Somewhere in the fertile creative landscape of Adeem Maria’s mind is a fire.
It’s likely always been burning, buried deep in sub- and unconscious places they’ve only begun to explore over the past decade, a Centralia conflagration that often smolders beneath the surface. Lately, however, it’s broken through the crust of fear and self-doubt and self-loathing that’s kept the heat and scope of it hidden — and for Maria, who performs Friday at The Bird and the Book in Maryville — they’re out of damns to give.
They’re non-binary (hence the they/them pronouns). They’re pansexual. They’re married to a woman, the father to a little boy and an artist whose latest work, “Cast-Iron Pansexual,” has earned them a shoutout in Rolling Stone and opening slots on an upcoming tour by the Southern rock provocateurs in American Aquarium. And after years of minimization and denial of all of the parts that make up the totality of the musician known as Adeem the Artist, they acknowledge that fire, call it good and say this to those who would deny them their essential humanity:
Let it burn, because if COVID-19 specifically, and 2020 generally, have taught them — and the rest of us — anything, it’s that life is fleeting, time is of the essence, and if the latter is not spent making the former better for themselves and the wider world in which they live, then what’s the point of the music they make?
“I think the pandemic was a huge catalyst,” they said. “For a long time, there were so many superficial relationships I had to maintain and expectations about the way I present and interact with people, but last June, I lost interest in a lot of my work because George Floyd died (May 25). A lot of people were saying really racist (stuff), and some of those people were putting $50 in my (tip jar) every week to keep the lights on, and even though that was really kind, it was really difficult to parse those things. But when they started saying that these people protesting in these major cities were animals, I just said, ‘(Forget) you and your $50.’”
By hanging up their cover hustle, Maria had time on their hands. Always prolific, and wickedly industrious, they came up with a traveling musical pandemic show, in which they sold their musical services to those who wanted an artist to write a song, drive to a loved one’s house and play it from the curb or the driveway, just as a way to spread some joy or break up the monotony. While that was well and good, there was a lot of downtime, they added.
That’s when “Cast-Iron Pansexual” began to percolate, first as a rumination about their sexuality. For the uninitiated, pansexual is defined as “not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender or gender identity.” Maria started coming to terms with their sexuality a decade ago, they said, but same-sex attraction clashed mightily with a religious Southern upbringing.
“As a teenager, I didn’t see any gay people on TV or anything — it just wasn’t a part of my world,” they said. “There were gay kids at school, and they were very gay. You knew they were gay, and I didn’t relate with that. I had such a weird idea about it all — like, maybe in my mind, I thought being gay was cool, and that all of my straight friends were daydreaming about the same things I daydreamed about, but we just didn’t talk about it because it was embarrassing. And because I was hanging out with straight friends, that’s who I identified with.”
As time went on, however ... and as their world began to expand through music ... they began to understand that their sexuality was fluid. As a teen, they moved from North Carolina to New York, and in their early 20s, they found work as an entertainer on cruise ships, where their fellow crew members came from all over the country and the world and exposed them to ideas and philosophies and ways of looking at life that allowed them to take additional steps toward a personal awakening. At the same time, they fell in love with Hannah, their wife, and their exploration of sexuality suddenly seemed less important than this new relationship, they said.
“At the same time I was having this realization that I was not heterosexual, I was writing love letters to Hannah and falling in love with her, because I really liked her, and she was really compelling to me,” they said. “She had interesting stories, and she grew up in Indonesia, and she was critical of the Christian lens, like I was. So by the time I was done with my first (cruise ship) contract, we were openly together. I got off the ship, and we got engaged about a year after that, and at that point, I wasn’t going to come out of the closet to my wife’s beautifully loving, albeit more conservative Christian family. I wasn’t trying to pull up in my ’92 Sunbird and say, ‘What’s up, I’m the agnostic queer your daughter’s trying to date!’”
Say this for Maria: They’ve always been self-deprecating, even as they began to focus on some poignant, soul-stirring original compositions. They’ve always written songs, but over time, through a transition of names that never felt right, they’ve slowly peeled back the layers of identity, examining each before tossing what no longer fits onto that fire. From Kyle Adem to Adeem Bingham to Adeem Maria, they’ve long lifted up an introspective lamp and sought to further refine the mercurial edges of what it means to live and love truly, underneath the grime of environmental and family-of-origin influences.
“In 2016, I started thinking about it a lot more, especially when I started feeling more political, because it felt like an identity issue to me,” they said. “People would say things like, ‘We’re straight guys; we don’t get it,’ and I would think, ‘Eh, I do get it.’ I wanted to come out in a more public way, but a bunch of people told me that unless I was trying to (have sex), it didn’t matter.
“So last year, ‘I Never Came Out’ was the first song that initiated this theme, because it was something I was thinking about a lot, and it is like a weird area. I think probably a lot of bi(sexual) people in heteronormative relationships feel that way — especially as they get older, they think, ‘What does it matter?’ But then there’s this other part of it where we’re inching toward a place where we don’t have to have coming-out moments. It’s getting to a point in society where you could just say, ‘This is my boyfriend,’ and most people will be like, ‘OK, cool.’”
Sexuality became a central focus of “Cast-Iron Pansexual,” but at the same time, Maria said, the fringes of these songs became a way to explore concepts of gender ... and thus another layer was peeled back and cast upon the fire. It’s important for them to denote that while explorations of gender and sexuality are often intertwined, they don’t have to be. It just so happens that “Cast-Iron Pansexual” became a way to acknowledge the latter and explore the former.
“Gender stuff has been harder for me because people don’t get it or understand it,” they said. “This album was a major turning point for me with gender, but at no point did I think this was me coming out as non-binary (which, for the purposes of this conversation, essentially means embracing a gender identity that is neither distinctly male or female, thus outside of the gender binary). It was an album of me talking about stuff and processing religious trauma through queerness.
“I think I’d been pretty communicative with close friends that I felt like I was non-binary, but I was also like, ‘Eh, pronouns don’t matter. I don’t have to tell anybody. It doesn’t mean anything.’ And then I found I was still hesitant to buy women’s articles of clothing, even though I wanted to, and over time I started to see that there were so many things I was focusing on, specifically around studying and listening to and absorbing country music, which has a very specific, niche masculinity.”
The sounds ... the rootsy presentation, the introspective ballads, the barroom-stomping fun ... it all appealed to them, Maria said, and playing that particular style felt as comfortable as the indie folk they’ve made for more than a decade now. But what if, they began to wonder, they turned the machismo appearance so often associated with country on its head?
“I remember my wife bought me this blouse, and it was my first blouse — it’s got tigers on it, which is an allusion to the ‘Tiger Prince of Knoxville’ thing that I did (a savvy social media ploy around the time the “Tiger King” documentary exploded in popularity), and it was just so beautiful, and I just felt great,” they said. “I’ve always identified with the way the clothes fit, and I’ve always felt like women’s clothes fit better. So then I bought myself some lipstick, and some blue eyeliner, and I started playing with that. Then Hannah bought me a coat, and I put makeup on, and I took these photos, and that’s when I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m smiling in them.’
“I have this whole catalog of simmering, distant looks, just that rugged, masculine, country singer guy bit, because that’s just so tempting, and you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to wash your hair or shave or shower, you can wear stained jeans, and people will say, ‘That guy’s legit!’ But I felt pretty. I felt like I looked — right. And so I bought a ton of clothes. I spent probably $150 on clothes in the past nine years because I just never cared, and I’ve spent twice that since January.”
It’s difficult for Maria to explain that this transition is not a fashion statement. It’s not one undertaken for shock value. If anything, they know that such a public evolution will cause some fans, those who are uncomfortable with anything outside of the heteronormative paradigm, to step away or insult or question their marriage, or even their parental skills. That’s still a prickly subject, mostly because they stand on the common-sense idea that none of those personal topics has anything to do with a journey of self-discovery, albeit one played out in a public arena.
“For one, I don’t think that any of the ideas that people have about the parenthood that tie fatherhood to hard masculinity is right or good or fair,” they said. “I’ve never had any worry about how my kid would interpret what was going on, or how my kid would relate to or identify with what was going on. I think that in a lot of ways, it’s more natural than what my dad was doing, which was assuming these weird burdens of the culture he was born into and forcing them onto me in the same motion. My dad is pretty typical Southern good old boy, and my dad’s grimace in those times I did things that were feminine are all firmly there in my mind.
“And I think that regardless of gender, we all wanted to twirl around in dresses as a kid. We all wanted to look at pretty things like flowers and feel pretty. I don’t think I’m adding a new aesthetic to who I am as much as I’m trying to unlearn all of the B.S. that tell us we shouldn’t be so emotional because that’s what women do.”
If there’s a predominant theme to “Cast-Iron Pansexual,” it’s that: unlearning. Untangling those aforementioned layers like the shedding of stretched and torn snakeskin, so that what’s left is an artist who feels both masculine and feminine, who’s attracted to both men and women, whose words are the rich currency of exploration, past-life condemnation and present-day illumination. That the final track, “Reclaim My Name,” begins with the click-click-click of an old Polaroid sliding out of the camera, is entirely intentional, Maria said, because only by revisiting the past can they make peace with the ways that it shaped them into the artist they’ve now become:
“Stained by generational sins, I did not deserve good things / I’ve been trying to build a machine that can convert shame into celebration / I’ll go back in time and reclaim my name ...”
“Back in 2016, when I first started wanting to come out as queer, I thought I would be taking up space for real queer people because I haven’t experienced as much struggle or oppression as others, so it felt wrong of me to step into that space and maybe overshadow other voices — and besides, I didn’t think anybody would want to go see queer artists in a seemingly cis-het (cisgender-heterosexual) relationship,” they said. “But on ruminating on gender while making this album, and thinking about that dialog within myself, the more I thought about it, I realized that what was happening was, I wasn’t allowing myself to relate to those experiences. I think the album accidentally became that moment for me to open up to the truth of my gender identity, because I realized that you can’t be afraid of taking up space. You have to do what you have to do to be the truest you.
“A couple of years ago, I was asked to join a roundtable discussion because they needed a queer voice, but I have never been asked to represent the cisgender straight while male identity — even when I identified as much. Being queer means not being afforded the luxury of individuality in the same way, because it is considered ‘abnormal,’ and by owning that part of myself, I knew I would be opening the door to being a surrogate for ‘the queer perspective.’ But this is an entire community full of compounded trauma and anxiety, the members of which are actively being oppressed by the government all the time, so it makes sense that they would be hypersensitive to that surrogacy.
“And then on the other side of that, I’ve got straight people expecting me to be their lens of understanding the entire experience of being trans and non-binary,” they added. “Just by using they and them pronouns, I’ve got people waiting on me to explain the nuts and bolts of my existence, and others who might be unintentionally wounded if my experience with gender is misinterpreted as a monolithic narrative that applies to everyone in my community. But the thing is — I didn’t set out to be a spokesperson or a luminary. I’m just trying to live the most sincere life I can.”