Later this month, when Ryan Adams takes the stage at Benaroya Hall for City Arts Fest, he will be doing so as a solitary artist coming off a two-year respite from performing that ended earlier this summer when he took a brief tour of the British Isles. We spoke with Ryan Adams over the phone from his California home about the art he has created in that time, including two books of poetry and Ashes & Fire, his thirteenth album in the last eleven years.
How did your U.K. tour go?
That was the most fun I’ve had ever. It was really great. I couldn’t have imagined it being any better than it was. It was just a super super cool time.
So what’s different now?
I don’t know. Do you mean scientifically?
Well, why do you think it feels so much better than it has in the past?
I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. I mean we played a bunch of shows in three weeks and I just felt really connected and it seemed to me that the people that I was playing for also felt really connected and it was nice that there wasn’t anything getting in the way of the music.
So, it’s just you and a piano, right? Will you be playing the baby grand at Benaroya?
I don’t play a baby grand. I don’t like the tone for songs. I like consoles and stand ups. I just like the smaller tones. I think they’re easier. Plus, I’m a marginal piano player. If someone said, “play an A,” I don’t know what it is; I only know the songs I’ve written on the piano. I can’t really jam on them. I’ve made the mistake of sitting at a nice piano before. Generally, what happens [with my current show] is there’s a chair and two microphones and about five feet to the right is a little console piano and a microphone on that and I just come out and say, “hello,” and I just play the songs. I bring a guitar and I just sit there and basically dig in.
Do you go out with a set list or do you go off the cuff?
Yeah, I have a set list. Although it is not a set list that repeats from city to city. Each city is a different set list written typically that afternoon. When I was in Europe I would be listening to something that day, not of my own music but maybe like listening to Bert Jansch or something, and be like, “Oh God, like, I just listened to ‘Black Waterside,’ maybe I should play…” and then enter a song that maybe would have been influenced by that of my own music. “I’ll play ‘Let it Ride Tonight.’”
The idea is to play the songs how they were written. All of these songs were written to be unaccompanied at some point. All the songs that have remained with me are the ones that, before there was talk of ever doing a record, they worked on their own. They had something to them by themselves.
You’re also going to be playing songs from the new album, right?
Do you have any expectations about how the new album is going to be received at all?
No not really. It’s just not part of what I think about when I’m doing stuff anymore. I think I had the most up and down reception that you could have, you know. At least in the last 10 years I’ve had like really good times and really bad times and it’s been back and forth. I didn’t even have to try to decide to get to this really healthy place where I don’t think about it anymore. I just did. I think I was just kind of finally like, “Well, I’m gonna do it anyway. It makes me happy.” There are enough people in my life that celebrate when I do something new. Not just the people I make it with but the people in my life who really like what I do. I just wanna be happy and make great work that I feel is honest to who I am and that I feel is challenging to what I’ve already done and not repetitive.
You recorded this album with Glyn Johns. How did that change your sound?
He has a really classically blunt recording technique and I think he makes the audio very elegant. Part of that is that he doesn’t overdub that much. What we couldn’t do on the floor in the studio was overdubbed, but that was just, like, three electric guitar parts that are extremely minimal that I did. That’s all the electric on the record. And the rest of it is just like you hear. We put a little string section called the Section Quartet on two songs. And I think maybe Greg Lees played on one song or two songs. He came and did a little steel part but there’s not much of that. It sounds like it was written. We got great performances of it and I played acoustic guitar and sang at the same time as everybody else for the track so it has to kind of be what it is. The limitation of that really helped it.
Was it a purely analogue recording?
It was literally recorded to two inch tape through U47 microphones which are tube microphones into an API Demidio Console with tube mic breadth. So I mean, it is a literal analog recording in every way and it was mixed with quarter-inch and then mastered from a quarter-inch reel-to-reel. So there’s a lot of good, great analog tape bottom end and feel. I think it made a difference too in that it is sort of naturally compressed.
So is that something that is a result of working with Glyn or is that something that you brought to the table and said that you wanted to work with that equipment?
Well, I don’t ever want to work with a computer anymore every again. I only ever did it with Easy Tiger and even then we still had two mic breadths and stuff. My friend Jaime likes to record through ProTools and I just don’t like it. I think it’s hard for people not to correct performances. When you’re a singer-songwriter and you correct a performance, I think what’s interesting is, yes it will better this one note that is out or you could fix a little timing issue because it sounds a little sloppy but I don’t think that most people listen to that. In fact, I think unconsciously that makes people feel closer to the music because human beings are in search of humanity.
How do you mean?
Part of the seduction for a human being is seeing a flaw, a characteristic, an error that’s reminiscent of something that the person’s seeing as much as beauty is. You fall in love with people for their strengths but also for their weaknesses that are similar to you or maybe reflect some sympathetic tone in you or maybe an empathetic tone in you that resonates on some level. I think that it would be very unusual to remove that from music, especially from songwriting music because it is story telling. If Grandpa was sitting around the campfire telling you a fucking story and then Grandpa sat around the campfire and told you a fucking story in Pro Tools, would you go edit the height and the width of the fucking fire, or would you go Photoshop the color of the fucking marshmallows at the end of a stick because they weren’t quite light enough?
Do you ever talk to other musicians about this?
Sometimes I see people doing stuff in the studio and I’ll just be like, “What are you doing? You’re editing people on this thing that you use to write your mom a fucking email?” You can fix it on the floor. That’s where the fun is supposed to be. If there’s a problem just do the track again, I mean no musician’s gonna mind sitting down and playing again. I mean, most people are happy to play.
Your first solo album, Heartbreaker, starts out with a blown take and the sound of you joking around with your band mates. And I love that. It automatically creates empathy with the artist because you’re not untouchable.
And that’s really what was going on with that song. That’s a hell of a way to start a solo career with just a bunch of dudes talking about Morrissey. Strangely that’s still ongoing.
The Morrissey conversation?
Pretty much. Who doesn’t wanna talk about Morrissey?
I’d like to talk about your poetry for a second. In the introduction to your first collection of poetry, Infinity Blues, you wrote, “I know longer know the author of this book, for simply stopping long enough and writing it down was where I changed from a boy with his eyes squeezed shut to a man with his eyes wide open so that the sunlight might reach my heart despite all that darkness.” What is the biggest difference between writing poetry and writing music?
It’s so dense that question—it’s a good question and the answer is so dense. The only reason I’m shutting down about it is because I do them both naturally and I do them both for myself. And I don’t just write poetry but I do a little bit of essay narrative type writing and I do write stories. That stuff I have not deemed worthy to be shared yet. Some might question whether my poetry is worthy but that’s different. I think poetry needs voices. I think it needs more young voices—not that I’m young, but it needs more new voices that haven’t been out there.
It seemed reasonable for me to do something with it because I’ve always [written poetry]. I’ve done it my whole life. Before I wrote music I was always writing, spending summers at my grandparents house writing. There was nothing to do. Literally, in eastern North Carolina there was nothing to do. You know, go to jail, that’s something to do. Learn to fix automobiles or something. There just wasn’t anything to do, so that’s what I was doing.
But basically, answering your question, there’s this tradition with music. When I’m making records, I’m very close to the records that I love. And then there’s the mechanical side of making records and my life is such a part of that that I couldn’t imagine in some way or another not being connected to it. When I’m writing poetry now it’s more private. It feels like the process is more private. I mean it happens on my own time. It happens over a period of years. The idea of what I put together could be my own. I also realize how utterly uncool it makes me and how totally pretentious that I am because I do it.
Because you write poetry?
Yeah I mean like, I’m me with my reputation and I write poetry. I totally can understand what that looks like and by the same token I would still do it the same way I’m doing it. It’s still completely valid.
There’s not really a poetry industry as much as there is a music industry.
It’s there, but it operates from the past not the present. There are monolithic poets walking the face of the earth right now. But no one is willing to make someone a new Allen Ginsberg, not really and no one is allowed to be Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski. No one can be these people now. It doesn’t seem that way to me. I don’t see that.
I buy those fucking poetry quarterlies and like those magazines that are supposed to cover some kind of a scene and maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m looking at the wrong thing but I just don’t see a thread. Not that they need heroes—poetry doesn’t need a poetry star or a rock star—but I haven’t seen any indication that anybody is taken very seriously. If people don’t know who Mark Strand is then there’s no poetry scene, which is sad.
You didn’t do much press for the two collections you put out. Why?
I felt like I needed to have a couple of books done—maybe even four or five—before I could even discuss it. I just wanted to let the work speak for itself, even if it’s shit. Ultimately it doesn’t matter because the work will be there—it’s there now and it can do its work over time. It gets to the right people, you know. You’re sharing something beautiful. You’re sharing an observation you made about the world. Poetry is something people do out of love. They don’t do it out of hate. Like, “I fucking hate the world so much and I’m gonna sit down and tell the world these really detailed parts about what I was seeing and make sure that I spell it all correctly and put it just right and then release it to the world.” It’s not an act of sabotage. I just figured you do it and the people will find it that want it, that find something in it.