“There’s something good about bending yourself to the sanctity of what a record is...” - hmv.com talks to Ryan Adams
Ever since he released his debut album Heartbreaker back in 2000, Ryan Adams has established himself as one of music’s most prolific and consistent artists. He returns today with his 16th full-length effort, a new collection of bittersweet rock songs, the first to be released since his split from wife Mandy Moore.
We sat down with the singer to chat about making the album, how he decided which of the 80 songs he wrote for the LP would make the cut and why there will be no setlist when he tours...
You wrote over 80 songs for this record, how did you slim that down to the 12 that are on there?
“You have to make a lot of hard decisions. The first step was to look at all the songs without listening to them, I knew the songs well, but I needed a new impression. I asked the other people who’d been involved in the record for their advice and if they could see which songs felt like they were connected, which felt like obvious chapters. That changes how you think about the songs, which seem more natural and self-illuminated.”
It must have been a long process...
“For a lot of it I just had to have faith and to go with my gut, but I also kept a record near me at all times, kept looking at it and thinking ‘It’s got to fit on this, I should not mess with that’.” There’s something good about bending yourself to the sanctity of what a record is, I think it’s more important than ever to remember how important that is, because more and more people are forgetting. You’ll give your records to someone else one day and it’s important to be ritualistic.”
With a devoted fanbase like yours, were you not tempted to put out a triple album? They’d probably be delighted with so much music…
“They might, but you can’t know that. I thought a lot about the impressions that records leave on you and there are lots of incredible double and triple records that have taken people a long way into who they were, but a longer sense of emotional geography doesn’t necessarily work.”
“I thought it in terms of The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings, Lord Of The Rings is a triple record, it’s a Sandinista, The Hobbit is a record, you stretch that and you wind up exaggerating. And that was the thought that convinced me you’re better finding a simple thread and that I could say what I needed to say across the span of a single record. When you have people for dinner you don't need to give them a banquet, you can just give them a simple meal.”
Also, it’s not like you can’t go back to them if you need to...
“These songs aren’t lost either, they’re all on tape and I can go back to them anytime I want to. Maybe that’ll be sooner rather than later.”
When did you settle on the album title?
“As I went along the process of discovering what this record would be, songs really came and went, but it became clear to me as time went on that Prisoner was really the centre of the record. It’s a song with a lot of sexuality in the subtext, which is there in the rest of the record too, it’s explaining how desire is working me while I’m still coming out of becoming this emotional ruin. I kept going back to that song, I think it’s very liberated, it’s about being possessed by feeling and just enjoying being alive. I was discovering that being a human is freeing yourself from all these internal traps you set for yourself.”
Do you ever go back and mine your own back catalogue for inspiration? Do you listen to your earlier work?
“I don’t really listen to my own records. I like this one a lot, but I don’t listen to it. The songs go with me and get reinterpreted. I feel like making records is like an archaeological dig, you dig it up and then you send off the photograph, it doesn’t stay with you, it goes with other people. There are bands I love that I know are making music for themselves and it doesn’t include you at all, it’s like flipping through the pages of someone’s mind. I don’t like to do that, it’s like inviting someone over for dinner and then just having them watch you eat. I don’t want my ego and all that fear and doubt in there.”
What kind of live set will you be playing this time?
“That’s the whim of the band and myself. I talk to the band and we do a bit of planning, but I like to go into weird territories. Once I didn’t even write a setlist and I like the spontaneity, but we spent a lot of time talking and wasting a lot of time, so now I sit down an hour before and decide it. I’ve got a ritual now with the band where we get together an hour before, just us, and I write the list, I like to mix in danger zones where we go somewhere very different, that’s a lot of fun.”
How’s your production work going? We know you’ve been working with Jenny Lewis again?
“I just finished producing an album by this upstart band called Starcrawler. The singer is the daughter of Autumn De Wilde, who’s a photographer and great friend of mine and she and her buddy have this great band. They’re wild, they remind me of Iggy And The Stooges and Kiss and they’ve got such a refreshing take on everything.
“I’ve started work on the new Liz Phair record, which is kind of a companion piece to her first record Exile In Guyville. And Jenny’s new album is this incredible Blonde On Blonde, beautifully intellectualised record. It’s fragile as the thinnest glass, I’m still mystified that I witnessed it. That’s the best feeling ever, sitting there, watching your friend surpass themselves and you get to see it all.”
From working as a producer, what’s the main thing you’ve learned that you’ve been able to use in your own career?
“I used to have a really strict way of making records, only live vocals, as raw as possible, but I’ve learned that you have to make the environment comfortable. When I’m producing I’ve learned to sit back and let them go, wait for them to ask me something specific. I’m a coach for the songs. It’s helped me be more empathetic to other people, when I produce the best thing I can do is open doors and if they’re stuck, take down a wall for them.”