Ryan Adams has been performing and recording under his own name for nearly 15 years. Essentially, he’s a solo artist – at least by the loose definition of the term – though he’s never embarked on a record alone.
The US alt-country savant recently released his 14th album and, interestingly enough, it’s his first self-titled effort. The eponymous designation doesn’t signify that Adams has run out of ideas. Rather, the title relates to the fact that for the first time he had complete control over the record’s construction.
“I made it in my own studio, I self-produced it and there’s no doubt that it’s what I wanted,” he says. “There was nobody standing in my way.”
Ryan Adams follows up 2011’s Ashes & Fire. That album marked a return to lone billing after a five-year, five-record run playing with backing band, The Cardinals. Accordingly, the Glyn Johns production was a stripped-back and largely acoustic affair. The self-titled LP is actually Adams’ second attempt at making his 14th album. For the first one, Johns again sat in the producer’s seat. But at the 11th hour Adams vetoed its release.
“The record was finished and it was pretty cool, but there wasn’t enough of an exploratory, celebratory feeling to it,” he says. “Because there was another producer at the helm, it just didn’t feel to me like I had done enough discovery. What eventually happened was I let some more time pass and created a new record at the end of another year after that session. I was finding a different sort of energy that, to me, felt like, ‘oh this is something with a lot of energy and power’.”
While the rejigged album was recorded in Adams’ own LA-based PAX-AM studios, with the songwriter himself handling production duties, it’s not pared back to the extent of its predecessor. In fact, the record roams through diverse textures, heeding to the wishes of each individual song rather than perpetuating a consistent arrangement aesthetic. For instance, tracks such as Gimme Something Good and Feels Like Fire are hoisted up by the power of a full band, while My Wrecking Ball and Let Go comprise a tender intimacy that recalls such iconic Ryan Adams records as Heartbreaker and Love Is Hell respectively. Ultimately, the autonomous recording scenario permitted Adams the necessary freedom to push into further reaches of his creativity.
“I got to stay in the studio longer enjoying recording and being a songwriter and someone that records,” he explains. “The studio is where I make art and then sometimes I release it and go out and tour. But the point for me is the work, not what happens with it.
“I have that freedom to do that as long as I like until I decide that I want to go out and tour and release a contemporary record. My ego doesn’t necessitate that I need to go and be in front of people every year. I just want to create songs for me. Which is what I do. There’s hundreds of songs a year. I don’t jam, I just write songs. They don’t have to go somewhere, it’s just what I do for fun.”
The conception of creativity that Adams advocates here might even be a pre-requisite for generating quality artistic statements. However, staying focused on the art in its pure expressive form, while also securing remuneration isn’t a straightforward act. Remarkably, even though Adams has been a professional musician since the late 1990s, he isn’t compelled to write songs simply to satisfy the demanding voice of capitalism.
“It’s not just what I do for money, it’s what I already did,” he says. “I had a job before, working in house development. I built new plumbing and I also worked on roofing. That was my job but I made music on the side and came to where I couldn’t keep my job and also make music. I had to stop working the job to do music.
“I don’t have a quest to keep my job,” he continues. “My job right now is making music only because that’s just what I do all the time, but if it ever changed I would still just make as much music. Some people read all the time, some people play golf or some people like to watch TV. I make music.”
While Adams’ self-presentation is refreshingly free from anxiety, it’s doubtful that someone whose work hadn’t received constant approbation and yielded financial reward for almost two decades could make these sorts of statements. Nevertheless, when it comes to applying himself to his art, Adams’ Zen perception stays firm.
“I don’t change what I do to make money. I just do what I do and if it works, I do it more. It’s sort of a circular process. I don’t do stuff that I don’t want to do.
“When I used to be on that label, Lost Highway, which I really just did not like, I don’t know what they thought they were doing, but whatever it was, it didn’t work. So that’s done now and I can just do what I always meant to do.”
These days Adams is his own label boss. Ryan Adams will be the songwriter’s second album to come out on the PAX-AM label, which has also recorded and released music by Fall Out Boy and Adams’ punk rock side project, Pornography. His scorned relationship with the Universal subsidiary Lost Highway Records lasted from 2001’s second album, Gold, up until the last record to feature the Cardinals, 2008’s Cardinology. Some credit is due to the label for the fact that, even though he’s never delivered a global smash hit, Adams has been a considerably successful artist for a lengthy stretch. However, while there are some misfires in his catalogue, none of his albums bear the imprint of mercenary manipulation.
“I play guitar and I make up songs and tell stories and I collaborate and jam with other musicians. It’s just what I do. It’s part of the fabric of my being. It’s always been part of who I was to draw or tell stories, ever since I was a kid. Eventually it became music and music has been this thread that’s always been with me all down the line.”