Interview with Adam "ALev" Levine (compositionist, instrumentalist, fellow foodie, and deep mamma-jamma)

Adam and I work at the same company, but bonded over our love & passion of the arts and also for food, glorious food! He's introduced me to some staples: bahn mi, namely and we're in the same foodie group, Ramen & Friends. We're also dessert snobs. Of course the similarities didn't end there. Turns out when we first met I was writing a novel with a character from Herefordshire in the UK. Adam's band is named Mappa Mundi. The Hereford Mappa Mundi is the largest medieval map known to exist and is housed in Hereford Cathedral, where I went to research my book. Craziness? Indeed!

Adam founded Mappa Mundi and is the lead singer, composer, lyricist, and all-around glue for this extraordinary, hidden treasure of a local NYC band. Their sound is classified as Chamber Pop and it can make you sway, jump, and, yes, tear up by the beautiful harmonies and words that have become distinctly MM (Let's call them MM shall we?).

MM has two upcoming shows in NYC this summer, one on July 22nd at The Way Station and another on August 27th at Pete's Candy Store. Definitely make a point to come to one or both so you can hear what I'm talking about and make sure to check out their website(s) and band pages!

Mappa Mundi Band



JBH: Something that interested me about the art you pursue is that you didn't major in music in college. I believe your major was English. Do you feel that the two mediums, music and the written word, are quite different or pretty interchangeable in the way you want to express yourself? For instance, with a song like "Oscillate" (my fave, by the way) do you think it'd be as effective without the musical arrangement accompanying it?  


ALev: I did study music in college, actually, and throughout childhood. In addition to trumpet, I studied composition, theory, and improvisation. But I majored in English. I was torn between going to conservatory and studying English. I chose to study literature and writing, but eventually, against my better judgment, I realized I was in love with music all along. I simply had no choice in the matter.

I wouldn’t say that music and writing are interchangeable at all. They’re quite different media, but that difference is what I call ‘songwriting,’ as opposed to strict composition. I have always written stories and poetry, and I just love the added dimension that music allows.

I like writers who play with the explicit versus the implicit; the said and unsaid. What I love about songwriting is that the music becomes the implicit subtext, the emotional context for the lyrics. Or it can become an ironic counterpoint to the narrative. Finding the exact right words to fit to a line of music, or vice versa, is the fun of it. “Oscillate” is actually a good example of that because the lyrics are about dichotomies: on/off, the peaks/valleys in a sound wave, being ‘in synch’ or ‘out’ of it. “Oscillate,” more than any other song is about a feeling or state that I could never describe with words alone. In fact, that’s what I love about music, and my stricter compositions often pursue that idea of subverbal (or superverbal narrative). In some ways music can be more honest than words. You can tell a story as it were, an emotional, psychological, or sensory narrative, that words simply belie. Sure, music is artificial in the way that all art is, but, to me, it often feels more “true” (or, perhaps more visceral) than words alone do.


JBH: You're adept at a few instruments. What was the first one you learned and what is your favorite to play? (You do play a mean ukulele when necessary.)


ALev: I can’t pick a favorite! I just love making sounds and am always interested in learning how to make new ones. Piano was my first, chronologically, and I still think in terms of the piano keyboard. But the trumpet is actually my first instrument, in terms of focus. It’s the one I’ve studied officially the longest and is definitely the one to which I’m the closest. I love singing, playing ukulele, guitar, piano, etc., as well, but trumpet is my first love. That’s what I like about Chamber Pop. It encourages you to be a bit of a magpie.


JBH: What are some of your influences? And by that I mean in any medium, not just music? I know visual art has become even more of an inspiration for me these days and I think we play off other artists' work because each can have its own way of promoting a muse within. Would you agree?


ALev: Yes! I certainly take inspiration from all sorts of media. I don’t believe an artist should try to create in a vacuum. Obviously you have to develop your own voice. But that happens after – and often in reaction to – inspiration. When I was studying jazz they told us to listen, listen, listen, and then create. All artists should be voracious consumers of art, across the spectrum, whatever interests you. If you do that (honestly, of course), eventually your own voice emerges. It’s a dialectic. A conversation.

A good example of this would be my recently posted song, “A Blunt Object, Oh Robert,” which is a response to John Adams’ opera, Dr. Atomic, about Oppenheimer, and the Manhattan Project. I love to write from inside the head of a character, and he’s such an interesting one, that I had to do my take on it. So, there’s an element of homage to John Adams, a personal hero, for sure, but it has all these other influences as well.

Musically, my influences would take too long to name. I’ve been told that Mappa Mundi needs a bibliography or at least a suggested reading list, since so many of our songs are inspired by what I’ve read, heard, or seen. I’ll skip the obligatory ones and just say that if you follow my blog, I talk a lot about my influences and inspirations from literature, art, film, and music.



JBH: You've traveled a bit around the world. Of all the places you've visited (or perhaps want to visit) where would you like to live?


ALev: That’s so hard to answer. I love Brooklyn. Every time I think I might want to leave, I discover some new corner or facet of the city and fall in love with it all over again. And I think a lot of my stuff has been inspired by life in NYC (for better or worse). New York has a way of forcing you to confront the cruelties, absurdities, and joys of life, face-to-face.

I really love Detroit. I have this fantasy about moving there. I also love Scotland. I’ve spent some time in Edinburgh which is a great city and Glasgow seems cool. And I just got back from Rio which I found totally inspiring musically. There’s just so much interesting music out there, how can I pick one place?! Maybe New York is the city for people who can’t decide where they want to live.


JBH: You've been a big influence in me getting more into the cheap a** food scene. Do you think living in the tri-state area as well as in the LES and Brooklyn has influenced your eating habits as an adult? Or do you think you had a more discerning pallet while you were away at college or because of certain foods you ate as a kid?


ALev: I was a fairly picky eater as a kid, but I did grow up in the tri-state area so I was exposed to lots of different things early. NYC has broadened my horizons but also made me more picky. It’s a double-edged sword, I guess. I feel the same way about food that I do about music. Plurality is life. There’s so much interesting, good stuff out there to try! Having it all, right at your fingertips, is one of my favorite things about NYC!


JBH:  Beyond your website:, are there other media outlets where people can get in touch with you and your work online that you’d like to share?

ALev: But, of course! The website is a musical blog you can follow where I discuss music, songwriting, and recording, and also post a new DIY track every fortnight. You can also follow us on:

And you can join our mailing list to find out about shows and other events here:

And buy our album here:

Thanks, Adam for sharing your work and influences and providing such great background work music!

Remember: Catch MM at The Way Station on July 22nd and Pete's Candy Store on August 27th.

And catch a new song posted on Mappa Mundi's website, part of the 'Song of a Fortnight' series! (A new jam every two weeks!) This fortnight's song is "A Blunt Object, Oh Robert" just posted today!