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Noah Gundersen is currently on a North American tour taking him from Washington to Maine and back in support of his wonderful 2017 album, White Noise. Somewhere between Spokane and Missoula, I got the chance to catch up with him by phone.
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I know it’s only been 2 or 3 days but how’s the tour been so far?
Noah: It’s been good. It’s a different tour this time around we’re doing kind of different versions of these new songs as well as some old songs and some b-sides. I’m changing up the set every night which has kept it interesting for me.
Have you ever made a different setlist every night on any previous tours?
N: I haven’t really. There’s been some shows where I’ve done solo tours and never made a setlist, just made it up as I went along but this time I’m actually writing it out. It’s nice. It keeps it interesting for me and hopefully for the audience, too.
I have to imagine, as an artist, that there’s some monotony in lengthy tours and it’s important to keep yourself interested so that the crowd stays interested. In the few shows you’ve done on this tour, do you feel like fans have been more responsive to this or do you notice any difference?
N: I think we made a record that kind of challenged my fans expectations or paradigms of what I do. So with the record and the last tour we were kind of asking them to stretch themselves. This, I think, is a nice way to kind of give back to the fans that have been with us for a long time and play some older songs, stuff from the older catalog, just to reassure them that it’s still me. And it’s kind of nice for me to revisit some of these songs because I haven’t played them in a long time. It’s fun to play through my own musical and personal journey every night, you know? Some of these songs are from 6 years ago, some even older, so it’s nice to be able to sing through those things and reflect on where I was when I wrote those songs versus where I am now.
I love to hear that you can still relate to your songs you wrote in your beginning of your career.
N: Yeah I can definitely see some of the patterns of my own emotional journey (in those older songs). Similar things keep popping up for whatever reason.
That’s interesting. I was watching your live session with KEXP (from November 2013) and you had said that you try to stay away from past recordings (earlier versions of songs released). Now that you’re playing from your “older catalog” are you finding it easier to self reflect on those old songs or is it still a struggle?
N: I think I needed some space from those songs. Everytime I would go back and reference the recordings I could just hear the age of my voice and I felt like I sounded young, I didn’t relate to the person I was hearing in the recordings so I was kind of distracted by that. But now being able to perform the songs in, you know, the voice of a 28 year old and through the lense of a 28 year old, I don’t hate the songs as much. (laughs) I think the thing I find myself resenting is just listening to a kid singing those songs.
You clearly have a great and loyal fanbase who have followed you for a while. I read that you played with some friends in high school as Beneath Oceans, and reformed semi recently in 2015 as Young and the City. Could you speak on how coming back together affected your writing process for your new album, White Noise?
N: So being a singer-songwriter I spend a lot of time writing songs alone. So there are songs that can hold up on their own, and then I bring them to a group, and then we try to flush them out. Where as with Young In The City and experimenting with playing with a band I was writing with rhythm in mind with regards to the other parts of the songs. I’m never really the guy that writes with this big idea in my head. I kind of keep it simple and then build on it, so it’s easier to write for a band when you’re playing with a band. That I think helped with writing the White Noise record because I finally had some experience in being able to envision what things would sound like when you throw a band behind it.
Yeah, so just kind of having some support from the musical side during the writing process helped?
N: Yeah and also I think learning to maybe take myself a little less seriously. I think playing in a fun rock band helped lighten me up a little bit.
I like listening to artist’s past work and find a stark difference between records. I heard that change in your sound when listening to White Noise compared to your past records. Like you said earlier you were “challenging your fan base” in a way.
N: Yeah and also the thing for me is that I’ve always been chasing whatever feels like the most honest expression of my current self and that’s an ongoing process that is never ending.
Absolutely. Do you have any good memories from this past tour [Fall 2017] supporting the new album?
N: (laughs) Um this last tour was really fun, sometimes a little too fun. You know, I felt like it was the first time I got to play ‘rockstar’ a little bit because I was playing this kind of bigger set every night that brought out a different side of me. Which was awesome and I think gave me a lot of confidence and showed me another side of myself and another side of performing. But there was a lot of partying and this tour comparatively is very, very chill.
(laughs) So the last time you were in Kansas City, you were at the “old” recordBar. Traveling through the United States do you notice differences in your fanbase or mainly just find familiarities throughout.
N: I think people are people regardless of wherever you go. Don’t you guys have that thing. The garbage plate? There’s some drink or food item thats particular to Kansas City, I’m going to look it up.
BBQ maybe? There’s the infamous Z-Man sandwich. You go to a gas station for a bbq sandwich. Admittedly I’m a St. Louis transplant myself, but I’ve learned BBQ is king here and seen instances at shows when fans will just yell at artists BBQ recommendations or ask them after the shows which BBQ restaurant they went to. I just find it interesting when I see bands tour through the Midwest, and without much comparison it seems like there’s some sort of special receptiveness in music fans in the Midwest.
N: Yeah, I found there’s good people everywhere. There’s definitely individual mannerisms that you pick up on there’s a friendliness to Midwestern people that’s different than like Southern Hospitality which is definitely a different kind of friendliness. It’s hard to really pin it down.
Definitely, it’s something I’ve struggled with for a while now. Do you have a favorite place in the world? A place that you have gone once maybe or always go back to that you felt most comfortable?
N: Yeah, I love Joshua Tree California. That’s kind of my energy recharge place, I try to go at least once a year. It’s a place that makes you feel small and insignificant, but okay with it, you know?
That’s great. I’ve heard similar things about Joshua Tree, be it from friends who have visited or an interview I stumbled upon from John Mayer.
N: There’s definitely a spiritual energy to the place. I always leave there feeling more at peace.
Outside of music right now do you have any obsessions?
N: I love my motorcycle. That’s kind of my hobby at home when it’s not wintertime. I’ve got a couple of motorcycle trips planned for this summer when I have time off.
What was the first CD (or album) you bought and first CD given to you?
N: I mean they’re both kind of embarrassing.
Perfect, exactly why I asked.
N: I think the first CD I bought was a Hoobastank CD and I think the first CD given to me, I grew up around a lot of religious music, it was this Christian guy named Carman. He was like this Italian Sylvester Stallone lookalike Christian singer.
I was hoping it was going to be like David Crowder Band or Relient K that we all had from growing up in youth groups.
N: Yep, had all those CDs too, definitely had similar music growing up.
Last question, a favorite read of a couple of us at Playlistplay is Bob Boilen’s book Your Song Changed My Life. Do you have a certain moment, artist, or song that really impacted your life to decide to pursue music or reassure you in your music career?
N: I definitely have moments with songs, the first one that comes to mind as being really impactful was Pedro the Lion’s “Secret of the Easy Yoke” off of It’s Hard To Find A Friend. That was a moment when I realized that music could express things that I wasn’t able to express in conversation or any other way. It touched me in a way like nothing else had before. I think I was 13 and that was an inspiration for me to pursue music as a form of communication that makes you feel or at least it made me feel less alone. It made me feel understood in a way that I hadn’t been understood before.
Thanks to Noah Gundersen for a delightful and insightful interview. Catch Gundersen on the remaining dates of his tour; I look forward to seeing how fans in Kansas City react to Noah’s first time back in 6 years this Thursday, January 24th at recordBar.