Noah's Arc: Noah Kahan Is Vermont's Biggest Cultural Export in Years. How the Hell Did That Happen? | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Noah's Arc: Noah Kahan Is Vermont's Biggest Cultural Export in Years. How the Hell Did That Happen?


Published January 31, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 7, 2024 at 10:16 a.m.

Noah Kahan performing at Burlington's Waterfront Park last July - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Noah Kahan performing at Burlington's Waterfront Park last July

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On a Friday a little over a week before Christmas, TV crews hauling camera gear hurried down a corridor of the University of Vermont Children's Hospital. Behind them, clusters of nurses, doctors and assorted administrators trailed like giddy schoolchildren. Someone in a giant white coffee cup costume emblazoned with a Dunkin' logo ambled past, and a nearby woman in sky-blue scrubs watching the scene unfold whispered in awe: "That's Cuppy."

Deeper within the hospital, an expectant crowd gathered in a wide hallway. Excited hubbub gave way to uneasy silence as a procession came into view, with a collection of aides and hospital staff flanking a bearded man as if he were a head of state.

"Oh, my God, it's him," someone muttered, and they weren't talking about Cuppy.

Noah Kahan, singer-songwriter, TikTok sensation, recent Grammy Award nominee and current avatar of all things Vermont, strode forth from his scrum of handlers. Acoustic guitar in hand, he moved toward a cluster of young patients, who were waiting for the state's biggest cultural export since Bernie Sanders to play them a song.

Sporting long brown hair tucked under a black Dunkin' baseball cap and a wry, almost nervous grin behind his beard, Kahan looked every bit the New England troubadour whose likeness, as of late, has been everywhere from the New York Times to GQ. He's usually pictured in a parka or flannel, leaning against a farmyard fence or standing near a copse of trees under a gray sky — or any sort of background an editor might dub "Vermonty." Kahan is often looking at the camera ominously, as if trying to stare through your soul.

Kahan with fans at the University of Vermont Children's Hospital - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Kahan with fans at the University of Vermont Children's Hospital

At the Children's Hospital, he breezed through a kid-friendly version of his hit song "Stick Season," swapping out lyrics about alcohol and smoking weed with "apple juice" and "climbing trees." A paean to Vermont and the bleak transitional period between fall and winter, the song has turned Kahan into a global star — though you might not have guessed that he's famous, based on the reaction from the kids in the audience. Few seemed to know who he was, and most were more interested in Cuppy and Monty, the hospital's breakdancing moose mascot.

The adults, however, were a different story. Men and women in hospital scrubs and officials in business attire fawned and swooned, recording his performance on cellphones, grinning wildly and singing along. Some swayed and half-danced while standing still.

At first, the 27-year-old singer seemed anxious and out of place. Perhaps the intimate and unconventional venue threw him off; these days, he's more used to playing arenas full of screaming fans than a corridor of nonplussed children.

Six months earlier, in late July, Kahan had played one of pop music's great cathedrals, Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. The show served as a benefit for flood-relief efforts in Vermont, following the devastating storm here earlier that month. Onstage, Kahan wore a denim jacket. Screen-printed on the back was a white steepled church and the name of the Upper Valley town in Vermont where he grew up: Strafford.

Red Rocks was one of dozens of sold-out shows on his 2023 Stick Season tour, which included a stop at Burlington's Waterfront Park. That was likely the last time he'll play in Vermont for a while, since there simply isn't a venue big enough to accommodate the crowds he now draws.

Up for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards this Sunday, February 4, Kahan has become a pop music phenomenon. He was a teen songwriting prodigy who signed a record deal at 17. He then spent years in Nashville, New York City and Los Angeles trying to launch a career. He found modest success as a pop singer, building a following on social media and TikTok in particular.

While stuck in Vermont during the pandemic, he began writing his 2022 breakout album, Stick Season. The title track became a TikTok sensation, sparking an upward trajectory that hasn't slowed since. Along the way, he's cultivated a fan base reminiscent of Taylor Swift's in its dedication and willingness to shell out gobs of money to see him perform in the kind of venues he dreamed of playing as a kid. Tickets for his Fenway Park shows in July currently range from around $900 to more than $8,000.

His massive audiences are heavily populated by Gen Z fans who will scream his lyrics back to him, often through tears. These aren't just the "Oh, my God, a famous person!" sort of tears but the "group therapy bordering on mass religious experience" kind.

Kahan is far from the first bearded white man to write sad music, nor does he have some sort of monopoly on bonding with fans through shared pain. What he is, however, is a perfect storm of songwriting savvy and extreme relatability that has spawned one of the biggest musical breakouts the Green Mountain State has ever seen.

"Noah's music speaks to experiencing joy amidst grief," Mariah Noth said. The 28-year-old Grand Isle native has been a Kahan fan since his 2019 debut, Busyhead. A card-carrying "Busyhead" — that's what Kahan's fans call themselves — she's seen him play everywhere from Vermont coffeehouses to arenas.

Kahan's rise reveals a paradox: The more confessional and vulnerable about his mental health Kahan has become, the stronger and more devoted his audience has grown. And when he stopped chasing pop stardom and returned to the folk and Americana influences of his youth, stardom found him.

Growing Sideways

Fans cheering Kahan at Waterfront Park - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Fans cheering Kahan at Waterfront Park

When Kahan last spoke with Seven Days, in 2022, Stick Season had only been out for about 48 hours. Over a Zoom chat from his apartment in Watertown, Mass., Kahan expressed trepidation about how his new album would be received. The song "Stick Season" had already lit up TikTok and Spotify, but the album itself was something of a gamble for the songwriter. His label, Republic Records, wasn't sold on his transition from indie pop to New England folk singer, and Kahan really, really didn't want to lose that record deal.

It's safe to say his plan worked out. Stick Season has catapulted Kahan to the upper echelons of music stardom. The title track hit No. 1 on the Billboard rock and alternative charts and recently topped the charts in the United Kingdom. In 2023 alone, he amassed 1.4 billion streams of his music on Spotify and released an expanded edition of Stick Season (with the added tagline We'll All Be Here Forever), featuring remixes and duets with pop stars Post Malone, Kacey Musgraves and Zach Bryan, to name a few.

Kahan closed out the year with a performance on "Saturday Night Live" and the Grammy nomination. His people were no longer reaching out to Seven Days for coverage but instead replying to interview requests with, essentially: Um, maybe in the summer? Kahan, who toured overseas this month but will be stateside for the Grammys before continuing his tour in Europe, declined to be interviewed for this story.

From the outside, Kahan appears to be an overnight success. It's one of the few bits of criticism lobbed his way by locals: He didn't actually "pay his dues" by slogging it across the stage at Nectar's in Burlington or playing lovable dives like Charlie-O's World Famous in Montpelier.

Kahan and Robert Grabill - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Kahan and Robert Grabill

"Anybody who thinks Noah took the easy way doesn't know him," said Robert Grabill, Kahan's soccer coach at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., not far from the Vermont state line and Strafford. Now both a friend and fan of Kahan, Grabill stays in touch with his former player, who returns to his alma mater every Thanksgiving to play in an alumni soccer match.

Kahan's father, Josh, an information technology specialist, taught his son to play guitar; his mother, Lauri Berkenkamp, a best-selling children's author, helped foster his love of writing. Kahan was penning his own songs by the age of 8, and by the time he was in high school, he was ready to record them. So he reached out to local music producer and former Hanover High student Nate Choukas, who had a home studio nearby.

"Noah was a few years behind me at school when we met," Choukas recalled by phone from Arizona, where he's currently a graduate student. "Even then, he was so driven and talented. I wasn't sure what to expect, but as soon as he started playing the songs he wrote, I was like, This is actually really good. This is a real songwriter."

With Choukas' help, Kahan released his singles on the streaming site SoundCloud. He attracted thousands of listeners, far more attention that he'd gotten from playing Hanover coffee shops and student talent shows. Among his listeners was music agent and Foundations Artist Management partner Drew Simmons, who was managing the indie-rock band Young the Giant at the time. After hearing Kahan's single "Sink" on SoundCloud, Simmons set the gears in motion for him to join Republic Records in 2015.

Busyhead - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Busyhead

Kahan received the text that he'd been signed while he was walking to soccer practice, Grabill recalled. "We all knew it was what he wanted and had worked so hard on," he said.

With his dream of being a recording artist in sight, Kahan decided against attending Louisiana's Tulane University after high school and set out instead for Nashville, then New York City and Los Angeles, where he recorded Busyhead. But when the pandemic struck, Kahan retreated to his childhood home in Strafford.

While there, he recorded a stripped-down EP, Cape Elizabeth, with Choukas' younger brother, Phin, in the same Hanover home studio. He then headed to LA and released his second album, 2021's I Was/I Am, another pop-leaning record. The following year, Kahan returned home and wrote the majority of Stick Season in the barn his father built.

"When I left Vermont, I was an immature kid," Kahan told Seven Days in 2022. "I was always trying to get out. After living in Nashville and New York and moving all over the place, I started to rethink that. And by the time I started writing songs [for Stick Season], I was feeling this pull back to those places and feelings. And, musically, that meant returning to the styles I grew up loving."

New Perspective

Noah Kahan on "Saturday Night Live" - COURTESY OF WILL HEATH/NBC/GETTY IMAGES
  • Courtesy Of Will Heath/nbc/getty Images
  • Noah Kahan on "Saturday Night Live"

Before the success of Stick Season, Kahan had his first mini-breakthrough with his 2019 hit "Hurt Somebody," a duet with pop singer Julia Michaels.

It's a slick, professional-sounding recording, tailor-made for radio play and Spotify-sponsored indie-pop playlists. While overtly poppy, it also offered hints of what was to come. The prevalent acoustic guitar and emotive, almost contrite lyrics are all there, and there's nothing disingenuous or flimsy about the catchy melody and Kahan and Michaels' call-and-response verses.

Busyhead also revealed a writer unafraid to document his struggles, particularly on the title track. Kahan has said in interviews that he wrote the tune about getting arrested for smoking weed a few times in high school. His misadventures landed him with a therapist, who labeled the roguish teen a "busy head."

"I thought that kind of embodied how I feel I am," Kahan told Atwood Magazine in 2019. "I like the idea of Busyhead representing anxiety, deep thought, perspective, and stuff like that."

Despite showing glimpses of the songwriter Kahan would grow into, Busyhead and I Was/I Am are essentially pop records, written by a songwriter swinging for the fences of mass appeal. Another hit off his debut, "Youngblood," features an R&B-flavored, falsetto-heavy chorus with a pounding beat full of anthemic swagger.

By the time Kahan released I Was/I Am, a critical and commercial step down from Busyhead, he was tired of trying to write hits.

"I was writing music that I wouldn't listen to," he said in an interview with Boston magazine.

Not long after writing what he described to Seven Days as "another fucking pop song," Kahan returned to Strafford with a mission: to get to the true nature of his songwriting.

"I cowrite a lot of the pop songs I do," he said in the same interview. "So I wanted to compose something that was just uniquely my own. And it became the genesis of the whole record."

Stick Season - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Stick Season

The change is immediately apparent on Stick Season. "Northern Attitude" kicks off the record, full of ferocious melancholy and strident vocals. It's clear Kahan has made up his mind to let you know where he comes from, figuratively and literally.

"If I get too close and I'm not how you hoped / Forgive my northern attitude/ Oh, I was raised out in the cold," Kahan belts out in the chorus, hewing closer to the Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold than the indie pop of say, Dean Lewis, one of Kahan's early collaborators. "If the sun don't rise 'til the summertime / Forgive my northern attitude / Oh, I was raised on little light."

Few topics are off-limits on the record. Kahan's parents divorced during the pandemic, and the pain of their split surfaces on Stick Season. In "Growing Sideways," he sings, "I'm still angry at my parents for what their parents did to them."

"His earlier music is good," insisted Noth, the 28-year-old Busyhead. "It's catchy, and there's a lot to love. But with Stick Season — which is such a good crier — you get the feeling you're getting to know him and understand that Vermont connection."

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An album suffused with longing, homesickness and the emotional whirlwind of nostalgia, Stick Season has become a tribute to Vermont like few records before. In her review of the album, Seven Days contributing writer Margaret Grayson pinpointed the aggressive New Englandness of the aesthetic.

"The album's pop-folk sound feels suited for a casual gathering of close friends who've piled their Blundstones at the door," she wrote, likely causing many a Vermonter to feel seen.

Stick Season both vindicated Kahan's desire to ditch his pop persona and, for better or worse, turned him into Captain Vermont.

The View Between Villages

Noah Kahan fans at the Burlington waterfront - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Noah Kahan fans at the Burlington waterfront

The fact that Kahan has traded on a specific kind of "Vermontiness" as part of his brand has elicited some skepticism in his home state. Even at her peak, Grace Potter never hawked anything like Kahan's $45, Nashville-made "Stick Season" candle. Phish lent their name to Phish Food ice cream, but at least that was made by Ben & Jerry's; Kahan's Northern Attitude IPA is produced by Two Roads Brewing in Connecticut — though, like Phish Food, the proceeds from its sale go to charity.

As Kahan has ascended, some local musicians have wondered why this songwriter, who, from their perspective, went from obscurity to stardom practically overnight, was making such a big fuss about Vermont.

"Honestly, when I first started to hear about him, I assumed he just had some kind of connections in the industry or something," recalled Marcie Hernandez, a Burlington-based singer-songwriter and certified music therapist. "I'd never seen or heard of him playing anywhere near here, and he was, like, selling out multiple nights at Higher Ground all of a sudden."

Others questioned Kahan's authenticity.

"Initially, I felt like part of his brand was talking about his whole life, like, 'I was playing coffee shops and struggling,' and I'm like ... Dude, you were signed when you were 17 and put out two pop albums. That's not really the same thing," said producer and musician Dan Rome of Future Fields studios in Burlington. "It felt like he was leaning into the whole 'everyman' sort of thing."

Rome changed his tune after Kahan recorded some vocals for Stick Season at Future Fields.

"He's just such a normal, very down-to-earth guy. It's not an act," Rome said. "The way he approaches music and guitar is normal, but he's an absolute monster of a songwriter and has this ability to connect with the people who listen to his music. He's not arrogant, but he is confident in his abilities as a songwriter, and that's a great combination."

Noth's connection to Kahan's music has less to do with where he's from than the emotional resonance of his lyrics, she said, and the catharsis they deliver.

"It makes a lot of sense to me why so many Gen Z and millennials have taken to his music," she said, citing a global pandemic, income inequality and an increasingly polarized political landscape as reasons Kahan's music has such broad appeal.

"As a culture, happiness is what we're sold on," Noth went on. "But you just can't make yourself happy, and I think his music speaks to being kind of torn apart by that."

No Complaints

Right after actor Emma Stone introduced Kahan on "SNL," on December 2, he launched into his hit "Dial Drunk." His band of similarly dressed (let's call it "Bushwick kids on a hike" chic) white dudes with banjos and guitars conjured unpleasantly retro vibes for some critics.

In a piece for Vox, writer and Burlington native Rebecca Jennings asked the uncomfortable question: "Are we ready for the return of 'Stomp Clap Hey' music?"

The term, not particularly loved among Busyheads, is the derisive label given to a certain genre of folky pop music, embodied by groups like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, which peaked in popularity around 10 years ago — and, as Jennings pointed out in her piece, fits Kahan's sound a little too snugly.

"Stomp Clap Hey" music isn't "something that only existed in 2011 and went away forever," Jennings wrote. "It is, in fact, back. This is thanks to essentially one man ... Noah Kahan."

Sydney Brasil, writing for Canadian culture magazine Exclaim!, went even harder on Kahan when she reviewed his duet with Irish singer Hozier on "Northern Attitude."

"The song serves acoustic soft-boy realness alongside a heaping dollop of that vaguely earthy I-live-in-a-small-cabin-in-the-forest folk epidemic that spread a decade ago," she wrote. She eviscerated both the song and Kahan's fan base, calling them "the hip Evangelist kiddos that get hitched after six months because they won't do it before marriage."

Savage, maybe. But to his credit, Kahan doesn't hide from that critique ­— he embraces it. He's maintained, in multiple interviews, that those same bands inspired him when he was younger. In fact, he performed with the Lumineers' Wesley Schultz and Mumford & Sons in the past year.

"I certainly don't see what I'm doing as carrying the torch, but I guess in some ways I'm just trying to feel the same way I felt watching Mumford & Sons' Live at Red Rocks or watching the Lumineers," he said in an October interview with GQ. "I am trying to create that because it made me so happy to see that as a kid."

And to many of his fans, labels are immaterial.

"I tend to adhere to what Duke Ellington said," said poet and former Vermont Public jazz host Reuben Jackson, a big-time Kahan fan. "He said, 'There are two types of music: good music and the other kind.' Stuff either hits you or it doesn't, and Noah's is the good stuff. For me, the genre has nothing to do with it."

Negative criticism doesn't seem to hold much sway over Kahan, anyway. In November, the singer posted on X (formerly Twitter) after catching some critical blowback.

"I have stumbled on a very negative review of my album and have decided to cope with my hurt feelings," Kahan posted. "I'm going to play 55 sold out shows."

Your Needs, My Needs

  • Courtesy Of Patrick Mccormack
  • Noah Kahan

Standing in front of a sold-out crowd at New York City's Radio City Music Hall in August, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail with a red guitar slung across his shoulder, Kahan peered out into the audience. At most rock concerts, this would be the moment to get the already screaming crowd even more pumped up, maybe even letting slip that old cliché: "Are you ready to rock?!"

Instead, Kahan talked to the audience about therapy and how it saved his life. As seen in fan-shot YouTube videos of the show, he encouraged "even the happiest person" to see a therapist.

Kahan's focus on mental health, and his openness about his own tribulations, have become a cornerstone of his newfound celebrity. He wrote an op-ed for Time magazine, titled "Putting Words to My Mental Health Struggles Saved Me."

"Allowing myself to understand I was suffering from something so common — even if it's rarely discussed — provided a small light at the end of the tunnel," wrote Kahan, who has spoken publicly about his struggles with depression, depersonalization and anxiety. "I was fighting an illness, and I was not alone." Kahan's nonprofit, the Busyhead Project, aims to help lower-income people get access to mental health treatment and has raised over $2 million for the cause.

"To see someone like him talk about therapy is really amazing," said Hernandez, the songwriter and music therapist. "Especially from a straight, white man, it really helps to normalize what is sadly still a stigma among many men."

Hernandez believes that music is a perfect way to talk about trauma in an indirect, nonthreatening fashion. "I can see a songwriter who has the courage to be open and vulnerable, creating a great point of connection for people," she added.

"I'll be frank: I'm a clinically depressed individual," Jackson said by phone from Washington, D.C., where's he's lived since leaving Vermont in 2016. A renowned poet and jazz scholar, Jackson conceded he isn't the typical Busyhead: "I may be a Black man who is pushing 70, but I latched right on to those lyrics."

"One of the hallmarks of great artists is whether or not you believe what they're singing about," he continued. "And I believe him. I can feel the soul and sincerity in his music, and especially in his lyrics."

There is something to those lyrics. It's not like Kahan has some special license for singing about sadness and pain — just ask Thom Yorke or Frank Ocean or Fiona Apple.

"The way he writes lyrics, I've never seen anything like it," Phin Choukas said. While watching Kahan write and record Cape Elizabeth, Choukas was blown away by how Kahan would furiously type ideas into his phone or scribble then down into a notebook. "He just knows how to use his words to achieve so much emotional transference."

Rome has seen firsthand the effect of Kahan's words. Not long before he had his session with Kahan for Stick Season, Rome, who lives in Essex Junction, played the title track for his neighbor.

"He's sort of a good ol' boy from Vermont, this guy, but I know he's had a tough go of it sometimes," Rome explained. After the first verse, Rome noticed his neighbor was in tears. Soon, he begged him to turn the song off.

"He couldn't handle how much it made him feel," Rome recalled. "That was the first time I saw what Noah's lyrics can do."

You're Gonna Go Far

Kahan performing at Burlington's Waterfront Park last July - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Kahan performing at Burlington's Waterfront Park last July

It might sound strange to say, but it doesn't really matter whether Kahan wins a Grammy on Sunday. For one, Best New Artist winners have a checkered history — hi, Milli Vanilli. For another, Kahan's popularity has probably already eclipsed any Grammy bump he might see. From selling out venues on every corner of the Earth to scoring a No. 1 record in the U.S. and UK, he's successfully spread Stick Season around the globe.

"Noah has this strength derived from being himself," said Grabill, Kahan's soccer coach. "Whether he was blowing up or not, he'd still be the same person writing great music, and I don't think you could say that about other people in his position."

Back at the UVM Children's Hospital, Dr. Lewis First can attest that success has only seemed to bring Kahan's true nature to the fore. The hospital's chief of pediatrics introduced Kahan before his performance in December.

"The way he advocates for mental health is exactly what we need artists to do," First said. "It's the same thing we do here at the hospital: We try to remove the stigma around mental health."

In that respect, he said, Kahan is the real deal.

"Most people there that day saw a pop star show up and play a song," First said. "But he went so far above and beyond that."

Long after his scheduled hour at the hospital had ended, Kahan and First headed deeper into the pediatric unit, and Kahan proceeded to play a song for each child patient in isolation from outside the rooms. First said some of the families didn't know who Kahan was, but they were still moved to tears that he had taken the time to play for their children.

"There were no cameras around, no reporters," First said. "This was him, playing music for people he considered his own."

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