Noah Gundersen is no rookie on the scene.

And even when he was, the high praise he received as a rookie was often laced with reference to his spectacularly grounded vocals and battleworn songwriting, often called “old school.”

But there is, whether you listen to his older stuff or the freshest single, something about Gundersen’s art that is also innocent, youthful and naive at the heart of it. Looks alone, Gundersen seems to retain some elven air, with clear, near childlike eyes and a more weathered visage. In his words, he thinks he’s “something between a new face and an old friend.”

This tree-like blend of ancient roots, with fresh green leaves bursting out the top, is part of the natural ethos that echoes through much of the folk scene. On his instagram, I found a cover of one of my favorite folk singers—and songs— “Hard Times” by Gillian Welch, played with such reverence that a person in denial, emotional stagnancy, or simply too much pain might at first struggle to look at the performance in its wretchedly sincere & authentic eye. 

For someone who’s seen tour after tour, has struggled at times with that limelight, and keeps coming back, Gundersen has a hard-earned calm to both his voice and music. In his newest song, “Swim,” Gundersen wades into deeper waters, letting flow a love song that is about just the same things: love that is hard-won, that is deeply rooted and healthy and alive because of its trials.

I’ve been trying to tell you
But I just don’t have the words
Love is not an ocean or a panicking bird
It’s dancing and beating the drum
Staring down the sights along the barrel of a gun
Less the parts, and more the sum

In this newer era, Gundersen’s music has a more modern, open-hearted sound than the raw, acoustic sound of before.

The song begins with a refreshingly smooth and bright intro, the repeated wave of the guitar providing the backdrop for both Gundersen’s vocals, as well as the occasional splice of keys, strings, & bass— and at times, a delightful female harmony.

So hold your breath underwater
Till you’re strong enough to swim
Past the edge, so much farther
Than you have ever been

Gundersen shirks the idea that love is an ocean, that love is more than what we wade through—but rather what we work to arrive at. It reminds me of Rumi’s oft-quoted line from his poem, “A Great Wagon”: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” In Gundersen’s philosophy, we have to train ourselves against adversity to prepare for the journey toward love.

I confess I’m scared of drowning
Just like I’ve always been
But all of this is meaningless
If I’m afraid of diving in

Despite the fear of drowning—of the sink or swim feeling—Gundersen insists, and convinces, that love is worth the fear. As his voice swells with emotion on “diving in,” the instrumentals swirl, mimicking the energy of water rising, crashing and flowing, before settling out into the final chorus. Light instrumentation, and in particular the tension added by the strings, gives a body and atmosphere to the song, almost like zooming out on the shot and hearing the wind rush by. 

This is another love song, but about the kind of love that takes time. It’s about the kind of love that takes sticking around for. It’s about the parts of love you can’t know until you’ve worked for them. It’s about the parts of love that take courage and patience. It’s about the parts of love that this simple four letter word is so inadequate at summing up.

This one is for all the folks who have stuck it out, who have loved through the hard parts, who have weathered the storms.

Noah Gundersen

The fun of love songs is that their philosophy can always apply to anything you love. While a sweet gift for his significant other, it can also stand as a reminder as to why he continues to write, sing, and perform all these years down the line, in the face of exhaustion, burn out, and a difficult industry. According to “Swim,” all that adversity is just a sign he’s travelling in the right direction—if he didn’t have to swim to get there, if it was all sunshine and rainbows, he wouldn’t even be going toward true love or joy in the first place.

Such maturity of voice and lyrics is part of why Noah Gundersen has surely been an “old soul” for so long, but the pleasure of such wisdom only grows with time, the voice like well-aged wine flowing from an old oak barrel. It’s the kind of flavor you can’t find with any simple additive. It’s earned. 

As of the writing of this post, Gundersen is currently on tour, which means you can be your own songwriting sommelier and go see what the real deal’s like. And while you do so, you can applaud yourself for the journey you took to get there. So take the risk, and swim toward your inspiration.

feature photo by @mishagundersen