Ryan Adams on loss, Springsteen and Whitesnake
I turned up unfashionably early for my interview with Ryan Adams. In the hotel lobby, I was met by the publicist, already apologising profusely. “We’re running a bit late,” she explained. “If you’re happy to wait here for a while, I’ll come and get you when Ryan’s ready.”
I was actually relieved to have a few minutes to collect my thoughts. Adams has earned a reputation for being prickly, and he has famously battled with musicians, critics and even members of his audience over the years. He is also known for being fiercely protective of his privacy. Standing there, I felt slightly nervous.
I’d seen Adams perform in concert on each of the preceding two nights, and both shows had been terrific. The first had been advertised as an “Album Listening Party” for his new solo record, Prisoner, his 16th album in as many years, but Adams was there with his whole band and they performed the entire record live. The night after, I had seen Adams playing a sold-out show at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre, and again many of the new songs were on the set list. As much as I had been enjoying listening to Prisoner at home, the songs sounded better in concert. On both occasions, Adams was a little taciturn at first but after a few songs he began cheerily joshing with the audience, sending up himself, the members of his band and a couple of people in the crowd. It looked like the singer was genuinely enjoying himself, which I took as a good sign for our coming interview.
Ninety minutes after I’d arrived, I was finally ushered in to meet Ryan. He was dressed down in his customary jeans and sneakers, topped off with a black T-shirt, a tour souvenir of Glenn Danzig’s horror-punk band The Misfits. Almost immediately Adams put me at ease, chatting affably. Seeing him so relaxed I had to ask why he took so long to warm up on stage each night. He explained it to me in terms of a dinner party: “You put the appetisers out for everybody. You get them what they need to drink, everybody settles in, they get comfortable, you know? And then somebody starts the convo.”
For Adams, the “appetisers” are the songs. He thinks the first three songs are crucial to a show’s dynamic. “By the end of the third song we’ll have gone in every dynamic place you could go to during the show,” he says, “and by then they’ll know what they’re here for, and what’s gonna happen.”
After that he’s happy to loosen things up a little. “They know that when I’m talking I’m not wastin’ time. I’m actually just settling in. And I’m just lowering the height of the stage and I’m elevating the height of the audience. I’m just putting everything in the middle.”
In conversation, Adams exhibits the same playful humour he has on stage. He picks up a theme and riffs on it, similar to the way a jazz musician builds a solo, taking a few notes then twisting and teasing them into a flight of extended fancy. He has a natural flair for free association and he appears to be able to tap into that gift whenever he wants.
I avoid asking about the collapse of his six-year marriage to musician and actor Mandy Moore, about the details of their divorce settlement that were gleefully picked over by celebrity news websites, and how TMZ even wrote an article discussing the living arrangements for their many cats. But even without asking, Adams volunteers a lot of information. As we talk, he points to various songs, and even entire albums, that trace the collapse of his marriage, with the title track of his new album a case in point. “Prisoner” has these lyrics in its second verse:
There’s this one bird
Lands on the sill beside the bars
How can something born with wings ever know freedom?
Ever truly be free?
“That song is me saying, I’m in it. I’m in something, I have made an obligation,” Adams explains. “I am in a committed thing, but I see these things outside that appeal to me. What are they? What is desire?” As he talks I sense that Adams is associating the image of the bird with someone specific. “It’s seeing me and seeing who I am,” he says, “but it’s able to come and go when it pleases and may be only interested in me because I am in this box … That moment on the record’s special to me and maybe not explained enough, and maybe that’s what the rest of the record is, me trying to explain that.”
In 2013, Adams scrapped an entire album. He had recorded it with Glyn Johns, legendary producer of The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Eagles. But he couldn’t put the album out. He says “it was incredibly dark”. Two years earlier, he and Johns had successfully collaborated on Ashes & Fire, a critical and commercial hit. Its acoustic-guitar-driven songs were favourably compared to his first two celebrated solo albums, Heartbreaker and Gold. But when Adams abruptly shelved the 2013 recordings, it wasted $100,000 of studio time and destroyed his friendship with Johns.
“It was sort of Ashes & Fire, Part 2,” Adams remembers. “It was [the] winter of my marriage. I could see spring, you know? I could see that it was going to be different. I’m talking about fascinations that I was having, about someone, but at the same time I’m talking about things that are winding up. There’s so many moving parts, they’re very raw, some parts are very slow. I’m painting my marriage... I’m painting it as a beautiful thing that I’m trying to grasp at. It… it is beautiful.”
Adams pauses, then continues: “But I knew this thing, which [Johns] would never allow me to tell him, which was: had we released this record the way that it was, and I toured it that way, it would have killed me.”
Listening to him, I have no doubt that Adams is in deadly earnest here. “Because I would have been living inside of an epiphany of the end,” he says. “That record [was] an epiphany of the end of things to come.”
For Adams there was only one way out: he had to start from scratch in a new environment. He’d recently finished building his own studio, PAX-AM, right next door to Sunset Sound, the studio where he had been recording with Glyn Johns. Adams had been longing to immerse himself in electric guitar again and to wrest back control of his music and his life. Once he started work in PAX-AM, the dark cloud suddenly lifted. “I found more spirituality,” he says. “I found more things that were sacred to me … And then, when I really started to find my voice, I started to find things out about pain
I never knew.”
The music of other artists also shone a light into his darkness. “I started listening to ’80s Bruce Springsteen,” he says, adding that there are some “things that people hate about that but it meant something to me. After a while, after all this living, I started to draw connections where there weren’t before.”
From those PAX-AM sessions came Ryan Adams, his 2014 follow-up to Ashes & Fire. The songs on it don’t shy away from the complexities and the difficulties he was facing, but the healing power of music pulled him back from the abyss.
Adams remembers exactly what was going through his head at the time. “I’ve gotta find a new way to love my life … And I need to remember, why do I play guitar? Because that was my first love. So I’d better find a way to pick up that fuckin’ electric guitar and remember why I’m Ryan.” It was a simple realisation, but his instinct for self-preservation had kicked in. “Yeah, I’m fucked – but I’m alive. I’m gonna make it, and this is how I’m gonna do it.”
Beauty and pain are never far apart in Adams’ songs, and the songwriter finds no contradiction in that. “I think that painful hints at beautiful,” he says. “What I know is, I haven’t ever loved anyone like I loved my grandmother … All my music is about her. The reason I do it is about her.”
Adams’ grandmother died in 2011, and it is obvious he still feels her loss acutely. “She loved music and that’s probably why I play it, and losing her was the most painful thing of my life. But it was so painful because I loved her so much, and that pain is the evidence of how precious she was to me. So that pain is not a punishment pain, it’s a reminder of how much to appreciate time or the impermanence of things… I just say it’s this residue, it’s like the background radiation of the Big Bang – it’s evidence of being present.”
Adams’ latest album is another step away from the darkness of his recent past, even though it still haunts him. He says as much in the song “Haunted House”:
Life is too sweet and life is too short and there’s nowhere to fall
And I don’t want to live in this haunted house anymore
The music on Prisoner has a feeling of openness and optimism that leavens the sadness of its lyrics. The Springsteen influence is also quite pronounced in a few places: “Doomsday”, “Shiver and Shake” and “Outbound Train” would fit right in on Nebraska. Elsewhere there are hints of Neil Young on “To Be Without You” or even Tom Petty-meets-Whitesnake on the power ballad “Do You Still Love Me?” That was the album’s powerful first single and is its opening track.
The idea of Whitesnake being an influence on a sensitive singer-songwriter such as Adams is not as foolish as it seems. He’s often professed his love for “hair metal”, though it is death metal and hardcore punk that he truly loves the most. Adams is also fond of the kinds of artists that critics prefer to forget. “I love ’80s records that are pop records, that other people do not like and that they talk shit about. I love them,” he gushes. “People talk shit about Big Country and I’m like, ‘Fuck you! You’ve never smoked a joint and listened to a Big Country record, then.’ Because, seriously, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Regardless of what he listens to in his downtime, or which artists he might be trying to invoke when he is writing a song, it is a pointless exercise to play spot the influence when you listen to Prisoner, or any other Ryan Adams album. He doesn’t hide his influences; he wears them on his sleeve and on his T-shirts. He even makes it easy for trainspotters, telling everyone what he’s been listening to whenever he’s interviewed.
The point is this: his melodies are his alone, as are his lyrics, and so is his sense of dynamics when he’s performing, whether that’s in the studio or onstage. That’s what turns him on, and what turns Ryan Adams on might very well do the same thing for someone else.
Not that it matters to Adams. He doesn’t care what other people think about him or his music – he’s just looking to hit that sweet spot. Every time.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "Grisly Adams". Subscribe here.