April 06, 2012

Singer/Songwriter Adam Levy: The Craft of Conviction

As a teenager first learning to play the guitar, Adam Levy wasn’t bent on mastering the signature riff to “Purple Haze” or the chord sequence in “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead he practiced stuff like Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Junior’s Farm,” or “China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers. “I wasn’t really interested in the things that people often turn to,” Levy recalls. “I still can’t play ‘Purple Haze’ or ‘Little Wing’ or any of that.”

His six-string instincts and musical curiosities have served him well over the years as a sideman and session player—Levy’s credentials include studio work with the likes of Amos Lee, Tracy Chapman, Sex Mob, and, most notably, Norah Jones, on whose first three albums he performed as a member of her Handsome Band—as well as a singer/songwriter.

Composing with and for other artists—Jones recorded his track, “In the Morning,” on her sophomore LP Feels Like Home—Levy has also produced a string of solo efforts, the most recent being The Heart Collector (Lost Wax Music). Cozy and mostly acoustic, the album evokes the character of a classic short-story anthology chock full of picturesque imagery and humble, endearing emotion. His voice soft yet dusky—think Keb Mo mixed with a bit of Lyle Lovett—Levy renders each narrative like a seasoned storyteller or, perhaps, an old friend.

“The whole point of songwriting is to tap into some universal thing,” he says, and just as an author embellishes within a plot, Levy doesn't necessarily base his songs on personal experience. “It’s not like you found my journal and you’re reading my innermost thoughts,” he explains. “They’re in there, but most of the songs come from other places. Anything that’s really confessional would go by really quickly. I wouldn’t ask you to listen to my confessions for three-and-a-half minutes… I would never write a song that says, ‘I woke up today at 7:20 and ate some leftover mac and cheese.’ That’s what I really did, but I wouldn’t put that in a song.”

Of greater importance, Levy says, is that his conviction be sincere.

Take, for instance, one of The Heart Collector's most charming songs, "Painting by Numbers," which was inspired by Edvard Munch's Self Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed. “So I started off with what was there," Levy explains. "The first line is, ‘I made up the bed the way that she likes it / Then I polished the floor ‘til it shined so bright / Then I oiled the gears in the grandfather clock / And put on my best suit of blue and green.’ In the first verse I’ve just described the entire painting.”

Levy employed a bit of poetic license to craft the song’s chorus and remaining two verses, filling out a narrative whose protagonist is neither directly informed by the portrait nor his own conscious thoughts. "And yet,” he maintains, “at the same time, that character is really sympathetic to me. I could see myself in him.”

That his songs in turn resonate with listeners is for Levy not only rewarding, but encouraging as well.

“That’s part of the challenge of being an artist if you want to have any kind of longevity,” he says, “writing songs that will have some staying power, of course, and also finding ways to keep your own self amused, entertained, bemused, whatever. Because as soon as you get bored, as soon as you tune out, I don’t think you can expect anyone else to tune in.”

(First published at Blinded By Sound.)