Interview: Noah Gundersen
What makes me who I am? Am I just here to survive? Am I alone in this world? Profound uncertainties such as these can turn cartwheels in our minds, and for Noah Gundersen, they are questions that often inspire his songwriting.
Only a year after the release of his debut solo album, Ledges, Gundersen returns with Carry the Ghost. Influenced by existential philosophy, the record illustrates Gundersen trying to find his identity by visiting his own phantoms and reflecting on the past. Refreshingly honest in drawing from his personal relationships, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter comes to accept that he is the sum of all his experiences.
In this conversation, Gundersen chats about his new tunes and the variations of his songwriting process. He also reveals the identity of the mysterious Caroline that keeps creeping into his lyrics, and explains how writing a song for Sons of Anarchy forced him out of his comfort zone.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): You’ve said in various interviews that your creative process differs song-to-song. Can you think of a specific method that works best for you?
Noah Gundersen: It’s often lyrically and musically simultaneous, sitting down with a guitar or piano and just fleshing out ideas – messing around and seeing what sticks. It’s throwing shit at a wall, seeing what sticks, and then taking lyrical inspiration from it.
Songfacts: The title of the new album is Carry the Ghost, which refers to accepting experiences from the past instead of dwelling on them. Can you expand on that idea and explain why that theme resonates with you so much?
Noah: Yeah, I don’t think it’s necessarily implying that we don’t dwell on them because obviously the record is full of dwelling on those past experiences. But it mostly implies that we’re made of our experiences. We are the product of our history, and that’s something to accept. It’s something that will live with us whether we like it or not, so running from it doesn’t get you anywhere.
Songfacts: And why does that resonate with you?
Noah: I’m always psychoanalyzing myself and reflecting on what’s made me who I am. I think that’s been a big part of my songwriting. It’s been experiential and somewhat confessional, so the idea of thinking about our ghosts and our experiences is one that’s common in most of my songwriting.
Songfacts: The record begins with the haunting piano-driven, “Slow Dancer.” What’s the story behind that song?
Noah: In short, it’s a breakup song. The idea is that sometimes people need to express their anger or frustration as a process of healing. I guess my character in that song is saying, “That’s okay. If you need to be angry at me and that’s going to make things better for you, then by all means express that anger.”
Songfacts: “Halo (Disappear/Reappear)” slowly builds and then explodes. What was the writing process for that one?
Noah: The big crescendo at the end came in the studio when we were working on it with the band. I had written the song about a year prior as more of a drone-y kind of Fleet Foxes-esque acoustic ballad. But when we were messing with ideas in the studio, it took shape as something else. The crescendo with the yelling vocals, it was something that was actually my bass player and engineer’s idea. It was just to change up the monotony of the tune, and then all of a sudden the whole thing came to life. It was a cool moment in the studio because we’d spent most of the day working on this song, and it felt like it hadn’t really gone anywhere until that idea came about.
Songfacts: You’ve spoken in the past about being a singer-songwriter and the self-centeredness that comes with it. “Selfish Art” tackles that topic, too. Can you just elaborate on that subject and explain how that song came to be?
Noah: Yeah, I think it’s self-evident [laughs]. You spend your time as a songwriter mostly just processing your feelings, which requires a lot of introspection and can also be narcissistic just in nature. I was just reflecting on how strange that is when you take a step back and think about it. You’re getting paid to just think and talk about your feelings, which is something that I’m super grateful to do, but it is a strange way to make a living.
Songfacts: And what was the process of writing that one?
Noah: It was similar to anything where I just sat down with the guitar and started basically writing out my thoughts.
Songfacts: There’s a hopefulness to “Jealous Love.” What inspired that one?
Noah: It was actually written a couple of years ago. I had come out of a relationship. I was starting to think about a new relationship and the things that hadn’t worked in the previous one. Wanting something better, not wanting a jealous partner, and just wanting my romantic life [laughs] to evolve instead of being stagnant and just repeating the same mistakes.
Songfacts: You’ve written songs about questioning one’s faith, and religious imagery often appears in your lyrics. “Empty from the Start” follows that suit. It first seems like it’s continuing from where “Jesus, Jesus” leaves off, but then you put a positive spin on it with the line, “The only thing worth loving more than me is loving you.” So what’s the story behind that tune?
Noah: Yeah, it actually ironically starts with readingStarship Troopers, which is brutally realist and talks about how man has a survival nature and we’re just organisms that are trying to survive. It struck me and I just spent a lot of time thinking about it.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this in general: this concept of being alone in the universe and being alone in our own head and in our own existence. And as much as we try and communicate, no one fully knows us. No one fully knows what’s going on inside of our heads.
I then started thinking, “Well, what can we do that has value in this life?” I came to the point of realization that if you can make one other person feel less alone, then you’ve done something valuable. So the only thing worth loving more than myself is loving someone else and making someone else feel less alone. It’s a positive impact you can have on the world.
Songfacts: “Heartbreaker” was on the deluxe version of Ledges and also the Twenty-SomethingEP that was sold exclusively at concerts, and now a longer full-band version is on Carry the Ghost. Can you just explain the evolution of that song?
We just wanted to play a really loud song, so everything was recorded live on that song for the most part. All the drums, bass, and guitars were all done in the same room. All of us playing together without a click [track].
It’s lyrically a song that’s expressing the loneliness of being on the road but not wanting to be tied down by anything. It’s that struggle and that dichotomy. It’s then feeling like a womanizer, and just struggling with the expressions of your sexuality.
Songfacts: What’s your favorite moment on Carry the Ghost?
Noah: [Long pause] There’s a song called “The Difference” that is probably the one that I like the most. It’s simple, but lyrically it’s one of the core ideas of the album of accepting the grey in life. There are few black and whites. There is a lot of uncertainty and we have to make our own way.
I feel like musically it’s different than most of my other songs and I like that about it. It’s a direction I hope to pursue.
Songfacts: Can we talk about some of your older songs as well?
Songfacts: Your music has been featured in numerous television shows, particularly Sons of Anarchy. You co-wrote “Day is Gone” with the show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, and Bob Thiele, Jr. How did that all come about and what can you recall about that writing session?
Noah: We did it remotely. It’s the only time I’ve ever co-written something before. They just sent me some ideas.
They had a few lines of lyrics. I knew it was being written for the show, but I had no idea what the context of the song was going to be in it. So I had to rely on the broader sense of what I knew about the show, which was that it was dark, it was violent, and it usually involved some kind of tragedy between characters. I just took that and ran with it, which thankfully is similar to a lot of the themes in my own music, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. I also had known what songs they had chosen for the show that I had written before, so I had a good framework of what I was supposed to be writing.
It was cool. It’s different having an assignment. So much of my writing is spontaneous and to have someone say, “Hey, we want this vibe. These are the lyrics,” it was interesting. It was a new experience and just outside of my comfort zone, which I think helped me grow as a writer.
Songfacts: You said that “Ledges” was a four-minute summary of your life in 2012. Can you describe the process of creating that tune?
Noah: I had just moved into a new apartment in Seattle. I had just broken up with somebody. I was at the end of a long relationship and was exploring my freedom. It just all came out there in the lyrics.
Songfacts: There’s the song “Caroline” on the Saints & Liars EP and then Caroline appears again on Ledges in “Boathouse.” Can you reveal the story that’s happening there and why the name Caroline?
Noah: I think it mostly just worked phonetically. The original one, it worked phonetically with the rhythm and the melody of the song. I thought it’d be a funny writing exercise to tie it into another song and kind of create this story.
But it’s all mythological, none of it is literal. I think maybe there are some minor resemblances to someone I used to know in the song, but, for the most part, it’s just a made up story.
Songfacts: You record and perform with your sister, Abby, and brother, Jonathan. “Bag of Glass” depicts some of the difficult times that you put Abby through. So what are some of the benefits and challenges of collaborating with your siblings?
Noah: I think it’s mostly benefits. There’s something in those sibling harmonies. I guess it’s in the DNA where your voices somehow sound similar enough tonally that when they blend in a harmony, it’s almost like the same voice, and that’s a really special thing. Also, just for me and Abby, we started playing together at such a young age. I think there’s an intuitiveness to each other’s melodic tendencies and musical ideas that makes playing together effortless.
Songfacts: What’s the longest it’s taken you to finish a song?
Noah: Hmm. Probably a year. I’m trying to do better about it. I’m working on some stuff now that I feel like I have a strong first verse every time I come back to it, but I can’t seem to get any further. I’m trying to just let it sit with the hope that eventually the rest will come out.
I think that so much of songwriting is learning patience. It’s important to work on songs. It’s important to spend time doing the best you can, but if it’s simply not coming, then let it sit. Don’t force anything. I think that’s the best advice I can give to any songwriter, which is just don’t force. Be present and stay working, but don’t force it if you know it’s not quite there.
Songfacts: Are there any songs that the meanings of them have changed for you since you first wrote them?
Noah: Hmm. [Long pause] Because the songs are so confessional of a certain time in life, the older ones don’t mean as much to me personally in the lyrics, but musically they’ve evolved. There are songs like “Poor Man’s Son” on Ledges, which is a song that I wrote when I was 18. We’ve been playing it probably the longest out of any song. So it’s interesting to think about that and to have a piece of my creative history that’s stuck with me through my own evolution and growth as an artist and performer. It’s like this little piece of memorabilia that I’ve taken with me the whole way, and that’s cool to think about.