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Alissa's Story: Noah Gundersen and Selfish Artists

Alissa muses on the many ways one of her favorite musicians has influenced her own art.

It was dark and it was silent save for the sound of Noah Gundersen’s voice as he sang the opening notes to Selfish Art. You could have heard a pin drop in the break.

It was The Moment. You know the one. Sometimes it’s the first moment. Sometimes it’s the last. Sometimes you don’t realize it’s happened until you’ve come out on the other end, slightly dazed and breathless – your body’s physiological response to having been forever changed by what happened on that stage.  

I saw it happen all around me that night. A girl in the row in front of me, pressing her sleeve to her eye to catch a tear. My best friend reaching between us to clutch my wrist. Beside her, our friend shaking his head slightly as Noah’s voice cracked, raw and broken – the mark of an artist lost in his own Moment. We were changed that night- every one of us transformed by the blend of brutal honesty, talent, and true passion a Noah Gundersen concert holds in store.

It was my second time, but the first for most of the people around me. I found myself in this ragtag sort of army, banded together at the last second when our mutual love for Noah came to light. Six months prior, I’d taken a friend to his concert at Thalia Hall and scoped out the stage door out back. I got the chance to meet Noah after pretty much worshipping his music for the past five years.

His music was my largest inspiration as a writer. 

When I listened to his songs, I found it impossible not to reach for my laptop or journal. The spark to create ran through me from my ears to my hands – each and every time. And there he was, in the flesh, his hands in his pockets and a hole in his t-shirt; an ordinary man with a guitar and a good voice.

“You don’t get it,” I wanted to tell him. “I’m doing it! I’m becoming this actual, real life writer, this person, this artist that I’ve always wanted to be and it’s because of you- because of your music!”

So I told him, and I don’t remember a single thing anybody said over the next ten minutes because I was drowning in an existential crisis. I’d thanked him for his music, for guiding me as an artist, but had nothing to show for it.

“So, what do you write?” he asked me.

“I’m writing a book,” I told him, “but it’s not finished….”

He nodded along as I rambled my way through a synopsis and an explanation that I wasn’t even hearing. My book was a mess. My freelance career was as nonexistent as my chances of winning an Oscar. I hadn’t even done my homework that week, let alone actually finished a piece in the past few months.

All I could think was that maybe I wasn’t a writer, after all, but a dreamer and nothing more.

Six months later, Noah came back to Chicago. I’d created monsters of my friends, determined to see everyone around me as obsessed with his music as I was. My roommate and best friend had a brother who’d seemingly done the same. We sat in the row behind their group, keeping our right hands tucked in our jacket pockets to hide the stamps that marked us as “standing room only.” If anybody had noticed, they’d have had to pull me away by my hair, because there was no way I was giving up the chance to sit a matter of feet away from Noah.

I wanted to watch his skin pull taught over his throat as he screamed. I wanted to see the sweat drip from his face and splash beside his shoe. I wanted to watch the lines crease through his forehead as he lost himself in his own music. Because maybe, just maybe, if I was close enough to experience what an artist looked like in their element, maybe some spark would leap from his heart, climb up through his throat, out through his mouth, and down into mine.

I didn’t see another way it would happen for me. It had been six months, and I was in the exact same position I was in when I saw him last. I was graduating with my BA in Creative Writing in less than a month, but couldn’t even call myself a writer without questioning my own veracity.

There he was, belting out the chorus to Selfish Art, pondering every fear and doubt I, myself, had as an artist, yet doing it with such grace and undeniable success. Every eye in the room was on him – even the bartender’s. Mouths were open, hands clutched to chests. In the space of one hour he had transformed each and every one of us in the most minor and extreme ways and I found myself wondering, “Can I do this?”

Wondering, doubting – terms used synonymously here. Noah was doing through his music everything I wanted to do as a writer. I wanted to touch peoples’ lives. I wanted to transform, to uplift, to move.

He prefaced the song with a speech, musing on about his own purpose. There were so many people doing remarkable things, he said: saving lives, curing cancer. And there he was singing about his feelings, and we’d paid him to hear it.

I considered my own selfishness in my art. Would my life be better spent doing bigger things? Should I have spent money on a business degree instead of attending art school? Did it even matter if I ate, lived, and breathed as a writer if I didn’t have a book to show for it?

The song ended to thunderous applause – as per usual – and the sound of it broke my train of thought after dejected thought. It occurred to me then that Noah didn’t smile when we cheered. He didn’t do much of anything besides mutter an occasional “thank you,” and self-deprecating comment in his choice of leather jackets. The emotional transformation took place during the song – the art. No artist starts their career with the result in mind. It’s the process. The journey. If we took that first step expecting to wind up at success, we’d never take the second step.

That night, as we rocked back and forth on Chicago’s rickety red line train, my roommate passed me one of her ear buds.

“It’s Noah,” she said, smiling.

I pressed the bud into my ear and smiled back.

“I listen to this song all the time while I write,” I told her.

Her friend, seated on my other side, turned towards me and said, “You’re a writer?”

She paused the music and I nodded.

“I can’t wait to read her book,” my roommate said, a genuinely excited smile stretched across her face.

Her friend tilted his head, interested.

“It’s not finished,” I said quickly, but she shook her head, interrupting me.

“It’s good,” she said, pressing play.

In keeping with my Noah Gundersen title metaphor, my writing is my Caroline. It’s an ideal; a lofty goal that’s often closer within my reach than I realize. I might never marry Caroline, and if I do, so happy I might NOT be. But for now, she is what I want, and as sweet as she is, it’s the journey that makes her worth it.

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