Jonah Kagen’s debut EP, georgia got colder, ignites a graveyard campfire, inviting ghosts to gather round as flames flicker through their cellophane bodies. Each story kindles the fire, with some engulfing the storyteller in smoke while others set apparitions alight.
In his music video for “georgia,” Kagen is enveloped by Spanish moss weeping over granite graves enclosed in Southern gothic wrought iron fences as he stands in the Bonaventure Cemetery just outside of his hometown, Savannah, Georgia. He says, “Everything about Savannah that resonates with my soul is in this graveyard. I feel at peace here.” Kagen tells us that one of his favorite lyrics on the EP comes from the opening track, “hill that i’ll die on,” in which he sings, “I won't let you burn, it’s not that kind of fire, just give me the lighter,” and in the EP, Kagen seems to mostly find warmth in the fire crackling and spitting stories of a smoky past. Kagen shares, “Each song on this EP has a unique story from a different period of my life. I’ve experienced so many distinct emotions over the last couple years—missing someone, being missed, being there for someone, needing someone to be there for me. I think they’re all equally valuable, and I wanted them to live together in a space that can hopefully bring some sort of comfort to anyone listening that might hear even just one line that resonates.” So while he whispers his ghost stories to the graveyard fire, he also invites listeners to re-awaken their own lingering spirits in the flickering ring.
The EP’s cover shows Kagen standing outside in Georgia, and holds a similar comfortability to Noah Kahan’s Stick Season album cover. Both covers show how people tend to look different at home- unguarded and open- two words that describe georgia got colder well. In his most deeply personal track, “georgia,” he sings, “I know I’m just another fool who’s caught up in the past/ But reminiscing hurts much less than losing all I had” and so he gathers ghosts of his dreams and the past in “georgia,” “colorado,” and “barcelona.” He stares at Georgia’s ghost behind the campfire’s flames searching for eyes he can’t remember, while Colorado’s ghost spins away and vanishes as soon as he opens his eyes and Barcelona’s spirit disappears behind the Spanish moss. In “the hill that i’ll die on” and “graveyard shift,” he looks at his reflection in other’s ghosts as he sings another one of his favorite lyrics in “graveyard shift,” “There’s a sorrow in your soul that I recognize/ I’ve been followed by the same ghosts for all my life.” Both tracks are as if he is pulling others out of the fire by sharing in their experience. While he sings, “it’s not that kind of fire” in “hill that i’ll die on,” it is “that kind of fire” in “broken,” his hit debut single. He sings, “So I’m begging you to come and pull me out the fire/ Come quickly cause I’m burning up inside/ oh, please, just bring me up from my lowest, take me higher/ Can you see me through the ashes and the smoke?/ Pull me out.” In the last track, “CHEMICALS!,” he sings, “Just wipe your tears, it's all chemicals/ Go light your fears in the chemical fire,” a track about neurochemistry, which is fitting for Kagen as he studied Psychology at Cornell University. Kagen’s songwriting expresses a firm grasp on human emotion and empathy, while the music shows an adoration for acoustic guitar stemming from his introduction to guitarist Andy McKee through his jazz musician grandfather.
In our interview with Kagen, he tells us about georgia got colder, shares a moment of child-like joy, childhood memories, and talks about the importance of sharing your stories. Read below for the full interview, and listen to his EP at the links at the bottom of the page!
I want to start with the fact that you are considering your upcoming EP to be built alongside your fans. You’ve shared several stories behind many of the tracks which I find really interesting because some artists keep the meanings in their music very close to them because they are nervous that their own meaning will alter the listener’s relationship with the song. What made you come to the decision to be really open about the entire process?
I understand why many artists keep the meanings behind their songs private, especially when they have a very specific personal story. That being said, I think it is infinitely more valuable to be open with the emotional process involved in music for a few reasons. First, I want people to recognize that I (along with every single artist) am a human just like everyone else, and I’m not exempt from the human experience. In fact, I see my job as analyzing my own human emotional experience and translating it in a way with which people can connect. I don’t ever wish to change someone’s personal interpretation of or relationship with a song of mine–I just want anyone who listens to understand that it always comes from a very real place. Second, as a creative myself, I absolutely love learning how other people create their art. I think it’s so special, and I learn and implement so much from other people–if I have the opportunity to do that for other people, I want to. Lastly, I owe it to my fans to be completely open. They are the reason why I get to live out my dream, and everything I do is for them. They deserve to see me as truly who I am and the songs as truly what they are to me!
You shared the story behind “Graveyard Shift” which is such an amazing story and makes the track almost like a time capsule of that day that you had. On the other hand, some of the songs that will be on your EP are more retrospective. Do you feel like you write best when an experience or emotion is very present and potent, or when that feeling or experience may have passed you and has been processed?
Songwriting is such a strange task. Especially when something is deeply personal, it demands that you inspect what you are feeling or have felt and find a way to say it. It can be difficult either way, so I guess my answer is that it really depends on the day. Sometimes writing about a potent, present emotion is easier because you have so much to draw from directly when you are actively experiencing it. Sometimes it’s far more difficult because it consumes you and makes it impossible to put into words. The same is true of the alternative–sometimes writing about a past experience or feeling is easy because you’ve had time to digest and see it from every angle. Sometimes it’s hard to tap back into an emotion that lived so far in the past.
Do you have a favorite lyric that you wrote?
It’s so hard to choose a favorite, but I’d have to go with either “I won’t let you burn, it’s not that kind of fire, just give me the lighter” or “There’s a sorrow in your soul that I recognize.”
"I think that some of the most profound feelings can come from the guitar. A lot of my songs have started with just the guitar, and the emotionI feel dictates the storyI tell. I have always stood by this: when you can’t find the words, your guitar can find a way to say what you need to."
I know you studied psychology in school and when I read that about you I was reminded of the Paul McCartney quote, “Music is like a psychiatrist. You can tell your guitar things that you can’t tell people. And it will answer you with things people can’t tell you.” When you’re creating music, do you ever feel like the instrument is pulling feelings from you that are more subconscious?
I know this quote, and I ABSOLUTELY agree with it. I was a guitarist long before I wrote songs or started singing, and I think that some of the most profound feelings can come from the guitar. A lot of my songs have started with just the guitar, and the emotion I feel dictates the story I tell. I have always stood by this: when you can’t find the words, your guitar can find a way to say what you need to.
If you were to pick one song from the EP that you feel would inspire the most interesting psych lecture, what song would you choose?
I love this question. I would choose “CHEMICALS!” We could talk about the neurochemistry behind human emotion AND why an understanding of that doesn’t actually make you feel better :)
You also went to a boarding school for soccer, so to relate music creation to athleticism, what muscles in terms of music do you feel are most important for you to stretch and improve constantly?
I have found that music actually has many correlations to sports and my experience as an athlete. Training your mind is equally important in both worlds. In music, I find that I have to take care of myself mentally first and foremost–if I don’t, my mental health and music both suffer. Beyond that, listening intently to mine and other people’s music to try to understand why they might have said the things they said in the way they said them has always helped me grow as a writer. Taking on new challenges and just trying new things every day as a writer, producer, musician, etc. continuously trains my brain. More physically, I’m always trying to train and improve my voice and my instrumental knowledge. It’s all just reps!
“Georgia” relates to missing your childhood and the feeling of home. Beside what is already expressed in the song, is there a specific childhood memory that you would love to revisit?
I have so many childhood memories I’d love to revisit, but my mind always goes to playing some silly game with my dad after school. We’d always play soccer in the backyard or some random thing we made up. I miss that deeply.
Was there any time recently that you felt the most child-like joy?
About a year ago, I was in Hawaii visiting one of my best friends on New Year’s Eve, and the sky above the entire island erupted with fireworks. Combined with the stars, it was like nothing I had ever seen, and my friend and I both just took off in a dead sprint into this open field until we were completely surrounded by bright colors. It was absolutely incredible, and I felt so much like a kid.
Savannah is such a historic city and very evocative of the past. If you could go back in time to explore one part of Savannah, what would you pick?
I’m such a huge fan of Savannah’s ghost stories, and I know so many of them by heart. I’d love to go back to downtown Savannah and experience the origins of some of these ghost stories, just to see if they really happened like the legends say.
What do you feel most proud about going into the EP’s release?
I’m most proud of the work I put into making my first collection of music, but even more so than that, I’m proud of the way I have evolved as a musician and taken more control over my music. A few of these songs I wrote and produced on my own, and it feels so good to be heading toward a sound that feels uniquely me.
georgia got colder’
1. hill that i’ll die on
2. graveyard shift