Gabriel Kahane doing his best to make sense of a complicated world
As opening interview statements go, it’s one that not only sums up Gabriel Kahane’s two upcoming appearance in Vancouver, but also the challenges of living in one of the most insanely polarized places on the planet.
“The US is a very complicated country,” the relentlessly engaging singer-songwriter says just seconds after picking up the phone in his adopted home city of Portland, Oregon. “That tension of what’s beautiful about it, and what is wretched about it, is kind of at the centre of one of the shows I’m doing. It’s also at the centre of a lot of my work, and the thinking that I do, about how we can move through polarization to coalition building. Unfortunately, it’s not going very well right now.”
That’s probably underselling things. As highlighted by the daily news grind, America seems like a country in the middle of a civil war, even if it’s being (mostly, except for the odd mass shooting), being fought with words rather than guns. For those on the left, a nonstop blur of Donald Trump, the MAGA army, Fox News, the NRA, and anyone who believes in liberty and freedom except when it comes to abortions, Black Lives mattering, or saying the word “gay” in a Florida elementary school classrooms. For those on the right, everyone on the left.
Like art-pop iconoclast Sufjan Stevens—who he frequently collaborates with—Kahane is no stranger to albums based around concepts. Past projects, ranging from theatrical productions to orchestral programs, have seen him try to make sense of everything from the Great Depression in America to the endlessly fascinating dream-magnet that is Los Angeles.
If there’s a message today, it’s that the singer, who's in his early 40s, not only gets the divide and the animosity in America, but actually understands that the two sides have more in common than they’ll ever admit.
That’s borne out by his last two albums, Book of Travelers and Magnificent Bird, both of which take unflinching and, more importantly, inspirationally open-minded and hopeful looks at the country that he lives in.
Beautiful in its simplicity, 2018’s Book of Travelers is built around rainy-Sunday keyboards and blue-Monday vocals, with the spotlight on lyrics inspired by a cross-country journey. Determined to get a first-hand look at his fellow Americans, the singer took a train trip across the States before writing the album, leaving his cellphone at home so he wouldn’t be burying himself in Instagram, Twitter, and Google.
Goal number one was engaging with people on both sides of the aisle.
“Something happens on the train where you’re all going from one place to another and you’re looking out the window at this extraordinary natural beauty,” Kahane says. “You find yourself in conversation with people whom you’d otherwise not have an opportunity to engage with. It was really extraordinary and at the risk of hyperbole, it was a life-changing experience that made me examine a lot of my own coastal biases in terms of the people who I sort of knew I should be talking to. I had to sort of will myself into certain conversations. There was a kind of cultural supremacy that I had to beat back in myself.”
He continues with, “Because there were three meals a day, 13 days, and three strangers at each table, I probably talked, in real detail, with somewhere between like 80 and 100 people, each conversation 45 minutes or an hour long. And I was encouraged to discover that when you sit down and talk to people, you find that you do have things in common. You have loyalty to family, a love of nature, and, in many cases, for all of its complications, love of country.”
Many of those people would prove fascinating and complex. But Book of Travelers doesn’t so much tell the direct stories of his fellow Americans. Instead his encounters serve as springboards for examining everything from the opioid crisis to race relations to American immigration policies.
Kahane notes that he gets into the backstories of the songs when he performs the album's songs live.
“This one guy, a former postmaster for the US Postal Service, was a biracial, sort of white-presenting African American also of Native American and Caucasian descent,” he shares. “He was 100 percent in the tank for Donald Trump. He described experiences of driving while Black and seeing darker-skinned family members harassed by the police. And yet he resented the extent to which the Democratic Party had taken Black voters as a voting bloc for granted. It seemed like he was on a diet of Fox News. So all of the assumptions you make about Trump supporters kind of went out the window in the complexity of this guy’s both identity and also outlook.”
Kahane’s second Vancouver show this week will spotlight last year’s indie-pop triumph Magnificent Bird, a record that swings from stripped-down and ghostly (“We Are the Saints”, “The Hazelnut Tree” ) to bright-eyed and upliftingly lush (“Hot Pink Raingear”, “The Basement Engineer”).
Once again, there’s a concept.
Sick of the noise and mental chaos created by daily doom-scrolling, and exhausted by the insatiable dopamine chase tied into Intagram and Twitter, Kahane chose again to do a digital detox, except this time for a whole year. His phone went into a drawer at the same time he was moving with his family from New York City to Portland at the start of the pandemic.
Noting that he was blessed to have commissioned pieces to work on during isolation, he says: “At the risk of sort of sounding defensive, I took the year off the internet because I had the privilege to do so. We all fucking hate our phones. I wanted to sort of push back against this feeling of technological inevitability of fatalism that says, once the thing is introduced, you have no choice but to embrace it. And I wanted to maybe raise awareness of the fact that we do have choices about how much we do, or do not, acquiesce to the demands of the digital business economy and surveillance capitalism.”
As for what it was like not checking his phone every 39 seconds like the rest of us, he suggests that going 100 percent cold turkey was a easier than trying to scale things back.
“It was weird and scary at first, but then I ended up in this really slow and monastic space where I felt like I was able to slow down in a way that I hadn’t been able to do since probably my early 20s,” Kahane says. “I’ve gone at such a fever pitch for so long that, as clichéd as this sounds, it wasn’t good for my family, it wasn’t good for my marriage, and it wasn’t good for me. I remember writing in my journal at one point that there was almost this sick correlation in the artistic community that, if you were sleep deprived and jet-setting, you were successful.”
Sticking out for him was time, a year before the pandemic, when he was writing a score for the Broadway play The Waverly Gallery.
“I was also doing a project with singer-songwriter Andrew Bird,” Kahane recalls. “There was a day where I had to fly from Kansas City—taking the first flight to LaGuardia and going straight to tech rehearsal. I remember having a memory of rolling my suitcase through this Broadway theatre, bleary eyed with three hours of sleep, and thinking ‘I’ve arrived! Because I’m punishing my body so much, this means I’m successful.’ I retrospect what a horrible way to live and what a horrible metric for one’s place in the world.”
With no phone, and no concerts to play, he often found himself sitting, reading, and reflecting during the pandemic year. An artistically fertile month near the end of his digital detox then yielded a collection of songs that deal with everything from raising children in a violent world where they need protecting, to climate change on the wildfire-plagued West Coast, to, fittingly, making sense of America in a sometimes-confusing country.
The thread connecting the songs on Magnificent Bird is that, often, Kahane is more interested in asking questions than giving answers.
The message? Easy—whether we’re on a train ride across the county, or engaging with someone we might think we have nothing in common with in a grocery store lineup, we could all stand to listen to each other a little more.