Meet Noah Kahan, the Voice of an Emotionally Evolved Generation

How did a Watertown resident who writes pop-folk songs about small-town New England, his parents, and dogs become mainstream music’s Next Big Thing? For the 26-year-old, it was TikTok, raw talent, and lots of honest therapy.

Noah Kahan performs for the largest Boston Calling crowd ever in May 2023.

Kahan at Boston Calling in May 2023. / Photo by Alive Coverage / Boston Calling

Noah Kahan thinks everyone here should be in therapy.

The 26-year-old singer-songwriter is onstage at Boston Calling Music Festival, a 10-minute drive from his Watertown home, and “everyone here” is 40,000 people. It’s 6 p.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the concert’s only sold-out day of three, and the audience at the Harvard Athletic Complex has swelled to a size usually reserved for nighttime headliners, not third-billed, early-evening acts. Clad in an all-denim jumpsuit and Ray-Bans, Kahan (pronounced “con,” according to his bio on TikTok, where he has 1.4 million followers) is surprised, too. For the first time in his career, he’d looked out at the crowd and couldn’t see where it ended. “It was the most surreal performance of my life,” he’ll recall over a month later. “It felt more significant [than any show] I’d done before. I’ll always remember that day.”

Raised in rural Vermont and New Hampshire, Kahan is a major-label recording artist who writes 21st-century folk songs about small-town claustrophobia, emotional introspection, and the heavy lifting of self-discovery. His crisply detailed lyrics often reference New England, his parents, driving, and dogs. For six years, he’s been signed to Mercury Records/Republic Records—a Universal Music Group subsidiary that’s also home to household-name celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Drake, and Ariana Grande—but it wasn’t until snippets of his songs went viral on TikTok that his career really took off. Now, he’s poised not only to become a regional ambassador, but also a mega-star and a generational beacon.

You can see this in real time at Boston Calling. Halfway through his one-hour set, Kahan talks about his personal journey with therapy. He started going as a child, he says, but always lied to his therapist about his feelings. “About three years ago, I started telling the truth, and I started to feel happy for the first time in my life,” he says onstage to triumphant cheers. He wants to share the victory: “The happiest person out here today should be in therapy.” Then he begins another song, and the crowd shouts along to every word:

So I took my medication, and I poured my trauma out
On some sad-eyed middle-aged man’s overpriced new leather couch

In the historical context of youthful mainstream culture, it’s a remarkable scene: Thousands of mostly twentysomethings scream-singing about psychotherapy and mental health meds. This isn’t your grandfather’s guitar music.

The song is “Growing Sideways,” from his third album, Stick Season, released last fall. It’s specifically about Kahan’s younger self, one he seems to pity for having wasted so much time avoiding, as he calls them, his “dark feelings.” But more generally, the song is about the self-sabotaging defense mechanism of denial. It’s emblematic Kahan, full of sharp insight (“I’m still angry at my parents for what their parents did to them,” he sings, in pithy summation of intergenerational trauma) and literary poignancy. “Why’s pain so damn impatient?” he wonders in the second verse. “Ain’t like it’s got a place to be.”

Superstar and Mercury/Republic labelmate Post Malone recently called Kahan “one of the most talented fucking songwriters I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting,” and this isn’t faint praise. Kahan’s alt-folk songs build to anthemic choruses, the kind of sweeping refrains designed for road-trip singalongs and group catharsis. That’s how it felt at Boston Calling, especially during “Homesick,” a Stick Season track about the tension of loving and hating the place you’re from. There, the gently self-mocking TikTok-famous chorus became a transcendent moment of local kinship. “I’d leave if only I could find a reason / I’m mean because I grew up in New England.” (“People in New England have a real pride about it,” Kahan says. “Being able to see people in the audience who know exactly what I’m talking about is really cool.”)

Kahan drew the largest crowd in Boston Calling’s history when he performed in May. / Photo by Alive Coverage / Boston Calling

Kahan’s appeal extends far beyond the region. A quick scroll through social media, where he has 2.4 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and (the platform formerly named) Twitter, conveys the broader resonance of Kahan’s work. “Your lyrics gave words to the emotions I never thought I could explain,” writes one Instagram follower in her twenties. “Your music feels like a shared memory,” adds a Los Angeles fan. Or as someone from Florida put it: “Every once in a while, someone will make something so beautiful and impactful that it will feel like they are speaking directly [to] your life.”

Kahan wasn’t supposed to be the star of Boston Calling, but by all accounts, he was. He drew the largest crowd in the festival’s 10-year history, and when he rode through the grounds on a golf cart, people screamed and chased after him. “A rising star like Noah doesn’t come along too often,” says Peter Boyd, Boston Calling’s director of marketing and talent. “We felt like we were catching him at the perfect moment, just before he [became] a massive act.”

Since Stick Season’s release, Kahan has sold out more than 75 shows in America and overseas, including at historic venues such as Radio City Music Hall and Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater. Kahan himself has amassed 16 million monthly listeners on Spotify, up from 8 million at the start of June. A Stick Season deluxe reissue shot the album to No. 3 on the Billboard 200, surpassing Taylor Swift’s Midnights. In July, Kahan’s new single “Dial Drunk,” with a prominent feature from Post Malone, became Kahan’s first official hit, reaching No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early August. And in September alone, Kahan will headline four sold-out New England shows, including the 19,900-capacity Xfinity Center in Mansfield.

Post Malone and Kahan at the Xfinity Center in July 2023. / Photo by Brent Goldman

It’s largely Kahan’s vulnerability, self-awareness, and unabashed honesty that has struck a chord with his mostly twentysomething fanbase, a demographic he uniquely embodies. For a generation defined by therapy-speak, he addresses grief, depression, anxiety, nostalgia, and personal failure without resorting to clichés. His songs use specifics to broach trauma and universal struggles; in turn, they contribute to healing, just like therapy.

In many ways, Kahan represents a new archetype for a male artist. He’s Vermont, but not crunchy. Countryside, but not country. Long-haired and bearded, but not greasy. Masculine, but emotionally evolved. “I was privileged to be in a family where mental health was talked about a lot—and being upset or sad or having dark feelings was not something to be ashamed of—but I still felt ashamed, and I still felt alone,” Kahan said in the media tent before his Boston Calling set. “It wasn’t until I started going to therapy very seriously, and taking medication, and meditating, and making changes in my life, and re-evaluating my behaviors and my actions that I felt like I started to really heal.”

Kahan in Vermont. / Photo by Aysia Marotta

STRAFFORD, VERMONT, is only a 150-mile drive from the Boston Calling grounds, but it might as well be another world. The woodsy town is situated on the Appalachian Trail, with a population of about 1,000 and only a handful of general stores. Hanover, New Hampshire, just across the Connecticut River, is more built up: home to Dartmouth College but still rural enough that the surrounding region’s first Target opened there in late 2021. They’re the places where Kahan spent his formative years with his three siblings and parents.

In his youth, Kahan found these towns claustrophobic, isolating, and plain ol’ boring. “People think about New England, and they’re like, ‘Oh, the fall, it’s beautiful! And Bernie Sanders! Oh my God!’” he says. “Then it’s like, ‘Dude, come here in fucking February and try to spend a week.’” Yet it was there he also learned to be imaginative, crafting his own fantasies and thinking about being anywhere else.

In Strafford, Kahan grew up on a 133-acre tree farm—mostly maples, some birch. Kahan’s dad played guitar and taught him the instrument. His mother authored parenting guides (Because I Said So!: Family Squabbles & How to Handle Them was one title) and taught him about writing. She also had an iPod stocked with acoustic-folk greats like Paul Simon and Cat Stevens. Kahan wrote his first song at eight, about “a boat journeying on a river.” He also wrote angsty Green Day rip-offs with titles like “Wednesdays Are the Worst Days of My Life.”


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Kahan wasn’t a model student. “I was very obnoxious, always acting out,” he told Vermont Public Radio last summer. When puberty hit, he was especially miserable. “My nose was massive at the time, way bigger than my face,” he’s also said. “I had gold-and-black braces and looked like a pirate. I was so insecure.”

He kept at music and was soon offered a label deal with Republic. He moved to New York and spent time in Los Angeles. In his first years at the label, which released his debut studio album Busyhead in 2019, he wrote radio-aspiring pop balladry—more Lewis Capaldi than Paul Simon, more pumpkin spice than pine scent—because he thought that was what the world wanted. “I felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill,” he says today. It felt like grunt work, almost as if he were a passenger to his own career. “I was writing music that I wouldn’t listen to,” he says now. “My escape was writing little folk songs for myself.”

The pandemic forced Kahan back home to Vermont, where he created a five-track EP titled Cape Elizabeth, an acoustic ode to New England written in just one week at his friend’s home and released in May 2020. At the time, it was an uncharacteristic tangent for Kahan and a way of re-evaluating his relationship with where he grew up. “There was a lot of me still there that I left behind, and I felt like I had to find that again,” Kahan says. “I’d left to go to Nashville and New York, I spent time in L.A., and I ended up just wanting to be back home, and I never really knew why.”

That fall, Kahan went to Los Angeles to work on his sophomore album, I Was / I Am, continuing to push the pop-music boulder up the hill. After a long day at the studio, he wrote the first verse of a folk-style song about being stuck in your hometown and the aftermath of a failed relationship. He posted a clip of him singing it on TikTok, just to see the response, thinking he’d never release it. He refreshed the page over and over, waiting for likes to roll in, but it was crickets. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to delete this shit,’” he remembers. Instead, he went to sleep (“I probably took, like, an edible or something,” he recalls), and by the next morning, the comments were rolling in.

@noahkahanmusic This sucks and I feel guilty buying weed from high schoolers #foryoupage #foryou #depressedjasonmraz #prozackeanureeves ♬ original sound – Noah Kahan

That became the foundation for “Stick Season,” the eponymous lead single from Kahan’s third album—named for the uniquely northern New England purgatory of grim terrain, dead leaves, and gray skies between fall and winter. The response from listeners also inspired Kahan to keep channeling Vermont, New England, and small-town paralysis. “My favorite authors write beautifully about places,” he says, mentioning Stephen King’s take on Maine and John Steinbeck’s adherence to the Salinas Valley. “Instead of trying to describe this massive universal relatability, I wanted to focus on one thing that meant a lot to me and hopefully find something relatable in that.”

It worked. By the time Kahan dropped the full-length Stick Season last October, a full two years later, the title track had earned more than 60 million global streams, and the album debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200. A cult-like devotion has since sprung up, with fans getting Stick Season–inspired tattoos and selling out the entire stock of a $45 Stick Season candle. (Its amusing scent: “Vermont pine, campfire, whiskey, and your favorite flannel.”) “It was a lot of just believing that [this music] would find a home somewhere,” Kahan says. “I didn’t realize the home would be so big.”

The crowd during Kahan’s record-breaking set. / Photo by Photo by Alive Coverage / Boston Calling

IT’S SIX WEEKS after Boston Calling, and Kahan is still overwhelmed by the turnout. “I was trying to convince myself that Madonna happened to be on the stage next to me, and that’s why there were so many people there,” he says over Zoom. “Knowing that everyone there is singing the words, they really are there for you, and it’s not some kind of fluke.”

In July 2022, Kahan moved to Watertown with his girlfriend, to a home with a yard big enough for his German Shepherd, Penny, to run free. “It feels like a bigger version of a small town I grew up in,” he says. Nearby softball games and neighboring families feed a sense of normalcy, especially as Kahan’s profile rises. “I’m not Prince; people aren’t swarming me,” he says. “But there has been more visibility in my life, and Watertown makes me feel a little bit more invisible. Like I can be my own person and yell at somebody if they cut me off in traffic, say ‘Fuck you,’ and not worry about getting canceled.”

Photo by Aysia Marotta

Kahan is also trying to do some good. In May, he and his team launched the Busyhead Project, an initiative aimed at unraveling the taboo of talking about mental health struggles and raising money for organizations delivering mental health services. (As of early August, the Busyhead Project had raised more than $850,000.) In addition, Kahan auctioned off his Boston Calling jacket—the winning bid was $16,001—with proceeds going to the initiative. He’s been on the local Vermont news for his help with the state’s flood recovery. He livestreamed his sold-out Red Rocks show to raise money to aid parts of Vermont devastated by flooding in July, which raised $190,000. “This opportunity that I’m getting, some people would wait a lifetime for,” Kahan says. “I’m trying to be very present about how privileged and fortunate I am to have this kind of platform and use it for the right reasons.”

This lightning-in-a-bottle success is undoubtedly poised to continue. Billboard predicts Kahan will receive a 2024 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. You could easily see him as a post-WGA-strike Saturday Night Live musical guest. Based on his Boston Calling turnout, Kahan headlining somewhere like Fenway Park, with its 38,000-plus-capacity concerts, doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

In fact, Kahan has big things planned for his adopted hometown, but he can’t say what they are just yet. “I know that I haven’t lived here long, and I’m a tourist here in many ways. But [Boston] feels like kind of the home of New England, and I just wanted to say thank you for welcoming me.”

First published in the print edition of the September 2023 issue with the headline, “A Star Is Born.”