Noah Kahan: Rural therapy, radical acceptance, and staying true to his New England roots
“If you're unhappy inside then you're gonna be unhappy with everything,” Kahan tells SoS. Fresh off the immensely successful release of his third studio album, Stick Season, Kahan is ready to embark on a completely sold-out North American tour. We spoke to the singer-songwriter on his experiences with depression and rural therapy, and learning to accept success as it comes.
January 27, 2023
By Alyssa Goldberg
We meet on Zoom, myself in New York City and Noah Kahan in his new house in Massachusetts, just north of Boston. Even through the screen, his poised demeanor is palpable, matched perfectly with a plaid button-down shirt and a guitar hanging on the back wall.
After reminiscing on childhood adventures during the changing New England seasons, he asks where I’m from, and I brace myself for his response. “Sorry, I thought you said you were from New England?” laughs Kahan, cupping his hand around his ear and leaning in towards his screen.
I’d originally intended on titling this interview “From One New Englander to Another,” but Kahan shut that down quickly – that is, before the idea was ever proposed. The 26-year-old singer and songwriter hasn’t strayed from his Vermont roots, but his New England pride, though strong, may happen to exclude Connecticut.
When I warn him that I’ll be asking some deeply personal questions, he doesn’t hesitate to dive in. I’m nervous at first, Kahan being adored by my family back in Connecticut, but these worries melt away as the conversation falls into a natural rapport. Only 15 minutes into our interview, we’ve already unpacked so much of Kahan’s adolescence that I accidentally refer to our conversation as a therapy session:
Kahan: Yeah, is this therapy?
SoS: Yeah, I tricked you into it.
Kahan: No, it's great. I feel happier already.
Kahan was born in the small town of Strafford, Vermont, and attended school across the river at Hanover High School in New Hampshire. In a town of just over 1000 people, everybody knew everybody. Nonetheless, Kahan’s never shied away from sharing his experiences with mental health, a theme that appears across Stick Season.
On the viral title track, he sings, “So I thought that if I piled something good on all my bad / That I could cancel out the darkness I inherited from dad.”
The lyric references his family’s disposition for depression, something that he, his parents, and siblings all struggle with. Though mental health was – and still can be – a taboo subject, these shared experiences created a family dynamic where Kahan’s household could speak about mental health “as casually as a dinnertime conversation or conversation in the car.” Though he was fortunate enough to have parents willing and able to send him to a therapist, what Kahan describes as “rural therapy” posed multiple hurdles in obtaining adequate care.
When everyone knows everyone, that includes your therapist. Therapists available to Kahan were often friends of his parents or his friend’s parents, people who he knew had already formed their own opinion of him before he’d ever stepped foot in their office. “It never really felt like an experience where I had someone that was totally unbiased,” Kahan said.
If he wanted to see a therapist outside of his small town bubble, he’d have to drive almost an hour to another town. “A real issue with rural therapy is that it's so hard to find quality therapists. Like, there was no Zoom therapy when I was growing up,” Kahan said. “If you wanted to find one, you’d have to travel 45 minutes to a person that might know you and already not like you because of where you're from and how insular the communities are.”
Kahan went through four or five therapists searching for the right fit. In one of his worst encounters, he had a therapist whose son also went to Hanover High School and told him that ‘everyone was an asshole there,’ implying that Kahan may ‘just be one as well.’ Later, after his music had accumulated some success, he went to another therapist who spent a chunk of the session talking about what a big fan they were of his music. Another therapist questioned his expression of self-hatred, minimizing his feelings by reminding him that he’d just sold out The Ryman. So, if he’s playing big venues, how could he be sad?
Other therapists belittled his experiences by comparing his struggles to those with more “intense” problems: “I was like, ‘All right, well, what I'm going through is still my experience. I can't help that I don't have more intense sh*t to bring to you.’ Like, can you help me or not?”
“It was a lot of unprofessional people that would take their own experiences with either knowing me or knowing what my environment was like and using it against me in therapy,” Kahan said.
Because of this fear of having his personal experiences “come back to him” outside of his sessions, he struggled with being truly vulnerable in his sessions. Instead, he would withdraw and not fully disclose his emotions.
Kahan never ran out of material for sharing the little things bothering him. “I never really recognized them as a pattern, how they maybe were inflicted by deeper things going on because I just didn't talk about it,” he said, adding that he would leave therapy feeling better for an hour before falling back into those same patterns fueling his depression.
“The thing is, when you're vulnerable with somebody and they don't give you positive encouragement, or they make you feel like you're crazy for bringing that in or [tell you you’re fine], it can stop you for years,” Kahan added. “Like I would go to one therapist and be like, 'I'm never f*cking going to therapy again,' and I wouldn't go back for a year.”
He’d finally work his way up to seeing a new therapist, and then the same thing would happen and he’d swear therapy off for another year. “So then that's just two more years of baggage that I have to carry around because these people weren't able to do their jobs the right way,” he said.
Kahan recognizes this lack of adequate resources as an ongoing problem, especially within rural communities that have limited options for mental health care. He emphasizes that “everyone’s problems are real” and it’s a therapist's responsibility to stay unbiased and accept your struggles as worthy of care.
“As I get older, I'm so grateful for that dynamic in my family because I know so many people either can't afford to go to therapy, weren't allowed to go to therapy, or weren't allowed to even talk about how they're feeling with their parents, and maybe push those feelings inside.”
When Covid-19 lockdowns hit in the spring of 2020, Kahan was already experiencing burnout from the constant cycle of songwriting and faced both writer's block and apathy towards what he managed to churn out. He was writing songs because he had to, not because they simply felt right.
Amidst the confusion and devastation going on in the world, Kahan returned to his small town in Vermont. He’d spent the better half of his time in the state, but the pandemic landed him there permanently for a year and a half. Back in the same feelings of isolation he experienced in his adolescence – intensified this time by the pandemic – he began noticing these incredible moments of beauty in the stillness. “Going back to Vermont was the thing that reignited my love for music in general,” Kahan said.
After positioning himself as a “pop” artist earlier in his career, he began writing stripped-down folk songs again. He released a few of them on his 2020 EP Cape Elizabeth, and was overwhelmed by the positive response to this type of music. He realized he could make his listeners happy while making the music he loved. So he sprang into action on Stick Season, an album he describes as a major return to instinct.
While making the record Kahan didn’t realize it would hold, in his opinion, the most important song of his career. Stick Season reached levels of success once unimaginable for Kahan, topping the U.S. Spotify Viral charts and dominating TikTok. Upon its release last summer, the leading single “Stick Season” reached #1 on Spotify Viral Songs Chart, and over 20 thousand TikToks were made with the audio (which were viewed millions of times), including a cover by Zach Bryan. The album itself debuted at #4 on Billboard’s Top Alternative Albums Chart and #6 on Spotify’s Weekly Top Albums USA chart.
Yet, Kahan’s always met success with the desire for more. Every milestone achieved served as a pit stop for the next one: “I was like, if I can play this venue I’ll be happy. You know, I just sold out my entire tour. And when I was younger, that would be the thing that like, I would never care again. But the thing is, wherever you go, that’s where you are.”
He’s back in therapy now, and yes, I mean beyond our Zoom call.
This time he’s finally stepping into those vulnerable spaces previously only explored in his songwriting. Kahan is working on accepting his success as it comes, and allowing himself to celebrate it – without instantly reaching for the next step. “It's really hard to let go of some of that and just be excited for myself because it feels like if you let yourself be excited, it might all go away,” Kahan said. “Going to therapy has allowed me to be okay with knowing I feel that way, and with trying to make small changes to remind myself that I can be happy with where I am.”
“I thought for years if I got a million streams on a song I would be happy, and then I got a million streams and I wanted 10 million, and then I got a billion and I still felt like sh*t. It doesn't matter what level of external success you're having. If you're unhappy inside then you're gonna be unhappy with everything.”
Kahan realized that not only had he been seeing the wrong therapists, but he was also doing therapy the “wrong way.” “It wasn’t until I actually had [deeper] conversations with therapists that I realized that I hadn't really ever had a real conversation with a therapist before,” Kahan said.
“A therapist is great, but they're only human and they can only really do as much as you're willing to do yourself,” Kahan added. “It's a symbiotic relationship, you have to be willing to be vulnerable for them to help you navigate those insecurities and I wasn't really willing to do that.”
But these changes are still a work in progress. As an artist who writes about intimate experiences, Kahan struggles with “an inner rhythm” that tells him creativity requires maintaining a certain level of internal sadness. Before going on antidepressants, his biggest concern was that he wouldn’t be able to “feel the sadness that creates the music.”
“But then it's also like, well do I want to wake up at noon every day and like, eat like sh*t and stare at my phone for hours and feel f*cking horrible every night before I go to sleep?” Kahan said. “Like, what do I value most? Writing a song or existing in a way that's sustainable? So it becomes a question of finding the balance between doing what's good for you, but also trying to make sure you maintain your creativity.”
He’s trying now to stay inspired by pushing back against his anxieties. It’s tough, but unlike his teenage years, Kahan is eager to put in the hard work.
“It's definitely created challenges for me. But I feel like it's worth it because I get to wake up and be a little bit happier than I would be if I wasn't taking care of myself in this way.”
While working on Stick Season back in Vermont, Kahan was drawn to the stories small towns can hold and casted these across his songwriting. Songs like “Homesick” – known by the fiery lyric “I’m mean because I grew up in New England” – and “Northern Attitude” are testaments to his New England blood. On “Stick Season,” he writes about feeling trapped and “seeing the other side of a place you thought was only beautiful.” ‘Stick season’ is what Vermont natives refer to the transition from autumn to winter before the season’s first snowfall, when the once beautiful fallen leaves rest in brown and gray mush. Similarly, the end of a relationship marks this transition from “lovers to heartbroken strangers,” but also the beginning of a new future.
The album concludes with the contemplative and evocative track, “The View Between Villages.” It narrates Kahan’s drive home to Vermont, beginning as a haunting testament to the peace you experience when returning to a familiar place before shifting to a darker tone. Overwhelmed by an influx of memories, an intimate anger returns.
Marking this distinct mood switch, Kahan sings: “The death of my dog, the stretch of my skin / It's all washin' over me, I'm angry again / The things that I lost here, the people I knew / They got me surrounded for a mile or two.”
The tempo increases and his voice gains force as it propels into the chorus, before settling down once more. At the end of the track a long organ note transcends into silence, symbolizing the eventual stillness felt as he finally reaches home. “I wanted the song to linger in that peace and have those organ notes represent being back in that drive and feeling whole and peaceful again, because that's what I wanted the final thing people remember about the record,” Kahan said. “Throughout all the difficult parts about being in a small town or the difficult parts about feeling alone, there is so much beauty and so much peace in loneliness, and there's so much beauty and peace in the small towns in this country and in New England.”
“There's some kind of connection that I have to New England that is part of my soul. Everything that makes me me is from where I grew up.”
While Kahan enjoys “being a passenger in different states” and experiencing new places on tour, he finds solace in knowing he can “always come home and always be comfortable back in New England or back in Vermont.”
Alyssa Goldberg is a writer and photographer living in New York. Read more of her work at alyssaegoldberg.com and find her on Twitter @alyssaegoldberg.