Adam Levy: The Working Man’s Guitar Hero

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You’ve definitely heard Adam Levy’s playing —you just may not know it. The veteran guitarist’s work is tucked neatly into some of the biggest hits from over the past 20 years.

Those are his blues licks on Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” which won a Grammy for Best Rock Song in 1997. And his subtle embellishments dot Norah Jones’s debut record, “Come Away With Me,” which won the Grammy for Best Album in 2003. Levy spent several years in Jones’s touring band and played on her first three records.

For the past decade, Levy has been writing and singing his own tunes while also collaborating with artists like Lisa Loeb, Ani DiFranco, Amos Lee, and Rosanne Cash. His latest album, Other Desert Cities, was released in December.

Levy lives in Los Angeles, but we first met at a gig at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg in 2007, making him fair game for a YACK Brooklyn chat. In this interview, Levy dishes about his time with Tracy and Norah, an East Village shopping spree with jazz legend John McLaughlin, and the uncertain future of the music biz.

What’s your favorite story from your time in Norah Jones’s band?

In 2005 we were on this German TV show called Wetten Dass — it’s kind of like being on Saturday Night Live. We were the musical guest and playing the single “Sunrise.” The other guest on the show was Charlize Theron, who, if people aren’t aware, is incredibly hot.

They went to a commercial break and came back. The host is there and Charlize Theron is sitting on the couch. And just before we start playing, she winks at Norah — this sly wink. We start playing “Sunrise” and Norah completely messed up the lyrics. She was just dumbstruck by Charlize Theron flirting with her on TV. Somehow we got through.

The one thing about Norah is she never ever did any lip-synching. And she would never really forget lyrics. So that was pretty memorable.

Anything funny ever happen on the road during that time?

Our other guitar player on that tour, Kevin Breit, used to sit up front with the bus driver and chat him up. He’d say, “Hey man, when are you going to let me drive?” And the driver was like, “Anytime, man.” So one day we’re pulling out of the parking lot after a gig and are on the road. The bus driver was like, “You want to do it?” and Kevin said, “Okay, really?” The driver counts 1-2-3 and just lets go of the wheel, stands up, and walks away.

Kevin gets situated and starts driving the bus. The driver walks back to Norah’s bunk and says, “Hey darlin’ how you doin’?” And she looks at him and yells, “Who’s driving the bus?!” She just shrieked. In retrospect we all could’ve gotten killed. But it was funny. That happened 12 years ago, but I remember it like it was last week.

What was it like working with Tracy Chapman? She seems like a very serious person. Does she have a lighter side?

Tracy does have a sense of humor, but she keeps her game face on most of the time. And especially when I was working with her in the ’90s, it was a pretty serious time for her. She seemed unsure as to whether she wanted to continue making records or go back to school and do something else altogether.

Once we were making a record and she said, “I want everyone to bring in whatever instrument you started on as a kid. It doesn’t have to be the instrument you play now.” She brought in a clarinet. She wanted to have this spirit of fun, and that stuck out. Let’s spend a day in the studio just being kids and remembering what that was like. I think it was good for us to do that.

And one day during rehearsals Alice Walker was there and Tracy said, “Oh yeah, this is my friend Alice.” No other qualifier. Her nonchalance about it really amazed me.

Any good stories from your time living in New York City?

About 10 years ago I was walking around the East Village and I ran into my friend Leni Stern, who’s a great guitar player. She was standing on the street talking to John McLaughlin, who I always think of as dressed in some kind of Indian-style garb or a nice suit. And he’s just standing there in shorts and a T-shirt, on a summer day. And the two of them were like, “We’re on our way to Tower Records.”

So we go there and split up and I’m thinking, god, I really want to have some cool records to show John McLaughlin. We all meet up a half-hour later at the counter. I bought a Kenny Burrell record and a few other things. He’s got two CDs, and I said, “What are you buying? I’ve never heard of either of those bands.” And he said, “Man, I don’t know! I loved the album covers. These covers are so great.”

I thought he’d have some great world music or jazz, but his process for choosing albums was just very innocent and kid-like. That experience with John sticks with me. It’s not all about what’s the newest or hippest or coolest or oldest. It’s just what turns you on.

What’s the toughest emotion to convey in music, whether it’s with lyrics or instrumentally?

A few years ago I went to a songwriting workshop and the instructor told the class not to write about emotions. She said to use images, because memories and dreams are made of images. We feel the emotions, but we don’t talk about them. And that surprised me. Ever since then, I’ve tried to stay away from writing a new song about an emotion that I’m trying to convey. I come at it more from: What are the images? What’s really happening? And then whatever the listener gets out of it emotionally is on them.

That said, I’ve noticed that it’s hard to convey joy in songs without being corny or Hallmark Card-ish. So, if I had to give a one-word answer, I’d say joy. But the longer answer is I don’t set out to convey emotions. I just set out to be descriptive and let the emotions come as they are.

What’s the most unusual thing that’s ever happened to you during a gig?

This was a long time ago, way before the Norah Jones part of my performing life. When I was in my early 20s, I had a gig at the Placer County Fair in Northern California. Our band had two sets to play, and between our two sets there was a goat-milking contest. Local celebrities would come on one at a time and milk a goat. Whoever could get the most milk out in 60 seconds won. It was pretty funny to observe.

When we got back on stage for our second set, the entire stage was covered with goat milk. We’re out there in the hot summer sun and it was just like, wow, this is show business.

What advice would you give to musicians looking to get their music out there and build a fanbase?

For somebody who’s up and coming, swapping email addresses for tracks may be a good strategy. Give away the music and encourage people to share it. The Milk Carton Kids are a good example of a band that started out giving their music away, and in doing that they built this huge fanbase. So, even though they’re not making any money on their records, now they can go out and play big theaters.

It used to be that selling records was the moneymaker. Norah Jones made a lot of money selling records. I don’t think she made a lot of money on tour. Her tour was a break-even proposition to promote the record. That’s the biggest thing that has changed a lot. It used to be that you made your money selling records, and touring was something you did to promote the record. Now the tour is the moneymaker and the record just gives you something to talk about when you go out on tour. That’s really flipped.

What does it mean to be a successful musician? Obviously, artists like Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars have made it, but what is success for a regular musician?

The most concise answer is, if when you fill out your tax forms in April you can honestly put down ‘musician’ as what you do for a living, then I think that’s a success. If you’re not working another job, that’s success. But to me success really means longevity. Lots of people could have a huge record or one really big show, but to me longevity is real success — not someone who does it professionally for one year or 5 years or 10. Somebody who somehow makes a life in music.

When I think of success in the industry, those are the people I think of. And they don’t have to be household names. There are lots of people who make music for a living who you’ve never heard of, and they’re completely successful. I don’t think of Bruno Mars as more successful than David Wilcox. Their accountants would probably disagree, but that longevity is what it is to be a successful musician.

Last question: Who’s one living musician that not many people know about but everyone should?

Singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. A great tunesmith who’s flown under the radar for far too long!

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Levy’s latest release, Other Desert Cities, is available here. Keep up with his tour dates and other happenings at AdamLevy.com.