Season is by and large the most honest he’s ever been on a project, something that may come as a surprise to those familiar with the emotional intimacy of his first two albums, 2019’s Busyhead and 2021’s I Was / I Am.
The new record finds Kahan doing two things he previously would’ve thought too risky: singing lyrics saturated with details he once would’ve avoided altogether, and swerving full throttle into folk music, which he’d only ever flirted with in the past. Though he’s loved the genre for years, he never dared embrace it out of concern that it would ice out listeners who enjoyed the universally accessible pop stylings of his more well-known tracks – like “Hurt Somebody,” a 2017 collaboration with Julia Michaels, which has amassed 114.5 million on-demand official U.S. streams, according to Luminate.
Those risks paid off almost immediately. Released in July after Kahan first tested pieces of it out on social media, the album’s lead single and title track, “Stick Season,” has reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart and has logged 41.4 million U.S. streams.
Kahan’s newfound confidence comes after years of burnout caused by feeling lost in writers’ rooms, suffocated by the self-made pressure to turn more “Hurt Somebody”s in to his label (Republic Records), and fixated on commercial success as determined by streams and follower counts. When the COVID-19 pandemic collided straight into the recording and touring plans of musicians across the globe, however, he was mercifully granted an even playing field – or lack thereof, really – with his fellow artists.
“It felt like we were all bound by this horrible world experience, and it weirdly made me feel less alone,” he recalls. “I didn’t like the way that it happened, but it was nice that I got a chance to experience feeling normal and the same as everyone else.”
That’s not to say the period was easy for him, though. He spent the pandemic in his hometown of Strafford, Vermont, meaning he literally couldn’t look away from the sore memories frozen in time by his surroundings. He discovered a new strain of loneliness in being cut off from seeing his fans in person, and again when he stayed back as his friends and family began returning to their normal lives after the worst of the pandemic had passed.
But somewhere between snow-capped mountain ranges and forests of birch and maple trees, Kahan finally found enough distance from the music industry – and closeness to himself – to start taking his folk inclinations seriously. In 2020, he wrote and released the EP Cape Elizabeth, five songs of bittersweet testimony from a love that started and ended in coastal Maine.
“It’s a story about one person being here and another person being there,” he says of the project. “[Stick Season] is definitely a continuation – I don’t know how much of it is the same characters or the same relationship that Cape Elizabeth was built off of, but it’s definitely the same universe.”
Instead of being turned off by the EP’s specificity, his fans devoured every detail – it’s not unusual to see tattoos of lighthouses like the one on Cape Elizabeth’s cover scattered throughout Kahan’s concert crowds – and he was encouraged to make a full album of songs just like it. The result was Stick Season, a record directly inspired by the place in which it was written, and aptly named after a phrase used by Vermonters to describe the “kind of depressing” transition between fall and winter.
“I wanted to write about what it was like to grow up in a small town, what it means to fall in love and lose people in a small town, and write from the perspective of someone who stayed behind,” he explains. “As I found this niche and new concept to write about, I started being really excited again about what my future and life could look like doing what I actually want to do.”
Inspired by songwriting favorites like Phoebe Bridgers and Sam Fender, Kahan ignored his pop tendency to make songs as relatable as possible, and instead started planting unprecedented detail into his lyrics. In one of Stick Season’s gloomiest tracks, “Come Over,” he references the late 2000s stock market crash – “I love that I’m able to reference Dow Jones in a song, I think that’s funny,” he chuckles – and on “Homesick,” one of the songs he says he’s most proud of, he makes mention of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers (“I’m tired of dirt roads named after high school friends’ grandfathers/ And motherf–kers here still don’t know they caught the Boston bombers”).
Not every detail on the set is purely autobiographical; on “New Perspectives,” for example, Kahan backdrops his feelings of resentment with a town full of “liberal rednecks,” where the addition of a Target store is enough to send shockwaves through the community. In real life, though, he says the town actually didn’t have a Target – until one was coincidentally built shortly after he wrote the song.
“It’s dope, I go to that Target all the time [now],” he laughs. “I’m honestly pumped.”
One of the album’s biggest standouts is a rainy narrative piece called “Orange Juice,” which lays out Kahan’s relationship to someone suffering with alcoholism and addiction. He says, though, that he wrote it about a collection of stories shared between friends and family rather than just one person.
“It touches on what it’s like to go through something really traumatic with somebody and to have something that should bring you closer, but instead it pulls you farther away,” he says. “That’s really hard, to be bound by this pain and not even have it be something that brings you closer.”
Musically, Kahan’s new album takes cues from groups he loved in middle school, folk-rock bands like Mumford & Sons (most obvious on Stick Season’s second single “Northern Attitude,” released Sept. 16) and The Lumineers. All recorded live in studio, the songs on Stick Season often switch gears midway through, launching without warning into new tempos and styles.
“My older music got right to the point the entire time,” he reflects. “These songs allow the band to play a little bit; there’s lots of musical moments that require a little bit of patience. I wanted to give people a chance to interpret both the music and the lyrics instead of having one dominate the other.”
Most of the tracks, Kahan reveals, were intentionally written to translate well into live performances – a good thing, as he calls touring the lifeblood of his career. He spent the back end of 2021 on the road in support of I Was / I Am and Cape Elizabeth, and he’s now gearing up to do it all again starting Wednesday (Oct. 12), when he’ll kick off the Stick Season Tour in Charleston.
“Being able to get out and play the songs and share that experience with people is just a miracle,” he beams. “I can’t wait to play them in New England, and I actually can’t wait to play them in Portland [Oregon] and random towns that are way far away from where I am to see how people have drawn parallels.”
With just days left to go before his new album drops, Kahan says he’s focused on not focusing on the wrong things this time around, whether it’s perceived missed opportunities, self comparison or numbers. When talking about how well Stick Season’s lead single/title track is streaming on Spotify, he says he’s trying to not even engage with positive statistics – “But yeah, ‘Stick Season’ is doing really well. I’m pumped. I’m going to buy myself a Lexus, probably.”
What’s important to him now is keeping his past just enough in view to honor New England and the stories he worked so hard to tell on Stick Season – but not so much as to get trapped again in what could or should have been – while simultaneously looking at the future as a thing of opportunity, not an impossible to-do list of self-imposed expectations. It’s a dichotomy best illustrated on the closing track of Stick Season, “The View Between Villages” – an ethereal account of the canyon of emotions one feels when passing through a place they love and hate at the same time.
“It’s about the drive between South Strafford and Strafford,” Kahan shares. “It’s this long winding road through this really beautiful valley – I think there’s some kind of town ordinance that doesn’t allow people to build on it, because it’s just this beautiful farmland. Whenever I drive through it, I feel truly and completely at peace.”
“Then, I get off of it and pass my old house,” he continues. “I have this creeping anxiety coming back… to this place that has so much baggage for me. By the end of the song, I’m reversing the car and going back on the road between the villages. There’s real beauty and nuance to living in New England – it feels like you’re in a bubble and it’s f–king freezing and people are mean, but what trumps that all is how absolutely peaceful and gorgeous it is there. I wanted the perspective to be that of hope toward the end of the record — because I think the ultimate message of this album is that there is real beauty in small towns.”
Stick Season comes out Friday, Oct. 14. Pre-save it here.