About five minutes before our conversation is drawn forcibly to a close, I have to interrupt Ryan Adams in full flow and demand that he tells me something about his new album. The singer-songwriter is fascinating company but couldn’t be less interested in the professional obligations of plugging a record. He talks at entertaining length about his beloved grandparents, repairing vintage pinball machines, the best running routes in LA and naturally, Donald Trump, and it seems rude to jump in and ask for a snippet of actual music news.
“Well you’re supposed to ask me if it’s about my divorce,” he says bluntly, when finally prodded onto the topic of Prisoner, the 42-year-old’s 16th solo album. It’s a bleak listen, heavy on the electric guitars and lyrical laceration, with telling song titles including Do You Still Love Me?, To Be Without You, and Doomsday. Even the picture on the sleeve, an impressionistic woman’s face that Adams painted himself, looks haggard and sad. He separated from the woman he married in 2009, the actress and former pop singer Mandy Moore, in 2014 and the divorce was finalised last summer. He relocated from their home in LA to New York’s esteemed Electric Lady Studios to record the music.
Perhaps because this counts as a celebrity coupling, although Adams and Moore have hardly been staple Heat magazine cover stars, this time he seems to expect more public interest in nibbling at his couplets in search of personal details. Yet he’s been making break-up songs for his entire career. You don’t put Ryan Adams on at your Zumba class. Start with his exquisitely tortured 2000 recording Heartbreaker, written about an early love named Amy, if you want to know what lovesickness sounds like.
“Exactly!” he says, when I suggest that in the wider scheme of things, Prisoner’s subject matter is hardly new. “Sometimes a break-up song is perceived as that because that’s what the person who’s hearing it needs. But for me, it’s just a narrative that continues to go on, where I’m remembering a thing that felt romantic to me. For every person you’ve ever loved, you don’t stop loving them, or maybe you love them in a different way, and it softens, or it bitters, and you just go on that journey.”
I point out that Bob Dylan’s “divorce album”, Blood on the Tracks, came at a similar stage in his career – it was his 15th album. Rather than earning me further insights, I get an extended geek-off about the superior merits of Dylan’s earlier bootleg version, known as Blood on the Tapes. “It’s the best record he ever made. If you listen to his original version of Idiot Wind, he’s not mad – he’s destroyed. It’s the most beautiful recording I’ve ever heard. Everything I’ve ever done since I heard it has to feel like that.”
He’s a deeply involved music fan, not necessarily of the things you might expect given that he began his career leading a country band, Whiskeytown, and is most commonly found emoting in the vicinity of an acoustic guitar. He arrives for our interview in a Misfits T-shirt and a leather jacket with “Iron Maiden” painted on the back. His hair is such a thicket that I half expect a woodpigeon to flap out of it. As he no longer smokes cigarettes, he sucks and crunches at a boiled sweet as he talks about his formative discovery of the Smiths collection, Hatful of Hollow.
“Man I loved The Smiths so much. I thought they looked awesome, and Morrissey had hearing aids like my Papaw,” he says, using his affectionate name for his grandfather. When his parents divorced, his grandparents were his best friends as a child, “which made me kind of weird.” Aged 13 in his hometown of Jacksonville, North Carolina, he picked the record from a crate belonging to a skateboarding friend’s older brother. The friend was giving them away because the brother had gone to prison. Adams dropped it and chipped the edge, so never got to hear the opening song, William, It Was Really Nothing.
In the 2000s, as his solo career took off, he gained a reputation as a temperamental soul, feared by interviewers, frustrating fans who never knew which Ryan Adams they were going to get at his concerts. He was endlessly prolific, songs pouring from him like coins from a ripped pocket, and in 2005 released three albums in just over six months. But his quality control was off, and he was miserable.
Today he’s a pleasure to be around, if not completely at ease. The first hotel suite set up for the interview is too hot, he says, moving to a second room where he keeps opening and closing the window as sirens pass. The room door must be kept open, not so his people can keep an eye on me, apparently, but so he can see that they’re there while we talk. Eventually he does shut the door on them, though, because they need him to leave and keep an appointment with Jonathan Ross but he’d rather finish an extremely long story about his hypnotherapy.
In 2006 his health problems were diagnosed as Meniere’s disease, a condition that affected his hearing and balance. He gave up drink, smoking and drugs then, and raves about the benefits to his wellbeing brought by a mix of marijuana and hypnosis. “Back then the shows were very stressful, I was constantly dealing with tinnitus, I wasn’t happy,” he tells me. “I just slept, for weeks at a time. It’s hard to describe but it’s a nauseousnesss and a dizziness, and your body doesn’t know where stuff is. You’re very clumsy. It’s horrible.”
Even with the diagnosis providing an answer to the way he was feeling, it took a long time to work out how to treat it. “First I got depressed – ironically around the time I got married. I felt so sick and gross and just couldn’t get it together. I got so skinny and horrible-looking, I kind of looked like Gollum, and I acted like a senior citizen.”
He credits his Santa Monica hypnotherapist with restoring his hearing and enabling him to tune out his tinnitus – he says that at one point a picture of the inside of his left ear “looked like I’d been standing next to an explosive device” – and his lighting director for working out how he can perform shows without the flashing LEDs triggering an attack. “All anyone ever had to do was put the lights straight down and use the spots from the side so I would never see the actual LED. Now our shows are like fuckin’ Star Wars!”
So today the concerts (with a UK tour to be announced imminently) are finally enjoyable for both him and the audience. Check out his recent release, Live at Carnegie Hall, for the ideal Adams mix of sung melancholy and between-song hilarity. Meanwhile in the studio, he’s enjoying his most consistent run of great albums, from Ashes & Fire in 2011 through to Prisoner next week (with an indulgent but surprisingly touching song-by-song cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 thrown in for good measure). He doesn’t have much to be miserable about, whatever his songs may appear to be about.
“Prisoner is not a direct ‘I’ve just been divorced’ album, although that fire is burning very well on that record,” he says. “The subtext, if you listen to the music and the way I’m singing, is that I am so in love with my life. I am aware of the depths of heartache I’m experiencing but also how foolish it is to think that the things we have are permanent. They’re not. It’s brutal, but you won’t ever hear me complain on this record. It’s a dark room, but it’s about the light that’s coming from the window on the other side.”
Deep into a long journey of personal and professional upheaval, that’s not a bad place for Ryan Adams to be.
Prisoner is released on Feb 17 on Pax-Am/Blue Note.