“Here I stand on the edge of the ledges I’ve made / Looking for a steady hand” – from “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 a cappella 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 drawn 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 of 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 social media, 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.