Noah Weinman, of singer-songwriter alias Runnner, is house hunting with his girlfriend in LA when we meet to discuss his debut album, Always Repeating. Despite this move of permanence, Weinman has had a complicated relationship with Los Angeles. “I was never dying to come back here. I told myself that I would never come back,” he tells me, skittering with nervous energy. It is this restlessness and this change of attitude that define his music and himself.
“I’m in LA, and it’s warm /, but it’s so fucking dry, though,” Weinman croons on Always Repeating’s opening track, “Monochrome.” This seems a fitting beginning to our conversation, as Weinman grew up here, in the very house he speaks to me from. “I was always trying to push it away, but it kept coming back,” he says, as light streams in from the window in his childhood bedroom.
Weinman has a long history with music in this house. He took piano lessons, but the first step he took beyond basic scales was playing the trumpet, which he picked up age six after his grandfather handed him the trumpet he himself played. “I started playing in the orchestra, and for a while, I was very serious about it – I thought that I would go to music school and do jazz trumpet. But halfway through high school, I realized I didn’t want to. I always loved music, but I didn’t love playing the trumpet specifically or playing jazz specifically.”
We discuss the pressure of traditional music routes and how it often takes a rejection of that path to find our voice as a musician. “I didn’t know that there were other outlets for me to participate in music without it being that classical path, because when you’re in school, that’s the only way it’s available. I started playing the guitar in sixth grade, and I had a band who played Beatles covers.”
Weinman’s father, who he describes as ‘in TV postproduction’, was the first to teach him to play the guitar. “My dad had weirdly contemporary music taste for a dad. He was the first person to turn me on to Death Cab for Cutie, David Bowie and Fountains of Wayne.” “‘Stacy’s Mum!’” I say. He lights up. “I have every album! The pre-Stacy’s Mum Fountains is really where it’s at. I still listen to their first album a lot; it really holds up.”
After his high school band glory days, Weinman went to Kenyon College, Ohio, studying Liberal Arts and majoring in political science. Looking back, he was considering becoming an environmental lawyer, but halfway through college had another change of heart and realized he just wanted to make music. He completed his course, knowing he would pursue this passion once he had a degree.
So, he graduated in 2016 and became a waiter, making music on the side. He floated around for a while, and his complicated feelings towards Los Angeles intensified. “I just felt like it had a personality that I didn’t identify with at the time. I say at the time because I came back after leaving for college, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I stuck around and had a whatever time.
“There are certain stereotypes about the city that hold true. It’s very status-oriented; everyone’s hustling for something. But that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes people are making something great.”
At this stage, Weinman was part of a basement band whose dryness led him to go solo. “We had driven coast to coast playing really bad shows.” He breaks off, hides his face in his hands for a moment and emerges, laughing. “Oh, man, that band was called Park Strangers. I’m so embarrassed about that.”
“We came back from tour and booked studio time, hired somebody to mix. That was how I thought bands made albums. It was going so poorly; I was so frustrated because I was like, ‘this is all I want to do, and I can’t figure it out.’ So, I started recording these other songs I’d written at home, almost like a practice. There were songs that I’d written that were too personal, too vulnerable, to bring to this band that was me and three other dudes that I didn’t know super well. I don’t think that I really planned on performing them or maybe even releasing them. But as I worked on the songs, I realized I liked them, and it became my focus.”
The band fell apart in 2017, and Weinman found himself finally excited about the music he liked – a ‘rare’ emotion for the twenty-seven-year-old. He rushed the music out and toyed with the Runnner alias – so named as ‘something that didn’t get in the way and was spelt with three n’s to get the Bandcamp URL’ – and continued ruminating over his feelings towards LA.
“Ever since I came back, I’ve had a much better relationship with LA. I found a community that I liked; I found Helen, all that other stuff came together. I’ve come to appreciate LA a lot since then.”
He moved to Rhode Island for a period, and when further opportunities to play bigger shows in LA arose, he returned. “Ever since I came back, I’ve had a much better relationship with LA. I found a community that I liked; I found Helen, all that other stuff came together. I’ve come to appreciate LA a lot since then.”
The difference between his impatience with the city then and his assurance in it now appears to be about finding a space where he could settle. Weinman is entrusted in a circle of immensely talented, immensely original artists. I think of his girlfriend, Helen Ballentine, aka Skullcrusher, who is touring with at the end of the year, and the collection of indie singer-songwriters signed to his label, Run for Cover – Camp Cope, Field Medic, Mini Trees amongst them – is his new community made up of artists?
“In the past year, that’s been a good question to ask because I think that a lot of music-based friendships were reliant on the ease and casualness of just being able to go to a show and see people, without having to actually make plans with them, and you just end up swimming in the same circles. It’s definitely a smaller community than it was pre-pandemic, but it’s a community that I really like.” He pauses. “I definitely miss my friends, but I also think it helped me strengthen certain friendships.”
As we talk, it becomes clear that the pandemic has been an oddly positive experience for Weinman. Like many artists, he’s had the opportunity to slow down and create the art he never had the brain space for. “I think it feels advantageous in terms of a time for some self-reflection on my own life. For a couple of years leading into the pandemic, I was just playing shows all the time, and right up until March of last year, I was running myself ragged, just like feeling burnt out. So, the pandemic was a pretty nice time for me to take a little break.”
I start to see a portrait of an artist who has come into his own over the last year. This push and pull, the war between restlessness and assurance, is what characterizes the latest Runnner escapade. Always Repeating is a testament to past times filled with anxiety and impermanence, recorded and reimagined in an era where he’s more settled emotionally and musically.
Always Repeating, then, is a combination of songs from the last EP and songs recorded from 2016. We discuss this decision, and Weinman tells me that the songs were chosen because they marked a time where he was committing to himself, and he needed to revisit that. “I’d been writing songs for all these other bands, and now I finally felt like where I was writing songs that felt important to me like I was finally saying what I wanted to say.”
Although the pandemic has been a creative blessing, his signing and the release of his debut album have got him incredibly excited to be back playing live shows and recording again. “I think playing shows has always been my favourite part of music. It’s the part that I came to music for. I am someone that constantly has an internal monologue of anxiety, and there are very few things in my life that put that to rest and performing music is one of those things.”
The conversation turns to anxiety and how it influences him as an artist. I ask how he copes with social and anxiety and playing shows and comment on how, for many artists, there’s an ability to put the anxious side to bed when they get on stage. Weinman takes a more practical approach. “I have social anxiety for all the hours leading up to performing, but once I have a bit to drink and I’m on the stage, it just feels like where I want to be.”
There’s certainly a tinge of anxiety to his tremulous songwriting, a quality that lends itself to a dismantling theme of nervousness and sadness. “I feel better now / still I’m always going nowhere,” he sings over plucky strings on “Urgent Care,” a song awash with desperation. “’Urgent Care’ is a song where I’m trying to be a little light-hearted with myself about anxiety, particularly health anxiety.
“I default to health anxiety when I don’t want to think about what’s making me anxious. I used to wake up, have something weird on my body, freak out, and go to urgent care. And then be like, well, that was dumb, I could have just calmed down. Health anxiety is just such a way to put off everything else. It was a way that I was grappling with the uncertainty of my life. if I were just terminally ill, at least that would be some sort of certainty.”
The sense of self-awareness he brings to our conversation is also picked over in his music, which the understated instrumentals emphasize. I ask if music is a coping mechanism turned career or if he always had a big dream. “I mean, there’s always a fantasy. In sixth grade, when I was first playing guitar and thinking about how much I loved these huge bands and how people that made music weren’t real people, just mystical figures, his fantasy was to be part of that world. If I could talk to myself back then, I’d just tell him that they are real people and, like, you can do it. Being part of that world is still really cool.”
“A lot of the music is a way of reaching out for connection and intimacy. I think those things kind of define the music.”
Although he is a part of the indie music scene now, there’s a certain grounded authenticity in his music-making. The music videos themselves are homemade, almost video diaries of his last year, and show the visually artistic side of the musician. “I think something I’m always reaching for in music is intimacy. I like the way homemade recordings and videos feel. I think there was something that I was able to tap into more when making songs for Runnner. When I was writing songs in college, I was only playing music for people that knew me personally. And that, for me, is harder than playing music for people who don’t know me at all. I think that there was honestly this weird thing where I was able to try to create more intimacy and connection if I had no idea who would be listening to the song if I felt like they didn’t know me at all. It let me be like, more open and vulnerable in the lyrics. A lot of the music is a way of reaching out for connection. So I think those things can kind of also define the music.”
We move to some of the more intimate tracks on the record. “The title, Always Repeating, is mostly a play on the fact that it’s a compilation of old songs. But then it’s also really a reflection on the songs that I wrote four years ago, which still feel relevant to me. At the core, those songs are about isolation, alienation, wanting to reach out but also wanting to pull away, and being a nostalgic person.
“Sometimes that can get in the way of enjoying my present or looking forward to the future because I’ll just be remembering something else. That always puts me in the cycle of questioning where I am and then feeling adrift.”
Where does that come into the music? “‘Awash’” was written when I was just feeling lost. Every song I wrote at the time had this water motif, and that that feeling is still there. I was just house-hunting in LA, but the whole time, in the back of my head, Helen and I are talking like, do we want to be in LA? We could really be anywhere? It can be hard to situate yourself sometimes.”
I wonder If that feeling is something he will ever be able to overcome and if moving permanently to LA is a testament to that. “I hope so. I would really like to feel settled. And in a lot of ways, there are a lot of aspects of my life that feel more settled now: my career’s going a little bit better than it was four years ago, I’m in a relationship, I have friendships that feel strong. But at the same time, I have other friendships that feel very weak from all the distance, and the state of the world feels very grim. It used to be ‘how am I going to exist in this world?’ And now sometimes, I think, ‘how is this world going to exist at all?’ That’s what I’m learning – life is always back and forth between those two dynamics.”
I imagine that dynamic is hard to give up. “I think maybe part of it is that I’m always looking for something to be unsettled so that I can fixate on it. I’ve felt it for so long it’s all I know. But I am also always striving to be more present and relax a little bit more. It’s nice to go back to the songs. I’m like, ‘oh, I was stressed about that thing that I’m singing about in the song, but I’m not stressed about that specific thing anymore.’ That feels good. The overarching theme is definitely still there, and that’s how I know that it’s still me.”
“Restlessness is a big one too. If you watched me in the recording process, I’m not sitting still very much, even when I’m mixing. I’m weirdly hopping around the room and listening to the mix.” This contrasts how he is now – level-headed in his office chair, headphones on and words coming like poetry. I’m struck by how this might be a challenge for Weinman.
This restlessness is unleashed in the music itself too. Pockets of urgency intersperse sashaying percussion, and he often changes tact lyrically. Weinman agrees that the physical manifestation of unease is there both melodically and lyrically: There’s a sense of mixed emotions and mixed narratives when he sings: “Unsteady reaching / watching my friends leave town / confidence bleeding out / when did it get so loud” on the restlessly creative and guarded “New Sublet.”
“Lyrics always come back to this feeling of,” he breaks off and half-quotes the lyrics from New Sublet: “’being drunk on the internet / looking at prices of places for cities you don’t live in / and you’ve never been to / just getting addicted to starting all over again.’ I am a restless person, so sitting down to make music is a way that I both lean into that and combat it because it forces me to be sedentary and focused for the time being, but it also lets me be restless and expel that nervous energy,” he says, speaking again to music’s ability to still his mind.
We touch on the other songs and what meaning they hold. Where “Monochrome” is a sort of Runnner thesis, detailing intimate moments and how they are barely remembered in colour; “Bodysurfing,” is a seemingly low maintenance tune about a breakup, but is, in fact, a fictional conversation with God. “I’m not religious, and sometimes I wished that I could be – just to believe in something big like that. I wondered what it would be like, but I was uncomfortable with writing a song that’s so on its surface about that. I was like, well, most songs are about breakups. So, what if I make it sound like that? I was also listening to the first Julian Baker album. She has such interesting chord voicings, and now that’s all I use.”
Do you ever think that you might come back to that topic with more confidence? “I think it’s something that I would prefer to explore under the surface. A lot of it has to do with the feeling of not knowing a lot about it, not wanting to wear something like that on my sleeve.”
As the interview winds down, I note that the picture Weinman paints in his music is a testament to himself and a juxtaposition. The artist in front of me is talkative, insightful and aware of his emotional intelligence. But the music is ridden with doubt, with the journey of the push and pull relationship he’s had with settling down, with LA and with self-expression.
“In the music, although it sounds gloomy, there’s a lot of optimism. I remember writing in my journal the other day that I write these songs to-do lists for myself. I don’t know if I’m ever doing this shit, but I see it. I feel more powerful in talking about it in the song even if I don’t know if I’m actually going to have the strength to manifest it in my life,” he tells me, labelling Always Repeating as a To-Do List of things to come.