Last week, I got the chance to spend a half hour chatting with Seattle-based folk singer/songwriter, Noah Gundersen. Fresh off the release of his 2014 debut album, Ledges, and already gearing up for the release of the follow-up, Carry the Ghost, Gundersen spoke candidly about the collaborative nature of his new album, about keeping the intimacy of his earlier music alive whilst moving into full-band territory, about exploring difficult subjects like religion and existentialism in his lyrics, and about why we'll probably be hearing yet another new album from him sooner rather than later.
Craig Manning (CM): Last year was a big year for you, with Ledges getting a fair amount of coverage. I know it was in our top 10, our staff list, for the year.
Noah Gundersen (NG): Oh thanks!
CM: I think you gained a lot a lot of new fans last year, definitely on our site and certainly just in general as well. I was wondering: has your life changed much since you released [Ledges], or do you still feel pretty much the same?
NG: Well, I think I've changed, probably, just in the personal sense of growth over the last couple of years. But, you know, I wouldn't say my life has changed significantly. I'm not like, hounded by people when I go out in public or anything. (Laughs) But it's changed in the sense that, I guess, seeing what's possible and also just having the personal growth of that experience, of releasing a proper full length record for the first time, and just experiencing all the things that go along with that, learning what works and what doesn't, and how I want to proceed with my musical career, on a creative and in a business sense. So, yeah, like anything that happens in your life, it's affected me and changed me, but I'm still the same dude, I think.
CM: Right, cool! So Carry the Ghost is out next Friday? Is that right?
NG: Right...wow, I guess so! (Laughs) It's coming up really soon, which is funny because like—I was just talking with somebody about this the other day—with Ledges it was such a long and arduous process of getting it done. You know, finishing the recording, and then making a change in management during that process, and trying to figure out the label thing, and like, it just dragged on forever and ever. So when it finally came out, it felt like I was counting down the days, whereas with this one, the process has been so smooth and kind of painless that we...I'm surprised when I think that it's coming out in, like, a week. (Laughs) Pretty wild.
CM: Well this one, it comes pretty quick on the heels of Ledges too, just in terms of release. I think I remember reading that you were going back into the studio, was it last August now?
NG: Yes. Yeah, so within a year practically of it's recording, it's coming out, which is awesome. I think that so much of that is just because the infrastructure's there. You know, I'm constantly writing. I've got another record...I probably have enough material already to go in and work on another one. So that was never the problem, it was more just the infrastructure of releasing and all that stuff. So now that that's in place, hopefully we'll be cranking them out.
CM: Yeah, I was going to ask about that, because it seems like you've been going sort of nonstop since...well definitely since Ledges came out. So I was wondering if you had been planning to take a break after this, but it sounds like not!
NG: Yeah, well you know, it's funny. Being a musician is a really weird job. It's kind of like being a teacher, in the sense that your work is kind of…seasonal? So, to me, I don't feel like I've been going nonstop. (Laughs) I've had most of this summer off. You know, we've been doing some press stuff, but I enjoy being busy, and I enjoy having something productive to do every day. I feel like I like having that routine. So I don't feel in any way that I've been like "going nonstop." Maybe, it might appear like that to other people, but you know...
CM: Well, just like, in comparison to other musicians, who might take three or four years to make an album, I guess.
NG: Yeah, yeah, I guess so. I try not to compare myself I guess! (Laughs) Sometimes maybe I should, but I just...I like working, you know? I do something that I love, so...I like keeping myself busy with it. And it also keeps you from getting in your own head too much. You know, for me...I do enjoy taking time off after a tour or record or something? But within a couple weeks or a month or so, I start to get antsy.
CM: Right. Well you also...you do your records in sort of a very do-it-yourself fashion, right? I mean, you produce them and you have family members who play on them. What kind of atmosphere does that create in the studio, to basically make albums with your siblings?
NG: Oh, it's just brutal. Just terrible. (Laughs) No, it's...they're awesome. And it's not just my siblings now. It's my bass player, Micah, and hopefully on the next record our touring guitar player, AJ, will be a part of it. But, this last record, Carry the Ghost, was super collaborative, which was awesome. I think I've always fantasized about having a band. I think you get that as a singer/songwriter, from spending years playing alone in a coffee shop to no one listening. (Laughs) You start to fantasize about, you know, making a big sound and stuff. But I'm super grateful to have these guys working with me. Carry the Ghost wouldn't have been what it is without the contributions of everyone in the band, which I'm...yeah, I'm just really grateful for that.
The atmosphere is pretty open, and collaborative, and you know, it's fun. It's fun making records. I almost love that more than touring, because there's something... I mean, I started working when I was 12. My dad was a contractor, so I would go to work with him in the mornings during the summer, and then as I got older, I worked with him more. So I'm used to that...I like waking up in the morning and going to work. And I think that's my favorite part of the whole studio process, is you get to have a schedule and wake up and go and be creative for about 10 hours. And then you come home, and have a couple drinks, go to bed, and do it over again. That's my favorite thing.
CM: I was going to ask about the collaboration behind Carry the Ghost too, because Ledges was very stripped down and acoustic, and on this one, there's a lot more...I mean there's obviously a lot of electric guitar, and there's the backing vocals on "Halo," and then just...it's lusher across the board. Have you wanted to flesh out your songs like that for a while?
NG: Yeah, I think I had. You know, there was a big gap between the writing of the songs for Ledges and Carry the Ghost, because Ledges came out...I guess early 2014, I think?
CM: Yeah, it was February. I think February.
NG: Yeah, so that was a couple...it was already a couple years ago. I mean, most of those songs had been written a year or two prior to that release, so my taste and my aesthetic has change considerably since the writing of those songs. Some of the things that I'm into are not what I was into at the time of Ledges. So I knew that I wanted to make something that was different, something that I would enjoy listening to.
So when we were going into the studio, I had the bare bones of these songs. But we did pre-production with the band and just tried out different approaches. And then there was a lot of just messing around with stuff in the studio. We brought in synthesizers and different amps and...spent a lot of time getting sounds and tones, and then just trying ideas and creating textures and experimenting. And, you know, a lot of stuff didn't work. (Laughs) But the stuff that did, we ended up keeping, and I think it turned out pretty cool.
CM: Oh yeah. Well, it's really interesting to me because a lot singer/songwriters who start out acoustic and then...you know, go full band...they sort of get criticized for losing the intimacy of their earlier stuff. But I don't really feel like that here, I feel like you definitely sort of keep both worlds on this.
NG: Yeah, well I think it's all...I mean, I think the trap that some singer/songwriters fall into when they start is that they have some success with their record, and then make another one that's considerably more polished or with a band because they want to have that big sound. But I think that maybe what happens is they...they replace a sound for songs, you know? I think if the core of the thing is a good song, then you build everything around that, and I think, unfortunately, sometimes people think like, "Oh, I've got this band now. I got my song, and I think it's a cool song, but really the thing is that I've got this band sound." But, you know, for me it all has to start out with the song, and [with the question of] "does the band make the song better?" And that's, I think, how it turned out with this record, is that we just started from the ground up, and then did what complimented the song instead of just saying "Hey, we're gonna be as loud as we can on every tune here."
CM: So you were still starting them, basically, as acoustic songs, and then you'd take them into the studio and sort of build them up?
NG: Yeah, yeah, I mean, everything was written either on an acoustic guitar or a piano. And the cool thing is, they still work that way. Like, I might be doing some solo shows after this next tour. I'm not really sure. But, just messing around with these songs on their own, it's encouraging to know that they stand up just on one instrument as well as they do with the full band.
CM: Yeah, and I mean, on that note, you did "Heartbreaker" last year on the Twenty-Something EP, and that was acoustic. Were there any other songs from the EP that you considered recording with the full band?
NG: You know, we did one of the songs on the EP, the "Guardian Angel," we did it with a full band on the last tour, which was cool. But, no ["Heartbreaker"] was the only one on Twenty-Something that [we recorded full band], and I had already known that, because Twenty-Something was actually recorded at the end of recording Carry the Ghost. Those are just extra songs we had. So, we went in and recorded and I just did it on tape in a couple of hours. We did it straight to tape. So those were kind of like the b-sides, the acoustic b-sides of the record.
CM: Yeah, we just got those first, so I wasn't sure exactly.
NG: Yeah, no, (laughs) and it's kind of the reverse process: you release the b-sides and then you release the record.
CM: No, that's actually super cool though. What does a typical recording session look like for you? Are you someone who tends to do straight-to-tape stuff? I mean, it sounds like for this record you did more experimentation with the band and just playing around with stuff.
NG: Yeah, I mean there were different approaches for different songs. The only thing we did on tape was the EP, but I'd love to do more of that in the future. It's just a whole different world that I haven't really jumped into yet, but I hope to soon. But with the record, you know, a lot of the tracks were just multi-track layered. A couple of them, like "Heartbreaker"..."Heartbreaker turned out, I think it's kind of special to us just because we set up everything in the same room and recorded it live in one take. Or we did a couple takes of it, but took the best. And that song was loud as fuck. (Laughs) Like, you can hear things rattling in the track, because there was drums, bass, and guitar all in that one room. Which was just such a cool experience, and I think the rawness of the song comes through in that performance, because it is kind of...it's just messy, it's noisy. From a recording standpoint it's kind of a mess, but somehow it turned out pretty cool. But other than that, most of it was just done in layers, or drums and bass were done simultaneously.
CM: Cool. So, to talk a little bit about the themes of the album, what does the title, Carry the Ghost, what does that mean to you? And why did that phrase seem to stand out as something that summed up this collection of songs?
NG: I think the idea of experience and history shaping who we are, I think that was where that idea came from. It's something we carry, our experiences, and something we live with every day, and you know, we make decisions on how we respond to our experiences, but they are what shapes us. So there's that existential idea. There's also a little bit of a post-relationship aspect to it, but it's not necessarily a break-up album. It's more just an exploration of, ultimately, existentialism.
CM: Yeah, that is a big theme, and that caught me as well, just because...I mean, I do believe in God, but I think it's interesting that, for a lot of people who are very religious, they sort of...they take God as the overarching meaning in their life instead of finding different levels of meaning elsewhere, as well.
CM: And so, listening to a song like "Empty from the Start," where you're basically talking about finding the meaning in your life in relationships and in love, that really hit me. Can you tell me a little bit about how your thoughts on religion have evolved over the course of your music? Because I know you've used religious imagery in the past, and it hasn't really been from this kind of perspective.
NG: Yeah. Man. I guess the best answer would be to say, "just go back and listen to my records." (laughs) And just kind of get a sense of the evolution of my thinking on it. At this point, I'm not religious. I'm not even sure if I really believe in God at this point. But, um...the verdict's still out on God. But I think a lot of the topics on this record are based around trying to understand, like, what are the ethical guidelines in my life now that they're not dictated by a religion or by belief in a god? And that's a scary thing, and that's a place of vulnerability. Because I think people want to be told how to live, ultimately, because it's easier. And to have someone else spell out for you what is right or what is wrong, that takes a little less work than having to really decide what your ethics are and why. So that's kind of the place that I'm at now. I'm not so much grappling with faith as I am with understanding my own personal ethics and why I live the way I live, or what is the quote-unquote "right way to live," and then learning to accept the fact that we don't live in a black and white world, and that there are very few things that just apply to everything as far as rules for ways to live.
CM: One of my favorite songs here is "Topless Dancer," which is really stunning and evocative from a lyrical perspective, and also seems very metaphorical. I wanted to ask about that one and sort of where it came from, because it seems just very poetic in a way that a lot of songs aren't anymore.
NG: Oh, thank you. I mean, yeah, it's a song about sexuality. It's a song about, again, kind of alluding to that ethic of a Christian moralistic path that also shames most people's sexuality, and creates a lot of pent up sexual energy or misguided sexual energy, or just shame about people's sexual identities and sexual experiences. So the idea of this topless dancer was essentially an idea of sexual liberation. And you know, then the second verse is this vulnerable kind of comment about being a Christian teen and… (Laughs) and having wet dreams and, you know, feeling guilt about that. And just...and how fucked up that is, that that's something that we have guilt about: these very human, totally biological desires that are shamed, and unfortunately can, I think, create a lot of damage in people's psyches. I mean, not unalterable, but it's unfortunate and sad that so much energy is spent on controlling people's sexuality.
CM: Do you have a favorite song on this album, or one that means a lot to you in particular? I know you said that, for the band, "Heartbreaker" was special.
NG: Yeah. Man that's...they all mean a lot to me. I think "Empty from the Start" is kind of the clearest declaration of where I'm at now, and I think, hopefully breaks some ties with people's ideas of me as a "religious-but-questioning" or as a downright religious songwriter. That's really not where I'm at, and I think "Empty from the Start" makes that pretty clear, so I'm glad to have that song on the record. But they're all special to me. They all mean different things, and I'm really pumped to play all of them live.
CM: That's great. You've announced a tour for this already, right?
NG: Yeah, yeah, we start September 11th?
CM: And are you taking the full band out?
NG: Yep, taking the full band, bringing out our own lights this time. It's gonna be different than any other show we've done before.
CM: Are you still playing mostly pretty small and intimate venues, or are you playing bigger rooms this time around?
NG: It's like 500 to 1,000 cap rooms?
CM: Got it, cool. Also, speaking of just...things outside of writing and recording your own music, I guess: you recently produced the upcoming album, [Fables] from David Ramirez, right?
NG: Yeah, yeah, it's something I'm super proud of. David's not only a really good friend, but just a fantastic songwriter, so it was super cool to be a part of that.
CM: Yeah, I got a promo of that too, because I'm going to review it. But I was wondering if you have any aspirations of doing more production for other artists, or if you sort of just did that [for David] because you guys are friends?
NG: No, I do. Like I said earlier, I just really enjoy being in the studio. I mean, I'm not an engineer. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know a lot about the technical side. You know, I know my mics and I have a general understanding, but I don't...I'm not an engineer. But I love being in the studio, and there's something cool about being able to be a voice of reason on someone else's work, or to have some perspective. Because you get so close to the thing that you're making when you're making it, that sometimes you don't have the...you''re not able to take a step back and look at the big picture. So it's cool to be able to be that for somebody else. So yeah, I definitely hope more things come along where it makes sense for me to work with somebody. And you know, with David, it just made sense. But yeah, hopefully I'll get to do more of that.
CM: Have you ever considered bringing in a producer to work on your records, or do you just like doing that part yourself?
NG: Yeah! I feel like, at this point, I'll probably do the next record with a producer. I think there's a lot that I could learn from working with somebody. I worked with a producer a long time ago, but the last two records have been just self-produced. So yeah, I would love to work with a producer—in part just so that I could learn more about that role, both for self-producing and for producing other people's work.
CM: Yeah, because then you can apply that to sort of everything. Okay, last question: do you have any albums you're loving lately that you want to recommend to both me and the people on our website?
NG: Yeah! Obviously, the new Tame Impala record that everyone loves is awesome. I finally got into Sylvan Esso, I think they're great. Actually, let me pull up my things that I've been listening to lately. I've listened to a lot of Huey Lewis and the News. (Laughs) Sports is a pretty fucking awesome album. Hmmm, what have I been listening to? I feel like there's so much, but you know, whenever you get asked, you immediately forget everything...
CM: Ha, yeah, it's awful.
NG: Oh, I rediscovered the Weakerthans the other day. They're a band I used to listen to a lot, and I've kind of been on kick of that late-90s, early 2000s indie rock...like, guys who were bad at sports and wore sweaters and played music. (Laughs) So like, early Pedro the Lion, Weakerthans. Umm, the new Kurt Vile song is super rad; the new Lana Del Rey song is super awesome. Yeah, that's kind of...it, off the top of my head.
CM: Alright, that's cool though, thanks. Okay, I think that's all I had for you here. Do you have anything you want to add, either about...are you gonna stream the record next week?
NG: We will be, yeah. It'll be out on the Wall Street Journal.
CM: Is that just going to be mid-week? Or Monday? I guess it comes out on Friday now, I'm still not used to that.
NG: I know, it's super weird. I think it's Monday? I'm not sure though.
CM: Alright cool, I was just wondering because I'll probably post this early in the week, so I'll be sure to link to the stream.
NG: Well thanks man, and hey, thanks for all the support you guys are giving me. You know, I've seen it online and I really do appreciate it.
CM: yeah, our pleasure. I mean, we just put up...we're putting up the Absolute 100 right now, which is sort of our "artists who are sort of overlooked that you should go listen to" list, and you and David Ramirez and Field Report and a few other guys, they were my picks.
NG: Awesome, well I appreciate it!