Peering into the Abyss with Ryan Adams
We join the newly-divorced singer in LA to dissect his 16th LP 'Prisoner,' but wind up discussing loneliness, black holes, Taylor Swift, and everything in-between.
Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou.
We're all going to remember where we were the day Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45 th President. In LA on Friday January 20, 2017, there was an apocalyptic downpour. Ryan Adams was in his own Pax-Am Studios behind the legendary Sunset Sounds in Hollywood, ordering a ton of weed with his assistant and band member "Charlie" [Stavish]. Pax-Am is unashamedly rock 'n' roll: it's littered with trinkets like the inside of a comic book store, its walls are covered in leopard print fabric. "Welcome to nerd headquarters!" announces Adams, offering a hug. Every day, Charlie and Adams hang here from 4PM until whenever. Adams sheepishly asks if Charlie might be free later for a jam before work mode kicks in (Adams was about to leave for an 11-day promo tour in Europe). "We could make fun shit, get blazed."
"I'm in," replies Charlie.
"Bring the vape pen!" shouts Adams. Charlie offers it to Adams before he leaves. "No this interview will end up being about dub music! Besides, I have the bowl." He drums up a shopping list for the weed dispensary. "Get me $300 worth of Space Travel," says Adams, pulling out his wallet and filling Charlie's hands up with $100 bills. "Ooh will there be edibles, too? Make that $400." Charlie's confused. "So you're saying, 'Get as much as this will allow?'" His eyes water at the hard cash. "Dude, they're going to think I'm a dealer!"
Later, Adams is scheduled to drive to Pasadena to soundcheck for a Women's March-related benefit he's playing the following day. There are mudslides en route and it's a Friday afternoon. In LA this means contending with three hours of roundtrip traffic just to walk onstage, strap on an acoustic guitar, and check his mic for two songs. He's not having it.
"It's Ryan Adams, of Ryan Adams," he says down his phone to an unsuspecting contact for the event. "So hey, I know I've been a bastard about not wanting to rehearse but I've never not been able to play acoustic guitar and sing. This is what I do." Adams and I look at each other, tickled by the tragicomedy of it all. The recipient of the call claims to be powerless in alleviating him from soundcheck duties. "OK," he sighs. "Power to the people, bye."
"I can write a record in the time it takes me to go out to Pasadena and back," he says. "People forget, but time is the one resource you should never steal from someone."
If you look at the breadth and depth of Adams's back catalogue, it's clear why time is such a dear commodity: when it comes to creating, he's used 42 years wisely. Prisoner, out this Friday, is the singer's sixteenth solo record. The prolific troubadour first achieved notoriety with his 2000 album Heartbreaker, while Gold, released just after 9/11, cemented his reputation as America's heart on his sleeve, guitar-toting everyman. With traces of both Dylan and Springsteen, it seems Adams could barely stem the flow of his compositions, releasing music both as a solo artist and with the now defunct backing band The Cardinals, relentlessly. In 2005 alone he dropped three albums. (And that's not even mentioning the three LPs he penned in the 90s as the frontman of alt country act Whiskeytown. Nor the further three unreleased Whiskeytown LPs either.)
Unlike his last record—2014's self-titled opus—Prisoner will endure a particularly visceral vivisection by fans, press, and gossip gawkers alike because from March 2009 until June 2016, Adams was married to pop star and actress Mandy Moore, and Prisoner is rumored to be his post-marital breakdown record. Three months ago, I was invited to watch him unveil it in the famous Studio A at Capitol Records. The gravity of emotion and bereft loneliness of its lyrics floored me in its throat-gulping sadness. Take "To Be Without You," for instance, with the lines "Every night is lonesome and is longer than before / Nothing really matters any more / I feel like a book and every page is so torn…"
At first listen it sounds like the heartbreak album America so sorely needs. Post-performance Adams and I wound up texting about this particular aspect of his songs and I found him surprisingly open. A part of me figured he'd want to talk about these things on record. Turns out I was wrong. Today, he swigs a sencha shot and gets ready to not talk about it. This takes a few minutes though. Maybe 40. Adams is a fidgety guy. As he takes off his brown leather jacket in an office surrounded by weird tchotchkes, still-packaged Predator and Alien figurines, and an entire Guitar Center's-worth of acoustic and electric axes, Adams opens his mail. He receives some stickers, which he plasters to walls decorated like a middle school lunch box. He takes off his Slayer hoodie to reveal a Misfits t-shirt. He puts his Slayer hoodie back on. He changes seats. He takes three restroom breaks over the course of two hours and continually pushes back other commitments to buy more time to discuss Mesopotamian, Sumerian, and Babylonian cultures. "I wanna learn everything, and then forget it," he laughs.
The day before Inauguration, Adams released the third pre-album teaser called "Doomsday." Although aptly titled, it has nothing to do with Trump taking his place in the White House, which Adams tried to avoid watching this morning. "I caught some of [Trump's] speech. Appalling, disgusting. He said shit that Bane says in the third Batman movie," he remarks. "Honestly, I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of the ratings, but then I woke up and couldn't sleep so went downstairs."
Insomnia in his Hollywood home seems to have also played a big role in Prisoner with the song "Shiver and Shake" painting a devastating picture of lying in bed at night after a relationship's soured: "I reach out for your hand but I know it isn't there / Pick up my phone and I shiver and I stare… I close my eyes see you with some guy / Laughing like you never even knew I was alive." Again, it feels like an emotional exorcism, his words sting, and this creeping dread of nighttime stillness is pervasive throughout all eleven tracks. It makes you wonder: Ryan, are you afraid of the dark? "I'm nocturnal," he says, evasively. "The sun is pretty interesting but it blots out a lot of stars, you know?" He pulls out his phone again and takes a picture of the sky over Sunset Boulevard as the last light falls on this bizarre, historic day.
In 2015, Adams fled to Electric Lady Studios in New York to escape media speculation surrounding his deteriorating relationship. He wanted to do what he does best: write. He re-connected with Johnny (T Yerington, one of his go-to drummers, not his hero Marr). "We were being mindfully mindless," he explains of a process that was full of laughter, light, and reinvigoration. If it were up to Adams he'd have you believe his songs are just spells cast through mental osmosis, which took form via his "magical wand": his guitar. So you're like Gandalf? "No never. Gandalf is far too wise for me to compare."
The loftier, heart-in-mouth rock of Prisoner takes him back to the bosom of his original love affair with 80s radio, from Black Sabbath to Simple Minds. His first ever love was The Smiths' Hatful Of Hollow—probably where the trouble began. Every day during a 90-minute run, he continues to return to the 80s to find his way back to 2017. His playlist has been so fundamental that he spends 10 minutes describing it. "There's never a wrong AC/DC record to run to," he says. "I used to run to the entire discography minus 'Blow Up Your Video' and 'Ballbreaker' which don't work for me." What works then? Alice In Chains, Bruce Hornsby, and Springsteen ("'I'm On Fire,' always"), Tears For Fears, Scritti Politti, Mr Mister ("But like, deep cuts"), and Fine Young Cannibals.
Beyond the musical inspirations, the record explores the notion of being trapped in a prison of your own desire. Lead single, "Do You Still Love Me?" could be the soundtrack to traversing the wedding aisle backwards—all sad church organs and stabbing AC/DC guitars. Adams refutes that it has anything to do with his ex. "Those things are karmic and I handle them carefully," he says, alluding to the divorce. "Feeling things and making art are very different. It's hard to explain unconscious automatic writing. Imagine there's a train station: the train comes in; the information gets off. I let information arrive in my mind. When I'm playing guitar it'll travel. When I wrote 'Do You Still Love Me?' I don't remember feeling like I was speaking to someone directly. It was very joyous and playful and I didn't get anything off my chest."
You get the impression "Do You Still Love Me?" is not the song Adams wants you to take away from this album. "It turns the dumb up and it feels good on the guitar," he says, "but there are songs on the record that are fucking amazingly turned up in me when I play them, in a way that I haven't experienced in a long time." Which songs? "Every other song on the record!"
"Anything I Say to You Now" with its Jesus and Mary Chain/Smiths solo is one of his stand-outs. "You hear the moment I wrote it. It just freely came out of me—fucking insane." Elsewhere, "Breakdown" and "Shiver and Shake" also sound like they're addressed to his ex, especially the latter, but Adams is keen to assert otherwise. "It has nothing to do at all with the plot people assume the record is about," he says. "I stumbled into things after [the marriage] that were not good for me. I woke up and saw how fucking cruel this shit is." He laughs awkwardly and switches focus to a boxed figure on the wall of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien. "She's extremely relatable," he says. "Emotional, awesome and yeah, just strong."
You cannot be irked by Adams's opaqueness because any frustration is offset by his childlike sense of wonderment. To be at his PaxAm headquarters is the closest thing to hanging out in the background of a scene from Wayne's World. When he talks about how much he missed his cats—Vincent, Agnes, and Theo—while on tour, it seems possible that some of the songs on Prisoner might be about them. The press's treatment of his past drug abuse (he's sober now), onstage controversies (the incident with Bryan Adams's "Summer Of '69"), and former flings have left Adams measured and protective. There have been character assassinations too—the worst possibly by Pitchfork's Amanda Petrusich who once sired him a "bafflingly spastic public figure." As a result, when questioned about his beautifully raw lyrics, Adams swerves into a lane where he's far more at ease: space, cosmology, quantum physics, and magic. His Uncle Bill worked for NASA and used to bring him magazines home as a kid. "They'd say—'What are Black Holes?' I was obsessed with relativity. Einstein was a big deal. I have an information fetish that goes hand-in-hand with feeling isolated."
For years, Adams has been reduced to a writer of love songs. Like Shakespeare and most Western philosophers, however, the singer insists he's really exploring the human condition. "We're born onto this planet and we can't leave without going through a great deal of effort," he says. "There's no way for us to know how big our dimension is and even if we could find other life forms we couldn't reach them in time. We have no friends, we can love animals, but we're so ignorant that we kill them to eat. We waste our natural environment. Our species only evolves because of a lack of love, which creates this tremendous hunger for desire. That's what creates new art. Unfortunately atrocities, too. It causes people to be forthright in their quest for dominance and perseverance. It also lets us eventually be broken, surrendering to love, then creating another soul. It's a lonely thing to be a human being," he concludes. "Guitar is a great place to hide."
For someone raised by his grandparents in Jacksonville, North Carolina (they've since passed away), someone who remains "completely and totally estranged" from his parents, science, fantasy, and rock 'n' roll are sturdier belief systems than perhaps love can ever provide. But even rock 'n' roll has become harder for Adams to pursue. Around 2009, he was faced with his biggest challenge to date when he was diagnosed with Meniere's Disease, an inner ear affliction that causes vertigo and sometimes ringing in the ear, an affliction exacerbated by lack of sleep. "A lot of people who have Meniere's are in pain all the time. You have to find a way to sleep or your body shuts down."
It's not an overstatement to say this condition almost derailed Adams's career. For a while he refused medication, opting for hypnotherapy, acupuncture, and other treatments, but in March 2009, he broke down. "I couldn't sleep for two nights and I was hysterical because I had to play the next day. I could only stutter, I was in tears, I was so fucked-up." Doctors were called to see him. They advised immediate medication. "They said, 'You can't have this condition and not take anything, you're obviously dealing with psychological pain in your personal life and you're going to have a heart attack…'"
While the situation is under control now, to this day he requests members of the audience refrain from using flash photography in the event it will make him dizzy and incredibly nauseous. "Sometimes it's wild to think I'm doing this again," he says of going back out on the road. "It took a lot of work."
As Adams moves to shut down Pax-Am for the afternoon, he shows me the live room—the one with the massive American flag on the wall, recognizable from every Instagram Adams has posted of talent brought here for collaboration. Last year there were pics of Jenny Lewis, who opened for him at the Greek in August with her band Nice As Fuck. Adams is hoping to set time aside to finish her next record. "She's done her demos. They're unbelievable," he sighs. "Whatever she's making is her Blonde On Blonde. She played piano. Her voice went to places I've never heard before."
However the latest Insta posts to send the internet into a tizz are of Liz Phair. She's making her comeback album with Adams right here, right now. The pair met initially back in his Whiskeytown days. "She always called me Johnny and that's not my name," he laughs. Of the record, he avoids specifics, but reassures "it's really good… I mean it's so good… It's so, so incredibly good."
Pax-Am's biggest exposure came in Christmas 2015 when Adams put together his covers album of Taylor Swift's 1989. A cynic might suggest that re-tooling the biggest selling pop record in recent memory was a great way to finance a divorce, but in fact the motivation behind it was creative stalemate: 60 songs into the Prisoner sessions Adams was stuck in a creative rut (he ultimately racked up 80 tracks in total). This kind of exercise is rather routine for Adams—the vaults at Pax-Am are filled with covers, a result of late-night jams. In 2001, not long after the release of Is This It, he was so enamored with The Strokes' seminal debut he laid down all 11 tracks. Adams likes to pick things apart and put them back together. "I thought I'd dissect [ 1989] to learn it on acoustic guitar because that's where it came from. It was like a game, like revisiting Super Mario Bros or re-reading the Dune chronicles. I learned a bunch about songcraft, capos, how my voice works in different keys…" His 1989 was never intended to become the media phenomenon wound up as. He won't discuss the fallout but will say that it gave him an insight into Swift. "She can fucking sing her ass off. You try and sing in her key. It's like the Olympics."
We head outside to the parking lot to say our goodbyes and find the rain has momentarily cleared. Adams gets in his black Porsche Carrera, switches on his SatNav and punches in an address in Pasadena. He might not be ready to bare his soul, but when it comes to strapping his guitar on Ryan Adams always turns up.
Eve Barlow is a Scottish writer living life large in LA. Follow her on Twitter.