by Jade Curson
photo: Daniel Dorsa
“I don’t know if you know this, but the record was actually finished like, two years ago.”
Stevie Knipe is sitting in their home office-slash-studio in upstate New York, with intermittent yelps from two guinea pigs chilling peacefully in the background (Knipe apologises about any potential interruption at the start of the call, as if seeing other people’s pets isn’t one of the few small joys left in conducting every interaction via video meetings). It’s a week or so before the release of Adult Mom’s third record, Driver, and their press schedule has been a welcome diversion from everything else going on. “I’ve been beautifully distracted by art,” they tell me, adding with a laugh: “but the nights are hard.”
Given that Driver was written and recorded in 2019, it seems spectacularly suited to a March 2021 release. Without context, it’s all too easy to hear the opening lines of ‘Breathing’ (“I’m isolating, I get my communications from an overdue hospital bill”) as a weary allusion to a year of social distancing and quarantine measures. The fact that the reference point for this song – and arguably, the central event of the entire record – was actually Knipe’s car accident several years before, doesn’t remotely diminish the significance it has today. If you’re looking for an extended metaphor to make sense of the sudden loss of control over your life; the dramatic impact and trauma, and the long, long process of recovery we’re all experiencing as a result of the pandemic, you could certainly do worse than the image of being blindsided by a stranger in a truck.
“There’s this beautiful freedom of driving, and then you realize that it is such a precarious and dangerous situation to be in,” says Knipe. “Because you can’t control what’s going on around you. When I got into my accident there was nothing I could have done. Also, he just drove off. He totalled my car and he just drove off!” It was a scary reminder that our idea of control or freedom is largely an illusion – and this stayed with them as they began writing for the next Adult Mom record. Their experience with the accident and the act of driving as an analogy for independence turned out to be too good to ignore. “I think that applies to so many things in adulthood. You have the freedom to do whatever you want essentially, but there are repercussions and [the crash] is just such a visceral ending to that freedom. I was like, ‘how can I not write about this?’ It’s such a classic portrayal of trauma.”
In spite of this, they don’t seem wholly convinced when I suggest the theme is strong enough that Driver could in fact qualify as a concept record. “I mean that’s cool,” they say after a beat – which could be quiet disagreement or simply a lag in the Zoom call, “so I wanna be like, ‘yeah it’s a concept record!’ It wasn’t supposed to be, but then one day I looked at all the lyrics and there’s a car reference in almost every single song. So let’s just roll with that!”
Knipe might not be fully buying what I’m trying to sell them, but the recurring motif is impossible to write off as merely an interesting if inconsequential feature of Driver. That imagery is the backbone of the record, not only adding depth to their signature songwriting style of laying tangles of emotions and frustrations painfully bare, but also creating a perfect allegory for the journey (forgive me) both into and through adulthood. Knipe takes that metaphor for freedom and runs it through the gamut of stress tests. While ‘Wisconsin’ captures the concept at its most purely positive, blending long cross-country road trips with the delicious agony of a new crush (“we drove through Wisconsin and I was not afraid / Have you ever seen grass so green / I’d love to show you”); ‘Berlin’ is gorgeously built around a single line pointedly emphasising a lack of motion, thereby elevating the sense of confinement – even abandonment – that comes from a close friend moving to a different continent (“And if you’re going at least give me a reason / I’ll sit in the car parked in the dark hearing rain drop on the roof”). The idea of control as something transitory is deftly reinforced through the lens of the driver/passenger dynamic: opener ‘Passenger’ leans into an abdication of responsibility (“I was a passenger in your car, and now I’m just a ghost that won’t answer calls”), whereas occupying the driver’s seat allows them a more proactive role when ending an unhealthy relationship in ‘Sober’.
These are heavy things to contend with, though long-time fans of Adult Mom know by now to expect nothing less. But just as typically, there is a battle of will taking place throughout the record, a determination to grow and learn from even the more painful experiences. There is a subtle tonal shift as it progresses, moving from a focus on self-isolation and self-insulation to being ready to experience vulnerability again. This comes to fruition most explicitly in closer ‘Frost’, in which Knipe takes those parallels they have created throughout the record and practically underlines them, foot tapping impatiently while they wait for you to make the connection: “my foot stomps down on the brake when I feel afraid / kind of similar to the way I am with love these days.” More than ever, it’s heartening to receive something hopeful that speaks to the possibility of recovery and of recognising how withdrawing from life can shield from the good as well as the bad.
And just as Driver can be seen as a spookily prescient description of the weird, scary time we’re all living through, those battles for freedom and the breaking down of personal relationships would also prove to be predictive of Knipe’s own near future as they were writing in 2019. Later that year, Knipe would take to social media to publicly address issues of mismanagement from their label Tiny Engines, accusing them of a litany of mischiefs, including withholding masters for the first two Adult Mom records. As other artists came forward with similar accounts, the label quickly evaporated under the pressure. Ultimately this led to Knipe signing with their current label Epitaph, but despite the increased security and professionalism that comes with being signed to a major, it’s clear that Knipe is still troubled by how things went down with their former label, including a confrontation in a public arena they had desperately hoped to avoid:
“I can’t express to you how much I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want that type of attention. But I’ve been living on the internet since I was like 12 years old, so I know how this shit works. Like I really did not want to do it at all, but after a year and a half or maybe two years of going back and forth and trying to figure out how to make them just pay us on time and you know, the things that legally they’re supposed to do…eventually we got a lawyer involved and they just stopped responding.
“That was the tipping point. I feel like this is the only option we have because we’ve tried literally every legal avenue and unfortunately, you know social media power is sometimes way more effective than legal stuff and legit, I just wanted my freaking music back. That’s all. But of course it didn’t go down like that…and I still don’t have my records back.
“I don’t think that people understand how emotionally affected I was by that. It’s not just a vengeful ‘give me my rights back’, it’s like when a friend fucks you over…but it’s good, because now I understand – you know, no shade but also shade – what it’s like to work with a label that knows what they’re doing. I don’t have to yell at [Epitaph] to do things that they’re supposed to do. I feel way less parental in my career right now. No pun intended.”
Driver had originally been planned for release in spring 2020, but the label shuffle inevitably meant a push back to the current release date. The delay was obviously frustrating, but also allowed Knipe to come back to those songs with a new perspective and clarity. “[Driver] is a time and place of my life that I never want to return to ever again,” they say with a laugh. “But I had so much time away from the record that it really does feel like a different part of my life. I never had that before – I still weirdly feel very connected to the themes on our first two records. And so I’m very excited about it because now I have a bird’s eye perspective.”
And that perspective is tangible in Driver. The writing remains introspective but with a new, blunter edge that can only have come from some emotional distance from those events on which the record is based. That ability to be bolder in the retelling of trauma indicates that willingness to grow; of someone who has embraced the work involved in healing – though that’s not something Knipe has ever shied away from. “I’ve never written an Adult Mom song without being in therapy,” they say, when I suggest Driver has all the hallmarks of an album created because of, not instead of, being in therapy. “But this album particularly would not exist without years of therapy. I do explain how things happened, but I think there are way less details than I usually include – more boundaries in certain senses. And so I’m like, that’s growth! But the sentiments, and the ending…I would never have reached that conclusion on my own.”
It’s a conclusion that could serve us all well as we continue to live through this extended period of grief, fear and uncertainty – perhaps more collectively than ever before. “One of the biggest sentiments I want to get across with this record is that trauma is real: things are terrible, breakups happen, heartbreak happens,” Knipe concludes. “But there’s always another side. Right now is horrible, but if you look at it in the way that I looked at the last three-year period of my life…it’s like, you’ll get through it. And it’s bullshit for people to say this is “character-building” – because I actually feel like I’ve regressed quite heavily. But if anything, I just try to keep remembering that this is something that’s temporary. We will all get through this. But also, it’s going to be fucking hard.”