Ada Lea Breaks Down Every Song on Her New Album ‘one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden’

    Two years ago, Alexandra Levy came through with one of the most innovative and astonishing debuts in recent memory under the moniker Ada Lea. what we say in private combined the ferocious energy of punk with dynamic folk arrangements and shadowy electronic flourishes to complement her stark, vulnerable lyricism, documenting the end of a relationship in an attempt to reclaim a sense of self. Following that album, Levy went to Los Angeles to record her 2020 woman, here EP with producer and frequent Phoebe Bridgers collaborator Marshall Vore, and eventually, her sophomore full-length, which is out today via Saddle Creek.

    Also featuring contributions from Bridgers’ bandmate Harrison Whitford and backing vocals from the likes of Tomberlin and Common Holly’s Brigitte Naggar and Johanna Samuels, one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden finds the artist refining her musical approach, leaning on a subtler but just as evocative palette to bring her vivid, dense storytelling to life. Inspired by and centered around the city of Montreal where Levy grew up, the record straddles the line between reality and fantasy as she navigates a complex web of relationships and experiences, her writing alternately impressionistic and diaristic, intimate and direct. Like a recurring dream whose true meaning reveals itself over time, the striking details that seep into the corners of the album imprint themselves more firmly in your memory with each repeated listen – and for each moment of drama that draws you in, each ‘damn’ that sweeps you away, there’s a whole other map of feeling for you to explore.

    We caught up with Alexandra Levy to talk about the story behind each song on her new album, one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden (not including hidden track ‘heard you’). Listen to the album and read our track-by-track interview below.

    1. damn

    I was thinking of the significance of the party as main setting, thinking back to ‘the party’ from your first album – though that was about someone leaving a party, and here you really build out the scene, the busyness of it. Do you see those songs as being at all related? When you were writing ‘damn’, did you intend to bring out a different shade of that kind of experience?

    I love this, like, tying both albums together. [laughs] You’re the first person to have done that. Actually, funnily enough, both songs are written with the same person in mind, which is interesting, and in two completely different settings. With ‘the party’, it’s more of this longing and unrequited feeling and things ending toon soon and imagining the possibilities of what could happen. And then with ‘damn’, it’s the story of someone clearly struggling with… well, in this case, it was with substances, and seeing them struggle brought out this other story that felt bigger than just that one person. Just more existential.

    How long after ‘the party’ did you write ‘damn’?

    Probably two, three years?

    And was that passage of time part of the reason you felt more comfortable approaching it from this bigger, existential angle?

    Yeah, I think so. Because also, it’s the story of an ongoing friendship that goes through different phases in growing up. When you’re younger you have this idealised view of what living is and love is, and then it kind of changes over time and you start to see that it’s, like, bigger than yourself. That you can have very strong feelings for people that you aren’t romantically interested in.

    Lyrically, there are a couple of interesting contrasts in this song. One is that expresses a sort of desperation about the role of music – there’s the line “damn the song that’s spinning and trying to lift us up,” and the song itself keeps spinning upward. And then the same idea is applied to friendship, where you sing about how not even a good friend is enough to lift your spirits, yet you have all these friends singing backup on the song. Do you see those musical choices as a response to that kind of thought spiral?

    Yeah, definitely. I do love that interpretation because we do lean on people and we do lean on music and art, sometimes really unknowingly. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have many voices at the end of ‘damn’. Because also, when people are struggling, it’s rare that there’s one person holding them up; it’s usually a whole community, and everyone in their own way.

    Assuming the song was written in a stream-of-consciousness manner, were you surprised with any of the words that came up in the last part of the song?

    I wasn’t so surprised – it really was so easy to come up with those. What I found harder was the quicker rhymes throughout the song. The part that surprised me the most was the beginning, like, “The year started at the back of a train of thought.” I was like, Whoa, what’s going on? And that really excited me. I just placed myself really quickly at the party and was like, okay, what’s going on, what’s around me, who’s there, what are they doing, what are they saying? What’s this overall feeling that I’m trying to communicate that can’t be summed up in so little words?

    2. can’t stop me from dying

    I had this idea of a character that keeps dying in like a video game and can kind of keep going with the foresight that was initially lacking, and then has the opportunity to make different decisions, and each time avoiding death. I’ve kind of realised that for me, this song shows that we do mess up, we do hurt people unintentionally and act in ways sometimes that we wish we hadn’t. And ‘can’t stop me from dying’ in my mind now really just means, I’m going to mess up, we’re all going to mess up, but it shouldn’t be a reason to build this mountain of shame to be suffocated by. And in a way, it’s just saying, “Well, I messed up this time, and for next time, I know what to do differently.” And each time, these parts of you die out from not, like, using them – you eventually change over time.

    There’s this line here, “I’m in love with my neighbourhood,” and I’m curious how it came to you because it’s an idea that sits at the heart of the album.

    That line – what comes before is “naked as a jaybird,” and initially, the natural rhyme would be “neighbour”. But then I thought it’d be interesting to just have “neighbourhood”. And mentally you’re making the association with neighbour, but then there’s this kind of quick detour that your brain has to make all of a sudden and it can’t help but, like, put a bunch of neighbours together. So I think it was a way to try and trick my brain trick people’s brain. [laughs] To just see it as people, and a neighbourhood is nothing without, like, the neighbours. And essentially, we’re all neighbours – we’re not as disconnected as we’d like to think we are. People like to create this big separateness between people that have different viewpoints, and especially different politics, and in the end we’re all kind of the same.

    3. oranges

    Could you offer some insight into some of the details that come up in this song, specifically the wild oranges and “songs of inexperience”?

    So, wild oranges is actually just a tea. It was the name of a tea that I often drank, and I didn’t like very much myself, but I thought that it was a nice kind of centre for the for the song. With the “songs of inexperience”, it’s kind of a play on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

    What can you tell me about the significance of Blake’s work in your life and music?

    I remember reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids ages and ages ago, and how she was reading Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), and I remember her also mentioning William Blake, those two books in particular really inspiring her. I love hearing and reading about specific works that have inspired other people. Obviously it’s fun to make your own discoveries, but I can’t even think of one thing that I found myself – maybe Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. But it’s so rare that we find things by ourselves and we rely on word of mouth and our friends suggesting things to us. And you know, Patti Smith isn’t my friend [laughs], but reading her books, reading anyone’s book, you feel like you get to know them a little bit, and it is fun to go down that path.

    4. partner

    I feel like this song picks up where ‘damn’ left off, and again, it made me think of ‘the party’, but this time it’s the narrator leaving a party, and the lyrics are more dense and reflective. This is more of a general question, but how did much find yourself reflecting on the nature of memory and time during the making of this album?

    Well, everything is kind of taken from memories and pieced together slowly like that. And only after being around for a certain amount of years can you look back and see different threads that are carrying through. So, it’s like, unknowingly you’re pulling this thread through behind you and then it’s up to you to piece it together the way that you see fit. And with ‘partner’ in specific, they’re just memories that aren’t accessible to you for most of your day, and perhaps life, and then re-entering a certain space, or tasting something, smelling something, your involuntary memory comes back. And for me, that’s where the magic is because we have no control really over that. For like a little moment you’re kind of in two places at once and it feels so real and tangible, and then you leave the space, and you know, out of sight, out of mind. I just find it interesting that some memories can lay dormant until reawoken.

    Could you talk about the arrangement of the song? According to the credits, I think it’s the only song where you don’t play guitar, and it has this dreamy, expansive quality to it that weirdly made me think of like a Coldplay song – I don’t know if that was potentially a reference point.

    No, I haven’t listened to much Coldplay. I’ve always wanted to – a lot of people have made reference to the earlier stuff. But yeah, this was the only song that I didn’t play guitar on ­– I think I did play guitar and then we removed it. This was one of the songs that I had never played live, and so Tasy [Hudson], the drummer, when she came down from Montreal to record, we were trying different things out on the drums and it was hard to find a cool thing, and then Marshall was like, “Okay, I have an idea.” And the beat that’s there now is really similar to what he was improvising using different percussive instruments that he gathered, and it was really fun to put it all together. And definitely fun to not play guitar – I mean, I play guitar on this song live, but I do like the idea of not setting limits or boxing yourself into like, I’m a guitarist, so I must have guitar on every song.

    5. saltspring

    I love how the song disintegrates at the end, as if to kind of represent that passage of time that you sing about. When did that first idea first arise in the production or recording process?

    I love warping stuff – if I could, I would warp everything. [laughs] It just gets tricky to do that, and I think live, too. I try not to about live too much when I’m recording, but I always kind of imagined it slowly becoming more and more disjointed and sounding like going underwater. And I do love the low voice, and the high voices too – it’s on the first album, it’s a little bit in ‘can’t stop me from dying’. So I just kind of messed around with the ending of ‘saltspring’ until it kind of matched up to what I was imagining.

    Why did it feel appropriate for this song specifically? What about the song made it feel like the right place to do that, conceptually?

    It was kind of just like I kept hearing it happening. And you kind of need to listen to whatever little voice in your head – I used to kind of doubt that voice, like, Oh, that’s stupid, I’m not gonna do that. But now, whenever that voice comes on, it’s like, What if…? Or if I just hear the thing, like I was hearing it just warped and I’m like, okay, how can I do this? But at no point was I thinking, why does this make sense?

    I think this is also why it’s challenging, talking about the album and the stories and the lyrics, is so much of the process, I try and detach from any rational reasoning and thought. For sure, in studying, doing exercises, you’re strengthening that muscle, but then when it comes to writing, you kind of just want to create a free-flowing current, and usually the editor in my brain is the one that’s blocking things and creating a barricade. I mean, it really depends on the song, but sometimes I am just trying to decode what it is that I’m hearing and jot it all down, and then at other times it is just an idea, like more conceptual and rational. If the song wasn’t created from the latter example, then it is hard to describe why certain decisions were taken because then you’re just kind of thinking backwards, like, Okay, why did I choose this? And there’s for sure an explanation to all of it, but I don’t know if each decision was made with that rational mind. And in a way, I’m really actively trying to disengage from that when I’m writing.

    6. and my newness spoke to your newness and it was a thing of endless

    I love the title of this track, even if there isn’t a kind of rational explanation behind it. But I would love to hear about how you came up with it, if you remember, and whether you associate any specific memories with recording it.

    The title came from – I think I ended up including it in the songbook – it was from a poem. I was taking this incredible poetry studio with a poet that I love and really admire in Montreal named Sarah Burgoyne. She’s an experimental poet and she gave us some exercises during the class, and I can’t remember which one specifically led to this poem, but I remember that line sticking out for me. And then when she read it and someone else in the class read it, they both explained their own reasons for liking it, which I found really interesting. It was one of those things that I wanted to spend a bit more time trying to understand, in a way, because the language is so de-familiarising, talking about newness as if it’s a thing you can possess, and endless – I don’t know, it creates this feeling that I’m often trying to go after.

    Of endlessness, you mean?

    Just the way the words string together to create a feeling that I can’t really… I can’t put into a concise idea.

    7. my love 4 u is real

    Compositionally, this song reminded me of ‘wild heart’, the way it kind of breaks apart and comes together in a raw and powerful way. And maybe this is me conceptualising it too much, but it feels like opening up a space for this emotional hunger that’s there in both songs – this gnawing, persistent feeling of wanting to be heard and of wanting to hear an answer. Is this a pattern that you’ve noticed in your songwriting, where you have a tendency to slow things down, musically, when there’s a certain weight to the words?

    It’s interesting that you’re relating it back to ‘wild heart’ because actually, when I wrote it, I was working on ‘wild heart’. It was the first song that I worked on – I didn’t have an album in mind, I just wrote the song and it was around the same time that I was finishing up what we say in private. And yeah, I just like the drama of slowing things down that.

    The drama, and I think in this case also a euphoria, more so than maybe ‘wild heart’.

    Yeah, for sure. In ‘wild heart’, it’s more of a longing and desperation.

    I think it’s also the heaviest song on the album, and I was wondering if there was a reason, more generally, that you ended up scaling back a bit on the distortion on this record. And maybe this is one of heavier songs because it was written around the same time?

    It’s funny because when I got from LA, I had sent the album to the owner of Saddle Creek and the A&R woman, Robb [Nansel] and Amber [Carew], and I remember I was in the car chatting with Robb on the phone, and she made some comment like, “The songs are very chill! Where’s the ‘mercury’? Where’s ‘wild heart’?” [laughs] And I was like, “Yeah, well, I spent most of the year in my room by myself, so that’s what you get.” [laughs] And I think to a certain extent it’s true, with the other songs on the first album, I was really playing with an electric guitar and I had access to playing with a band more frequently. And then with the second album, it was mostly done in my room with an acoustic guitar and then creating layers from that.

    8. backyard

    I also love the instrumentation on this song, specifically the strings. It really adds to the playful, childlike nature of the song, which maybe relates to what you were talking about in ‘damn’, how the way think about love and relationships changes as we grow up. Could you talk about how the song came together in the writing and recording process?

    Yeah, it’s a song about my childhood best friend. We shared a garden and our backyards were connected by a gate, so we would often have these, you know, just magical, running-around-being-kids experiences. And also leaving gifts for the fairies [laughs] and cutting pieces of our hair and burying it. And all of these attempts to connect ourselves to each other, and we wanted to be twins. But I think now thinking back, it was more this… I don’t know, as kids, you do feel this separateness, and you can’t explain it, and you want to have this bond.

    So that’s kind of where it started, and I was living at the same house and that neighbour moved away. And now there’s like a big trunk blocking the gate so you can’t even open it, which I find symbolically really powerful, almost like you’re not able to access your playful, childlike self in this angry and difficult world. And for a split second, I was reminded of how when you’re so young, there is this innocence and naivete and desire to connect yourself somehow. And the way we did that was like, pricking our heads and licking each other’s blood. [laughs]

    And then the strings came later, but I felt this space and my friend [Liberté-Anne Lymberiou] who’s an amazing composer, I was like, “Do you have time to just write a thing?” And she wrote it in super quickly. I find it just amazing, she knew exactly what to do.

    So, with the central line, “You said the stars couldn’t leave our backyards for as long as we’d ask them to stay,” is that also based on a concrete memory?

    This is the thing with memories, it’s hard to know what is real and what’s not anymore. Even with the fairy dust and all of the rituals, in my mind there are images, and in my mind it did happen like that, but… I don’t know, if I was to ask her, perhaps she wouldn’t remember any of these things.

    9. writer in ny

    To me, ‘backyard’ kind of sits in this uncertain place – it doesn’t say one path is more virtuous than the other, but it does question the idea of constantly moving in pursuit of something better. This song feels to me like a continuation of that theme, but it’s more about a vision for the future.

    Yeah, like in ‘writer in ny’ you’re longing to get away, and then in ‘backyard’ you’re realising that you want to stay. That you can go anywhere in theory, but the things that are most familiar to you, like your backyard and your home and your friends and your community, is what essentially we want to choose, I think naturally. You want to go away and then essentially you realise that what you have here around you is just as exciting, or can be just exciting depending on how you’re looking at it.

    10. violence

    I feel like this is one of the more literal songs on the album, which in general is more non-linear and impressionistic. To me, ‘violence’ is the kind of escape that you sing about on ‘backyard’, but it feels very real, not a thing of the imagination. What do you remember about writing the song?

    I think with this song, specific scenes were popping up and they felt significant – I knew they were significant. And I was just kind of letting them sit there and trying not to over embellish them or give them any meaning.

    Do you feel like that’s a gradual direction the album goes in as a whole, of it being more direct and literal in its expression of feeling?

    Yeah, it’s almost like ‘writer in ny’, ‘violence’, ‘hurt’, and ‘damn’ kind of fill this loop of being straight up, and then all the other songs feel more imaginative and in a physical place.

    11. hurt

    Why was this chosen as the first single and then the closing track on the album?

    I mean, it’s my favourite song on the album and I really wanted it to be first. I think a lot of people gravitate towards ‘damn’ because it’s big and in your face, but we were all kind of surprised that it turned out the way that it did – Amber, the woman at the label, she would come sometimes after we would record and listen to what we recorded and she was like, “Wow, this could even be a single.” You know, obviously she’s thinking in that way and I’m just like, my mind is in the clouds. But she’s like, it’s like a sad banger or something like that. [laughs] And the more time that I spent with the album, the more it just really stood out for me, and I wanted it to be the first one that I presented to the world.

    And the last one on the album?

    The last one on the album… It’s been said that it’s interpreted as like this sad song, but I really don’t see it that way. It’s kind of just stating: this happened and this happened and now I might have lost my mind and I don’t know my body, but I think even just in being able to acknowledge that there is a ton of growth that needed to happen to get to that place where it can be so straightforward and removed like that. Which, for me, seems like the biggest achievement in terms of song or meaning. Because it’s almost like what’s not said is what the message or feeling behind it is.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Ada Lea’s one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden is out now via Saddle Creek.

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