Sacred Discontent: Behind the Album The Broken Seasons with Adam Whipple
Adam Whipple plays a house show in East Tennessee.
Loyal readers might remember we ran a review from John Barber of Adam Whipple’s new album The Broken Seasons here a few months ago. I would recommend you read it first, then come back and hear from the artist about the philosophy and planning behind the album and the songs. This isn’t meant to be a review, but a conversation that hopefully will give us a glimpse into his creation process. Then click on over to PledgeMusic and help this album drop into a world that needs its honesty. There are only a few days left.
John Palmer Gregg: First. This is an amazing album, and not just a collection of great songs, but it seems well put together. Awesome job man.
Adam Whipple: Thank you!
JPG: Can you briefly describe your songwriting process? Do you start with the lyrics, the music?
AW: I tend to woolgather a lot. Bits of lyrics will come, sometimes verses or choruses or bridges, and I record it or write down a sketch of the melody and let it percolate. The days of entire songs arriving like lightning are either gone or very rare. Sometimes a whole verse or two will show up. That happens a lot when I’m driving, when it’s inconvenient (or illegal?) to write anything down. Once in a while, music comes first, but I get so enamored with music that it often gets hard to see past it. Those times when music arrives first, it seems to open up lyrics that were already there, usually about things I’m dealing with at the time.
JPG: Do you sit down and decide to start writing, or do you wait for inspiration?
AW: Yes to both. I have journals full of fragmentary material, and sitting down to write often means looking back through all of that to find something that sticks.
JPG: It seems to me that there are several themes that run through many of these songs. One that jumps out from the very first track on is an intentional development of an unrequited longing, both for place and relationship. As you were writing and putting the album together was that longing an intentional focus or does it relate to where you are in your life right now?
AW: Some of these songs are several years old and have been waiting in the wings for a good home. It was only after looking at the body of songs with some good friends that themes started to emerge for me. I feel like Negative Nancy sometimes with the subjects that come out in my songs, but it’s also quite possible that those of us who write in heavier faith-oriented themes like grief, loss, failure, frustration, and doubt are contributing to a more generally neglected part of the faith conversation. I personally find it difficult to write strictly victorious-sounding music, because it rings hollow for me in so many ways. Life is more complex than that, and faith is more complex than that.
JPG: The needs for personal grace and redemption in several of the songs seem tied to that theme of longing and are offered like pleading prayers. Is that something you feel important and need in your life right now? Was it difficult for you to pull that out of yourself and put it on paper?
AW: I think what’s probably more difficult for me is to structure confessional material in a way that others can interact with it. I think we need confession, but my need for confession is bent and broken in a way that makes me want to blurt anything and everything to everyone. That’s not necessarily right or healthy, because it can be a kind of reverse voyeurism. It can result in one-sided confessional conversations. So, I’ve had to learn to give those sorts of things away carefully, to people who are going to be near and hold me accountable.
At the same time, I think struggle with sin, failure, and the like is universal, and so it’s healthy to open it up to people. If truth doesn’t have teeth, it’s probably not going to change me.
JPG: Some artists like to move the listener on a journey through the album. The songs are chosen specifically and arranged in an order that facilitates that journey. Was this a consideration for you as you put it together, and if so, can you describe what that journey might look like?
AW: I love the format of epic poetry: that arrival in the thick of the mess and the long slog towards a mighty clash of forces. I also like a good epilogue. “Faraway Land” was always the best choice for a closer. I read recently about the playwright Sam Shepard preferring endings that are already moving towards another beginning. That feels relatable to me. CS Lewis came the closest I’ve ever seen to describing the ineffable and eternal at the end of the Narnia series. What I mean is, he came closest to describing the point of arrival, and even then, it’s still suggestive of ongoing action after the book ends. So, I do like a jumping-off point at the end of something. Not to deride the classic “happily ever after” ending, but with stories or records, the truest endings, for me, feel like endings that look forward. Andrew Peterson does this with Love & Thunder and The Far Country, closing in a “straight on till morning” fashion. Ben Shive ends with “A Last Time for Everything” on his second record. Tolkien ends Lord of the Rings the same way; even if you read the extended timeline, you watch Sam depart over the sea as the last of the ringbearers.
JPG: What are some of the themes you feel are at the core of The Broken Seasons?
AW: The overarching theme, I think, is one of sacred discontent. I think we’re supposed to love the world, to look around in delight and wonder at all good things. And I don’t just mean creation or the natural or physical world. I also mean things like work and common grace. At the same time, I think it’s right to take it all with a grain of salt, so to speak–to look at it knowing it will pass away. That’s both grievous and joyous: grievous because everything exudes at least a measure of beauty, and joyous because there is so much that is broken that wants redemption. This, I think is the sort of discontent Paul expresses when he talks about being glad to be alive, but also longing to be fully with Christ.
Within this greater theme, I go through conversations about divorce, homesickness, travel, death, birth, racism, self-righteousness–things I think we all deal with in one way or another.
JPG: As a songwriter, how do you approach communicating such abstract and sometimes personal ideas?
I like the way Billy Collins talks about his poem “The Lanyard,” about taking a small thing and using it as an entry point to describe some larger abstraction. It’s the sort of thing I like about the band The Blue Nile. Paul Buchanan often writes in little collections of vignettes, these postcards from a tragicomic domestic life. They’re songs like Edward Hopper paintings. You have a moment frozen in time, but there’s so much that is conveyed by that single frame.
JPG: Which songs resonate the most with you as you listen back to them? What about those around you who have heard them?
For me, “Eidolon” and “Burning Coal” tend to hit hardest, because they function as cautionary tales to keep me on track. I wouldn’t dare presume to suggest what has struck those around me, just because one of my favorite parts of this work is being surprised by that.
JPG: With all the different ways to fund a project, like Kickstarter, Patreon and the multitude of other crowd funding options, why did you choose PledgeMusic?
AW: PledgeMusic gave me more creative control over the campaign structure. I don’t have a huge platform to work with to fund a record, so that control has been a big help for me.
JPG: How close are you to your goal and how much time is left?
AW: We’ve still got about 60% to go, and we’ve got a week left, so it’s time to buckle down.
JPG: What are some of the rewards for backers?
AW: Some of my favorites are the exclusive t-shirt, the actual album art mixed media pieces, and the handwritten lyric journal detailing backstory on all the songs. I also love the hiking reward, which is a chance for me to introduce supporters to some of my favorite trails around the Knoxville area.
JPG: Several of the rewards are related to the process, such as the journal and handwritten notes and seem very personal to you. What is the motivation behind these? And was it a difficult decision to give these out?
AW: The journal isn’t so bad, and I like the idea of letting people in on the process. Sending away the artwork and the studio sheets is a bit of a wistful exercise, because I spent so much time with these pieces or sheets of paper, laboring over them. It’s a little like giving someone the playground where you played as a kid.
Few musicians are so honest about themselves in their music as Whipple. Because of this, the album is not likely to hit you over the head with empty energy and vague imagery like most mainstream packaged musicians. Instead, the album meets you somewhere inside your soul and invites you on a journey through your own experiences and reflections. Here are some snippets that will get you started on that introspective tour.