In the spring of 2020, singer-songwriter-composer Gabriel Kahane took a trip to Portland, Oregon, that was supposed to last a week. But those plans quickly shifted when the pandemic hit. With an 18-month-old daughter in tow, Kahane and his partner decided not to travel back home to Brooklyn, but to stay put, adapting to what has now become their home turf.
On April 4, the newly minted Pacific Northwesterner will bring his musical and lyrical gifts to Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts — after two pandemic postponements.
Kahane will present pieces from his most recent story-and-song project, Magnificent Bird, released on March 25. The new collection chronicles the highs and lows of the last two years, captured in November 2020 after almost a full year hiatus from the internet.
He’ll also showcase a collaborative project with Georgia Tech students; he assigned them to take a two-hour walk without their smartphones and write about the experience. Kahane created a fresh new crop of songs from the students’ compositions that he’ll debut at the First for only one night, never to be performed again.
ArtsATL chatted with the prolific songwriter about being without his smartphone, his latest composition, and what he hopes audiences will take away from the live show. (Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
ArtsATL: Tell me about “Magnificent Bird.” How did this piece emerge?
Gabriel Kahane: I decided I was going to write a song every day in October 2020 as a kind of aural brain scan after a year of being offline. I’ve found as I practice these songs that there’s this kind of undercurrent of existential dread that feels more relevant now than when I wrote them because of the war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war.
I think art suffers when we believe it always has to take on the enormity of the moment. In a way, that’s what this project wound up articulating: The need to deal with small things, like singing about a walk with your family, while also thinking about things on a grander scale.
ArtsATL: How did you come up with the idea for the thought walks?
Kahane: I first did this while co-teaching a class at Princeton called “Art and Change in the Panopticon,” which I co-created with a colleague of mine.
ArtsATL: Tell me about the decision to go offline for a year. What made you want to do that?
Kahane: A couple things. One, I took a 9,000-mile train trip right after the 2016 presidential election, talking to people mainly in the diner car. (The result was the 2017 album 8980: Book of Travelers.) I had decided at the last minute to leave my phone at home. And I had extraordinary conversations with people I would not have met in my ordinary life. I thought I need to do more of this.
Also, at a human psychological level, there was this sense that all this technology is making us mean and low.
I discovered when I was offline that the more something ceased to be convenient, the less I felt like I needed it. For example, you’re on Facebook and an ad pops up for a smart toilet seat or a novel or frozen steaks from Omaha, and you click two buttons, and they’re delivered to you. That kind of friction ratio is how we arrive at this hyper brutal level that rarely receives any input from labor. You have hyper scalable companies don’t need as much physical labor, and near-monopolies in various industries.
ArtsATL: Many people are addicted to social media. How did you extricate yourself? And what did you learn through the process?
Kahane: There were a few places I had to cheat when everything was in lockdown. We bought a used car online. But I was otherwise militant about no email or social media. My smartphone was in a box in Brooklyn somewhere, so I couldn’t look at it.
I didn’t know what I was looking for setting out, or what answers I would get. I emerged with the idea that what nourishes artists is the reciprocity of transmission from artist to audience and that the number of people doesn’t matter. The energy you receive can be from just one person. Maybe the thing isn’t to get 700 million plays but to have an authentic experience with one person or 10 people or 100. To be clear, I also made this album online, collaborating with 17 of my dearest friends.
ArtsATL: Since coming back online, how have you worked to ensure you’re not just going back to square one? How are you finding balance around technology?
Kahane: That’s a great question. The return is a lot harder than leaving. My record came out today, and I am ashamed to admit that I had spent more time looking at my social feeds than I would like. I’m struggling to find balance.
ArtsATL: What can audiences expect from this concert at the First Center? And what do you hope they take away from it?
Kahane: At the risk of sounding kind of Hallmark-y, I hope my role as an artist is to get people more in touch with loving themselves. Not by “airbrushing” themselves psychologically but by having a reckoning with the things about themselves they don’t necessarily like. I guess it’s about dealing with one’s psyche and personal quirks and failings in a way that feels like it’s rooted in generosity.
Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Timethe Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a living in Boston, Washington, DC, New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.
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