“Here I stand on the edge of the ledges I’ve made/Looking for a steady hand” “Ledges”
At the tender age of 24, Noah Gundersen is already a young veteran who recorded his first album on his dad’s Tascam Studio 8 reel-to-reel home tape machine at 13. Born in the tiny town of Centralia, WA—about midway between Portland and Seattle—Gundersen has honed his craft through a series of albums, both solo (with his sister Abby, an expert string player) and with their band The Courage. He’s already placed songs on TV shows like Sons of Anarchy (the title track from his 2011 solo album Family, “David” and “He Got Away,” a track he sang written by the show’s creator Kurt Sutter and music supervisor Bob Thiele Jr.), Vampire Diaries (“Family”) and One Tree Hill (“Middle of June” from his 2009 EP Saints and Liars).
His latest album, Ledges, self-produced and recorded at Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho in Seattle, represents the latest stop in a journey which began in his strictly conservative, religious home growing up, where he was strictly forbidden to listen to secular music. Instead he grew up listening to Bob Dylan’s gospel albums, along with Christian artists such as Keith Green, Larry Norman and Rich Mullins.
“I’m not a religious person anymore, but I’ve learned that spiritual energy transcends religion and that’s something I’ve attempted to incorporate into my music,” Noah explains.
An impressive personal work, Ledges co-mingles the sensual and the sexual with the spiritual, often using religious and biblical imagery like Leonard Cohen to plumb the depths of everyday emotions and feelings. The album explores doubt and faith, sin and redemption, mortality and transcendence in 11 songs that get underneath the skin and cut to the heart.
From the acapella gospel chant that opens “Poor Man’s Son,” a song that channels poverty’s effect on the soul and the Jackson Browne-like narrative of the autobiographical title track (“I take a little too much/Without giving back.I want to learn how to love”) to the Don Henley-like metaphor of “Cigarettes,” comparing one bad habit to a relationship that just can’t be ended even though we know it’s bad for us, Ledges is a confession that boasts universal appeal.
“This is the first record where I finally got to a comfortable place in the studio,” he says of the experience. “Something about Litho was very inspirational, offering a safe environment to experiment and create. It’s not overly produced; we left a lot of the mistakes in..”
The songs work on different levels, inspired both by a ruptured romance and a questioning of dogma in all its forms.
“The spiritual element of music is something I’m very much draw to and motivated by,” says Gundersen. “Religious imagery was a large part of my upbringing. It’s still beautiful, powerful and timeless. I believe in the elevation that music and art can bring to people, but I’m still trying to define myself as an individual outside of structures or organized religion. I’ve come to a place in my writing where I’m less focused on the outside forces of spirituality and more on how it relates inwardly to my own life.”
To that end, his songs capture snapshots of events in his life, including an encounter with a woman in another relationship (“Isaiah”), whose tattoo is inscribed with a biblical passage that doubles as the song’s chorus (“Fear thou not/My right hand will hold you”). “Poison Vine” tells the tale of a co-worker who succumbed to a drug overdose, pondering the thin line between life and death, while “First Defeat” illuminates the feeling the first heartbreak.
“Much of the album was written toward the end of a period of being single and reckless,” he says. “I’ve lived a great deal compared to most people my own age. I’ve traveled the country playing music, doing what I love for a living. But, in terms of emotional experience, I’ve swept a lot of things under the rug. I started asking questions to people I respect about what it means to be a man and, in a larger sense, a decent human being. This record is the culmination of that process.”
Ledges was also very much a family affair, with Noah joined by his sister Abby, who conveys the wordless emotions through violin, cello and piano, and younger brother Jonathan on drums.
“The chemistry Abby and I have is unlike any other I’ve experienced in music” he says, pointing to the album closer, “Time Moves Quickly,” as a song she wrote the music for and plays piano on. “She’s an essential part of what I do.”
And while major labels have come sniffing around, Noah is determined to maintain his independence as a musician and artist. Having built up a following through touring and online marketing, Gundersen is determined to maintain the kind of creative control that makes Ledges such a powerful, intimate work.
“I’ve had some offers from major labels, but it’s not a direction that’s viable for me in terms of a long-term career and forging a lifetime in music,” he says. “I want to give my fans the music they’ve come to appreciate without going through any other filters.”
Ledges is about making that existential leap of faith, it’s about taking responsibility for the choices you’ve made, with sometimes painful honesty. Noah Gundersen’s voice comes through loud and clear.
“Writing ‘Ledges’ was a purifying process for me,” he says about the album’s epic title track. “In three verses, I was able to sum up exactly where I was in life, with no real answer, but a declaration of hope and uncertainty.”
“How long, how long should it take/For you to learn your lessons from all your mistakes,” he sings in “Dying Now.”
On Ledges, Noah Gundersen goes from a boy to a man before our very ears. It’s a journey well worth taking with him.
I Will Not Be Afraid
Sometimes epic failures produce epic results. With the release of her new album I Will Not Be Afraid, keen-eyed young singer-songwriter Caroline Rose has broken her long string of short-circuits with a live-wire national debut that draws on her roots in rockabilly, vintage country and blues to capture her unique and personal vision.
Hoping to escape the dead ends that befell her hometown, colloquially dubbed a stop on “heroin highway”, Rose found her way out via a full ride to a small liberal arts college, where she failed as a scholar, barely scraping by to graduation. Next came a stint as a failed hippie, working on and leaving an organic farm. She then bought a vintage sports car to travel the country, but it quickly broke down. On the plus side, Rose got a job at a cider distillery, where she got to taste apple brandy and applejack all day…Followed by a stint stocking shelves and sweeping floors at a grocery store for a boss who eventually fired her.
“That was the last straw,” Rose recounts. “I don’t like most bosses and most bosses don’t like me. I don’t like most professors and most professors don’t like me. So here I am. I’ve made my own way on my own terms and it’s destiny knocking on my door. BAM!”
She describes the 11 songs on I Will Not Be Afraid as “postcards I’ve picked up from along the road,” and she means that literally. Rose is in perpetual motion. She tours and lives in her van, traveling the highways and back roads to fuel her creative spirit.
Rose’s wanderlust has taken the 24-year-old from her birthplace in a not-so-idyllic small Northeastern town to every corner of the nation, where she’s made friendships, heard stories and had experiences that she’s fashioned into songs like “America Religious,” which uses a driving snare drum with brushes and psychedelic folk fiddle to underpin the cool waterfall of her peaches and molasses voice as she sings about the open skies and the storm clouds inside the American heart. And in her own.
The themes of some of Rose’s songs are drawn from the familiar. “Blood On Your Bootheels,” which opens I Will Not Be Afraid with her prickly guitar and crazy-carnival organ, was inspired by the Trayvon Martin slaying and Rose’s own passionate reaction to violence and intolerance. “Everyone seems to have their opinions about how to live free in this country, especially when it comes to young men and even more especially when it comes to young black men like Trayvon,” Rose observes. Injustice and hardship also underline “Tightrope Walker,” a song inspired by a friend’s stories about working in the school system of an impoverished Mississippi town.
But other songs literally haunt her dreams. The gorgeous textural arrangement and lyrics of “When You Go” — which evoke the openness of both the Southwest and of the future in Rose’s and co-producer Jer Coons’ shimmering guitars and her strong, defiant vocal performance — tumbled out during a night’s rest. “Sometimes songs come to me while I’m asleep and they wake me up, and that’s the best time for me to write,” Rose relates. “When I wake up my mind is like a clear glass of water. I can see everything and capture it.” That’s especially apt for the stream of consciousness lyrics that bring many of her numbers to life.
Rose’s own life seems more akin to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Growing up in a coastal town, her parents — who were visual artists with a love for travel — gave Rose a restless, creative spirit. And like many working class seaside locales, her hometown suffers epidemic heroin abuse.
“I saw a lot of my friends get consumed by it, but I was one of the people that got out,” Rose says. “I worked my ass off to go to college and that really was my only plan of escape at that point. I think I was in denial about being an artist.”
For two of those years Rose worked on the aforementioned farm, hoping the experience would provide her with balance and direction. “I liked the work, but I’m too city to be country and too country to be city,” she offers. “So I moved on.” When Rose worked at a cider distillery, she slept in the barn loft where she recorded many of the demos for I Will Not Be Afraid with her acoustic guitar.
“I finally accepted the idea that writing, singing and playing songs is the only thing I’ve ever really been good at,” Rose relates, “so I decided to forget about everything else and live in my car, and I hit the road.”
Rose joined a new generation of touring songwriters who blend tradition, innovation and edginess, like Hayes Carll, whom she opened for in 2014 and bandmember Jer Coons, whom Rose shared a bill with one night and discovered to be a kindred spirit. Rose produced I Will Not Be Afraid with co-production by Coons at his Burlington, Vermont studio, where they also made Rose’s 2013 self-released America Religious, playing all the guitars, keyboards, harmonica, mandolin, drums and percussion themselves.
Rose explains that the title track is her mantra. “So many people are held back by fear,” she says. “They wish they could do something else with their lives, and they just can’t take the first step. I grew up questioning everything and learned that I needed to be on my own. I needed freedom and I needed to create on my own terms and to keep moving forward without fear, wherever I go.
“I also came to understand that I don’t have any choice,” she continues. “Music is what keeps me breathing. I can’t do anything else.”
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