Kahane's own songs blend wry personal stories with complex brass and string arrangements. His new self-titled debut album is due out on Sept. 16. Between previewing songs from the record live in studio, he spoke with Soundcheck host John Schaefer.
Many of the album's songs are named for places: Rochester (N.Y.), North Adams (Mass.), the Taconic State Parkway.
"Yeah, I find that it's easier to write a love song to a place rather than a person," Kahane says. "Maybe just because there are fewer of them."
Speaking of bizarre love affairs, Kahane once described himself as "the bastard child of Alban Berg and Rufus Wainwright." Though he says he's a bit embarrassed by that statement now, he does note that both musicians could be rich and romantic, in their own ways.
"I think that statement was me being a little bit glib, perhaps," Kahane says. "But I think ultimately what fuels my music is I'm just always trying to be emotionally direct, whether it's drawing from classical harmony or pop harmony or what-have-you."
For many songwriters, that sort of appeal comes from pared-down, simple songs. Much of Kahane's work is more involved by comparison.
"For me, things can be emotionally direct, whether they're unbelievably complex or incredibly simple," he says.
Between full songs on the album, Kahane wrote three instrumental interludes verging on chamber music. He says that he conceived the album as one large piece.
"I mean, if someone has the patience — God bless him — to listen to the entire album as a whole, I think that it's actually more nourishing to the listener that way," he says.
One of those interludes carries the ungainly title "Arnold Corrects the Papers, While My Grandmother Watches His Children." The piece itself, however, is based on an old Lutheran hymn, and was inspired by Kahane's grandmother, who babysat for modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg.
"The deal was that the end of the previous song ends with that sort of quote from this chorale, 'Wie soll ich dich empfangen,'" he says. "And I needed to get from B minor to F major. And then I had this vision of Schoenberg at UCLA giving this assignment to his composition people. So he's like, 'Now you must modulate from B minor into F major or you'll get an F!' The rest is history, I guess."
If Kahane's approach sounds something like that of Sufjan Stevens, it is. Stevens actually contributes guitar and piano lines and sings backup on Kahane's album.
They both share something of a classical background, as well. In fact, Gabriel Kahane is actually composing a piece for his father Jeffrey Kahane, a noted classical pianist. Jeffrey plans to play it at the re-opening of Alice Tully Hall at New York's Lincoln Center.
"He's given me a title, which is 'Django,' after both his dog, Django — he has a very beloved Australian shepherd and sheep something-or-other mix, I don't know — and that dog, of course, is named after Django Reinhardt," Gabriel Kahane says. "So I'm going to try to find a way to synthesize his runs in the park with his dog and Django's runs on the guitar."