Questions of Change & Survival: An Interview with Justin Adams.

I’ve been looking for a way to address the one thing that has touched every aspect of life, I’m sure it needs no introduction. But this is (for the most part) a music review site, with the music and thoughts of creators at center, it’s my chance and yours to explore.

Maybe that’s why this chance was so welcomed. I get to do what I’m comfortable doing while we look at that big thing together. But that’s not why this piece is so special. What made me jump at the chance to run with this post was the music released and its maker.

Justin Adams has co-written and worked with names that are etched into music’s familiars; Robert Plant, Brian Eno, Sinead O’Conner. Records released under Peter Gabriel’s label show his love of the world’s frantic rhythms. As producer and writer and collaborative artist, Justin has explored and created, rarely with himself at the forefront. So his new song ‘Endless Ocean’, as naked as it stands, marks a shift towards a stripped down reflection.

The loops and the Smog-like hung-over notes that repeated through ‘Ribbons’ are ditched. Gone are glitchy earthed clacks of thumbed strings, and gone are African cultural crossovers that flowed through his previous albums. ‘Endless Ocean’ is open and fragile, much like all of our ties to the old world. I got given the chance to put questions to Justin and I’m glad to be sharing his answers… 


‘Endless Ocean’ is sparse and left open. I’ve read it took convincing to leave it that empty, how do you feel about the song now that it’s out there?

I’m really glad to have done something that’s raw and honest, it worked as a great therapy for me to find words and a sound that expressed how I was feeling, and to then get it out into the world quickly, and to hear people reacting to it, and understanding it.

Fear, money, time, work; these are themes you explore in the single. As these are constant constraints all around us, what made you think of these now? What made this the time to address them?  

In normal life we tend to be so busy that we just get on with things without really questioning them much. In those couple of weeks as the Western world took on the weight of the Corona virus, nothing meant quite the same. Suddenly the Government was producing billions of pounds when previously they were said to not exist; mine and so many other people’s method of earning a living was curtailed; we were threatened by a deadly disease; everyone in my family could no longer do the main activities that seemed central to our lives; many people have suffered far worse-  it made me, and I guess everyone else, reassess everything. There’s a lot to be said for stiff upper lip, or Zen detachment – but there’s also something to be said for acknowledging and naming fear and sadness. I think music has a role not only to cheer people up, but also, like in the Blues or the playing of funeral laments, to take people through the darker emotions, to feel them, and that way allow them to move on.

‘Endless Ocean’ was written on the week the UK entered into its new lockdown measures, it’s an initial reaction to changes. How much has changed since you wrote this? How have these thoughts expanded or settled?

I feel that the whole world is slowly adapting to the new situation, and I think it’s going to be a slow and at times difficult process. For myself, I count my blessings and try to stay in the present. But I think the themes in the song are really just expressing what it is to be human and aware of impermanence and mortality.

Something that makes the track special is your son’s spoken thoughts towards the end. Were you surprised by the similarities / differences in what lockdown meant for you both?

It was completely unplanned- my son had come home from University expecting to go back in a couple of weeks, and slowly it dawned on us all that that was not going to happen.

He came up to my little studio at the end of my garden to hear what I was up to, and just said “leave the track like that, don’t put any more instruments on it.” Then he suggested putting some spoken word on it, which he did in about 15 minutes. Listening to it back, I hear myself, aged 58, thinking about meaning and mortality, and him thinking about change, which at 19 , for him, has been moving at an incredible rate.

And were you happy to bring in his musical tastes? You cite Burial and MIA as bands you might not have known, are you glad to have explored those new textures?

In my teenage years, I was a Clash fan, a reader of the NME and listener to John Peel, we felt it was imperative to keep up with cutting-edge music, and to be aware of the roots…

I still feel that way.

I have been blessed in having children passionate about music who have filled the house with new sounds, it really helps.

Something I always want to know more about is how connections are made and how projects get formed. You’ve worked with fantastic musicians, mixed cultures and rhythms and sounds, how do you choose what you work on? What’s the magic that brings them together?

For me it’s been a mixture of chance and passion. Since I was a teenager, I have mixed with musicians and music lovers, and collaborated and shared enthusiasms. That has led to introductions and recommendations which I never could have dreamed of, from playing with Robert Plant, at Madison Square Gardens, to the Festival of the Desert in the Sahara, from West London squats to a Folk Festival in Siberia. I’ve never had a plan.

And money gets in the way quite a lot – sometimes there are projects I’d like to do, but I can’t find a way of making it work financially, and obviously, if a project is working financially, it helps with the energy of the project. But I have found that with my work, people respond to the things that really come from my heart, if I do things in a half-hearted way, they always fail!

If we go back to the song ‘Endless Ocean’, and its personal, minimalist sound, how tempting is it to carry on stripped down, away from those collaborations? 

I am working on a few different projects at the moment- solo, duo, trio – some very quiet and reflective, some noisy. Music is vast and I don’t want to limit myself. But in general, I am liking “less is more” at the moment .

And lastly if I can, some advice – for any artists / musicians struggling to create while our worlds might seem they’re getting smaller. What advice would you give to help people keep making while we move through these strangest of changes?

As an artist you have to get used to failure and struggle – of course everyday I’d like to make a masterpiece, and every day I fail. So the best thing seems to be to enjoy the process of making, refining, researching, questioning, re-making. I am experimenting with ways of working remotely, I don’t know if they can replace the experience of physically being together. But we can try. I have travelled all my life, and I’ve played concerts every summer at least since I was about 18, so this is a new experience, it’s bound to be interesting…

‘Endless Ocean‘ is out now, see the video below. And find this track and others from Rats On The Run featured artists right here on Rats On Run Radio.