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King of the Wild Frontier

Adam Ant talks about life in Tennessee, coping with mental illness, and the liberating power of doing anything you want

The notoriously young-looking pop star Adam Ant—who fashionably inspired Michael Jackson and Prince, who topped US and UK charts throughout the 1980s—was recently carded for an alcohol purchase at Kentucky gas station…at age 58. He says that his performances keep him young. He’ll perform a free concert with his band—The Good ,The Band, and The Ugly Posse—as part of the Thursday at Canalside concert series next Thursday, August 22.

Ant was kind enough to agree to an interview with us this week. He offered a portrait of the emergence of the spirit of the 1970s and 1980s, of life in the American heartland, and of one unsuspecting window cleaner in a flat in London.

Artvoice: So I wanted to ask you—I’m 22 and did not experience firsthand Adam Ant’s heyday. Can you paint a picture for my generation what the late 1970ss and early 1980s were all about?

Adam Ant: Things came from a kind of monotone and went to a more exciting pop thing. In ’79, which would be called the “post punk era,” I personally decided to make it a little bit more colorful, heroic. Then the video thing came along and I had an opportunity to do my own videos and put in a bit of color, a bit of heroic and exciting imagery.

AV: As a young artist, what moment did you recognize as your first taste of success?

Ant: I think the first time it really hit home was at an apartment in London. There was a window cleaner singing one of my songs while he was polishing the windows outside, and he didn’t know it was my flat. And I think that was the crossover.

AV: I can’t imagine you had too much trouble gaining fame. Your music is sensational, fun, and controversial. How often was early Adam Ant met with negative feedback?

Ant: From 1977 to the early 1980s it was a really cult, very underground thing for me. There wasn’t a great musical acceptance. I was pretty much wholeheartedly vilified by the media. My Dirk Wears White Sox album—they hated it. So that just made it stronger. By the time we got a hit, there was a little bit of “I told you so.” But also, it was Adam Ant—not really letting the public give negative feedback. You just put your head down and go on with the world. That’s how I saw it, really. Here you are, expecting “no” then all of a sudden it was “yes,” and following your success around the world and trying to thank as many people live as you can.

AV: “Goody Two Shoes” is a song about you, correct?

Ant: It was a sort of manifesto of my experiences being a developer of pop music. In most interviews, at the time, they asked, “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke. What do you do?” That question kept coming up incessantly. They couldn’t understand the concept of someone in music not doing drugs. For me, it was simple. My hero is an athlete: Muhammad Ali. And I’ve never really had any problem with wanting to drink or smoke. I was more focused on keeping a clear head.

AV: Looking at many legendary rock stars, I can’t help but notice that a lot of the heavy-hitting drug users look like leather bags these days. You look great and you’re now 58. Not to embarrass you too much, but what’s your secret?

Ant: My mum is gypsy and she is 81. She doesn’t have a wrinkle on her face at all. I can only assume it’s genetics. Unfortunately, some of my contemporaries hit the drugs quite a lot, and they started to take their toll after a while. I think doing a concert is like running a marathon. I’m not a gym person. I don’t like the gym. But even when I’m not working, I’m thinking about how I’m going to be burned up after an hour of being on stage. It keeps you focused to perform on stage and be fit enough.

AV: Blueblack Hussar is your ninth studio album. The lyrics were a bit emotionally jarring for me. It is extremely thoughtful and well laid-out. I felt the soul put into lyrics and felt like I was right alongside you through these experiences. Has your writing process changed over the years?

Ant: It hasn’t really changed. I think most of the lyrics come from conversations you overhear, or what’s in the paper, or seen on TV, or something from history. I’m passionate about history. I love things from the 19th century. But this album was different. Now having my own label, I was able to create something autobiographical and self-indulgent. I think this album maybe asks all of the questions I wanted to ask.

AV: I was born and raised in Alabama, so the story behind “Cool Zombie” very much piqued my interest. You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy. And growing up in the small country towns, I know it’s easy to stick out like a sore thumb. What sort of reaction did you get from the residents there? I know that you lived there “quietly”, but how quietly can you live being the Adam Ant?

Ant: It was a very small town where I lived in Dayton [Tennessee]. I lived on top of a mountain overlooking the Tennessee Valley. My next-door neighbors became my close friends. Outside of that, it took an hour to get anywhere else. I think the only things they knew were that I was a singer and I was English. People were quite friendly and they were just folks with families in a rural town. You’ll be driving along, and then get stuck behind an Amish buggy. It was very Americana and very peaceful. People left you very much alone. It was a very charming experience. The country was stunning and beautiful, and that’s really the reason I stayed. Tennessee inspired three tracks on the album. I got there purely by accident. We [he and his lover Lorraine] were coming up from Miami—we were leisurely driving up—and picked up a local paper and saw a listing for a house. We had a look at it, fell in love with it, and I said, “Well, let’s get married here!”

AV: After a life of struggle with mental illness and heightened expectations in the music biz, it got the best of you eventually. How did you overcome your mental lapse? What did you set your sights on to pick up your act again?

Ant: I look back on my life and I didn’t stop working from 1977 to 1995. I mean, did not stop at all. I never went on holiday. I put myself under a lot of stress, and a lot of it needlessly. As a writer, you have to write about the ups and downs, that’s precisely what bi-polarism is—ups and downs—and you have to work with the best you have. Try to understand the illness: There is a terrible shame and taboo that surrounds it. In a way, education helped me get through it and come to terms with it. The more we learn about the brain the more we’ll think, “Oh, that was a bit prehistoric how people were treated.” The more I talk about it, the more I can cope.

AV: For artists nowadays, you start on the Disney Channel and the next stop is Playboy. The whole fame process almost seems instantaneous and it takes an obvious and very public toll on a celebrity’s well-being. What would be the most valuable advice you could offer someone hoping for a long, illustrious, perhaps more graceful career in entertainment, coming from someone who’s been through it all?

Ant: I’d say don’t sign a contract unless you’re perfectly happy with it or show it to someone in your family or someone good with business. From my point of view, patience; learning to say “no.” Don’t be rushed or coerced.

I also think this idea of needing a manager is fictional. You don’t need a manager; you need a good lawyer and an accountant. Managers look out for themselves. If you don’t understand something, my advice is very simple: Ask. Big labels have so many bands on their roster—if they don’t like you, they go onto the next one. I have an appreciation for what the label did for me, but now that I am free of the contracts, which wasn’t easy to do, I can take my time.

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