Gabriel Kahane Cuts the Genre Cord


Gabriel Kahane
Photo by Jen Snow

Tune in to Counterstream Radio on September 25 at 9 p.m. for more talk and full tracks of Kahane’s music. If you’re away from your desk, you can catch the recap on September 28 at 3 p.m.

Sample a bit of the discussion right now.


The list of guest artists gracing Gabriel Kahane’s new self-titled album reads like a Who’s Who of great indie/classical/pop/chamber wherever-you-want-to-file-it performers. Sam Amidon, Rob Moose, CJ Camerieri, Chris Thile, Sam Sadigursky, Sufjan Stephens. The inquiring mind just has to know: Did Kahane post a “desperately seeking” ad on the right bulletin boards, or do these guys all just happen to drink at the same Brooklyn bar?

“Well, there is actually a restaurant in Ditmas Park called The Farm where we do tend to congregate,” Kahane confesses through his laughter. More accurately, however, he says the musicians involved are linked by a shared creative impulse. “If you’re interested in making music that is sort of genre-less or if you want to shuffle between the concert music world and playing pop songs and playing for different kinds of audiences, I think naturally you’re going to gravitate towards this community of musicians.”

From there, the road to inspired collaboration is not so long, and the mixed-genre aesthetics the group shares paradoxically paint the perimeter of a chic, if loosely defined, emerging scene all its own. And whether trained at Juilliard or in a childhood bedroom, participation is hardly dictated by a musician’s C.V. As Kahane tells it, “You just tend to meet people at shows or whatever and then you hand them a CD and say, ‘Hey, want to play a show at The Living Room?’ And then one thing leads to another, and you’re making a record.”

Maybe it’s the pressures of current culture, maybe it’s personal experience—Kahane did a year at the New England Conservatory before transferring to Brown—but he actually comes down fairly hard on the conservatory model for training young musical artists. “Conservatories tend to neglect the global nature of what it means to be an artist, that is to say making art that is a sounding board for what’s going on in the world,” he explains. “To me the idea of making music in a vacuum, where it’s just about the notes on the page, is obviously really unappealing.”

Notes on the page aren’t even necessary depending on the complexity of the passage and the limits of his memory. The performers themselves walk into the studio with a huge range of previous technical and musical experience, and he then takes it as his job to devise a method for communicating with each if them. It’s all tucked neatly under the music in the end, and the results make for some exceptionally sophisticated pop, if that’s the lens you look at it through, and some unusually addictive art song if those are the glasses you’re more at home wearing.

Kahane’s own mash-up of approaches is most striking when he throws complex musical ideas against straightforward lyrical storytelling. And his lines often feel intimately personal, though he clarifies that “it’s all to a certain extent fiction—but to sort of borrow a cliché from writer’s workshops, it’s all in the service of truth.” That said, his Craigslistlieder, an eight-part song cycle currently available on his website, was developed entirely from actual classified listings—want ads from people seeking everything from a roommate to forgiveness. “Neurotic and Lonely,” for example, is a post from a 20-year-old guy living with his parents while dealing with emotional issues and longing for love with a beautiful woman, preferably one who also owns the video game system he also seeks.

It’s heartbreaking, and Kahane works it for all it’s worth. “I get the sense that the kid was being utterly sincere, and I think it’s what makes that particular movement of the cycle particularly poignant. It’s one of those instances of humor emerging from something that is depressingly honest.”

It’s an honesty he continues to slip into the songs on his current album in small, fierce ways. Where few listeners these days can actually hear the song of themselves in Schubert lieder, Kahane is telling us the simple and tragic stories of a life we can comprehend using just as much poetry. “We bought each other hardback books/inscribed them with ice cream that dripped while we ate” he sings in “Villanelles”, “but petrified by your writerly looks/I simply wrote XO love Gabe.”