Sunday April 14, 2013 I had the opportunity to sit down with one of my favorite artists, Noah Gundersen, at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. Rather than do the formulaic interview common to the 21st century music world, I approached Noah with the idea of a conversation. He let out an audible sigh of relief to not have a camera in his face, and we had a great chat about his philosophy, music, and overall life of a traveling musician.
The weight of the road was evident on his face from the outset, though Noah was more than conversant and helpful with me. We actually spent a good deal of time talking about the form of interviewing and the relative effectiveness of different approaches. What I learned most is that artists appreciate honest questions in conversational format and, to quote Gundersen, “the worst thing is the ’email interview.” Sorry artists that we’ve interviewed that way… we didn’t know. He also mentioned enjoying leaving an air of mystery to his story and an unwillingness to reveal every little detail of his life, something that in our digital world seems strangely refreshing.
So what did he really tell me? Well, quite a bit actually. I was probably most interested in thinking about Noah Gundersen as a whole thinker, not just as a songwriter. He described a rebellious nature that began particularly upon moving out of his parents’ home at 18. He gave a rhetorical hat tip to his father for instilling an authority-challenging ethic in him. He described his current relationship with the supernatural as being “okay with not knowing.” He also mentioned that he finds a powerful connection with something greater than himself through his art. That seems to be an important salvo in his life and, speaking for his fans, for us as well. There’s certainly something evident in his lyrics and voice that helps many of us commune with something larger.
But beyond the impressive faith questioning in his song, “Jesus, Jesus,” I found Noah to be exceedingly interested in talking about other things. When I asked about what he was reading, he gushed about a few books on World War II and a book on human sexuality called Sex at Dawn. He also mentioned spending a lot of time on the road listening to podcasts or reading fiction in an attempt to keep his brain engaged. In short, he revealed a picture of a person connecting with significant social forces, trying to see himself in a larger human story. That was not surprising and was intriguing.
Lest ye think we spent our time together talking about everything but music, it is important to talk about a few music related conversations we had. In one interesting aside, Gundersen mentioned the lively connection with an audience. I commented about folks in the crowd making obnoxious noises (I’m looking at you, “woo girls”) and he mentioned a few stories. But what was awesome was his story about audiences of people wrestling with faith questions. Although he mentioned it in the context of particular shows, he mentioned being able to connect with the energy of an audience of people who are asking hard questions of their faith. He described being able to feel that people are burying things; thoughts, feelings, emotions, and desires. When he sings difficult, thought-provoking songs he can connect with those very human elements in powerful ways. I thought that was deeply moving to know that he cares that much to connect with his listeners so profoundly.
In a less philosophical part of our conversation, I asked Noah about his current music choices. Look for us to pursue writing about a few of these artists. But for those interested, he mentioned Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels, Josh Ritter, Atoms for Peace, Olafur Arnalds, Shouting Matches among others. He also mentioned a few that he thought really fit in with our world here at EarToTheGround, including Courtney Marie Andrews, Zach Fleury (who we’ve covered), and David Ramirez (who we’ve featured). Knowing how much I enjoy Ritter and Arnalds, I’m excited to look up a few of the others on this list.
Once we really got rolling in our conversation I asked Noah a tricky and, frankly, pesky question about the status of the digital music world. We’ve been hearing some interesting commentary on both sides about the value of services like Spotify. Obviously Noah uses bandcamp, where many of us either discovered or downloaded his work. Unafraid of the question, he gave an amazing quote about his stance on the matter. He said, “I would rather have a fan than a one time customer.” In that, he basically explained that he didn’t care about that element of his income. His success on the road and through licensing songs to media outlets (TV shows in particular) allowed him to make a career of being a musician. That seemed to be enough for him. Without taking shots at his fellow independent artists, Gundersen explained that artists that don’t like the deals provided by streaming services should simply take their music down. He was admirably humble in explaining his appreciation for people listening to his music, attending his shows, and buying his merchandise. It was evident from the discussion that he doesn’t do it for the money; but he couldn’t do it without the money. As if I needed further motivation to support independent musicians, Gundersen’s humble response made me want to set up direct deposit to keep him making music forever.
I asked a few questions about “Jesus, Jesus” and “Cigarettes,” followed by a conversation about his songwriting process. He described that his songwriting varies from song to song. Sometimes he finds inspiration from the ordinary (as in his immaculate song “Cigarettes,” which references an on-again, off-again relationship), while other times the songs seem to take a longer time to come out, as “Caroline” which he said took a year to write. I asked the annoying question that no artist likes to answer about genre; he handled it with class, coming to the point that he’s comfortable with “singer songwriter,” although he avoided that early in his career. He seems to have come to terms with that description, which he finds, “vague and appropriate.”
Without getting into too much of the nitty gritty of our discussion, let’s just say we revisited a conversation about religion. I think the best way to describe Noah’s apparent understanding of religion, aside from the “connection” mentioned earlier regarding music performance, is through family. When I asked him about his younger siblings (Jonny and Abby, especially), he lit up. We talked specifically about Abby’s work as violinist and harmonizing vocalist as being central to the overall sound of his music. On a personal note, he said that she is “one of the few people I really trust.” I think their obvious close family connection makes their music hold an extra measure of power and influence, to say nothing of just sounding better with those natural harmonies.
It was really an honor to sit down with such a remarkable artist. While we discussed far more than represented here, hopefully this commentary gives some indication of Noah’s true character. I found myself in awe of his forthright demeanor and extraordinary kindness. He had little vested interest in giving me the time of day, but did nevertheless.
If readers have other questions they’d like to ask Noah Gundersen, leave them in the comments section. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up with him the next time he’s in the northeast and can ask him then. Thanks!