As Ryan Adams looks set to crash the top five of the UK albums chart with his acclaimed new album ‘Prisoner‘, the prolific and influential singer-songwriter has spoken out about how writing the record helped him recover through the trauma of death and divorce.
Watch Adams talk through ‘Prisoner’ track-by-track in the video above, and see below as Adams discusses his journey to making one of the finest albums of his career.
This is a very raw and open album. Was writing a cathartic exercise or did it all just pour out?
“I don’t remember being aware of needing to hold back anything. I felt like I needed to tell a story – the story of how I felt or what was happening internally at least, in the truest way possible. It was in the most vulnerable way I could. I wanted to avoid feeling like playing guitar on a soapbox…like some f**king bulls**t about life pains. I don’t want to be that person and that’s not the point of what I’m trying to do.”
So where did the title come from?
“I think the theme of this record is that we’re all prisoners of some desires, in that the very things we love are the things that hold us hostage and keep us trapped.”
Do you think fans will be looking for ‘clues’ about your personal life?
“For me, the big shadow illuminating things for fans will be that this record is directly related to my divorce [from Mandy Moore], and to what was going on inside me – how I endured it and where I was in my emotions at that time – and they wouldn’t be wrong. I didn’t want to make a mistake and avoid it…I believe in art, and it sounds so stupid – but I think it’s more stupid to pretend that things aren’t happening to you and write some bland fucking useless bullshit.”
It’s better to have each record as a chapter in a story than just background noise to shift units or to soundtrack yoghurt commercials?
“I don’t wanna be that. I don’t wanna write music for people on fucking boats – you know? That’s not who I am. So I chose to honestly say: I’m going through this. I chose to extract and evaluate and find out what part of this pain and seduction and mistrust are worthy of being extracted and then re-romanticise it in some way. Because ultimately, however bad a situation is for people, especially if it’s a condition of love or some internal dialogue, I think most people would agree that when you look back on it, those times are well remembered.”
No matter hard it gets, is the music always there?
“Ever since the last album when my friend died – that guy grew up in the house next to where my grandmother was raised. I was playing a TV show that night, like I could not be there. The only thing I could do was to put out a picture of him, and it happened to be the same fucking day my divorce was announced like it was unbelievable! There were so many sides to what was happening, it was almost like an out of body experience. At that end of the day I’m lucky because a guitar sounds fucking great when you plug it in you know? Put the cappo on the third fret and…you know it just feels good to have that kind of release?”
Is it just a matter of outing the demons and physically playing through them? Does putting these feelings into words, chords and song really feel cathartic?
“I mean…for me it’s not really the playing of music that’s the therapy or writing the song. It’s hard to describe this – but a good example would be Charles Bukowski. He was a literary genius and for the most part, he was just extracting truths. Some of those were extremely romantic. I don’t necessarily think he was living a life that made him as crazy as he was made to seem in that movie ‘Barfly’.
“He had a real sense of being lost or abandoned in the world, and then you have people like Jack Kerouac who were over-romantic about the possibility of geography and being free inside an environment that’s really structured, in a time much earlier than the 1960s. Then you get into like [Allen] Ginsburg and [William] Boroughs and even Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I tend to side with the writing of Henry Miller and Bukowski and even, although it will seem very abstract, like WH Auden in that writing was the foundation of who I am before I even played guitar.”
Your own music doesn’t really get the credit it deserves for the sheer breadth of ground you’ve covered, and you’re outspoken about the amount of bands you love from so many genres – whether it’s Springsteen, The Smiths, Oasis, Taylor Swift or Sabbath. Do you just gravitate towards any music that has that ‘truth’?
“When I started, the music I would be drawn to would be heavy metal and new wave like Black Sabbath – things that seemed more shocking – and then of course eventually I would find bands and writers who were laying things out very clearly and whose words felt very sharp to the touch and sharp to your feelings. That happened because that’s who I was used to taking in information from, and in return that’s sort of the person I am now.
“So it’s not uncommon for me…you know, I’m not a depressed person. I think most people go through ups and downs, and there’s that nagging sense of ‘what the fuck does this mean?’ Some people ignore them and it kills them, or some people focus on these negative aspects and become golems. I’ve tried to use them as fuel, and I also use the joy of playing music…whether it’s goofing off on guitar which happens most of the time you know – you guys only catch me when I’m really focused and trying to play a real composition (Laughs).
“There’s something to be said for taking all that negativity and confusion and deciding: this is fuel, and I can burn this and make this into something, and the act of doing that is joyous. I can sing the saddest song with a bunch of people, and the feeling of sharing that energy activates in a way that either heals it or makes me feel like I’ve risen a thousand miles above it into space and I’m staring down on it as a little dot…it changes it dramatically and I really like that.”
Is that what pushes you? You’ve been incredibly prolific in the last couple of years – but are you trying to edit yourself more than you used to?
“I’m more prolific now. I cannot explain why. My life has finally started to rebound a bit and I think that some of that has played a factor in me feeling more open to going into the studio and playing. For me, what I learned is that I went for a long time without making music when I was married and I think some of that was because – it was a little bit unfortunate – but it didn’t make sense in the confines of my marriage for me to be the musician and the writer which requires a lot of focus and attention.
“Also it’s just what I do; it’s not different to what anyone else does for a living if they were a dedicated person. I can only think – and this is just because I watched that show Mars last night on National Geographic – but to think of someone like Neil DeGrass Tyson. He’s an astrophysicist and I had the pleasure of meeting an astrophysicist – two of them – this year, which was fucking awesome. These are people who wake up in the middle of the night because you know dark matter is bothering them! And they go into their office and write down an idea to work out in the next week or something.
“I think maybe because music is viewed as just fun by some people, but I don’t think it will ever make sense to anyone trying to explain like how great or awesome a Joy Division or Smiths’ song might feel to you – like how wonderful it is when Jonny Marr talks about finding that riff and showing it for the first time to Morrissey; what happens after that it really is, although passion leads you to that final stage, it really is a journey that is basically work.. I just feel more comfortable now being in an environment where I don’t feel guilty if I want to go write and express myself and be a musician.”
Fri September 08 2017 – BELFAST Ulster Hall
Sat September 09 2017 – CORK Opera House
Mon September 11 2017 – DUBLIN Olympia Theatre
Thu September 14 2017 – MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Fri September 15 2017 – EDINBURGH Usher Hall
Sun September 17 2017 – GATESHEAD Sage
Mon September 18 2017 – LEEDS O2 Academy Leeds
Fri September 22 2017 – LONDON Royal Albert Hall