Interviewed by Elton John
ELTON JOHN: Thank you for coming to Atlanta, Ryan. First of all, I have to say that ever since I heard your first solo album, Heartbreaker [Bloodshot], when it came out in October 2000, you've been one of my favorite recording artists. In the fall, you released a second solo album, Gold [Lost Highway], and you've put three albums out with [your former band] Whiskeytown. The latest, Pneumonia, came out last May, right?
RYAN ADAMS: Uh-huh. We made Pneumonia in '99, but then everyone in Whiskeytown kind of went their separate ways.
EJ: Do you think it's weird that two years after you recorded it, the album finally comes out and hits the charts?
RA: Yeah, it is. I met this person at a party two nights ago and she was a fan of Heartbreaker and she goes, 'I just got the Whiskeytown record and I'm confused,' and I said, 'So am I.' That's the only way I know how to respond.
EJ: Are you the only musician in your family?
RA: Basically. My brother is, for lack of a better term, a mathematician. I remember when he was in his senior year in high school, he was tutoring linear algebra to college students, which amazed me. I, on the other hand, was screaming at the top of my lungs to Black Flag records [John laughs] and was really enthralled with reading. This sounds very cliched, but it's true. I was reading beat poetry and keeping journals and writing. My goal early on was to be a journalist and then to maybe become a writer. Music was one of the things that happened on the way, by accident.
EJ: When you were growing up, what things did you like to listen to?
RA: I guess my initial turn on to music was Black Sabbath and Prince.
EJ: Seeing you live, none of those influences really come out.
RA: No, but that's what I would listen to when I was painting or making art or writing. And I didn't really listen to music very much until, all of a sudden, somehow it just made sense to me. I was attracted to it just as hard as I could be attracted to anything. The record that I remember the most is Damaged by Black Flag, which changed my life in every manner. I was in such a small town and a bit different because a lot of people in my hometown [Raleigh, North Carolina] didn't aspire to artÖ.or to much of anything.
EJ: Heartbreaker is such a beautiful album, and yet it hardly got any radio play.
RA: I don't think we got any radio play.
EJ: That's disgusting.
RA: But I don't think anyone's to blame. People will seek out music they desire but to talk about why it wouldn't get airplay is ridiculous. I'm just glad I got to make the record. The funny thing is that so many people have taken to it. Since then, I've had great moments of artistic doubt about what to do next, because I thought, Well, crap. Everyone likes this record so much, how can anyone possibly like anything later?
EJ: Everything is perfect on the album---every song, the instrumentation, or the lack of instrumentation. The simplicity. And that's what touched me. It was so beautiful and so well recorded, and the melodies were just sensational. I'm kind of envious because I don't write lyrics. I just write melodies and that's where my feelings come from---inside. That's how I express myself. But I've always thought it's incredible that people have the ability to notice things and write their feelings down. I could do it really well when I was in rehab.
RA: Right, it was like an exorcism.
EJ: Yes. Like, 'Get this thing out of here'. I think you are very eloquent. When you're onstage, you have, as they say, the gift of gab. You are very, very good at talking.
RA: One of my closest friends says he feels like I'm more comfortable up there than I am in my own life, and the irony of that doesn't escape me at all.
EJ: I found I was much more comfortable onstage than I was offstage, and hence I wore the big glasses because I was really shy. Onstage I was very in-your-face and outrageous.
RA: Isn't that funny, though? I always find that artistic personalities have an amazing ability to create fires out of nothing. They are propelled to want more and to want to build things up, but the hardest thing is putting out those fires at the end of the day. You could talk about Jim Morrison or jazz musicians who were just these minds that worked like machinery that never stopped, until the grease goes dry and the gears break.
EJ: That is definitely true with me. Although I'm much better now, I think it's true of most performers. Especially the major stars like Judy Garland. There's no balance. They're safe onstage but once they get off, they have no clue about what goes on, and I didn't either.
RA: It's funny, because lately I've come to this very strange conclusion about romance and how it influences my music. It's almost like I see things and immediately they will come out in a song, unconsciously. And I wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing, but I knew not to judge, you know? One of the greatest things I've learned from writing songs is that it really shouldn't be any different than taking notes or being a journalist or a photographer or a painter, or even just being someone that is really into their surroundings or their friends. The best thing to do is just to go with it. I just kind of feel like, you get on the ride--
EJ: --and you hang on and that ball keeps rolling, and you never know where it's going to take you. That's the thing I love about what I do. I mean, it's brought me to so many incredible places, and so many horrible places-but so many incredible things. And it still does.
RA: I was talking to Adam Duritz [of Counting Crows] the other night, about what would happen if I was ever to become a success. Before I was a musician, I had pretty lame jobs. I was a dishwasher and dug ditches. Now I'm still a ditch digger, but it's different. It's kind of like as songwriters, we're doing a job for the rest of the world who are not obsessed with art. They go to work and they're frustrated and maybe they have these really intense feelings of self-doubt, or maybe they're not able to commiserate with other people on a level they want to. And they hand the shovel to us and say 'Would you please go in there and find out what the hell it is I'm feeling?' So it's really the same gig, only this one's got more travelling.
EJ: Are most of the songs personal?
RA: Yeah, they're completely obsessive.
EJ: And you are a complete, stone-cold romantic, right?
RA: The excesses of romance make sense to me. Like, I can meet someone and immediately vibe with them and feel love, and feel close enough to care, and I can be very protective and overzealous about it. Then sometimes I'll reflect onto myself while I'm doing these things and I'll realize I'm at my shit worst. Like, heart on chain, dragging through mud with ice cream cone and sand behind me. I actually love things so much it kills me.
EJ: Me, too.
RA: It drives me absolutely mad, and I can't find a place to get jaded. I mean, I've had a succession of romantic downfalls in m life and yet I donít ever find the jaded part. I don't think, I'm just gonna wait around and see if things will be OK and maybe this'll all pan out and maybe the truth will come to me in a week. I never accept that, it has to be immediate. I won't accept less, and if I canít have the immediacy then I invent the myth of why it isn't there. I said the other day to a friend, 'Well, fuck, I wouldn't date me, man. I'd definitely go out for a drink with me, but there's no way in hell I'd date me.' The only real full-time people in this world, it seems to me, are people of faith, like a preacher or a saint, a criminal or an artist, because 24 hours a day those people are always on to something. We're so bust being in love with the world that we can't help but recreate it and keep trying to turn it into our own truth.
EJ: You're beginning to become quite established. You've already developed an incredible critical reputation. What if suddenly you start selling hundreds of thousands of albums. Would that freak you out?
RA: It won't freak me out because I am extraordinarily confident in the fact that it will not happen. I don't foresee a commercial breakthrough. I've heard this said by a lot of really fantastic people who are icons in a sense, people like Stevie Nicks or Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits or Neil Young. These people have had hits, but one of the things that's maintained them was that it seemed that they had a course that they absolutely wanted to take. Iím kind of a first-take person. I'll write a song, and it'll be a singular statement to one person, namely one girl, or one friend, someone I need to connect with, and it's just for that one person. If I can go back in front of the speakers and imagine them hearing it and go, 'This will rattle them to the foundations. This was the stuff I couldn't say because I was too nervous.' That's great.
EJ: And that's why I like it.