Noah Kahan's album Stick Season is about Vermont, but it also speaks to small-town life in the Inland Northwest

click to enlarge Noah Kahan's album Stick Season is about Vermont, but it also speaks to small-town life in the Inland Northwest
Patrick McCormack photo
He may be from the Northeast, but Noah Kahan gets the Inland Northwest.

Exit 272. I-90. An off-ramp that leads to, seemingly, nowhere.

Drive about 10 minutes past the Mobil station and you end up in Medical Lake. My hometown.

Childhood there was spent walking the same meandering path around town relentlessly, biking through empty fields and placing pennies on the railroad tracks. Real small town stuff that seems more pulled from the 1960s than 2010s. Everyone I knew lived within a five-minute walk from my front door. My graduating class was filled with all the children of my mother's childhood friends — the type of people who just inherently knew my grandmother's maiden name.

For 18 years of my life, Medical Lake was home.

Oddly enough, I've recaptured those feelings when listening to a singer-songwriter from Vermont.

On his third studio album Stick Season, Noah Kahan writes about his home. That home is nestled in New England with its vivid autumnal colors that fade to leafless winter trees and vast swathes of nothingness between towns. The album's title comes from a piece of Vermonter slang referring to the solemn fall period of time between Halloween and the first snowfall.

The singer-songwriter was born in Strafford, Vermont, a town with a population of less than 2,000 people. If there's anyone who can bottle the feeling of isolation and breaking away from it, it's him. Kahan was known for his distinct indie pop sound before the release of Stick Season in October 2022, but he'll be proudly boasting his newfound folk sound when he plays a sold-out show at the Pavilion this Friday.

Though this show isn't the only sold-out date on the tour, I have a feeling there's a reason the Inland Northwest is showing up in hordes to see songs from Stick Season live: We can relate to his sentiments.

The first time I heard Stick Season, I knew I had finally found an album that accurately represented the complicated feelings I had about home and moving away from it.

From the very first note of the album, it's clear that Kahan gets it. With a single pluck of a guitar string, he somehow manages to encapsulate the very essence of driving down Highway 902 and slowing down to 30 mph as you enter the Medical Lake city limits.

After a few repetitive riffs, Kahan's voice breaks through the sound with a simple phrase: "Breathin' in / Breathin' out." A meditative start to "Northern Attitude," a song filled with pleas for others to understand and accept Kahan's deepest flaws: "If I get too close and I'm not how you hoped / Forgive my northern attitude, I was raised out in the cold."

He blames his flaws on his upbringing, and it's not hard to pick up on a sense of bitterness toward the place he calls home, a sentiment not unfamiliar for those living in Spokane.

There are plenty of good things about growing up in a town like Medical Lake, or in Kahan's case, Strafford. Life is simple. Every face is a familiar one, and people rarely leave. Doors stay unlocked in the summertime as friends come and go in and out of houses. The world feels still as the sky turns orange at sunset.

But small-town living is a double-edged sword. After a few years, the town can feel like an echo chamber. Word spreads quickly. Nothing remains sacred. The rural charm wears off when there are no streetlights to guide you home at night.

It wasn't until I left Medical Lake that I realized how isolating small-town life can be.

In "Growing Sideways," Kahan repeats the chorus phrase, "I'm afraid I might never have met me." In many ways, the lifestyle associated with small towns doesn't allow for growth, change or the formation of personal beliefs.

Moving away from Medical Lake felt like meeting myself all over again. I finally had an identity outside of the town I grew up in.

Though I only live about 25 minutes away from Medical Lake now, I occasionally feel removed from what was once my home. But on certain nights, I close my eyes and wish I was back in my childhood bedroom surrounded by familiar houses, the faces of neighbors and the sound of trains passing through.

Why am I yearning for a place that has nothing to offer me anymore?

In "Homesick" Kahan expresses this feeling of being torn between two places, pulled to both at the same time: "I got dreams, but I can't make myself believe them / Spend the rest of my life with what could've been / And I will die in the house that I grew up in / I'm homesick."

In June 2023, Kahan released the deluxe edition of Stick Season titled Stick Season (We'll All Be Here Forever). The addendum to the album features songs like "You're Gonna Go Far" and "No Complaints" that further delve into the themes of the original 14 songs. The last song on the deluxe edition, "The View Between Villages - Extended," offers an opposing view of small-town life. Between heart-wrenching lyrics about Kahan's memories that he thought he left in Strafford are recordings of Strafford residents contradicting the album's themes of resentment toward their lives in the tiny town.

"I guess it's a small, small community of people that really look out for each other," says one anonymous man.

After begging for an escape from his hometown in the past 20 songs, Kahan admits that Strafford is, in fact, home through the words of the people who make Strafford home.

That small town off Exit 272 is my home. Though it took an entire album to come to that realization.

The Inland Northwest is chock full of tiny towns resolved to a lifetime of quiet days and unextraordinary experiences. Stick Season reminds listeners that joy can be found in the simplicity of small-town life if you're willing to slow down, take a step back and appreciate it.

Whether you have ties to New England or you grew up in rural Eastern Washington, hometown complexities are universal. And Noah Kahan is here to sonically guide you through those feelings. ♦

Noah Kahan, Joy Oladokun • Fri, Aug. 8 at 7 pm • Sold out • Spokane Pavilion • 574 N. Howard St. •

Bachman-Turner Overdrive @ Northern Quest Resort & Casino

Wed., July 24, 8 p.m.
  • or

Madison Pearson

Madison Pearson is the Inlander's Listings Editor, managing the calendar of events and covering everything from local mascots to mid-century modern home preservation for the Arts & Culture section of the paper. She joined the staff in 2022 after completing a bachelor's degree in journalism from Eastern Washington...