Interview: Ryan Adams Takes it Easy

Crédit photo: Pax Americana Recording Company Interview: Ryan Adams Takes it Easy

Sudden deafness, tinnitus so loud that you can’t sleep -- your left ear throbbing with “high-pitched noises or a roaring white noise that just never stops.” Nausea and vertigo so bad your bones hurt. Panic attacks. So much pain that getting out of bed becomes a triumph of the will. Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease a few years ago, and those are just a few of the symptoms he says he’s experienced while living with the disorder.

It’s partly what led to his taking a break from music in 2009 -- a break he heralded with a lengthy, and widely reported blog post explaining his departure from his band The Cardinals (with whom he released five albums albums and two EPs since 2005’s Cold Roses). It was also a break many fans thought would have ended seconds after he hit “publish.” (This is a musician, after all, who’s averaged more than one album per year since his solo debut, Heartbreaker, was released to the acclaim of everyone from critics to Bono and Elton John in 2000.)

Adams, now calling from his home in California, says he took his time off seriously. “Well, I haven’t made a record until this one,” he deadpans. This week marked Adams’ return to record stores. Ashes & Fire, his first solo album of new material since 2007’s Easy Tiger (which was recorded with The Cardinals, but released under his name), arrived Oct. 11 -- and it’s a hushed collection that Rolling Stone said proved he “doesn’t need noise to blow you away.” BBC Music said it showcased "an artist maturing with grace and poise.”

Before he started work on that 11-track album -- recorded at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound -- Adams dedicated himself to the “whole lot of living and learning” he promised to do in that 2009 blog post. He wrote three books (two published, one set to arrive in 2012), released stockpiled music through his personal record label Pax-Am, and painted.

He also spent a year in therapy for Meniere’s Disease, which has helped his symptoms. He says he now experiences them in “a more minor way.” He changed his lifestyle. “It’s almost opposite to the one I was living,” he says. On the more sensational end of the spectrum, that means recreational activities like doing “speedballs every day for years” (to paraphrase a 2007 New York Times quote from the musician) have long been cut out. He also reportedly doesn’t eat salty foods. He exercises and takes “a lot of supplements.” “I cut out stuff in my life that was making me more susceptible to the symptoms, so I think I’m doing a little better.”

One other thing: he doesn’t “stress as much.”

“It’s very stressful being in a band. And it’s very stressful working straight for two years,” he says. “I wasn’t happy.”

Ask Adams if his perfect storm of symptoms affected how he made Ashes & Fire, and he essentially shrugs. “Not really,” he says, “it always starts with the acoustic guitar, y’know?” But he does admit, “I think things are a little more natural these days, they’re a little more laid-back, which is good. I don’t push myself. I just fall into it and let it happen.”

And that’s pretty much how he describes Ashes & Fire’s origins, really. Relaxed. Literally as relaxing as an afternoon walk and a cup of tea.

"I kind of remember, I think I was in New Orleans,” says Adams of how he started writing again, sometime between October and November of 2010. Adams was in New Orleans visiting his wife, actress/singer Mandy Moore. She was in the city filming, and to keep himself busy, Adams found himself in “some really funky old place” for a cup of PG Tips. (He’s drinking the stuff as he talks, actually -- though this time he says he’s nursing a cold with a mug of the English tea.) “I remember actually writing down the first couple of word clusters [in New Orleans]” Adams recalls -- lyrics that he says he hung onto, and eventually worked into two separate songs on Ashes & Fire. “And from there it kind of snowballed.”

“The songs had just developed to the point where they were just there,” Adams says, explaining how he knew he was ready to record again. “It seemed silly not to go forward and call Glyn and say ‘I think I’ve got something.’”

Glyn would be Glyn Johns, veteran producer and audio engineer -- a man who’s worked on albums by The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, basically any album that will always have a place on classic-rock radio. He and Adams had met years ago through Johns’ son Ethan, who’d helmed Adams early breakthrough solo albums Heartbreaker (2000) and Gold (2001), among many others.

“He was the only guy I was going to be able to do this record with,” Adams says of Glyn. “There’s just so many variables, but one of them is he’s really good with songwriters and he’s really good with editing and working from the raw element up.” Adams says Johns helped him eliminate one particularly stressful component of recording -- something he says he’d been responsible for over his last few records with The Cardinals -- writing song arrangements.

He and Johns also made a point of surrounding themselves with people who would help maintain a laid-back atmosphere at all times -- their “best friends who were the best musicians.” Norah Jones plays piano and lends vocal harmonies throughout, for instance. Adams’ wife, Moore, also lends back-up vocals on “Kindness” and “Come Home.”

“We worked with musicians who I knew only had to know the structure of the arrangement, that they would completely and totally write the part,” says Adams, recalling how he would frequently just play a song for the band on acoustic guitar a couple times before they’d all decamp to record it live off the floor. “That was really, really thrilling to me, to not have much of an idea of what was going to be played and to go with the electricity and the feelings around it. It was beautiful,” he says.

If playing with a band -- as Adams previously mentioned -- is stressful, then the singer-songwriter’s new tour of North America and Europe would aim to be the opposite. Like a month-long acoustic trek overseas this past June, this new concern -- launching Tuesday in San Diego, and continuing through the U.S. and Europe before making a lone Canadian stop in Toronto Dec. 10 -- is “completely solo,” just Adams, his guitar, and, if a song calls for it, a piano.

Adams explains why he didn’t want to bring a band: “Well, I’ve sort of done that for the last five, six years of my life,” he says, referring to his time with The Cardinals. “I really felt like I needed to do something a little more honest, more raw. Strangely, the songs translate better by themselves.”

And from his solo tour experience this summer, performing band-free was also enjoyably stress-free. “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went out on the tour,” says Adams. “And you know what? They were some of the most exciting, most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had, and it was fun, too.”

Ashes & Fire is available now. Ryan Adams plays Toronto Dec. 10.

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