Noah Gundersen Talks ‘Lover’ and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Seattle-based artist Noah Gundersen first rose to prominence with his blend of indie and folk inspired acoustic music. For the past few years, he’s been pushing past the boundaries of the singer-songwriter mold by incorporating various sonic influences from the realm of pop and rock.
His follow up to 2017’s “White Noise,” “Lover” shows Gundersen at his most personal and self-reflective. Crafted over the course of two years with collaborator Andy Park (known for his work with Death Cab for Cutie and Pedro The Lion), the album is an exploration of aging, mortality, and love. “Lover” has a lush pop atmosphere about it in the way of percussion, production, and dreamy soundscapes, but there are also songs like “Wild Horses,” composed of little more than a guitar and Gundersen’s vocals. It’s an album that channels romantic, musical, and psychedelic experiences into a collection of songs with a wide-ranging, but subtle and atmospheric sonic palette.
Gundersen spoke with Entertainment Voice about his new record and the foundational experiences that belie it. He also discussed his sonic evolution in recent years and his creative process.
Several themes throughout “Lover” deal with sex, psychedelics, self-realization, and aging, with the central theme seeming to be your own personal grappling with love. Can you explain the core experiences that shaped this album and why these subjects were a focus for you?
How long do you have (laughs)? Well, my work has always been primarily autobiographical. I’ve always said that I make music for myself, first and foremost. It’s a therapeutic process. So, I’ve used my art as a therapist, and now I have an actual therapist, which helps a lot. But, I think over the last couple of years, there’s just been some of the general realizations that come from turning 30, when you start to recognize your own mortality and that you can’t party as hard as you used to (laughs).
There are just minor health things I’ve had that have kind of grounded me. I’ve also had certain expectations for my career or for my life that weren’t necessarily met. I had some intense financial things happen during the last album cycle that kind of cut the legs out from under me. A lot of things that were really humbling, that in the moment, were super challenging, but I think provided me with a lot of lessons and ultimately, humility going into this new record. So I tried to channel as much of that into these songs, and also just talk about relationships and about attempts at love, which has been such a central focus in my life, and in my work.
I don’t really set out to make a record about a specific thing. It’s usually just, after listening to all the songs and examining it from that bird’s eye view, it’s like, “Whoa, this is a record about me trying to be a ‘lover’ and trying to engage in love, engage in relationships, and all the attempts and failures of that, and that whole journey.” So that’s a long-winded answer to that question (laughs).
What did you learn about yourself as you made this record? And did you resolve things or come away with more questions?
I think I learned to be more kind to myself; to accept myself for who I am. I spent a lot of my life living with insecurities or shame, or just feeling like I wasn’t enough. And I still deal with that sometimes, but like I said, I started going to therapy. And I started taking psilocybin mushrooms as kind of a medicinal thing. That’s helped me strip away a lot of my ego, and allowed me to just accept myself for who I am. That doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to work at being a better person, but I think I learned a lot of self-acceptance through the course of making this record. I can look at myself in the mirror a little more.
The opening track and first single from “Lover” is titled “Robin Williams.” The song includes the mention of his particular struggle, as well as themes of existential pining and mortality. What is the story behind this as an opening track?
So, I ended up calling it “Robin Williams” because when I played it at some shows before I recorded it people just referred to it as the “Robin Williams song.” And that particular line, is really just about your inevitable passing, regardless of how talented you are, how much great work you’re making.
I think for me, as an artist, a lot of my self-worth has been wrapped up in what I make. And that’s been a motivating factor since I was a teenager, when I first started doing this. Having certain expectations not met, or feeling a sense of failure, all those things kind of make you re-examine yourself more. For me, that [Robin Williams] line just means that I can make tons of work, I can be successful, but it doesn’t matter because, ultimately, I don’t get to take that with me.
I had watched that HBO documentary about him on the plane and was just weeping on the airplane. You can be so talented and so creative and so productive and all these things that we value, which are all great things, but ultimately your worth is more than what you make and we’re all gonna die. And that’s not meant to be morbid either, I think it’s just a reality check on our ego — on my ego, specifically.
You’re quoted as saying, “Art is both everything and nothing. Living is the same,” as a sort of response to watching HBO’s Robin Williams documentary and reading about the psychedelic drug DMT in Tao Lin’s book “Trip.” Tell us what this means to you.
I think it’s essentially acknowledging the significance of things, like our primary experience is obviously hugely important to us. I think psychedelics help us seperate ourselves from our primary experience, which is our ego. So, in that sense, art is hugely important for human experience, but it also doesn’t matter in the grand scope of our mortality. So, like I said, you don’t get to take what you’ve made with you when you’re gone. So, it’s kind of a reminder to take myself a little less seriously.
There’s so much self-importance that I wrap myself up in. Making art in general is very much a self-important act. To think that other people want to hear about all my bullshit (laughs) and then pay money to come see it, or buy it, that requires a lot of ego. And that’s fine, but I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s important, but it’s not important. You know what I mean? Like, I think we’re able to hold contradicting ideas in our minds, and that is the acknowledgement that it’s important — that art matters — but to not take ourselves too seriously.
On the song “Audrey Hepburn,” you chronicle a relationship with a bartender, one that involved motorcycle rides and a broken mirror. It reads as a very personal, diary-like entry. What’s it like for you to dig into very specific autobiographical songs like that?
I mean, I’ve been writing pretty personal songs since I was a teenager. It doesn’t really phase me to dig deep into those things. I think the only concern that I sometimes have is, I don’t want to be exploitative of the people in those songs. So, I try to be careful about that. But, this is my life, this is how I process things. I think that song and that relationship represented a season in my life, and as I felt that season coming to a close, it felt important to document and capture that feeling and that space
On “So What” you mention a “thousands of tiny explosions keeping this thing on its wheels” as a limited metaphor. It’s a song that presumably deals with the fatalistic drive towards success in music and personal relationships, and you draw the parallelisms between the two with lines like this. What’s the inspiration behind this kind of self-aware and self-reflective lyricism?
Spending way too much time in my head (laughs). That’s probably the big one. You know, I started writing that song, “So What,” after having a conversation with a former bandmate, trying to reconcile some differences that had kind of came up during a tour and just sitting down and panicking like, “Fuck, this is hard, man.” It almost sounds counterintuitive, but I think when things become challenging, the most important thing is just to open up even more and to stay with your experience… And it’s gonna hurt, and it’s gonna be hard, but that’s such a rich way to experience life as opposed to shoring yourself up and closing yourself off.
There are some motorcycle references in that song like the line, “you gotta look through the turn as you’re starting to swerve.” I ride a Harley and when you’re going through this hard turn, your body tells you to look down at the road, but if you do that, you’re going to crash. If you look through the turn, the bike will go where your eyes go, and I think that’s such a beautiful metaphor for staying present with your experience, even though everything’s kind of telling you to shut down
Before “White Noise,” much of your earlier material, beginning with “Brand New World,” is primarily situated around acoustic guitar and vocals, but on “Lover” there’s a lot of lush pop percussion and atmosphere. What has been your musical influence as you take your sound in this direction?
Oh, man. There’s a lot. I think, primarily, I just want to make sure I never get bored. There was a lot of self-imposed pressure to not be stereotyped as a “singer-songwriter.” I just didn’t want to feel limited, so the last record, especially, was a pretty brazen attempt at breaking some of those walls. But, in that process, I think I kind of lost sight of the thing that makes my art so personal. So, with this record, I kind of came back to writing a little more existential, confessional kind of things and then bringing those songs to my collaborator and co-producer, Andy Park.
We were just able to throw around a lot of ideas and we didn’t get hung up in feeling like it needed to be any kind of specific thing. We just would put down whatever we got inspired by and then go back and edit it later. As far as actual artists that were kind of inspirational: there’s this band called Luna that we really like, definitely inspired by some of the production on Billie Eilish’s stuff, the new Khalid record, there’s some Radiohead influence in there, there’s Beck, and there’s some Nine Inch Nails type of vibe. Just pulling from a lot of things and not feeling limited by any kind of genre or not feeling like it needed to sound any particular way.
With the evolutions in your discography, from the somewhat more rock-oriented “White Noise” to the lush stylings of “Lover,” do you have any thoughts as to a sonic aesthetic for some of the material you might be writing now or in the future, and what that might sound like?
I have some ideas, but knowing me I change my mind a lot. So there’s a song on the record called “Wild Horses” that we kind of added last minute. But, the whole thing is just me. It’s one mic, just me and a guitar. I really like that song, and there are some weird little textures we threw in there. But, it’s a very minimal, straightforward, very “singer-songwriter” tune. And, I think now that I’ve broken the shell of being a singer-songwriter, now I feel a little more comfortable putting those shoes on. I’ve been renting this cabin out in the woods. This is a very, like, Bon Iver cliché (laughs). But, I may end up recording the next record out there and make it very minimal and make it a straight-up acoustic record. But Andy and I have also talked about doing a full-blown pop record too. So, I don’t know. I just want to stay excited and creating, and not ever box myself in.
You’re touring Europe and the U.S. beginning in September. What type of experience do you anticipate at your shows in light of your perspective and the subject matter that you tackle on “Lover”?
Honestly, I’ve been more nervous about this tour than any tour before (laughs). For a couple of reasons. One, I haven’t really been on the road for a long time and I feel like a very different person than I was the last time I was on the road. I have a lot more perspective on my own mental health, but it feels like a lot of unknown. I’m super excited about it, also super nervous. I feel like these songs are going to be very intense to perform. I have a totally new band, whole new crew. It’s all new. So, the unknown is a scary thing, but I think it’s gonna be really fucking rad. I’m excited to get out and connect with people and share these songs.