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The Lowlands: An Interview with Adam Whipple

[Editor’s note: Back in November of last year, I interviewed Adam Whipple as he was finishing up an album called The Broken Seasons. A few months later, it’s finished and available to purchase here at The Rabbit Room Store. So here’s our interview in case you missed it the first time around, and don’t forget to check out his record!]

Adam Whipple’s songs feel like dense works of fiction, making their own way between poetry and prose. You can sink your teeth into his words, savoring the many subtleties of flavor you’ll find on repeated listen.

He just released a fourteen-song adventure called The Broken Seasons. In it you will find songs for the road, for home, and for everywhere in between. Imaginative characters and introspective poetry abound, riding on the wind of flutes, vibraphones, lap steel guitars, organs, and a myriad of other well-chosen sounds.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to this album and talking with Adam about its making. Below you will find a transcript of our conversation followed by his song (one of my personal favorites), “Above The Clouds.”

Drew: I picked up on a lot of traveling language in The Broken Seasons. Lots of songs deal with being away. “Eidolon” for instance is one of my favorites, and it opens with the line about feeling like a tourist on the streets of your hometown. Could you speak to traveling as a theme throughout the record?

We don’t really go to work. It’s more accurate to say we’re sent. Adam Whipple

Adam: As I’ve traveled around to play shows, we as a family have learned how to make my intermittent absence more and more a part of our rhythm. When I first started these road trips, I would take lots of CDs with me and listen to music constantly to keep the miles passing by.

But now I’m typically just quiet. And you’d be amazed at how much I can talk to myself in the car when I’m not listening to music, so it feels like quite a departure to take these long, silent, solitary car rides.

Drew: Do you consider yourself to be a verbal processor?

Adam: I do, and that’s why talking can be both so helpful and get me into such trouble. Everything that comes out of my mouth is about 40% finished, so I’m editing it as it comes out!

But with these long periods of silence, I feel like I’ve gotten to a new place with traveling. I can be okay with that empty space, relinquish the need to distract myself. “Eidolon” was written out of a place of wrestling with being away from home, with knowing the kind of strain it can put on my family.

And there’s this idea I’ve been thinking about quite a lot and discussing with my wife—we don’t really go to work. It’s more accurate to say we’re sent. Our loved ones, by their consent, send us to do whatever we have before us to do. My wife is a teacher, I’m a coach at school, I run sound at a church in my town. We’re sent to each of these stations.

It’s so easy to become enamored with travel. For me at least, there’s this element of trying to scratch an itch that will never quite be scratched by going to new places. And the trouble comes when I forget that at the core of it, I’m sent in all that I do.

Drew: And that has a lot to do with the very word “eidolon.” I didn’t know what that word meant. I had to get out a dictionary several times while listening to your album, by the way, which is a compliment. That word in particular is such a cool word.

Adam: I do love that word. It’s very melodic.

Drew: It has a nice ring to it; it’s just asking to be the name of a song. So thank you for doing that for us!

The definition I found says, “an idealized person or thing” or “a phantom.” And you found the perfect place for that word in this lyric: “Give me grace for the earthen feet upon the eidolon of everything I think I know.” Could you give a little insight into that line and how those words were put together?

Adam: I think it was Nebuchadnezzar who had this vision of an idol, this big, tall thing made of various metals: iron, brass, and so on. But then its feet were made of clay, so they were more breakable.

I love that image; the Bible at times obeys a fairy tale logic we have forgotten how to understand. So I was going for this image of standing on fragile feet of clay, especially as a symbol for the precarious nature of traveling. It’s so easy to slip into a mindset of glamorizing my arrival at new places. I’ve found that when that happens, I forget the notion that I am “sent.” So that song is me reminding myself that home is where the real work is done. As I travel and play shows, that may be the flower sprouting above the surface, but the roots are underneath back at home.

Drew: Let’s zoom out a bit: I’d love to hear more about all that went into writing and recording The Broken Seasons as a project. It feels very purposefully put together. I’d love to hear what your vision was from the beginning—was it the kind of thing that sprung from a vision, or did you have a bunch of songs that naturally had a flow to them?

Adam: I write by gathering thoughts into my journal, which contains songs, poems, essays, rantings, prayers, and so on. If you look at any set of pages, you’ll see some themes emerge organically from whatever I was dealing with at the time. Any sort of continuity garnered through that comes from what the Spirit was teaching me in the moment.

I have a writer’s group, and I was working through some ideas for this album’s title. A friend suggested The Broken Seasons as a title because she had listened to some songs and heard those themes come out, like being away from home, broken relationships, and so on. As I sat with it some more, the name really stuck.

Drew: For the arrangements on this record, did you have other musicians help you, or did you pull a Sufjan Stevens and play everything, or probably a combination of the two?

Adam: I definitely had plenty of help from other people, but I also played a lot of parts because it’s cheaper that way, of course. I do like collaboration and I really wanted to collaborate as much as I could, but insofar as I love collaboration, I also like to have creative control over sounds. I generally know what it is I’m looking for.

A few weeks ago I was going down to Georgia and I got this Joe Henry album and listened on the way. He’s produced a couple of records for Over the Rhine. He’s a brilliant songwriter. He has this way of taking groups of instruments that are similar in timbre and making the sound weave in and out of itself. So you’ve got a mandola imitating a guitar or a lap steel sounding like an extension of a piano, horns imitating an organ sound, those kinds of things. I love all of that and decided that was what I wanted to do with this album. I wanted the listener to not even know exactly what instruments are playing because they’re woven together so well.

So that’s what I was going for, especially on songs like “It’s Been So Long” and “Eidolon.” On “Eidolon,” we used some bowed vibraphones. That was a lot of fun.

Drew: Would it be fair to say “Above the Clouds” has that element in it as well? There were several moments as I listened when I could hear this ethereal sound, and I knew there was a string section there, but was there a xylophone or a marimba as well?

Adam: Yeah, we did vibes and glockenspiel, with both mallets and bows.

Drew: So you had two different modes of attack resonating together.

Adam: Yeah, and there’s this crystal clear sound that comes out of that. I love bringing those elements into these recordings.

Drew: Let’s focus on “Above the Clouds” from a songwriting perspective for a moment. It’s one of my favorites. The idea of the “lowlands,” trying to rise above them, but also hearing God’s voice from the kitchen sink while washing dishes—such a rich articulation of those tensions.

Adam: In my neighborhood, when I look southeast, I can see Mount Le Conte in the distance. I love being able to see that as part of my visual lexicon. I didn’t know I could do that until I read Cold Mountain. In that book, the main character recognizes his home by the shape of the hills surrounding it. That inspired me, so I wanted to be able to identify where I am not by gas stations and restaurants, but by the landscapes that actually constitute the place itself.

That led me to recognize that I can see Mount Le Conte from my neighborhood, and it just calls to me. If anybody said to me, “Hey, why don’t you set everything down and let me take care of it for the day. Just go to the mountains,” I would say yes immediately. I wouldn’t even take anything with me. I would endure the hardships of not being prepared to go to the mountains just to be in the mountains.

In reality, when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m folding laundry, cooking a meal, serving my family, going to work—there’s probably a lot more spiritual weight to those activities than I give them credit for. Adam Whipple

But there’s a funny anecdote to temper that with as well: my parents used to have this coffee table book called The Dictionary of Parenting, and it defines vacation as “where you go to get away from it all, only to find it there too.” That’s pretty accurate! If I go to the mountains, a lot of my desire comes from me trying to get away from my problems and even myself. But I took myself to the mountains, so unfortunately, I’m there with me. That’s not to say there’s not value in taking a second to breathe, but I can easily make an idol of “getting away.” In reality, when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m folding laundry, cooking a meal, serving my family, going to work—there’s probably a lot more spiritual weight to those activities than I give them credit for.

Drew: I love your use of the word “lowlands” in the song. Between those first two stanzas, you’re going up above the snow line to find silence you thought you’d never find in the lowlands, but in the next stanza you say “the earth raised up a chorus to glorify the Maker of the lowlands.” It seems you’re saying that these two elements of life are not opposed to one another, but rather tied intimately together. The mountains can glorify the Maker of the low places. That hit me in just the right spot.

Adam: At the end of the film version of Return of the King, you hear a voiceover of Frodo talking to Samwise. He says, “Sam, you can’t always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole for many years.” That just breaks my heart. There are so many days when I would love to be torn in two. Whenever my wife finally has pity on me and says, “you need to get out of the house—go outside,” and I take her advice, part of me remains at home, wondering what’s going on with the kids, what my wife is dealing with, and so on.

Drew: It would almost be easier to be torn in two so you could just leave that other half at home.

Adam: Right—it would be so much easier to have two of me and be able to leave one elsewhere! I feel that acutely. I’m still at home even when I’m in the mountains. The part of me that wisely rails against the idea that spirituality is something to be found “out there somewhere”—that’s where “Above the Clouds” came from.

Drew: Of course. And it wouldn’t be a Rabbit Room interview without exploring some theological themes. You just quoted Lord of the Rings, so we’re on track.

Adam: This is the right place for that.



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