Noah Gundersen

Interview: Noah Gundersen’s Restless Heart

In 2014, Noah Gundersen released his first full-length album. The record in question, Ledges, was a masterclass in contemporary folk music, loaded with confessional lyrics, acoustic guitars, and fiddles. By all accounts, Gundersen seemed like a traditionalist.

In 2015, Gundersen quickly followed Ledges up with his sophomore LP, the spiritually fraught Carry the Ghost. It was still a folk album, but Noah was fleshing things out, adding fractious electric guitar and other elements of full band instrumentation into the mix. It was clearly the work of a young songwriter who was yearning to grow.

Between the fall of 2015 and the early winter of 2016, Gundersen did two tours in support of Carry the Ghost. The first was a full-band endeavor, presenting the songs on Ghost as they were meant to be heard. The second was a solo tour, where Gundersen played songs from both Ledges and Carry the Ghost on acoustic guitar, solo electric guitar, and piano. It was a stark, intimate presentation, and it showed off what made Gundersen so special: his vulnerable, fragile voice; his songs that could work well no matter how much he built them up or stripped them down; and his honest, forthright lyrics.

But something was wrong. Gundersen was having a crisis of faith—not the same crisis of religious faith he wrote about on Carry the Ghost, but a crisis of faith in his own art. When I saw Gundersen on the solo tour for Ghost, he was pointedly reserved. He bantered with the audience occasionally, but during the songs, his eyes were cast toward the floor or closed entirely. And at the end of the show, when a condescending moderator led a Q&A session and suggested that Gundersen was “so young” and “couldn’t have possibly experienced what he sang about in his songs,” Noah seemed at a loss for how to answer—at least politely. When the Q&A ended, Gundersen headed quickly for the stage door.

“Instead of my life up to that point flashing before my eyes, it was my future,” Gundersen says of that tour in the press materials for his new album, titled White Noise and out September 22. “A future of playing songs I didn’t believe in and pouring my soul out into a vehicle I no longer recognized or loved.”

For those who have been following Gundersen for a little while, that statement may or may not be shocking. Gundersen, I’ve gathered, is the kind of artist who turns against his old work as he continues to grow and change. When I spoke to him in the lead-up to the release of Carry the Ghost, Noah explained the evolution in his sound by distancing himself from Ledges. “My taste and my aesthetic has changed since the writing of those songs,” he said. “I wanted to make something that was different, something that I would enjoy listening to.”

While Carry the Ghost may have been something Noah would have enjoyed listening to then, though, it probably isn’t anymore. Just like he grew out of the Ledges material, Gundersen now views the Ghost songs with a similar level of detachment—like they were written by someone else instead of from his own pen.

“I wish I knew why it happens,” Gundersen said, speaking of his consistent artistic restlessness. “It’s kind of a pain in the ass. I just think I’m perpetually dissatisfied, which can be really frustrating. But it also drives my creativity and my desire to do better and to make things that are better than what I’ve made in the past.”

On Carry the Ghost, that desire drove Gundersen to take the contemporary folk sound of his debut and flesh it out. On White Noise, it drives him to take that sound and crash it off a cliff.

Where Ghost felt like a natural evolution from its predecessor, White Noise feels every bit as restless as Gundersen seems in conversation. There are three songs that may have fit on previous records. The rest find Noah casting about and exploring new frontiers. He’s helped in his exploration by Nate Yaccino, the friend who Gundersen brought in to produce the record. (Noah self-produced both Ledges and Ghost.)

“[Nate] pushed me sonically in a lot of ways that I wouldn’t have necessarily gone on my own,” Gundersen said. “I think having someone to push back against and have a dialogue with, someone who is creatively enhancing the experience, I think that’s really important. This record definitely wouldn’t be what it is without his contributions.”

On first listen, some fans—particularly the ones who have been with Noah since the bare bones EPs he made as a teenager—will probably find some of those contributions jarring. Noah’s vocals get pitch-shifted, multi-tracked, and buried in reverb in the middle of “After All,” the 90s rock flavored opener. Laser-blast sound effects and other ambient noises canter around in the background of “Cocaine, Sex, and Alcohol (From a Basement in Los Angeles).” And “New Religion” builds from an organ-drenched piano ballad into a full-on psychedelic, Beatles-inspired bridge.

Still, it’s fairly clear that Yaccino isn’t pulling Gundersen anywhere that he wasn’t ready to go on his own. That’s partially because Gundersen is far from the traditional singer/songwriter that he presented himself as on Ledges, but it’s also because he didn’t completely know where he wanted to go when he started making White Noise.

“The early formation of the ideas for this record were kind of all over the place,” Gundersen said. “When I started writing it, there was a phase where it was going to be like a Nine Inch Nails record. I was listening to a ton of Nine Inch Nails. Then there was a moment where it was going to be more like a Nick Cave record. And then it was Radiohead’s OK Computer. And Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years was actually a really influential record for us, too.

“So there were a lot of moments along the way where it was going to be something more specific. And then it kind of just morphed into an amalgamation of a lot of the different phases of obsession that I had.”

White Noise sounds as scattered as Gundersen’s words imply. Lead single “The Sound” is a surging rocker with shades of Noah’s side band, Young in the City. Ditto for the cheekily titled “Number One Hit of the Summer.” The synth-heavy “Heavy Metals” recalls the 1980s ambient rock style of The 1975. “Bad Desire” is a bluesy pop song that wouldn’t have been out of place on John Mayer’s Battle Studies. “Sweet Talker” has shades of Coldplay’s X&Y and U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. And “Bad Actors” and “Cocaine, Sex, and Alcohol,” likely to be the record’s most polarizing moments, see Noah wearing his Radiohead influence proudly on his sleeve.

The themes of the record are no less expansive. In his Facebook post announcing the album, Noah wrote that it was about fear, anxiety, desire, despair, hope, and joy. It’s also about alienation and division, caused by the simultaneous connection and isolation allowed by social media and by the hateful political landscape inspired by our current presidential administration. The statements here aren’t as clear as they were on Carry the Ghost. There, Noah was exorcising years of personal demons about how religion so rarely practices what it preaches. Here, he’s threading a more universal needle—a fact that pushed him to write more toward a feeling or vibe than a literal narrative.

“I didn’t want it to be some kind of confessional on-the-nose angst thing,” he said. “I didn’t want to get up and literally say ‘Social media is destroying humanity’ and ‘Trump sucks’ and all this stuff. That feels so cliché and banal when you hear it laid out literally.”

At the same time, though, Gundersen also didn’t want to hide his “confessional on-the-nose angst” behind irony or cynicism, in the way that recent records from the likes of Father John Misty and Arcade Fire have done it. He didn’t want to be afraid of his own earnestness—even if being sincere is rarely what moves the needle in music these days.

“I’m not an ironist,” he said. “That’s never really been my style. Something that’s been a part of my music for a long time is trying to express human feelings in a simple way, but an intimate way. And I think [this album] is another side of human feeling. It’s something we’re all going through right now. Experiencing the world changing, feeling this sense of fear and anxiety and not really knowing what to do with it. I can only communicate that through the lens that I’ve experienced it, but it does feel like a kind of universal thing that’s been going on. So I think trying to express that, at least through my own lens, is my own little contribution.”

White Noise doesn’t feature a single overt political statement, nor does it include any immediately obvious references to social media or subtweet culture. Still, Gundersen is a deft enough songwriter that you can feel those topics in his songs. “The Sound” resonates as a pointed jab at entitled internet goons who refuse to acknowledge their own ignorance. “How many times will you shit on what you’re given?” the song asks; “How many times ‘til you shut up and listen?” “Fear and Loathing,” meanwhile, was written before Trump got elected—Noah was playing the song on his acoustic tour in early 2016—but might be the perfect anthem for the feeling of dread that seems to have blanketed the entire nation this year. “Nothing changes much/The quarterbacks are drunk/The prom queen just gave up/In Fear and Loathing.”

In a lot of ways, White Noise is a record about cutting ties with the past. “There’s nothing left for us here now,” Gundersen sings on “Fear and Loathing.” It’s a fitting lyric for one of the few songs on the album that sounds like his old style of music. Even as Noah turns away from folk music, he has to give it at least one more aching send-off.

But Gundersen is smart enough to know that, no matter how much he experiments, his purest emotional fireworks still come when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar. That’s why the three songs that sound the most like Ledges and Carry the Ghost—“Fear and Loathing,” “Dry Year,” and “Send the Rain (To Everyone)”—serve as homecomings of sort at the end of the first and second halves of the record. Both “Fear and Loathing and “Send the Rain” build from slow, acoustic starts to big, full-band catharses. “Fear and Loathing” handles the build-up itself, painting the picture of a small town that’s falling apart—breaking its citizens down with it.

“Dry Year” and “Send the Rain,” meanwhile, function almost like two parts of a whole. The former is the record’s sparest and most desolate moment, painting a portrait of a world ready to burn. “Some days the world feels like a building on fire/But everyone’s ignoring the smoke/You would vote for a comedian/If he could comfort you with a joke,” Gundersen sings on the record’s closest thing to an overt political lyric. The “dry year,” it turns out, is a metaphorical drought—the result of a world sapped of its values, its empathy, and the genuine human connection that used to keep it spinning.

But Noah’s words aren’t judgmental or hateful. Instead, he hopes that someday, things will change. We’ll stop burning ourselves with political wars and stupid insecurities and let the rain save our ravaged world. Even if none of us live to see that day, Noah reckons we can be a part of the solution. When the audible sound of rainfall cuts through the end of “Dry Year,” he sings “Now the sky is giving up her child/To the dead grass of the back lawn/I hope she takes the water in my body when I’m gone.” And as the album’s final song barrels toward its epic climax, it’s to Noah’s repeated cries of “Send the rain, send my love/To everyone,” shouted over the noise of crashing guitars and pounding drums.

The message, I think, is simple: in a world on fire, maybe we can all be somebody else’s rain.

Craig Manning
Craig Manning Craig Manning is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @FurtherFromSky on Twitter and on Facebook.
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