The rapid rise of Noah Kahan
How the folk pop singer-songwriter’s popularity is a sign of the times
On Aug. 31, Noah Kahan electrified a crowd of nearly 6,000 at Radio City Music Hall. On a humble, minimalist stage with warm lighting and a backup band of only two instrumentalists, Kahan beamed as he delivered ballad after ballad. In a nondescript jean jacket and low-hanging man bun, the folk-pop musician is just your average, down-to-earth guy.
Kahan’s demeanor is exactly what’s so captivating about him, along with his soulful, fiery voice.
On his X (Twitter) account, Kahan posts a unique mix of poetry, tour updates, professions of love to fans and random comedic proclamations. On Sept. 13, he wrote: “Goodbye therapy, I have 1 million followers on Instagram now. Self-loathing destroyed!”
In moments like this, Kahan is hilariously relatable to younger generations. He adores his German shepherd, is highly active on social media and makes frequent quips about taking Zoloft. He doesn’t shy away from self-effacing jokes or being a fanatic himself.
Kahan has cited fellow musician Hozier as a source of inspiration for his music. On Aug. 22 he tweeted, “Seeing hozier this weekend gonna shit and piss Fosho.” Five days later, he made a surprise on-stage appearance at Hozier’s concert in Richmond, Virginia.
In a generation that prizes brutal authenticity, Kahan knows his audience. Open about his struggles with mental health, his popularity is a sure sign of the times and what the youth are longing for.
Additionally, in a period where indie folk is becoming more mainstream, Kahan is the right person for the right time.
Much of Kahan’s fame can be attributed to his aesthetics. With New England as his epicenter, he curates this “granola” vibe filled with imagery of northern Appalachia. Many listeners relate to him blaming his Northeast origin for his cynical attitude, evidenced by popular lines such as “I’m mean because I grew up in New England” in the song “Homesick.” In the history of American folk music overall, New England is seldom represented.
Although Kahan did not become a mainstream name until recently, in the past few years he has been patiently climbing towards fame, biding time until a breakthrough. He crafted an extensive repertoire before he ever even landed on the charts, and began writing music when he was only eight years old.
At age 17, Kahan deferred admission to Tulane University to pursue music and signed with Republic Records soon after. His first EP was “Hurt Somebody,” and its eponymous gained traction on TikTok — especially as a re-recorded duet with Julia Michaels.
Kahan went on to release his first full studio album, “Busyhead,” in 2019. Afterwards, he began drifting away from pop, recording his next EP, “Cape Elizabeth,” in his friend’s Vermont studio. The EP was recorded over the course of one week following Kahan fleeing a COVID-stricken New York City. In 2021, he returned with his second studio album, “I Was / I Am.”
Each of these musical accomplishments were candles to the bonfire Kahan was approaching.
The rapid fame of Kahan’s 2022 album “Stick Season” is a prime example of the power TikTok now holds over the music industry. For nearly two years on the app, Kahan painstakingly teased the title song “Stick Season” to immense excitement from old and new fans alike.
In October 2022, Kahan released “Stick Season” which became Kahan’s first album to chart and debuted at 14 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Originally written while he was stuck in Vermont during the pandemic, “Stick Season” utilizes the symbol of the gray, transitionary period between the end of fall and the first snow of winter to encapsulate Kahan’s lackluster mood of recent years.
Its simplistic, yet profound lyrics, paired with Kahan’s raw voice work in tandem to shape ballads that can only be screamed along to as you drive through empty mountain roads with the windows down.
In May, Kahan released a deluxe version of his album with seven additional songs, titled “Stick Season (We’ll All Be Here Forever).” In July, his recording of “Dial Drunk (with Post Malone)” explosively combined genres and fanbases. On Sept. 13, TIME Magazine named Kahan one of the TIME100 Next 2023.
Despite his recent stardom, Kahan stays true to what fans love about him most: his humble, relatable persona. On Aug. 25, he tweeted, “I worry I’ll get used to it, I never ever do. What a beautiful life I’ve stumbled into.”
This article was edited by Sara Winick, Zoe Bell, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Olivia Citarella and Luna Jinks.