After spending the first decade of his career as either the most promising singer-songwriter of his generation, or a braying jackass too wrapped up in himself, depending on who was passing judgment, Ryan Adams briefly became a pop-culture punchline, mocked for his prolific output and hard-partying lifestyle. Over the last couple of years, Adams has quietly reformed. Since assembling his touring band, The Cardinals, Adams has re-dedicated himself to his craft, writing and recording hooky, rootsy albums that are more calmly assured than obnoxiously virtuosic. The latest, Easy Tiger, brings Adams' pop side more to the surface, while still ambling behind the bright, clear path of his familiar folk-country muse. Adams recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his process and his philosophy, and why he'd rather be a professional musician than a plumber—or maybe even a rock star.
The A.V. Club: Your last several records have all had a certain stylistic unity, but Easy Tiger isn't as clearly defined. What's behind the change in approach?
Ryan Adams: I don't think there was a whole lot of pre-planning in terms of what the theme would be this time. Some of these songs were from a while ago, and when I said to the guys in the band, "Hey, I'm going to do this solo record, and I don't really know what I want to do," they made suggestions like, "Hey, I've always dug this song, but you never finished it. Why don't we work on this?" So some of it happened in a song-by-song, nurturing way.
When I start working on a batch of tunes—like roughly 10 solid tunes—I always know there'll be another 10 to follow, because for every song I invest a lot of time in, there's another song waiting behind it. I won't even know the name yet. It could be something I've written down on the back of the lyrics to another song, or it could be a riff that didn't quite fit into the one I'm working on. So I always know to save space at the session for 10 more. This time, when we finished, I literally handed all of them over to my manager and said "I don't really know what to do with this."
The only real concept of this record was complete and utter collaboration. It was me asking for assistance, and finding out what really was affecting the people around me. I've gotten to a place where I still love to play and sing, but I don't have any ego agenda left, outside of just wanting to stay in a creative place and play music. I much prefer to sing for somebody else, and to somebody else. So I opened the decisions up to the rest of the guys in the band, and it's funny, they all really liked, more or less, about the same 10 to 13 tunes. And three or four of them, I was like, "You're joking!"
AVC: Can you name one?
RA: "Pearls On A String." That one was just for me and the fellows in the control room, while we worked on something else. I had the first couple of lines of the song written down, but it wasn't really anything yet. And I think Neal Casal picked up my banjo, which we had around because I wanted to repeat a trick that I used way back on "Come Pick Me Up." I planned to do sort of a three-string arpeggiated drone, with the banjo in one speaker and the guitar in the other doing a melodic reflection of the banjo's notes. It's kind of a Southern version of a Johnny Marr trick. I wanted to do that on "The Sun Also Sets," I think. So the banjo was already there, and Neal started playing something. And I was looking at these lyrics I'd scribbled down, just one or two lines with an ink pen at the end of a typed-out page. And I guess [producer] Jamie [Candiloro] recorded it.
So when that was on the list of what everybody was into, I was like, "You're joking." But it stayed. I actually fought against that tune. I was like, "I just don't think it belongs on there." But I wanted to include everyone in the process, and some people said, "You can't take that off, I fucking look forward to that tune." So I was like, "Oh God, okay!"
AVC: Do you generally feel like you have a good sense of what your best work is? Because obviously you have fans who love songs that you've recorded but never released.
RA: At this point, I would say that I definitely don't know. I used to think I did. A lot of the songs I write are like songs that I've never been able to find on any record, but that I've always wanted to hear. Or maybe in a style I already loved, but I was looking for something in it that I wasn't hearing yet. So this sound would kind of be in my mind, and I'd have to write it out or record it so that I'd have a record of it, and it could help me get more into the music. I like things that reach a little further and are a little more abstract, but I don't think that's what I do naturally well. How I write naturally is probably what's furthest from me, and the most removed from what I understand. With this record, these are the songs that really stood out for people around me that love my music, that are close to it, and that I respect. I think I got the picture for the first time. I think I understood that it was those songs that happen by accident when I'm not thinking that people like best. So I'm probably not a very good judge. But I like the irony of it.
I also have a little bit of a rough time listening to my own voice on records. In the past, I've been very into trying to obscure my vocals with a lot of reverb or delay or harmonies or double-tracking. For any producer I've ever worked with, their toughest job is to convince me to not to obscure my vocals. A lot of people don't like the sound of their own voice on, like, cassette tape or something. It's like that for me, and other songwriters I know. Like, "Oh God, that's what I sound like?"
AVC: Given Easy Tiger's collaborative nature, why did you decide to make it a solo record and not another Cardinals record?
RA: Collaboration has become really integral to my process. I play music so that I can spend time with my friends and communicate in that way. I experience so much joy in that process, because, you know, it's those times of getting together and playing music and all that comes with it that are the best for me.
But the idea of this record really came first. I did something kind of grown-up this time. I got on the phone with the president of my label and I said, "Obviously, I write songs in a lot of styles and play a lot of different kinds of music. We're getting toward the end of our business collaboration. If you could envision a record that you wanted to hear from me, what kind of record would it be?" It wasn't like asking him to fill an order, it was really just a conversation. For all the things I'd ever asked him, this was one thing I'd never asked, and I don't know why. So I was curious. And the thing that he was most interested in hearing was a solo record. Not necessarily me with an acoustic guitar—though that did come up—but a record that reminded him more of the fellow he met when I first came around.
So I asked the guys, "What do you think about this?" And they all were really behind it. Everybody in the band. I wouldn't have made it if the band didn't want to back it, because The Cardinals, that's my focus. Those guys, they were amazing about it. They wanted to know what that record would sound like too.
It's really very easy for me to be in The Cardinals, because I bring my voice, my guitar, and my songs to them, and then we all play around to find out what works. Sometimes a whole, elaborate guitar riff will happen, and we'll go off and see what's living there. Sometimes a musical passage will give way to some song, or Neal will tell a joke and I'll like the punchline, and that'll sound like a good chorus. So that's a Cardinals record. But this kind of record, I didn't know how to find. It was very strange. And it ended up being even more collaborative than just being with the band.
AVC: You said earlier that you write and record songs to understand other styles, and because you hear a new sound in your head. How does that work exactly?
RA: Well, sometimes when I'm playing music, it's because there's a song that I'm imagining. From playing music so much, and playing guitar as much as I have, or piano, it's very easy for me to, in a daydream-type state, just sitting around, I can picture, or I can sort of [Sighs.] This is going to sound crazy, but I can hear music in my head. I can imagine a piano or a guitar playing, and I can sort of think out I don't know, the way you can close your eyes and envision parts of movies, maybe? That's normal, right? You can imagine several scenes from Star Wars? The way they looked? For me, that's how music is. Sometimes I'll be developing riffs for songs, just while I'm sitting around and not playing. Or I'll be humming something—not really humming, but in my mind I'll be humming—and I'll realize that it isn't anything I've heard. It isn't something from a record. And I'll really like it, and I'll not want it to go away, so I'll sit down and physically find a guitar or piano and play it once. That's the way to ground it, to bring it into the world so that it doesn't go away. There'll be a melody in there, but I won't necessarily know all the words. Sometimes the words happen too. But sometimes it'll just be the melody with a few words sticking out.
It sounds like I'm channeling or something, and I don't really fully understand what it is. I'll get a piece of paper and write down what I think is coming to me. And I'll play it once. Whether it's being recorded or not, I can then usually remember it for a sometimes shocking amount of time. Sometimes an idea from six years ago will come to me out of the blue. And maybe I haven't even seen the lyrics I wrote down, but I'll just have this physical memory of having written it, and in my mind I can see the piece of paper, and the words I wrote down, and then by muscle memory, I'll remember the chords that go along with it.
I can sort of will that stuff to happen to me if I put myself in the right headspace. Then I can actually get to a space where it won't just be one song that comes through, but a series of them. If the other guys are around, they're used to it enough where sometimes three to seven songs will happen over a five- or six-hour period. They'll either be in a rough state, or sometimes they'll get fully developed in that moment.
AVC: As a case in point, what about "Two Hearts" from Easy Tiger? That song feels really full, with a memorable melody and lots of changes, and you even throw in a little falsetto at the end. How much do you tinker with a song like that? Or does it sort of come in a piece, up to and including the falsetto?
RA: That one actually is a weird, weird tune. Because it was one that kind of happened to me, and it's had a really strange sort of life. It came around, and I was super-happy with it and proud of it, but then I let it go for a while because it felt too obvious. And then it came around again a couple months later, and I used to play it for people, but I wouldn't play it live. I played it for the band, and they all liked it. It was one of those tunes where if I was just dicking around with the guitar, it just kind of came up again and again. The band got really familiar with it from hearing me dicking around, so it all fell into place.
But because it came so easy, it felt really impossible to try to capture it on tape. It just never felt right, because it wasn't off-the-cuff enough. And the version that Jamie and I ended up using is one that I don't even recall us doing. I think he asked for it in the middle of a track with five or six other songs, so it would happen in a one-take type of situation, where I wasn't thinking about the vocals. So we got one that was really unminded. But I still don't know about that song. What is that song? I get suspicious of the ones that are easy. I always think that I didn't work hard enough, and it can't be good if I didn't labor over it.
AVC: Some people think everything you do comes easy, since you record and release so many albums in such a short amount of time. You've frequently been called undisciplined.
RA: Yeah, I think that the actual discipline is being able to get myself into this kind of open creative space, where I can allow things to come through, and that I don't then mismanage it. I don't want to stay on one thing to the point where I exhaust its possibilities, so that it sounds emotionally exhausted, or like there isn't any excitement in the playing. Because I think that music, or at least the kind of music that I make, benefits greatly from improvisation. I like the idea that within the structure of the song, some kind of built-in improvisation keeps them fragile and in their moment, so that I'm not projecting so much, so that my perception of the song doesn't interfere with what its real body is. Sometimes it's like telling a story that I heard in passing, and I don't want it to become completely mine.
Maybe a good example would be like a Woody Allen movie. He can be telling a story in first person, but it's sort of implied that it's not about Woody Allen in his actual life, like he actually lived the story of Manhattan or Broadway Danny Rose. So I always have to remember that I am the narrator, but it doesn't have to be about me. A lot of songwriting is about trying to use what part of me is valid in telling the story. I don't want to overcook it, you know? Sometimes it seems that's really where the work is.
And of course, the other part of the work is being open enough, and being with musicians who are equally open enough to know that whatever little parts of songs are coming through can be put together in a real peaceful way, so as not to upset the flow and create a Frankenstein. Because a lot of my songs, they're like puzzle pieces, and there's just one way to put them together. You could, if you needed to, get the scissors out and cut up things to make them work. But I don't want to do that.
AVC: Do you keep track of your unreleased work as much as your fans do? There are websites that list your discography as including, like, Forever Valentine and Exile On Franklin Street alongside your "official" albums. Do you think of the bootlegs that way?
RA: Some of those were just things that happened at the time. For me, a record is valid when I actually hold the vinyl. Like, I've worked on the art for a while and I see the vinyl and I go "Ooh, it's an actual LP. How cool is that?" That's very sacred to me. You can't take that back, you know? But some of the things that didn't come out, I do really love. Especially the solo stuff, which is getting compiled, actually, this very moment. I'm sitting in the Atlanta studio where Jamie's compiling a box set of all the records that were between the Lost Highway records. Some of those things have been traded online in their very rough state. A lot of times when we're playing live, people will call out songs that were never on a record that you could buy in a store. They're just things that people know about because maybe a record was getting made, but then another one happened instead. But they never heard the finished version. So I think that playing catch-up is pretty interesting. But there's no way, I don't think, that all my stuff could've been records. Some, maybe. The ones that I really wanted to be records, those are the ones that are going into the box.
AVC: Were you aware that "When The Stars Go Blue" was sung on American Idol this season? And that they didn't mention your name?
RA: Yeah, that was a night where after 8 p.m. I noticed I had a lot of text messages, when most often at that time of the evening I don't really hear from anyone, because I go to bed early. Yeah, that's kind of amazing. I mean, the whole American Idol phenomenon is kind of amazing, but that someone would pick a tune I wrote? That's pretty huge. But that song has had a very strange life. It's been covered more than once. It's been covered by a couple of singer-songwriters, and by The Corrs. I guess the most recognizable version would be Tim McGraw's, so it would be very normal for them to think it was his song.
AVC: Paul Burch once said that his songs are like his children, and they just go out in the world and do their own thing, and occasionally send a postcard back when they show up in a movie or something.
RA: It's definitely true for that song, because I'm always so shocked by what it's up to. Another year will pass, and I'll hear like, "Oh, so-and-so is doing 'When The Stars Go Blue.'" It's like the song that wouldn't go away.
AVC: We recently asked Jack White if he thought of himself as competitive with the other musicians of his—and your—generation. Not in the negative way, like you both think you're better than your peers, but more like you really want to be in the marketplace at the same time as bands like Spoon, Modest Mouse, The Arcade Fire. Do you feel that competitive fire at all?
RA: I don't really think so. All the bands that you just mentioned are really great bands. It's probably a bit different for me, because I'm a big music fan outside of the music I make. If anything, when I go see shows, it feels like that's the real music. Not to discount my music, but I'm always suspicious of the music that I make on some level, as to how valid it is. Or maybe not "valid," but how important.
I'll give you an example. Recently, I got to see Slayer at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. I went with my girlfriend, and although it's not so much her type of music, I think she humors my undying appreciation for speed metal. But we were there, and I was watching them play, and I was thinking "This is the real shit, right here." Very fucking amazing performance. The show itself, how it looked, just how much energy they had. It reminded me of their records. Their records are extreme, and thoughtful, and fuckin' well executed. And I was thinking about how much the music I make changes, just from the performance on record to the performance on stage. So it's hard to view myself sometimes as even in the same league as other musicians, mainly because there's so much music before me. I feel overinformed by different styles and different possibilities.
I mean, I'm sure once in a while, I'll be in a conversation with another musician, and we'll go, "Oh, that guy sucks," or we'll talk what's good, what's real. But it's all "real." Anyone that sits down and cares enough to try to write a record or a tune In my opinion, that's pretty noble. To conceive music, to execute it in front of others, to make it so others can do it it can be pretty humbling, and kind of scary. So yeah, I don't really feel in competition with anybody. Not because I feel elitist, but because I have enough self-competition. I'm always struggling. Or maybe it's because I'm enraptured with so many different kinds of music that at this point, after more than 15 years of playing, I know my way around music enough to investigate it by playing. An example would be like if I was listening to, I don't know, Led Zeppelin, and enjoying how they threw some crazy rock stuff into some almost-reggae-sounding riffs. Or maybe I'm listening to a classical composition or opera or something like that. In my own mind, I'm like, "I should try this." It's not going to sound profound, or it may be accidentally great, but I've got to try it, because there may be something new along the way. Maybe I'll accidentally discover some trick or something that will inform some great music. So that's the self-competition, I think.
The weirdest thing I've been fascinated with nowadays is the new contemporary country music, which to me sounds like very strange '70s pop, and sometimes like rock music. But some of the themes in there—maybe it's because I know how the songs were written, but it really does sound like it was written by two or three people, with the idea to appeal to the most general audience. Like the other day, I heard a song, and the lyrics were something like, "God I hope she's listening," and "I really miss her," and then it gets to the chorus, and it's like someone requesting the song, saying, "I hope she turns on the radio so she could hear the song I'm playing for her." During the song, I was thinking, "This is very high-concept."
And then it hits me, because I do craft songs, that this is designed. It's almost like the song was written to produce this desired effect. And it probably really works for somebody. It's maybe somebody's favorite tune, and it's really hard to come down on that, even if I feel a little embarrassed for it. Because some songs are written like a commercial, and that can be a little strange. That whole weird scene of writing in Nashville, it's not so much pop music, because a lot of it seems to be about how they can be mischievous while using very plain subjects. There's a lot of modern country stuff that I just view with a sense of complete awe.
I guess in Nashville, they have that thing where they have workshops or something, where two or three different songwriters get together and write a bunch of songs. I lived there for a little while, and it was suggested not that I should, but that I needed to go to those things. Like, "This is what we do here." I remember thinking, "I'm not going to that. I'm terrified. I don't know if I have the skills."
What—if you don't mind me asking—what was Jack's response to that question? I'm a huge fan of his.
AVC: He said "No." But he may not have understood the question—he was talking more about Top 40 pop music, and how he didn't understand how that music was made, and how he couldn't compete on that level.
RA: Right, right. He has a very specific thing going on in his songs. Kind of an unmistakable mythology or something. Blues mythology. Some kind of weird force, you know? Very strong writer, that guy.
But competition? I don't know. What I love most in life happens to be the very thing that I do day-to-day, as my work. What would be my hobby, you know, happens to be my actual job. So I'm very lucky. Even if I didn't want to do as much work as I do, I'd still feel compelled to, because I so longed to be a full-time artist, and since I've been given that opportunity, I'd never want to let down the gift. I feel compelled to work the regular hours that I'd be working as, like, a plumber, you know? Getting up and working on music whether I wanted to or not. It feels very peaceful, like a really good thing to do. It doesn't hurt anyone. I would hate to think that I ever squandered a moment because I felt satisfied, or because I felt like as a full-time musician, I was somehow entitled. For me, it's like, "Wow, now I have all this time to make art! I can't fuckin' wait."