Gabriel Kahane Discovers America in Book of Travelers

Lily O'Brien on January 15, 2019
Gabriel Kahane | Credit: Josh Coleman

The results of the 2016 presidential election sent a shockwave through America. Many rejoiced — many wept, creating headlines that blazed with the ever-deepening ideological schism in this country. On the day after the election, a large segment of the population felt bewildered and disconnected — many sought some way to cope. On that day, singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane boarded an Amtrak train at Penn Station and embarked on a 13-day, 8,980-mile journey through America, seeking elucidation. Kahane hoped that by leaving the comfort and security of his East Coast, Brooklyn home, and traveling into the “heartland,” he would encounter a cross-section of America that he did not normally interact with, and perhaps gain some perspective.

This purposeful odyssey resulted in a collection of compositions that can be found on his recently released album, Book of Travelers. He is currently on tour to support the recording, with a stop scheduled on Jan. 26 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, as part of San Francisco Performances’ fourth annual, four-day Pivot Festival, which also includes appearances by pianist Ran Dank, vocalist Paula West, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton.

Leaving his cell phone at home, and not listening to the news during the trip, Kahane chatted with all sorts of people during meal times, from postmasters to engineers to truck drivers to nurses. He heard their stories, with the slow steady pace of the train providing the freedom for a leisurely chat without the distraction of day-to-day chores and while viewing the countryside from the comfort of a dining car. He kept a diary of these conversations, some 70,000 words, which inspired the new collection of songs. The album is full of deeply felt lyrics, exquisitely composed piano accompaniments, unexpected harmonic and rhythmic twists, and stylistic flourishes taken from jazz, blues, classical, and American folk music.

Kahane, 37, son of pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane, has earned numerous accolades in a prolific career. In addition to six of his own albums, he writes for orchestras and chamber and has also arranged for and collaborated with an eclectic roster of artists including Sufjan Stevens, Chris Thile, Rufus Wainwright, Aiofe O’Donovan, and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. This project is the second that was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I chatted with Kahane recently by telephone from Los Angeles about this tour.

Gabriel Kahane | Credit: Josh Coleman

Riding on an Amtrak train alone for 10 days sounds difficult.  What did you hope it would provide for you artistically?

With this project, what began as another kind of almost quasi-academic spree into the history of travel, I felt this need to do something that was rooted in my own experience. Leaving home was really hard. It was a very gray, gloomy November day. There was the impulse on the one hand to talk to people without that film of mediation, but there was also just the desire to see the country, to be reminded of the landscape. I think the thing that I did carry into the trip was this idea to experience the sublime in nature from a train window.

You purposely took this trip without technology — you didn’t take your cell phone and didn’t listen to the news. Tell me about that.

Technology has done some really wonderful things for the world in medicine and in terms of travel and in terms of activism, but it’s also been an incredibly destructive for us in terms of polarization. I think a lot gets lost to me in the digital space — people are reduced to an avatar and an ideology. But when we literally break bread with people who are culturally different than we are, we are able to see across the divide. There may still be grievous differences, but the conversation can at least begin. I just wanted to just sit and talk with people about their families and each be reminded of our basic humanity.

You bought the tickets before you knew the outcome of the election. Do you think the journey and this album would have been different if Hilary had won?

I’m sure it would have been different, but if I were approaching a description of this trip as a social scientist, I think the hypothesis was [that] we have to get away from just examining the symptoms in our society, and look at the systems that enable them, which is to say, our current president did not appear out of nowhere. There were conditions in place for centuries that made in some ways that rise inevitable. So rather than shaking my fist, because that doesn’t get us any closer to a more equitable society, what does get us closer to that is peeling back the veil and understanding the conditions that allowed the election to go this way.

I think that had it gone the other way, my suspicion is that many of the people I talked to would have been more guarded. Ultimately I don’t know. I didn’t ask people who they voted for, and I think that’s actually in a way crucial to how the songs operate. They are for the most part stripped of ideology, with a few exceptions. They are just stories of people being people.

Gabriel Kahane

The album is just piano and voice. Why did you decide to do it that way?

In one sense, the album is really old fashioned in that there are no overdubs — it’s just me sitting at a piano singing, but once it was made, I gave him [engineer Joseph Lorge] free reign to go in and tweak the sounds, which makes the album feel a little bit more produced.

There is a way in which this album harkens back to the very first demos that I ever made when I started to write songs after college. The first things I recorded were simple and unadorned. Having a single accompaniment instrument really puts the focus on the words, and there is a vulnerability in terms of showcasing yourself as a songwriter. You have no bells and whistles to hide behind, and I think that was another intention.

And there was also just the impulse that as the train trip became the primary and informing narrative landscape of the album, the solitude and the intimacy of the piano and a voice just felt really right to me.

How would you describe your style of music?

Gabriel Kahane

In general, I really resist wanting to describe my music in terms of genre. It’s up to the critics to find something to call it, but I do think of myself as a folk musician, both emotionally and narratively, and I think of myself first and foremost as a storyteller.

I’m not thinking about genre when I’m writing, and I think I am part of the first generation where that has actually become quite common. In the generation younger than me, it is becoming even more commonplace, and I think that is lovely, because it demands that we return the conversation to craft and quality, and not getting hung up on genre descriptions. The focus is — is it good? Does it make us feel anything?

Tell me about your composing process.

I write all kinds of music — I write orchestral music, I write songs for voice and guitar, and everything in between, but most of what I do is vocal music with a text, and a lot of the time the text is driving what the music sounds like. The music always has to come from the character — what does the emotional life of that character sound like?

There are definitely instances where I will start a song as a kind of musical exercise or etude, where I’m trying to work out a rhythmic idea or a harmonic idea or some kind of developmental idea, and then text affixes itself to that.

As an orchestral composer, every time I write a new piece, there’s a kind of exponential growth in terms of understanding what is practical, what is not practical, and understanding the psychology of orchestral musicians. And the same thing is true in chamber music — it’s the tightrope act of extremely limited rehearsal time with an orchestra that trains you as a composer to be brutally efficient in expressing what you want to express in the simplest way possible and in the clearest way possible, and in the way that will result in the fewest number of questions being asked that take away from the rehearsal time.

What inspires you to write music and to tell these stories? What drives you?

Writing music is about a response to so many things in the world. I read constantly­ — whether it’s poetry or prose or historical writing models. I am constantly informed in my music by those things. A lot of what I do is about trying to enter into stories and experiences that are initially very distant from my own experience. I feel like if I can find the emotional nubbin of catharsis in some story, and translate that into something relatable, maybe I can offer people a way of feeling more deeply and of being moved — feeling more connected to an experience that feels initially distant to them. So at the root is a desire for people to have emotionally cathartic experiences that are not just about emotional tourism or emotional manipulation, but things that will actually expand their capacity for empathy.

Two years later, do you have any kind of a new takeaway from the trip?

Gabriel Kahane

I think that the country as a whole has been doing a lot of work that mirrors the impulse of the album. I think a lot of eyes have been opened that would not have been opened if Hilary had won. If there is anything to take solace in, a lot of people in the country are doing the hard work that needs to happen for years.

As far as my trip is concerned, I wanted for everyone in America to have the same experience that I had had, of being in the heartland united by the beauty of the landscape. I think that every American would benefit from confronting those things that feel culturally other, and making an invitation to get closer to them. We will always have differences, but we don’t have to be as divided as we are.