Ryan Adams Lets the Sunshine In

Music Features Ryan Adams
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“Guys, look out the window to the left,” Ryan Adams shouts to the other occupants of his tour bus, rolling through the verdant Oregon countryside as it heads northward toward Eugene on Interstate 5. “There’s this weird enchanted forest over there. What the fuck is that?”

The 36-year-old veteran is playing a quick series of West Coast dates behind his just-released 13th solo album, Ashes & Fire, but at the moment he’s just another wide-eyed sightseer reveling in the ever-changing landscape whizzing by along America’s highways. The moment is directly reflective of the long-tormented artist’s dramatically improved state of mind five years after kicking drugs and booze, followed by his move from New York to L.A., his marriage to actress and fellow artist Mandy Moore and the recording of Ashes & Fire, which he says was the most relaxed and enjoyable experience of his recording career. What’s more, Adams is finally making headway with his seven-year struggle with Ménière’s disease, an inflammation of the inner ear that has affected his hearing, balance and bones, thanks, he says, to various alternative treatments and de-stressing, primarily the result of his new life in SoCal.

“I love it there,” he says. “I understand why people don’t understand Los Angeles. Because, first of all, it’s overwhelmingly beautiful and very easygoing. But I realized at one point that L.A. is what you make of it, like any place. There are as many goths in L.A. as people walking around in flip-flops. It’s everything; it’s a blank slate. And I found a lot of people who really helped me heal up, that’s for sure. You’re out there in the sun, and you remember you’re alive and that you need things. Like my friends who love to hike, I don’t think they do it because they want perfect bodies. In New York, stress relief would be a cup of coffee and having too many cigarettes and going for a really long walk, in the winter. It’s just different.”

At the same time, the North Carolina native treasures the years he spent in his previous adopted hometown. “New York is a really big part of who I am, and I don’t ever not think about it,” he says. “I love my friends there, and I love all those days so much, but I can’t live in the past; I couldn’t even try, because it’s not there for me anymore. The friends I had have now dispersed—they have children, or they died or moved on—and the places I used to love to go to are no longer there. I won’t ever be able to go down to Niagara again at 2 a.m. and meet all my friends and know that we still had a couple hours to hang out before the bars closed. I said the wrong things in the past about those New York days, and that’s a shame, because the perception is that they were really dark and I was really fucked up. It’s not true, actually. Those days were really beautiful, and I made great art about it. It didn’t always have to be happy-type music to project an energy that was exciting.”

More than most artists of his generation, Adams continues to be the focus of intense scrutiny and constant conjecture on the part of his loyal fans who seem to want to know the most intimate details of his life because they feel like they know him from the emotionality of his songs. So now, he’s trying hard to make his private life, which is clearly the source of his hard-won happiness, just that. To that end, his publicist makes it clear up front that questions about his relationship with his wife are strictly off-limits.

“There are different factions of people out there,” Adams says of the two overlapping camps that have him in their crosshairs—the fans and the bloggers. “I’m not [interested in] being ignored, but at the same time I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that should elicit such positive or negative responses. I’m not the Sex Pistols, y’know? I’m just writing songs about my fucking feelings.”

Adams’ sensitive, introspective side is on full display throughout Ashes & Fire, a poetic, bittersweet meditation on the nature of love and the passage of time, its emotionality intensified and deepened by the death of his grandmother, who’d raised him since he was five years old. “She’s very present on this record,” he says.

Released on his own PAX-AM label in partnership with Capitol, the new album hearkens back to the golden age of SoCal rock in the early ’70s—intimate, introspective, close-mic’ed and melodically gorgeous. The first single “Lucky Now” is timeless, complete with a rhapsodic chorus hook. “Dirty Rain” contains the most soulful vocal Adams has ever put down on tape; the wood-grained, rollicking title track evokes the Band in its prime. “Invisible Riverside” radiates with a burnished Laurel Canyon glow. And the culminating “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say” is almost unbearably emotional, with its caressingly poignant payoff, “I promise you / I will keep you safe from harm.” Forget those comparisons to his 2000 debut Heartbreaker that every subsequent Adams LP has inevitably elicited; Ashes & Fire sets a new standard for this restless, prolific artist.

The album is the result of an extremely close collaboration between Adams and legendary English engineer/producer Glyn Johns, whose body of work includes The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Eagles—a pertinent reference point for this LP’s peaceful, easy flow. Johns is the father of Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne), who produced Heartbreaker, 2001’s Gold and the underrated 29, released in early 2006 but recorded a couple of years earlier. The two remain extremely close, and Adams is a huge fan of Laura Marling, whose albums Ethan produced, providing him with inspiration and an artistic challenge going into this project.

“It was at Ethan’s insistence that Glyn produce this record, so I already had his blessing,” says Adams. “There wasn’t any way that Ethan could do it, nor did I think that Ethan thought he was the man for the job, because Ethan and I like to do things where it’s just he and I. We take fearless leaps; that’s why we made a record like 29. The records we made together are all so completely different, because they’re all different song cycles, and they inspire people to go to different places. Whereas, with this one, there was a general feeling I needed to explore. I needed to find my center, if that makes any sense whatsoever. I basically needed to figure out a way to get to the songs and for them to be what they needed to be without any distraction. I needed somebody who could hear them from a place where there weren’t any competitive references to who I am in terms of being cool or uncool. I needed to work with somebody who was free of any concept about who I am, who could let me go wild into the work and release all of the preconceptions. And Glyn was absolutely and totally that person. I knew that even before I spoke to him, but the minute I spoke to him, my worries and my cares about the perception just left.”

The elder Johns is chronically press-shy, but he did provide this comment about Adams to the L.A. Times’ August Brown: “He performs from the heart and believes everything he’s written. He’s a very complex character, one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and always a consummate gentleman. On one hand, as a producer, personal lives are none of your business, but it’s all about presenting an artist in the best light, and should you be invited to do so, that sometimes falls in your jurisdiction.”

In their initial conversations last December via transatlantic phone call, Adams and Johns established their working relationship. “There was no concept, no calculation, no bullshit,” says Ryan. “It was just, ‘What songs do you have?’” The real work began when Johns came to L.A. and Adams spent two days sitting across the kitchen table from the producer playing him the material, fewer than 20 songs altogether, including several that were in progress, like “I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say.” As it turned out, they didn’t get to all of the songs they’d selected; those will be considered again for the follow-up. “I’m absolutely gonna make the next record with Glyn,” Adams says without equivocation.

They then talked about musicians. For the rhythm section, Johns was insistent about Englishman Jeremy Stacey, one of his son’s favorite drummers, and they agreed on up-and-comer Gus Seyffert, who currently plays bass with The Black Keys. Ryan brought in Norah Jones, his friend and frequent collaborator since 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights, to play piano; he didn’t realize Seyffert and Jones had previously worked together on her 2009 LP Fall until the sessions began. And both Adams and Johns were delighted to snag the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench to play the Hammond B3 and other keyboards.

“I didn’t want a session guitar player,” Adams notes. “So I said I’d do the guitars, and then, if people come by the studio, I’ll hand them a guitar.” That’s exactly what happened when former Cardinals guitarist Neal Casal—whose book of photographs, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: A View of Other Windows, was published in 2010 by Abrams Image—stopped by to snap some session pictures; he also wound up singing backup on “Save Me” with Jones. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig made six-string contributions to a couple of tracks, though they didn’t make the final cut (but given Adams’ track record as a completist, they probably won’t go to waste).

Producer and artist also saw eye-to-eye on the studio: the B room at Hollywood’s venerable Sunset Sound, where the Doors cut L.A. Woman and Prince made Purple Rain; Adams and the Cardinals had recorded the 2007 EP Follow the Lights there as well. Ryan loves the place so much that he subsequently installed his personal studio, Pax Am, in what had been Sunset Sound’s front offices. Johns, like his son, has no use for digital recording methodology. “There wasn’t even an iPhone in the room,” says Adams. “The first thing Glyn said when he walked in the room was, ‘Get rid of these screens—I don’t wanna see one screen.’ There’s a computer keyboard hard-wired into the panel, and inside the album package you see a picture of Glyn mixing the record, and next to his feet is a keyboard that had been kicked underneath the console.”

In keeping with their purist approach, they cut the tracks live, including Adams’ lead vocals, which accounts for the striking immediacy of the performances. Adams didn’t rehearse the band or come in with any preordained arrangement ideas; instead, he gathered the players in the hangout room and played them the songs on acoustic guitar, after which they went across the hall into the tracking room and nailed just about everything within three takes at most, generally going with the first or second. “So what you’re hearing is the first or second time we’d ever played the songs together,” Ryan says with obvious pride. “I’d never actually played the songs ever before with the band. They’d only existed in my house with me playing acoustic guitar.

“We were just sittin’ there and havin’ fun. It was highly participatory, and they made me feel welcome and confident. There was just a really simple vibe and a lot of laughs. We would always take a break at lunch and go get some sunshine. It just was easy. It felt good and I really liked everybody who was playing. Norah was feisty and in kind of a troublemaker mood—she was being a punk and a prankster. Jeremy was really funny, Benmont was cuttin’ up. Everybody was jovial and the mood was light. But once in a while a song would bust them up. Like, with ‘I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say,’ they hadn’t heard the words before, and they came into the control room after a take with tears in their eyes. I loved that—that was fuckin’ huge for me. I’d never seen musicians moved like that before.”

Overdubbing was pretty much limited to backing vocals—sung by Jones, Mandy Moore, Casal and Chris Stills—and Greg Leisz’s typically sublime pedal steel on “Come Home” and “Kindness.” They finished the record, including the aforementioned outtakes, in just 10 days of sessions, starting at midday and working until dinnertime, like grown-ups, getting two or three tracks a day. And those 10 days included a weekend off. Following Johns’ mixdown, there was just one more task to perform.

“On this record, it was important that Glyn and I do everything together, right down to the sequencing,” Adams explains. “There were a couple more upbeat songs, and even though they were catchy, I decided that they didn’t need to be on the record because they weren’t telling the same kind of story. I’ve been making records long enough where I don’t have to just put them on here so that someone can later say that it was tempo-variant—I didn’t think that was enough of a reason. However, I had a different idea for the middle of the record, but Glyn really loved that song ‘Rocks,’ and I’d kinda lost my way with it. But he insisted. He said, ‘Listen, I’m telling you, you’re gonna feel different about this later, and even if you don’t, you little shit, you’re keeping it on!’” He punctuates the punch line with a boyish, high-pitched cackle. “And I’m really glad, because I like that peaceful step-down on that part of the record. It’s a beautiful way to say that time slows down in the world of this record. It doesn’t have to follow convention; we weren’t making Appetite for Destruction, it can get really mellow. Also, it’ll be less abrasive for stoners.”

He follows the joke with a reflection: “The other day, Glyn and I were talking about how happy we were about the way the record was being received, and he reminded me, ‘When we made it, it was that beautiful, and it’s always gonna be that beautiful for other people.’ He also said, ‘Think about what a weird task it must be to review a record for a living. You’re never gonna hear it the way you would if you listened to it for pleasure.’ So I have to remember that it’s all conjecture, that these are just opinions. It’s basically like, I build the building or the bridge, and this is the graffiti at the bottom of it.”

Adams’ seemingly boundless enthusiasm extends to a couple of other projects, one he says he can’t talk about, revealing only that he cut it recently for a movie with a studio band including Seyffert, former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar from his Cardinals days. The other is the long-gestating, finally completed Blackhole, on which he played all the instruments other than drums, just like 2003’s Rock N Roll, although he describes it as Love Is Hell’s “rock sibling.” Adams started and recorded most of it in 2006—“It was the last sessions I did before I knocked all that crap out—drinkin’, partyin’ and all that stuff. So it was the tail end of that crazy winter, so it has that energy, which is really beautiful. I haven’t decided when or how I’m gonna put it out, but there are songs on that people in my life really love—my wife digs it, my best friend thinks it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done—and my other best friend is the only other person on the record: Johnny T played drums on it. Whatever it was that wasn’t done, we just finished it off, and it’s one of the coolest things ever, man.”

Playing these solo dates, which he’ll continue through the coming months, is another source of spiritual gratification for Adams. “There’s gonna be some touring with the band in the future, for sure,” he promises. “I just didn’t wanna waste the opportunity to go out and explore the songs completely after what I went through. I’m not up there to rock, I’m up there to sing these songs; I let them tell their own stories. Sometimes, the most subtle, quiet things can have their own form of electric intensity, and I’m mining for that. I’m saying, ‘Let me play you these songs as they were written, because I need to have that experience, and I want people to have it as well.’ So far, it’s been a blessing. I feel so connected to these people that I’m playing for. I feel like that there are no obstacles between the songs and them. I’m so proud every night to give them these songs—I feel like I’m giving people a gift. Them being there and being so open is like a gift back to me. It’s just been a love fest, really beautiful.”

It appears that the quest to find his center is continuing.

“I hope I keep looking for it for always,” says the kinder, gentler, more enlightened Ryan Adams.

If the old Ryan was widely viewed as tragically hip, the big-hearted, “life is beautiful” vibe he’s giving off these days puts him in jeopardy of being perceived as painfully sincere. But make no mistake—that is a very good thing, for Adams and, as it turns out, for his music.