- 16 Jul 21
Primed for pop superstardom, 23-year-old Charli Adams talks about growing up in Alabama, her debut record Bullseye, the nickname she got from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and more.
2021 Charli Adams seems very far away from 2019 Charli Adams, despite only two years having elapsed. Back then – shooting a music video for one of her debut singles – perched on a canal boat in Camden Town, Adams was nondescript. Her brown hair hung loose over the shoulders of a plain white t-shirt, and her faded blue jeans made her look to be from nowhere in particular.
Now, sitting in the middle of a Zoom frame in her Nashville home, her eyebrows are bleached the same shade of platinum blonde as her hair, and her bright pink makeup harks back to mid-2000s Avril Lavigne. She’d be almost unrecognisable, save for the hint of a Southern drawl.
This iteration of Adams has been a long time in the making. From a religious and deeply conservative background, the singer-songwriter and burgeoning pop sensation grew up in a beach town in Alabama called Gulf Shores, about halfway between Montgomery and New Orleans. She left at 17, renouncing the rigid lifestyle in which she was raised to pursue her dream of becoming a musician.
“I connected with this producer in Nashville who was the only producer I could find, but it was like my ticket,” she says. “So I came out for a while, but I kept getting sad going home, and feeling like I was missing my people – the Nashville community. Going back home, I felt more and more out of place. For my sanity and mental health, I had to go for it.”
Adams has always been close to her mother, who drove her to her new home, and although leaving was hard, it was ultimately the right decision. “She had a lot of faith in me, and I appreciate that,” Charli says.
The self-taught musician completed school online, working in cafes and going for drives around the city listening to Elliott Smith – and anything else she could get her hands on – to give herself a musical education.
“I had grown up hearing the Hannah Montana story – you come here young, get signed to a record label, and then you’re a superstar,” she laughs. “I remember walking around Music Row in Nashville, thinking I was going to walk into a record company and they were going to discover me.”
Shortly thereafter, she was disabused of that particular notion.
“I was in a DIY music scene,” says Adams. “I started to get exposed to the ground-level work you had to put in. We were doing our own shows, but it wasn’t easy like I thought it would be. Plus, when I first started writing songs in Alabama, I had no competition around me. I got here and it was like, ‘Oh my god, you have some work to do.’ I felt pretty behind, because I didn’t grow up with the musical education everybody in Nashville seems to get. All these kids grew up going to arts schools, being handed guitars when they were three. I had such a different upbringing.”
Perhaps her upbringing was a good thing, however, because it spurred her into writing songs in an unflinching, extremely personal way.
“I’m just a music fan,” shrugs Charli. “And I like having that perspective. A lot of people have that technical music brain, and I admire it. But I like that the way I’m wired makes me create feelings rather than complex, technically proficient music.
“Knowledge can get in the way of creativity. There has to be a balance. I’m very far along the creative side of the spectrum, but that’s what collaboration is for. I collaborate with people who can do things I can’t, and I don’t have any interest in learning them, because I don’t want it to mess up what I’m good at.”
One of Adams’ favourite things about songwriting, in her early days, was that it gave her license to process her most dramatic feelings. A trick she learned from Elliott Smith, in fact.
“I heard Either/Or and was never the same,” she says. “He was the first person I connected to as a songwriter, because – especially in my childhood– there was a lot going on. I didn’t feel I could properly express my emotions or talk about how heavy things were. So songwriting was that outlet for me. It was a place where I was allowed to sulk in feelings I was having to push down in life. Elliott Smith was unapologetically open about the way he felt.”
Adams’ eagerly-anticipated debut album, Bullseye, is without doubt a late-stage coming-of-age record. On it, the singer probes elements of her own subconscious in a way that feels therapeutic, both for her and her audience.
The song attached to the aforementioned, canal-set music video, ‘Backseat’, lyrically situates Adams as a secondary character in her own story – literally lost in thought in the backseat of a car, while her friends have a conversation in the front.
“In the backseat, I don’t wanna talk, I’m fine,” she sings dolefully. “My two friends are laughing ‘bout the people that we know / In the backseat, my head is heavy out the window.”
I ask Adams when she came to the conscious realisation that she wasn’t the director of her own life. She’s quiet for a minute.
“I had been running, and in survival mode for so long, that I had no idea how deeply all of it was haunting me. I felt like I was drowning. I started therapy at the beginning of 2019, and I was being forced to sit with myself, and talk to myself. I started to realise that all of the outlets in my life, the things I was struggling with, came down to one core issue – which was that I’m extremely conflict-avoidant. I felt like I was here to serve everyone around me, and not myself.
“There was this moment where I was like ‘Who the fuck are you, Charli? What do you want, and are you happy? Or are you just tired?’ It hit me how I never stood up for myself, never put myself first.”
She’s still “kind of going through it,” she says, but feels like she had a spiritual awakening during the pandemic.
“Because I’m a bit of a thrill seeker who wants to milk life for all that it’s worth, all the socialising, the music scene, everything that was happening was distracting me – especially being someone who can’t say no. For the first time in my whole life, I feel confident about what I believe in. The existential questions that I had when I was five – the ones that made me question the religion I grew up in, are answered by my spiritual beliefs now.
“And that’s such a cool feeling, because it went through so many phases. That’s what religious trauma is. The initial fear of not believing what you once did, and the consequences that might come with that, are so paralysing. Once I accepted that it was okay to not believe what I was raised on, or that I didn’t agree with it, it all pieced together.
"Listen, my Mom really believes what she believes, and it’s beautiful, I love that she can have that blind faith. I wasn’t made that way, and it doesn’t work for me. But she always said that it would be impossible for her to get past me not believing in Jesus, or God.”
Adams wants to remain true to herself.
“I could lie to myself and those around me, and tell them I do, but it would be a lie. That was a lot of pressure. Literally yesterday, we had a conversation about what I believe, and I was able to confidently tell her because I had accepted it myself, and she was like ‘okay.’ Hard to grapple with, but it wasn’t the end of the world.”
One of the more triumphant offerings on Bullseye is ‘Cheer Captain’, a track that sees Adams take her religious trauma and body image issues to task, seize control of her own desires, and – for once – say no. In the video, she smokes a joint that she grabs from a hollowed-out Bible, which also holds a tarot card.
Did she have any fears about showing it to her family?
“I was terrified,” she says. “It definitely gives me a lot of anxiety. Especially being someone who is worried about what everyone else is thinking about all the time. I have moments where I’m so confident, and feel like I’m living my truth, and then I have anxious moments where I think about my Grandmother crying watching my music video.
“But that’s the healing journey. Before, I would be so paralysed that I wouldn’t move, and I never would say what I’m saying now. So I’m growing!”
Part of the reason she’s becoming more confident is that her relatively newfound views come from a place of compassion, rather than rebellion.
“I’m the only one in my family who has the political views that I do. So I was in plenty of Thanksgiving dinners being called out as ‘The Sensitive Liberal’. I would have moments with myself where I was like, ‘Am I the crazy one?’ Because I was the only one in that environment. It’s hard, because the people you love and grew up around and care about, you’re questioning how they could think a certain way... it’s weird.”
Adams trails off into silence, and it becomes apparent that she’s treading very carefully, not eager to step on the toes of a family she obviously loves dearly.
“It can be so oppressive, in terms of empathy and compassion. But I think the only way to have real and helpful conversations is to come from a place of understanding, and that’s a hard thing to do.”
I’d agree with that.
“It’s so easy to hate the way someone else is viewing the world, when yours is the opposite. But hatred is not productive. I had a lot of conversations during the Presidential election where I’d say, ‘If we’re going to talk about this, we need to talk about it from a place of understanding and love.’ There was so much pulling at my heartstrings, that I would want to have emotional conversations about, and I was having to stay neutral.
“I’m in a world that my family is not. I’m exposed to so much that my family isn’t, and I recognise that geographically, a lot of my extended family, who live in rural Alabama, are not remotely exposed to the things I am.
“I’m on the opposite end of it, being in the music industry and being in a very liberal environment. The reason I’m so aware of the environment having an effect on you is because, before I got out of the bubble, I had very different views. I mean, I was very young, but it was all I knew. I experienced – first-hand – the growth and the difference in getting out of the bubble. It’s easy to understand that if you’re an adult and you never leave that environment, it would get drilled into you.”
If Adams hadn’t fully grown into herself two years ago, she certainly has now. The title of her debut is a nickname bestowed upon Adams by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, but it strikes me now – and struck Adams herself when she was labouring over what to call her record – that Bullseye might actually be Charli in her truest form.
“I just have to note,” she says with a wide grin, “that anyone I’ve ever listened to religiously, I think I’ve manifested them into my life. Two of them are on my album, and then Bon Iver was another one. It’s fucking hilarious.”
So how did the nickname happen?
“I wasn’t even going to go out, but I went to a place on 8th Avenue called Melrose Billiards. It’s a smokey basement bar, in Nashville,” she explains. “I am an avid dart player. So I’m sitting in the bar, and I see Justin Vernon across the room. I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s Justin Vernon’, but I wasn’t going to bother him. I had thought that maybe he wasn’t real, but I was seeing him right in front of me and that was nice enough.
“Then, he slid into the booth, and was like, ‘Hi, I haven’t met you yet, I’m Justin.’ Just to me. The night was very spiritual. He was with a friend who was a satanist at the time, and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I love this shit’. So we started talking about theology, which I’m obsessed with. Basically, in some way or another, he went: ‘I fuck with you, Charli, wanna play darts?’”
So they played darts.
“I beat him, and he called me Bullseye because my first two shots were bullseyes. I think my adrenaline was just like, 'Show off, bitch’,” she laughs. “We had an amazing conversation, we sat at the bar and he told me about his life.
“When it came down to naming the album, we were talking about how this was my liberated self, and I was going to come out with a lot of things I had never talked about with my family and some of my friends. That person is Bullseye – the open, unfiltered person that had a great time with Justin Vernon that night.”
Listen to Bullseye below.