Adam Remnant’s new EP opens with a man alone in a motel, staring down sunrise at the tail end of a long night.
Inside the room, smoke rises from the ashtray and a muted TV plays. Outside, the pre-dawn black is occasionally interrupted by passing headlights, the cars piloted by people who have somewhere they need to be. “But me, I got nowhere to get to,” Remnant sings dryly atop patient acoustic strumming.
Remnant, an Athens, Ohio-based singer and songwriter, initially hit on the name for “Sunrise at the Sunset Motel,” the title track off his new EP, out digitally now, while driving past the Sunset Motel in Athens – a tired-looking lodge whose primary function is perhaps best summed up by this line from a Yelp review: “If you need a place to put your head for cheap, this works.”
“It’s in slow, increasing stages of decay and disrepair, but it’s still hanging in there,” Remnant said of the building, whose tired, somber vibes helped direct his songwriting on the title track. “I just start to think, where am I? Okay, I’m in a motel. What do I see? ... A lot of times when I'm writing, there's a feeling I'm trying to get after, and it might start with an image. And that helps me zoom in on a scene and really write from a specific time and place.”
These are the kinds of lessons Remnant has tried to impart to the students in his songwriting workshops at Stuart’s Opera House, reminding them to “show not tell” when constructing their own verses.
It’s easy to come out directly and say a person is sad when writing a song, Remnant said. But the art comes from giving the listener an unshakeable sense of this grief with it never being explicitly stated. So, on “Sunrise at the Sunset,” cigarette butts accumulate, and silence pervades, these details combining to make the space feel somehow more desolate.
Moments of levity are rare on Sunrise at the Sunset Motel, a three-song EP on which Remnant sits with weighty themes that include grief, regret, the questionable necessity of faith, the concept of moving on, and the reality that doing so isn’t always possible.
Witness “Dumb Luck,” which opens with a violent car crash and then pivots to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a church basement at which the surviving driver is still unsure how they were able to walk away – a circumstance that has shattered their perceptions of everything. “Now no matter what I do I can’t fathom/The ways in which the world extracts its fee,” Remnant sings. “How the driving force behind it seems so random.”
Throughout the EP's three songs, Remnant flashes a cinematic eye for detail, giving vivid life to the AA meeting in “Dumb Luck” with a handful of choice words: church basement stairs, folding chairs and Styrofoam cups filled with coffee. But he also tusts the listener to fill in gaps, at times, presenting scenes without explicitly connecting the dots.
“The kind of art that always resonates with me is the art that leaves a little space for the listener, where it’s not so obscure that you can’t make heads or tails of it but it’s also not so cut and dry that it’s like you use it once and then dispose of it,” said Remnant, who pointed to the work of director David Lynch as an example of this approach, describing his films as “puzzles to be solved.” “I love any sort of art that creates a world for you to explore.”
While none of the songs on the EP are explicitly autobiographical, Remnant said the themes at its core resonate with his own experiences, be it the sense of regret felt by the man holed up at the Sunset Motel, or the big-picture questions that give definition to “Ghost Story.” “Who paints this picture?” Remnant sings on the latter, calling attention to the presence (or not) of some higher power.
“‘Dumb Luck’ and ‘Ghost Story’ both have these religious themes tied into them, and it’s this idea of grappling with meaning and not being able to find it, and then figuring out how to proceed in spite of that,” said Remnant, who grew up Southern Baptist but has since distanced himself from the church – a faith journey he said informed an in-progress full-length due later this year. “It’s something I’ve always wrestled with and still wrestle with, honestly. There’s a superstition deeply ingrained in me that’s like, ‘You have to believe this if you want to go to heaven.’ And the rational part of my brain tells me that there’s no reason to think that’s true. But then it gets so embedded it’s hard to think your way out of it.”
Remnant said he’s always been drawn to songwriting as a means of exploring these larger internal conflicts, in part because the songwriters he was introduced to in childhood moved him in a way that no other art form has. Beginning in middle school, Remnant absorbed records by everyone from Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead, though he held a particular fondness for Bob Dylan and the Jeff Tweedy-led Wilco.
“My voice is even in the same vicinity as his,” said Remnant, who added that for a long time he “felt like a Jeff Tweedy impersonator.” “And then you just kind of do it long enough where it’s like, okay, I want to go in this direction more. … And once you dive into writing, you start to ask, what are the themes I’m wrestling with? What are the things I want to write about? What’s important to me? And when that happens, it becomes less about your influences … and it starts to become your own, unique thing.”