It’s the rare artist whose songwriting brilliance can both movingly inspire and maddeningly dishearten, all with the same record. But gifted tunesmith Noah Gundersen does just that with his much-anticipated first full-length album “Ledges.”
Gundersen’s affecting tales of self-doubt, love, redemption, faith and mortality are sure to ignite the creative spark in countless aspiring artists – and immediately smother it with the cruel realization of their respective songwriting inadequacies.
The 24-year-old musician has already built an impressive body of work having released three solo EPs (2008’s “Brand New World,” 2009’s “Saints & Liars” and 2011’s “Family”) as well as a 2011 LP with his former band The Courage.
But his wide-ranging musical experience is just one of the reasons that Gundersen is wise beyond his years. The singer-songwriter was forbidden to listen to secular music while growing up in a conservative religious family.
And though he moved away from organized religion years ago, he hasn’t turned his back on the fundamentals that have shaped his core. Gundersen may no longer be religious, but he is still deeply spiritual, infusing his insightful music with far-reaching and transcendent themes.
The youthful yet understanding performer spoke with me recently about those weighty matters and his remarkable new record. And given the power of his previous work, perhaps the most notable aspect of the recent release is that it represents the first time Gundersen was comfortable in the studio.
“I hadn’t really had a proper studio experience until this record. I've recorded in houses, in people’s home studios, but never a real studio with a control room. I'm so inspired and driven by space and the environment we were recording in was an ideal big open room, really comfortable, good lighting, working with an engineer who made me feel really comfortable.”
“I was also producing it myself. I learned a lot from working with our old producer. I was able to then take the good parts and apply them to my own work objectively while I was making it. It also gave me a lot of freedom to leave the edges a little more rough, to not be worried about doing a hundred takes of something.”
“I played these to a mic and a home studio environment several times. I was comfortable with them so that I could sit down and execute the performances without really having to think about it. That combination of things made me feel creatively liberated and excited to record. I sometimes think I enjoy recording more than I do playing live.”
While Gundersen wasn’t quite sure as to the source of the emotion permeating the exceptional new album, he did know that it was innate. “Deep inside of me. (Chuckling). It’s hard to say why you are the way you are. I could ask you the same question. It’s just what we do. It’s what we’re made to do. I’ll give you a straight answer where it comes from. I grew up writing songs.”
“I started writing songs when I was 13, so I've had a lot of practice. I also didn’t have a lot of friends so I spent most of my free time writing songs. I got a little bit of a head start on it. That’s where some of the maturity comes from.”
There’s also no doubt that the young in years songwriter’s wisdom comes in part from his stern upbringing. Gundersen was strictly forbidden to listen to secular music and instead he grew up listening to Bob Dylan’s gospel albums, along with Christian artists such as Keith Green, Larry Norman and Rich Mullins.
And the talented musician has certainly made the most of it. Look no further than the acappella gospel chant that opens “Poor Man’s Son,” a moving song from “Ledges” that channels poverty’s effect on the soul.
“It’s a subconscious motivator,” explained Gundersen. “The times I've enjoyed playing music the most have been either by myself or with other people where it’s transcended to a spiritual plain. I never want to come across as hokey or mystical about it because I don’t really consider myself mystic.”
“I do feel something at times in my life playing music that’s not normal, but feels like a high that’s coming somewhere from my soul. A person wants to experience that high again, so you chase it. And so it’s in some way been a motivator.”
“The biggest motivator for me making music is that it keeps me sane. It’s all I've ever wanted to do. It’s what keeps me a balanced person and keeps me happy. If I go too long without creating or making something, all that introspection starts to internally combust (laughing).”
Gundersen’s tuneful creations have been featured on a several TV shows, having placed songs on Sons of Anarchy, Vampire Diaries and One Tree Hill. The additional exposure can help an emerging artist’s career. But as Gundersen professed, nothing’s guaranteed.
“The first big placement that I ever had was on a show called Sons of Anarchy and I'm so grateful for that. It allowed me to quit my job, just the national exposure it gave me. I realized later that it wasn’t just that it was a popular national TV show, but it was a good placement.”
“There’s a difference between just throwing music on a scene and being intentional about how the lyrics line up and how the melody affects the character arc. There was just a big difference between a regular placement and a really good placement. I was lucky enough to work with Kurt (Sutter) and Bob (Thiele) from Sons of Anarchy who are incredibly intentional about the music on that show.”
It’s clear from Gundersen’s selection of the 11 intensely moving songs on “Ledges” that he shares their musical intentions. But it’s strangely ironic that a self-professed “non-religious” artist can create an album that is such an overwhelmingly religious experience for a listener. Some musicians would be reluctant to craft such an immensely personal record and share it with strangers, but not the forthright Gundersen.
“No. And maybe it’s because there’s something wrong with my brain, but I've never really worried about that. I think my mom has worried about it more than I have. I come from a family where we were really open about our emotions. We spent a lot of time just talking through things and being honest and being vulnerable along with questioning what you know as truth.”
“Those are all elements of my childhood and upbringing that actually come out in my music, just because it was taught as good and okay to be vulnerable and open. Because of that, I've never really felt ashamed or concerned about being too honest because that’s what I was taught.”
Notwithstanding the honesty of Gundersen’s astonishing new album, the singer’s avowed “Christian guilt” provided “Ledges” with a welcome cathartic element.
“This one in particular, in part because it’s been such a lengthy process. We started making the record two years ago and agonized over it so many times, thrown away two versions of the record. I'm a person that loves to work. I'm a person that’s driven by work and making things happen. So to sit on something for so long and finally have it released, that in itself is very cathartic.”
“The process of writing the songs was maybe more cathartic than the actual release of them. But it’s all just one more step in the process. Then there’s performing them live, which is also a release.”
“It’s a whole different experience playing a song live, different writing it and different recording it. There’s these three different elements that occur in the process of a song being made, all of which offer a different emotional response.”
Listening to his heart wrenching work provides for one additional emotional response. A few minutes with “Poison Vine” – pondering the thin line between life and death brought on by a co-worker who succumbed to a drug overdose – literally brought tears to this listener’s eyes. Perhaps surprisingly, there are times when even Gundersen succumbs to the feeling.
“I’ll be honest, I’ll occasionally put on my records just to keep it in context. I'm like, ‘What is it I'm focusing my life around for the next two years? I should revisit this and make sure I still like it.’”
“I’ll listen to it and listen to it in the context of a new listener – someone who hasn’t listened and played these songs hundreds of times – and yes, there are times when it does emotionally strike me. That moment is passing and then I realize it’s hitting again and I'm thinking about the way I sound and things like that.”
“I'm really happy with this record. I'm grateful to be able to say that. You spend enough time on something and you lose any perspective you have on whether it’s good or not. You’ve just heard it too many times. I'm happy to be able to say I'm still proud of this record and I still enjoy it when I put it on.”
There’s really just one thing left to say. It’s impossible to hear Noah Gundersen’s brilliant “Ledges” too many times…