Ryan Adams: Pure Alchemy

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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On the second floor of PAX-AM lies Adams’ office, which is also bursting with an equal amount of character. Proudly displayed are six guitars of varying ages, both acoustic and electric, and watching over Adams’ desk is the ominous face of Sylvester Stallone on a poster for 1995’s Judge Dredd. Hanging on a chair is Adams’ blue denim jacket, a signature for him as of late that he’s worn on almost every stop of his latest promo tour, including an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman when the host asked Adams to perform lead single “Gimme Something Good” twice. Next door to his office is a secondary recording area, which is covered with strings of white lights and a large star made from wood and glass, a symbol for the Order for the Eastern Star, a religious organization Adams’ grandparents were members of.

According to those who have worked with Ryan, recording in PAX-AM can be a trip – and not because of the eccentric collection of Adams artifacts. “I was getting ready to sing when Ryan decided it was a nice night … and I should go outside,” Fall Out Boy’s Stump recalls. “He got the longest cable he could find and had me take the microphone and headphones out to the porch. I sang the whole record out there while angry neighbors, drunks, dogs, and homeless folks walked by staring at me. The whole time Ryan was just audibly excited. ‘Yeah! Great! Awesome! Again!’ It was me out of my comfort zone in the best possible way.”

Getting artists out of their comfort zone is Adams’ specialty as a producer, and it’s that quality that draws acts as varied as Fall Out Boy, Willie Nelson, and the aforementioned Jenny Lewis. “(When recording), we had a truly sick band because they had to be good enough to record live,” explained Lewis. “We didn’t fix anything. We only had two or three takes to get it right because Ryan wouldn’t let us do any more than that. He would actually stop us. When we were recording we always looked forward, and would never even listen back to what we were doing. That was just his process. He just wasn’t going to let us over think it. It felt great. I didn’t wanna hear my fucking voice anyway …  so many of these songs I had tried in other studios with other musicians, and I just wanted to get (them) done.”

According to Viola, there’s a method to the madness. “If you listen to the early punk rock or R&B records, there was no budget and these bands only had a certain amount of time in the studio. You never got second or third takes,” he explains. “The first Beatles recordings were done like that, and I think it shows.  When we would record with Jenny, she was sometimes like, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t do another take? That’s ridiculous! We have everyone here and ready, why not just do one more take?’ But the thing is, it’s all there in the first take and it’s just gonna subtract from whatever we’re doing next. There are no wrong notes; and if there’s a clam somewhere, you can always turn up the bass. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones did the same thing. They’d pile on percussion if the groove started to suffer. For this record, Ryan’s guitar is out of tune 90 percent of the time and he wanted it that way. It’s just his vibe.” “The music industry is replete with, ‘This is how things are done this year so do them that way,’ ‘This is the latest plugin,’ ‘This is the latest popular drum groove,’ and ‘This studio is so hot right now,’” Stump adds. “Ryan experiments and plays around like a kid in his basement and really that’s where the best music comes from. It’s like every time he shows up to the studio, he’s going in with that first raw stroke of genius a young artist has. That’s really an impossible thing to do and somehow he does it.”

It’s conquering that impossibility that drew a variety of personalities to help Adams record his latest material, including wife Mandy Moore (who contributed backing vocals), Johnny Depp (yes, that Johnny Depp, who contributed some slick guitar stylings on two tracks), and Benmont Tench (the keyboardist and founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). While his latest album could have a variety of adult radio friendly tracks, including “Gimme Something Good” and the tender “My Wrecking Ball,” Adams is well aware of the fact that the fandom that surrounds him will probably not transform him into a mainstream, Top 40 act anytime soon, and he’s just fine with that.

“I don’t know if you could tell me in the last 30 years if there was a recipe for anything that made sense as a hit,” he explains up in his office, as Judge Dredd looks on. “It’s too varied and too unusual. You can explain Whitney Houston, but you can’t explain an act like 311 next to her. It’s a very random generator of what’s seeping into the consciousness.”

Not that Adams swears off the talents of current mainstream artists. “Taylor Swift is one of the most fucking amazing writers I’ve ever seen,” he says of the country-turned-pop superstar who’s written with Adams here at PAX-AM. “I’ve sat in this room with her before and heard a song she was constructing on the spot and it was unbelievable. It was pure alchemy. I couldn’t be any different.”

In a certain ways, however, Adams and Swift are exactly the same. Both found initial success and acclaim as country acts, then shed their cowboy boots for something else (in Swift’s case, pop records; for Adams, rock). They also both write lyrics ripped from their very lives, raw, emotional lines that strike a chord, sometimes even literally, with listeners. The moment that most people started to realize this about Adams was with the release of his debut album as a solo artist, 2000’s Heartbreaker. Norah Jones, then a year away from her own debut, was taken aback by the album, with its heartfelt lyrics, thunderous acoustic guitars, and powerful harmonica. “That was my first experience listening to Ryan,” she says. “I fell in love with that record and it turned me into a huge fan. It opened my mind and made me appreciate the fact that there was someone playing country music who was young.” Jones, though, is quick to point out that there’s more to Adams than his writing on Heartbreaker and subsequent records. “This could be obvious, but the thing about Ryan that I don’t think people focus on that much is that he’s an equally incredible singer. He’s the kind of singer that, if he wasn’t such a great songwriter, he’d still be successful. He’s not a singery singer. He’s just a great singer.”

Despite the success of Heartbreaker, within the next five or so years Adams ran into a variety of obstacles as he strived to create the kind of career he had imagined, including skirmishes with management and a growing problem with drugs. “You don’t know when you’re young to not trust your manager who is about to become an A&R guy who fucking hates you,” he says back in a PAX-AM studio among the white lights and vintage gear. “All you know is you want to make music. All the promises that you thought (about stardom), they’re not really there. It’s like a vehicle. The outside is shiny and new, then you get in only to find the inside of the vehicle is awful, like a tiger’s cage. Then you start moving and get halfway across that valley you wanted to cross, and at a certain point you look back from where you came from and it’s as green as that fucking valley was that you’re headed to. But it’s too late, you can never go back.”

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Fortunately, today Adams is in a better place: happily married, creatively content, and intense as ever. And as the antique Bulova clock ticks in PAX-AM’s main studio, Adams scrambles to get ready for his meeting with Shandling. He throws on that denim jacket, douses his hair with enough hairspray to make global warming possible, and is on his way out. “You are not talking to a person who wants to make music,” he says. “I fucking make music. It’s a spiritual and personal quest for me that is flesh and blood and everything I am. I’m going to do it. It’s what I do. I do this because I found this, and when I found it, it was me. It’s just how I communicate.”

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