In his 1980s heyday, Adam Ant was never short on style or quirk, and he reinvented himself constantly. You may remember the performer behind "Goody Two Shoes" and "Stand and Deliver" appearing in bold makeup and swashbuckling pirate gear; the military-style jacket he sometimes wore made an impression on no less a cultural icon than Michael Jackson.
"I did actually receive a phone call from Michael Jackson," Ant says. "I thought it was a joke. I thought it was my drummer, Terry, so I wasn't particularly polite. But it was actually Michael. He basically came out and said, 'Where did you get the jacket from? I'd like to have a look at one.' So I gave him the details, and I think he had one made in white."
Adam Ant has returned to music after a 17-year break, and his newest album is a mouthful. It's called Adam Ant Is the BlueBlack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter, and he's adopted a new style worthy of the title. Here he speaks with NPR's Robert Smith about taking time off to be an actor and a parent, storyboarding his own music videos, struggling with bipolar disorder and moving from the U.K. to Los Angeles to rural Tennessee.
On where he's been all these years
"I started in the music business in '77, pretty much doing music solidly until '85. After that time, I got asked to do a Joe Orton play in Manchester at the Royal Exchange Theatre — so there was an opportunity to get involved in this other art form of acting, this other creative avenue. I sort of fell in love with it, so I took about five years out just doing that. ... And then I went to live in Tennessee, where my daughter was conceived. And then I started to get the pangs of wanting to get back into songwriting and performing again, which took about three or four years to put that together. Add that all up, plus being a house dad for about four years — it flew by."
On his 2013 look
"Well, it's a kind of Napoleonic hat with a sort of, about 1854 British kind of brocade waistcoat that is exactly the same design worn by Lord Byron. It fits in with the cavalry trousers, and then high boots and a tri-color bandana around the middle. And now I'm sporting a sort of mustache and a small goatee. So it's got a kind of slight Victorian feel to it."
On dealing with mental illness
"We don't know enough about the brain at this point in history to, you know, get inside it. One day, hopefully, we'll be much more educated about it, and the medications will be more pinpointed. You have to embrace the medication and try it on the recommendation of your doctor, and be honest and tell him how you feel. Without that, the biggest danger is that people just stop taking it, because they feel OK."
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
If you're just tuning in, you are listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. And now, it's time for a little music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: I have always wanted to talk over this beat. In fact, growing up in Utah in the 1980s, I imagined that this song would play over the opening credits if they ever made a movie out of my life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODY TWO SHOES")
ADAM ANT: (Singing) Goody two, goody two, goody, goody two shoes, goody two, goody two, goody, goody two shoes, don't drink, don't smoke...
SMITH: I should remind you that is Adam Ant. If you watched MTV in its early years, when it was still Music Television, you know Adam Ant - swashbuckling military jacket, white stripe of makeup right across the middle of his face. They had a whole pirate complex. He was a man of the '80s, a man of the moment. Now, after nearly two-decade hiatus, Adam Ant is back with his first new album in 17 years. The title is a bit of a mouthful: "Adam Ant is the BlueBlack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARRYING THE GUNNER'S DAUGHTER")
ANT: (Singing) Marrying the gunner's daughter...
SMITH: New sound, new album, and, it turns out, a new fashion statement for Adam Ant. He described it from our London studio.
ANT: Well, it's a kind of a Napoleonic hat with a sort of about 1854 British kind of brocade waistcoat that is exactly the same design worn by Lord Byron. Sexy with a kind of cavalry trousers and then high boots with a tricolor bandana around the middle. And now I'm sporting a sort of, a moustache and a small goatee. So it's got a kind of slight Victorian feel to it.
SMITH: So this is your first album in 17 years. Where have you been? What have you been doing?
ANT: I started, you know, in the music business since '77, so I - pretty much doing music solidly till '85. And after that time, I got asked to do a Joe Orton play in Manchester at the Royal Exchange Theater, so there's an opportunity to get involved in this other art form of acting, this other creative avenue. I sort of fell in love with it, so I took about five years out just doing that.
I did a couple of plays in TVs in the States, you know, "Northern Exposure" and "Equalizer" and such, moved to Los Angeles. And then I went to live in Tennessee, where my daughter was conceived, and then I started to get the pangs of wanting to get back into songwriting and performing again, which took, you know, about three to four years to put that together. So, add that all up, plus being a house dad for about four years, it flew by.
SMITH: Well, it's interesting, because the first song off your new album is a surprising one because it's about Tennessee. It's sort of the last place you would expect to picture Adam Ant in rural Tennessee. Let's listen to a little bit of the song. It's called "Cool Zombie."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL ZOMBIE")
ANT: (Singing) For a time he lived in Tennessee, a brilliant hillbilly, a cool zombie now, na-now, na-now, now, na-now, na-now, now, now. The people there were real friendly...
SMITH: Well, tell me the story of this song.
ANT: I was getting married - unfortunately, we're not married anymore - but the plan was to drive from Miami up to Las Vegas and get married in the Elvis chapel. And we're driving along, and we stopped off in a small town in Tennessee. And, as I always do, I look at the locals - magazines and what have you, and there was an advertisement for an A-framed house on the Vale of Tennessee.
So we had a few hours, and before I knew it, I was up there looking at this most beautiful view. So, suddenly, the plans changed, and I thought: If I don't take this opportunity to buy this, I'm not going to do it. So we bought the house, got married there instead and spent two and a half years sort of very, very peaceful time there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL ZOMBIE")
ANT: (Singing) I bought an A-framed house for you and me on the top of the Vale of Tennessee...
And Tennessee is a marvelous place to experience.
SMITH: Adam, you came out of the punk scene in the 1970s in Britain. And when we first sort of see you over here in the United States, you seem sort of far from punk. You had this iconic pop presence. The song I remember, "Stand and Deliver."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND AND DELIVER")
ANT: (Singing) Stand and deliver, stand and deliver your money or your life...
SMITH: An amazing sound, because it was like this whole pop package. It was the persona, it was the music, it was this perfect little pop song.
ANT: Having come out of the kind of punk rock, which is really catalyst, really, just of breaking down a wall of kind of music, quite simplistic songs, art folks really matter across the songwriting structural singles and learning a bit about scanning, and also, this revolution come along, unbeknownst to everybody - the video. So suddenly, my art school training - I'd been to Hornsey College of Art - I was out to storyboard my own videos and sort of get involved with the direction as well. So with the birth of MTV, the two came together.
SMITH: Is there a downside to this video era in that you had locked yourself into a very particular image and persona? And once MTV came out, people expected you to sort of replay that role constantly, like, no matter where you showed up. Did that ever end up being difficult?
ANT: Not really for me. But what you do on stage is a presentation. Like an actor would get ready for a play, you know, I go in and you prepare, and then off, and then it's really for me a bath and go to bed.
SMITH: So, wait, you would take the makeup off?
ANT: Oh yeah.
SMITH: When you go to Starbucks, you don't wear the hat?
ANT: Absolutely not. No, no.
ANT: But with every album, there was definitely an effort on my part to change everything - musically, visually. Every album had a new look and a new sound. That was something that I was very deliberate about in order to avoid just being associated with one particular look. That isn't necessarily the best way of having a long career in the music business, because it's better to be much slower than that, you know, just take it very gradually. But with me, I had a very low boredom threshold.
SMITH: Well, it's interesting. As you would put on different images, you could see the stylistic things you were doing move quickly through the culture - the military-style jacket shows up on Prince, on Michael Jackson. Do you know how they got it from you?
ANT: I did, actually, receive a phone call from Michael Jackson, and I thought it was a joke. I thought it was my drama (unintelligible), so I wasn't particularly polite. But it was actually Michael. He basically just came out and said: Where did you get the jacket from? You know, I'd like to have a look at one.
So I gave him the details, and I think he went and had one made in white. And eventually, when I went to Los Angeles, we met up, and we talked about clothes quite a great length over the course of a day at his home. He was still living with his parents.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN IN THE MIRROR")
MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) I'm starting with the man in the mirror...
SMITH: I'm speaking with musician Adam Ant. He's out with his first new album in 17 years. There's a song in the album that I really like called "Shrink." And let's hear a little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHRINK")
ANT: (Singing) Is it just me or is it just medication...
SMITH: You write: Is it just me or it just medication? Now, you've been very public about struggling with mental illness, with bipolar disorder. Is that line a question you've asked yourself - is it just me or is it just medication?
ANT: I think that's the question about the kind of finding the right formula, the right kind of medication for you, because there are many medications dealing with this problem. We don't know enough about the brain at this point in history to be able to, you know, get inside it. And one day, hopefully, we'll be much more educated about it, and the medications will be more pinpointed.
You have to embrace the medication and try it on the recommendation of your doctor and be honest and tell them how you feel. Without that, the biggest danger is people just stop taking it because they feel OK. But there are other methods that compliment this: Getting out of the house - you really know who your friends are - speaking to your family as much as you can and just stop feeling the sense of shame.
SMITH: The life of a rock and roll musician is tough enough. It's tough enough without having to deal with this. This must make it much more difficult to figure out how to pace yourself.
ANT: Well, yeah. That was the biggest issue with me. I think the biggest lesson I've learned is to say no. Before, I felt having had three years of playing clubs and pubs and bringing out an independent album that was kind of not a big seller, and then you suddenly get your chance, suddenly, you're a pop singer, it's almost like, you know, being told, no, no, no, no, no, and then it's like, yes.
So I really just didn't stop work for seven or eight years. And that was, I think, the key problem. I've learned to say, you know, I don't feel comfortable with this. I want to take my time. I want to pace it. And I have my own record label now, so pretty much, the buck stops with me.
SMITH: That was Adam Ant. His new album's called "Adam Ant is the BlueBlack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter." Thank you so much for being with us.
ANT: My pleasure.
SMITH: And I do have to say to all my high school girlfriends in the 1980s, eat your heart out. I got to speak to Adam Ant before you did, so...
SMITH: Your poster was in all their bedrooms. You know how intimidating that is, sir?
ANT: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm sure it will be again with their kids or their grandkids. Who knows?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VINCE TAYLOR")
ANT: (Singing) A girl we call French Valerie, uh-oh, gave a gold plate chain to me. Meant to grill who had given it her an old flame named Vince Taylor.
SMITH: For the record, I didn't have that many girlfriends. And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. You click on programs, then you scroll down. We're back on the radio, of all places, tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VINCE TAYLOR")
ANT: (Singing) I nearly done Vince Taylor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.