Name: Brendan Adams
Nationality: South African
Occupation: Songwriter. guitarist
Current release: Brendan Adams's Buttons is out now via his own website.
Recommendations: Lawns – Carla Bley; Autobiography of a yogi – Paramahansa Yogananda
If you enjoyed this interview with Brendan Adams, visit his personal website for more information, music and updates. He is also on Facebook and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing lyrics when I was about 12 or 13. It was mostly thoughts on life. Eventually, those words evolved into actual songs when I started playing the guitar at 19. I was about 23, when I first produced music with my then band – we made social and spiritually conscious hip hop/jazz fusion.
My earliest memories of feeling something when listening to music are from various gospel songs my mother sang. I also started listening to my father’s album collection at a very young age – that was everything ranging from anything Bob Dylan made, to Sixto Rodriguez, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder and so many others – the list is long. I loved the music of Taliep Peterson (a songwriter from Cape Town). And then there was my Uncle Desmond, who always sang and played at family gatherings – I was always lit up by the passion with which he sang.
As far back as I can remember, music gave me relief from the weight of my feelings and the world around me. It was peaceful. I could lie for hours as a child with headphones on and my heart and mind would be blown away.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I had listened to and probably memorized a whole lot of songs since my childhood. Just anything that moved me, really. I was always most touched by singers who made me feel like they were speaking to me. People like Joni Mitchel, Bob Dylan, Sixto Rodriguez, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Beth Gibbons, or Robbie Jansen, to name a few. It felt like the meaning of what they were saying made more impact than the superficial beauty of the voice. It made me believe that the voice is not only made up of what the air over the vocal cords produce but has to be connected to intent that is more than ourselves. I am constantly searching for this magic when I sing or write.
By the time I started playing or performing any music to people, I had gotten into the habit of letting go of trying to sound like anyone else, mainly out of fear of feeling embarrassed. So, I would just close my eyes and check how the song makes me feel, before letting the words fall out of my mouth in fitting tones. I let that be “my” voice. Fear played a huge role in teaching me how to be myself.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
The ideas I identify myself with, definitely do come through in certain lyrics and grooves. The tricky part about this is that by now I identify myself with so many different ideas. This is probably most clear in my new album “Buttons”. I produced it myself and just leaned into any genre or feeling the individual songs asked for, something most producers I have worked with shy away from doing, because they usually search for one type of vibe for an album. I wanted the DNA in this album to be me, my heart and soul, and so I let each song be different in its own way.
So, in short, I would answer that my sense of identity has a deeply positive effect on anything I create.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The first real challenge I had was breaking an addiction to compliments and affirmations from people. After I had written my first song, it was well received by friends and family and this gave me a good feeling. I immediately found myself in the space, where I wanted a repeat of that reaction almost more than creating something actually good. I do still believe that acknowledgement is important for the development of any artist but its has to come from yourself first and being too dependent on others can stifle authenticity in what you create.
I used to fear not having anything to write about, but by now I know that the truth is that there will always be enough beautiful and ugly things to write about fortunately and unfortunately.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
There were no real choices in the beginning. I mostly borrowed guitars from any soul kind enough to do me the honour. When I eventually got a guitar that was reasonable enough, it had been bought from a drug addict who definitely stole it. A year later I was robbed of it by another druggy on my way to a rehearsal.
The first recordings I made were done in a small bedroom studio in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. A basic setup with a one or two channel interface. I’ll be honest, I have never put too much thought into the exact type of equipment I record with. I just like to surround myself with people who I know value the type of quality I do and then I trust them to do their best when we work together. Where guitars are concerned, mine are never expensive. Instead, I will tweak them with different parts until they sound and feel right.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Right now, it feels like music has become over-saturated.
This does not necessarily mean that most of the music coming out is bad or lacks authenticity, but just the amount of music and the rate at which people are producing it, leaves little space for listeners to breathe. Thinking about this had a profound effect on how I wanted to continue creating. I want to do and say things with a clear conscience. I focus my attention on my intention and then take the time to let magic happen in between.
Technology has its up and downs. It can be really helpful to get things done and can be a huge distraction at the same time (laughs). I cannot deny that technology has had a positive effect on how I do things, being able to send files all across the world for recording sessions or even remote recording sessions.
Regarding instruments, I have always used the guitar to compose my songs. Recently though, I have started playing the piano. This has had a huge effect on how I create, because I realized that the dynamics of an instrument itself plays a huge part in how I design a song lyrically, melodically, rhythmically and especially in terms of sound. Sometimes limitations on an instrument produce the most interesting results. So now I play around on any instrument I can find – mainly out of curiosity. I actively question the way I make music all the time. I feel that this is a vital part of change. I try to stay away from doing the same thing over and over in music. I have enough of that in my day to day (laughs).
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I like to speak to interested people about my ideas. It’s like speaking to myself through the filter of another mind I trust. So, after I have told you about my idea, it’s definitely still going to change.
Jamming can also be amazing, especially when you end up at the same ideas while playing around. I did a whole year’s worth of collaborations in 2020 with my project B.Adams53, releasing 1 song per week. The aim was to work with as many interested people as I could. It was a lot of file sending and waiting to hear how other musicians were inspired to work with songs that I had written. On the visuals we engaged with anybody who was interested or had at some point thought that they would like to try making a music video. The results were interesting and there were a lot of beautiful moments and definitely a lot of awkward ones as well. What would life be without those?