Newfoundland-based solo artist Adam Baxter is a rare breed. Whether factoring his wife, three cats, and 300 students into the touring equation, or booking one of those students as his opener, Baxter not only shoots for the stars, he reaches Infinity. The Atlantic artist’s fifth studio album is mature, relatable, and wildly introspective. I caught up with the charismatic folk musician halfway through his release tour.
HONEYSUCKLE: How did music factor into your childhood?
ADAM BAXTER: Music has always played a role in my family’s life. I started Tae Kwon Do when I was eight and a big part of that was listening to tunes while driving to class from our dairy farm in rural Nova Scotia. My dad was really into Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, classic rock. At 12, he was already drumming in bands with players in their 30s and 40s. He needed a letter from his parents granting him permission to play in bars.When I was 12, I was teaching Tae Kwon Do.
I had that under my belt for almost a decade when I spent my first summer as a guitar instructor in Harrison, Maine. I learned a lot about teaching at Camp Fernwood Cove, but more importantly, I learned valuable social skills. Growing up on a farm in Atlantic Canada, I had never been exposed to such a wide-ranging demographic before. It taught me so much about myself and how to connect with people; not only did I take that ability to connect to the classroom with me, I took it on the stage with me, too.
Tell me about that transition from playing music to leading Newfoundland’s largest high school concert band.
I have more friends on Facebook than in the town in which I teach. I don’t know if that’s something to brag about, but in my first year the band was made up of 80 kids. The next year my enrollment shot up to 125. Parents wanted their children in a group that was more than just fun; I buckled down and really focused on achieving great results.
On the flip side, what have your students taught you?
That humans are like snowflakes. Nobody is the same as anyone else. I’ve learned something from every student to walk into my room, whether it’s been a smooth experience or a rockier one.
How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
Well, I had tried a couple of instruments before settling on guitar. I took piano lessons, but it didn’t work out. Then, because my dad was a drummer, I thought genetically I should be a drummer. I played around on this tiny electronic drum set, which was a piece of shit. One day, a bunch of kids at school were like, “Hey man, we want to start a band, but we need a bass player.” Brad had already claimed drums, so I decided to learn bass. I talked to my dad about it that night, and he told me that I should learn to play the guitar first. That summer, he bought me a guitar and I couldn’t put the thing down. I loved it so much that by the time September rolled around, I was a better guitar player than the guitar player they had. We were kids, so the band was all hypotheticals. We’d speak about the band, draw up posters for the band, but we never wrote a single song for the band.
Did any other groups help define the budding Baxter?
I met some guys who were into punk rock in Grade 10. By this point, my exposure to punk rock was pretty dense. They needed a guitar player to start their band: Rage Against Charlie Sheen. We played exactly four shows over three months, and that was it. After that group disbanded, I started a pop punk quintet called The Lewinskys. We released two albums independently and did some touring around the Atlantic Provinces for a few years, then disbanded once I got to university.
Which is when your solo career took flight?
Exactly. It was at MUN [Memorial University of Newfoundland] after discovering Dashboard Confessional that the journey of my solo career started. I spent eight years at MUN and got two degrees. I dove headfirst into the St John’s nightlife scene, playing up to six nights a week. In 2013, I moved to central Newfoundland. In the midst of all this, there was plenty of recording and touring, but I never put any albums out because I couldn’t afford to do it.
How dominant of a role does Atlantic Canada play in your sound?
I never think of sounds in regional jurisdictions even though it’s a large thing, especially since I live in a province that has its own genre of music. When I was in St. John’s I was around all these cool people listening to cool things, so I’d ask them what they were listening to and check that out. I was definitely influenced by the artists around me, like Jerry Stamp who took me on my first tour from Newfoundland to Toronto and back.
I like to take my influences, education, and knowledge, and mold them into one. When I’m writing something, I settle with it when in my heart I can say, “Dude, this is good, this is what I like.” I try not to settle for “pretty good,” I try to settle for “This is what the song is meant to be.”
Did Infinity come out how you expected? Were all the songs “what they were meant to be?”
There were definitely moments while recording that I’d listen back to the isolated string lines and joke, “Dude, I’m Kanye.” Kanye’s brilliant, but these static alto lines were obviously not. Overall, I’m incredibly happy and proud of the record.
You’ve been quite prolific these past few years. What were your goals with the latest offering?
I wrote Domestic (my last album) when I was listening to Bon Iver, Novo Amor, and Tallest Man on Earth. I really feel that I captured a perfect balance between those three artists and myself. I was going for a continuation of that, but instead of using horns and wind instruments, we decided to use strings. Looking ahead to my next album, I want all of these sounds—horns, woodwinds, and strings—to fit into one sonic soundscape.
Every album opens the doors for musical and personal growth. How have you matured this time around?
I think songwriting is always going to be a developing and maturing outlet for me. I’d like to think that my writing in 10 years will be light-years ahead of my writing right now. I’m always trying to better myself, so there’s that evolutionary path to my writing. It’s also certainly more mature since we’re a couple of years down a five-year road. Everything improves with time.
What are some of Infinity’s narrative motifs?
The main theme of the whole record—and the reasoning behind its name—touches on my relationship with music itself. In the song “Martyr,” I drew on the local saying: “I’d die for that.” When I heard somebody utter it in the grocery store, I thought, “So that means you’re a martyr for a can of Pepsi?” The whole song is literally about my love and passion for music. The first line is, “I’d die for this / it’s plain transparency.” I would rather someone cut off my arm than tell me I couldn’t play music anymore.
Losing an arm might affect your music making, but who knows? I found a lot of closure in “Martyr.” I’m curious why you didn’t end on that track. Why throw in “Sleepless” as an epilogue?
To be honest with you, I put “Sleepless” on the end because it is so different from the other tunes. Every other song starts on a major chord or key. “Sleepless” came out in such an incredibly different light that I decided to place it at the end to see how it would fall into place. When I do the live show, I actually end with “Hush” because I can teach everybody that hook in the chorus, which encourages the audience to sing harmony. When you get a big room of people to sing a monosyllabic melody, it goes off so well.
As you mentioned earlier, the album delves into your relationship to music, but “In Transit” sounds like it’s touching on an interpersonal relationship.
When I think of that song, I think of my bathroom in the morning because that is where I say goodbye to my wife. We get ready together and I have to leave for work earlier than she does, so I’m always leaving her in this well-lit orange room. “In Transit” starts off with this feeling of dread around leaving the house and your loved ones, which a lot of people can relate to. Then it turns into this self-loathing feeling, where it’s like “Man, if I had done more with my life or made more money, then we could stay home all day.” It evolves from this commentary on our relationship to this dark place where I blame myself for not being able to provide something that we both want.
There is such a beautiful balance between darkness and light shining through the album, particularly in its song titles. Was this an intentional dichotomy?
Not at all! But I’m looking at the album now and every track truly is themed around lightness and darkness. It’s crazy because I didn’t plan it that way, but that’s definitely where my mind was. Newfoundland winters are dark and cold, man.
As for titles, I wrote “Lantern” back in 2010 actually. I have a catalogue of songs that haven’t yet made it onto my records. Every time I sit down to write an album, I try to pay homage to life before the record label. “Star Sailors” literally imagines what would happen if you could fly through space with somebody and fuck around with the stars—if you could see how beautiful they were, then realize how much you’re missing from Earth. That song was streamed from watching a ridiculous amount of space videos on YouTube after figuring out how to get the app on my Nintendo Switch.
Did you feel any sense of catharsis in completing this album?
Finishing a record is like finishing a school year. Once it’s done, you move right onto the next phase: getting on the road, and touring it…and living these songs… and sleeping in spots that aren’t your bed…and showering wherever you can shower… or not showering at all. There’s a tiny bit of closure in these next steps, but I know that we’ll do a few months of promotional work after the tour, then I’ll get right back into writing. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I live to do.
Any openers on the tour?
My incredibly talented student had a little stage fright, so I begged him to open for me the other night. When I hit Southern Ontario, I contacted an artist that I met years ago on tour in St. John’s. We just finished our fourth show together.
Other crazy past collaborations?
On my birthday (July 2), I played the early show before Gordie Sampson who won a Grammy for writing “Jesus, Take The Wheel.” In terms of past shows, I’ve got a shopping cart full of fun stories that’ll occasionally make it onto a resume of mine. I’ve played in the middle of a field on an island in central Newfoundland with Sam Roberts. The year before that, I did the same kind of thing with Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo. Mostly, though, I’m just trying to make the best product I can.
Are international gigs on the horizon?
A lot of this has come up recently. The major factor for me right now is home life. I’m a passionate musician, but I’m also a husband. I signed up for this and I’m committed. I also have 300 students to teach. We go through this process together as a team. I have people who depend on me to be here, so I try and find a good balance between those lives and my performing life. It really hit hard when Freddie Mercury had to choose between touring and family in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. If I can get out of the country and tour for blocks at a time without affecting my homelife or teaching schedule, then I’m all in.
A big thing for me is that with past albums, I’ve always had a team of people to send the record off to during the production stage to get feedback. This is my fifth album since 2016, and I’ve always sought validation before putting each one of them out. This time around, I opted to not have that validation. You are one of maybe four people to have heard the entire album before its release.
How does it feel?
I’m fucking terrified. This is something that I put the last year into making. I want it to go over well. I want it to sell a million copies. In saying that, I’m nervous, but I’m also content with how it sounds. Though I may be nervous about how it goes over, in my heart I’m happy with it, I’m proud of it, it’s like a child to me.
Jennifer Greenberg is a jazz junkie and music journalist based in New York. She is currently the Music and Nightlife Editor for Honeysuckle Magazine. Follow her around town or on Twitter at @jm_greenberg. Also check out her website jennifergreenbergwrites.com.