Gigwise meets a loquacious Ryan Adams on a scorching hot afternoon in Soho. As we sit outside his hotel at the side of a characteristically bustling London street Adams and I discuss matters that range from Jasper Johns to Level 42, from Norah Jones (“She’s like a mainstay in my life... and really super easy to hang out with”) to satanic black metal. “I love and know this city very well”, Adams reflects , staring into the middle distance as people jostle for space on the pavement and transit vans gingerly squeeze past each other as they traverse the narrow street.
Adams appears significantly younger than his 36 years, perhaps the most immediately striking observation you make upon first meeting him; his hair is as tussled and unkempt in 2011 as it appeared on the cover to breakthrough record Gold ten years ago. Perhaps his youthful appearance is a reflection of the fact that his latest album Ashes and Fire was such a joy to create, “it was really cool. I had a good time and it was really pretty easy and I think that for the most part it was the easier records to make and I was really super fucking happy and everybody was jazzed, it was like twelve days and Glyn [Johns, producer] was on top of things. Every decision was a joy to make. There were not any days in the studio where we were like “ahh this sucks””.
Ashes and Fire finds Adams at the top of his game artistically as his once trademark brand of protracted melancholy has been replaced by a prevailing sense of contentment, which is no more evident than on the breathtaking track Come Home- “Nobody has to cry to make it seem real” he sings. The man lauded (by fans) and criticised (by journalist) in equal measure for his prolific output is seemingly reinvigorated by his brief hiatus. He explains: “I was getting sicker and sicker up towards 2009. And I was getting more and more disenfranchised with being in the Cardinals and those two things met at sometime in 2008 towards the end and I just decided I’d had enough of feeling sick and being on the road. And I was sick and being on the road with Meniere’s [the ear condition which has been afflicting Adams over the last few years] to find the joy in playing, and when I could find that joy anymore and was pretty sure it wasn’t going to come back I decided to cut both things out and call it a day and go back to making solo albums.”
Ryan Adams likes not only to talk, but talk passionately- our time together far exceeds my interview slot and Adams has a habit of chewing over his responses before responding in an abstract manner making him a joy to interview and his unique, unpredictable and enlightening insights consistently fascinating. “The reaction to records was slower [ten years ago] and felt more like a secret and it was kind of cool cos people would read about it in a magazine and the records was like a bank vault and people would go and get the record. And there was something to that... there was a specific quality to having a CD. Back then in 2000 CDs were hot shit, they were the MP3s of the time”, he explains describing how the process of creating and releasing records has changed since his debut Heartbreaker hit the shelves.
When asked more specifically about the metal music he’s been listening to recently Adams’ demeanour changes quite dramatically; his eyes light up, a grin appears on his face and he waxes lyrical on the virtues of satanic, black metal. “Oh man, I’ve been listening to Satyricon- they’re fucking great”, he enthuses “I’ve finally decided to do all the research behind Mayhem... that stuff is beautiful, I’ve been really interested in early Nifelheim and Naglfar... which is seriously satanic black metal, it’s seriously f*cking cool... I love the last Liturgy record it is beautiful... that’s more than black metal... it’s so beautiful.”
Such impassioned diversions prove that Ryan Adams is much more at ease, with both his music and his situation in 2011, than certain people in the media would have you believe was the case in the past. Throughout our time to together Adams is open, honest and reflective and exhibits none of the negative characteristics that so many journalists highlight and allow to overshadow his idiosyncratic musical output. Take for insistence his response when quizzed on his famously tempestuous relationship with the press “I think it’s a funny... it’s just funny”, he simply responds, a wry smile appearing on his face. “It doesn’t ever truly affect the record unless it’s been universally panned and I’ve not had that experience yet luckily... the records are for fans. But the really positive ones [reviews] are great; it feels great when somebody feels like they are getting it. Intelligent negativity is really hard to find, y’know... people don’t have the intelligence. I think there’s a trend in the world generally to be dismissive because they think it equals intelligence... I think stupidity is really quite funny, but I also think people could dislike my records completely and be entitled to their opinion 100%, that should be ok too.”
Having been releasing solo records for over ten years it would be easy for some artists to rest on their laurels, to reflect on their achievements and lack motivation going forward, however when asked to highlight what is in his opinion is most defining moment thus far Adams far more matter of fact and reticent. “I don’t know if I can say any singular moment felt more pronounced than another. I’m just happy to make records. There’s just too much conjecture in what I do. After all is said and done records are records... My mind is always on the fact that if you do what you do and fast forward 5 years no one gives a f*ck”.
Our conversation turns finally to what drives Ryan Adams in 2011, and what makes a man who has achieved and released so much remain motivated to keep doing so. After a brief pause to chew over his response Adams draws the conversation to a close with the sort of quotation that sums up his career to date and his gift to articulate the most complex of ideas in the most succinct of phrases; “I love the album as a piece of art. I love the process of writing music and the consideration of how those things go together. I have an album fetish, I am an album collector. I think it’s a very Romantic notion to be making things like albums in this day and age. When I use the term Romantic I think it is a joy of the human existence to subscribe to pleasure and to just subscribe to creating things that can feel mystical and that they’re full of some sort of energy that has the ability to transform you or the people that listen to them.”
Ashes and Fire is an album that people who like Adams have an “album fetish” should have in their collection, but as Adams ambiguously states with his closing remark “it ain’t about other people, it ain’t a ham and cheese sandwich”. Indeed, it’s great to have him back.