How Noah Kahan has quietly used his tour to raise $2M for rural mental health

Noah Kahan strums his guitar on stage

Noah Kahan appeared on stage just outside of Denver, Colorado as sardonic and heartfelt as he does in his songs.

“Unfortunately we couldn’t fit all my generational trauma up here on stage,” he quipped before a set change that looked like his family’s living room from Strafford, Vermont.

Kahan has been touring his best-selling record “Stick Season” for over 200 shows (“We’re really milking this thing,” he said on stage). But the songs — many of which confront issues like depression, family trauma, substance abuse, and even the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic — remain fresh for fans.

Noah Kahan strums a guitar on stage, in front of a crowd holding up their phone flashlights
Photo by Pooneh Ghana

“I listen to his music every single day,” a fan, Katie Lowe, told Good Good Good at the June 25 show in Denver. “It can always be fitting. There are struggles in his songs, but somehow the music sounds upbeat. If you’re happy, it’ll go with your mood. But if you’re sad, it can offer some advice.”

What most fans might not be aware of, however, is that Kahan hopes to offer more than a soundtrack to their mental health journeys.

Behind The Busyhead Project

Last year, Kahan launched The Busyhead Project, a fundraising initiative housed under the Vermont Community Foundation that provides grant money to community organizations across the country helping to provide access to mental health support.

The goal was to raise $1 million for mental health in one year. But within the first 12 months of the project’s existence, it hit the $2 million mark.

These funds come from a portion of ticket sales, direct donations from fans, and offerings like livestream tickets to sold-out concerts that can be watched from anywhere in the world.

Noah Kahan performs on stage to a packed venue
Photo by Pooneh Ghana

In its first year, Busyhead provided grants to organizations Bring Change to Mind, Jack.org, Oasis Center, Project Venture, Rural Behavioral Health Institute, Upper Valley Haven, and more. 

According to an annual report, not all $2 million has been distributed yet, but a little over a quarter of those funds have been shared among more than 55 organizations in North America. 

“These partners were selected by Noah for their commitment to mental health awareness, with an emphasis on local impact by providing access to resources,” a press release announcing The Busyhead Project shared.

These groups reach specific communities that have historically been unable to access mental health resources. 

Project Venture, for instance, works with Indigenous youth to build healthy lifestyles by connecting to culturally-significant adventures in the outdoors.

Or there’s the Rural Behavioral Health Institute, which works in Montana schools to provide universal mental health screenings for middle and high school youth. After they identify students who may need mental health support, the nonprofit helps them access quality care.

Hand-selected local mental health nonprofits are invited to come to Kahan’s shows to raise awareness about their work and receive an accompanying donation when he visits their cities, as well. 

In 2023, Dallas-based Foundation 45 used Busyhead funding for its 95 support groups, which helped provide comprehensive care to 1,140 community members for free. Similarly, We Are Family in Charleston, South Carolina utilized funds to provide 1,370 hours of LGBTQ+ affirming mental health sessions to 103 youth. 

From Vermont to the world stage

While a significant portion of these funds go back into the communities Kahan visits, a major motivating factor behind The Busyhead Project is to keep the singer connected to his New England roots.

“The Upper Valley Haven serves more than 10,000 individuals annually through food, shelter, service coordination, and clinical problem solving,” one of Kahan’s Vermont nonprofit partners shared in a statement. “This donation provides significant support that will allow Haven staff to help so many vulnerable members of our community. We are proud that Noah grew up in the Upper Valley and continues to support the work the Haven has done since 1980.”

In September, Kahan will play a benefit concert in Essex Junction, Vermont for mental health.

Noah Kahan wears a plaid jacket in front of a lush, green outdoor backdrop. He looks to his left with a stoic look on his face
Photo by Pooneh Ghana

“It’s such an honor to play in my home state and help raise money and awareness for something that is so special to me,” Kahan wrote on Instagram.

Tickets for the benefit concert were sold through a lottery system, since demand for his live performances has skyrocketed with the success of hits like “Stick Season,” “Northern Attitude,” and “You’re Gonna Go Far.”

On Friday, June 27, Kahan will release a new track, performed as a duet with country star Kelsea Ballerini, called “Cowboys Cry Too.” In a snippet, Kahan sings “I grew up wishing I could close off the way my dad did, ‘cause that man never felt a damn thing he didn’t wanna feel.”

Mental health in rural communities

The openness in Kahan’s lyrics is not always the norm in rural communities, even though he has gone on record saying mental health topics were “dinner table conversations” in his own home growing up.

According to Mental Health America, fear of negative judgment for “appearing weak” often keeps people from seeking mental health help in rural areas — especially those dominated by notoriously stressful industries like farming or manufacturing.

Kahan’s hometown of Strafford, Vermont has a population about ten times smaller than the average venue he plays. And, like other rural communities in the U.S., sees a much higher suicide rate compared to large urban communities.

Small, close-knit communities also make for a lack of privacy, making it hard for people to feel like their personal matters can be kept confidential. Unfortunately, these areas also lack mental health professionals. In fact, 65% of rural counties do not have a psychiatrist or other behavioral health professionals.

Rural communities also contend with limited access to affordable and reliable internet, making it even more challenging to search for information or connect to telehealth services.

Offering grants to local organizations that help those most in need is just one way Kahan is doing his part to make an impact beyond his music — in towns just like the one that raised him.

Fighting stigma through fan communities

Knowing how isolating rural communities can be, another core component of The Busyhead Project is to destigmatize talking about mental health by connecting with others.

At Kahan’s shows, The Busyhead Project sets up a table or tent alongside other community partners and encourages fans to contribute to a “community wall,” where they answer prompts like “I take care of my mental health by…” or “I showed up for myself today by…”

A brown wall shows The Busyhead Project logo surrounded by white slips of paper with community messages written on them
The Busyhead Project's community wall at Kahan's Denver concert on June 25, 2024. Photo by Kamrin Baker/Good Good Good

“Some of the fans who have been with Noah since the beginning and have been following on Instagram already know [about The Busyhead Project], but it’s really fun to explain it to the audience,” Busyhead’s coordinator on tour, Lindsay Rosenberg, told Good Good Good in Denver.

“His audience is so open to talking about mental health… and I’ve found that really surprising and fantastic. People are coming up to us, asking a lot of questions, and choosing to write their own stories.”

Fans can also interact more deeply and give donations through Propeller, a digital platform that connects fans to their favorite artists and causes, to earn points that help them win exclusive prizes, like concert tickets, meet and greets, merch, and more.

A young woman with brown hair in braids holds up a community submission for The Busyhead Project
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Rosenberg

“The number of actions — over 33,000 — directly reflects fans doing things like donating, watching videos from Noah talking about his mental health struggles, downloading meditation apps, even getting a mental health certificate, and more,” Annie Flook, Propeller’s director of artist partnerships, explained.

“We just finished a campaign where fans could take action on Propeller to win a flyaway to see Noah at his sold-out Fenway Park show in Boston. To add, every night on tour, we offer the chance to win ticket upgrades, or signed setlists for supporting The Busyhead Project.”

Music as a means to healing

The fans are a key element to the success of The Busyhead Project, and those closest to Kahan’s fundraising work say it’s all a natural extension of his music.

Jeb Gutelius is the executive director of Jack Antonoff’s foundation The Ally Coalition and helps lead sailworks, a creative agency that connects artists with organizations and causes they care about to make change. His agency helps strategize and implement the work of The Busyhead Project.

“I feel something when I’m hearing music. So, what can we do with that — that relationship between a fan, an artist, and the music — and try to do some good?” he explained to Good Good Good.

Noah Kahan leaps high in the air while smiling and playing the guitar on stage
Photo by Pooneh Ghana

Hannah Curtiss, a Denver transplant, is also a Vermont native like Kahan, and said his rise to fame came at a time when she needed the supportive sounds of his music. That fan-musician-art relationship made an impact on her family, too.

“His success is so astonishing, but what’s more astonishing is it’s not just people 16-25 who get into his music; it’s ages all across the board,” she told Good Good Good.

Curtiss said her dad — a 68-year-old Vermonter whose willingness to talk about his feelings may or may not resemble the father figure Kahan writes about in his music — loves how Kahan makes him feel seen, too.

“He has no shame in his own struggles,” Curtiss said, of Kahan. “He’s so open and honest about it, and it somehow makes me feel like I can be comfortable with mine, too.”

Four women stand outside of a concert venue wearing shirts that say "Vermont Strong"
Curtiss (second from the left) at a Noah Kahan concert with her Vermont family in Texas. Photo courtesy of Hannah Curtiss

Kahan’s songs suggest a complicated relationship with his hometown and family. But despite how resonant that relationship has been for fans (18,000 people screamed “I’m mean because I grew up in New England” in Colorado this week, leaning into the irony that this likely isn’t literally true), Kahan’s connection to home really is all love.

“He is an internationally recognized artist who is insisting ‘okay, what are we doing in Vermont?’” Gutelius said. “In addition to everything else, that’s something he wants to focus on.”

Quantifying the impact of The Busyhead Project beyond dollars and cents is a tricky task, but if the hugs, hand-holding, and tear-wiping at this week’s shows are any indication, Kahan fans far and wide have found some antidote to their suffering in his work.

Noah Kahan performs on stage, holding a guitar. He is spotlit by a purple beam of light
Photo by Pooneh Ghana

An antidote Kahan shares.

“I remember listening to music and hearing an artist sing something that I thought I’d been the only person in the world to feel. I remember feeling heard and feeling like it saved me and that I could go through another day because someone else out there had felt what I felt,” Kahan said in a video last year.

“It's the honor of my lifetime… to help people through their battle with mental illness and the myriad of other disorders that affect us day to day.”

Good Good Good received two press tickets to Kahans show in Denver to support our coverage of this story.

Header image courtesy of Pooneh Ghana

Article Details

June 27, 2024 3:10 PM
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