Noah Gundersen Subtracts Layers to Build Ledges

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Shortly before Seattle singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen released his full-length debut, Ledges, he performed on a radio show and did a live interview. That’s when it dawned on him: “I realized I had to answer questions about these songs, and I’ve written a lot of stuff that I don’t want to actually talk about.”

On the air, he avoided discussing any of the events that inspired these intensely personal songs which favor minimal arrangements and taut harmonies with his sister Abby. Even now, with Ledges establishing him as a rising Americana star, Gundersen addresses them more generally.

“A lot of these songs are about my own mistakes,” he explains. “They’re about me trying to figure my shit out and, unfortunately, hurting some people in the process, including myself.”

CMT Edge: A few weeks ago, you played a Seattle show after several weeks on the road. What was that homecoming like?

Gundersen: We did a sold-out show at the Neptune, which is an old movie theater that’s been converted into this 1,100-seat venue. That was the biggest headlining show we’d ever played, and you could hear a pin drop the whole night, which was really amazing.

Those fans have been with us for a long time. They’ve seen our up and downs. They’ve witnessed our fuck-ups and celebrated our successes with us. To have those moments in Seattle when I can look out over an audience and know these people have my back — that’s incredibly gratifying.

Seattle is known for a lot of different kinds of music, but I wouldn’t say Americana is at the top of the list. Do people have certain expectations of you as a Seattle musician?

The more of a following we get, I think less and less people even know where I’m from. In the past, when we were trying to get people to come out for shows, we’d list my name and say I was from Seattle, Wash. Now it’s like, “You know what? You came to see the show, so you know my name. I don’t know need to tell you where I’m from.”

You said you could hear a pin drop at your show. Is that a typical crowd response to this music?

It depends on the city, but our fans are usually really attentive. Sometimes there are people who are listening so intently that it’s like they’re holding their breath, and you can feel that energy pouring off of them. That can be invigorating. Sometimes they can get pretty rowdy between songs, which is always fun.

The music on Ledges is almost defiantly spare — whatever gets the song across and nothing more. Is it difficult to pare down rather than build up?

That’s what we tried to achieve in the studio. Normally, we’d start working on a song, building layers for the tracks, but whatever we started with usually got chopped down by three quarters. Once the song had what it needed, we’d leave it there. I love the process of subtracting things so you have just the bare bones of what you’re trying to get across

That approach seems to place the vocals at the forefront and really emphasizes the harmonies between you and your sister.

Our harmonizing has become a subconscious thing. I was 15 and she was 12 when we played our first show together. I’m 24, and she just turned 22. So we’ve been singing together for so long that that’s honestly the part that takes the least amount of thought. I’ll write a melody and go in and record. Then she goes in and sings over it in the places that seem right. Then we move on. She’s got it locked down.

Your brother played on this record and tours with your other sister. What about your upbringing inspired that kind of musical creativity not just in one of you but in all four?

My parents always encouraged us to do what we loved and to follow our passion, and we never felt pressured to pursue any specific career path. It just turned out that we all loved music, so that’s what we’re doing. My dad was a musician in high school and college and played in a few bands. Some of my earliest memories are of him playing piano in the house, and I would sit on the piano bench next to him picking out melodies one key at a time.

He had a little home studio back in the shed — which, now that I think about it, was a rare thing at the time. Now it feels like everybody has Logic or ProTools or whatever. It’s much more common. But we had a capstan reel-to-reel that he would record his songs on, so I was around that a lot. And we were all forced to take piano lessons, which I hated at the time. But I can find my way around a song as long as it doesn’t have any black keys in it.

Are you thinking ahead to your next album yet?

That’s all I think about these days. As much as I enjoy Ledges and I’m really proud of it, I’m ready to move on. I have most of the songs for my next record already written. I have about 30 ready to go. The next record is going to be a lot more existential. It’s still autobiographical, but it feels a little more three-dimensional. It reads less like a diary and more like a book on philosophy.

Plus, I just love being in the studio. I like touring and playing songs for people, but what I really love is waking up in the morning, going into the studio and being creative all day. I love having the time and opportunity to explore ideas and, at the end of the day, come away with something tangible.

A show is a passing moment. When the house music comes back up, that moment is gone. So to make something that’s a little more tangible is incredibly rewarding.

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