In August 2011, Baltimore singer/songwriter Adam Lempel finally realized he needed to get serious about his music. The epiphany came where many epiphanies occur — in a hospital bed.
"I ended up getting sick. I had a pneumothorax, which is like a hole in my lung," Lempel, who performs Friday at Metro Gallery, said from a park bench in his Bolton Hill neighborhood. "Just being in the hospital put things into perspective. If I want to make this, I just have to make it and not really worry about it."
The result was the self-titled debut album from Adam Lempel and the Heartbeats, a noticeable shift in style from Lempel's other band, the psychedelic-rock duo Weekends. With the Heartbeats, the now 27-year-old Johns Hopkins alum returned to the Beatles-inspired, traditional pop songwriting he fell in love with during high school in Woodmere, N.Y.
Shortly after leaving the hospital (he is genetically predisposed to pneumothorax), Lempel reached out to producer Chris Freeland. With Freeland's technical prowess and encouragement, Lempel cranked out songs that seemed to be a direct response to the abstract and impressionistic rock bands that had become Baltimore's calling card. A lot of acts were hiding behind distortion and haze, Lempel said, and he was determined to do something different.
"I was listening to a lot of John Lennon and Randy Newman. All their songs had a point and were straightforward. [They] weren't hiding behind obscurity or behind things that don't really mean anything," Lempel said. "[It was about] having the guts to say what you're going to say."
According to Lempel, much of the lyrics on the album are about "yearning for somebody," the result of a breakup with an on-again, off-again girlfriend. (The first lyrics a listener hears are "Oh baby, you're my companion / So why don't you stay by my side?") He says romantic melancholy has always been a reoccurring theme, dating back to fourth grade when he penned his first song, "The One I Love Does Not Love Me."
Although not a fan, Lempel empathizes with Taylor Swift, who has made a career out of using failed personal relationships as source material.
"I get writing about your exes and heartbreak," he said.
There's another similarity between Lempel and the country mega-star: A penchant for melody. While Swift adored Shania Twain, Lempel's love of melody came from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing.
Dish Baltimore Newsletter
Get the scoop on that new restaurant, learn about chef changes and discover your favorite new recipe. All your Baltimore food news is here.
"On the Sabbath, you're not allowed to use instruments. You have everyone singing together in unison and usually, it's just all melody lines," Lempel said. "The melodies have to be compelling enough that way everyone singing isn't boring. It's definitely something that's entrenched its way into my mind."
The melodies keep coming to Lempel. He plans to eventually release a B-sides album full of songs from the Freeland sessions. "New Humans," the latest album from Weekends, will be released Labor Day weekend during the Scapescape festival.
For Lempel, writer's block isn't a concern, and neither is the question of whether or not music will ever become his career. He bartends five days a week in Fells Point and Station North, and Lempel can create music when he pleases. With the Heartbeats album and the hospital scare behind him, Lempel seems content in the present.
"When I do plan, I always change course anyway," he said. "Straight up, I'm still learning how to do things and how to change. I'm not saying this is the best way to be. This I just how I am right now."
Adam Lempel and the Heartbeats perform Friday at the Metro Gallery, 1700 N. Charles St. in Station North. Ducktails, Small Black and Hubble will also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m. 18+. Tickets are $10. Go to themetrogallery.net.