I first met Adam Hirsch, the man behind the project Abe Hollow, at a house show in Oakland.
We only chatted briefly, introducing ourselves and setting up a time to conduct this interview, but he greeted me with the same warmth that I saw him offer everyone else in the venue. We were interrupted by the start of his set — despite the full complement of performance equipment, Hirsch opted to sit on a stool in front of the stage, carrying only his acoustic guitar. He introduced himself and, with a wry smile that appeared often throughout the set, began to play.
It’s clear that Hirsch has no intention of immaculately recreating his recorded material at his live shows. Instead, Hirsch allows the intimate psychedelia of his tunes to take center stage, forgoing the polished and vast soundscapes of his recorded material. His voice, usually subdued, occasionally raises to a yawp, startling the mostly-seated crowd. Hirsch ended the set by playing a few tracks off A Palace in Time, Abe Hollow’s latest project released on July 10th.
About a month later, Hirsch and I met up at Tiny Telephone, the recording studio where he works as an engineer. He took me through each room, showed me a hallway they mic up for extra reverb, and eventually we landed at a picnic table: Portero del Sol on one side of us and the freeway overpass on the other.
The Bay Bridged: First off, your recordings are full of lush instrumentation, but the live show I saw was stripped-down and minimalist. Where are these songs starting?
Adam Hirsch: Almost all the songs usually start with just me and a guitar, with a few exceptions. The process of this record was taking these bare-bones song forms and allowing them to expand, take shape, and potentially go in completely different directions within the studio environment. Most important to that process was having so many collaborators. I recorded very basic versions of the songs with myself playing guitar and singing, and would have my friends improvise over the recordings which really let the songs take shape. I also got to take on the role of an engineer, which is very familiar to me, and those moments where I was recording my friends was where all the magic happened.
TBB: How does that then translate back into a live show? Do you ever come back to these intricate recordings and think ‘How am I going to play this live?’
AH: There have definitely been times where that process influences what I play solo, and on most of the songs on this record I have the recorded version in my head while I’m playing the track alone. There’s always a dialogue, a non-linear exchange between those different worlds.
TBB: How do you transition between acting as an artist and acting as an engineer? Are the lines kind of blurry?
AH: Whether you’re recording your own stuff or providing an engineering service for somebody, you’re in a high stakes environment— you want the thing you’re making to turn out well. The set of goals and expectations completely different, but there’s plenty of situations where these two roles have crossover, and I think that’s really beautiful. It was very challenging to wear both hats to the fullest extent at the same time on this last record— I was creatively and emotionally exhausted, existing simultaneously on the technical side and in this totally nebulous world of my own art. It was super disorienting, but it lead to a record I’m very proud of.
TBB: Have those two sides always been coexisting?
AH: I’ve been playing music since I was 9, but the moment where I realized I could write my own songs as opposed to just being a saxophone or clarinet player was when I started recording. Being able to record sounds, document them, rearrange them, and then play them for people totally opened that window for me. I do wish sometimes I could forget everything I know about recording and just exist in the artistic side. There are plenty of situations where my instincts as an engineer might completely contradict what the most interesting or original thing to be doing is, and that’s a source of tension that is really rich for me. How do you carry the craft of recording and wed it with a process that should be marked by an abundance of creativity? The most magical records that have ever existed find a way to make the two work in harmony.
TBB: How did you get your start in music?
AH: I got my start playing jazz music, which really hooked me into the music world. In high school I started thinking more about songwriting, and eventually I went to college at Oberlin, which has this big music conservatory. I wasn’t in the conservatory, but I was there all the time and was hugely influenced by the people I’d meet there. I started doing some work for the technical side of the conservatory, and that’s how I started messing with analog synthesizers and analog recording equipment for the first time.
TBB: Did you have any jazz favorites? Who are some of the artists who inspire you?
AH: John Coltrane for sure, the way he improvises is a huge influence on my playing. Also, and it almost feels like a meme to say it, but Arthur Russell. He’s such a towering figure to songwriters right now. Not even just songwriters actually, any composers who are interested in avant-garde music. I feel really lucky to say this, but most of my favorite music these days is music made by my friends. I especially love songwriters. Fellow East Bay folks like Boy Scouts, Stephen Steinbrink, Sucker Crush, and Rose Droll, who is a very dear friend and is playing in my band for the live version of Abe Hollow.
TBB: What importance does the Abe Hollow pseudonym carry for you?
AH: Abe is the name of one of my great-grandfathers, and my Hebrew name is Avraham. My great-grandfather was a very important figure in my family, and a very important figure in my early life. Thinking about him and his life story has been a really cool and interesting source of mythology for me in the way I construct a lot of my storytelling. I used Hollow because it let me keep my initials, but there’s also a lot to explore in that word. Something that is hollow is empty, something that is hollow is resonant. When I put my first project out, I released a short essay on the meaning of the word hollow to me.
TBB: You have a new record coming out! When can we expect it? What are some things we should be listening for in comparison to your last project?
AH: The album is called A Palace in Time, and it’s coming out on July 10. I think the most significant thing was definitely including collaborators. The last project was just me and the studio, and I really embraced a lot of outside influences, and in some ways, a lot of chaos, allowing the songs to take shape outside of my control. This one is also more thematic and conceptually driven, a lot of which comes from me thinking about my Jewish identity, my grandfather, and the history of the Jewish diaspora. I was pulling from all these different stories