This August 2 profile of Ryan Adams provides a taste of the eccentric interview the singer-songwriter recently conducted with Westword. Below, find the whole meal – a sumptuous spread of conversation and contradictions, complete with a serving of metaphysical hippie-isms that concludes the chat in a suitably peculiar manner.
Examples? Adams talks about his dislike of reading reviews, complete with the revelation that he’s more or less ordered those around him not to mention the subject; his arms-length relationship with the media and computers; the reasons for the year-and-a-half gap between the arrival of his latest disc, Easy Tiger, and 29, the third of three CDs put out in an eight-month span; references to new members of his band, the Cardinals; info about two other albums made during this time period; an impending box set loaded with other complete albums that have yet to officially see the light of day; his rejection of fear in any form; a defense of his hyper-prolific artistic nature; the beauty of life and his refusal to filter any of the inspiration that flow his way; and the degree to which his work is autobiographical, with a nod to the one bandmate who can usually tell when he’s speaking from personal experience.
That makes him this Cardinal a member of the Adams family.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Easy Tiger has gotten mostly very positive reviews, after the three previous albums got mostly mixed reviews. Do you think that’s because Easy Tiger is a really good disc, which it is, or because there was a longer gap between this one and the last batch? Do you have a sense of that?
Ryan Adams: No. I don’t participate in that part of the gig. When I’m up for it, I do the interviews. But I’m not a nervous parent about the art. The records, the ideas, once they’ve made it through the process, with friends and producers and the things around them that make them happen, there’s usually so much joy and satisfaction. It’s very rare for one that hasn’t been loved to make it through, which is a sad fact, but just the nature of the craft. It wouldn’t effect me either way. Even when I may have been curious when I really liked something, at this point I don’t read anything about myself. I haven’t read an article in such an extraordinarily long time. There was a time when there was a moratorium on it. That would have been around Cold Roses. I just wasn’t interested, and I didn’t want to be interested in any kind of emotional or psychological way about opinions of the art I was participating in. But now it’s phased into a kind of thing where I literally have no physical interest. In fact, when I’m in an airport walking through and I see the magazine stores or the news agents, I actually have a little bit of internal dialogue from time to time, where I think, “I wonder why I don’t want to go in there anymore.” But it’s not just about not wanting to go in there. I have, like, some silly dialogue where I think I don’t remember there being anything in there that I turned back into anything else. So it isn’t a shield or anything. I just don’t actually have any physical will to know about any of that.
WW: Does any word of how your work is being received ever filter back to you at all?
RA: No. There’s rules in the band and with the people I work with. I have great managers and amazing people, people I look up to, who I look to for advice in general, an open dialogue. But I notice that there are things I do that are different, and that’s one of them. Their excitement is great over the successes, and their disappointments are real, too. But I just made a request, as a person, that I would prefer to not know, and it would be better not to share those things with me, because I’d like to just stay in my life making art. That experience to me is really pure. The fellows seem to know a little bit, but I think even they don’t know that much. I think they saw me kind of having any reaction either way or something. I never knew when I was supposed to not be excited. No one could tell me any different. It’s still such a relationship of what’s going to happen with them, and with the music. I think I might have ended up in a more even place. I was never hot tempered about something that wasn’t real, whereas I saw it effecting a few of them once in a while the way it used to effect me. So I think maybe they stopped, too. They wouldn’t tell me either way if they read things or not. I definitely wouldn’t do interviews if I read them, because I, like, literally… It isn’t just about will. I have no desire, and not because of displeasure. I just have no actual desire to know about rock and roll in any way, or to observe myself. I’m not interested in the computer. I like it for editing film footage, and it’s nice to be able to e-mail people when I’m traveling, like I am. It’s nearly impossible to keep up any kind of letter writing when you’re gone nine months of the year. There’s no place to get returns. But in no way am I technologically or media allergic. It just isn’t as good as book. With the couple hours I might have to myself, I’d like to find a sunny spot and lean up against a wall and smoke a cigarette or two and read a book and have a cup of coffee. Maybe go for a walk. I just can’t imagine that even if I thought for a second if there was a desire to know what the perception was, I know it wouldn’t effect me either way. I know that there’s a record out and I know there’s discussion about it on some level. But it’s like it’s always been. I don’t know the context.
WW: So did the reason for the longer gap between the release of this album and the earlier ones have nothing to do with external factors, like your health? I know you’ve talked about having some substance abuse issues that have been taken care of recently?
RA: Right. Well, really, no. There were two records recorded in that space, but there was also one year of straight touring, and also the integration of two people very close to the band and myself into the Cardinals. There was so much excitement about playing with Neal [Casal] and Chris [Feinstein] that all anyone wanted to do was to play, which we did. And so, during that time, there was actually a very interesting rock record that I recorded, and a Cardinals album that I admire greatly that happened before anyone heard Easy Tiger. It’s just that the work that was around us and the intense amount of traveling, as well as rehearsals and playing that was going on, didn’t lend myself or anybody else the ability to decide on what cover art, or how it would be viewed. Basically, how to turn that into an album full circle.
WW: Are those albums you mentioned slated to come out down the line?
RA: Yeah, on the box set.
WW: Tell me about the box set. I read about that in Stephen King’s bio of you…
RA: Well, I can’t say too much. I can give you a general taste. I have to see the thing all together, myself. But it’s been worked on now for a year and some time – and when I say worked on, it’s been put together, collected. Source tapes, things being filtered, a few albums that were never mixed, a few albums that were traded heavily online. The idea that the linked material was missing its actual rhythm sections and strings on one record, called The Suicide Handbook. It’s just guitar and a voice that people know – but they don’t know there’s actually full-band accompaniment and up to sixteen strings on certain songs that I actually arranged myself. Or a few records that people think that they have, or they have the demos of, or they have three tracks, or eight things from a session at the same time but not the record. I think the label and myself and the band and people around me, it seemed appropriate to just make it available in its actual format for people. At this point, there are six complete records, but it will still be missing things. So currently right now, the last ideas of what the subsequent other records will be, which will be a compilation of B-sides of things that only came out on seven-inch in the U.K., or songs that people only knew live – they never actually heard the studio recording. Or the third side to Cold Roses, which no one ever heard. Many songs that people still have no knowledge of, because they’ve never been played. Things like that are being discussed, and we’re trying to figure out how to turn them into vinyl and CD. And I’ve been working with the artwork. The greatest thing about keeping all my notebooks and sketches over the years is that I actually have all the true, original artwork for all of this stuff that was intended to be with it. Almost all of it was completely done. It was conceived and executed fully, but at such a rate that there was nothing being left out. It was in no way not complete. It was just at a rate that I suppose no label that was affiliated with a major would be ready to facilitate. So it will be nice.
WW: Is there any fear that you might overwhelm people with so much material, rather than spacing it out a little bit?
RA: There is no fear.
WW: There’s no fear, period?
RA: I don’t mix my art with fear. I just don’t think that the world is going to suffer for more artistic ideas. I think, if anything, it suffers because of a lack of them. I can’t imagine how bringing art into the world for people to exercise their free will and their decision to view it or not could be a negative thing, in a world where I think the natural reaction to most things is to turn off. Should they start feeling something, I think people become uncomfortable these days.
WW: With so much material coming out, though, will every one of the songs that comes out in that box set get the attention they deserve? Or do you feel the ones that should rise to the top for an individual listener will rise to the top?
RA: You just said it. There’s individual listeners. I won’t be with them when they choose or they don’t choose to view it. I’m a writer. I write things sometimes to music. And I love that process. I live my life and I view the world and I create. I don’t really think that I understand how it would not be important to create these things – to construct these guide books of my own personal and sometimes not personal thoughts. Of the fictions of the things around me. I don’t know that it’s really my job to make art or to facilitate its availability based on some ideas of how a person may view this or not. In my opinion, that would be very disrespectful to the gift that is making art and being open.
WW: Was the art on Easy Tiger created a different way than other work that you’d done previously?
RA: They’re songs like any other songs. The Cardinals were there, and we were open to each other the way we are when we work, and it happened as all sessions happen. Like any record, really. Because it has been some time since I actually got into the process of making record. They’re always a bit different, but it’s usually because the studio’s different, or maybe you spend three days more, or one week less. Its variables are really not the interesting thing. It’s usually what’s happening back of the speakers. There’s always a high excitement level for taking compositions and hearing their actual arrangements.
WW: Are there times when you feel more excited about one project than another? A time when you know something special’s going on even by your standards?
RA: When that happens, I keep it to myself. It always feels valuable to me. I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t feel that way. I don’t remember having a time when somehow recording or arranging or writing something was inflicting pain, or was causing pain. It really is a discipline, I think. I think the discipline is in the actual process of staying open to ideas and viewing them and viewing the possibilities. But the execution of them… This is maybe an incorrect analogy, or a ridiculous one, but I imagine it isn’t the surgery that’s the most intense part. It’s the planning. It’s the diagnosis. It’s the gearing up.
WW: So as much creativity goes into the planning process of recording music than the actual making of it?
RA: Well, no. I mean, the idea of creation, the idea of being creative, is simply that. It’s facilitating new ideas in some way that is creating a dialogue. It’s just exactly that. It’s the exact opposite of being destructive. In my opinion, being idle is being destructive.
WW: Are you a kind of finely tuned instrument, in the sense that you’re being flooded with inspiration every minute of every day? And if so, how do you control or filter all the data that’s coming in?
RA: Inspiration doesn’t have to be giddy. To be inspired doesn’t necessarily have to mean a person is overjoyed. I make a choice. I choose to be affected by my life. I choose to be affected by others and how I see them. I choose to be empathetic, or sympathetic. It isn’t an issue of filling a quota or adhering to a level of productivity. It is simply that this is a very strange place called a life, and there aren’t many answers about what preceded it, or what comes after it. And that’s incredibly profound to me. I’m incredibly moved to be on Earth and not to know why, or what it even means. Why are we on this planet, in the middle of this vast universe? What exactly does it mean to interact with people? To have the simplest exchanges of disappointment or unending love, or just to experience standing still for a second even though you’re in a place that’s constantly moving? We’re all being ushered through this very strange experience of being alive, and I don’t believe that anyone has an actual firm answer about why. And inside of that, these beautiful things happen between people, and I could just never understand why one would want to be numb to that, or how they could turn that off. So I’m very invested in that mystery, and things like tuning myself down or just trying to get in front of a TV screen and just become nothing – those things don’t mean anything to me. I know I’m not going to find the answers to any of these great questions, but I feel like I don’t know what this is, and the way for me to show my appreciation, or at least to acknowledge that, is being completely open to my life, and to its mystery. I guess that my idea is that I’m not really inspired. I’m just very involved. This is a very intense place to be, and if I can’t really know what it means, I would at least like to know what I mean.
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WW: Do you see each of your songs as different ways of grappling with the issues you were just talking about?
RA: In some ways. In some ways I’m trying to immortalize very tiny moments that felt to me like great transgressions of humanity, even in the simplest or seemingly most banal ways. There are just very simple conversations or events that happen in a life that in my opinion or just so beautiful, and just so profound in their simplicity that really in the scheme of things, it’s really amazing that they actually happened. It’s just incredible. I don’t know how not to be plugged into that. So I try to create something that reminds me of that, or maybe instills some of the feelings or the questions or the moments that happened, or maybe does them justice, or serves as an opening, an emotional portal if you will, for others to access the wonder that I felt. Or maybe not wonder. It could have been disappointment or displeasure or any of the feelings that a person can feel. Because they all feel pretty special to me. Every day is pretty incredible.
WW: When your work is looked at in that way, the question of how autobiographical a certain song is becomes pretty superficial…
RA: I think of that often. I kind of feel a little bit in my songs if it’s sort of a production studio, I’m the cheapest actor I can find. So I’m willing to throw myself in to a lead role if I can just get the scene shot, so to speak. That’s an analogy, obviously, but not intended to confuse the point. In a more direct way to answer the question, not even my best friends know when something’s autobiographical. Well, some of them. Brad [Pemberton, a member of the Cardinals] sometimes knows. But I never actually reveal and tell him everything unless he’s there. But not even knows what part of those songs are real and dictated from the actual hand of the past, or what part is a fiction that’s meant to represent present or future events in a way of ushering those things in, so that I might better know them. Sometimes it’s all of those things at once, and many times it is just straight. But even for me, once they’re instilled in that way, they become an entirely different sort of universe, and it’s a place for me to sort of live in, and for them to live in, so we can go in there as a collective, as a band, to hear those words, and give them new meanings, and change them, and what happens is lessons make themselves known. That’s with the good songs. Some lessons or understanding about how an event can seem different each day, or in a different way. I find it incredibly valuable and an incredibly useful tool in learning, and what’s great is there’s a practice of the art of music that’s surrounded in it. It can be a bit majestic no matter how bad the choruses can be from time to time. [Laughs.] I’ve got to say, it’s good work if you can get it, and it’s rare that there’s a day that goes by for myself or the others who are going through those steps and feel we’ve been cheated out of a day where we could have been doing something else. I find it very emotionally, creatively and physically rewarding. It feels like being present. It feels like showing up for the unknown and improvising through that. I learn a lot about myself through that, and subsequently, I learn a lot about the word. As much as I can know, anyway.