Interview: Adam Remnant
I don’t get to hear Ohio musicians as often as I’d like to lately, so I jump at the chance to interact with them whenever they come down to New York City. In this case, Adam Remnant is performing at Cake Shop, Saturday Oct. 1st at 9:45 pm. (Also playing that night are Nathan Xander, William Matheny & the Strange Constellations, and Big Bliss). I took some time to listen to his solo EP release, When I Was a Boy, and ask him some questions about it, his prior project Southeast Engine, and his approach to writing.
st. lenox: So Adam, what was the reason for your pursuing a music project outside of Southeast Engine?
Adam: Southeast Engine started when I was a freshman in college, and we pursued it as long as we could. I’m really proud of what we accomplished – we released 5 records and repeatedly toured all over North America. By the end of 2012, the mounting pressures of work, family, etc. were intruding on our little band, and it became time to strike out in a different direction logistically and creatively. My wife and I have two daughters (ages 4 & 2), so setting up a self-directed home recording method has been a better fit to keep me creative and producing new music while raising a family.
st. lenox: The EP as well as the opening track are entitled “When I Was a Boy” – you know it’s interesting because when people write nostalgia, they don’t necessarily pick the same time to reminisce back to. Like I tend to go back to high school years. You picked an earlier time in that song – is there a particular reason for that?
Adam: Great question. Yeah, ‘When I Was a Boy’ traces my early childhood, and the house on the cover of the EP is the house in Dayton, Ohio where my family lived until I was about 8 years old. I think that house psychologically operates as a sort of paradise for me – an innocent youth still unaware of the dangers and ills of the world at large. The move out of that house spelled the end of that innocence. The rest of the EP exists in the drudgery & trappings of adulthood. I think those memories of an idyllic childhood can haunt the adult psyche with the desire to retreat away from our responsibilities. I think these songs are attempting to come to terms with that conflict.
st. lenox: My take on “There Beside Me” is that it’s a transitional narrative. The protagonist has Midwestern wanderlust or transitional urges, and the object of his affection is a sort of transitional object, providing stability in a tumultuous time. Is that right? I listen and wonder if she’s there to help him through an impending change, or if she’s there to provide him with the strength to stay where he is.
Adam: The narrator is certainly looking for a change, but feels trapped by financial or social forces. I think the person who is being addressed in the song could be a lover or close friend, or anyone who makes you feel like life is ok even when it’s not! I’ve always liked that saying, ‘Everything is going to be ok even if it’s not.’ I wanted to write a song that straight-forwardly admits that life is hard. We are constantly bombarded with impressions that life is grand through social media and popular songs – I think people want to hear that other people are struggling too, hence the line, ‘none of this comes easy, in fact, it comes hard.’ Someone told me that they’ve been texting that lyric back and forth with a friend as they struggle to land full-time employment. I really like the idea of lyrics and music operating on that level for people.
st. lenox: I noticed that you generally avoid an outright belting when you sing – except maybe in Rocking Chair – but even then the lyrical hooks oftentimes find themselves in lower registers. I do think it works really well. I guess I think a lot of times songwriters can too often put things in high belting range to let everyone know “hey, this is the hook!” You pull people into the lyrics at points which you might not expect.
Yeah, I’m definitely a ‘lyric’ listener of music, so I suppose my listening habits influence the way I write and sing as well. I’ve honestly not been too conscious about this idea of belting during the chorus. You’re right though, that is the typical approach, and I certainly don’t do that consistently. I suspect there’s a weariness to this material which doesn’t lend itself to big choruses, and I instinctively followed that feel. I also found myself mistakenly recording vocals in a very energetic way only to scrap them in favor of a more relaxed performance, which better reflected the mood of the material. Although, I’m now going to give myself the challenge of writing a belting chorus. ha!
st. lenox: A lot of the songs on the EP seem to focus on unhappiness. And I don’t mean that in a bad way – but I see them as sort of short stories of characters that express their sad state and end right before the point of decision. Is this right? Do you feel that the EP has been cathartic for you? It feels like a very cathartic collection of songs.
Adam: I try to work on the songs until I have a little distance from them, so they’re not overly vulnerable or precious (to varying degrees of success), but they’re still inescapably personal. The narrators and characters ultimately take on a life of their own, and they are a sort of distortion of your self that allows you to explore an idea or particular problem. In these songs, there’s a tension, a sort of paralysis in the characters that prevents them from making a dramatic change, although the last song, ‘Rewriting Tomorrow,’ resolves in a couple going separate ways only to live with the regret of not being able to sustain the relationship which initially provided so much joy. Ultimately, the record ends with a new conflict – the temptation to break free has been satisfied, but it comes with a price.
st. lenox: When you say overly vulnerable or precious – is it that it feels awkward to present it when it feels that personal? Or is it that you’re worried that you’re expressing something silly, and you need some distance to sort of evaluate what you’re saying? Or I guess it could be both?
Adam: I think it’s both. When I approached this material, I wanted to write from my own perspective and experience. The trouble I encountered was that the songs tended to present their own logic as they developed. In order to convey a specific problem or aspect I’m exploring in a song, I would often exaggerate or dip into fiction in order to serve the song’s message. It’s the difference between journal writing and writing for the public at large. One can be precious about their journal entries, but they aren’t typically designed for public consumption. As a songwriter, I will often start from the feelings I might express in a journal, but seek to convey them through the craft of writing with all of its techniques and tricks of trade. The end result allows you that distance to evaluate what you’re saying in a therapeutic way while simultaneously making those feelings presentable so they can be meaningfully shared with others.
st. lenox: What’s next for you after this?
Adam: I have a few overdubs to complete a full-length album, which was conceived along with the EP. It explores many of the same themes. I’m hoping to put it out in 2017. I’ve got a great band of Columbus, Ohio musicians, which includes my brother Jesse Remnant, Ryan Stolte-Sawa, and Jon Helm. I’m always booking shows for us to go play these songs and promote the records into next year.