For someone who originally hails from Atlanta, singer-songwriter Adron, the stage moniker of Adrienne McCann, has got the sound and feel of Brazilian music down to a science. Particularly she has captured the flavor and spirit of Tropicália, the late ’60s revolutionary cultural movement in Brazil that birthed such legendary musicians as Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, and Os Mutantes. Ever since she first picked up an Os Mutantes record when she was about 14 years old, McCann has been forging a sophisticated sound that blends Brazilian and folk influences with her dreamy, impressionistic lyrics, and augmented by her wistful jazzy vocals.
The most recent example of those exquisite and romantic influences is her latest album, Water Music. Conveying a sound that McCann described in a recent interview as tropical pop and soul, Water Music is Adron’s first new album in seven years. Several of the tracks carry a water metaphor, as indicative on the alluring lead-off song “Be Like the Sea”, while others numbers are introspective and personal. Aside from the Latin feel, there are also moments on the album that recall classic ’70s pop and soul. Based on Water Music‘s production and arrangements, it’s apparent McCann had a distinct vision for her record. “I ended up re-recording vocal takes and even entire songs, sometimes two or three times,” she later recalls. “I can sometimes be an obsessive perfectionist, and also my vocal abilities were still evolving as all that time passed. By the end of 2017, everything had settled into place as the record you’re now familiar with.”
Still a relatively-emerging artist, Adron released her self-titled debut album in 2008 when she was about 19; that was followed three years later with her second record, Organismo, which Wilco later cited as one of its favorite albums. Along the way, Adron has performed on the road that included opening for Os Mutantes and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen during his solo tour. Following a recent fall tour, Adron says she hopes to perform more shows in the early part of next year as she gets acclimated to her new home of Los Angeles. She recently spoke with PopMatters about the story behind Water Music, how she fell in love with Tropicália, and her path to a music career.
How does it feel to have this new album finally out into the world, after a seven-year gap between records?
Getting this record out feels like letting out a huge, full-bodied exhale I’ve been holding in for too long! It’s a marvelous feeling. But it also requires of me a major letting-go, given that this album has been in gestation for a serious chunk of my life. I’m truly proud of it, and to me, it feels much bigger than just a collection of songs I wrote; it’s the work of a whole community of musicians who’ve supported me for the last few years, and for me, it represents so many stories, struggles, discoveries, etc.
The majority of the recording process took place within a year or so; what took ages was trying to figure out a way to release the album that would do justice to the hard work we put into it and offer worthy compensation to the folks who made the album’s production possible. I have always been an independent artist, by which I mean a college dropout working in coffee shops to support a music career, and my resources have always been threadbare. So I literally couldn’t even afford to print the record on my own, much less assemble all the promotional resources necessary for a dignified release.
I also had what I now realize is an obsolete idea of how the music industry works. It took me about five years to accept that a big label (even a bigger independent label) wasn’t likely to take a risk on this record by a still relatively underground artist. It was still impossible, due to my financial position and some contractual language, for me to put the record out on my own. And finally, Tribo Records, owned by my friend Rafael Pereira, came along and saved the day, just giving that little push I so desperately needed to get the record printed and supported for release.
How different or perhaps similar is Water Music from Organismo? Did you have a particular concept or approach in mind going into recording the new record?
In some ways, Water Music is like a more grown-up version of Organismo. Both albums are very much the brainchildren of me and Colin Agnew, the drummer and percussionist on both records who is my main musical ally and collaborator. We were a couple throughout the recording of both albums and remain very close friends. Organismo was my first recording project with both him and the producer Martin Kearns, and it was a really playful process. We threw things at the wall to see what stuck. We’d layer up to 30 percussion or vocal tracks on a song and then let Marty drive himself insane trying to mix them.
There’s a lot of whimsy on that record, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of spur-of-the-moment production ideas. That was a fascinating situation for me, because I’m extremely, obsessively deliberate with regard to actual composition and arrangement of songs, but the playful attitude we had in the studio felt so right. Water Music has a lot of the same attitudes in its production, but we’d all just been through so much together and had really refined a musical language that worked.
Is there a thematic thread that each of the tracks shares in common, or are they to you just individual songs?
I feel like the songs all live on the same island. Their common thread is more about an environment than a lyrical concept. Though the water metaphor is present and definitely important to me, there are also a few songs that are lyrically operating on their own, describing their own situations. “Say Hello to Us” is a conversation with God or whatever you want to call it, asking if it exists, if it’s involved, and what it feels.
“Your Habitat” was a conversation with Colin, during our romantic relationship, with my kind of describing a secret portal in time and space I wished I could open just to exist with him, outside of the vicissitudes and contradictions of reality. “Ghost in My House” is about my mother, during a period of depression she went through (or at least seemed to me to go through), and my wish for her to carpe-diem a little harder, pursue fresh experiences. Which she has.
“Waves” is about a period of major reckoning with my own sexual identity, thinking I was maybe a lesbian (I’ve since settled into a sexual identity of “some ways sometimes”, not really trying to label it), and the fears that I had about lying to myself versus destroying the relationship I was in with Colin, a catch-22 type situation. “Danger Incoming” is about the same thing, kind of. And so on. It feels good to me that the album runs the gamut of emotions, all the while staying in this lush, aquatic vibe, flowing with life’s tides.
Can you talk about the story behind “Be Like the Sea”, the album’s opening track?
It was always intended to be the pop single, the big cushy welcome mat for the rest of the album. It feels to me almost like a sister song to “Paradise Island Tropical Vacation”, the first track and lead single from Organismo. It’s about the ocean, but also the ways your inner landscape can probably reflect the ocean; expansiveness, wetness, bigness, flowing-ness. It kinda encourages you to quit thinking about human beings as separate or elevated from their natural environment: “You are an animal, and don’t let it get you down.” Joy and serenity in the big wet being-ness of the ocean. That kinda thing.
When was your earliest introduction to Tropicália? What was it about the genre that appealed to you?
[I] walked into a Wuxtry Records’ location in Decatur, Georgia, with the sole intention of purchasing something that looked obscure and would make me seem knowledgeable and interesting. I bought an Os Mutantes album, and it was a life-changing moment. That music absolutely blew my mind and instantly made my world feel a thousand times bigger. I fell completely in love with their sound, their attitude, and incredible harmonic weirdness and prettiness and whimsicality and flexibility of Tropicália.
So as I started to immerse myself in their music and other artists like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Marcos Valle, etc. I was learning Portuguese because of my need to sing along to everything all the time and ended up absorbing enough of the language to try writing songs in it, just to have that particular flavor of expression. And so on from there. I love languages, and music has a natural way of making linguistic sounds and patterns stick in my mind. Singing is really a great tool for language learning.
Who were you listening to growing up, the artists that possibly had a profound influence on you?
In my house growing up, there was first and foremost the Beatles, every day. My brother and I were raised on the Beatles, and they were our favorite band. As I grew up, I started exploring music on my own, and I got batshit obsessed with Beck for a few years in my early teens; I loved his eclectic, expansive repertoire and his weirdness and outsider-ness. But eventually, I found my way to the source of a lot of things that influenced him; Tropicália for instance, and later a lot of soul music.
Caetano Veloso is a really important Brazilian songwriter I started listening to back then whose influence throughout my life is impossible to overstate; I slightly worship him. More recently I’ve come to consider Marcos Valle, another Brazilian, as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Other huge influences are Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, Margo Guryan. I don’t yet have the guts yet to get as weird and pure as Robert Wyatt consistently has been over the years, but his art is like medicine to me.
Did you know that you wanted to become a musician very early on in childhood?
Yes, it’s hard to recall a time when I didn’t know I wanted to be a musician. I remember being about four years old and watching the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night with my family and thinking to myself, “Yeah, that! Whatever the heck that is, I wanna be that.” My folks started me on piano lessons at that age, and I kept that up until I was 14, but always struggled with sight-reading sheet music, and I could never really sing and play piano at the same time. Some weird cognitive dissonance there. I picked up the guitar when I was 12, and felt much more at home with that instrument; I tried a couple of guitar lessons when I first started but very quickly dropped out when the guy tried to make me play scales and read musical notation. From that point forward I taught myself.
How did you come up with the Adron moniker?
It’s a messed-with version of my legal first name, Adrienne. A friend in high school started calling me Adron; I guess it just sounds cuter and edgier, maybe. It stuck and suits me fine.
You opened for Os Mutantes, which must have been a thrill. What was that experience like?
Opening for Os Mutantes was beyond thrilling; it was like a cosmic affirmation of everything I had aspired to at that point. And it didn’t end there. Sergio Dias, the original founding guitarist, admired my set so much, a couple of months later he reached out to ask me to join Os Mutantes as a member and go on tour with them performing all the parts originally belonging to Rita Lee. This was the most mind-blowing offer that had ever been given to me in my life. I was getting my visa together, preparing to fly to Brazil to work directly with Sergio in rehearsals for the tour when, sadly, that tour’s plans fell apart due to circumstances beyond any of our control. It was tragic, but I still glow at the fact that they thought of me as one of their own.
Given that your music on record is meticulously-produced, how is that compared to performing live?
It can depend on the gig, but if budgets and schedules align just right, the full live band of Atlanta musicians I work with is absolutely gorgeous, and it sounds pretty close to the studio arrangements. However I’ve been doing a lot of shows on tour as a solo act lately, and I honestly love that format too, because of the flexibility and the ability to show off a lot more detail and subtlety in the key ingredients, my voice and guitar. My favorite live iteration, though, is just Colin Agnew and me on percussion. I hope our next tour can be like that.