Image by Michael Wood
I’ve interviewed Steven James Adams several times over the years, to the point where it almost feels like an ongoing conversation with long hiatuses. Promoting his wonderful new album Old Magick (out on Fortuna POP! on 4th March), we had a long chat that found Adams as charming and self-deprecating as ever but perhaps even more reflective than usual. His last record House Music was intended to be a folk record and ended up anything but, so I wondered what album he wasn’t making this time.
“I like to work to a brief but then my problem is that I then change the brief as I go along and convince myself I’ve done the right thing. This time I wanted to be more anchored, and I’d wanted to work with Dan [Michaelson, producer and musician] for a long time, so it just came about naturally – if we were going to work on a record, just me and him, then it would have its own aesthetic, which may be a bit closer to the folk thing that I’ve been talking about for a long time, it’s certainly more stripped down and bit less fussy, maybe, than the last record.”
Something else we discussed last time was Adams’ conscious decision to avoid going for the easy option of humour and ‘snark’ in his lyrics, which seems even more evident this time.
“It’s quite nice to hear that, that’s how life should work I guess: something changes and you move on. You kind of absorb that change. I don’t consciously think now, ‘oh, that’s a bit spiteful’, or ‘that’s a bit funny’. It just comes naturally. The only thing I struggled with a bit on this record was – and this is probably more information than anyone could want – I tried not to ask too many questions.
“I discovered it’s really easy to write songs that are just a list of questions, or in conclusion you end up asking a question. That frustrates me, I want to be more didactic and aggressive!”
Album opener and single Togetherness (“you are welcome here, but you’ve been taken for a ride”) address the current refugee situation in what is – whilst not exactly a Billy Bragg song – surely Adams’ most explicitly political writing yet.
“I’d say that it’s incumbent on songwriters to be political, and I think it’s an area where I’ve usually failed and probably will continue to. I don’t seem to have that voice. I can’t seem to put my thoughts into something that works in a song format normally, that song was an exception. That song purely came from a place of rage, I suddenly got sick of this fucking country and all the fucking racists with their stupid justifications.”
Despite that, it’s actually quite gentle and positive, and seems to address the refugees rather than the racists. “You’re right, even though it comes from a place of being cross with racists, it’s not addressed to Britain First. It came out that way because otherwise it would be some kind of weird, shouty thing. I get that it’s a bit pretty or even that it’s a bit fey or twee, but I was quite pleased with the fact that lyrically it’s doing one thing and musically it’s doing another thing.”
The ‘k’ at the end of Old Magick is revealing, even without references to The Golden Bough and – on previous records – the likes of Kenneth Anger and Graham Bond. Adams seems to be increasingly referencing matters that we might lazily call ‘the occult’. “I don’t want to sound like someone who takes their thing too seriously, but sometimes the songs write themselves, and when ‘the work’ happens, it can be like a divining rod, it takes you to a place and sometimes, emotionally or spiritually or whatever… sometimes you must just follow the things that keep niggling in your head. And I keep coming back to that stuff because I’m interested in it. The specific reference to the Golden Bough – well, this is completely separate to my interests in magick with a k, but I’ve got friends who are involved in what I guess you could call new age-y stuff, some of which isn’t entirely my bag, and The Golden Bough was sort of my reaction to that. I’ve been reading bits of David Eagleman and easy-to-grasp neuroscience, and I just had this big jumble in my head of people searching for meaning and – well, it’s the same stuff that fucking everybody say, ‘maybe there is meaning’ or ‘maybe there isn’t meaning’, ‘hey, let’s write a song about that, there you go!’”
The link between neuro-science and this sort of ‘occult’ thinking is instructive. “Yes, and part of my justification for writing about it – and I would probably do more of it – but I think that this stuff needs to live outside of the ‘tribe’ that it’s been adopted by, or is seen to be owned by. This isn’t a dig at anybody, but all that magick and occult stuff tends to be the domain of people who dress exclusively in black and all wear the same sort of Celtic jewellery. It’s definitely worth talking about – or singing about in my case – and I’m sort of sad that I don’t do explicitly country music anymore because I think the more decontextualized it is, the more fun you can have with it. It’s fun to read about and it’s fun to think about, to see where it can take you.”