Ryan Adams: 'Things got broken and I couldn't fix them'

Ten years ago, he was alt-country's biggest star. Then he trashed his own career. But his latest album could be his best yet. Ryan Adams talks about tea and life in analogue

Ryan Adams would like to make something very clear. "I was never ever sat in a room in the dark, drooling, or whacked out alone for weeks at a time, shooting drugs," he says. "I never shot drugs intravenously. I never smoked crack. I was never on the street. I think really that stuff was very experimental for me: I was experimenting with my mind."

As Adams is painfully aware, he has a certain reputation. A decade ago, he was heralded as America's new country-rock superstar. His 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker – which followed four albums with the alt-country band Whiskeytown – was rapturously received and the follow-up, Gold, clocked up 400,000 sales and three Grammy nominations. He was hailed as "the new Gram Parsons", had Steve Earle and Bono praising him to the skies and was called "a brilliant songwriter" by Elton John. Then something went askew. Reviews and sales of his albums got worse. He started falling out with labels and mistrusting interviewers, and got a reputation for being a boozy, druggy brat.

That picture is difficult to square with the Adams of today. Looking younger than he did in his late 20s ("I wasn't happy"), the 36-year-old is friendly and enthusiastic, happily making tea and offering a whistlestop tour of his new Los Angeles Pax-Am studio, which he has built with old analogue equipment used in famous moments of pop history. He gleefully details the provenance of the equipment: a Motown recording console, a mixing desk used by the Beatles and the Doors, Elvis's engineer's old vocal mics. "And these," he beams, "are the speaker mains used on Master of Puppets!"

Hearing Laura Marling made him competitive: 'I threw out 80% of what I had'

This is the environment that has produced Ashes & Fire, a new album of heartbreaking, beautiful songs that pick over the embers of his wilder life in a mood of becalmed, mature contentment – qualities that can spell trouble in music, but which here have produced possibly the album of his career. "I'm hearing that and it's shocking," he smiles. "But I'm glad that is translating. I'm having a nice time, and I had a nice time making the record." According to Adams, the legendary producer Glyn Johns took control, which allowed the singer to relax. He also renewed his long-term relationship with Johns' son Ethan (producer of Heartbreaker and Gold), who sent him Laura Marling's I Speak Because I Can, which he'd been working on. Hearing Marling offered Adams the challenge he needed. "I thought: 'For fuck's sake,'" Adams smiles, his piercing blue eyes peeking from behind a flop of raven hair. "I literally threw out 80% of what I had. And it felt good, to ask: 'What am I really capable of?' I felt competitive again to write great songs."

Ashes & Fire would have been impossible had Adams not been able to change his life. Five years ago he was diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a degenerative condition affecting hearing and balance. "All the stuff I was doing exacerbated the disease," he says. "You're not supposed to smoke, you're not supposed to drink alcohol, be stressed, eat salty foods." Anything else? "You're probably not supposed to do speedballs," he adds drily, referring to the cocktail of heroin and cocaine that killed John Belushi and River Phoenix, among others.

So his reputation wasn't unfounded?

"A lot was exaggerated," he says, handing me a brew and pointing out that "someone on a bender from hell all the time" could never have assembled his formidable back catalogue. "But I think I was really socially inept in a lot of ways," he adds, carefully. "Uncomfortable in my skin, and when I did interviews there were a lot of times that maybe I felt provoked. If I really was a bad dude, I don't think I would have kept some really great friendships and relationships for a long time. I don't think I was misunderstood – it was the way it was painted." He pauses, momentarily looking miles away. "Or maybe I really did change. It's hard to know."

Adams accepts his childhood in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was dysfunctional, though he won't share many details. His father left when he was five and he was raised by his grandparents, who introduced him to books and storytelling. Nevertheless, he was a loner with low self-esteem, who dropped out of school. "No different from a lot of people," he shrugs. "If you don't have an outlet you become a criminal, or misanthropic." That outlet arrived when he heard the Smiths' compilation album Hatful of Hollow: "To this day, the emotions I feel when I hear it are indescribable."

Seeking to pursue music, he left Jacksonville for the state capital, Raleigh, working as a plumber to fund gigs. Not everyone appreciated a young upstart with his head filled with Jack Kerouac and romantic visions of literary rock'n'roll. "One guy spat on me. He said: 'Fuck you. You just wanna get a record deal and move out of this town.' I said, 'Fuck, yeah I do! What's the problem?'"

In 1994 he founded Whiskeytown, who were tipped to take alt country into the mainstream, and they got Adams out of Raleigh and north to New York. His temperament was already apparent – the Detroit Free Press described Whiskeytown as "half band, half soap opera" after a particularly gruesome Michigan show – and they fell apart in 2000. Then he split up with his girlfriend (commemorated on the track Amy on Heartbreaker): "She's gone, the cats were gone, my attorney comes to the apartment with 300 bucks left from my contract and says: 'You can't live here any more. You have to go back to North Carolina.' My buddy picked me up and I saw the city behind me getting smaller and it was like my dream was over."

His response was to record Heartbreaker, only for it to be rejected by the roots label Sugar Hill, before finally coming out on Bloodshot.

Heartbreaker was the breakthrough Adams had been seeking. Pitchfork's review called it "an album of astonishing musical proficiency, complete honesty and severe beauty", and a major label deal soon followed. The follow-up, Gold, struck paydirt, and the record company wanted to repeat the formula, but Adams went off in every direction over a series of albums – anything but radio-friendly rock. His label, Lost Highway, finally refused to release his Love is Hell album (it eventually snuck out as two EPs, before coming out as a full album) and his manager accused him of "biting the hand that feeds".

Adams disagrees. "I was an earnest young man who just wanted to make music. I couldn't understand why they wouldn't open the door."

Gold shipped 400,000 in the US alone; far more than his later records. Didn't he want to sell a million? "It would have been interesting," he admits. "The part of me that's missing self-respect would have thought: 'I am something.' But I don't write a song with that in mind. I write a song to be a better song – 200,000 sales is an honest living." He felt he was being sold to the world as "radio rock, fucking Tom Petty", and resented it – and he resented the way some journalists seemed to have turned against him. Nor was he afraid of saying so, as a memorably abusive message left on the answering machine of US critic Jim DeRogatis showed. He became grumpy and defensive. "It was like 'Who does this kid fucking think he is?' I remember those buttons being pressed all the time," he says of how the media began treating him.

Adams was already no stranger to drinking and partying – he could, he says, "go harder, and longer" than most people. But the Whiskeytown era's social drinking turned into self-medication, and he was visiting bars alone. "Because I'd been a lonely person all my life I'd go to these places in the evening. I liked the warmth of that environment, and everyone who had problems, they just disappeared."

The way he describes it – a book, a glass of bourbon – sounds idyllic. So how do you go from that to doing speedballs?

"I never drank during the day, or when I mowed the lawn," he deadpans. "But I couldn't drink unless I found cocaine, which is sad. Not huge quantities. I wasn't living Scarface. You'd do a bump on the edge of your hand and sit there telling stories." He's naturally hyperactive and taking drugs made him feel level-headed. "I should have been going up the walls, but I just felt normal."

Which sounds like addiction, but he disagrees, saying his drug use was only notable for a year or so, spanning 2005 and 2006, and "I was never overcome by heroin." There was opium, yes, but he insists that helped creatively.

"I fully understand when people say Edgar Allen Poe used to smoke this stuff and have visions," he says. "I wrote the entire song How Do You Keep Love Alive [on 2005's Cold Roses] without writing a word down, and I played it on piano. And I've tried to understand the chord pattern ever since, because I can't fuckin' play it." And whatever drugs he was taking, he jokes, he always sent Christmas cards and was able to go on dates. Even so, there's a tiny frown: "I don't know what toll it took upon my psyche."

And people around him? "I didn't know this at the time, but people have since said that they were certain I would die," he says. In fact, so notorious was his lifestyle that when he emerged on the other side, in 2007, the New York Times headlined an interview, "Ryan Adams Didn't Die."

He'd felt like a happy person, he says, until late 2005. "New York felt really cold. Some of my friends were gone. I had to cancel a whole tour. The night before I was supposed to go I was on mushrooms and I melted down. I couldn't sleep. I just couldn't face going." His band, the Cardinals, were falling apart; Ménière's disease was creeping in. "Bombs were going off, and as things were becoming broken, I couldn't fix them."

One night, Adams told the woman he was with at the time that he was going out one last night. "Which sounded like bullshit, but it was true." At 11.30pm, he called to say he was done. He doesn't pretend sobriety brought a great epiphany. In fact, he was "reacquainted with the disappointments of daily existence". Suddenly there was no "fantasy New York, no speeding down Sixth Avenue in the middle of the night seeing these amazing artists and transsexuals with hand guns, and bass players swingin' basses at guitar players onstage. See, most people deal with this shit and build their character. I'd been in a cocoon of art." What he did was start writing books, and tons of songs.

In what he calls a "figuring out" period, the Cardinals addressed drug abuse in the double album III/IV. "And guess what happened to it?" he erupts. "It got rejected!" He finally released it himself last year. Getting out of his old record contract felt "like a succubus had been removed from my chest".

He doesn't miss the mad times. "It feels so long ago, like it happened to a different person," he says, running a hand through that unruly hair. His only vices now are the tea and the Guardian crossword. When his grandmother died this year, he found himself "forgiving all the family stuff". And he's happily married, to singer-actor Mandy Moore. He says Ashes & Fire isn't all autobiographical, but coyly admits that I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say's beautiful line "When I met you the clouds inside me parted" is "not unrelatable".

In the album's sublime single Lucky Now, he quietly sings: "I don't remember, were we wild and young? All that faded into memory. I feel like somebody I don't know. Are we really who we used to be? Am I really who I was?"

Is Ryan Adams finally happy being Ryan Adams? "More than I've ever been," he answers, instantly. "I used to be panicked. Now I'm curious."

Ashes & Fire is released on Pax-Am/Sony on 10 October.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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