A couple of weeks after Clash interviewed Ryan Adams, a peer was about to do the same, so she emailed asking what he was like. Years after the unruly behaviour of his post-‘Gold’ substance-fueled reaction to success, there is still a pervading myth that precedes him that Ryan Adams is a difficult interviewee, and prone to mercurial mood swings. So, we told the inquisitive journalist the truth: he is a pussy cat.
Ryan Adams in 2011 is a perfect gentleman. Sitting down in a private club in Soho, he is demure, patient, and open to divulging his innermost thoughts. He’s in London to discuss his new album, ‘Ashes And Fire’; a stunningly beautiful and emotional release that vindicates his reputation as a profound song writer and poignant balladeer. There’s sadness woven through it, as he begins to explain.
“I feel the songs were still dealing with the ghosts of some failure of New York,” he says. “It had been two or three years since I had written, I had moved to the West Coast, and so New York is kind of like ever-present on this record. As my geographical and spiritual home it’s present, and it appears as the past on the record. There’s a song like ‘Do I Wait’, where I feel like the ghosts of past relationships are there. A song like ‘Lucky Now’ is really dealing with Chris [Feinstein, bassist for The Cardinals] passing away and mortality and my place in that, in the world; my questions about it, you know?”
Did he feel like he was leaving a life behind when he moved? “A little. I feel like I was a ghost on this record, looking at the world, looking at myself; it felt ghostly to make it. Living in California is like disappearing for me. The way like New York is exhausting, California is restorative, but it’s restorative that there isn’t as many friends for me there. Nature is more present. One of the ways I was dealing with my loneliness of being out in California is I was hiking, like in the little foothills and stuff.”
The loneliness that permeates the record is most apparent in the thinly-veiled ‘Save Me’, in which he asks: “What am I doing here?” Sometimes artists refuse to discuss such affecting lyrics, but in this case, Ryan ventures forth. “I lost my grandmother this year, who raised me like my mom, she was like a mother to me. She died of stomach cancer, and I didn’t realise I was writing about that, but I must have been. I think originally it was supposed to have been about feeling the loneliness of California. It’s a quiet dark out there; I’m not used to it.”
With so much time to think, Ryan acquired a mass of introspective music. When it came time to start working on an album, the choice of producer Glyn Johns (over his son, and Ryan’s regular studio man, Ethan) proved a perfect match. Before sessions started, the pair got together, and Glyn had Ryan sit down and play him everything on acoustic guitar. “He was talking me through a process of de-control,” Ryan explains, “so that I would let go of all these things that were making my process pretentious. Now, the end result wasn’t meant to be pretentious – the end result for me is always a great work – but I think that he just wanted me to be a natural singer and a natural song writer and a natural guitar player, and do all that at once and have it be unencumbered by anything.”
As a result, Ryan’s deepest feelings were allowed to be unrestrained, and his songs sometimes brutally honest. But the mark of a great song writer is not to confuse compassion with pity. In the case of ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’, while Adams is being so self-confessional, he manages to provoke empathy rather than sympathy – the listener is comforted by the fact that Ryan’s affairs of the heart can also be troubled. “That’s good, because that’s the point of writing them,” he smiles. “That’s what I’m using the the feelings I’m having for. When I’m writing a song I have two choices, ultimately, when I’m gonna basically decide how to narrate the song. I have choice to obscure the information in order to draw attention to the melody and to the words, or I have the second choice, which is – and it’s a much more noble pursuit – how do I best serve the thing I want to describe? How do I best serve it by making it so that someone would be able to put on my shoes? That’s all it is. I’ve done both, and I like the second more. If it’s just me listening to my diary entry, that’s painful, that’s just terrible; I would never put anybody through that!”
Ryan’s erratic past and personal liaisons are best left untouched – look online for a history of drug addiction, depression and famous girlfriends – as he has clearly moved on with his life and grown up some. Refusing to comment on whether marrying Mandy Moore has improved his character, instead he turns the tables on Clash, inviting a discussion on the merits of getting older. Now a published author, a record label owner (‘Ashes And Fire’ is on his own Pax-Am), a husband, and an internationally renowned artist with over twenty albums under his belt, Ryan Adams is finally taking himself seriously. “I’m thirty-six now, and it’s really interesting; my life is less fear-driven,” he reasons. “In the little ways, not the big ways. It’s like the tiny little incremental things that could fuck with the man to make him who he is. Some of those things start to slip, and I think that’s why older people get gentle, and then some of them get really crabby; it’s because some of them are just tired, or maybe they settle into a more lonely place. But the world is so fussy, and you become very un-fussy. That’s another thing too; older people are like, ‘I don’t have time for fussiness’. Like, ‘I realise that none of this shit matters. It’s the more metaphysical stuff that matters’.”
See? Ryan Adams is nothing to be scared of. In fact, it would do you good to meet him.
Words by Simon Harper