HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE
Interview by: Kira L. Schlechter
It’s easy to get swept away in the story behind each of SEVEN SPIRES‘ albums, including the Boston band’s latest, the 70-minute behemoth “Gods Of Debauchery”. And it’s a compelling one — an immortal anti-hero wrestling with himself and his past, with tinges of the supernatural for good measure. But what this album and its predecessors — 2020’s “Emerald Seas” and 2017’s “Solveig” — are at their core are far more personal and revealing about their singer and songwriter, Adrienne Cowan. This anti-hero is a projection of herself, an exorcism in a way, to get a grip on negative feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt and self-hatred.
“In the last few years, I had a lot of good stuff happen, but I didn’t necessarily feel happy the way I thought I would”, Adrienne admits in a phone interview from guitarist Jack Kosto’s house in South Carolina. “And it totally manifested in the story — it’s not a secret.”
And this is what really sets this and each of their albums apart from most of the rest of symphonic metal. Their themes of self-doubt and self-hatred are things to which we can all relate.
“I really struggle with all of the aforementioned, and have for as long as I can remember”, she admits. “I know that when I heard other artists say I’m going through it, I was like, wow, I’m not the only one, that makes me feel better. It’s my hope that that’s the case with our stuff.”
“And just so I make sure I say it, I don’t think it’s cool to hate yourself. I’m not trying to encourage people to shit on themselves all the time. It’s not about glorifying the bad ; it’s about acknowledging the beast within ourselves and doing something about that, whether that’s accepting it or working to a point where it’s manageable.”
That very process unfolds in “Gods Of Debauchery”. The opener to this sequel to “Emerald Seas”, the invocation “Wanderer’s Prayer”, is actually rooted in one of Adrienne’s personal rituals, with its lines “Earth, give me strength / Skies, lend your range”.
“I would meditate before shows and these are the sort of things I would use to ground myself — just try to feel the earth beneath my feet, the endless possibilities above me”, she reveals. “It’s super personal, but it is also relative to the concept, of course.”
Perhaps in keeping with its fatalistic theme, Adrienne’s harsh vocals are even more prominent on “Gods Of Debauchery”, as is the distinction between the two — the death metal growl and the black metal shriek.
“Everything comes from instinct as far as choosing I’m going to sing this high, I’m going to sing this low, I’m going to scream this. But there’s different flavors of bad feelings that come out with the low screams versus the high screams.”
“The low death metal style is more present and more grounded and more angry and earthier in a way. The higher black metal screams are more spiritually pitched or spiritually empty — when there’s black metal themes and nihilistic lyrics, of course I’m probably going to scream with that high tone”, Adrienne elaborates.
SEVEN SPIRES’ musical trademarks are even more firmly embedded and elevated on “Gods Of Debauchery”, like Jack’s guitar solos often being flight-of-fancy variations of the chorus melody. “His interview answer is that solos are his time to tell his version of the story as best he can and capture whatever feeling it is, and I think he does a beautiful job with that.”
I’m not a one-dimensional person — I’m a human — so I’m allowed to like other stuff
– ADRIENNE COWAN –
Drummer Chris Dovas is especially spectacular here, not just for his speed and intricacy (which is jaw-dropping), but for working so effectively with the vocal — which for him is working opposite of it, being intensely staccato while Adrienne is being just as intensely legato.
“I don’t know if he does it on purpose, I don’t know if I do it on purpose, but it very often ends up like that. He’s also deeply conscientious of the lyrical content. He actually asks me: what is this song about and explain it to me so I can play it in a more emotional way. He doesn’t just say, oh, this song is sad. He’s like, tell me specifically what’s sad about it, what flavor of sad is it — is it like I got a bad grade on my test, or my girlfriend dumped me, or my wife died?”
The most wild-card track of their career to date is the insanely catchy “Lightbringer”, a track influenced, as they’ve said, by the usual suspects — “video games, films, TV soundtracks, Late Romantic classical music” — but also by Adrienne’s “love of Korean pop music.” Her what?
“I’m not a one-dimensional person — I’m a human — so I’m allowed to like other stuff”, she cracks. “I’m not a huge K-pop fan or anything, but I really like good pop writing. From a technical standpoint, as a songwriter, I’m like: damn, good for you guys. And there’s a certain sassy energy — it just speaks to me in a way that a lot of metal doesn’t.”
It also influenced the accompanying video… “The idea of having five girls in a video dancing being like: yeah, we’re so hot, that’s like a little nod to not only my love of K-pop, but also my theater background. You can take the girl out of the theater but I’m always going to be a theater kid. I started going to therapy last year and my therapist was like, I really encourage you to be your most authentic self. We actually filmed the video shortly after I started seeing somebody for my brain, so it was just like confirmation that I was doing the right thing”, Adrienne adds.
Its lyrics are a masterpiece of innuendo, playfully touching on themes of bondage (“Don’t hold your breath, his hands are tied”) and just plain clever wordplay (“She begs for death a second time / Six feet under these covers like / Three-part polyphonic lovers”) as our hero indulges in some down and dirty fun. Those lyrics are also in keeping with its pop sensibility.
“So many pop songs are like, oh, I’m in the club and there’s a hot person. If I wanna do my own version of that, I’m not gonna be like, I’m in the club and there’s a hot person. I wanna definitely be a little subtle about it. We’re not just driven by physical means — I like to be a little brainy about it and have a laugh about it.”
“I’m definitely not the straightest stick on the tree! It was so much about throwing away all of the rules and just doing what you need to do in that moment, even if you know that’s not the right thing to do. Sometimes you just have to go on a little bender and that manifests for some people in some ways and for others in other ways”, Adrienne explains.
Back-to-back tracks “Echoes Of Eternity” and “Shadow On An Endless Sea” show our hero is back on his old ship and isn’t really happy about it, but we’re just pretending that we’re happy about it because the alternative hurts so much more.
“On a personal level, ‘Shadow On An Endless Sea’ is like ‘Burnout: The Musical’. Some of those are lyrics from years ago where it was like I didn’t have anything to do with that so I just filed it away for later. Just a collection of shitty feelings that ended up as it is now.”
The album’s centerpiece is the multi-part epic “This God Is Dead” featuring Roy Khan (ex-Kamelot) as the ghost of our hero’s father. Adrienne calls him her “favorite vocalist and biggest inspiration.”
“He’s a master of melancholy”, she says. “His sensibility and his vocal delivery is everything that I would have done if I were not myself.”
I know that if I’m just stagnant and sitting on my ass, I’m not going to be happy. So if I want to be happy, I have to do something about it.
– ADRIENNE COWAN –
The first segment “Smoke & Mirrors” is a poignant conversation between our hero and their father’s ghost, reaching out to each other over the vastness of time and space. But after our hero’s long travails in the underworld, their father is long gone and there’s no way to go back to what was. And our hero has become (according to Adrienne) “something so fucking bad and I don’t know how to be better.”
In the pivotal title portion of the song, our hero talks to themselves, as this “Guide of the lost / Guardian of the broken”, the transporter of souls to the underworld.
“They finally got this balance of the humanity… and this terrible being within. And they realize I can do something good with this — I can do both, but I just have to do my job and I can’t let my ego or my issues get in the way… We can’t have the God complex anymore.”
Again, as throughout, Adrienne makes an important personal point, here with the line “Happiness is a choice / And purpose, a charted course”.
“I know that I’m happiest when I’m working towards something”, she explains. “I know that if I’m just stagnant and sitting on my ass, I’m not going to be happy. So if I want to be happy, I have to do something about it.”
“The Unforgotten Name” imagines our hero and his past love, the Lost Soul, reuniting. Jon Pyres, who sings in Threads Of Fate, Jack’s other band, voices the character.
“Jon was the perfect pick for this because he’s also a master of melancholy in his own particular way.” His tone and Adrienne’s are very similar as well. “To go a little bit into vocal nerd stuff, it’s this sobbing quality — (a cry in the voice) — he has a beautifully tortured way about him and I really admire that.”
In “Gods Amongst Men” our hero admits to his past love that the darkness within, that they came to grips with in “This God Is Dead”, is permanent. “Dreamchaser” continues that idea.
“Our hero is like, I’ve got a good balance, I’m definitely super overpowered with this demon thing, but we’re going to do our job and it’ll be great”, she says of our hero’s motivation. “I didn’t think of it in a negative light ; I think of it as harnessing all of your power, including the darkness.”The balls-out closer “Fall With Me” is pure torch vocally — Adrienne’s voice is almost anti-metal, full of soul, perfectly echoing the action of the story.
“Backing off from the metal aspect, you could equate that to he’s backing away from the darkness. Just really again laying bare, like yeah, here’s my human shit — we’re not going to scream about it, we’re just going to sing and be vulnerable.”
“I like to think the character got a happy ending. I like to think that whoever was in charge was finally like, alright, you’re done — good job, go retire, be a human one more time and then you can actually die and be peaceful and you can just go be happy.”
Backing vocalist Lydia Harrell, a voice instructor at the band’s alma mater Berklee College Of Music, helped elicit Adrienne’s memorable vocal performance — as did her love for singers like k.d. lang.
“She has a lot of jazz/R&B/soul influence in her stuff… I think she really brought out a lot of the more soulful tones”, she says. “Yeah, I am a theater kid and I grew up on k.d. lang, but there’s only so much I can do because at heart I am a metal vocalist. Lydia really brought a lot of magic to the track.”
So is this last installment of the trilogy, the end of the story of our hero?
“It’s hard to fully close the book on this because I just don’t know if I’ll have more to say about it musically”, Adrienne admits. “I have a bunch of ideas for album four that don’t necessarily feel like they’re related to this story of the first three albums, but they might be in the same universe in a different hundreds or thousands of years before.”
The means of doing music in a Covid world have obviously changed — artists have had to adapt to not touring in profound ways. For SEVEN SPIRES that meant both creatively — doing two albums in two years — and really expanding and deepening their social media presence.
“All of this resulted in connecting more with our fans online. So although it’s super frustrating to not know exactly when we’re going to be able to play live again, we have found a way to do the online equivalent of hugging people at the merch table and listening to their stories.”
“There’s no tour, so there’s nothing to hide behind. I work hard to keep these people here and I want to stay in contact with them. I know people are looking at me for inspiration, so I need to be, or at least try to be, a good role model, even if that means failing sometimes, that’s OK”, she reasons.And all the members of SEVEN SPIRES teach music online. Adrienne teaches vocals in private lessons and runs a weekly workshop on everything from orchestration to arranging to songwriting techniques. It’s their way of giving back.
“Mostly I teach tools for people to be able to express what they have in mind, and I teach from a really emotional standpoint.”
Eventually though, things will likely return to the ‘normal’ routine of touring and traveling. What happens then, not only with teaching, but with all of the social media interactions they’ve established?
“I’m honestly not sure”, Adrienne muses. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen and we’re all pretty OK with that. I will try and teach and do all this stuff when I’m home from tour, and while I’m on tour, I can try to post some content — not necessarily teaching but I can do a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff.”
“One of the most beautiful things about having Patreon and having these specific communities is that I can be my most transparent and thoughtful. It’s been amazing — they really understand the situation and they’re like, no, we’ll be here for the long run”, she concludes.