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RYAN ADAMS: ZEN AND THE ART OF HIGH MAINTENANCE

February 17, 2017

 

It may be a hotel room in the centre of Sydney, it may be mid promotional tour which has Japan ahead before a return to Los Angeles, but Ryan Adams is not going without the comforts of home. Even if it causes some alarm.

Not because of anything the North Carolina singer and songwriter says or does, despite a reputation for fractiousness when things go awry. It is just that these days Adams is often calmed by a prodigious weed intake and a soda.

That isn't speculation by the way: the man who has been lauded as one of the great songwriters, if difficult characters, of his generation, will cheerily mention this smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em lifestyle on stage, across social media, in conversation and very likely in the queue for coffee at the hotel buffet.

As we sit down I see movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to see Adams' girlfriend Megan Butterworth watching us via his phone which he has sat on a chair.

Soon enough she's joined by one of their beloved and much Instragrammed cats, Agnes, both of them looking a little bored but resolutely present throughout this chat. Theo, the other family moggie is presumably just out of frame.

"They are listening to us now," says Adams, explaining that Agnes is something of a gentle interventionist in interviews. "If Agnes was sitting on your lap, she would look at you lovingly then she would reach her paw, touch your mouth or your nose. No claws."

There are no claws from the man himself either in his Misfits t-shirt and double denim. He's got a firm grip and a solid, lightly tattooed frame that would easily turn to chunky if he wasn't replacing one form of abuse with another, in this case long runs through whichever city he's in.

Is this what he misses most when he is on the road, the family?

"Yeah. I try to stay in the moment, I try and stay where I'm at," Adams says. "But that is part of what all of this is. Without them there is not this [he gestures to the room, the guitar, the gig the night before too presumably] and without this there is not them.

"Without the Shire there's no reason to take the ring to Mordor, right?"

An unexpected Lord Of The Rings analogy aside, it's both odd and cute that on the road he needs that connection, even if during an interview. It's also a smart move, perhaps inadvertently.

It would make it even more awkward to bring up the subject of his ex, Mandy Moore, the presumed subject of several songs on his new album, Prisoner, while his current partner is watching on from their Los Angeles home.

But then a newly "Zen" Adams might just talk anyone down from a precarious conversational ledge by sheer weight of words anyway.

His next answer goes on for six minutes, the subsequent ones even longer. His references veer from the composer Faure to a fisherman's need to head out to sea every day because that's how life is "processed"; from philosophy to speed metal; from spirituality to pinball machines. And his flow cannot be interrupted.

Ask him if it's still true that his natural and happiest place is in the studio, where he has made 16 official albums and, rumour has it almost as many more unreleased ones, and his answer quickly gets metaphysical.

"There is the physical, the spiritual, the mental, there's a process," he says. "But for me at this stage, after so many records, it's like I'm writing stories and I'm writing because that's part of who I am. I feel very much like I don't know if it's a tranquil or beautiful concept,

"I don't know if it's deeper than I would like it to be or more shallow, but it feels very much like I am weathered in this process."

The night before at the Enmore Theatre he had written a song on the spot during the show, not an uncommon occurrence for him as a kind of fun stage business.

It was almost a perfect example of what those who like what he does, as well as those who don't, would consider quintessential Adams.

From a fan's perspective it was an example of how he is someone with a stellar gift for melody and an innate understanding of pop/rock/country songs: a natural songwriter who could see the song evolve two or three stages ahead. It had touch and tenderness and already felt like a song that would stick with you.

For naysayers it was proof that it all comes so easy that he doesn't need to and therefore won't put in the "hard work" to craft and edit.
Inherent in both arguments is possibly the fact that non-writers, or even writers for whom all of this is the hardest work, don't understand how he does it.

It's almost like magic and what we don't understand can anger as much as perplex.

"What that was wasn't magic. What that was I was not participating in doubt. I was not participating in fear. I was not participating in art. I was not participating in ego. And I was not participating in showmanship," Adams says.

"I just decided to let something happen. Let the guitar make some notes, follow a pattern that make sense, and to think of things that happened in the last few days …. and having it just be a moment, having it be a surplus of that instant moment.

"It was like I let go of everything. Then this little ditty happened and that's how songs are born."

Sure, easy.

The presence of fear and doubt might have stopped him saying something revealing, too close to the truth or to him or to Moore, on Prisoner.

But Adams declares himself "more free on this" than ever, not addressing her directly but letting his crumbling confidence and pain come through the lyrics on an album which succeeds by being concise and yet familiar.

The drawn out end to their six year marriage, which ended in 2015, had left him with no choice but to work to set free a bottled, crippled psyche. He says now that he "worked really hard to get to that place" of openness.

"I was blocked, so blocked before Ashes & Fire," Adams says of the album which was the first release after the breakup but which was more oblique about its effect. "I could not speak my truth. I had been stunted and I had become resentful. And I become poisoned. I felt so poisoned by everything."

He lists the resentments he was feeling, from records disappearing in favour of digital to thinking the audience his enemy, from his music not being good enough to beginning to believe "my own gifts had turned on me or I had turned on myself".

He could barely play guitar, and certainly couldn't write, until he accepted something about human nature, and songwriting.

Our natures may be repetitive but humans have "this unbelievably fragile ability to heal each other and make the most moving gestures".
Healing and moving gestures - that was something he could do.

"To get that into a three-minute song, because that's my canvas and that's where I can leave that information, that's all that I would look for for myself my whole life," Ryan says. "And I have looked for it, in a comic book, in a song, in a painting, in people.

"Trying to leave the trail for somebody I don't know is what actually got me here, to where I'm better."

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