Q&A: Jonah Kagen is making music that explores every human emotion

The indie-folk artist’s charming lyrics and transcendent melodies are inspired by his degree in psychology. 



Recent Cornell graduate and Georgia native Jonah Kagen is an indie-folk artist on the rise. (Image courtesy of Hard 8 // Working Group)

Holly Grace Jamili, Contributing Writer

With a fresh bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cornell University, indie-folk songbird Jonah Kagen is making music that explores every human emotion. Kagen recently opened for Maisie Peters on her sold-out U.S. tour. His journey as a performer began at the age of 6 after his grandfather, a jazz musician, inspired him to pick up the guitar and learn how to play “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin for his mother. Kagen’s parents — who found their own callings as a lawyer and a nurse — initially encouraged him to pursue a more practical career that wasn’t in music. But when the door of opportunity swung wide open for him, he and his family were in awe of what would come next.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

WSN: Can you walk me through how you got your start in music?

Jonah Kagen: My grandfather was a jazz musician and he used to show me videos of him, his band and this guitarist he used to play with — Danny Catton — that I love. I wanted to be like that so I started taking guitar lessons all the way up until high school when I went to boarding school for soccer.

I sold every electric guitar that I had and then picked up one acoustic. I completely fell in love with this guy called Andy McKee who is this acoustic fingerstyle guitarist. I loved the stuff he did on the guitar. I was like, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” and so I got really into that. I started toying with songwriting and things like that, but I hadn’t started singing at that point still. 

It wasn’t until I went to college that I ever actually started putting things out there. My sister was like, “Hey, you should just try putting stuff on social media and see what happens.” Then, I posted a thing on TikTok and you know how it goes! It all happened so fast. It started off with a little beat I made in my bedroom and that was the first thing that went viral.

WSN: Which little beat did you post on TikTok?

JK:Deep.” It’s like a tropical house beat of me just jamming in my room. I was not singing on it. I still wasn’t even singing at that point when things first started going viral. A couple more things went [viral] and I was like, “This is just weird.” It introduced the first wave of people in the music industry. That was the moment that it became realistic or slightly realistic. So, I kept going, and [thought], “Screw it. I’ll just put my voice on there.” I had never sung before. But I put a video out and that one went viral. I was so confused! 

WSN: I doubt that it was bad at all! What was the first singing video you put out?

JK: It was a cover of “Welcome to Wonderland” by Anson Seabra, who I am now friends with. An interesting full-circle moment. From there, things changed really quickly and “Broken” happened. That was the first song that I released and that started off with a video that just went pretty crazy and people just really resonated with the song. 

I wasn’t planning on releasing anything in college but then I released that one independently. From that point, all the talks became serious and I signed to a label about four months after release. I finished school. Then, literally, right after I graduated, I went on tour. 

WSN: What were the top lessons you learned while in college?

JK: Academically, the biggest thing that I learned is just how ridiculously powerful your brain is, and how we don’t have the slightest understanding of what is going on. Discovering things about our brain so often and the way that people interact and behave is just so unique and special. It still fascinates me. That’s why I did psychology. Our brain is such an enigma and it’s the driving force behind everything. I think it’s so cool. 

Life-lesson-wise, the thing that I took away was whatever you are ending up doing, surround yourself with the right people and it makes all the difference. Where I went to school, what I was doing was pretty unique. The biggest thing was that it was hard to be around people that [understood me doing music]. I had good friends and things like that but nobody really got it where I was because I was living a completely different life. 

WSN: Have you found your people in music via the internet?

JK: I’m still finding my music people, to be honest. As far as friends go, it was actually through Anson — the guy that I covered. We had mutual friends around the same age who are artists and all wanted to move to Los Angeles around the same time. It was timed out perfectly. We got in touch with each other, and now I live with two other artists! It’s so great and we’re all very, very close. 

WSN: That’s sweet. So how did you and Maisie Peters meet?

JK: Maisie and I? I hadn’t met her before the tour was secured. The way that it got set up was that I was pitched to her because she was going on her tour. She got pitched a few artists and she liked my stuff and chose me. I met her for the very first time right before the first show [in Minneapolis]. 

WSN: Was this your first time on tour?

JK: It was my first time doing live anything! I’d never ever done anything live. My very first show was Minneapolis. 

WSN: That’s a huge milestone for you. My goodness. What has been your favorite song to perform?

JK: Ugh, honestly, there have been a couple. I love playing them all so much. One that’s been very fun to play is this one that is unreleased called “Stuck in New York.” We were changing the “New York” to the city that we were in. Then, obviously, “Broken.” Singing “Broken” is special because I can see people connect. It’s really magical because that song is the reason why I’m able to do this. 

WSN: Mental health is a huge cause you advocate for. How do you practice self-care while touring?

JK: It’s tough. Honestly. You’re crammed in a bus for so much time and it’s very easy to let it slip. By far, the biggest helper of being on tour is the people around me. It was the very first time I’d done any of this. As incredible as it is, it’s also overwhelming. I like to take 30 minutes or so a day to step back, appreciate what is happening, and talk to my parents or sister whenever I can — little things. I like seeing my sister’s baby. I like seeing my sister’s dogs. Things that remind you that there are things much more important — no matter what happens. My family’s healthy, my parents are healthy. That seems to be what grounds me the most. I’m trying not to stress so much over the performance and what people are thinking. Being able to interact with people after the show too is so meaningful. 

WSN: I saw that on TikTok you were posting behind-the-scenes footage of you rehearsing for the tour. One of the captions read: “A year ago, I hadn’t started singing and was making beats in my closet.” Is that true?

JK: That’s true! That video was the last day of rehearsal. It was a goofy video because I’m up there dancing but I remember staying in that room after rehearsal just trying to take it all in. 

WSN: Your debut single “Broken” went viral on TikTok after you encouraged your followers to co-write with you. What were you going through at that time when you were writing it? 

JK: The song was actually not about me. I was deep in studying depression in my classes actually. It was right when the nasty pandemic was happening and people were really in a bad place. I felt like I started gaining an understanding of depression — at least from a psychological standpoint — and I felt like people needed this.  

I had not finished the song when I put out that video, encouraging people to duet it. I was genuinely curious about what people had to say. And then 5,000 people later, I was like “Oh my God.” It was a daunting task, honestly, to feel like I was writing the universal story because I had to finish the song. I wanted it to mean something to everybody that was a part of it. That was a little bit stressful but I was trying to represent whatever it was that people needed in that moment.

WSN: Wow, that was thoughtful of you to do. You were also teasing your single “Turbulence” everywhere on TikTok along with a lot of other untitled originals, and now it’s released. Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind “Turbulence”? 

JK: I was in a moment where I very much needed the sentiment of “Turbulence.” The whole sentiment of “Turbulence” is basically “I know you’re thinking of all this horrible stuff, but it’s not that bad — it’s just a little turbulence. It will all pass over. It will all be fine. You’ll get on the other side and it’s going to be great.”

WSN: Are there any plans for a debut album? If so, what should fans expect?

JK:  Absolutely! Yes. There’s definitely going to be one at some point. I just have no idea when. I’m sitting on 30 [or] 40 songs. So many songs. I’m at the point now where I’m still finding that sound. Each song is really meaningful to me. 

The plan is to release a few more singles, release an EP, keep doing live stuff, get myself out there and find the groove eventually. Maybe later in the year, I’ll have a debut album. It’s definitely something I’m thinking about.

You can watch Jonah Kagen’s music video for his latest single, “Turbulence,” here. His music is available on all streaming platforms.

Contact Holly Grace Jamili at [email protected].