:: Ryan Adams and The Cardinals :: :: Fox Theatre :: August 2 :: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: August 3 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
By all accounts, I shouldn’t be writing this article. In fact, no one should be writing articles on Ryan Adams. A year or so ago we should have all written obituaries on him — obituaries which would have poignantly compared him to the alt-country legend Gram Parsons (with whom Adams shares a birthday, November 5) and to other musicians and actors who died tragically before their time from drug overdoses. Adams’ penchant for speedballs (a lethal blend of uppers and downers) would have placed his death alongside the likes of Brent Mydland, River Phoenix and Layne Staley, as well as John Belushi and Chris Farley, who all died from speedball overdoses.
But just when Adams was about to take that final leap, something, or more importantly, someone pulled him back from the edge, and the now sober 32-year-old has just released his ninth album to critical acclaim. He recently told The Marquee that now, he’s more “me than I’ve ever been.”
Earlier this year, Adams confessed to famed music critic Anthony DeCurtis, “I snorted heroin a lot — with coke. I did speedballs every day for years and took pills and then drank. And I don’t mean a little bit. I always outdid everybody,” he told DeCurtis.
In mid-July when The Marquee caught up with Adams, he said, “I quit taking drugs because I was taking a lot of drugs. And I quit drinking because I always hated drinking, but I needed something to do when I was taking tons of drugs, which I know sounds really weird, but that’s just how I am. I’m an obsessive sort of person. But what I found out, and, like, what I knew the whole time is that I was really burnt with it anyway. I hated drinking. It was like such a job. But I just didn’t know that I was doing all of that stuff to feel like I feel now, which is basically, I could have just had a cup of coffee and I think I would have been fine.”
It was Adams’ girlfriend, writer/model Jessica Joffe, who recently cleaned up her own lifestyle, who helped Adams get sober. And in a press release written by Stephen King for Adams’ new album, Easy Tiger, Adams claims that it was Joffe who used the phrase that became the album’s namesake. “She wanted to go out to dinner at eight; I wanted to go right away. She said, ‘Easy, Tiger,’ and that hit me. It stuck with me to the point where I called up Neal [Cardinal’s guitarist Neal Casal] and left a message on his answering machine with those two words. ‘Don’t forget this,’ I said, ‘cause I want to use it,’” Adams said.
While Joffe played a variety of roles in helping to re-vamp that side of Adams’ life, the singer/songwriter credited a number of his professional acquaintences and fellow Cardinals with the final direction of Easy Tiger.
Among them, Adams said that Luke Lewis, the chairman of the Nashville division of Universal Music, of which Adams’ label Lost Highway is a part, played a large role. He said that before he set off for Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studio in New York with The Cardinals, he spoke with Lewis about what the label was looking for. “I wanted to know what record they were excited about, because at that point The Cardinals and I had enough ideas that we could have done the most rocking, concept, Zeppelin 6-type piece or something more punk rock, new wave or folk or pop. We had so much inspiration going. When I asked Luke what he was interested in, he said a solo record. That wasn’t a command from him,” Adams said. “The irony is that it’s the record that everybody else in the band was starting to go towards. We kind of did it as a challenge.”“
Additionally, Adams credited The Cardinals — Casal, Jon Graboff, Brad Pemberton, Chris Feinstein and producer-turned-Cardinal Jamie Candiloro — with the album’s sound.
“The band wanted to support me, which I kind of needed to happen before there is a ‘band’ record. We needed to at least leave things in their correct place. So by the time we were done I worked with them so much — because I couldn’t find my ego for it — they helped me pick tunes and when it was finished I felt like this is a Cardinals’ record, because we kind of accidentally learned even more how to be Cardinals by having a project like that,” he said. Those feelings ultimately led to Adams asking Lost Highway to release the album as a Cardinals release, instead of a project with his name on it, but the label balked at the idea.
Candiloro, according to Adams, also took a major role in the development of Easy Tiger. As Adams talked to The Marquee on the phone, it was Candiloro who was driving Adams around Los Angeles, following a mid-night bus run through the desert from Austin to L.A. Adams agreed with the statement that Easy Tiger sounds more like a traditional studio album than his 2005 releases of Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, which both had a live flavor to them. “That’s all Jamie,” Adams said. “It was his idea of making things more pronounced in the way we were sometimes looking for things in the past with a big bomb, he did it by reducing layers. So, like, if you really want a big guitar part in a crescendo, maybe it’s doing it as simple as you can on acoustic guitars. Jamie’s style was a bit feng shui. You kind of come in there and there’s just some things you don’t need and when you remove them they can breathe more, which is good because in order for The Cardinals to establish a sound, we first went in by making a lot of noise and found identity in that and then, I suppose, little by little, we’ve been trying to figure out how to bring more clarity to that, without falling.” Adams said.
Adams talked about everyone’s role in the album in a kind of ‘Thank God they’re here’ kind of way, and he later explained that he is somewhat fearful of the whole process of songwriting. “Every song I write is going to be suspect to me on some level or the other, always, because I know how they’re built. Therefore, it’s probably a bit like the person who manufactures airplanes. I bet that that person is probably somewhat terrified to fly, you know? Like, cause, you know where all the kinks are and you know where the parts are that weren’t quite working so you improvised and who knows how long it’s going to hold? That’s kind of how I see song structure. I see it as I’m almost building a physical thing like a bridge or something. something that is made out of something and those parts have to be weighed perfectly, or it’s going to get soft,” he said.
Adams should be concerned about his songs getting soft. The songwriter has never been afraid of crafting sad songs, and any fan of music knows that while sad songs can strike incredibly powerful chords with listeners, some can fall very flat if they’re not handled delicately. He said that he often tries to slip in a bit of humor to those songs that can serve a cathartic purpose while keeping the song on track. “Here and there I try to slip in a little one liner, something that will add some levity. Without a bit of levity, some songs will fall really fast. So I like to get in there and talk about the heavy stuff when I write, but I realize it’s almost like I’m taking evasive action by the time I hit the chorus to make sure that I don’t overcook it. Nothing is worse than a song that’s good for like six months but later times out. For me, the balance is to use as much local color as possible without dating it,” he said.
But, in his typical self-deprecating tone, he adds that there are a bunch of songs that fans have never heard because of that exact reason. Some of that, he said, will be put to rest this fall when Lost Highway releases a boxed set of Adams unreleased work. Some of those tracks were recorded when Adams was in his drinking and drugging days. He admitted, “Back in the day, in my 20s, when, you know, I drank and did drugs or whatever, there are sessions that were paid for just to have some place to go where I could be for two days where there wasn’t going to be any police intervention. It’s not all bad, either,” he laughed.
Anyone who knows Adams knows that his prolific songwriting and urge to create isn’t ever really turned off, and even though Easy Tiger just hit the streets this summer, it’s a safe bet that he’s got another album or two up his sleeve ready to go at any time. He even alluded to that, but said that it’s not the time to get started. “I’d definitely say that my bag is pretty full of tricks at this point, but I’m just keeping those things to myself at this point. I haven’t been revealing too much really. I want to keep the focus where it is. It’s not time for them yet.”
:: Ryan Adams and The Cardinals ::
:: Fox Theatre :: August 2 ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: August 3 ::
Spectate if you Gravitate:
• Lucinda Williams
• Gram Parsons
• Jeff Tweedy