Noah Gundersen

Singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen never seems to be afraid to share what’s on his mind in his songs, even if the person he’s writing about might not want to hear it. On his new album Carry The Ghost, Gundersen takes a broader look at how people become who they are and shares some of the lessons he’s learned on his path to self-discovery. We chat with the Seattle-based writer about his very first song, the difficulties of co-writing, and what makes Leonard Cohen so great.

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How long have you been writing songs?

I started when I was 13. I’m 26 now.

Your lyrics are generally very specific and confessional. Do you ever feel uncomfortable being that open?

No, not really. I probably I should sometimes, but I think there’s something in my brain wiring that allows me to not really think about that. It has had repercussions in the past, though. One time I wrote a breakup song about this girl and said something kinda mean and she got all angry and her parents yelled at my parents. Thankfully I don’t worry too much about it. It hasn’t come back to bite me too much. I always try to write with the knowledge that if a song is about a specific person, they’re going to hear it, so I have to feel like I could play it to them. If I can’t play something to someone’s face, I won’t put it in a song.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

The first song I ever wrote on guitar was depressing and sad. Everything you’d expect from a lonely teenager came out in that song. Despite how cheesy and terrible the songs were, it was an outlet for me, which I’m grateful for. I was able to attempt to process the inner workings of such a confusing time.

What’s your songwriting process like?

I don’t really have one. My process is just to write songs. I usually write the music with the lyrics, and that’s usually inspired by a chord progression on guitar or piano. Very rarely I’ll sit down with an idea I’ve pre-fabricated and try to work it out, but generally it has to come all at once or it doesn’t come at all. I think there’s a difference between spending time with something and forcing it. Spending time with something means sitting there and marinating in your own thoughts. And if it doesn’t work, you get up and come back the next day and try again.

Which of your songs was the most difficult for you to write?

Usually the biggest difficulties I run into in any song are the second verse or outro, when I want to drive the point home but don’t want to be redundant. I can’t think of a specific song where that’s happened, but it happens a lot.

Do you ever do any co-writing?

I pretty much only write alone. I’ve done maybe one co-write ever, and that was for a TV show and was done remotely. We sent ideas back and forth. I love to collaborate with people musically, but the songwriting part is so personal. It’s not always something I can switch on or switch off. Sometimes I don’t even know where it’s coming from or what the words mean in the moment. At times I’ll write something that only makes sense to me way later. I think that would be very frustrating to work with if someone was writing with me.

What do you find to be the most challenging thing about writing songs?

The fear of failure, or the fear of sitting down and having nothing come. When you go through those seasons that we all do, when the well runs a little dry, you fear that the well will be dry forever.

Do you ever take on characters when you write or do you mostly write about yourself?

Well, I’m always thinking about myself. I’m very selfish and self-involved [laughs]. I’ve been writing with some friends from high school and a lot of that’s been writing about more external topics and anxieties about society or the environment or things like that.

Who are your favorite songwriters?

Neil Young, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Dylan, Paul Simon, all the greats. As far as contemporary writers, I think Sufjan Stevens is pretty incredible. There’s a band called Field Report that we’re doing some touring with this fall, and their lead singer Chris Portersmith is a great writer.

What’s the most perfect song ever written?

The original “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, probably. I love the Jeff Buckley version too, but in the original, every single word is perfect. I don’t really follow Leonard Cohen, and I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan, but I definitely respect his work, especially some of his earlier work. He’s a guy that shows up every day. Songwriting is a craft and a job to him, and he puts so much into every song and every word.

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