Ryan Adams: ‘Music Is How I Contribute’

There’s a lot on Ryan Adams’ mind at any given time. A conversation with the acclaimed singer-songwriter uses up the full 20 minutes allocated and only allows for about four questions to be asked. Adams, 42, is a deep thinker and more than your average armchair philosopher – his thoughtfulness and reflections on his own life and musicianship putting such a notion on full display.

The genre-traversing troubadour is in a good place right now – his sixteenth studio album, Prisoner, was released this past February to some of his best reviews in years; as well as top-10 chart positions in the US, the UK, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, New Zealand and right here in Australia. On the subject of our fair country, that’s currently where Adams finds himself – he’s here for a headlining tour, marking his third visit in three consecutive years. Prior to touching down, however, he spoke with Music Feeds about storytelling, life on the road and his bare-all podcast interview with comedy legend Marc Maron.

Music Feeds: Just months after the release of Prisoner – itself already nearly an hour in length – we’ve just received the Prisoner B-Sides collection. It’s an impressive influx of material from what seems to be only a relatively small window between the self-titled LP and Prisoner. Did all of the songs come together around the same time, or was it a periodical collation of ideas?

Ryan Adams: These songs only took a year, and they were written basically at the end of the last tour. They were recorded as they were written. I did my proper last tour, and then I did festival season. In the two weeks I’d have off between those dates, I’d be in the studio finishing these songs off. A lot of the songs were made up on the spot – it would just be me and a drummer in there. I knew that if a song would work with just my vocals and my strumming on a guitar, then I’d be able to fill it out with lead parts and bass by myself. It actually really cuts down on time. When I’m producing myself, I don’t really have to be dealing with a third party. I don’t have to worry about whether something I’m doing is appeasing or not – I don’t have time to worry about that. I just know what I want.

The inertia of getting a couple of great tracks actually creates a really great sensation for me. I start making them quicker, and with more confidence. Honestly, my engine gets going and things go far more smoothly. I’m able to really start digging a lot deeper, getting into the real stuff that I want to be writing and singing about. The next thing you know, you turn around and there’s 70 tracks. That’s honestly how it works.

MF: Much of the discourse and discussion surrounding Prisoner has been about its unflinching and direct reflection on your personal life. That’s not something we’re going to divulge here, but it does bring up the fascinating idea of art as catharsis – expressing innermost emotion and unpacking their complexities through the medium of songwriting and music. Do you feel that, having written so directly and honestly on this record, that you are in a better place mentally for having put an album like Prisoner out into the world?

RA: I don’t think that my current material is any less personal than my previous material, really. I can’t draw that line. For me to think that Heartbreaker or 29 or Love is Hell is any less personal… I mean, those are all records about my life at the time. They deal with the things that were happening to me. I don’t look at any of them as an exposé of any kind. I really enjoy narrative writing… [pauses] Enjoy might not be the right word.

It’s safe to say my favourite authors are writers that became masters at long-form narrative prose. People like Henry Miller and [Jack] Kerouac. People who were able to really, honestly, lift the veil on the parts of their lives that wouldn’t have been easy for them or for anyone else to deal with.

In my case, it’s not all that scandalous – it’s just day-to- day type stuff. I still like the idea of accepting and being a part of this idea of music and… [pauses] I’m trying to find the right words for this. It’s how I contribute. I don’t think about the way that I write. I don’t ever sit down and say, “Here’s how I’m going to deal with this.” It really isn’t like that. It would be wrong for me to pretend that it was. What’s interesting is that I just don’t know how not to be that way. That’s what’s moved me. I’ve learned the most from reading first-hand experiences from people I’ve found to be poetic – how they managed to navigate such a strange life. In return, I think that’s maybe the writer that I am.

Having said that, I don’t think that anyone could pull or amass any material from my current record, my life or even from my interviews that would ever be harmful or detrimental to another person. I would never – especially at my age – be interested in damaging someone else’s life because they had been a part of mine. It’s music, y’know? Its main purpose is to feel; and for others to feel. To excite, to stimulate, to make people feel closer. The nature of what I do would never be to lay blame or to victimise myself. It really is art, and it’s meant to be that way.

That’s why the songs aren’t like, “Here’s Ryan’s recounting of his divorce.” It’s not only’not who I am, but I don’t even think I would be very qualified to be someone who could do that. I think I see the world in a way where I see larger tectonic shifts and energy. I see the space, and I see the way that people are reacting to each other. I think that the personal falls into those same categories. One of the benefits of getting a little older is noticing when many small things change – in my life, or in someone else’s – it’s hard to ignore that they’re not changing elsewhere.

MF: It may seem reductive to bring up another interview within an interview, but perhaps your most popular one of late was in the garage with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast. You two bonded over lots of things – guitars, The Grateful Dead – and you seemed to really open up in that environment. What was that experience like for you, being a part of what is ostensibly one of the biggest podcasts in the world?

RA: Marc is just another nerd like the rest of us. [laughs] I wasn’t surprised that he was a Deadhead at all. He really has such an open heart, and he’s always questioning a lot of stuff. L.A. can be such a small town for entertainers – we all seem to know one another really well. Running into Marc, running into different comedians… it’s just part of the way that it goes around here. Strangely, I have quite a lot of comedian friends. To actually sit down in his lair with him was pretty cool. I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like. Sure enough, there’s this small street where I park my ’59 Cadillac, I go in and he’s really exactly what you would think. I think we talked about guitar pedals for way too long before we realised we had to actually start recording. [laughs] It was really great. How interesting, too, that we live in a day and age where a guy that has a podcast in his shed is making something that’s one of the most popular things in the world. How amazing is that?

MF: You’ve been posting setlists from the tour online across your Twitter and your Instagram. One can imagine that part of the show must be so difficult to curate at a time where there is more and more material to draw from than ever before and only around two hours to play it. Do you add things in last-minute; or does it tend to be more focused on swapping songs in and out of the repertoire?

RA: I always post the setlist so people can see what I’m playing. There’s quite a lot more production on this run, but that doesn’t interfere with my decisions. I could play 2 hours of songs that no-one’s really heard, and no-one can really say anything. It just is what it is. The way that it works is I usually go with what feels good for the night. We have these huge pyramids of TVs on stage, and everyone is positioned and set up in a way that we’re able to interact with one another. Then there’s an acoustic solo microphone all the way at the front of the stage, for whenever I want to do a song just by myself. That part of the show is not plugged in at all. Whether I’m playing in front of a thousand people or in front of six thousand people, I do it anyway. It’s as crazy as anything I’ve ever done, but I always feel very comfortable doing it. I know that it’s going to be great.

We like to have soundcheck go for a couple of hours, so if there’s anything we want to go over we’ll have a chance to do that. Sometimes we’ll pull out something that we haven’t played in a while, or one of us will bring up a song that we’ve been listening to and we’ll take a stab at that. We might write a new instrumental section for ‘Magnolia Mountain’. Sometimes, we’ll just jam. This is a band that just really loves to play. We do so much weird stuff during soundcheck, it’s almost like its own show. When all of that is over, we have about an hour before we go and have dinner, and that’s when I’ll take the time to hash out what we want to play that night. The setlist gets passed onto the crew and goes into production, and then everybody prepares from there. Some legs of the tour will start and end fairly similarly in terms of the setlist, but anything could happen in that in-between.

After a surprise show in Brisbane last night, Ryan Adams kicks off his official Australian tour at The Tivoli in Brisbane tonight, followed by shows in Byron Bay, Melbourne and Sydney. His 16th studio album ‘Prisoner’ is out now.

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