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Nice Guy Noah Kahan Finishes First!

The wholesome singer-songwriter’s life was upended by TikTok

It’s hard to imagine now that he’s one of the most buzzed-about artists in popular music, but Noah Kahan was ready to walk away from it all just a few years ago. He almost called it quits in the summer of 2020 while sitting at his mother’s kitchen table in Vermont, where the singer-songwriter had mulled over a number of life developments in the past.

With his L.L. Bean three-quarter sweater, black corduroy pants, dark beard, and shoulder-length hair, he could easily be cast as a Dartmouth grad school student—a look befitting his “sensitive woodsman” label. During that first pandemic summer, he was 23 and had been recording his own music since he was 8. He had a gold-certified single to his name with 2017’s “Hurt Somebody,” but his subsequent releases for Mercury/Republic Records hadn’t made much of a splash. His passion for songwriting was waning.

On a whim, he wrote a verse and posted it to TikTok in hopes of getting some real-time feedback.

“As you promised me that I was more than all the miles combined / You must have had yourself a change of heart like halfway through the drive / Because your voice trailed off exactly as you passed my exit sign / Kept on drivin' straight and left our future to the right / I am stuck between my anger and the blame that I can't face / And memories are somethin' even smoking weed does not replace / And I am terrified of weather 'cause I see you when it rains / Doc told me to travel, but there's COVID on the planes.”

The lyrics focused on what Vermonters call “stick season”—the time between autumn and winter when trees are barren and fallen branches litter the landscape. More narrowly, they served as a metaphor for the transition from child to adult.

The post garnered minimal engagement at first, and Kahan, who has struggled with anxiety and depression, contemplated taking it down before going to sleep for the night. When he woke up the next morning, he couldn’t believe what he saw. The snippet had generated 10,000 likes and more than 300 comments, and the latter figure ballooned to more than 1,000 later that day. Listeners found the lyrics highly relatable, and Noah promptly realized, Oh my gosh, I have to write a chorus!

So he did, further exploring “the character of being the lonely troubadour stuck in a rural town.” The finished product was “Stick Season,” which has been streamed more than 430 million times on Spotify alone. It became the title track of his third album, which was released in October 2022 and took eight months to reach No. 3 on the Billboard 200. It has sold more than 500,000 copies in the U.S.

"At certain points, it has far exceeded anything that I thought would ever happen to me."
Noah Kahan

By early 2023, Kahan graduated from 1,000-capacity clubs to selling out multiple nights at arenas and stadiums worldwide, while occupying festival headliner slots normally reserved for the Foo Fighters, SZA, and Green Day.

Post Malone, Kacey Musgraves, Lizzy McAlpine, and Gracie Abrams all appeared on reworked versions of his songs, and Zach Bryan invited him to sing on one of his own.

Beyond becoming Vermont’s greatest musical export since Phish, Kahan found himself tapped as the face of a new generation of guitar-toting singer-songwriters. He even collaborated with L.L. Bean on a Stick Season-inspired apparel collection, and by the end of last year, he was seemingly unstoppable.

Now, he just has to come to terms with it.

"I was always in trouble for misbehaving and figured I was in some kind of residual trouble that I hadn't remembered."
Noah Kahan

“I think I'm acutely aware of this moment and what significance it is to my childhood self, and to my dreams of being a musician,” he says. “At certain points, it has far exceeded anything that I thought would ever happen to me.”

Born on New Year’s Day 1997 in rural Vermont to a small-business-owning father and a mother who was an author and an editor at a local publishing house, Noah Kahan is the third of four children from a music-filled household often filled with the sounds of Beatles and Crosby, Stills, & Nash albums.

In elementary school, he discovered Coldplay and Counting Crows on his mom’s iPod. But the real breakthrough came at age 7 when he first heard Green Day’s American Idiot. Though he didn’t understand the album’s George W. Bush-era lyrical and political angst, he felt the attitude in the music. 

After that first listen, he knew he wanted to be a musician.

When he was 9, his parents bought him a guitar, and soon enough Noah was performing his original song “Wednesdays Are the Worst Days of My Life” a cappella at a school talent show. He was promptly sent to meet with a guidance counselor, who handed him crayons and paper for what he realized a week later was a form of in-school therapy.

“I thought I stunned everyone in the crowd into total silence,” he says of his performance. “I was always in trouble for misbehaving and figured I was in some kind of residual trouble that I hadn't remembered.”

In middle school, he enrolled in an after-school music class in neighboring Lebanon, N.H., where he learned to play Fountains of Wayne and Weezer songs. On Saturdays, he and his classmates performed concerts at the town’s bakery. It was his first taste of stardom, on the smallest of scales.

Photo Credit: Toby Tenenbaum
Photo Credit: Toby Tenenbaum
"I figured the best thing that could possibly happen is that it would have 6,000 streams and my friends think it is cool."
Noah Kahan

“This gave me a chance to live out my childhood dream and not have to play classical instruments or be in fucking chorus,” he says.

By the time he was in high school, Kahan gained a reputation as the “local music guy.” One of his songs, on which he collaborated with older kids in town, became an anthem of sorts and was played before basketball games and his school dance. He performed at open mics and started posting his music to YouTube and SoundCloud, hoping to be heard but never expecting to be discovered.

“I figured the best thing that could possibly happen is that it would have 6,000 streams and my friends think it is cool,” he says.

Everything changed during his senior year when he happened to check his SoundCloud DMs before soccer practice and found a note from music manager Drew Simmons. Simmons said he represented Young the Giant, Dispatch, and O.A.R. and was impressed with Kahan’s Ed Sheeran-flavored song “Sink.” He took a screenshot of the message, sent it to his mom, and promptly shouted to his soccer teammates, “You’re never going to fucking believe this, but I just got an actual message from a guy in the industry!’”

That initial excitement quickly turned to skepticism, with Noah unsure of what Simmons saw in him. His confidence was restored after they met in person, and Kahan was resolute enough to defer attending Tulane University in New Orleans in order to pursue music for real.

What followed was quite a blur. Within a week of signing with Simmons, Noah recorded demos in Los Angeles and was in New York showcasing for labels not long after. Republic offered a contract the same day they auditioned him, meaning he went from posting his songs online to becoming labelmates with Ariana Grande, Lorde, and the Weeknd in the span of a month.

“There was no penthouse on Park Ave. or a text message from [labelmate] Nicki Minaj, but it was exciting to sign to a label so quickly,” he says now with a laugh. 

"Noah has found a way to make overtly pop phrasing/melodies feel original, unique, and classic while also maintaining general viability. It’s a sweet spot."
Ruston Kelly

He didn't have a chance to call his parents before New York City reminded him that he was still just a 17-year-old.

"I was on the subway, and suddenly this homeless guy started yelling at me," he recalls. "And I'd never been yelled at like that before. It took me from this moment of pure joy to 'Oh, fuck, is this guy gonna fucking kill me?'"

After waiting a year, Noah’s first single was released in 2017. He left Vermont, set up shop in Nashville, and fell into a cycle of working with different songwriters, which he found creatively stifling and uncomfortable. At the end of each day, he’d go home and write alone. Still, the Hurt Somebody EP arrived in early 2018, with its Julia Michaels-featuring title track becoming a minor hit both in the U.S. and abroad. His folky debut album, Busyhead, was released the following year but failed to dent the Billboard charts, despite opening slots for Leon Bridges, James Bay, George Ezra, and LP.

The problem was that the music didn’t accurately reflect who Kahan wanted to be as a musician, and he wasn’t all that excited about the somewhat disposable brand of pop-rock he was putting into the world. Moving to New York in 2019 didn’t help, as he was still stuck in the same monotonous grind of writing and studio sessions as he was in Nashville.

“I loved music, and I did not want to feel this way about it,” he says quietly. “Since I love it so much, I was willing to quit so I didn’t have to fucking hate it.”

Like many people his age, Noah found himself back under a parental roof when COVID brought the music business to a standstill in early 2020. Committed to writing in a style that was more true to himself, he came up with the Hozier-influenced “Maine” and four additional tunes that eventually comprised the Cape Elizabeth EP, released that May.

Photo Credit: Brent Goldman
"He’s one of a kind."
Post Malone

“I didn’t care it reached 10 million less people,” he says, thinking “if I could have a career making this kind of shit, I’ll be so fucking happy.” Which, of course, brings us to Stick Season.

Greatly informed by life in Vermont, the album finds inspiration in musicians such as Bon Iver, Ben Howard, and Cat Stevens, rather than those of the passé stomp-clap-”hey!” movement—a sound thankfully now relegated to TouchTunes jukeboxes and erectile dysfunction pill commercials.

Songs such as the soaring, Fleet Foxes-esque “Northern Attitude” reflect on Noah’s parents’ divorce (fun fact: they still live next door to each other) and reevaluating life when you’re set in your ways. On “Growing Sideways,” Noah addresses his personal struggles (“Everyone's growing and everyone's healthy / I’m terrified that I might never have met me,” he sings). 

Photo Credit: Tyler Krippaehne

“Your Needs My Needs” salutes the value of canine companions. 

“We project a lot onto them, and they have no say in it,” he explains about that last one. He featured his own dogs on the Stick Season cover art. “You can use your dog as a metaphor for yourself and see yourself in them in a lot of ways.”

Ruston Kelly opened for Kahan in 2023 and saw firsthand how Kahan's material resonated with audiences. “His lyrics are the selling point for me,” he told me. “Rarely do you find massively popular songs and artists that have as much songcraft integrity as he does. Noah has found a way to make overtly pop phrasing/melodies feel original, unique, and classic while also maintaining general viability. It’s a sweet spot.”

Stick Season was so red-hot that Noah added six new songs to it in June for a deluxe edition subtitled We’ll All Be Here Forever. One of them, “Dial Drunk,” became a quick crossover hit and prompted a remix with unlikely collaborator Post Malone, who responded to Kahan’s DM saying, “What up, it’s Post. I fucking love this song. Let’s do it, baby!’” Released in July, their version promptly topped Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart, another first for Noah.

"It is better than anything I've ever written," Malone says. 

Though they worked on the song remotely, when the two met in Boston last year, it was an instant bromance. Noah was a bystander to one of Malone's backstage games of beer pong. Afterward, they chatted, drank Bud Lights, smoked cigarettes, and realized they have the same taste in comedies (in particular the 2007 spoof Walk Hard). Later that night, Malone brought Kahan on stage to perform "Dial Drunk," and the crowd loved it.

"He’s the sweetest, sweetest man in the world," Post says. "We had such a kick-ass time together. He’s one of a kind.”

Additional A-list collaborations followed suit: “Call Your Mom” featured McAlpine, Musgraves lent a hand on “She Calls Me Back,” and most recently, Abrams jumped on a new version of “Everywhere, Everything.” As excited as he was to reimagine his songs with such great company, joining forces with Hozier was a literal dream come true.

Noah named the Irish singer-songwriter as his dream collaborator in a 2018 Billboard interview, and they eventually met at a festival last August. “I guess I manifested it,” he says with a laugh. “He is behind everything I love about music.”

Working with a hero is one thing, but playing Lollapalooza in a prime evening slot in front of 40,000 people is quite another. The triumphant set wrapped with a version of “Stick Season” featuring Joy Oladokun, who guested on his 2021 track “Someone Like You.”

“My superhero ability is that I couldn't convince myself that it's not happening,” Noah says. “So to myself, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, they're on their way to another stage and are just standing still for a minute’ or that they’re checking their phones and happen to be at my stage. I very rarely can allow myself to accept that people are actually there for me, much less that many people.

“I always felt I needed to fight for my place in the music industry,” he continues. “When I go on stage, I still have that open-mic mentality of trying to prove myself. I'm sure it can come across as bullshit when you hear someone say how grateful they are. But I always feel the gratitude washing over when I realize they’re here for me.”

By the end of 2023, no one was doubting Noah Kahan—including himself. Bryan asked him to sing on “Sarah’s Place” from his Boys of Faith EP, Olivia Rodrigo covered “Stick Season” during an October BBC broadcast, and Kahan performed on Saturday Night Live, the highlight among his many TV bookings. A Grammy nomination for Best New Artist was the icing. 

He has learned to embrace success.

“I feel really proud,” he says of the Grammy nod. “I think it's about trying to let those moments of pride last a little longer, before the negative thoughts of when this is going to end.”

Noah hasn't been completely overwhelmed. Playing golf during the day while on tour helped ease the tension, as do video games, and hanging out with his backing band and opening acts has produced some good hangs.

"Touring was fantastic with him and his band and crew," Kelly says. "A Mario Kart Tournament went very hard as well as a themed afterparty in Gilford, New Hampshire.

"They all seem to have an awareness of how new and exciting this is for them, while still working really hard and goofing the fuck off. That’s the best combo in my opinion."

He hasn’t lost track of his roots. Little more than 24 hours after sitting with me at Simmons’ Nashville office in December, he was back in Vermont to play a surprise show for the University of Vermont Children's Hospital in Burlington.

He wants his next album to be another authentic depiction of who he is.

"If I make another album about New England, and everybody is like, ‘you already did this’ but it was what made me happy, then I'm willing to take whatever criticism or whatever career repercussions there are,” he says.

In true Vermonter fashion, he is using his success to help others. Last May, he launched the Busyhead Project, a non-profit foundation which has already raised $2 million for mental health awareness.

“I always try to be surprised. I always look at things through the lens of my 12-year-old self, and it is where the imposter syndrome helps,” he says. “I treat every moment as if this is the last chance we'll ever get to headline something or play SNL. I try to take it all in and live in that moment. 

“Someday, I'll pull up in a Rolls-Royce, so we can go to a casino and have a conversation about it.”

"I'm sure it can come across as bullshit when you hear someone say how grateful they are. But I always feel the gratitude washing over when I realize they’re here for me."
Noah Kahan