Gabriel Kahane, Friday, Nov. 30, 8 p.m., $15, Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro, www.catscradle.com
Spending any time on the internet—especially Twitter—feels akin to standing in front of a fire hose of information. It’s a never-ending both-sides shouting match of smug jokes, flimsy conspiracy theories, and bad-faith arguments surrounding tidal waves of horrifying headlines. In an effort to take a break from the shrieking political madness of late 2016, Gabriel Kahane ditched his phone for two weeks and rode the Amtrak rails to learn firsthand how Americans interact with each other on a personal level. What he ended up with was a life-altering lesson in the power of empathy and relishing inefficiency.
Kahane has an illustrious background as a composer, having written pieces for the North Carolina and Oregon symphonies, among others, in addition to issuing two charming, pop-inclined records under his own name. He had already been contemplating a theme for his third LP, August’s Book of Travelers, and began toying with the idea of travel as a guiding concept. But he needed a through line to tie it all together.
“I felt pretty certain that the way that I was receiving the political discourse was toxic and reductive, and I wanted to understand a little bit more for myself what was really happening in America,” he says.
So Kahane booked a thirteen-day trip that took him on a loop through Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and then back to New York. He set his departure date as November 9, 2016: the day after the U.S. presidential election. Kahane admits he anticipated a Clinton victory. In the time leading up to his trip, he expected it to be a sort of “empathy tour,” as he calls it.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that there was a transitive property of douchebaggery wherein everyone who supported he who is now president shared all of his terrible qualities,” Kahane says. “There was something animating the enthusiasm for him as a candidate that was worth investigating, trying to understand what was leading people to support him.”
But the tables ended up being turned on Kahane, who says he felt “a little bit broken” upon his departure. As a way of hitting a personal reset button, he left his phone at home and didn’t access the internet from the train. Between the conversations that informed Book of Travelers, Kahane spent his time reading and writing a diary of his trip that amounted to about eighty thousand words. He did plenty of people-watching and even joined a group of Old Order German Baptist Brethren from Ohio in singing hymns after dinner.
As Kahane struck up conversations with people, he focused on talking about their families, and the stories he heard make up the bulk of Book of Travelers. Even as he encountered people he disagreed with, he focused on trying to connect with them rather than arguing. He recognized that people don’t fit into boxes, and that all of us have the capacity for beauty and ugliness to exist within us at the same time.
“The point of the trip was more about the pursuit of a certain kind of radical empathy that holds the possibility for extreme grief and anger to exist at the same time. In this moment, where it feels like the dialectic and the complex truths are so difficult, you can try to understand where someone is coming from without endorsing where they’re coming from,” he says. “I feel like that’s something that is really missing from the way that we relate to each other.”
The stories on Book of Travelers mostly stem from those family-centered discussions. In “What If I Told You,” Kahane talks with a wealthy black woman traveling to Mississippi from Chicago for a funeral. She took the train at the behest of her sons because they feared for her safety driving in the South while black. “Model Trains,” meanwhile, sketches a heartbreaking portrait of a man struggling with his health and slipping away. Kahane performs these songs solo on piano, supporting his vocals with sparse, moody arrangements.
On one of the album’s most striking numbers, “October 1, 1939/Port of Hamburg,” Kahane recounts the story of his paternal grandmother’s immigration to the United States, sourcing some of its lyrics from the diaries she kept as a young woman. Fleeing Nazis, she left her home country of Germany for Cuba, where she lived for six months before acquiring permission to enter the U.S. A train eventually delivered her from New Orleans to Los Angeles, where she made a new life for herself.
Two years removed from his trip, Kahane says he feels like a different person than he was before he departed. His travels have inspired him to think about inefficiency—how late-capitalist obsessions with expediency end up obliterating the beautiful, complicated nuances that accompany daily life. Faster isn’t always better.
“There are some things, like trying to understand where someone is coming from, that need to be done slowly,” Kahane says.
That doesn’t mean slowing the charge toward justice, he adds. It means being more careful and thoughtful with one another as we continue to reckon with our country’s staggering racial and economic inequality.
And as Kahane also learned, even on a challenging journey, it’s important to take time to enjoy the view along the way.