Making white noise
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Owing to what I do for a living, I’ve been lucky enough to see a whole bunch of bands a whole bunch of times. Usually, after multiple viewings, I will wonder if a band or musician still likes playing my favorite songs as much as I like hearing them.
I’m pretty sure I know the answer most of them would be too polite to tell me. At best, most bands likely have a love/hate relationship with their most-played material. At worst, they grit their teeth and grind it out night after night, still grateful for the fan support, but perhaps wishing that support would transfer itself to other parts of the set list.
Of course, musical lore is rife with stories of bands that hate their own hit songs. Radiohead famously refused to play “Creep” live for nearly a decade, singer Thom Yorke famously giving it the nickname “Crap.” Frank Sinatra crooned “Strangers In the Night” despite openly despising his chart-topper and introducing it at his concerts by saying things like, “I hated this goddamn song the first I’ve heard it” and “The worst fucking song I’ve ever heard.” Madonna hasn’t wanted to perform “Like a Virgin” since she was like a virgin. Supposedly, it is Robert Plant’s disdain for “Stairway to Heaven”—which he called “that bloody wedding song”—that continues to make Led Zeppelin a band divided.
Famous musicians can often get away with dropping songs—even big ones—from their performance rosters, but for artists on the way up, eschewing that which is still becoming familiar to audiences can be risky. But when the thought of playing their own songs leaves them less than artistically fulfilled, what’s a musician to do?
It’s not accurate to say Seattle’s Noah Gundersen hated the confessional folk fare he’d offered up on a series of EPs and full-length albums for the better part of a decade. To hear him tell it, he’d simply grown sick of his own music. As the story goes, he suffered an anxiety attack onstage a couple of years ago, which led to the stunning realization that he no longer connected to the songs he was playing. It was a strange feeling for Gundersen, whose intensely personal songs have always relied upon their ability to forge connections with those who hear them. And in fact, his ability to reach his audience with his music had not waned. But the artist found himself in the position of being unmoved by his own art.
For some, this might’ve constituted a musical crisis of faith. Gundersen, however, is a true believer. As such, he knew the anxiety attack was telling him his comfort zone was no longer quite so comfortable. It was time to evolve. Scrapping the sound that had earned him not only an ever-growing fan base and critical acclaim, but had also gotten his songs played on such television shows as Sons of Anarchy and the Vampire Diaries was a perilous proposition, but Gundersen didn’t hesitate to plunge headlong into something new.
The result of this plunging and evolving and risk-taking is his 2017 album, which the singer titled White Noise, and to call it a departure from what came before is an understatement—one that was made by design. When Gundersen found himself at a personal musical crossroads, he opted for the road not taken, but discovered that striking out in a new direction wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. The songs on White Noise are more layered, lush, edgy—not to mention a lot louder—than anything you’ve heard from the musician before, but it took some hard, deliberate work in the studio to arrive at that destination.
However, Gundersen has not left his songwriter sensibilities in his past in order to realize his more dynamic musical present. He’s still plucking pages from his diary and sewing his heart to his sleeve and writing those introspective lyrics we’ve all come to expect. He’s just setting them against a backdrop of a full band rather than giving them the sparse instrumentation of albums past.
Gundersen’s artistic advancement has met with the range of responses such evolution always brings forth: delight, acclaim, skepticism and even some confusion. But something tells me he doesn’t much care. Judging by his tour schedule, he’s once again excited to play his own music—and to him, that’s the only white noise that matters.
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