The hidden existence of Noah Kahan: the unexpected rise to fame in the world of pop music, with chart-topping hits and sold-out performances – but struggling with feeling like an imposter.

Estimated read time 11 min read


During the recent Grammys, Noah Kahan observed his surroundings and saw Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Despite being nominated for best new artist and having a successful album on the US and UK charts, he couldn’t shake off the feeling of impostor syndrome.

He brought his mother along and she had a great time. “I was sitting alone, thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I am definitely the least cool person at this party right now.’ My mom was having a blast, and everyone around me seemed to be having a great time too. It reinforced this negative belief I have about myself – that I don’t fit in.” He smiles. “I could have easily gotten up and introduced myself to someone – it was my own choice.” Sitting on a couch at his record label’s London office, he chuckles at his own thoughts. “It’s something I need to work on, learning how to feel deserving and worthy.”

The fact that the 27-year-old artist is able to relate his experience of attending the Grammys, with all its glamour and surrealness, is a key factor in understanding his popularity. Currently on a successful tour of Europe and North America, he made the journey from Leeds this morning. During the train ride, he contemplated how his new lavish lifestyle may impact his ability to continue writing the type of songs that have resonated with millions of fans. “How can I pretend that I’m still stuck in my dad’s house, dreaming of escape? I’m getting my hair and makeup done and sipping coffee. It’s not a relatable experience for most people.”

However, this may not be significant. The speaker did not expect Vermont to be relatable.

He grew up in New England and wrote Stick Season, his third album, which was released in 2022 and recently reached the top spot in the UK. The album was updated this month, with collaborations from artists like Brandi Carlile, Hozier, and Post Malone. While many of the songs are specific to certain places, they have a universal appeal. Kahan’s music has been embraced by a generation that prioritizes mental health and openly discusses it. He touches on themes of belonging and not belonging, longing for home, and the fear of being stuck in a small town. Even if you’re not from Strafford, Vermont, you can still relate to meeting up with old friends during Christmas or feeling left behind as others move on.

I grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire, with three siblings. My father was employed in the IT industry while my mother was a writer. At the age of eight, I began to write music and at 10, I received a guitar. My dad and I would learn songs by The Beatles and Cat Stevens. I was greatly inspired by Green Day’s American Idiot, as it evoked strong emotions within me with its raw angst, anger, and captivating storytelling. I aspired to create music that sounded similar to Green Day’s style.

Kahan with Lauri Berkenkamp at the Grammys in February 2024.

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During his time in high school, his music caught the attention of older students who were producing and sharing tracks online. Eventually, a record company reached out to Kahan’s family and he signed a record deal at the age of 17, feeling like he had made it. He recalls thinking that he would be living the party life in Los Angeles and was glad he had chosen not to go to college, anticipating jealousy from his friends. However, while his friends went off to college, Kahan remained at home for a year and a half after signing. This was during a period when artists like Hozier, James Bay, and George Ezra were becoming popular, and Kahan seemed to fit the same image with his long hair and acoustic guitar.

After that, he relocated to Nashville, where he experienced the lifestyle of a less important artist, attempting to discover his niche. He eventually became worn out by this and realized he was trying to portray a false image. Whether he was attempting to imitate Ed Sheeran or conform to the mold of successful white, male singers in their twenties, it didn’t feel genuine. Despite one of his singles, Hurt Somebody, achieving gold status in the US in 2017, his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

He enjoyed the experience of going on tour and performing with artists like Bay and Leon Bridges. He felt more comfortable expressing himself on stage and embraced the folky live performance aspect. However, he also felt a bit down when returning to Nashville, New York, or LA to write songs. He acknowledges that it was a learning process and that he was young and naive, believing that everything would work out. He was afraid of failure but hoped that someone would step in to save him and that his label would not drop him. In reality, people get dropped from labels frequently, but he was fortunate to have a supportive team.

He had been struggling with his mental well-being for a long time. At around eight or nine years old, Kahan began experiencing episodes of depersonalisation, where he felt disconnected from himself. He describes it as feeling like he was observing himself from above and realizing that he didn’t feel like he was part of the world, almost like living in a dream. In hindsight, he believes this was likely the first sign of his depression and anxiety. He tried taking Prozac in high school, attended therapy sessions, exercised regularly, and ate well. However, he eventually came to the realization that his struggles never fully went away.

In his early twenties, Kahan was experiencing pressure to achieve success but was not satisfied with the work he was producing. This led to a breakdown. He recalls feeling burnt out and falling into a deep depression where he engaged in self-destructive behaviors such as binge-eating, using marijuana, lack of sleep, and constantly checking his online presence for validation.

During that period, he would often search for songwriters on Wikipedia and try to replicate their most popular song. He felt like he was living a fake life and wasting his time. It was a difficult time and his parents were incredibly supportive and understanding as they reassured him that everything would be alright and helped him seek assistance.

Kahan on stage in London, February 2024.

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Therapy had a positive impact. He shared, “I made an effort to be more honest and open about my feelings. I’ve always emphasized the importance of vulnerability in my music, but I wasn’t practicing it in my personal life.” While working on Stick Season, he was also taking antidepressants. However, he began to worry that the medication would hinder his creativity. In a rush, he stopped taking them, causing him to experience withdrawal symptoms. Looking back, he realizes it would have been better to continue taking the medication. He explains, “On the medication, I felt numb and disconnected. But without it, I was too overwhelmed to be productive. I felt stuck in a difficult decision.”

Is he still dealing with depersonalisation? “Yes, when I’m under a lot of stress,” he answers. The week of the Grammys was challenging – he felt out of place in a new environment, surrounded by all the hustle and bustle. Occasionally, he experiences it while performing on stage. He’s grateful for being open about it, especially while on tour, “so I don’t feel like I’m hiding a huge secret. I have good days and bad days. It’s something I have to constantly monitor.”

In 2020, when the pandemic began, Kahan left New York and returned to his parents’ home in Vermont, situated on a large piece of land surrounded by woods. His first album, Busyhead, had been released the previous year and had not received much attention. He felt like he had failed. Unable to tour, he contemplated giving up his career.

Returning home and being reunited with his siblings, as well as the picturesque surroundings of Vermont, evoked a sense of nostalgia in Kahan and reminded him of his teenage years when he was focused on songwriting rather than pursuing a career as a mainstream pop artist. This was also a time when his parents were going through a separation, which has since resulted in their divorce. However, they still reside in close proximity to each other on their shared property. Reflecting on this experience, Kahan acknowledges the raw and genuine emotions his parents displayed as they worked through their issues, teaching him the value of emotional honesty. It was a significant lesson for him to witness.

Kahan composed several songs that had a folk and reflective tone and produced a short album, titled “Cape Elizabeth,” within a week with the help of a nearby producer. The time constraint allowed for a sense of liberation: “There wasn’t much chance to second-guess or overthink. I believe my previous music was heavily influenced by my concerns, resulting in a tense and uncertain sound, and not in a positive way.”

The artist’s latest work was not drastically different from his previous work, which had a slight folk influence, but it seemed more heartfelt and less blatantly commercial. The EP had moderate success, attracting a smaller but dedicated fan base. The artist himself was deeply committed to this project. However, his next album, I Was/I Am, reflected his struggle with self-identity. While it contained some good songs, there was still a sense of insincerity in his younger voice. Unfortunately, the album did not make it onto the charts.

‘It feels too simple that I’ve made music I really care about’ … Kahan.View image in fullscreen

He has a fondness for the band Mumford & Sons, who gained attention for their use of banjos during the folk-pop revival of the 2010s. Did he have any concerns about being associated with the backlash against the band? Does he care about being perceived as cool? “No, I don’t think it matters that much,” he responds with a smile. “I think I stopped caring about that a long time ago. The first time I did a photoshoot, I realized that’s what I look like. It’s over. It’s also exhausting to constantly try to be cool and do something completely new or groundbreaking. I just don’t have the energy for it. Right now, I’m too tired to push any genre boundaries – I’ll just stick to playing my mandolin, okay?”

He claims that creating Stick Season was the most content he has ever been, creatively speaking. When driving to the studio in southern Vermont, it felt like he was living in the album itself. He recognized that he was the only one who could truly tell his own story about Vermont and New England through his music. This realization made him realize that he had not felt this connected to his own music before.

As he composed the main song, TikTok was instrumental in driving its success. He regularly uploaded verses and the chorus to the platform as he wrote them. However, his label’s parent company, Universal, is currently embroiled in a dispute with TikTok over payment. As a result, they have removed their music from the platform, including Kahan’s. Kahan expresses his disappointment with the situation, stating that he was able to gain a large following on TikTok, which has been incredibly beneficial for him. However, he is concerned for other artists, particularly those who are just starting out or on the cusp of breaking through, who may not have this opportunity now. He hopes that artists will not give up and instead find other ways to share their talent and stories with the world.

In July, Kahan will be performing at Fenway Park in Boston, which has a capacity of 38,000 people. This stadium held great significance in his childhood dreams of achieving immense success. He still struggles to believe it is real, and worries that the booking may have been made by error.

“It almost seems too easy that I have created music that holds great significance to me, that I am truly proud of, and that resonates with others. In my mind, there must be some hidden negative force that is responsible for this success.” He chuckles once more. On a rough day, when the process of songwriting feels forced, “then I’ll perform at an arena show and think: oh my God, they’re all falling for my facade – I’m deceiving them into believing I’m someone I’m not.” And on a good day? “I feel like I am invincible.”

The album “Stick Season (Forever)” has been released by Island Records in the UK.


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