From the first moments walking into the dark rooms of Akron, Ohio’s Musica venue, I knew a spectacular evening awaited. I was greeted by the familiar smiles of both Noah and Abby Gundersen. I was immediately struck by a seemingly off-hand comment that I dearly hope was not an omen. Abby said, speaking of her place at the piano behind and to the side of her brother Noah, “I feel so far from you…” While her comment was about the staging for the night, I was struck over the hours that followed how necessary their connection is for the music that they make together. I dearly hope they stay close forever. Their synergy is wonderful.
I took a moment to meet the renaissance Seattle musician and “younger brother” Jonathan Gundersen. As amiable as his siblings, “Jonny” is not only touring on Ledges, but also is part of the tandem leadership in Le Wrens with another sister, Lizzy Gundersen. Jonny is also a part of St. Paul de Vence, another great northwest favorite band of mine. We chatted a bit about his busy year and pending projects as well.
After briefly meeting Abby, who had to grab dinner, I was excited to sit down with Noah again. My interview with him last year was one of the most intriguing that I have done. We sat down to chat about the tour and the album. I was particularly curious about his process of writing the tracks that eventually comprised Ledges, an album that is in its third form. After (unfortunately typical?) music business drama, Noah finally found the best producer for his artistic expression – himself. He explained that he finally found himself in a comfortable place this time in the studio, making an album that he can really be proud of – an album that artistically expresses a variety of emotions and moments not just where he is now, but where he’s been at different points in the last several years. He said, “I know myself well enough to know when we have it and when we don’t.” As I tried to nail down the process of making the album, it became clear to me that it was not a simple or succinct answer. In fans’ minds, albums are born out of some sort of cosmic genius on a dark and stormy night. In reality, Ledges is the product of “consistently making art” that reflects situations in Noah’s life.
What strikes me about talking to Noah is that he’s perfectly happy not talking about himself. It might seem to outsiders that any musician with the success level of Gundersen would be full of his own accomplishments, but I found Noah quick to point to much larger ideas. We took considerable time discussing philosophy and cultural criticism. He embraces the digital music revolution and makes the most of it with his career. On one of our “music business” asides, he described “business is art” but sees it as an important part of what he does. He is both critical of the world where we live, but also seems to understand it as worth struggling to understand (perhaps most evident in the title track “Ledges.”) Despite songs with nostalgic leanings, he is not himself a nostalgic person. More than anything, what comes across in his demeanor is authenticity. He does not wear tattoos and a hipster hat for “brand management.” He does it because it’s part of who he is.
Speaking of tour, Noah expressed that this one is a bit more fun. He’s not “playing for bartenders” anymore. He seemed both ecstatic for the new found sold out shows and appreciative for the hard road he’s traveled. He does not take anything for granted, but is happy to finally reap some of the fruits of his years of labor. It makes it all the more important that he kept his artistic control and did not sign with Universal or Windup (major record labels). Instead, he gets to play packed houses of 200+, fans all over the country who come out to hear Noah’s “sad songs,” a fact that he mocked openly in his set. In addition to improved attendance at the shows, Gundersen feels more comfortable artistically on this tour and has more of his friends with him. He’s able to party harder and later after shows, living a bit more of the rock-star life than other times in his career. Success brings higher income and, let’s face it, having a little disposable income is always a little more fun. The spark of excitement in his eyes showed a genuineness in this adventurous lifestyle.
I was struck after hearing his comments on this lifestyle on tour that he also appreciates the blue collar music life. In a larger discussion about the state of the music business right now, Gundersen explained, “There is a place for a blue collar market in this musical landscape… where a musician can work it as a job and make $40,000 a year.” Part of the reason for that, we discussed, is that the internet makes it easier for people to find new music and follow new artists. This is also the freedom that allows Noah to make the albums that he wants, about the themes that are important to him, and not merely respond to what an external record executive wants him to address.
Of course we didn’t have time to go track-by-track through the whole album (although I would have loved to do just that!), but I did have to ask him about a few of my favorites. I was, initially, fascinated by the order of the tracks. I thought the beginning with the family-focused “Poor Man’s Son” was perfect. He said that it sets the precedent for the record. I thought it was also fascinating that he ended the album with “Time Moves Quickly,” a softer track written by Abby, with words from Noah. He said that it was a song he always loved and it seemed like an “appropriate close” to an album about seeking and identity. He also thought the message that “I’ll never get over this, to some degree” is a nice conclusion to the album. Then, in a wonderfully pragmatic and characteristic comment with a smile, he said, “plus I’ve always liked when the last track on an album is a fall asleep song…” and then he added the “nostalgic” element to the song makes it a great ending. Later I asked Abby about the same song. She wrote the song about coping with a past relationship, moving on past it and sent it to Noah. He wrote the words in 15 minutes and sent it back to her a few days later. Having not discussed the concept of the song overall, they both hit on the same nostalgic (and beautiful) concept. As if we needed confirmation that their sibling artistry permeated deep into who they are, this song is a living testament to that most wonderful connection.
But let me back up from the closing track for a minute and mention a few of the songs in the middle, namely “Isaiah” and “Cigarettes.” Noah seemed happy that I didn’t want to dwell so much on the religious imagery in “Isaiah” for its spiritual meaning, but rather the song’s message that captures the hypocrisy of a moment. Rather than a larger indictment on Christianity or Christians, Gundersen said that the song was described one incident where a girl cheated on her girlfriend with him. She had a verse from Isaiah on her arm while allowing him to comfort her. While few of us would be so prescient to reflect on such a moment in artistic form, Noah used it to make a piece of art that captured a raw and exposed emotional time in a way that many listeners can feel.
I had chosen “Cigarettes” as a song of the year a while back, so it was not new to me on Ledges but for many listeners its their first hearing of this remarkable track. While it is about a person that he finds addictive, feels like he’s over her, but then ultimately is not. My question for Noah, though, knowing that it was not a terribly recent song, was how did the song change for him. He said that it certainly has changed (or rather his circumstances did), but he views it as reflective of a moment in his past. The song “has its own life.” He also said the new version that includes the band gives it a unique groove and keeps it exciting for him. It directed us down a wonderful conversation path about timeless music – music with transcendent and lasting meaning – because “as I grow, the music changes too.” This is the case with Noah’s writing. Although he’s always been talented, it’s evident to me that Ledges is his most mature songwriting yet.
Anyone who read my review of the album knows that I was totally blown away by “Dying Now” and it is the song that, for me, simply defies explanation. As I fumbled through awkward questions about spirituality and deep connection to both Noah and Abby, I realized a profound point about music, critics, writers, fans, listeners of all stripes… we have our own experience with a song. Even though we’re hearing the voice of the artist, the artist is not actually talking to us, no matter how real it might feel. Let me see if I can explain: for me, “Dying Now” has a transcendent spiritual meaning that has brought me to (the brink of… ahem) tears several times. I am especially dumbfounded when Noah and Abby harmonize (at the 1:30 mark, but who’s counting?). I asked them both about why they think it might be such a powerful moment. Noah, who wrote the song, penned it about a former rowdy stage of life when he was making a series of bad decisions in the wake of a relationship. Abby’s “character” (her word, and a perfect one) in the song is a sort of “voice of reason” to Noah’s protagonist. She asks him “how long” he might continue living such a destructive life. The song was a self conscious acknowledgment of the end of a season and the beginning of a new one (by way of a new relationship). Although Noah said the “dying to flesh” element of the song is a scriptural reference, it was not meant to be a deeply spiritual reflection. Abby sheepishly and honestly replied that she didn’t have that kind of connection with the song since she didn’t write it. There I stood, yet confused why my heart connected so deeply with a song that was different in the mind of the artist who wrote it and the girl whose harmonies make it come alive for me. Art inspires – and art confounds.
So maybe this isn’t the inside scoop readers hoped to have. There’s not a particularly scandalous story. At least while I was at the venue all of the band members were upright and seemed sober. The performance was stunning. I was mostly struck this time by the “storytelling” nature of the Gundersen stage presence. It reminded me of why I will always call his music “folk” even if he meddles in other genres here and there. The unfolding of stories on “Dying Now,” “Ledges,” “Boat House,” and “Liberator” are the kind of tracks that keep listeners craving the next episode of the story. There’s probably a profound send-off that speaks of the life-altering inspiration I received from the night, but the words are failing me. I can say that this storyteller has not told his last story. I look forward to the next chapter in the fascinating story of Abby and Noah’s music.