The gentle beauty of Ryan Adams’ new Ashes & Fire belies the personal struggles the singer-songwriter has endured in recent years. After announcing his split from long-time backing band The Cardinals and a prolonged hiatus from music in 2009, Adams spent several months seeking treatment for Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear condition that affected his hearing and overall health during his hard-touring days in the late ’00s. While Adams earned a reputation (and strangely, derision) for being one of the most prolific songwriters of his generation, he stopped making music at this time, focusing instead on getting healthy and spending time with his wife, singer and actress Mandy Moore.
Eventually, Adams’ muse brought him back to writing new songs, and over time, Ashes & Fire began to take shape. A deliberate callback to his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, Ashes is a mellow collection of folkie songs with understated country arrangements that reflect the worldview of an older, more centered man. Not that Adams has left his past difficulties with the press behind, as evidenced by a recent L.A. Weekly interview where Adams combatively fought off questions about his personal life. When Adams spoke with The A.V. Club, he was feisty at times, but also funny and reflective about his career and how he’s perceived, how Ashes & Fire conforms to his fans’ expectations, and why Ratt is such a big (and unlikely) inspiration for him.
The A.V. Club: It’s been a while since you’ve had to do phone interviews and play shows and do all that music-career stuff. How does it feel to get back into the swing of things?
Ryan Adams: Uh, it’s okay. People have been nicer. It’s good. I don’t know. I’m sure it’ll pass. Some nights are pretty tough.
AVC: Do you mean journalists have been nicer?
RA: Just in general, it’s been a more pleasant experience. I’ve been having better… it’s just an easier time, I don’t know why.
AVC: For most artists, taking a three-year break is pretty normal. Do you feel like it’s been a long time since you’ve been out there?
RA: No, not really. I definitely think it was a little bit more time than … I thought it was going to be longer, and what’s really great is that I did a bunch of work on myself, trying to get a handle on all this shit that’s happening with my ears. It didn’t have to be as long as I thought it would have initially been, and hasn’t been as unpleasant and stuff. I don’t know. It’s been a minute, but it hasn’t, you know?
AVC: Where are you right now with the inner-ear disease? Are you feeling better, or is that something you still struggle with a lot?
RA: I’m not struggling with it the way I was before, but it’s always going to be there. It doesn’t go away.
AVC: When you were away, did you continue to write songs?
RA: I didn’t do anything. I literally spent a year seeing four different specialists, and I guess the first four months, I was just exhausted and in a lot of pain, and really tired. It was just a lot, you know? Then I got a lead on a couple of different alternative-therapy-type doctors and I tried them, and then they were working. And then from there, I started working on what else would be good; ways of dealing with tinnitus, because you can’t really get rid of tinnitus. I thought, “Maybe there are ways to get around it, to not focus on the loudness and the tone.” It worked; it really did. All the stuff I was trying, it really helped, so I just kind of kept goin’. I was like, “Well, I’m gonna keep this shit goin’.” It was a great thing to do, and I learned a lot, and I got better, and I felt hopeful.
AVC: What did you learn during that time?
RA: Well, I learned more about myself, because my tolerance for pain had been really, really high. From 2007 to 2009, that lost time, basically from when Easy Tiger came out to when we did Cardinology, was a constant time of touring and a constant time of being ill at ease, and dealing with symptoms. There was confusion, because I knew I had this thing, or that this thing was going on, but I didn’t fully understand in what way it worked. And it made me feel really tired and sick. It was a lot of confusion. I battled it by working harder. I was like, “Fuck this, I’ll just keep doing music.” I figured that I didn’t need to be intimidated by the limitation that I knew would eventually come, but at some point, it just… I think because I was struggling against it, and because my life was not in order—my life was in order [in the sense that] I was singing, playing, and touring, being successful on some level. But the kind of success that I have, I don’t mean I was touring, like I was playing Knebworth and flying to shows in helicopters; not like that. I was living my life and being happy, and doing what I did, but at the same time, it was looming.
As I became more and more disenfranchised with how things were going forward, playing out the last days of being involved with Lost Highway [Records], and playing in The Cardinals—which I believe, more and more, was an unsatisfactory experience for both them and myself in different ways, if for no other reason than, creatively, the shows just became sort of same-y, and it was really fucking loud. I was tired of really fucking loud versions of my really quiet songs. I just was like, “You know, I need to go fix myself.” It made sense to make a break for it, and to go figure out in what ways was I actually fragile. I discovered more about what I was really going through.
AVC: Now that you’ve had the opportunity to, as you say, work on your life and live those other parts of your life outside of music, have your feelings about music changed at all? Is music is as important to you now as it used to be?
RA: What do you mean?
AVC: As people get older and they get married, their lives change. They still love music, but it might not have the central place in their lives that it had when they were younger. Has that happened to you at all, as you’ve gotten older?
RA: Huh. I find it interesting… I’ve heard it put to me in a couple of different ways by a couple of different journalists, and I’ll answer this very carefully as to not require a pull quote that’s not a reflection of my private life. Music is my thing. It’s my thing; it’s what I love. It’s what I do. It’s football to me; it’s Christmas to me; religion to me; poetry to me. It’s all those things, and I believe that it’s possible for people to compartmentalize their lives so they can be who they are and still function in the real world around others. But it’s always been this very big thing to me, and I can’t imagine it not being that. I don’t have a life that requires me to choose. I can be myself and love music the way I love it, and it’s not compromised. How do I say this? It would be weird for me to think about a relationship, or relationships that people have, where who they were, or their passions, would be compromised. That somebody would ask for that, that seems kind of weird. Do you mean to say I’m getting older and give less of a fuck?
AVC: I don’t mean it that way.
RA: I don’t think you’re asking it in a negative way.
AVC: We’re about the same age. I’ve always loved music, and I still love music, but it means something different to me now at 34 then when I was 24, or when I was 14. I’m wondering whether your feelings about music have changed, or the way you express yourself through music has changed as you’ve progressed, as an artist and as a person.
RA: Hmm. [Pause.] I don’t know, because it’s this one long, never-ending story of me being a record collector, being a metal enthusiast. My weird side effect of that is that I play acoustic guitar and write these songs. It’s as weird to me now that I do what I do as it ever has been. It’s sort of like, “Wow, I’m still writing these kinds of songs. This is wild.” And then, I’m still listening to fucking Satyricon, you know what I mean? I get a fuckin’ boner listening to Dark Medieval Times. I get a musical boner that’s in the shape of an inverted cross. [Laughs.] I’m fucking down for it. But then I go to my songs, and I write these fuckin’ acoustic songs about this stuff. In my weird mind, it’s sort of like, “Maybe this stuff belongs… It’s the kind of music they would play in the woods outside of Mordor.” [Laughs.] That’s what it is to me. It really isn’t anything more than that. At times, I’ve over-described it, and I bought into the fucking interviews when I was younger. Like, “Yeah, this shit is totally meaningful.” [Laughs.]
It has always been joyous for me. If I ever exaggerated anything, I exaggerated the seriousness of it. But it can never be taken away from you, either. So when I wasn’t [making music], then came back to doing it, I didn’t feel like I had been punished, and then I had been on the other side of punishment. I just felt like, “Oh good, I can jam more.” And that felt really good.
AVC: When you started writing songs again, was it like flipping on a switch, or did you have to warm up to the process?
RA: Sort of. I just played guitar for a while, when my ears were getting better. I just didn’t play these weird, winding riffs. But I jammed with myself. I’d just kind of sit there and play these bizarre, folky-sounding things. And it was cool; it felt good. And then, eventually, what usually happened was, I left myself these notes, these little stinted blobs, like, “Hey, here’s this line.” I guess I was leaving myself a little breadcrumb trail of things I had been thinking about, or stuff that looked to me like it would be a song. And I sat down, and the first thing that happened was, I wrote “Dirty Rain.” And I was like, “Okay, this is cool.” Kinda just got a vibe. And I worked on it, and then the rest kind of happened on its own.
AVC: “Dirty Rain” is the first song on the album, and it has the feel of starting over.
RA: Totally. That’s what that line is: “The last time I was here, it was raining / It ain’t raining anymore.” I really liked that vibe of, “Last time I was here, this shit was suckin’ hard.” [Laughs.] That was the original lyric: “Last time I was here, this shit was suckin’ hard / It isn’t suckin’ hard anymore / I got rid of my David Coverdale-fuckin’-second-Whitesnake-album haircut / and all my backstage passes to the Ratt Infestation tour lyin’ on the floor.”
AVC: That’s catchy.
RA: Exactly. And then there was a whole fuckin’ line about Stephen Pearcy from Ratt.
AVC: Ashes & Fire has a real mood that runs through the record, more so than a lot of your other records. Was that something you consciously set out to do, to make it sound more unified?
RA: Well, it was the same musicians, and it was a 10-day session. And since Glyn [Johns] produced it, everybody was really good at keeping it raw. So I think everything stayed consolidated for many reasons, but I feel like that was a good thing. Nobody overthought this album at all. The tunes were there; the people who were on it were ready to jam, and happy to jam. But there was a time before I recorded, all jokes aside, that I was listening to Ratt’s [2010 album] Infestation, and I was like, “This is a record that could’ve been supported on the Invasion Of Your Privacy tour.” It’s total Ratt. They made a new record, and they fuckin’ killed it. They made a record as good as any record they’d ever made. And I’m blastin’ that shit in my fucking car, thinking, “Man, I wanna fuckin’ do that. Why shouldn’t I be able to, if they can figure out who the fuck they are and kill it?” It literally could’ve been, like, Out Of The Cellar, Invasion Of Your Privacy, Infestation, then Dancing Undercover. It was so early Ratt. And it didn’t sound like bullshit, either. “Best Of Me” is a fuckin’ crazy good song. Crazy good. The rest of that record is super-duper-sleazeball-fuckin’-blues-sex-explosion rock. I started thinking about it, the whole idea of being myself and doing what it is that I do. Maybe I’ve not been putting enough emphasis on that.
AVC: You mean, as far as making a record that people would think is a “Ryan Adams record”?
RA: Yeah, basically. Those songs like “Magick” or “Halloweenhead,” or songs on III/IV, they’re cool, Tom Petty-influenced rock. Like the BoDeans—not even BoDeans, but kinda BoDeans—sort of lost, vibe-y, American guitar rock. I put that stuff in my music once in a while, and it’s like the fucking sky is falling. People are like, “What the fuck is this?” There’s obviously a silent majority who love those records, but there’s this vocal minority, because of the fucking Internet, of these fucking nerd rangers who go online and go, [nerdy voice] “This music is stupid; he doesn’t care. He writes songs like ‘Halloweenhead,’ blah blah blah.” On some level, I’m like, “Well, then fucking why even do that? I’ll play some seriously badass Tooth And Nail-era, Dokken-style, Satanic guitar shit for fun. I don’t gotta put that shit on my records.” So, in some ways, it was like, “I’ll just let these bigger-style tunes make their way to the front.”
AVC: But why pay attention to people on the Internet? You’ve reached a point in your career when you can pretty much do whatever you want, can’t you?
RA: Yeah, I am doing what I want, but one of the interesting things about the Internet when you’re a musician is the sociology of the fans, the psychology of being a fan, and observing this negative and positively weird behavior. It’s kind of hard to explain this, but there’s this weird illness with people where it’s almost like they view their [favorite] artist as a football team or something, and all other artists are another team. [Laughs.] Or even sometimes, your records become sports teams. You put out a new record, and it’s like, “Tonight at Dodger Stadium, it’s the Easy Tigers vs. the Heartbreakers.” It’s super-competitive, and it’s a highly judgmental place for a place that should be free of judgment. My feeling about music is that it’s a place to go to get away from fucking negative creeps. And now, what’s really weird is that music is full of negative fucking creeps.
You remember: When we were growing up, if you bought Metal Hammer, or if you were reading Hit Parader, or Kerrang!, or something, it didn’t seem to me like there were a lot of articles saying, “Fuck Mötley Crüe, man. They suck.” Or, “Theatre Of Pain is a shitty record, and nothing is ever gonna be as good as Too Fast For Love.” It was like, “Okay, Theatre Of Pain,” and maybe there would be people that didn’t totally understand the record, or that snideness was there, but it didn’t seem to be, when I was growing up, that snarkiness equaled intelligence. There’s this weird trend in the music community where people have read snarky, highly intelligent reviewers to the point where they have taken the wrong idea. Instead of saying that intelligence equals wit, and being witty about things being fucking awesome or being shit, it’s only manifested itself in saying, “Oh, well, witty people are smart, and when I read witty people, they’re always saying negative things,” so there’s this negative trend. The trend is to find something wrong with everything.
AVC: On the Internet, there’s this really fine line between love and hate, and sometimes people say the meanest things about things that they love, or at least loved at one time. There’s an element of your fan base that loved Heartbreaker so much that everything you do afterward, they’ll compare to that record. Is that a frustrating thing, to have your past work brought up in that way?
RA: Again, no, because I was there for each album. What happens is, I make records, and people assassinate the record, usually, that I’m making. Or another funny thing is, I made Love Is Hell, and people panned it really unnecessarily; there was harshness around it. Then, only a little bit of time passed, and people would fucking bring that record up as something I wasn’t doing, which is why my current records were shit. Then I did Cold Roses, and people said it was too long, and that it should’ve been condensed into one CD. But several people said it, and then each person’s idea of what songs should be taken off of it were on the other person’s CD. [Laughs.] And then that record “sucked,” and then I made more records, and they were like, “It’s not as good as Cold Roses.” It’s always something. It’s a negative trend; it’s a trend of saying, “Of course the thing he’s tapping out can’t be as good as the last thing.” What’s really happening is this: I’m making records, and people are fucking trying to have an instant emotional connection with something that’s bigger than them, bigger than their immediate response. Their seduction is to the Internet and to information, and it doesn’t have anything to do with albums that take six months to a year of consideration, and sometimes months to record, and then months to release.
The preparation of what I’m doing takes a shitload longer than a person to just listen to it through once, and then start jive-turkeying on the Internet. Because the Internet is an immediate thing, but you can’t fucking write an album on the Internet. So, to me, it’s a virtual meal, and you can’t virtually taste shit. It’s a false experience, when I see the reviews of something that I’ve done, to [only have had] the record for a day. So my records go into my back catalog—my back catalog sells more than anything—and then people can just go to the back catalog. It’s always there; it’s like canned goods. When they’re hungry, they can go and get it, and there it is. It’s there for them.
AVC: Do you think you’ll be putting out as many records this decade as you did in the last decade?
RA: [Long pause.] Yeah, probably. I don’t see why not. I mean, if I’m inspired to. If the songs are there; if the songs come. But I’m not gonna not do it because somebody on fucking blowhard.net thinks it’s a bad idea.
AVC: I think when you put out a lot of records, you earn the right to make a record that people might not get right away. That’s what Neil Young does: He puts out a record every year. You won’t always get a Neil Young record right away, but then maybe a couple years later, you’ll hear it again, and then it will hit you.
RA: It’s living information. Albums deserve to exist, and they deserve people to do to them as they like. It’s not fucking toxic, poisonous shit, you know? When I see people losing their minds over records and being hateful, I’m like, “Fuck, the shit you ate for breakfast is probably worse for you than my fucking album I put out.” [Laughs.] But by the same token, I gotta say, I make records ’cause I love to write songs, ’cause I love music, and it feels good. When I finish a tune, it’s enough, as it is. It is meant to be what it is, and I don’t think about my tunes in terms of… I’m really, really happy to have all these fucking people who have been so fucking moved by what I do. I meet people and they’re so freaked out that they have the record, and I get a chance to talk to them, or I get these letters or these people reaching out, and that’s so fucking cool. Because I have literally never finished a song and went, “You know what? People are gonna look at this song and think that maybe the bridge isn’t as big as it could be.” Or, “People are gonna look at this record and say, ‘Oh, I like this record, but maybe the middle kinda drops in tempo. Maybe that song shouldn’t be there, because it needs more consistency.’” Fuck that. [Laughs.] Fuck that and fuck everybody that thinks like that.
Seriously, what kinda fucking pussy-ass musician second-guesses their fucking creation because of the possibility that there’s somebody who has a contemporary idea of songwriting, who’s gonna have a fucking criticism that’s based on this conformist songwriter shit? I’ve seen it so much, and it’s so weird. I just think, “My God, there are Hüsker Dü records like Flip Your Wig with songs that don’t fucking have choruses, and they can destroy your mind.” “Divide And Conquer” barely has structure, and that song will fucking destroy your brain, man. I kinda need records like that in my life, and maybe it’s because I have a voice that isn’t totally always aggro or fucked-up. Just ’cause I’m not making records that sound like punk records doesn’t mean that I don’t come to that from shit that I learned growing up with American hardcore and American punk ideals. I’m just doing what I do. If you don’t like it, fuck you.
It can still be pretty and I can still say, “You have a million choices in the world. Don’t subscribe to my songs. Exercise your freedom to listen to something else.” But I haven’t had that ride yet. It’s not the path that I’ve been on. All the reviews start talking about me, a personality criticism—usually about the fact that I make too many records—and then if I’m lucky, the review will get into the actual songs themselves, or the production style, or the lyrical content. Less and less have I seen reviews where people actually talk about how the records make them feel. And I don’t just mean my records, I mean metal reviews, and reviews in Rolling Stone. Very rarely do I see a writer saying, “This made me feel like this,” or, “I felt this way.” It’s usually in this kind of gray area of facts. And there’s usually subtext, which is, “You should be cool and not like this,” or, “If you’re cool, you’ll like this.”
AVC: Speaking of putting out more records, you’ve talked about finally completing Blackhole, which dates back to the mid-’00s. What’s its status?
RA: The art is done. The album is mastered. It’s so ready to go. But the thing is, I just did this Ashes & Fire record, and there’s also a live box-set thing. It sounds so brutal and old-school and great. People were good enough to not bootleg the shows. We asked them not to. I’ve always let my fans tape all the shows. I was like, “Just let me do it right.” So we did this really cool set list, and did that, so that’s sort of waiting. And Blackhole is badass, man. I fucking love it. It’s like Love Is Hell, but more up. It has that same feeling and texture, the way Love Is Hell sounds. It’s definitely [Love Is Hell producer] John Porter 101, although the record was not recorded with John Porter, it was tracked with [producer] Tom Schick, and then finished with [producer and Cardinals member] Jamie Candiloro, and also this guy that works with The Strokes sometimes, Gus [Oberg]. It’s sort of like everybody that I’ve ever worked with has a little bit of engineering on it.
We mixed it for four months just to get it exactly right, like adding guitars, subtracting guitars. I even went to New York with [bandmate] Johnny T, who I originally recorded it with, and we opened up all the sessions. We put all the reels back on; we found pieces of songs that were only kind of done that were so good, we were fucking finishing things, but really respectfully. By the time it was done, we got it down to 11 songs, leaving a bunch of shit off. But I was like, “I want it to be exactly what it should be.” A few of my friends have it, and it reduced a few of them to tears. It is so much of [that] time. And it’s cool, too, ’cause it’s sort of like the last party. [Laughs.] So it has beauty, but it has a darkness. But what’s really cool about it is, it has the darkness and it has the wisdom, but to me, it has the feeling of the one fucking thing all of my records were missing, the one part of the story, which is a record that’s sort of just reveling in youth, and reveling in life, as it is. It’s not a “Go to the beach” record, but it’s like, “Let’s go out at night and let’s fuckin’ be werewolves of chaos in New York.” It had that fuckin’ reckless-abandon feeling, and I love it for that.
I love that there’s this great picture of that time. It feels really good, and it’s super, super-connected to all the post-punk records I loved growing up. It’s probably the best electric guitar-playing I’ve ever done, the best bass-playing I’ve ever done, and the most consistently psychedelic rock record that it could be. But it’s not hippie stuff at all. It’s a record that you could listen to if you were listening to The Lemonheads or listening to My Bloody Valentine, or Hüsker Dü. It really is an alternative record.