Ryan Adams: Stripped Down

Ryan Adams does what he wants.

When Ryan Adams takes the stage of Benaroya Hall for the first time ever this month, he will be alone, surrounded by only his instruments. To his left will be a guitar; to his right, a simple, upright console piano that might look out of place on an orchestra stage accustomed to the majesty of a grand piano. But this tour is not about what’s possible—it’s about what’s comfortable.  

“I’ve made the mistake of sitting at a nice piano before,” Adams says over the phone from his California home. “I like consoles. 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.”

There’s a long list of those, from which the North Carolina native will construct an evening based on his whims alone. Adams will choose songs from a solo career that spans 11 years and millions of records sold. Each selection will be stripped bare, held up only by Adams’ playing, his lonesome poetry and his sandpaper delivery.

“All of these songs were written to be unaccompanied at some point,” he says. “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.”

Adams’ week-long West Coast tour is his first since early 2010, when he broke up with the Cardinals, a band with which he recorded and released five country-rock albums in five years. The split marked the end of an incredibly consistent streak for a prolific artist well-known—and critically dogged—for his polyamorous musical passions. The breakup wasn’t amicable, but neither was it calamitous. Adams was having trouble with his ears. He needed a break from the loud rock band. He took it, focused his energies on his young marriage and released a few albums he had previously recorded with the Cardinals, including a heavy metal release, Orion.

In March, Adams returned to the studio. through an entirely analog process with famed producer Glyn Johns, he recorded Ashes & Fire, his 13th album in as many years and one that sounds more like his debut, Heartbreaker, than any since. Adams’ return to his strong suit was a result of liberated expectations.

“In the last 10 years I’ve had really good times and really bad times,” Adams says of his relationship with his critics. “I didn’t even have to try to get to this really healthy place where I don’t think about it anymore. […] I just wanna be happy and make great work that I feel is honest to who I am.”

Ryan Adams performs Oct. 21 with Rebecca Gates at Heineken City Arts Fest

Photography by David Blank.