RYAN ADAMS: Grows Up

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

From his sordid and impulsive past—which counts a dark history of calling out audience hecklers, phoning up rock critics who didn’t quite get his work to give them a rash of hell, not to mention the great deal of time he’s spent with Hollywood starlets and Manhattan socialites—I expected that Ryan Adams would keep me waiting.

From his sordid and impulsive past—which counts a dark history of calling out audience hecklers, phoning up rock critics who didn’t quite get his work to give them a rash of hell, not to mention the great deal of time he’s spent with Hollywood starlets and Manhattan socialites—I expected that Ryan Adams would keep me waiting. And because such behaviors have always somewhat unfairly overshadowed his music, when he finally gets down to talking an hour later than planned, I’ve already formed the opinion that I’ll be speaking with yet another rock star asshole. But seconds later that perception is shattered as the 32-year-old songwriter/artist apologizes profusely for keeping me waiting and offers a valid excuse for his tardiness. It seems Adams—the man responsible for nine acclaimed solo albums, including the newly minted, genre-bending Easy Tiger, a forthcoming box set of unreleased material spanning his solo career due later this year, plus his heralded tenure fronting alt-country icons Whiskeytown—has mangled his arm at a new skate park, just blocks from the Brooklyn residence of Jon Graboff, his guitarist and steel-player in The Cardinals. “It’s not broken,” Adams says with a sigh, safe-housing his injury with a makeshift ice pack at Graboff’s pad. “I was skating and I slammed,” he says with the exuberance of a 15-year-old skateboard junkie who just got vertical.

“I was pulling air today for the first time in many, many fucking years. It was so amazing. But that last one, I had significant air, about two feet. Not mind-blowing, but for me it was. Then I hit the transition—a big, burly, nasty clover-shaped pool—and when I hit the third leaf, which was like an eight-deep, sixteen foot bowl with a couple feet of vert…that was it.” No, you’re not reading Thrasher. And yes, it probably seems peculiar that a man known for writing some of the best songs of his generation, on hands that have already seen their fair share of punishment, is willing to be so risky. After all, it was Ryan Adams who fell from a London stage into an orchestra pit in January 2004 breaking his wrist. Yet Adams—who has a renewed interest in skateboarding, a fascination of his from half a lifetime ago—has always been taken chances with his art by hopping across rock’s subgenres with aplomb. Easy Tiger, his latest and possibly last, proper solo album, defies convention in that it doesn’t stand thematically or musically as a defining moment like most of his solo work. Whereas 2000’s Heartbreaker was a folk masterpiece, 2001’s Gold was a successful, Grammy-nominated pop/rock disc, 2002’s Demolition blew the dust off of secret treasures, 2003’s Rock & Roll and 2004’s Love Is Hell flirted with punk and adult alternative formats respectively, and his trilogy of 2005 discs, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights (both recorded with The Cardinals) and 29 pitted Grateful Dead-like jams against stark ruminations on turning 30—album number nine is an assortment of most of the styles he has conquered before. Which means Easy Tiger plays to all of Adams’ strengths. From the memorable, sophisticated mid-tempo winner “Goodnight Rose” and the gorgeous blue-eyed soul ballad “Everybody Knows,” to the tender Neil Young-flavored “Off Broadway” and the disc’s lone rocker “Halloween Head” (which finds him delightfully if not wryly beckoning “guitar solo”), the album is an exhilarating sampling of the Jacksonville, N.C.-reared artist’s wares. In describing the stylistic shape of Easy Tiger, Adams says, “We [including guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Brad Pemberton, Graboff, bassist Chris Feinstein and producer/pianist Jamie Candiloro] just took direction from what really excited the band. Some of the songs are as old—or older, than Heartbreaker, and some of the songs were as young as a week old when we tracked them. It’s more like what would make best sense. The only theme this time out was kick ass tunes.” “I told Ryan, you’ve got to think of the album like a playground with a bunch of kids on it. They’ve all got to get along,” Graboff interjects. “One malcontent comes in, and it will foul up the whole thing.” To which Ryan counters, laughing, “That’s true. It only takes one really jarring track to upset an entire album.” Easy Tiger breaks with tradition in other ways. “I didn’t sequence it…and I didn’t even pick the tracks,” Adams confesses. “It was done by a democratic process with The Cardinals’ management office. They all listened and picked what they were really excited by. Some of them weren’t even demoed. They were just, like, live things we could listen to, or the most rudimentary recording on a boom box. It was something new for me to allow for some outside influence. And it was, in fact, really helpful. I think for this record, I kind of felt like I’m not really a band leader. I kind of have to be to make The Cardinals work and make that vibe work, but I can sometimes serve the band more by looking for direction outside of myself. It isn’t about me being unable to successfully sequence a record or come up with something with that part-theme. In fact, those are some of my strengths, but I think I can almost follow up on a thematic type of record to a fault.” When asked why—when he insists The Cardinals were so instrumental on Easy Tiger—the band didn’t get a formal billing on the record, Adams snaps back, “You know I wish I could answer that question.” But before he can get too upset, he and Graboff break out in a fit of laughter. “Hold On. We’ve sprung a leak in the ice bag,” he chuckles. “To be honest, I didn’t even want it to be called my name…but I know it’s not a fight worth fighting,” says Adams. “It wasn’t like it was imposed by some dramatic gesture. And in the future the plan, in all honesty, is to just be in The Cardinals and that’s it. I really don’t want to do solo records anymore, and one of the things that I had to do to make that a reality was to honor my commitments to the label [Lost Highway]. I mean, the kind of record that I was being asked to make was a Ryan Adams solo album. And the best way that I could do that in my mind was to approach the band and say ‘I don’t want to do that.’ I got very discouraged, only because my head is so in The Cardinals’ realm. And every person in the band was so supportive and was like, ‘You should do it. You should do it because it’s the way forward.’ So when I sat down to do the solo record, the best people I could think to do it with were The Cardinals.” “You know, I think it might come as a surprise to some people about how little amount of ego gets displayed within The Cardinals,” says Graboff in Adams’ defense. “Lots of ideas and lots of songs get thrown out all the time…and some are adopted, some are accepted and some are made fun of, molested and ultimately discarded. But the bottom line is that everybody is much more interested in playing music together than they are in who gets credit for what. So when Ryan asked us to do this solo record, our attitude as a band was, ‘Who cares as long as we get to collaborate.’”

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