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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014

Noah Gundersen Emerges From Emotional Tumult on 'Ledges'

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The emotional weight of Noah Gundersen’s austere songs echoes the tight-focus beauty of songwriters like Will Oldham, Justin Vernon and David Bazan. And like fellow Seattle resident Bazan, Gundersen’s music emanates great natural reverence even as it slaloms through personal and spiritual doubts.

“Be good with what you’re given for its all you have to give,” offers Gundersen on “Honest Songs,” off his 2011 EP Family, joined by his harmonizing little sister/violinist Abby. “We are only passing shadows in a mighty wind and the sound it makes is an honest song / Our hearts sing an honest song.”

That EP generated some buzz for the 24-year-old singer/songwriter, which he hopes to harvest with his debut solo full-length, Ledges. After three EPs under his own name, and a couple full-length albums with his prior band, The Courage, Gundersen sees this as a defining moment.

“It feels like the culmination of many years of work, time, and mental and physical energy,” he says. “By no means have I arrived or accomplished everything I want to accomplish. This is the first chapter of a new book, and that’s a really exciting feeling.”

Abby Gundersen’s violin gives Ledges’ songs gravity and elegance, which is further abetted by piano, acoustic guitar and intermittent drums. But they’re subordinate to Noah’s vocal line as he tramps from one end of the stage to the other like a bedeviled Hamlet contemplating taking arms against his sea of troubles.

On “First Defeat” Gundersen realizes home “is not a person or a place but a feeling you can’t get back.” He longs for a “Liberator” but only gets a passing hook-up, and contemplates a relationship as it withers on a “Poison Vine.” It’s this unblinking manner with which he regards his pain—reminiscent of Oldham’s Palace Brothers albums—that generates so much heat with so little motion like a roadside wreck slowly passed and taken in.

That Gundersen wrote the album after staggering from the wreckage of a serious relationship or that it coincided with his first sustained period without a girlfriend since his teens should come as no surprise. But the emotional tumult wound up reflected in the process as well. Gundersen recorded the album three times before he finally got it right, scrapping two attempts recorded with Dashboard Confessional and Lit producer Daniel Mendez, who’d produced the Family EP.

“The first one just wasn’t right and the second one was better though I’m thankful that we scrapped it. Our hand was forced because we had a falling-out with the producer,” says Gundersen, who confesses to bristling at the number of takes and the tracking-heavy approach to recording. Worried about their legal rights to the masters, they simply chose to re-record it a third time back in Seattle with Gundersen behind the board himself.

“It was devastating because we were almost there but honestly I am so grateful this is the record that came out and not that one,” he says.

The process also taught Gundersen patience, because not only did he spend a year recording (and re-recording) the album, but he waited another year as he worked out how to release it. Gundersen ultimately signed a deal with Dualtone Records (The Lumineers, Shovels & Rope), which allowed him to retain control of his music while getting help with marketing and music licensing.

He’s hoping Ledges will prove good things come to those who wait. Wouldn’t it be funny if an album that developed out of a post-breakup loss of confidence and sense of self turned into the album that defines Gundersen for years to come?

“As this record was being made my identity was being shaped and changed and formed by the climate I was in and the people I was beginning to surround myself with,” he says. “I recognize that I’m only 24 and there’s a lot of shaping and forming at this time in my life, but the evolutionary process was magnified by everything going on.”

Given the quality of work his emotional chaos produced, Gundersen might not want to get settled too soon.

Noah Gundersen plays Shank Hall on Sunday, March 2 with Armon Jay at 8 p.m.