Listen to “Fire and Brimstone”, and you can tell that Andrew Adkins is steeped in the history of blues rock.
Rock makes sense for someone who grew up listening to the Beatles and playing Led Zeppelin – Adkins’ influences are badges he’s earned. Those sounds are also what propelled him into the the music business; he first toured the scene in a series of rock bands before striking out on his own.
So it’s no surprise that his blues rock background bleeds out of him and into his songs. He’s not afraid to throw lyrical winks toward legends like Willie Dixon, and he doesn’t shy away from the twang of blues licks.
But, for all of the sounds he carries with him – the obvious appreciation of blues, the snaking guitar riffs, the growling vocals – Adkins’ sound is distinct. And that’s what makes it captivating.
From the brass trumpet melodies of “When the World’s Against Me” to the lilting, almost-Indie poetry of “Throw Down Your Guns”, there are too many sounds in Andrew’s music for it to easily sink into the box of a genre. Instead, it’s unpredictable; it’s enthralling. It’s indie-alternative, Americana folk music, with the heart of the blues pulsing underneath.
That heart beats to the surface on “Fire and Brimstone”. It’s a hard-hitting song, for sure. Give it a listen, and you’ll probably feel the urge to rev up a motorcycle, run through a wall, or, at the very least, tap your foot. Then, dive into the story behind the song, and learn how Adkins writes music that’s uniquely his own.
And, check out the website, here.
When did you start writing songs? How’d you get into it?
Andrew Adkins: I started writing songs when I was in 6th grade. I was (and still do a lot) just flying blindly. I would always try to make sense of it and figure out a formula. As a matter of fact, I was chasing that notion all the way up until about 10 years ago. I then realized that, after discovering and delving deeper into guys like Elvis Costello, Townes Van Zandt and Warren Zevon that you didn’t really need a plan or blueprint – it is all emotions and the feelings create the path. Once you lead with emotion everything just follows and falls into place. I would say discovering The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, like so many others, made me want to create my own music.
Why do you write songs? What’s your goal when you write a song?
I write songs because therapy never worked for me. I feel that the closest thing to magic is writing songs. You can conjure an idea, exorcise your demons, confess your innermost feelings – it all starts with a spark of an idea then the next thing you know, you’re onstage or in the studio listening to that thought completely brought to life. It’s the greatest thing! I don’t really have goals when I write. I write just to write – be it a bad, decent, awful, mediocre or great idea. I write just to get it out of my head and system.
Do you write toward an idea in your head, or do you discover the song along the way?
I find it’s a little bit of both. I have songs right now that I’ve carried around with me for years, unfinished. I also have ideas I wake up with that within a week is recorded and committed to tape and on an album within a couple of weeks. I find that a lot of the time, the song comes to life and grows on it’s own as you delve into it. Some of the best stuff I’ve created turns out completely different than what you originally conceive it to be because it grows it’s own wings, so to speak.
How did you find your current style?
It’s a strange thing. I’ve never really settled or tried to market myself as one specific sound or style. It’s all rock n’ roll to me, really. After I spent years in rock bands, I was still embraced by fans of my previous bands and sort of held in the “rock” or “alternative” areas. However, once I started going broader in production and instrumentation – adding banjos, pedal steel, strings a lot of the “Americana” and “roots” crowds, radio and fans took me in. I don’t consider myself an “Americana” artist. I feel weird when people lump me into that category. The funny thing about that is the powers that be in the “Americana/roots” genres seem to shun me away for the most part because I’m too weird or too rock or synthy. The “rock” folks sometimes shun me because I’m too “folky” or acoustic for their tastes. I just love writing songs and making music, man!! It’s a bit of a curse when working with PR agencies or record companies because nobody knows exactly how to market me or who to market me towards. I really dislike that regardless of your sounds, influences and whatnot, at the end of the day you have to pick a genre or box and try to fit it. I wish you could just make music and there it is. However, that’s why they call it “the music business”, isn’t it?
Who are your influences?
Too many to name, really. I love The Beatles, 60’s/70’s Motown and Soul, Jane’s Addiction, The Velvet Underground, T.Rex, Waylon Jennings, Ennio Morrichone, A Tribe Called Quest, Townes Van Zandt, The Band, John Prine, KISS, Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queen, Brian Wilson, Zepp, Ramones…so many. I also am heavily influenced by writers such as Hemmingway, the Beat poets (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs), film makers like Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Harmony Korine artists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Karel Appel, Paul Nash.
What is your favorite song of all time, and why?
I always say, “A Day In The Life” or “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”. “A Day In The Life” is just perfect to me. It has everything I always look for in a song. It also used to scare the Hell out of me hearing it as a child. “I Just Wasn’t Made…” because out of every song I’ve ever heard, I feel like this one speaks to and for me. It’s like pouring my mind and soul on the table.
What makes music or a song good?
The connection or feelings it provokes. The same things that make a picture or film so meaningful.
How do you write? Do you start with lyrics or a melody? Chorus or verse?
I start with just noodling. Some would call it “channeling” – which I feel is more appropriate. Sometimes the melody comes first, sometimes the music, sometimes a title, concept – it’s different each and every time.
Do you write all instrumental parts? Do you ever co-write or seek input as you’re writing?
On the last few projects (Glass Castles, Monsters + Ghosts, To Become Immortal Then Die) I ended up playing most of the instruments but I usually get help from some great friends and fellow-musicians – Tim Rogers who’s a great pedal steel guitarist who has played on pretty much all the recent projects and in my live band. My old friends Daryl Wayne Dasher and Rodney Russell and several others lend a hand here and there.
I’m not big into co-writing unless there’s something specific that intrigues me about the writer or artist. It’s not very “Nashville” to forego co-writing but I find it much more personal and introspective when you write alone. One of my favorite quotes is from the great Roger Miller. His reaction to co-writing was, “Did Picasso ever co-paint?!”. I’m not knocking it – some folks flourish and excel doing co-writes. It is just not really my thing.
How do you write a melody?
I don’t really. It just comes from somewhere, somehow. It’s like asking how I breathe – it just happens.
How do you write lyrics?
I don’t have a specific formula or strategy. Lyrics to me, is like dancing or swaying to a beat. Your mind and soul just reacts. Lyrics for me generally stem from what I’m feeling at the time or maybe something that’s been weighing on my mind. What they become or how they come to be is just relative to how I’m feeling at the time.
Would you rather write on personal experiences or general themes, and which approach comes more easily?
Sometimes I write from personal experiences but disguise it as something else. You could be thinking I’m professing my love to some girl but I’m singing about my dog or guitar. I definitely find it hardest to be vulnerable. The hardest thing for me to say is, “I love you” in a song. Some folks have it down! For me, it’s a hard place to get to.
Do you put more emphasis on lyrics or sound? And which would you consider more important?
I feel that one couldn’t exist without the other. They’re equally important. It’s like light and shade to me – you need both to paint the entire picture. That’s my experience at least. I feel that if you took all the sound and styles out of a Tom Waits song and just focused on the lyrics, he’d lose a lot of people. He’s a genius. One of my favorites. He could say anything and sing about anything but within those cool, quirky productions and his own styles, he just reels the listener in and keeps them there. I feel from there you start to fall in love with the lyrics even more once you’re in his web.
What emotions, thoughts, feelings do you want your music to inspire?
I just want the listener to be affected – if it’s a cool groove or if they find a lyric they can relate to, it’s all equally the same to me. I feel that the biggest compliment as a writer is that one person who comes to you after a show and tells you how much your songs helped them get through a situation or brought them together with someone else.
What role does production play in your writing?
I typically do not even think of production until I’m in the studio recording the song. I feel the production is just an extension of everything else. I never pre-map my songs. If they sound a certain way, it’s usually because they evolve that way in the studio.
What advice would you give other songwriters?
Turn off your TV and radio and just express yourself the best that you can do! Don’t try and be like someone else or copy anyone. If you’re into Springsteen, Springsteen has it down. We already have The Boss. There’s only one Bruce!! Utilize his influence and build off of that! Turn it into something that’s all of your own!
What was the first part of “Fire and Brimstone” to be written? Lyrics, melody, riff?
“Fire and Brimstone” came out of frustration. The rhythm came first as an accident. I was in the studio writing, which I seldom do while I’m recording. I’m usually always finished by the time I get down to recording it. I was hitting a brick wall and not getting anywhere. I always record ideas, riffs on my iPhone. I then typically give it a working title then eventually revisit it as some point at a later time. That day I was so frustrated I just started playing a rhythm to a drum beat. I titled the idea, “Worthless Loser” in my phone. I immediately re-listened to the song after I saved it to my phone and things just went from there. Within an evening the song was written and recorded. The gritty riff didn’t come along until the very end – like a cherry on top. It started out as a very acoustic-based number with a big solid beat. I feel that the beat and groove evolved and off of that the rest of the song just fell into place as you hear it now. The lyrics were added after the music was finished and recorded.
The ideas in the lyrics mesh really well with the sound – from blues chords to the guitar sound to the vocal effects. How did that all come about, and did it happen all at once?
I feel that no matter what, the blues influence is always present in mostly everything that I write. I’m not sure why or how but it is. When I was piecing this song together it sounded like an old blues with a bombastic beat behind it. I feel once that gritty, snakey riff was added, it just tied everything else together. I can’t really explain how the lyrics came together. It just fed off of the music and feel of the tune. The effect on the vocals just lent itself to the song. It was almost as if I wrote an old school blues tune then remixed it with modern elements. The samples (“Mmm”, “Ooh”) were pulled from a part of the song that wasn’t even used.
What is your favorite lyric or line from the song?
I suppose “I strike like a rattlesnake with hell fire in it’s eyes/fly like an eagle swaying through a cold, dead sky”. That was me tipping the hat to Willie Dixon for sure!
Is this about a specific situation or a general feeling? Would you be willing to share?
I’m a big fan of Western films, especially Italian Westerns from the 60s and 70s. I also grew up listening to Marty Robbins and his gunfighter and cowboy ballads and songs. I get into that headspace at times – that old, desperado type vibe. It’s basically me still playing “cowboy” as an adult – only my toy guns and plastic hat have been replaced with guitars and a recording studio. The enthusiasm and imagination is still the same!
What kind of music were you listening to before you wrote this?
When I wrote “Fire & Brimstone” I was listening to Blitzen Trapper and a group called Ibeyi.
What do you want listeners to take away from this song?
It would just be cool to lose yourself for 3 ½ minutes or so. Leave all of your real-life at the door and escape for a little while, if only briefly.
I noticed that this was originally recorded a few years ago. Has the song’s meaning changed at all for you since you originally wrote it, or do you still relate to it in the same way?
I still feel the same, Nothing has changed at all. I still feel like I did when I wrote it every night that I perform this live.
What’s next for you in terms of upcoming music and shows?
“Fire & Brimstone” will be featured on my upcoming album, “To Become Immortal Then Die”. The album is a compilation of songs from previous solo projects and a few leftover tunes from Glass Castles and a couple of new songs. It will be out on OneRPM Music on December 8th, 2017.