In the 1943 movie, Lassie came home to Roddy McDowell. In the 1996 song that won Shawn Colvin the Grammy, Sonny came home with a mission… and a vengeance. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Phin Choukas and Noah Kahan came home to the Upper Valley with time on their hands and with music on their minds.
So why – with Choukas’ sophomore year at Middlebury College and with Kahan’s rising career as a touring musician and on hold for the foreseeable future – did the childhood friends limit themselves to a single week of mud season to record Cape Elizabeth, an EP of five acoustic-folk songs?
Why, that is, aside from limiting the odds of one infecting the other in the Choukas family’s Dreaded Zig Zag studio on Kerwin Hill?
“We wanted to have a really raw sound, to build up the songs a little bit, but not take away from the rawness,” Choukas said recently from his Norwich home. “Just focus on Noah’s voice and the songwriting.”
That focus, along with the tight deadline, gave Kahan just the right context in which to play out songs and ideas he’d been struggling to bring to life between tours and recording on behalf of Republic Records, the label with which he’d signed out of Hanover High School in 2015.
“The time frame we were working with took away any chance of falling into overwhelming doubt about any given song, doing a lot of takes,” Kahan said from his home in Strafford. “I didn’t want to overthink or over-produce this record.”
Republic released the finished product on May 1 – barely two months after Kahan fled his professional home base, New York City, just ahead of the tsunami of Covid-19 infections. Picking up his younger brother Simon following what he calls “a week of almost total panic,” he drove north to shelter-in-place with their family.
Mostly for the sake of channeling their anxieties, the Kahans jammed with a song that Noah had written and set aside a few years earlier.
And now, This Troubled Mind took on new meaning, anchored by the following verse:
I worry for the sun, yes, I worry for the snow
I worry I’ll die young while I worry I’ll grow old
Oh, I worry for the time I spent worrying alone
It makes me sad
It takes me back
I break in half
Ah-ooh, I break in half.
Next thing the Kahan brothers knew, their mother had posted a video of them performing the song on the community Facebook page “The Quarantine Circus.” (facebook.com/groups/243263783376076/search/?query=Berkencamp&epa)
And shortly after the video hit Instagram, Republic commissioned the EP. For that, Kahan knew exactly whom he wanted to co-produce it – and where. “I’d recorded some of my very early stuff there with (Phin’s older brother) Nate, so it felt incredibly comfortable,” Kahan said. “Interesting to be back in that place. Felt really special.”
And Kahan knew that Phin had learned a few things from Nate, particularly how to make the most of the production software Ableton Live. In recent years, with Nate away pursuing a career in golf as well as post-doctoral studies in psychology, Phin has collaborated at the Dreaded Zig Zag with Norwich singer-songwriter Hans Williams, with Middlebury classmate Max Drazen, and with Ian Smith and Hunter Simpson of the band Loon.
“It takes a really long time to learn the tools,” Choukas said. “I see my computer as an instrument. There are so many aspects to the technology.”
On top of his technical skill, Kahan said, Choukas “has a knack for understanding what a piece needs to sound like. He’s great at hearing a song, knowing where the emotion needs to hit really hard.”
All this, two years out of Hanover High School. “Production is really all about your ear,” Choukas said. “The more reps you get, you learn to pick details out in songs. The more experience you get, you start to hear different things.”
And working with “incredibly talented people like Noah,” he added, “I’ve learned that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That collaboration is what makes me most excited.”
In Kahan, he’s collaborating with an old friend who also is making a name for himself. Kahan’s EP Hurt Somebody, particularly a duet with Julia Michaels on the title track, drew wide acclaim in 2018. And before the coronavirus hit, he was preparing for a busy year of touring until the coronavirus postponed or cancelled them.
“Making music with Noah, to be so involved was such a privilege,” Choukas said. “He’s a great songwriter, and he knows how he wants to do things. We had a great work flow, super efficient.”
Much of the efficiency flowed out of necessity. “We were super careful,” Kahan said. “We both wore masks through every session. Phin was disinfecting his stuff, and I was disinfecting mine. I didn’t even use his bathroom.
“As well as we worked together – he knew what I wanted to do with the song before we went to the mic – there was always a little bit of tension in the room. “It was the strangest recording experience I ever had.”
As happy as they are with the finished product, they look back with mixed emotions, resisting the temptation to call the sheltering-at-home a blessing in disguise. “We’re so privileged, able to carry on our own lives” Choukas said. “I’m reluctant to say. At the same time, if not for this situation, this EP wouldn’t have happened. The music kind of fits the situation. “It’s something that can definitely be done in this world right now.” Kahan seconds those emotions.
“This project definitely provided a paradigm switch for me,” he said. “After five years of touring and writing and recording, I was feeling directionless. I didn’t feel like I was doing it for me anymore. One of the things that was reinforced for me by this experience is that things have changed. You can’t change them back.”
While Choukas is continuing to work with Kahan and other projects at the Dreaded Zig Zag during the pandemic break, he still foresees returning to his undergraduate studies in philosophy at Middlebury, as well as taking courses in sociology, education – and music appreciation.
“Music is what I’m most into, and the last two years, I’ve been more seriously into it,” he said. “At the same time, I find that having a good balance of interests helps with the music. Zoning in on one thing or the other, I can get kind of burnt out. When my class work gets kind of heavy, I need music as a bit of a break from the work.”
As much satisfaction as he’s finding in producing, Choukas will keep it as a side gig before deciding whether to go to law school after graduating from Middlebury.
And until further notice, he’ll continue to golf, mostly at Baker Hill Golf Club in Sunapee, between recording sessions until further notice.
“I’ve probably gotten out six or seven times since the weather started getting better,” Choukas said. “I’m definitely looking to keep my game sharp.”
To hear Noah Kahan’s EP Cape Elizabeth, visit https://open.spotify.com/album/7rAXvbNQSxnAnVl3taoMLj or www.republicrecords.com/artists/noah-kahan. David Corriveau is a freelance writer living in Lebanon.