Ryan Adams: Pure Alchemy

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photos by Josh Wool

Just steps away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the crowds of faux Spidermans and Mickey Mouses of Los Angeles’ infamous Hollywood Boulevard lies PAX-AM Studio, the musical home and creative base of Ryan Adams. Its decor can best be described as a confluence of both 1980s-era teen rebellion and the classic and ornate. (Think Misfits posters and dusty chandeliers.) It all doesn’t quite add up; that is, until you hear Adams talk about his bucolic North Carolina childhood.

“I grew up in a really small town and didn’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of, nor did I have anyone to be competitive with in any real way,” he notes while taking a breather in PAX-AM’s main recording space, which, along with a plethora of antique recording gear, includes a retro pinball machine. “All I knew was that I wasn’t particularly interested in sports, and that I loved my grandparents and wanted to be around them all the time.”

His viewpoint as a kid radically changed the day his grandparents, whom he lived with, took him to the Rose Brothers Furniture store, which, for some reason, also sold records. There, he randomly discovered Sonic Youth’s 1987 album Sister, and it wound up blowing his young mind.

“I actually went into a weird depression from it,” he says. “It felt like I was on drugs.” And just like that, the sheltered kid who lived with his elderly grandparents became a punk, the look of PAX-AM and its ornate yet rebellious decor suddenly making a bit more sense.

27 years later, Adams is as passionate as ever about music, and it shows when he talks to you about it – or anything, really. Whether he’s discussing his creative process, his career hits and misses, or his love of all things tea, his voice gets very loud; his face has the habit of hovering very close to your face; and most of the time he’s maintaining extreme eye contact. If listening to a Ryan Adams record is an experience, talking to him is on a whole other level.

“He has this demeanor that’s somewhere between a Doc Brown mad scientist and Marty McFly on the skateboard holding the truck bumper,” explains Patrick Stump, the lead singer of Fall Out Boy, who recorded an EP with Adams at PAX-AM that they appropriately titled PAX-AM Days. “He bounces around the studio with the excitement of a kid just discovering music and the finesse of a seasoned vet.”

Seasoned vet is an understatement, since Adams has lived many musical lives, from his days in the ’90s as part of the revered country band Whiskeytown, into the early aughts with an equally revered solo career as well as a stint with his band The Cardinals, and into the present where he says he finally feels comfortable with his career.

“I’m so old now that nobody can tell me what to do anymore,” explains Adams, who turned 40 last month. “I’m just gonna do things my way and have the most fun possible. You would think that doing it your own way would be the way to do it, but I’ve spent a lifetime trying to make that happen with weird obstacles in my way, none of which were the seduction of the possibility of becoming wealthy and famous, because I never took those options. It’s clear that I was just trying to find my muse.”

If Adams has a muse, it eats, breathes and sleeps at PAX-AM. The visible connections between his childhood and the studio are perhaps no coincidence, considering “PAX-AM” was a name Adams first thought of in high school, an imaginary record label he wrote on cassette tapes of music he crudely put together. Today, the actual PAX-AM Records releases all of Adams’ material, including his latest album. It’s his fourteenth solo record, yet his first self-titled effort and a sort-of career reboot to reintroduce fans to what made them fall in love with Adams in the first place.

“It’s self-titled because I couldn’t think of a title,” he admits. “I thought, ‘Well, it all matches up.’ If I don’t call it anything, it actually makes more sense than if I fucking call it Solar Fart, or whatever I wanted to call it. I was like, ‘Just call it my name, I don’t give a shit.’”

It’s that laissez-faire attitude that carries into his creative process. “Oh, the amount of material in this studio,” he says looking around, his feet tapping on a checkered floor that looks like it was ripped up from a bowling alley. “Most of the time, these songs happen just in the process of jamming,” he explains. “We turn on the microphones and I throw a riff out and start making the decisions in the moment.”

Aside from the tapes of riffs and rough song copies, there are also drawers full of pages of lyrics, containing both fully fleshed out songs and general outlines. Some are written longhand while others were typed on a typewriter, another relic of his childhood that inhabits PAX-AM. (Says Adams: “I wrote short stories before I can even remember, because I learned to type on my grandmother’s manual typewriter.”) All of that material, along with the Notes application on Adams’ iPhone, adds up to a solid musical bedrock that, by all accounts, comes stupid-easy to him.

“About ten years ago, I was having a little block and couldn’t write,” remembers Norah Jones, Adams’ friend with whom he has both written and recorded. “He explained to me, ‘You just gotta try all the time. It’s like fishing; you might not catch a good one everyday, but eventually you will.’ I like that idea, but I just haven’t been able to do it. There’s a discipline to it, and for such a rock star he seems to be a very disciplined songwriter, just in that he writes so frequently. He’s always working at his craft.”

Jenny Lewis, another friend and frequent collaborator with Adams (he most recently produced her latest album, The Voyager), has a similar story. “One day Ryan told me to go home and write ‘Wonderwall,’ and I was like, ‘What? I can’t do that, that’s a perfect song.’ So I went home and was totally panicking and wracking my brain, and for whatever reason ‘The Voyager’ came out of that assignment – not that it’s at all like ‘Wonderwall.’ In other words, he inspired me to write another song for the record and not many producers can do that.”

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