Noah Kahan: A Gen Z Hero Destigmatizing Mental Health Steps Into Arenas
ON THE COVER: Noah Kahan performs at Boston Calling Music Festival for a crowd estimated at 40,000 people on May 27, 2023. Photo by Brent Goldman

“Noah! Noah! Noah!” the packed crowd at San Francisco’s Outside Lands chants while waiting for Noah Kahan to appear to close out Sunday’s lineup on the Sutro stage Aug. 13. As the 26-year-old singer/songwriter runs out to center stage, the fans cheer and, as he launches into “All My Love,” they let out another cheer after he declares, with trademark humor, “My parents got divorced recently.” Every now and again fireworks can be heard going off in the distance as part of ODESZA’s set at the main Lands End stage, but the energy during Kahan’s performance can’t be beat thanks to the warmth of his stage presence and the undeniable connection between the artist and his captivated fans who shout out his lyrics in unison throughout his hour-long set.

Kahan’s music doesn’t necessarily seem like it would make for a great sing-along night, with intricate lines devoted to heavy subjects including depression, heartbreak and substance abuse. But fans are hungry for art that’s honest and vulnerable, which Kahan readily delivers, along with a good dose of self-deprecating humor and whimsy seen both in the music and his onstage banter. Kahan introduces himself by saying he’s been called “the Jewish Ed Sheeran, Folk Malone, Harrier Styles … but for tonight, for you and you alone, I’m Jewish Capaldi, baby.” And he introduces the songs from his lauded third album, Stick Season, that need no introduction: “This is a song about therapy” (“Growing Sideways”). “This next song is about Zoloft!” (“Your Needs, My Needs”). “This song is about being a drunk asshole” (“Dial Drunk”).

NEW PERSPECTIVE: Noah Kahan plays Summerfest, held at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee, June 24. Photo by Tyler Krippaehne

During the performance, Kahan repeatedly thanks the fans for their support and humbly reflects on how his career has grown, from usually playing festivals when the “sun is high in the sky and you need a fucking telescope to see my name on the poster” and his years booking shows in the Bay Area, including the 400-capacity Rickshaw Stop when he was 19.

Though many of Kahan’s fans have been with him since the beginning, dating back to his first EP, 2018’s Hurt Somebody, his popularity has recently exploded – both on the charts and in the size of venues he’s headlining – as he’s embraced a more folk-forward sound over his earlier, more pop-leaning material.

“For a long time, I thought my career was on a path of upward linear movement – I started playing 200-capacity rooms and then I was playing 500 to 1,000 and that was great. I’m like okay, my next album is gonna put me at 2,000 and that’s incredible,” Kahan tells Pollstar. “I always said I just wanted to be able to sell out a room of 1,000 people around America. That was my goal for myself. This album brought me from clubs to arenas in a lot of places. It’s been so surprising to me and so jarring in some ways. … My biggest challenge this year has been feeling worthy and deserving of these things. … I don’t take any of it for granted, having played at open mics a lot of my childhood, playing for 15 people that were barely listening and hearing the sound of forks scraping on plates … then to see 20,000 people completely engaged – it’s never lost on me.”

In addition to Outside Lands, some of Kahan’s more prominent plays on his “Stick Season Tour,” promoted by Live Nation, have helped establish his road bona fides, including L.A.’s Greek Theatre, New York City’s Radio City Music Hall (5,766 tickets sold, $421,007 grossed), Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado, and a Merriweather Post Pavilion play in Columbia, Maryland, June 9 that moved 15,000 tickets and grossed $906,355.

As the tour’s continued, his caps have grown massively and the fall leg includes a number of larger sheds and arenas like Xfinity Center (19,900) in Mansfield, Massachusetts, Toronto’s Budweiser Stage (16,000) and two nights at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater (13,600 total for two shows) before heading off for Europe.

“Red rocks was a dream I refuse to wake up from, and sharing the stage with. @NRateliff. was such an honor,” Noah Kahan tweeted after playing the famed venue outside of Morrison, Colorado, July 26. Kahan raised more than $200,000 for Vermont flood relief via a livestream of the Red Rocks show. Photo by Tyler Krippaehn

Live Nation’s Michael Yerke points out that after Kahan played the 2,500-capacity House of Blues Dallas in January, he’ll return to the market on Oct. 15 to headline the 20,000- capacity American Airlines Center in Dallas (a show that was moved from the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory).

“Last fall was a pretty normal growth curve … I don’t think anyone knew the jump in capacity that we would be seeing,” Joe Atamian, one of Kahan’s two agents at Wasserman Music, says. “But we were mindful to set ourselves up with venues where there was room to grow or upgrade venues where we could. … And, it’s one of those very rare occasions where you just kind of gotta let go of the reins a little bit [laughs] and just do your best to try to satiate the demand.”

Kahan gives props to his team including his agents at Wasserman Music (Atamian and Paige Maloney), managers at Foundations Artist Management (Ryan Langlois and Drew Simmons), and label (Mercury Records and Republic Records) and says: “What is most important is that I recognize the number of different people that have made this happen. It takes a village as the old cliche goes, but it hasn’t been an overnight success. It’s been a culmination of so many people’s hard work; the dedication of these fans that were there from the beginning that have stayed around and spread the word. And it’s felt like an incredible combination of the best parts of the music industry coming together to make a successful story happen.”

Kahan’s dad taught him how to play guitar at age 7 and by age 8 he wrote his first song, “Wednesdays Are the Worst Days of My Life.” He credits his mom, a best-selling author, for sharing tips about fine-tuning his songwriting and getting through writer’s block. Kahan met his manager Drew Simmons at age 17 after Simmons came across his song “Sink” on SoundCloud. After Kahan recorded a couple of demos, Ben Adelson (who then held the role of Vice President of A&R at Republic Records and whose current title is Executive Vice President/General Manager of Mercury Records) offered Kahan a record deal at Republic that he accepted in lieu of going to college.

Wasserman Music’s Paige Maloney explains that early on in Kahan’s touring career the focus was on “getting him in front of people that were gonna appreciate the songwriting ability that he has … and building the fanbase from the ground up – getting support opportunities where possible, but also getting the hard ticket business going.” Kahan supported Ben Folds, Anderson East and James Bay, among others.
Noah Kahan and his beloved dog, Penny, both appeared onstage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles Aug. 11. Photo by Shervin Lainez

Following the release of his debut EP, Kahan put out his first full-length album, Busyhead, in 2019.

Kahan explains that he felt he had gotten stuck in a rut of writing sessions with pop writers/producers where the subject matter felt so unimaginative that he started falling out of love with songwriting, along with feeling boxed into the pop genre. And then the pandemic hit, with Kahan returning to his childhood hometown of Strafford, Vermont (population of 1,904).

“I started finding myself being more focused on those more folksy, more narrative-focused songs and those started to permeate into my Instagram live performances and TikToks that I would make. As I started to see people respond to [the songs], I started to get a lot more confidence in what I was doing and reached a point where I felt like, my God, I could actually just make this kind of music my career. And it’s worked out in such a beautiful way that it really has invigorated my belief in making music that makes me happy,” Kahan says. “Anything that doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to do it anymore. Musically, it should all feel good. No matter what. It might not work out, people might not like it, but it should feel good. Because otherwise, what’s the fucking point?”

He adds, “The fans were the biggest part of it. They were the backbone of my survival in music during the pandemic, just being there, forming a community. … All I had to do was drink White Claws and play folk songs.”

Kahan released the Cape Elizabeth EP in 2020, followed by the full-length I Was / I Am in 2021 and Stick Season in 2022. The deluxe edition, Stick Season (We’ll All Be Here Forever), was released in June on Mercury Records and Republic Records and features six new songs including the Post Malone collaboration “Dial Drunk.”

Kahan recalls the first time fans sang every word of his songs back to him: an Oct. 14, 2022, show at the Charleston Music Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, the day Stick Season was released.

“I literally stepped away from the microphone in total shock that people knew every word. These songs are annoyingly wordy and there’s lots of lyrics that are hard to sing and hard to remember, even for me,” Kahan says. “And to hear people passionately singing every lyric clear as day completely correctly was pretty incredible. I couldn’t believe that people had connected to music so much already and it made me feel like, man, people are really going to continue to connect to this stuff and that’s so exciting.

“The feeling of a bunch of people singing back is not only cathartic for me but I could see what it means to them. A lot of the time people are crying and singing a lyric that’s really personal and very difficult, I think, to sing about. People [are] shedding that guilt and that fear of being in public and acknowledging something that [they] connect to because it represents something hard in [their] life. … The most beautiful thing in the entire world is to see someone unashamed. And that’s what I’ve seen at a lot of these shows – people that are just unashamed of what they’re feeling … It feels like bravery comes out in these audiences and that has been the most inspiring thing.”

Though written as a love letter to New England, with nostalgic tales of Kahan’s childhood hometown, fans from across the globe have connected with the LP. Stick Season hit No. 1 on the U.S. Top Alternative Albums chart and No. 1 U.S. Top Rock Albums chart.
BFF STATUS: Post Malone and Noah Kahan perform “Dial Drunk” at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, July 23, which Kahan calls his favorite collaboration of his career. Photo by Brent Goldman

“As Noah grew and evolved from being an 18-year-old to now 26 years old, his perspective on the industry, his perspective on life, his maturity, his experiences all led him to being a bit more true to his core self,” Foundations Artist Management’s Simmons says. “He was just shifting his focus more into following his heart and following his gut – which was a bit of a risk for us because he was coming off of a more poppy sound that he’d developed his career [on] and he was doing good business, selling out Webster Hall and Terminal 5 and 1,000- to 3,000-cap venues. … but when you looked at who he was as an artist and knew him as an individual, it was the most natural process possible.”

Alexander Coslov, Executive Vice President of Marketing Strategy at Republic Records and Head of Marketing at Mercury Records, notes that the work Mercury Records, Republic Records and Foundations Artist Management have done throughout the Stick Season album campaign is modern artist development at its finest.

“Noah has been signed for about eight years now and since then he has grown and matured into a brilliant person and songwriter,” he says. “There have been many ups and downs with Noah over the years – tasting success at times but never reaching what we all dreamed of – but Noah continued to put the work in, writing, recording and touring endlessly. Noah has refined himself and his music to be about what he believes in most, taking the music he grew up with and his life experiences to influence his newly evolved Americana / folk sound, which is defined on Stick Season and resonating with fans across the globe. We applied a very modern marketing approach for this album with an aggressive content plan, innovative digital tactics and more. Most importantly, Noah engaged in every single aspect of the strategy while making every moment his own, and now there are no limits to his success.”

YOU’RE GONNA GO FAR: Noah Kahan charms a huge crowd estimated at 40,000 during Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago Aug. 3. Photo by Erika Goldring/WireImage

A 2024 tour is expected to be announced in late September featuring a mix of large amphitheaters, arenas and a stadium.

“Next year will include a lot of really special milestone buildings that I think most artists look forward to playing throughout their career. We’re excited to keep building with him. We see him as a generation-defining artist,” Live Nation’s Alex Maxwell says.

While songwriting has been helpful in allowing Kahan to process his experiences and emotions, he acknowledges that his mental health continues to be challenging.

“It’s still a constant struggle for me to take care of my mental health and to feel happy and to live a happy life, despite all the success and the seemingly wonderful things that are happening,” Kahan says. “I still feel pain a lot. And I’m trying to find a way to be okay with knowing that I’ll never be truly whole by any successful endeavor. It’s gonna take a lot of work and continued care. Just like it does for anybody with depression or anxiety, it’s about treating it and not curing it.”

That said, incorporating humor into Kahan’s music and perspective is also key.

‘I look at this as an illness … and I think it doesn’t have to cloud every single part of my personality,” Kahan says. “There are moments where dark humor comes into play and kind of a sense of irony and sarcasm that can be funny in experiencing these really hard feelings. … I think it’s important for me to acknowledge my depression, but also not let it cloud every lyric and the tone of every chord and the feeling behind every note. I want there to be humor and there to be whimsy and some light in the darkness because I think it presents a more manageable experience for me. And for someone listening to the music, to be like, ‘OK, I’m sad. I’m going through this hard thing. But this is kind of funny, right? Like that I’m out on this beautiful day and I still feel like shit.’ There’s something ironic in there and I want that to be part of the experience in the music.”

Kahan recently announced the mental health initiative The Busyhead Project with the goal of raising $1 million for organizations specializing in mental health awareness and resources. A portion of every ticket sold on the “Stick Season” tour will go toward the organization. Since being launched in May, Busyhead has already raised more than $900,000.

“Bigger crowds means more money and and more money means ‘fuck, I have money’ and I don’t need a lot of money,” Kahan says. “I just wanted to do something that could make a difference and put my money where my mouth is. I feel like it’s one thing to proselytize about mental health and therapy, and that’s awesome. But it’s another to enact change. I grew up with a lot of privilege and good fortune. And I want to use that to help people who don’t have that if I can. I don’t need a pat on the back. My biggest goal is to be able to see the effect that it has on people and to have someone who is struggling feel heard and connected to.”

He adds, “When I was a kid, I would look up artists with depression or I would look up artists on antidepressants when I was considering taking antidepressants and I couldn’t find as much as I wanted to find – and I wanted to feel validated by these people that I loved. I want to be a news article for some kid somewhere looking up on their computer, ‘Can I be a musician with depression?’ I want to be that for somebody.”