Ryan Adams: ‘I can’t remember the guy I was in my late 20s’
Things went very bad for Adams, once alt-country’s poster boy, when label problems, addiction and internet leaks of his albums very nearly did for his career. But now he’s back, happy and more prolific than ever
Ryan Adams: ‘It was so dark. I don’t think I could have been in a worse position, but I think, if anything, I handled it pretty good.’ Photograph: Julia Brokaw
He was known as the golden boy of the alt-country scene around the turn of the century, thanks to his time fronting Whiskeytown and two superb solo albums, Heartbreaker and Gold. Some of the lustre was lost after a period of record label-related strife and addiction problems, but, more than a decade after Ryan Adams hit superstar status, he is one mellow dude.
At 39, Adams is finally comfortable in his own skin. He is a funny, sincere interviewee, his tendency to ramble and go off on amusing tangents unsurprising, given his talent for weaving stories into his songs.
He is on the phone from his Los Angeles-based studio Pax-Am, where he recorded his eponymous 14th album. It’s next door to Sunset Sound Studios, where he recorded 2011’s Ashes & Fire with producer Glyn Johns. When it came to recording the follow-up, he was eager to work in his new space, but Johns wasn’t interested in using an unfamiliar studio.
“I thought, well, I’ll try – the least I can do is try, which turned out to be a pretty expensive try, because I got all of these musicians together and we did the whole record,” he says, chuckling. “I had Don Was on bass, and it was the shit, you know? There was so much good about it, but unfortunately, when all was said and done, there was just an element to it that I wasn’t sure if it was right. It was mellow and old-sounding, and it didn’t sound the way I felt, and it didn’t have the energy that I have.”
The album was scrapped. A year of intensive writing in Pax-Am followed. Adams has always been a prolific writer, but he hit a purple patch like no other this time around.
“For the first couple of months, I thought, holy shit, everyone must think I’m crazy, because they loved the record that I made with Glyn. But I was in my own studio and I was having the time of my life. And I really was finding that energy that had been missing from my work for a really, really long time. So I just went with it.
“So much PG Tips and marijuana later, there were probably 75-100 tracks. After eight months, I had what I knew was good. I thought, there’s a record that I’m gonna love forever. It really felt like me; that I’d finally done it, that I could finally explain what it feels like to be so young at heart, and so weary, sometimes, of mind.”
Songs on the new album, such as Trouble and I Just Might, have echoes of fist-pumping anthems usually purveyed by Springsteen and Petty, and suggest Adams is enjoying playing with a (new) band again, after disbanding his backing band The Cardinals in 2009.
He stated his disinterest in being moulded into “the new Tom Petty” by the press in the early part of his career; kicking against classification is something he has gleefully pursued throughout his career. He indulged his love of punk in 2003 with The Finger’s We Are Fuck You; metal with Orion, which was released in 2010; and last year he released an EP with his punk band, Pornography. Earlier in his career, such whims – and a refusal to make another commercial hit like Gold – led to him being accused of career self-sabotage.
Management difficulties and label shifts were compounded by the fact that much of Adams’s material – which was self-funded at the time – was being leaked to filesharing sites. “I had more music leak on the internet than I think anybody at that time had,” he says. “I mean, there were albums and albums and albums; an album called The Suicide Handbook and an album called 48 Hours. All these records had no value left, so the only thing they could think of doing was releasing this thing called Demolition, which was like best-of demos.
“It was so dark. I don’t think I could have been in a worse position, but I handled it pretty good. I mean, for somebody who felt like they were ready to make real records and go forward, it was a difficult thing for somebody in their 20s to go through.”
The only thing that got him through that period, he says, was self-medicating. “But the funny thing is, after all of that stuff – and this might sound completely crazy – but thank God that I was getting high through all of that,” he says with a humorous sincerity. “I think I would have had a much more formidable nervous breakdown. The thing that I worked for my whole life: raised so poor, leaving home very early, being such a sensitive guy. If I hadn’t had that and [wasn’t able to] at least stay close to the music, I don’t think I would have made it. I think I would have been so depressed, or so angry, you know? And instead, I think I was defiant. I wasn’t going to let it stop this thing that I loved.”
Back on track
With new manager John Silva – a man Adams credits as keeping his career on track – taking care of his affairs in recent years, things are a lot more stable.
He’s got his own label and studio, an excellent new album in his pocket, and production credits for the likes of Jenny Lewis and Fall Out Boy under his belt. Despite being diagnosed with inner-ear disorder Ménière’s disease in recent years – the aforementioned marijuana is medicinal and legal – life is good.
“The cool thing is that I’m 39 years old, and if I drive down Sunset Boulevard, about 10 minutes from my house, I see a red neon sign that says Pax-Am on the side of this building, next to the coolest recording studio of all time, Sunset Sound. And the f***ing crazy thing is – check this out – when I was 15 years old and I had a cassette four-track, I used to make fake compilation cassettes of my fake label called Pax-Am Records.
“I would play all the instruments in all these fake bands and just name ’em shit; there’d be a goth band, some f***in’ horrible metal band, and basically I would hand these cassettes out and go, ‘Hey, check out my label’. I never take it for granted, but once in a while when I’m driving over there, and I really look at it, I skip all of that hard shit – all of that pain, all of that confusion, all of that betrayal and confused behaviour – and I go, ‘Man. There it is.’ And I’m proud.
“I look back and I can’t even really remember the guy I was in my late 20s, who had to go through this, because there was so much of me that had to be left aside. But I’m so proud that I hung in there. And I’m also really f***ing lucky.
“If I hadn’t found John Silva, I’d be washing dishes somewhere and I’d be telling this story to some guy over some 7pm beer in some shithole bar. It’s a really beautiful thing to stick it out for so long, and find that f***ing path somewhere in that really dense, flooded jungle; find your way to that clearing.”
Ryan Adams is released on September 5