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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Great Article from Record Collector Magazine (features info on Blackhole!)


Record Collector Magazine - October 2011

After a couple of low-key years following The Cardinals' split in 2009, Ryan Adams returns. Jason Draper talks to him about his continually blooming songwriting, his first solo album in years, and an unreleased project that's finally set to see the light...

Let me show you something." Ryan Adams is leaning over, grinning. "You'll be very proud of this. I am." Ryan is scrolling through his iPhone. He stops at a dark, forbidding, black-and-white image of his old street in New York City, now mocked up as artwork for a new album. "I'm so sentimental about it," he says. "That record took five years to make... It is truly the most work I ever put into a record." He's still beaming with pride at the very thought of the album — only it's not his new one. It's a semi-mythical recording called Blackhole that looked as though it might finally have come out through Ryan's own Pax-Am label earlier this year; but which, like The Beach Boys' Smile, appeared to have been shelved once again.

But then Adams is renowned for having more ideas than he has time in which to unleash them. Not only is his actual new record — the hushed, lush and beautiful Ashes & Fire — his 13th since splitting from alt.country heroes Whiskeytown to go solo in 2000 with Heartbreaker, but it's also the fifth long-player that Blackhole has made way for. Barely a year of the 21st Century has gone by without a new Ryan Adams album (when there has been a gap, the shortfall can easily be made up from, say, the three new albums released within eight months of each other in 2005 — one of them, Cold Roses, a double). Add infamously unreleased albums such as The Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours and a string of stints in the studio dubbed the likes of "Swedish Sessions" or "Elizabethtown", and you're looking at one of the most towering bodies of work in modern music. And get this: from straight country to 80s-tinged indie-rock, no two of them sound alike.

We're sitting outside on Dean Street, in Soho, as Ryan continues: "The only reason that [Blackhole] wouldn't be out this second is because I don't want to interrupt what I'm doing with Ashes and Fire." It's not a bad call. Having dissolved The Cardinals, his backing band for the latter half of the 00s, in 2009, Adams was said to have "retired" from music (he smiles at the word, later noting that he'd "been a reclusive sorta guy for a few years"). Releasing two books of poetry (Infinity Blues and Hello Sunshine, both published that year) and limited, coloured-vinyl albums of older material direct to fans through his own Pax-Am imprint (his heavy metal sci-fi concept album, Orion, and the double-LP of unreleased Cardinals material, iii/iv, both 2010), Adams seemed content to keep a lower profile following some of his most high-octane years.

Ashes and Fire, then, sees him team up with Columbia for some major label distribution help ("The album is still on Pax-Am... but they're helping me to distribute and market the record and to get it in the right places as a collaboration"); record with legendary producer Glyn Johns (The Who, the Stones, Clapton, Eagles); and offer up a lean set of 11 songs that he counts as a favourite among his own albums. "Comeback" might be too strong a word — after all, he never really went away — but Adams notes the from-the-flames-like connotations of Ashes & Fire's title track: "I thought it was implying the reference of a phoenix in the song. To me it does." The album is destined to remind anyone who thought that he'd actually retired just why Ryan Adams is hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of recent years — a natural heir to the list of canonised artists whose own highly prolific days are, in the main, long gone. Thankfully, Adams retains his urge to create, and last year found himself with yet another album's worth of material, unsure what to do with it. With longtime friend and producer, Glyn's son Ethan, otherwise indisposed working on Laura Marling's A Creature I Don't Know and Kaiser Chiefs' latest, Adams remembered something Johns Jr had told him nine years before: "One day you should make a record with my dad, because he really likes what you do." Adams had actually met Johns Sr when the latter recorded the string arrangements for Whiskeytown's delayed swan song, Pneumonia, released in May 2001; and then again while recording second solo album Gold, released just four months later, with Ethan. "We got along really well, and I had kept that with me for nine years," he says. "Initially, I didn't know what I should be doing with the [new] songs, and I needed the kind of help that I'm not sure Ethan and I could have given each other at the time."

With Ethan confident that his dad was ready to go back into the studio properly for the first time in years, Ryan approached Glyn, undaunted by the expectation that you could fairly assume might have weighed on his shoulders. "When I first spoke to him, it was straight to business," Adams says. "[Glyn] instantly recognised That I was confused about what I had written: unsure as to how to proceed... I had wound myself into this tight little spider's web, and the first thing that he did, even on the phone, was to unspool it and say, 'Do You have your guitar with you?' No. 'Well, you can get one. Or maybe you can just come to London and I can meet with you.' He wanted to be very direct with me not to fuck around."

The result is a lean, 11-track album that sounds as beautiful as anything Adams has ever recorded, with subtle string arrangements backdropping a push-and-pull between Gus Seyffert's bass and Adams' acoustic guitar; and augmentation from Tom Petty's longtime Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on keyboards, and Norah Jones on backing vocals. "Glyn is such an incredible engineer that the lush soundscape you hear is because he listens," Adams notes. "And because he makes such finite movements on the control board. He mixes things so beautifully. Everything has its own space to live in."

That's not to underestimate the quality of the material. On a European solo tour in June, Adams unveiled about half of the new album across 12 dates, each song standing up without any instrumentation, save for his acoustic guitar. In the studio, recorded completely live to two-inch tape ("There's nothing on this album digital... mostly just a microphone running into a board into an analogue tape machine, with not any crap on it"), Adams would simply play each song to the band before they went ahead and recorded it together. "They would instantly get a vibe," he says, "and then we would cut one or two versions... Nobody ever said, 'I want a third take.' The idea that everybody had was to just get out of the way of the songs." Self-effacingly claiming that the musicians "were over-qualified; they preferred to play that way", Adams plays down his continued rise as a songwriter. Ever since Love Is Hell (initially two EPs released in November and December 2003, thanks to a dispute with his then-label Lost Highway — a clash only partially resolved when Love Is Hell was released as intended in May the following year), Adams' songwriting has progressed at an astounding rate.

"I took more chances when I did that record," he says. "But I had writer's block when I made Love Is Hell, which is hilarious. I've talked to Leona about it since — my girlfriend at the time. She laughs at me: 'You know, you said you had writer's block, but you'd be writing all the time." But Adams found himself unable to finish a thought; the songs just weren't coming to him the way they did before. "It felt dishonest to try to write a song like Oh My Sweet Carolina," — a standout from 2000's Heartbreaker— "and I was trying to. At some point, it just kind of melted down and I found those [Love Is Hell] tunes." Piecing the album together across New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles over six months, Adams recalls, "There were times when I made that record where I just felt like the wheels were coming off my life. Like I couldn't piece it together." The results, however, remain his most artistically questing album to date; a revelation from an artist that many still thought of as "alt.country" — and a standout in his catalogue. "I'd never aspired to make music that could have been perceived as anything other than what it was," he says today. "It wasn't unintentionally unintellectual and it wasn't intentionally pseudo-intellectual. It was just what it was."

Living in New York at the time of writing, Adams found that "my interest in literature and art and culture had increased to a point where I think it broke into the music". No longer recording "just country records or just songwriting records", Adams starting assimilating influences from The Velvet Underground, The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen. "RECORDING ASHES & FIRE WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NATURAL; RESCUING BLACKHOLE WAS LIKE RESCUING MY PAST" Songs such as I See Monsters marked a new, abstract turning point. "It's totally so fucked up," he laughs today. "That song is supposed to represent you lying next to your lover, and it's been an all-night bash of drugs — and this is a real thing," he continues. Lying next to his then-girlfriend, Adams found himself staring at the ceiling. "The shadows of morning were coming in and it looked like a fucking Ferris wheel. And I watched it turn into a real one, breaking off the girders and going into the ocean and catching on fire." Watching the apparition burn gave Adams the jumping-off point for writing one of his standout songs. "But it was really meant to reflect how fragmented my reality was," he says today. "Even though it was completely off-centre, I knew I could take it back." The revelations of writing and recording Love Is Hell continue to bleed into his work:

"If that broke me open, I think now, when I want to write a song like Ashes & Fire, which is kind of a country waltz, and it's descriptive elements, I'm OK to let things break in it."

If the lessons learnt continue to mark Adams' freedom as a songwriter, the behind-the-scenes battle that took place around its release was yet another marker in his wider struggle for freedom as an artist. With Love Hell initially broken up across two EPs at end of 2003, Adams' rush-recorded replacement, Rock N Roll, was simultaneosly released as the official follow-up to Gold. result: the better work was overlooked for a problematic album that had its hooks all ox 80s indie and stadium rock — and received most mixed reception of his career. This wasn't, however, the first time that label and artist had collided. Adams had initially wanted to follow Gold with a three-album box set containing The Suicide Handbook (a double album), 48 Hours and The Pinkheart Sessions. Instead, he found himself having to cherry-pick from all three for a compromised "best of' of sorts: 2002 - pointedly-titled compilation, Demolition.

It's no surprise, then, that the same year Love Is Hell was given the release it had always deserved through Lost Highway, the first pressing on Adams' own Pax-Am imprint seeped out: The Rescue Blues double-7" EP, privately-pressed and sold exclusively at live shows in January 2004. Seven years later, Pax-Am is a fully-fledged concern, with Adams its CEO. Not even Columbia has had any financial influence, or otherwise, on Ashes & Fire — nor anything else Pax-Am-related. "Nor shall anyone ever again," Adams insists, noting that Lost Highway's past demands might have been too distracting from the business of making records. "If they've put up the money their own selves — if they want to commission a work — 'course they're going to stick their head in and say, 'Well, what is it that you're making?" he notes. "It's hard to have that trust. And it's hard as an artist to go through all the self-reflection as well as the doubt... That balance is really delicate. You don't want more doubt, or more pressure. It'll upset the work. And in this case, it wasn't like that." And nor shall it be again. In charge of his own label, Adams has complete control over the final product — from the music to the packaging. "Every [past] record, in every single minute way, has pretty much been my art direction. But now, even more so. I've taken it as far as it'll go," he says.

"I've always said I want them to look like candy wrapping — and even the vinyl to be really colourful." The Ryan Adams & The Cardinals III/IV double-vinyl release boasted one red and one blue LP, while first pressings of Orion came in space-age clear vinyl, with gatefold artwork designed by Michael Langevin, drummer with thrash metallers Voivod. It all adds up to make Pax-Am the sort of collector-friendly label you'd expect from a man who spent his formative years in America "living The Smiths craze out of my bedroom in my parents' house as a 14-year-old". Getting into the group just as they were breaking up, Adams now cherishes his Smiths collection, right up to the "damn rare" 7" and 12" singles he owns. The attention to detail on their releases has been a clear influence on his approach to Pax-Am. It's perhaps this understanding of what it means to be a fan that's enabled Adams to offer a deluxe edition of Ashes Fire — available solely as a pre-order — that includes not only your choice of CD or LP pressing, but a 3D photo of Adams (with Ryan Adams-branded 3D glasses to view them with); a booklet of expanded album artwork (some of which is also 3D); a T-shirt; a flexi disc featuring the unreleased song Petal In A Rainstorm, recorded during the Ashes er Fire sessions; and some Pax-Am "bucks", redeemable against further purchases from the label. "I know I'm not The Smiths, but I like saying, 'OK, we've got 2,000 people that want this.' And I have the means to make it," he says of his label's limited 45s. "It doesn't make a lot of money. It makes enough to press another 7", which is really beautiful."

Already, the singles work fans up into a fever. Most recently, his Empty Room/Nutshell 7", sold exclusively at the merchandise stall through June's solo tour, at one point commanded up to £45 on eBay. "If this stuff means as much to me as it does a few people out there, then I want to do something really special, because I know these times will pass when I have the opportunities to make really cool singles," he says. "Those songs can be lost to everyone, but they shouldn't be lost to those people who really wait for them."

And what about those people who've been waiting for Blackhole? "It's all done. It's all mastered," Adams says. It's also been five years in the making, with Ryan going in to the studio at the end of 2010 to finish it. "When I started demoing for the new record, my intention was to go finish Blackhole — which I did." he says. "There were guitars missing and a few vocals that were just too fucked up at the time to put out." Adams and his drummer even found sound effects and song fragments that they'd entirely forgotten about. Eventually, several extra songs were added to the mix, and the album was finished with the help of old notes and photographs taken when the project began. "All of a sudden, we knew that that was the real record. Like that was exactly what we had intended," he enthuses, adding, "It's historical how it was put together."

As"easy and as beautiful and as natural" as recording Ashes & Fire was, Adams notes: "Rescuing Blackhole was like rescuing my past. It's like Love is Hells' sister. In every way. In the most profound way. My most beautiful electric guitar: Johnny Marr-inspired guitar. It's just all in there." From his label to his records, Ryan speaks with all the enthusiasm of the music fan that he ultimately is. After all, it's such restless passion that's allowed him to create one of the most prolific, varied bodies of work out there today. Best of all, he's ultimately free as an artist to do it all as and when he pleases: "The amount of money that it would rake for somebody to have that kind of control again — for me it's so exorbitant that I don't think anybody would want to do it," he says defiantly. "It's not worth it for me. It's not worth the heartache. I need to make records."

1 comment:

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