It wasn’t until the Vermont native released a folk album about growing up in New England that he took off. Northeastern music experts unpack why this album skyrocketed him to popularity.
In 2022, most people knew Noah Kahan from TikTok, where a clip from his single “Northern Attitude” was circling. Kahan had been making folk-pop music for years — he released albums in 2019 and 2021 — but only had one single reach the charts.
Now, the singer-songwriter from Vermont is nominated for a Grammy for “Best New Artist.” He headlines music festivals and is touring internationally. He was on “Saturday Night Live” as a musical guest. And you pretty much can’t open TikTok without hearing one of his choruses blaring.
What changed was the release of his album, “Stick Season,” named for the Vermont landscape after the leaves fall and before snowfall — and the hit single that people came to love through TikTok.
“Stick Season” was a departure from Kahan’s previous work in both genre and songwriting. Where once he put out more mainstream pop music, “Stick Season” veers into folk territory with heavy banjo influences.
The lyrics themselves also got more specific: Kahan began name-dropping streets and landmarks in his hometown and used his songs to tell a story about mental health and the ennui that comes with living in rural Vermont.
This is part of what may have led to his sudden rise in popularity, Northeastern music experts say.
“Songwriters tell the secrets we have,” says Melissa Ferrick, a seasoned songwriter and performer who teaches songwriting and music courses at Northeastern University. “I think that’s what he’s doing.”
In his song, “The View Between Villages,” Kahan sings, “Passed Alger Brook Road, I’m over the bridge…”
“There may be things like the street name,” Ferrick says. “All those things are transferable. It’s the story and the imagery and the delivery and the familiarity that the listener has with this artist that allows them to attach their own life to the life that he’s showing us.”
Ferrick says the themes in “Stick Season” are familiar ones explored by artists such as Bruce Springsteen in songs like “Born to Run.” While Kahan’s music hardly sounds like The Boss, it features what Ferrick calls a “quintessential call to teens and 20-somethings” about how life would be better if we could just get out of this town.
“These are things that get sung about all the time,” Ferrick adds. “This idea of going home, whether that be to an actual physical place, or a place inside yourself, is something that we see a lot of people do, especially when we get far away from our authenticity.”
“I think that this guy clearly had some sort of moment where he was like, ‘I need to go live in a cabin, set up three microphones, and write songs about what’s really going on with me.’ It is a very brave thing to do, to really write honestly. And I think that the songs that are really honest come from writers who are able to really just put words to how other people have felt before, and are brave enough to say them first. Those are the songs that change people’s lives.”
Ferrick says good songwriting often relies on narrative: name a time and place and then add more and more details to start “painting a story.” This is what Kahan does in many of his songs, creating a narrative that adds more resonance than ruminating on general ideas, adds James Gutierrez, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Music at Northeastern.
“We want stories that are grounded in reality,” Guttierrez says. “If we just get preached at about general ideas, they’re less appealing than if those same ideas are embodied in some actual experience. That’s part of what we call myth building in songwriting. (Kahan) is telling his actual experience, but in a way where the specificity of his background isn’t excluding anybody.
“In the song ‘Homesick,’ he sings, ‘Well I’m tired of dirt roads named after high school friends’ grandfathers.’
“The imagery that he’s using, while it is specific (to New England), it’s powerful emotional imagery. … One of the reasons that works really well is because he’s grounding all those ideas coming from a place of being a single person. He doesn’t over aggrandize himself,” Gutierrez says. “He’s just a very humble guy.”
Additionally, the transition to folk probably also allows the album to hit home. Gutierrez says folk is experiencing a rise in popularity now. Beyond this, he notes Kahan packs a punch with his lyrics, cramming quick wordplay into his verses before diving into a catchy chorus. This might appeal more to today’s listeners who he says take in music at a faster rate than previous generations.
“One of the functions of the chorus is to bring home the emotional point,” Gutierrez adds. “His are strong and potent emotionally and they’re singable so they could be belted out in someone’s car or room or go viral on TikTok. That’s one of the most important recipes for becoming viral today.”
Kahan’s music is also known for touching upon themes of mental health. He talks about going to therapy, taking medication and feelings of hopelessness. (He opens one song with “So I took my medication and then I poured my trauma out on some sad-eyed middle-aged man’s overpriced new leather couch.”)
It’s something that can especially resonate with people who grew up in the age of the internet who crave authenticity and vulnerability, Gutierrez says.
“Mental health is on 20-somethings’ minds all the time,” he adds. “It’s something they were raised with that is pretty unique. They’re very self conscious about their tumultuous internal existence, and he speaks to that very precisely.”