The Seeker: Noah Gundersen Is Coming to Terms with the Gray
Noah Gundersen is seated at a cafe in a converted garage in South Seattle. He lives nearby, and suggested the place. Twenty-six and chiseled (after our meeting, he headed for a yoga class), Gundersen has completely grown out of any perceivable awkward stage, though a walk through his music catalog will reveal some deep impressions left from his early years.
He once described his style as “sad, slow music,” and there is a sense of the tortured emo kid about him. On this day, he’s dressed in a faded white tee revealing two full sleeves of tattoos, and I’m reminded of Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, who Gundersen met on a shared tour and now counts as a friend. He’s ditched his long set of dreads – which often attracted comparisons to Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz – for a tidy mop of shoulder length dark brown hair.
We chat up the barista about pour-over coffee and the Aeropress brew Gundersen orders. He’s engaged and genuinely inquisitive about the process. We’re a long way from the push-button espresso machines of a Starbucks in Centralia, Washington, where Noah worked as a teen and performed his first live show. “I always say I worked at a ‘coffee shop,’” he’s compelled to explain, “because it sounds cooler than saying I worked at Starbucks.”
Gundersen, who left his family home at 18 for the bustle of Seattle’s music scene, did his growing as a songwriter under the eye of the Emerald City’s notoriously harsh media and slow-to-warm fans. Details like “dreadlocks” and facts about his “religious, homeschooled” upbringing peppered the scant press he did receive during those early years.
These days, Gundersen is an accomplished, hard-working music professional. He could boast of his partnership with the esteemed Nashville-based indie folk label Dulatone, song syncs on shows like Sons of Anarchy, various producer credits, a model girlfriend, and industry friends like Carrabba and David Bazan. Instead, he takes our conversation through his decidedly unhip childhood (see: “religious, homeschooled”) and the forces that shaped his journey through music.
Songs as School
Born in Olympia, Washington, Gundersen is the oldest of five biological and three adopted siblings, in a family that moved to Centralia to homestead when he was five. With his brothers and sisters, on a sprawling rural property that included a milk cow, pygmy goats, and chickens, Noah was homeschooled in a deeply religious but loving household. Curriculum was music-based, says Gundersen’s mother, Sarah, but nothing was forced. “[Our kids] had more time to pursue their own interests, practice and play their music, and be creative. I felt like that was really helpful in building who they were. I wanted them to have a lot more freedom.”
With room to explore a natural interest in music, at home and in various worship bands, Gundersen learned piano and guitar. His sister Abby, who has become his closest and most constant collaborator, studied piano and violin. Both had stints in the choir, and both found they didn’t care for it, preferring to sing and harmonize in less structured environments. The family gathered in the kitchen at night to talk about music and new songs they had learned. They would also jam and “dance around,” says father Greg. “It was a really fun time.”
They were permitted to listen to some of the greats, like Bob Dylan, but only his Christian albums, naturally. “The only music we listened to was old spiritual and Christian music,” Gundersen says. “Dylan’s gospel records are some of my earliest memories, and Oh Mercy is still one of my favorite records. ‘Everything Is Broken,’ ‘Where Teardrops Fall,’ there’s some really awesome songs on that one.”
It’s fair to say few Dylan fans came to admire his music through the albums he released during that period, and within that set, far fewer who would admit to actually preferring an album like Slow Train Coming or Saved to, say, his earlier folk recordings. Gundersen can relate to those albums, and, like Dylan, found that religion wasn’t going to stick. Nonetheless, it became something that has informed much of his songwriting and performance.
“I’m not a religious person anymore,” Gundersen says. “But it has been a part of my journey, like everything has. I didn’t choose it, I was born into it. Some people come out of it really fucked up, some people it’s really good for them. For me, I had the opportunity to play music in the church, I learned how to work the crowd. It’s definitely affected the way I write and perform.”
A cursory listen to “Poor Man’s Son,” the opening track from Gundersen’s full-length debut, Ledges, is a good example of his arresting command of both voice and style. “Stone cold broke in the middle of the winter/Oh, like a poor man’s son,” he sings a cappella, buoyed by his sister Abby’s gentle harmony. Meant to anchor the issuing songs, it’s a simple melody that by its end has transformed into a medley of the traditional folk hymn, “Down in the River to Pray.” These days, it’s the song that begins most of his live shows, as it was recently when he opened for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
It takes a good amount of fortitude for a homeschooled kid from Centralia to land a gig like that (he had, in fact, first shared a bill with Harris a few years prior), but that sort of determination has been part of Gundersen’s ethos since the beginning. From 18 on, he was touring constantly, at times living out of his car and couch-surfing with friends, performing whenever and wherever he could. He and Abby started a short-lived indie band called The Courage, which broke up in 2011, after Gundersen relocated to Seattle. Before the split, though, they toured and released two albums, Live at the Triple Door and Fearful Bones, while Gundersen simultaneously put out his first two EPs, Brand New World and Saints and Liars, under his own name.
Things started to pick up when a few songs crossed the desk of Daniel Mendez, a Dallas-based producer. “The world needs to hear this,” Mendez recalls thinking when he first heard Gundersen sing. He had acquired a copy of the Saints and Liars EP, then a rough recording in need of professional polish.
“The first time I heard those tracks, I just melted,” he adds. “I thought, ‘This guy is incredible.’” Gundersen was roughly 19 at the time. The EP contained six hushed folk songs, imbued with delicately restrained brother-sister harmonies and emotionally wrenching lyrics like those of “Jesus, Jesus,” a song that might best be described as a millennial's softer take on XTC’s “Dear God.”
Gundersen is half pleading, half questioning, in a mid-range voice that was soon to mature.
Jesus, Jesus, could you tell me what the problem is
With the world and all the people in it?
Because I’ve been hearing stories about the end of the world
But I’m in love with a girl and I don’t wanna leave her
That kind of lyricism deeply moved Mendez, an industry veteran who had been involved in the rock world and was looking to switch gears to folk artists and singer-songwriters. Though Gundersen couldn’t afford to pay him, Mendez took the young artist on, first mixing the Saints and Liars EP, then the one that followed, 2011’s Family, an effort that landed two tracks – “David” and “Family” – on episodes of Sons of Anarchy (“Family” also appeared on an episode of The Vampire Diaries).
When Mendez passed the Family EP to Gundersen’s fellow Seattleite Nancy Wilson of Heart, she fell hard. “Noah Gundersen is my favorite new singer-songwriter,” she says. “Music like this will never become dated. His timeless songs are full of true humanity and longing. Just what the soul doctor ordered.”
As Gundersen’s career gained footing, Abby continued to collaborate with her brother, contributing violin and cello parts as well as harmony on every release and co-producing Ledges, an album at first slated to be produced by Mendez. Differences of opinion regarding the project led Mendez and Gundersen to part ways – both speak of this with hints of regret – but the experience inspired Gundersen to pursue a newfound love of production.
“I fell in love with the process,” says Gundersen, who, along with Abby on Ledges, credits the “help of the musicians” as co-producers on his most recent release, Carry the Ghost (August 21, Dualtone). At the helm of his two full-length albums – both recorded at Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho in Seattle – Gundersen began to incorporate more family members into the fold, like brother Jonny, who plays drums on both, and sister Lizzy, who adds vocals to Carry the Ghost.
As happens so often with musical siblings, there’s an intuitive bond that makes working together natural and effortless. Yet it’s Abby, now 23 and the second oldest biological Gundersen, who many say truly activates Gundersen’s delicate arrangements.
“They were an incredibly tough act to follow,” says Austin-based singer-songwriter David Ramirez, who befriended Noah in 2012 in Los Angeles, when they were both in town performing. He eventually embarked on a co-headlining tour with the duo. “It was highly complementary, watching them perform. Just how tight they are, and how sensitive they are to the music, it was impressive. Now they’ve added more players and they’re still able to maintain that dynamic and the emotion and the energy. It’s inspiring.”
Jon Solo, a touring musician from Brooklyn, appears on the latest album and is equally impressed. “Abby and him together are just incredible,” he says. “It’s something really special. They just have that thing – something you can’t get when you’re singing harmonies with other people. You can’t teach other people to do it, how to blend voices together like that.”
For her part, Abby says, “I definitely feel like I’m a very important part of what Noah does. On a relational level, we’re just really comfortable with each other and we’ve toured a lot together. He’s the type of person I can be quiet with, or goof around with. Musically, I can pick up on what I need to play, or what I need to sing. We hear each other out pretty well. It’s a natural connection.
“I always see myself working with him,” she adds. “It’s a powerful gift, and I get to be there with him to bring it across.”
With Abby on harmony, there’s something gripping about that Gundersen tone. Perhaps of all Gundersen’s abilities – including a knack for lyrics that seem well beyond his years and a talent on multiple instruments that could take some a lifetime to master – it’s his own exceptional voice that sets him apart from other acts. Seattle has no lack of plaintive singer-songwriters, and is in fact on the downswing of the genre after a glut of neo-folkies (including the Cave Singers, the Head and the Heart, and Fleet Foxes) rushed the scene in the mid- to late-aughts. As Gundersen orbited that world, sometimes drawing similar comparisons, he was never fully accepted into it. “We saw a lot of bands getting really big really fast in Seattle,” says Abby, “and it’s always been a very slow process for us.”
Because of this, Gundersen’s star has continued to rise, and his voice has grown stronger, maturing into something deeper, and more rich. He recorded with a full band on Carry the Ghost, a move that ushered in a more rock-based sound, offering added weight to his words.
Chatting with Jon Solo, I mention sometimes I hear Jackson Browne in Noah’s singing, albeit with far fewer references to cocaine. “Even Jackson Browne’s voice isn’t as strong as Noah’s,” Solo says. “When he sings light, it’s to the point. I’ve never actually heard someone’s voice so strong, but he’s really light with it. He’s not screaming at you but he’s also not too soft. He has such a range. No one can deny that talent.”
Influenced, but Independent
On Carry the Ghost’s opening track, “Slow Dancer,” over a stark piano solo, there are shades of Ryan Adams lingering in Gundersen’s smoky vocals. “That influence is definitely there,” Gundersen says, but it’s as much technique as it is a gentle play on the burning imagery of the lyrics:
Light me up again
Call me a snake and a liar
And I will be the fire that keeps you warm
The song is about a failed relationship, “about a part of the breakup,” Gundersen clarifies, bristling at the thought that some might view his new release a “breakup album.” Specifically, he says, it’s about “being the target of the anger that someone is expressing as part of the grieving process, and accepting that, in a sense. ‘I’m not going to dissuade you from being angry at me. Because, first of all, you probably have a reason to be, and if this is helping you, then so be it.’”
The following track, “Halo (Disappear/Reappear),” could have been penned by Sufjan Stevens, the indie darling whose every work carries the mark of one stamped by a religious upbringing. As gentle waves of reverb emanate from a softly played electric guitar, in a hushed, half-whisper, Gundersen sings:
Under my halo
I have trouble seeing clear
You held my hand tight
Waiting to watch me disappear
As easy as it is to find a comparison for Gundersen’s considerable range, there is a quality to his voice that remains just beyond reach, something that comes from deep inside, resistant to categories. Perhaps this is due to the palpable themes of seeking and questioning on Carry the Ghost, a title that the songwriter has said refers to the idea that “we’re made by our experiences and [we should] accept that instead of fighting it.”
Over coffee, he elaborates. “I was reading a lot of existential philosophy, writers like Ortega and Nietzsche,” he says. “A lot of this album is about coming to terms with the gray. There’s a little bit of black and a little bit of white in our world, but mostly it’s just gray. Coming from my background, that has been a little difficult; there was a lot of subconscious stuff that I didn’t really realize I hadn’t got over.
“Like, ‘Here’s an answer, and here’s the way you’re supposed to do things, and if you do things this way, then this will be the outcome, for good or bad,’” he explains. “I’m just getting older and questioning the source of those equations. Maybe there is no equation, maybe we’re just making it up as we go along and that’s a lot scarier than the alternative, of joining up with things.”
He circles back to Dylan, during those religious years. “I don’t know what he was going through at that time, but I think it all comes back to people wanting something to believe in, like an oasis in the desert of ambiguity. Mostly it’s just a mirage.”
The Mark of Dylan
You can do a lot worse as a kid than having Bob Dylan records to listen to. In Gundersen’s case, those formative years fueled a love of the old folk guard that would continue to grow as he did. Once he branched out beyond Dylan’s Christian albums, he began to incorporate covers like “I Shall Be Released” and “Like a Rolling Stone” into his live sets. He went on to discover Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Neil Young, and the next-generation acolytes he’s sometimes compared to, like Jeff Buckley, Ryan Adams, and Conor Oberst.
But, as Gundersen’s dad tells me, “I don’t know how you can’t have your upbringing influence you. Noah is definitely on his own journey, but there are themes in his music I think can be attributed to his childhood.”
In its turn of phrase, “Topless Dancer” – the third-to-last song on Ghost – is reminiscent of John Prine’s whimsical “Spanish Pipedream.” Even more, it’s a Dylanesque shade of “Tangled Up in Blue,” with a sultry title subject as inspiration-turned-source-of-introspection. Gundersen sings in a fluttering whisper:
In the search for the perfect Madonna
To bear the burden of amazing grace
I found her as a topless dancer
Making a mess of the place
The preceding song, “Empty from the Start,” where Gundersen confronts his abandoned faith with a steady gaze, is unmistakably tinged by the lyrics of “Everything Is Broken,” a track from Gundersen’s favorite Dylan album, Oh Mercy, wherein a detached Dylan considers a similar view. Gundersen’s take is more pensive and less jumpy, but the thought remains the same:
This is all we have
This is all we are
Blood and bones, no holy ghost
Empty from the start
One could suspect that such a song might have moved his parents to despair, since they so carefully curated a life for their family beyond the troubles and temptations of the secular world. But their response is unified and supportive. “I think when our kids were younger we possibly felt threatened by all the change and different ways of viewing things that were coming into the family,” says Gundersen’s mother, Sarah. “I don’t think we feel threatened anymore. We feel like everybody’s on a journey. We are, our kids are, we’re all on our own path. It’s very fluid.”
To that, Greg adds: “You have to be nice to each other.”
Abby mirrors the idea. She’s been growing right along with Noah, too. “I used to be a pretty conservative Christian,” she says, “so I used to judge a lot. And I almost quit [Noah’s projects] a lot, because I was frustrated and couldn't make sense of [the lyrics]. But now I do, I understand why he’s thinking about what he’s thinking about. I’m more understanding of the lyrics, because I’ve traveled so much now, and seen so many different kinds of people and lifestyles, it would be hard for me to believe in one way anymore.”
“I have a friend who’s writing a book, and he’s a grown man who’s still concerned with his mom reading profanity in his book,” Noah says. “It’s fascinating to me. I don’t know how much of it is my personality, or how much of it [my parents] instilled in me, but it’s something I’ve never really worried about. I write what I like to write.”
With nothing to hide, his family’s steam in his sails, and willing friends to share the story, Gundersen’s approach to songwriting aligns with the tradition of a strong influence like Dylan, who not only delves deep into “the gray,” but also continues to explore the range of his creative persona, to famously varying degrees of success. While Dylan uses poetry, innuendo, and suggestion, Gundersen is more directly expressive, but the motivation is often the same: to work it out.
It’s no surprise, then, that Dylan casts his shadow in Carry the Ghost’s “Show Me the Light” from the very first line. A lonesome, echoing guitar curls into Gundersen’s account of his first love, “the worst and the best thing that happened to me,” he sings.
I watched you watching Dylan like you were watching a saint
And I could not help but notice everything he is that I ain’t
So I filled up every notebook I could put to my hand
Hoping you would not notice I was a boy and not a man
“It’s one of my favorites on the album,” says Ramirez, whose latest album, Fables (August 28, Thirty Tigers), was produced by Gundersen. He feels a kinship to the tune since he was in Seattle recently to record another Dylan cover with Gundersen: a video of their version of “Girl from the North Country.” It’s a poignant, heartfelt duet. Ramirez has a dust-caked quality to his singing that recalls the back roads of his Texas home. Gundersen’s voice, meanwhile, is distinct and clear, aided by a brooding piano.
I told Ramirez I found the comments on the video curious, though; everyone seemed to love the rendition, but no one much referenced its origins. Might it be that Gundersen, in his love of Dylan, is introducing new, younger fans to the beloved figures of a bygone time? (It must be, since Gundersen is of the generation that credited Kanye West for “discovering” Paul McCartney.)
“He definitely has a younger audience, so it’s weird seeing those comments,” says Ramirez, who, at 32, is slightly older than Gundersen. “When we were on the road he was covering Neil Young and I think most people at his show didn’t know who he was. But he has a lot of respect for the people who came before us, and a lot of respect for what’s going on today. I don’t know if he has a goal of introducing people to the old guard. I just think he was like, ‘This is a badass song.’”
Yet, intentional or not, Gundersen toes that line. With a love for the greats and Abby with him at every step, the pair is not unlike fellow road warriors and siblings Bobbie and Willie Nelson. With his brother Jonny often behind him on drums and sister Lizzy occasionally on backup vocals, there are real intimations of a family band reminiscent of the Carpenters, the Carter Family, Johnny and June Cash, and even the chosen-family vibe of the Civil Wars.
Gundersen dislikes the tag. “I kind of hate the term ‘family band,’” he says. “I think it calls to mind something like the Partridge Family. It’s just such a gimmick. I don’t think all gimmicks are inherently bad, but it’s a gimmick I don’t want to be mine.”
Yet one wonders where Gundersen might be without the support of his family, if his music would express the depths of intimacy and vulnerability it can on a song like “First Defeat” from Ledges, a wrenching ballad about toxic love.
“It is strange sometimes to sing lyrics like ‘half-naked in my bed,’ with your brother,” Abby muses. “But I think it’s pretty neat. Noah sings about a lot of vulnerable things, and I feel special that I get to be a part. Not in any weird way, but part of his music and life, because a lot of his songs are about how he’s growing as a person.”
As only a sibling can articulate, she adds: “The lyrics are not as strange on this album.”
But Gundersen says he’s been tracking his growth, too. “I think my music is a direct product of me as a person, so I hope [the new album is] a reflection of [the new] me. Some of the songs on Ledges I wrote when I was 19 or 20, so I hope I’ve changed since then. I feel like I’ve changed.”
Indeed, all this soul searching is not without its results. Gundersen’s path has been a winding one, but along the way he’s expanded his family and added handpicked new members to the Gundersen musical tribe. With that comes all the requisite love and support to keep growing, and, in one particular development, a romance to inspire new heights.
You’ll notice a pair of exquisite hands on the new album cover. They’re not so much draped as they are carefully arranged around Gundersen’s chest and shoulders, his face just beyond the frame. It’s a black-and-white photo that gives the impression of an old Dutch oil painting, just intimate enough to suggest the two might be lovers.
“Whose beautiful hands are these?” I ask, dating myself with a reference to Seinfeld.
A warm grin comes over his face.
“That was a model the label brought in for the shoot, specifically because of her hands,” he says. “We’ve been together for about a year now.”