I’m sitting down with Athens, Ga. singer-songwriter Adam Klein to talk about his new album, Archer’s Arrow. It’s a fine album, a great ride. There is an unstudied quality about it, a loose-ness that is endearing.
Adam wears many hats being not only a touring troubadour, but also the founder of Cowboy Angel Music and co-founder and co-organizer of Athens Americana music festival.
Bill: Adam, by my count Archer’s Arrow is album #6 for yes? I think it’s your best yet, by the way. There’s a maturing in the writing and themes, and economy in the way your deliver the songs on this one. The more reflective songs on the album have a transparency and wistful-ness that are the starting places of a great song.
Of course there’s a danger is to become grandiose, but you don’t seen to fall prey to that.
As I said, there’s a confidence on Archer’s Arrow that surfaces with a new effortless-ness.
There’s a lot of “love & loss” kinda of songs, or songs that bespeak a certain confusion about “where do I stand with you?” Good wells to draw from.
Am I hearing this right? Do you find the songs here gleaned from the razor edges of your own experiences or are you a writer who is vicariously creating your characters? What attracts you to these themes?
Adam: I think you are right, and both producer Bronson Tew and Bruce Watson, owner of Dial Back Sound studio in Water Valley, MS, where some of the recording happened and where the record was mixed and mastered, commented on that. The lyrics are a bit more raw here, a bit darker than some of my other albums. There are relationship songs here, songs with big questions about myself and others. It’s a kind of writing I want to do, but not for every song or project. But I read an interview with Lucinda Williams in which she speaks about the importance of sharing yourself fully in your music- making yourself vulnerable, putting it all out there in its ragged glory, as Neil Young would say. A number of songs on my previous albums flirt with that type of vulnerability- they express something real about myself, share a heartfelt emotion of the present or past, a longing and nostalgia- but I don’t think my songs have generally shone a light into my innermost thoughts or feelings and shown a darkness. It’s in each of us, I’d imagine. The part(s) of ourselves with which we struggle, the aspects of our character of which we’re not proud, the ways we fall short, the questioning. I tend to be guarded when it comes to such things, but they seeped out in some of these songs. Songwriting is, to a certain degree, where I wrestle with and confront myself. And the next collection of songs I plan on recording go deeper in. Things are laid bare. But I think there are also moments of hope, warmth, and light on Archer’s Arrow as well as on the next album.
Milan Kundera writes that his characters are the unexplored possibilities of himself. I like that a lot, and think there’s an element of that in many of the songs I write. Not every word is true, not every “I” is me, but the songs are extensions of a feeling, a longing, a drive, aspects of my life. And because they are my writings and contain an initial, if not full, spark from my life, I’m satisfied that it’s authentic and real. So essentially, a song can be or stem from a pure expression but also explore a character and an “unlived” possibility of myself.
Bill: You’ve mapped out a quota of particular types of songs here, yes?
Adam: I think there’s a place for everything. So my records tend to have a number of meaningful, nostalgic type songs but will also have a couple fun numbers. My friend Paul Ford, who now plays with Jonathan Byrd as part of his crack band The Pickup Cowboys, just shared an idea with me recently and said he finds this in my albums. The notion of 30/30/30 (this is not a baseball metaphor)- that an album (or a live show) can have about a third of its songs be songs that make you think (story songs, topical songs, or those touching on a history), another third songs that make you feel, and another third songs that are just plain fun. I remember I wrote “Say You Don’t Love Me” while in Mali and thought the words were so early-Beatles-esque and just too sappy to actually record. But I came across the typed page with those lyrics years later and thought they fit the vibe and feel of what I anticipated the album being, so I brought it in and we turned it into a really catchy, cool tune. It’s not a serious song that says anything real about me. It’s not “true”, so to speak, but who cares? “Radar Man” is similar- weird lyric and a rocking tune that’s not born from “my voice”. But that one actually is particularly special because I adapted the lyrics from a poem my grandfather wrote while serving as a radar repair tech in Philippines in World War II. My family found the poem, and other writings, while cleaning up my grandparents’ place, and I turned it into a song and sang it for him at his 90th birthday party. Pretty cool. And I love the song, it’s just another neat rocker.
I’m sure I’ll do more story-songs a la “Naduah”, “Nomie Wise”, “Dead Cow Hill” (from 2008’s Western Tales & Trails), and “Of Pirates & Vagabonds” (from 2010’s Wounded Electric Youth), and I have a collection of songs now that’s building that touches upon West Virginia lore and Georgia history, actually. But my current writing zone is mainly focused on “facing myself” and trying to create songs that are very real, vulnerable, and possess personal truths. If the songs can translate, I think listeners may find a lot that they can connect with and perhaps be moved by.
As far as these themes of love and loss, well, I think it’s a rich well to go to, as you mention. When you break it down, it’s what we have and what we share. (Did you see the viral video recently of Bob Dylan speaking to the IBM Watson “machine”? The machine tells Dylan it listened to all his lyrics and its analysis is that Dylan’s major themes are that time passes and love fades. Dylan’s response? “Well that sounds about right.”) Again, I’d like to think my songs tend to come from feelings and experiences that must be lived to access. It’s good to write about who you are and what you know, what you’ve seen. Some of my songs take place in a different age or a place I’ve never been, but through my travels or reading I allow myself to try to access another time or land and explore that.
Bill: The album possesses a band dynamic that seems very attuned to your approach with writing and recording. You bring the songs fleshed out on acoustic, it sounds like and letting the band “have it’s say.” It’s good chemistry & playing by the core members with just the right embellishment to the songs. It all seems to take the songs on Archer’s Arrow to a good place and one that was arrived at very naturally. I like that. Was the projected outcome something you were conscious of or was it something more like an evolution…?
Adam: That was definitely the approach for this album. I like to bring in players whom I respect and want them to go at it, find their voice, and bring themselves into the songs. I’ll have various melodic ideas I’d like to have in there, and I may or may not know which instrument should carry the melody that’s in my head, but I don’t think I’m heavy-handed in the process.
But this album did have quite the evolution. It was initially recorded with a great group of guys outside Athens and after laying down the basic tracks (we played live- acoustic guitar, vocal, electric guitar, drums and bass) and getting a quick mix, I felt it needed some sonic attention and assistance. There was bleed between instruments, my vocals needed to be considered scratch vocals, the acoustic guitar sound was a problem. So I shelved it for a while until I could get Bronson Tew, my friend and producer/engineer, to come to Athens to work on the tracks. I redid acoustic guitar and vocals and he worked his engineering wizardy on the material- EQ, compression, phase relationship, and whatever else. He cleaned up the bleed and the electric, added some more electric guitar, and it began to be transformed into a really great sounding record. He took it back to Dial Back Sound and brought in some players to add to it. He built three of the songs out there (“Boybutante Dreams”, “Wild Goose Chase”, and “Heartbreak Airplane”). I’d played and sang these songs solo acoustic and he and some of the Jimbo Mathus guys in Water Valley added parts. Bronson played drums and demanded that the bass and drums be recorded together to capture a performance and “feel”, and keys were added, guitars, etc. That tells you how much trust I have in Bronson. As he says, “You set ‘em up, I’ll knock ‘em down”. He’s a great friend and unbelievable musician and engineer. So what we hear, ultimately, is a testament to his ear and work. He deserves to be acknowledged for his production- wouldn’t have been the same or as great a record without him. And I think he took a real liking and interest to this album in particular because the circumstances were so unique. He was bound by the initial live recording which had a real loose feeling, as you mentioned. Almost like the song could collapse at any time. And that’s because the guys were just hearing the song for the first few times and trying to work their way through. So Bronson had to work within the framework of the drums, bass, and guitar already laid down (except for the three tracks he built out in MS), and turn it into a quality sonic record. To me, and most everyone who’s commented, its sounds kick ass.
Bill: Tell me about how you assembled the group. There is an unstudied quality about the way these songs are delivered, a loose-ness that is endearing. Were these close friends who were familiar with your work?
Adam: The guys who played on it were the remnants of Athens pop-rock band Nutria. Now most of them play in The Eskimos and a few other projects. I liked the fact that they brought this really cool pop sensibility and that the songs would likely have a certain edge, a thickness to the electric guitar. And that rhythm section is so locked in- especially for songs they didn’t really know. It’s crazy. Jason Eshelman on drums is so steady and locked in, Andy Pope on bass was also totally spot on, and Dave Weiglein on electric guitar was just jamming and played such great parts and lines on songs “unheard”. I showed them a song, we played it two or three times, and then started recording. It was definitely unstudied and loose, and I’m really happy with the feel. But I wouldn’t say they were necessarily familiar with my work, and the style they brought was a real departure from previous recordings, so I’m grateful to them for being so locked in. I knew it had something to it even after taking away the mixes and hearing the sonic deficiencies. But they gave it a feel at its core that Bronson could later build upon and accentuate.
Bill: Athens, Ga. Great town. Simply a wonderful community with a vital music scene.
No “scene” can be separated from the individuals who are a part of it. It’s a very non-static thing, liquid, always changing, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. And no one scene is for everybody or every genre of music. Given your long-relationship with the town, and you approach to Americana music, has you experience of the scene there been a good one?
Adam: Well put. Yes, I still love Athens and its music scene, and I’d say it’s been a good experience playing there and being part of it. It’s my hometown. If you cull through my songs, including songs on Archer’s Arrow, you’ll hear clear references to Athens. “Heartbreak Airplane” name checks the Taco Stand and R.E.M.. Some of my nostalgic songs take place there and I’ll keep going back in my mind and my writings, I’m sure. Americana’s got a following in Athens. Bands like Drive-By Truckers, Packway Handle, Lera Lynn, and acts that Americana likes to claim like Hardy Morris or The Whigs or Futurebirds- they do well. When Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, or a Dawes come to town, there’s great energy and a packed house. And we’ve seen great, passionate turnouts to our local festival event, Athens Americana. No shortage of solid bands and activity there. You’ll note that short list is all acts with a following which appeal to a crossover of the young, collegiate crowd and an “older” audience. Many lesser known yet top notch Americana and folk singer/songwriters or acts, though, may have trouble making waves in Athens. I’m glad someone like Jonathan Byrd has built such a great following there. But many others who deserve to play for a large audience there don’t get the support they need to come to town. If Townes van Zandt had played Athens in his later years, I’d guess he would’ve had a small to medium-sized crowd. Greg Brown might not have a big crowd. Slaid Cleaves may not have the audience he deserves in Athens. So it’s clear that there are certain tastes that are more prominent in Athens- either the flavor-of-the-month indie “it” thing amongst the college and young adult crowd, or the longstanding Athens favorites like an Of Montreal and Drivin N’ Cryin’. And they all deserve it. Kevn Kinney? He’s one of my musical heroes. As an Athenian I’m really proud of our heritage of bands. But it’s a challenging place to make a living off song-based, nuanced, folk and americana music. I think it’s easier to see that with some distance.
But every scene, as you mention, is unique, shifts, and has certain sweet spots musically. Athens is full of great people, great musicians young, old, and in between, and it’s a special, supportive scene with a lot of camaraderie and accessibility. Music lives there. It’s a testing ground- a good and fulfilling scene for the casual music player and a number of tight, talented bands are constantly emerging from the hundreds messing around in town. Plus as far as lifestyle goes it’s really a great place to be based and tour from. I’m proud to have Athens players on most of my records and want to keep working with my friends there. I came of age watching some of these guys play. I’m living in Atlanta now, and I do miss the people and these unique aspects that make the Athens music and arts community so strong. It’s influenced me and is my musical home, so I consider it a positive experience to be part of the scene and make music there. I try to get back and be at least peripherally involved as much as I can. Now if only we could pack out Hendershot’s for a David Olney or Bill Mallonee we’d be a folk powerhouse in addition to a college rock mecca.
Bill: Adam, is there anything else about the new album you want to elaborate on, tell us about?
Adam: Bill, it’s a pleasure and an honor to chat music with you, and I appreciate you listening to the record and asking these thoughtful questions. I’ll be on the lookout for the next sets of albums you churn out. Will you print this if I say you’re an American treasure, a brilliant artist, and one of my favorite songwriters? (I guess I’ll find out..)
Bill: Thanks very much for doing this interview. I wish you all the best and much success on the new album, Adam. Well done!