Adam Svec and the science of sound
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When lauded indie-pop quartet The Glad Version decided to go on extended hiatus in July 2009, the Twin Cities lost one of its tightest rock bands of the 2000s but gained a compelling new artist on the singer-songwriter scene. Former TGV singer and guitarist Adam Svec's sophomore solo album, Rarefaction, strips away much of the band's studio sheen and barbed guitars, leaving ample room for his beguiling choir-boy tenor to command center stage. With mid-tempo minimalist pop songs, he makes his mark as one of the strongest sets of pipes on the Minnesota music map. Prior to his CD-release show at the Kitty Cat Klub on Jan. 29, Svec talked with The A.V. Club about his audiology studies and the perils of overly personal songwriting.
The A.V. Club: You're currently pursuing a doctorate of audiology at the University Of Minnesota. How have your studies affected your relationship with making music?
Adam Svec: Songwriting has always been a way for me to flush out my more extreme motions, just the joys and frustrations of my day-to-day life. So, inevitably, aspects of my academic career have started creeping into some of the songs on the new album just because that's how I'm spending a lot of my time. Many of my classes make me think about music in new ways. I just got out of my Hearing Aids 2 class, and we were talking about the fact that only one company makes mics and speakers that work with the hearing impaired—which is crazy. Just thinking about sound quality and devices in terms of what it means for the hearing impaired definitely informs some of the ways I think about sound when I'm making records now.
AVC: Do you to take a more scientific approach to songwriting now?
AS: I actually think I was that way before I ever went back to school. [Laughs.] I've always had a tendency to be very categorical and put things together sequentially and in a very orderly manner. I'm just drawn to that way of thinking. If anything I already thought and created that way, so that's why the sciences appealed to me. Whatever method I use I like to think I've gotten better at songwriting, because I like the songs I've written the last few years a lot more than my first few records. [Laughs.]
AVC: You seem to talk about ambivalence a lot, from Glad Version songs like "89.3" to this album's "Breaking Strings." Why do you think you come back to this so often?
AS: It's something I think about a lot. "Breaking Strings" started out as being about a recording process that I was fairly frustrated with. That initial lyrical idea ended up expanding into a more top-down view of what it means to be a songwriter. Because I spend my time around a lot of songwriters I can't help but wonder about certain things, like "Why do we feel so inclined to write about things that are so damn close to us? Why do we feel like we need to take something that's an inch from our skin and make it public without thinking about how that is going effect other people in our lives?" Writing songs is often this sort of public diary in which you challenge yourself to write about things that tend to be dangerously close to you. So really, "Breaking Strings" is a song making fun of myself and a particular friend of mine for our tendency to write overly personal songs.
AVC: Rarefaction gets pretty dark, particularly the song "Valley Of Anything," which depicts a mother's suicide. Did you hesitate at all when you recorded some of the more controversial material?
AS: There were a couple of songs this past recording session that made me uncomfortable to put on a record because of how directly they related to the dissolving of a relationship. I ended up keeping them off Rarefaction, although I've now started to play some of them live. For the sake of the other person, they just weren't songs I was comfortable releasing. "Valley Of Anything" isn't autobiographical at all apart from the last verse. The first verse is taken from a "Fresh Air" episode I heard about a chaplain who would oversee death-sentence inmates in their last moments. His story was just heart-wrenching; I couldn't even deal with it. I listened to it about five or six times at intervals and that got me started on the song. The second verse was inspired by a play that I performed in back in 2001 called Women And Wallace. I performed a soliloquy where the character talked about finding his mother's body and the note she left. That whole song was really a writing experiment for me. The different verses aren't connected at all other than that they all deal with death.
AVC: Are you hoping not to get "dangerously close" to your own life in your songwriting?
AS: Well, there are only so many things that can happen to one person in a lifetime. [Laughs.] When you're writing a song, regardless of how true-to-life you're trying to make it, there are going to be turns of phrase in there that aren't exactly how things happened. Songwriting-wise it doesn't feel terribly separate to me whether the inspiration is my actual life or a story I read somewhere else or pulled out of thin air. As long as the writing is coming from an honest place and not trying to work out some sort of story-songwriting math problem, I think you're going to be okay.