I watched American Aquarium open their summer tour at the Basement East a few weeks ago with Adeem the Artist. They’ll be opening some dates later on the tour, and they got to hear me scream-sing most of the catalog as a primer for the occasion. Everyone was there; it was Nashville’s main event for cool kids that evening. Adeem ran into comedian Drew Morgan, who told Adeem that he “liked his vibe.” Marcus King was there, so were Tyler Mahan Coe and Katie Pruitt. It was a lot of fun to be in a packed club with people watching live music again.
Adeem has a lot in common with BJ Barham of American Aquarium–they both have North Carolina roots, they both get lumped under the “Americana” umbrella, however different their art may be and they both dig NASCAR, though for Adeem, it’s with a little more irony.
“My government name is ‘Kyle,’ and I was named after Kyle Petty,” they said. Adeem got this killer tattoo just a week prior of Dale Earnhardt as some sort of comic strip demon, complete with the ode, “Raise Hell. Praise Dale.” underneath. Their own child’s middle name is Dale, but that’s totally unrelated.
Adeem and I first started talking about having this chat when they tweeted about a movie idea titled Their Bud. So we began there, and I learned a lot about what made Adeem the artist that they are today.
What would the adventures of a non-binary, sports playing golden retriever look like?
I guess pretty similar to Air Bud [laughs]. Pretty much just Air Bud, but maybe every time someone says, “Come here, boy” they’re like, “Oh. I’m sorry.” They’re just apologizing to the dog all the time [laughs].
You had a ton of music that existed on Bandcamp before this one popped up on Spotify. Was there a reason that you stayed away from mainstream services and was it working for you better that way?
When I first started making music, I was making music under a few different names. Every time that I changed the direction of where I was going, I’ve removed a lot of the stuff from streaming services. I leave it on Bandcamp because sometimes people still want it or are still interested. I also think there’s something interesting about–like, everybody’s done [expletive] albums when they first started making albums, right? Nobody’s debut record is really what their debut record is; but usually there’s a lot of effort to bury that. Patched up demos of the original stuff. I think there’s something interesting about being able to have access to that journey if you want it. That’s a lot of it.
I made this joke last night, but it’s also true, “When Rolling Stone says it’s your debut album, you just kinda say, ‘Okay, it’s my debut album.” [laughs] “You’re right.”
But in a lot of ways, it felt like a debut album for me. It was a coming out record in a lot of ways that I didn’t realize when I was making it or even when I was getting ready to release it. I think taking a lot of the older stuff off of there made sense to me.
I also think that it’s nice to release things sometimes without any ambition other than it being a fun art project to throw out.
When you call it a “coming out record,” do you include sexually? Was that the first time you had made that public?
Yes and no. It’s kind of difficult to qualify I’d say. I just posted a photo on Twitter of me at Pride a few years ago of me with pink hair and flower earrings and the sluttiest shorts imaginable. I don’t think I was in the closet in any sense. If anyone had asked me at any point, I was pretty open about being pan. There was never a moment where I was like, “Alright, everyone, it’s time for me to tell you.” I never made a post where I was like, “Okay, everybody, I’m queer.” I just started dressing differently.
The most I did was that when the album came out in January, I finally kind of made a post about being non-binary. I bought some dresses. I bought some blouses. I bought some lipstick. I was like, “[expletive] it. I’m throwing caution to the wind with the gender binary. I’m just gonna play with stuff and see what I like and see what sticks.” At that point, I felt like I should say something.
I went on tour in Florida a few months ago, and I met up with some old high school friends and this one guy is like, “Are we just not gonna [expletive] talk about these flower earrings he’s wearing?” I just didn’t want to have to have that conversation anymore. It’s like, “Guess what? Here I am in lipstick. Deal with it.” Then people would be like, “I don’t get it, but Adeem’s doing what Adeem’s doing.”
That was kind of the most I had “come out” in that way. It’s not something that I had addressed directly with my music other than tangentially. And this album is very centered in sexuality and queerness and gender and the way that those things affect growing up in the rural South.
The LGBTQ+ community is having a moment in country music. How do you feel about that, not only as an artist yourself, but also as a longtime fan of country music?
As a fan, it makes me feel really hopeful. I’ve liked country music for a long time. There are elements of country music that I find condescendingly dumb. Like the genre as a whole. For the past 10-15 years, it’s been, “Alright, we’re gonna listen to this same song over and over again for the next hour.”
I had the exact same experience that Holly [G.] was talking about on Twitter with Tyler Childers. I was like, “I know this guy’s a [expletive] Trump supporter. So when that album came out, A Long Violent History, I’d been looking at his social media channels leading up to that, maybe a “Black Lives Matter” or whatever and there was nothing. He was quiet about it. So I felt anxious. I was like, “Well, that probably tells me where he stands.” So when the album came out, it was clear that he took his time and said what he wanted to say and was very intentional about it. I think that felt like, “Well [expletive]. Tyler Childers is at the front of where country music is heading because that’s where the fans are. And if that’s true, there’s space for me, you know?”
You recently spoke about past experiences that you had in the church. I think maybe you were working for a church. Where are you at on religion right now?
I am one of the non-believers in the world.
Did you feel that way before you were working? Or is it something that came as a result of that time you spent there?
There’s a lot of crossover here that’s complicated.
I was a worship pastor for a church in Tennessee; that’s why I first moved down here. Then I became a music pastor for a Messianic synagogue which is like an evangelical church on hype. Then I left for I would call sort of a bitter atheism; a lot of anger at God, a lot of anger at being lied to my whole life, all the emotional manipulation. I started trying to unpack the religious trauma. When I got married in 2014, my wife was still a believer; still in the church. She viewed a lot of the culture through a much more critical lens.
We had some friends that were still Christians; but they were in the progressive wing of Christianity. We got connected with the Episcopal service corps through them. At that point, I was more of an agnostic than anything else. I actually told the bishop once that I was a “devout agnostic” and he asked me why I was working there. [laughs]
So we joined the Episcopal service corps which is sort of an Americorps type of thing. We were sent to the Port of Newark and I got really into this theologian named John Shelby Spong. He’s not the most well regarded in Christian circles, but he’s renowned for going around and saying that there’s no way Jesus rose from the dead, which is a great way to make yourself not popular. [laughs]
But I got really fascinated with his work and Matthew Fox and a few others that I grew to love. At that time, I very strongly didn’t believe in the resurrection; I didn’t believe in any of the Bible as history so much as political propaganda.
You don’t get to quit being Jewish. You were born Jewish. And I felt that way about Christianity. And in a lot of ways, I still feel that way. I was born Christian. Before I could talk, my mom committed me that I would follow Christ. I was saved when I was five-years-old. I was baptized a handful of times throughout my teenage years when I needed to recommit again. So there’s a part of me that will always fall back on those metaphors because I put so much meaning in them for so long.
It’s the opposite reaction that most people have, but when my wife told me she was pregnant, I closed the Bible. I don’t think I ever opened it up again. For me, there were so many things about Christianity that were toxic and abusive, and it shaped the way that I viewed the world through shame and scarcity. And there were still so many of those players, even within the progressive wing of Christianity. “Are these people that I want to give access to my kid and the way my kid views the world themselves?”
That was when I abandoned it. I say it’s a complicated thing to talk about because I wouldn’t say that I was a believer in a traditional sense when I was a chaplain. At that point, I still didn’t believe that I could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who died for my sins and rose again. I have a relationship with this mythology in a unique way. Building the kingdom of heaven on earth was what I was about. And in a lot of ways, that’s still what I’m about.
So this has always been a problem for you? It wasn’t something you began to struggle with over the past five years?
Oh, no. The Trump stuff was just a confirmation. [laughs] “Told you guys!”
I have a lot of compassion for people that have tried to stay and tried to move the needle of the Christian faith toward progressivism; toward social justice. That’s a lot of important work in a space that’s really dangerous and hostile toward that progress.
Check out the entire catalog, including this year’s brilliant Cast Iron Pansexual, and purchase it online at adeemtheartist.bandcamp.com.