When you name your harrowing debut solo album ‘Heartbreaker’, your stall is pretty much set out from the get-go when it comes to heart-on-sleeve expectations as a songwriter. Ryan Adams has never been one to shy away from exposing his most intimate vulnerabilities on record, regularly reporting on the fortunes - good and bad - of his relationships; “I got a really good heart,” he implored on ‘Two’, from 2007’s ‘Easy Tiger’, “I just can’t catch a break.”
There’s a raw honesty that permeates his prolific discography that is immediately endearing yet often distressing for the listener; a typical experience of a new Ryan Adams album is usually an abject lesson in schadenfreude, where stark emotions loop as we benignly press the repeat button with tear-flecked fingers on his most candid moments.
Therefore it should come as no surprise (Alarming? Yes. Surprising? No.) that his latest release, ‘Prisoner’, a collection of songs so indubitably pertaining to the end of his six-year marriage to actress/singer Mandy Moore, would yield his highest chart placing to date, with first week sales sending him to number three in the UK.
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It was dating me and taking me back to a different place and time in my mind...
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Discounting his exceptional 2015 interpretation of Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ album in full, ‘Prisoner’ arrived as the third in a row of particularly expressive records whose intensely personal considerations would have significant consequences. 2011’s ‘Ashes & Fire’ centred around the themes of mortality (Ryan had recently lose his grandmother, who had raised him in North Carolina) and the dislocation he felt after moving to LA from his long-time home, New York, which, combined with his own health issues, amounted to a turbulent period of enforced self-discovery.
“It’s hard to remember exactly all the things that went into ‘Ashes & Fire’ because it was sort of a new time for me,” he tells Clash. “I’d just done a lot of work on myself with hypnosis, hypnotherapy, acupuncture and acupressure; all the stuff to start dealing with the triggers of Ménière’s disease,” he says, referencing the debilitating inner-ear disorder whose symptoms threatened to permanently derail not only his career but his own mental welfare. In addition, the resurfacing of old friends in his life at this time intensified his feelings of displacement.
“It was dating me and taking me back to a different place and time in my mind,” he says of the renewed relationships. “I think for the first time I was dealing with the relative course of myself versus the way the rest of the world had worked and the different experiences different people were having compared to mine. And it made me feel a little strange because I was like, ‘Well, I don’t feel old, and I don’t act old, and sometimes I don’t look old,’ to me anyway. So the juxtaposition was strange, and this was the first time that I was seeing that. I hadn’t really thought about it up until that point.”
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Following this revelatory release with a self-titled album suggested the beginning of a new chapter for Ryan Adams, in which he could present a redefined version of himself. In some ways, Ryan admits, that’s true, but the newfound freedom he began to enjoy was rather more a result of his decision to self-produce (at PAX-AM, his own homely LA studio) than it was any spiritual awakenings. “That record began an evolution for me to know that I could make the right decisions - not that I never didn’t make a lot of decisions on records,” he attests, “but I knew that I was gonna take myself on this journey and that at the end of it I was gonna really know where and how and in what way to record, and that was the beginning of that freedom.”
“And also it was nice,” he continues, “because I had made versions of songs that I really loved but the challenge to make them bigger and grander and go beyond that was there - mainly, you know, I work with a management company that are awesome and nurturing, but also tough. They’re tough with me and they challenge me, which is good.”
It’s fortunate that Ryan is being complimentary of his management right now, as we’re all currently travelling in a car together. After a long and tiring promo day in a central London hotel, Ryan is speaking with Clash - his last interview of the day - en route to a free show at the Rough Trade East record shop on Brick Lane. Ryan is in the front passenger seat, sitting back-to-back with Clash, who’s facing two of his management team on the back seat. Things could have got rather awkward otherwise.
“They bring out that ancient Nordic warrior spirit in me,” he says of their supportive style of tough love (though he hates that expression), “and they remind me to be the wildebeest and not be the hunted. They remind me of that idea to try to break through and have an epiphany. It’s a good thing, because you don’t have epiphanies all the time unless you’re putting yourself in the place to have them. They typically come from hard work and from stretching past your place of comfort.”
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They bring out that ancient Nordic warrior spirit in me...
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Certainly, as his marriage collapsed and he was forced to leave their LA home, Ryan was anything but comfortable. Inspiration for the songs that would become ‘Prisoner’ struck when he was out on tour and decamping to New York while between permanent addresses, which recalls the situation he faced in the making of ‘Heartbreaker’, when he escaped The Big Apple and the end of a previous relationship and found himself practically destitute in Nashville. Is there a connection, Clash wonders, between the unpredictability of a transient life and his motivation to write?
“You know, just being in LA didn’t work for me, and going to New York to record and be with my best friend and to meet some new people or to be around people I already really enjoyed, it changed the game for me,” he says. “It made me remember who I was, so that by the time I did go back to LA I had found the house I wanted. But I don’t think that necessarily like sleeping on couches or being transient would lead to a good record, but I think that the focus of a studio and of doing that kind of work is to have an out-of-body, out-of-mind, loose spirit kind of situation so that you can get to the hard-to-reach places in your conscious and unconscious mind.”
To view life from an objective viewpoint, Clash offers?
“Or romantically,” Ryan counters. “You know, sometimes I don’t think people process the world in a romantic way. That could mean they’re abstracting it in a way that’s unusual to them, but it could also mean that they’re thinking about it in new ways or in ways that are even more cumbersome than they originally intended. But that, to me, is the point of art. It’s the caveman scribbles the bison with charcoal on the wall of the cave so that when he makes the fire and the fire flickers, the bison look like they’re running. That’s why, because he loves who he is, and he loves what he sees and he’s trying to express his love of nature in his place. That’s why we do what we do.”
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Over 80 songs were written and recorded in that time (told you he was prolific). With enough material to fill at least three albums, that’s exactly what Ryan had in mind to do. “Originally I thought it should be a trilogy in the Star Wars of divorce, which was the worst fucking idea of all time,” he laughs. “You don’t wanna watch three movies about the same really kind of heavy and freaky experience. I mean, maybe, but, you know, looking back I’m really glad I got led in the direction I did, so that I could focus on actually cutting out unnecessary elements but also preserving ones that later could become something else of equal importance.”
Opting for the alternative of a single disc, the filtering process began. Those that made the cut - the powerfully yearning ‘Do You Still Love Me?’; the haunting sparsity of ‘Shiver And Shake’; the achingly desolate ‘To Be Without You’ (“I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn / Nothing really matters anymore”); the explicit admissions of ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Tightrope’ - form a potent outpouring of the soul that’s clearly enhanced by its prudent brevity. The Rogue One of divorce, maybe?
“I’m learning the art of taking a listener on a journey,” he says of the editing process, “that can start somewhere and end somewhere and, even though I write the songs without the effect intended, it doesn’t mean that I can’t compile them like chapters meant to keep you on the ride and maybe give you an insight into the mindset that I had, or on a romantic journey.”
And with that, our shared ride nears its end as our carriage closes in on Brick Lane. In an hour’s time, Ryan will emerge on stage to debut ‘Prisoner’ to the British public and lead them on their own epic and emotional journey. It’s a valiant leader that can stand alone on stage and break down walls to let us all peer in, and by engaging so fluently with full and unguarded disclosure, it’s more than evident that Ryan Adams is peerless in his devotion to the pack.
Run free, young wildebeest. Run free.
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'Prisoner' is out now.
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Sophie Mayanne