South African-born, London-based musician and poet Adam Donen has been around in various incarnations, playing in the art rock outfit Alexandria Quartet before deciding to go it alone. In early 2010, he released his first album Immortality – a poetic, literary adventure through oblique lyricism and swirling strings, politics and crumbled romance.
Often compared to Leonard Cohen, simply for being another poet-turned-songwriter, Donen has returned with a new album, Vampires, which weaves a similar path through winding tales in sparse, atmospheric songs. State caught up with Donen in the days before his album launch in London for a quick chat about religion, the theatrical and of course, his latest album.
Prior to the album’s release, you played an intimate show in London’s Abney Park cemetery. Not having been to many gigs in graveyards, How did that one go?
On the basis of that one, there should be more shows in cemeteries! Abney’s huge, and we were playing in the church ruins in the middle of it, so all around us was completely quiet. It meant we didn’t have to mic anything up too much; it felt… religious, rather than… theatrical… I suppose.
On that point, we’ve also noticed that in this album and in your previous work, there’s much reference to religion. How does your attitude toward religion shape your work?
I need desperately to believe in a power greater than myself. I am painfully unable to do so. It colours much of my work. A couple of the tracks on this record – ‘Sickle Moon’, ‘Sophia’ – nostalgically make use of the sort of hymnal structures with which I grew up. But all of the great certainties of the last centuries – ‘God’, ‘community’, ‘progress’, the romantic conception of love – have been discredited, and grow ever more so.
It feels painfully like everything we were ever taught to believe is falling to pieces around us, and we’re playing the Xbox while Athens burns, and this, I suppose, is one of the main conscious or subconscious subjects of the album. Not that I long for the past, but I do long – hopelessly – for a present different to this one.
Your songs are full of literary references, poetic and intense with a real sense of world you were living in when you wrote them. When did you write Vampires and what were the cultural and environmental aspects influencing you most when you wrote this album?
Vampires was written a little over a year ago. Probably about half of it was written in Cape Town, South Africa, a couple of tracks in Saxmundham (a small, grey, gloomy seaside town in the East of England), and a couple of tracks in London.
The sea seeps into at least half the songs on the record. Particularly a view I had in Cape Town, of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, infinite before me. And the sense of powerlessness, of being dwarfed by things one can never hope to understand – that seeps through too.
At the other extreme, the lyrics to ‘The Circle Game, Again’ were written on a mobile telephone while walking through Chelsea, trapped for two hours between angry football fans and angrier cops.
You started off playing in bands – such as The Alexandria Quartet – before eventually breaking off as a solo artist. This is your second solo album. How have you changed since the days of The Alexandria Quartet and how has that influenced your music up to- and including Vampires?
A few years ago I was very comfortable being a drunk, drugged nut-nut, and really quite enjoyed raging, smashing apart anything there was to be smashed. I wrote songs very quickly.
I’ve got a little more morose since then. Perhaps a bit more disciplined, too. I’ve also become a lot surer of myself as a composer and an artist. It takes far longer for me to finish songs, and they’re far more carefully constructed, and use many more and more varied instruments. ‘Vampires’, the title track, was 17 verses at its peak, before being parsed down to its final, slender eight.
In the Alexandria Quartet days, we desperately aspired to have fame thrust upon our studiously unwilling shoulders; I don’t try to please folks anymore. Now I just aim to create works I consider perfect, after their fashion. This is a lot easier in some respects, a lot harder in others.
Adam Donen’s Vampires is out now throughout Europe. Adam and his band will commence a UK tour 7 Oct in London with Irish shows are planned for early 2012.