For just over three years, Ryan Adams took a break from music, disbanding his group The Cardinals. Now he’s back with a new solo album, Ashes & Fire, and playing better than ever.
“My whole life’s work,” Adams explains, “is about putting myself in a position where I answer to the whims of something I can’t understand in me. When that happens, I must make myself available to it, almost no matter what. I have to be ready to respond and let something come through me that needs to be turned into these words and these songs. I only need to catch a few seconds of it – like a shape in the fog – and I’ll know that I have to write it.”
What prompted you to start making music again?
Well, I took a good break. And I responded to the request inside myself in a real way. I picked up the guitar and I was really playing for me. I played some of the most beautiful stuff that I ever played, that I never recorded, in the time I took off. I hadn’t felt like making music [with The Cardinals], but then I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do.
The album sounds very much like it harks back to your early days as a songwriter, when Heartbreaker came out. There’s the same intensity of feeling and sorrow. Yet you’re 10 years on from that – you’ve moved on as a person, there are different things in your life now, you’re married, you’re happy. Is it hard to create that same level of melancholy when your life is better?
Hmmmm. Well, the songs represent something different for me than they would for others. So, the information that’s inside of them could be stuff that’s uplifting for some people and sad to me. Also, the songs predict things that others can’t know. But some of the pain in there is me talking about me losing myself. And some of the pain is, maybe, even me discussing finding myself while losing people who were important to me. There are a lot of steps in there.
There does seem to be a lost character traversing the songs of this record – someone asking for redemption, someone asking to be found, someone asking to be saved. Is that the case, and is it you?
I felt so lost making this record. I’ve been lost in the wilderness of California, lost in the urban madness of Los Angeles. Having moved away from the city that I loved and lived in for over 10 years, I was in an entirely new world. And during that time, I was knocked off my feet by an illness [Ménière’s disease] and was coming to terms with being in my mid-30s.
Stuff was dawning on me that I hadn’t ever thought about. But I didn’t let that stuff in, so by the time I did discuss it and let it in, it became like an entirely different thing.
And do you think being solo again makes it easier to let that stuff in? When you’re by yourself – as opposed to in a rock’n’roll band where you have this front that you’re indestructible, and you’re going to live forever, and you’re young forever – does that vulnerability creep back in?
Strangely, I’ve felt younger since leaving The Cardinals. I think I appear younger, too. I think my general spirit is higher, because I think the weight of carrying so many people, and them carrying me – that weight is gone. It’s an isolating experience for a guy like me to be leading a band like that, and for it to not be right. It was for me.
How amicable are you with the band? Was it just the musical aspect you had to get rid of, or was it also the personal?
The personal has remained in a fractional way. I guess I talk to them a little. It’s strange. It’s hard. Because there was something there – it’s like breaking up, it’s like an ex for me, in some stupid way. Although I’m sure, for them, it isn’t like this. I’m obviously more sensitive – or very sensitive – about my feelings in a way. Yeah, it’s like breaking up.
But that’s why you write songs – because you have that sensitivity.
I guess so. Or a lack of sensitivity!
Do you see this album as a kind of rebirth of Ryan Adams – as the start of a new chapter of your life and your music?
But I’m happy I made the record. I’m happy to write, I’m excited to be making albums again. It’s pretty cool. I’ve very quietly been writing over the last month or so. Because the record’s been done for some time.
As soon as we finished the record, we took a little break and made sure it got mastered from the quarter-inch tapes – because we used an analogue process all the way through – but it was nice because I just let it go. I didn’t really listen, I just started playing new songs – acoustic, just because I’ve been behind the acoustic guitar more.
It’s like the old days: Little rays of sunshine in the form of little riffs that made themselves evident to me. It’s really sweet.
Well, the production is incredible. It sounds very lush, but at the same time very organic and sparse. It’s a wonderful contradiction. Is that from working with producer Glyn Johns?
Yeah, I think that’s a Glyn thing. That’s all Glyn. I only made a few suggestions. My job when I made the record was to be a songwriter, was to be the singer who’s playing guitar, and was to keep my eye on the ball. He made sure that I was focused, because it’s very easy for me to lose focus.
Is losing focus something you’d been doing before, when you were with the band?
Maybe I was putting too much focus… I don’t know. I don’t know what I was doing in that band. I don’t know what those days were. They were unlike me. I wasn’t not being myself, but it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go and I had such high hopes. I thought it could be something really special and different from what it was. So maybe I was living in the disappointment and I was just tuning it all out.
The songs on Ashes & Fire are very forlorn and gentle. But as well as the quiet country thing, you’ve done the rock’n’roll thing and even the metal thing…
Yeah, I love that. I love making those kinds of riffs. I love that energy. It’s definitely part of who I am.
How do you reconcile that? How do all the styles fit together?
It’s all music to me. It’s not good for your record collection to be all one style. Most people have probably figured this out by now, but I’m not into one thing. I’m not trendy and I’m obviously not cool. I’m not part of a trend. I’m just something on my own. For me, it’s just about fun and writing songs and truth. And beauty – that’s somewhere in there too.