For an artist where the term “prolific” has been something of an understatement since first coming to our attention with Whiskeytown in 1995, the two and a half years since splitting from The Cardinals in 2009 have been unusually quiet for Ryan Adams.
Yes, there were the 2010 releases, Orion (as a solo release) and III/IV (with The Cardinals) but those had both been sitting, already recorded, on his shelf since 2006 (along with several other completed bodies of work, if rumour is to be believed). Generally, there’s been little seen or heard of the whirling dervish of alt-country aside from a few sporadic stage appearances and the publication of two books of poems and stories: Infinity Blues and Hello Sunshine (a third is currently waiting in the wings, but as Ryan explains “I got so held up with the record that I haven’t had time to finish the third book”).
However, his new record Ashes & Fire signifies a welcome return to the fray for one of the most intriguing and consistent solo artists of the past two decades. Having had a chance to listen to the record prior to speaking with Ryan over the phone a couple of weeks ago, Ashes & Fire presents itself as a startlingly mature album, imbued with spirituality, natural images and wisdom where previously there was often empty bottles, heartbreak and bruised beauty.
The reflective nature of the album struck me as being indicative of Ryan’s more settled lifestyle and state of mind (he married singer and actress Mandy Moore in 2009) and I was intrigued to know if this was a view he shared himself. However, whether it was a way of warding off close interpretation of the songs or a genuine proclamation of fact, Ryan seemed uncomfortable with the idea that his songs are a direct consequence of his thoughts and feelings, and was quick to dismiss such notions. “If that’s the perception you’d like to have then that’s ok” he replies tersely:
“Philosophically, I might interject that not always [sic] should the words or the feelings of an album directly relate to an artist’s state of mind. When I’ve recorded more dramatic pieces of work, it doesn’t mean that my life has been more dramatic. I mean, Star Wars is a beautiful film, but George Lucas wasn’t in space”.
I try a slightly different angle, mentioning that a large number of his previous songs have focused on moving around and travelling, focusing on the lyrics from ‘Evergreen’, one of the standout tracks from 2008’s final Cardinals album Cardinology as an example. I wonder whether some of the song’s lyrics (“Maybe you'll find someone to lay some roots down next to you / be more like the trees and less like clouds / stop moving around so much") have a particular relevance to his new life and the new record: has he found that particular place spiritually? Again, Ryan is quick to dismiss this thought as over-analytical and erroneous. “Songs are equal parts fiction and equal parts truth. And never have I ever said that my songs are autobiographical”, he explains carefully.
“I think because of the deeply personal nature of my songs, that people would assume that they’re meant to be taken verbatim. But sometimes they’re not; sometimes they’re several pieces of information pulled together. For example, the song ‘Evergreen’ was a beautiful thing to write for me. It was really cathartic. But at the same time, whereas that could have been very true of my life at that time, the concept of that song and the idea of the geography involvement and the local colour involved in the writing, it’s more for me and the listener later: I try to create physical and emotional places that I could get lost in, or another person could as well. I like songs that do that for me, that take me to another time or another place”.
As if to emphasise this point, and to further dismiss the idea that his thoughts and feelings are directly intertwined with his music, he pauses and he adds “I’m always in a good place when I’m working on music”.
Though the answer is a quotable one, I’m not entirely convinced. Ryan doesn’t seem comfortable talking about his personal life as an influence upon his music and hat's to be respected. So I move on to ask a little about the previous two years and his self-imposed hiatus from music. For those unaware, five years ago Ryan was diagnosed with Ménière's Disease, an extremely painful and debilitating inner ear disorder. It’s a disabling condition for any sufferer but for professional musicians, it can be an utter catastrophe and has been known to cause people to quit music altogether.
Ryan was first diagnosed during the latter stages of the tour in support of Cardinology. And he’s keen to stress that this and this only was the reason behind his time away from the music scene. “I was in a great amount of pain. I wasn’t trying to do anything – I was just trying to heal” he explains. There’s a tension and clear upset in his voice and I try to break the atmosphere by asking light-heartedly how much temptation there was to pick up a guitar or write a song during his self-imposed exile. His answer speaks volumes as to how difficult the time must have been. “No, I was in pain. I was just thinking about being well” he answers flatly. “When you’re in pain, you don’t think about anything else. I didn’t have the luxury of being focused on anything”.
He brightens up significantly when I mention his short tour of the Europe this summer gone, including five rapturously received UK shows. “This last tour was the best tour I ever did. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. I think people liked the music the most I’ve ever seen them like it”, he happily explains, clearly delighted to have the opportunity to focus on his music again. “I can play quite well on acoustic guitar now: I can play the songs like they were originally written. I also think people like to just hear my voice, the way the songs are meant to be. It seemed like a lot of people were really happy. All those shows were so much fun”. He answers with such a genuine brightness in his voice that I wonder whether he previously saw touring as part of The Cardinals as something of a necessary evil.
There’s a long pause before he answers. “I think somewhat, yeah”. I wait, and he continues: “I didn’t know exactly everything about why it I wasn’t enjoying myself but most of it had to do with my Ménière's Disease”. I sense there is more to come and so I wait further, then suddenly Ryan becomes curter in tone. “And the other part I think was that I didn’t like being in that band anymore. I didn’t want to play my songs loud like that; I wanted to play them mellow. Even if I’m going to play electric instruments, I I’d like to play them at a volume where you can still hear yourself with your amp on. It was impossible - the band was just too loud. People get settled in after a long amount of time and they come up with their own way of doing things. And I think those guys got it in their heads that they were one way and I was another”. By now, there is anger rising in his voice: “So I thought “you know what? I’m sick as a dog, I’m sick of arguing about how I want to play my own fucking music”. Y’know, I have to sing the fucking show, that’s my call. So I was just like “I’m done, I’m going to go and get well”. And I didn’t have to be on the road with them. I was doing it because supposedly it was fun. But it wasn’t fun any more, it seemed ridiculous”
This concept of putting himself first seems to be crucial in understanding Ryan’s new state of mind. I don’t ask about drugs or alcohol because they’re old subjects: lurid and unnecessary (Ryan is clean and sober and has been since 2007). It’s clear that now he values looking after himself and putting his own health before anything else. “It’s a little bit better. I’ve been working really hard to fix things”, he explains. “I sought acupuncture and acupressure. I changed my diet, I don’t smoke any longer. I exercise. I eat a very low sodium diet. I live relatively stress free, I don’t drink coffee. There’s a lot of stuff you have to do in order to be preventative”. Equally, his approach to making the new record was about taking a more relaxed and gradual approach to proceedings. “I kinda stopped writing thematically, I’ve just kinda been writing. I was writing tunes and they would come to me: I’d be happy and just try them out. By the time Glyn (famed producer Glyn Johns who oversaw and produced the new record) got involved I wasn’t sure what was good and what wasn’t. So we worked on the tunes; I sat across the table from him, play them and then we’d just sit and talk. We figured out what the record was quite early on. It was a simple process”.
The interview is then punctuated by three examples of Ryan’s new-found domesticity. Firstly, he leaves to answer the door to the mailman. Upon returning, he’s accosted by his pet cat (“Sorry, my cat’s talking to me!” he says sheepishly. “Sometimes around the afternoon he just likes to talk to me!”). Ryan then proceeds to make cat noises to soothe the feline down the phone: I make a promise to mention this in the interview. He then asks for the date to check some milk before returning to talk about the themes of the record. “If there’s a theme to the record or a bind, that wasn’t contrived. That was something that probably happened because the songs were written all at the same time – in the space of about 6 months before the record”.
One notable aspect of the new record is that it is the first of his albums to be released on PAX AM, his own label (though Capitol and Columbia records are assisting with US and Worldwide distribution respectively). For a man who has a career strewn with record label fall-outs, I’m intrigued to know how different an experience it was to be calling the shots this time but Ryan, very professionally, plays a straight and dignified bat. “I had been calling my own shots anyway towards of the end of my deal with Universal. I would do the records on their own and then they would find what they were afterwards because I had released them!” he laughs. “But I had no relationship with them! There was no reason for me to ask for an advance. So it’s a different situation with Capitol and Columbia – they’ve both put their money where their mouth is. They are really fantastic and the PR and advertising so far has been amazing. So I’m really happy about that. I don’t know how to do stuff like that. I just know how to make records”.
With regard to his famous profligacy with releases, bands and side projects, Ryan is keen to stress that whereas his approach may have changed somewhat, his love and devotion to music remains firmly rooted when I ask him about whether he finds it a challenge to juggle between being focused and prolific. “I don’t know, I always felt focused with what I was doing with music. That hasn’t really changed. I think the urgency has changed” he remarks. After a moment of thought, he continues: “I’m going to take my time now. I have to, I physically have to. It doesn’t mean I won’t be prolific. I just like making music: It’s my job, it’s also my life. It’s what I do for fun as well; it’s a lot of things in one. I’ve never needed a break from it, y’know? I just had to take a break”. But there’s one thing with regard to his previous projects that he is crystal clear on: his time with The Cardinals is at an end. I initially ask to qualify his remarks earlier about his live experiences during the last tour but Ryan’s answer is brief and firmly to the point: “No, I will never work with them ever again. If anything ever happened with The Cardinals, it would have to be with the original line up: Catherine Popper; J.P. Bowersock… But I don’t feel that in order play with those people again I have to start The Cardinals again. You know, I played with Cindy Cashdollar just three days ago. So I can just play with whoever, whenever I want, I don’t have to be in a band again. And I almost certainly will not do it again”.
Before leaving Ryan to the attention of his cat and his afternoon across the Atlantic, I ask him about any future plans he might have. I’m expecting to hear about a slew of tours, recording opportunities and forthcoming collaborations. His answer however, is possibly the most telling reply of the whole interview. “I’m just being pretty laid back; I haven’t made any massive plans” he explains in a carefree tone, before continuing: “Just staying mellow, trucking through it, y’know? Taking shows as they come - it’ll be fun. Eventually probably make another record at some point”. It comes across as the answer of someone who, despite wanting to distance himself from lyrics past or present, has found a mental and physical balance that suits him perfectly. The frantic pace of the past 10-15 years may be at an end but it’s clear that Ryan’s love for music continues to burn brightly despite everything that has happened up until now. “That’s another thing about growing up, you learn not to worry about things that are out of your control. You learn to just do your best”, he explains carefully. With a quick laugh, he concludes by saying “I’m so happy to play for people and I think that probably shows now. I’m so happy to be there, to play the tunes. It’s exciting for me that people are going to be happy”.
Ashes & Fire is released on 10 October.