“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” Henry Miller once wrote.
For his latest release, The Room Is Spinning Faster, singer-songwriter Adam Sullivan took Miller’s words to heart. Following his restlessness across borders, oceans and international time zones, he found himself happily bumping into inspiration at nearly every stop.
“I have a hard time staying in the same place for very long,” Sullivan says. “I have a base in New York City, but I travel a lot. And these songs were written everywhere from England to Ireland to The Netherlands to Iceland. I played over a hundred shows last year in the US and Canada and Europe, so I was constantly meeting new people and experiencing new things. The record is a collection of stories from my life – kind of like a diary, really. I’m very honest about the details, and I tend to write about things that make me feel something.”
Like receiving funny, detailed postcards from a friend abroad, there’s a vicarious thrill in hearing Sullivan share his experiences. Whether its the candid doubts about his own sanity in the sweeping opener “Nothing Like Being Alone” or the complications of a love triangle in the angular rocker “Dinosaurs,” you find yourself feeling empathy for his plights. Even when the mood shifts, from the autumnal chamber pop of “Amsterdam” through the lush late night meditation of “Providence” to the heart-racing beauty of “Cab,” Sullivan conveys a sense of embracing life with all its crazy funhouse mirrors and trap doors.
“It’s bizarre when you spend so much time alone on the road,” he says, “but at the same time I kind of feel like there’s a sense of self-discovery. You really realize who you are.”
With eight EPs and three albums under his belt, the piano-playing Sullivan certainly knows who he is as an artist, but for The Room Is Spinning Faster, he upped the ante by working with producer John Painter (Ben Folds, Sixpence None The Richer). With arrangements that include everything from middle eastern-flavored strings to spy jazz flourishes, Painter creates a dazzling widescreen palette that perfectly complements Sullivan’s sweet melodicism and relaxed, conversational vocals.
“I’ve been a fan of John’s ever since I was a kid, so this was kind of a like a dream come true,” Sullivan says. “John was easy to work with. The atmosphere in the studio was really fun, with a lot of joking around. We took what we were doing seriously, but there was never pressure. I brought thirty or forty songs in, and we spent a couple of days just listening and refining the list. The collaboration was great.
“Everything I’ve done previously has been self-produced and self-recorded,” he continues. “So it was amazing to watch John work, because he has such a discerning ear when it comes to arrangements and mixes, and how to shape a complex sonic vision into something that makes sense. It took everything to a new level, in a much more hi-fi way. I think it goes beyond a typical singer-songwriter record.”
Sullivan’s background also goes beyond typical singer-songwriter stock. Born and raised in Virginia, he was on the fast track to be a concert pianist, with Julliard and recitals in his future. Then he discovered rock music and it was bye bye Brahms. Not that his parents approved at first.
He recalls, “I was sheltered as a kid. My mom and dad were strict, and I had to sneak records into the house and hide my Walkman under the mattress.”
Finally, he made a deal with his parents. He’d practice Mozart and Beethoven for a few hours a day, and in return, he’d get to play some of the contemporary music he liked.
“It wasn’t even cutting edge stuff that I got into,” Sullivan says. “Mostly ‘80s rock and pop. But it was totally new to me, so I was like, ‘This is amazing! This is the promised land of music!’ And even though later I got into artists like REM and Randy Newman, all those ‘80s records influenced me, in that I tend to write in a lot of different genres.”
Further setting himself apart from 99% of the sensitive troubadours out there, Sullivan also has two masters degrees, a PhD and he teaches online courses in accounting, statistics and business.
With a chuckle, he says, “I always joke that I went to school to be Batman. I loved the idea that Batman had these two lives. During the day, he was a businessman, and at night, a superhero. I enjoy teaching, and the interactions I have with my students. However, music is my passion, and I look forward to the day I can support myself that way.”
If The Room Is Spinning Faster is any indication, that day may be just around the corner. But as he looks forward to more globe-trotting and performing, Sullivan acknowledges that being a singer-songwriter is still an uphill struggle.
“I’m the worst self-promoter, so I haven’t figured out how to shove my records in everybody’s faces yet,” he says with a smile.
“But I hope that people find something to relate to in these songs. That’s one of the reasons I write. It’s really easy to feel alone, and I’ve always found comfort in songs that I can relate to. Those songs reassure me that I’m not the only one that feels the way I do. I really hope that I can provide that same reassurance to others through my own music. It’s important to me to that I make a connection with people, whether on record or in a live performance. Not for the album sales or recognition – but for the benefit of having had that shared mutual experience.”
Biography by Bill DeMain (featured music writer for MOJO, Performing Songwriter, Musician, Mental Floss, Entertainment Weekly)