We at Pennyblackmusic haven’t been alone in singing the praises of Steve Adey’s debut album, ’All Things Real’. The record has garnered excellent reviews everywhere and deservedly so.
Being a new name the first glance at the track listing of the album raises a few eyebrows. Cover versions of Will Oldham’s ‘I See A Darkness’ after the late Johnny Cash had already covered it to great effect, and Dylan’s ‘ Shelter From The Storm’ seemed brave but somewhat risky choices, especially for a debut album.
But all that was before we heard Adey’s remarkable voice and ability to really make the songs his own. A cliché that may be, but Adey, especially on the Dylan cover, really has added his own unmistakeable mark on these songs.
Born and raised in Birmingham, now residing in Edinburgh, with spells living in New York and New Jersey along the way, Adey has been immersed in music for some years now. He has been involved in everything from mastering classical recordings, to working with members of The Royal Scottish National Orchestra to recording heavy rock bands.
Adey opens his album with a short instrumental which sets out his stall very nicely. He manages to conjure up an overwhelming sense of darkness in those 90 seconds, a darkness which prevails throughout the album and takes on another shade when we are met with his vocals for the first time. Dark, rich and brooding, it all makes sense then why he covered that Will Oldham song.
Having made such a remarkable debut, Adey’s original songs, after they have been played for a while, eat into you and are just as magical as those cover versions, we felt we should take the opportunity to ask Adey a little about the music he makes.
PB :'All Things Real' has received really good reviews but it seems you were a total unknown until the CD popped through the letterboxes. One minute we didn’t know your name then the CD, rightly, changed all that. Can you fill us in a little on your background? For a debut ‘All Things Real’ is an exceptionally strong collection of songs. Had you been working on them for long?
SA : Prior to starting work on ‘All Things Real’, I did work on other recordings but I never felt assured that what I had was true.
I lived in New York for a while. I think that is really where I started to write songs and work freely with other musicians. I just thought that American people were so open and positive and that gave me a freedom of expression. I also started to get involved in recording music and that was invaluable.
‘All Things Real’ was a long time in the making. There were various recording sessions most of which were never used. I recorded an album and ditched most of it. I just felt it wasn’t personal or involving in the way that I imagined. Sometimes you can achieve some really good recordings with great playing, but I was conscious of making an album. I wasn’t concerned with novelty pieces or trying to realise individual moments of brilliance. I just wanted to make a coherent album that has a sustained life. Some songs simply didn’t make it because they just didn’t work alongside other songs.
PB : The covers on the album, particularly the Dylan one, have attracted a lot of attention. What inspired you to cover ‘I See a Darkness’ when Johnny Cash covered it so well and why ‘Shelter From the Storm’? There must have been easier Dylan songs to cover!
SA : I was a big fan of the Bonnie “Prince” Billy album ‘I See a Darkness’ and the title track was a song that I couldn’t wait to work out on the piano. I would often play the song just singing and playing the harmonium or piano and then I recorded it. It just sort of crept in to the final group. I can really connect with the lyrics. A guy talking to his pal hoping for a better future – some day where life is more settled, but the fear is intangible and unexpressed, even to his closest friend. There is so much honesty and vulnerability in that song - most people feel these things but find it hard to express. I can easily sing that song and pour absolutely everything into it. I also loved the Johnny Cash version. I love all of the American Recording stuff.
‘Shelter from the Storm’ was easy – the rule was to change the song radically and take it someplace else.
PB : Your arrangement of ‘Shelter from the Storm’ is totally different to Dylan’s but works so well. Were you worried about any backlash from the Dylan diehards?
SA : No, I wasn’t worried. For me, covering Dylan isn’t a problem. There will always be detractors though.
With ‘Shelter from the Storm’ the proposition is easier in that Dylan’s songs are covered all the time, but I don’t really hear too many good ones. People totally get Dylan wrong. They usually just plod through wearily trying not to offend. For me there is no middle ground with Dylan – I want to use the irony and the masterful writing. I started by slowing the song down to funereal pace and then totally got into the lyrics. I wanted to approach each verse differently and I considered reordering the verses. I recorded the piano and vocal alone without a click track. I really liked that particular take so I then recorded the other musicians in isolation (individually). There are eight verses. I start with piano and vocal. By the close, all of the musicians are playing.
PB : What’s the significance of the opening song, ‘Death To All Things Real’. It has an almost religious feel to it and flows neatly into ‘I See A Darkness’. Why is the album title abbreviated?
SA : I wanted to open the record with a short prelude that was fitting and included much of the same sonic territory as the rest of the album.
The album was always going to be called ‘Death To All Things Real’, but I changed it because I started to feel more ambivalence – I felt the album had a more hopeful feeling by the closing stages. The record is dark but I didn’t want to put the boot in.
The opening song title in a way reflects what you are talking about - i.e. would there be a backlash from doing the covers ? - this was my ironic way of self-deprecating the record. I recall reading an article in 'Rolling Stone' with Joni Mitchell who was bemoaning Madonna - referring to her as the “personification of evil” – and declaring how women are looking up to Madonna as a feminine icon where in fact she was “Death To All Things Real”. This stuck with me so the title is owed to that article.
As to the religious feel, much of the record was recorded in an old church…so yeah it felt spiritual at times. Our lives are spiritual whether we acknowledge it or not.
PB : I was pleased to see Mary Margaret O’Hara getting some recognition even though the song named after her is a short instrumental. It’s a shame we don’t hear more from her. Is she an influence on your work or are you just a fan?
SA : Oh yeah, definitely - both a big influence and a fan. She has a one-off voice that has influenced many great singers, yet she has only released one record. I remember hearing ‘To Cry About’ (the opening song from ‘Miss America’) and thinking, yeah that is just right. Understated and really engaging. I was drawn in from that point.
PB : ‘Find The Way’ has just been released as a single. It’s not the most obvious choice; ‘Evening Of The Day’ is probably the most immediate song on the album. Why did you go with ‘Find The Way’?
SA : I’m not really sure that we should have released any singles from this album. Personally I can’t hear ‘Evening of the Day’ on the radio either! There are no singles on this record. What is a single anyway ?
PB : The new ‘acoustic’ version of that song which appears on the CD single certainly takes on a new angle by being presented in a stripped-down form, I prefer it at certain times and moods to the album version. What inspired you to take that route?
SA : The album version was complicated to mix and edit. We used three separate versions and later edited sections from each. For the acoustic version, it felt good revisiting a song that was very studio orientated. It was something we tried out with various songs. I was thinking about doing some support shows and the recording really came off the back of those provisional rehearsals.
PB : Are there any plans to tour in the near future? If so would you try to use the same musicians who backed you on the album? After living with the songs for a while now it would feel strange hearing say, different backing vocalists, Helena MacGilp in particular adds some strongvocals to the album.
SA|: Helena made the parts her own. She does this weird thing with layers of voices that I love – it isn’t the normal generic way of coming up with vocal harmonies. Doug MacDonald, who played guitar on the album,and Helena were up for playing out, but the gigs didn’t materialize.
I am recording a new record – about half way through. I’m totally immersed in these new songs to the point where everything else is secondary at the moment, but live shows will hopefully follow the release. The setup is different this time – I’m working in a band context where it feels more like musicians playing together in a room. Doug is still with me playing electric guitar, but all the other players are new. For the most part people play because they are friends or they simply fit in with what we are trying to do. The important thing is you get along and that you share the same good intentions. It helps if the other musicians can have a laugh - otherwise it would be too intense.
PB : Thank you.