Like a lot of hard-touring musicians, Ryan Adams didn’t know what to do with himself when he suddenly had a break from the road. Normally, he’d make another album, but the infamously prolific Adams already has a 23-song follow-up to 2014’s Ryan Adams in the can. He needed fresh stimulation.
“It’s not like I had a ton of shit left to say,” Adams told me over the phone last week. “I was like, ‘Well, I’ve already exhausted so much information and feelings.’”
Adams decided to undertake a project he initially considered a lark: A song-by-song cover of his friend Taylor Swift’s blockbuster album, 1989. While Swift dressed her songs up as retro-leaning dance pop, Adams pulled 1989 in a more overtly melancholy direction, layering the tunes with glistening guitars and reverb. It would hark back to Adams’s own 2004 album Love Is Hell, when — like Swift — he broke with country music and embraced Reagan-era sonic textures.
But even as he shared audio clips of the 1989 tracks during the recording process in August — engendering a surprising wellspring of enthusiasm online cultivated by none other than Swift herself — Adams didn’t think he would actually release them.
“We just wanted to play,” Adams says. “The funny thing was that halfway through that first song, those lines hooked up with me, and I thought to myself, Oh shit, I’m so deep in this song right now. I really didn’t fully expect it. Then we did ‘Blank Space’ and I knew, Wow, this record is going to tell as much of a story as my own record. The lotus blossomed.”
Indeed, what elevates Adams’s 1989 beyond a mere meme and to an actually great record is how fully he inhabits Swift’s eminently durable songs. His 1989 fits thematically with his best work. It’s also a lot of fun, recontexualizing some of the most ubiquitous songs of recent times — “Bad Blood” becomes a gorgeous folk-rock ballad; “Shake It Off” sounds miraculously like a glowering Born in the U.S.A. outtake; “Style” smolders in a disco-rock guise. But once the novelty wears off, 1989 still resonates because it’s clearly a deeply personal and idiosyncratic endeavor for Adams. The beauty of the arrangements ultimately derives from a sincere emotional connection to the material. Adams doesn’t dilute the payoffs in Swift’s songs, he just finds his own way to get there.
I spoke with Adams on Thursday, not long after he confirmed that he would release 1989 after all. (It’s available now.) His excitement about the project was readily apparent.
Has Taylor Swift heard the whole album yet?
Yeah, she was the first person to hear it, actually.
She seemed thrilled about the project from the start. But theoretically: If Taylor Swift had hated it, would you have not put it out?
We’ve known each other for a little while, so I figured she would probably be pretty interested and would think it was a fun thing to do. But I actually wasn’t thinking about releasing it. That wasn’t really on my mind when I was making it.
The quick and easy way to describe how it came to be is, I basically was on the road for a year and three months, and when you get off the road, your body isn’t ready to let go of the time of night when you’re going to get ready to start playing. So at 8 p.m. every night, for three weeks to a month, your adrenaline will start firing and your body is going, Oh shit, I’m going to play in an hour. Then nine to eleven, you’re in the weird space-time continuum of where you’re not onstage, but you feel like you are.
Over the Christmas holiday I had a three-week break, and that’s when I originally started to track 1989. But I was tracking on a four-track cassette recorder. It was like, “Yeah, cool, I’m going to cover it like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.” Then the cassette tape was eaten by the machine, which was unbelievable — after a week of setup, too. I didn’t get discouraged, but in my mind, I went, Well, this is not meant to be in the style; I’ll do it later. I’ll make it an after-tour, fun project.”
Everybody had their ideas and we would learn it on-the-spot together. Pick the key, come up with an arrangement, try the arrangement — if it felt right, we’d cut the song. Right after we got the take we wanted — which would be between the first and third take — we would right away record two electric guitar overdubs and percussion. It made for a totally cool sound, somewhere between Darkness on the Edge of Town and Meat Is Murder.
Probably by “Out of the Woods,” I’d say we were locked in a total dimension of music exploration. We might as well have been walking on the moon. It was a completely surreal experience. I kept going in my mind, When am I going to find a song where I don’t know how to relate? Bizarrely, that never came. Like, “Shake It Off,” how are you going to find common ground? But that stuff came to me right away. I felt the tension in the lyrics, I felt the momentum in the chord changes. And then right away, [guitarist] Tod [Wisenbaker] starts to throw some really cool riffs at me. It becomes a weird cycle where I just get so excited all over again, which is totally what playing music is supposed to be.”
The sound of this record reminds me a lot of Love Is Hell.
I’m very happy to hear you say that.
With 1989, Taylor Swift transitioned to ’80s-inspired pop after a series of country records. Love Is Hell marked a similar transition for you after Whiskeytown and your first two solo records, Heartbreaker and Gold. I wrote about this theory linking you and Swift a few weeks ago. Did the 1989–Love Is Hell parallel occur to you as you were recording 1989?
Well, it’s a theory. Theories are interesting, but only until proven. And even then, we live in a relative universe. Who knows how static or elastic these ideas are?
I make a lot of songs — that’s the only gimmick of my career. Imagine me sitting down anywhere and theorizing in that context. I don’t have that ability. If I had that ability, I would probably be a platinum-selling artist. There’s a way to use who you are and what you do. There’s a way to take it and propel it so that it can become a bigger thing. It’s not just about the song; it’s about what you do and how you do it. I’m always so excited to get to the next song or the next experience that a lot of times I don’t have a pretentious concept. It’s usually, quite simply: I wanna go make some music and see what happens.
These songs are incredible. You break them down from what they are to this raw element, and they’re just super powerful and they can tear you up. They’re very vulnerable and brave and all the stuff I love about Hüsker Dü or Bob Mould’s records. It’s the same thing to me. It’s about sharing who you are and where you are in your life in a very vulnerable way. And it was cool to find that in these songs. I mean, I knew it was going to be there. But it was interesting to go find that and then grow something different with it.
I think it was really liberating for her on a lot of levels to be able to go, “I wanna write these badass songs, but I want them to pop out and feel lighter.” That’s probably very brave for her, if only because I’m sure that idea was met with some resistance. I mean, this is a person that was basically associated with country music for quite a long time, and she was straying away from that and making something that probably felt a little closer to the time of life she’s in. Or maybe she just felt liberated, I don’t know.
But when you break a song down to what it is, to its bones — the emotional structure, the way the words are, the cycles in the song — there’s usually a blueprint there, a fingerprint. Like, the DNA of the song usually tells the story of the writer. I played a few of them on acoustic guitar for the guys before we wanted to cut them, just to find the core of them. And you start playing them and I’m watching my grown-ass men dork friends get a little teary, and I’m feeling the same way. That’s totally awesome. That’s exactly what you want.
Getting back to the idea of common ground, where did you find it with Taylor Swift as you were making this record?
I connected to her as a songwriter. She’s a full-time, hardworking songwriter. I sat down to work on a song with her a couple years ago before Red came out. It was really clear to me the first time we sat down together and played guitar, her idea in that moment that she showed me and the things she was working on, it was totally and completely sound. It was so good. I’m sure this is probably a problem for any producer that she works with, [where] they’re just like, “Which of these do I use?” Because she just has a super concise, melodic mind.
The structures that she’s building are a lot of clean lines — the songs are all ends in themselves, the top line and the song itself are usually mirrors of each other, and I like that she’s able to be very vulnerable, but she doesn’t have to be wordy to get there. It’s not minimalism, but definitely it’s, like, content by reduction. It’s the same kind of stuff that I love about Noel Gallagher’s writing, or classic Rolling Stones songs.
I always call myself an F-to-A-minor kind of personality, and I was like, “We’re the same! We’re F-to-A-minor!” It’s true. That’s a dangerous cliff for some songwriters. But for other people, it’s actually a really fun place to go. It’s kind of like BASE jumping or something: Are you ready to go that fast and that close to the rocks? But it all goes back to that song “White Horse.” You can’t hear that song, as a songwriter, and not know that this person’s totally locked into their craft, 1,000 percent. It’s just totally there. And I think that’s really inspiring. That’s going to be inspiring all the way to a song like “Bad Blood.” It’s just not going to go away.
There’s an interesting paradox to your career, which is that you’re known as a really prolific songwriter, and yet some of your most popular songs are covers. Your version of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” is easily your most streamed track on Spotify, and 1989 is poised to become one of your most successful albums. How do you feel about that?
Well, I’m not surprised that they’re more popular because they’re already more popular, so that makes sense. But I usually don’t think to cover a song unless it’s something that really moves me or there’s something for me to offer the song. I also cover Greg Sage, who was in the Wipers. My favorite band from New Zealand, the Verlaines, I’ve covered them. Or I’ll cover Natalie Prass. Or Black Sabbath.
“Wonderwall” always belonged on Love Is Hell, and it always belonged in that style, because it said something in the middle of that record that needed to be said, and it actually needed to be said in that context because that record was about a time that I spent between New York and London, and it was about losing someone that I loved very much and then falling in love with someone else while I was on a lot of drugs. [I was] taking pills and drinking and stuff, and sort of staying in this daydream to nullify a huge amount of psychological pain associated with losing someone that passed away.
So “Wonderwall,” I always loved that song. And I used to say to this person — this person that I fell in love with after I had lost someone sometime while I was living over in London — I used to say that song is so much sadder than anybody realizes. The conversation was this joke conversation that was basically me and this woman who was very much a Blur fan, and me being such an Oasis fan. She was there for that big Oasis vs. Blur thing, so by including “Wonderwall” on the record, it was commentary — a very private commentary — and probably meaningless to other people unless they could find a thread in that record to see what I’m saying.
That song is like in a movie when there’s a montage showing the past that’s not directly related to the arc of the film, it’s diverging for a second to humanize the character.
I remember when I did it, people were like, “That’s a huge mistake, man. You’re setting yourself up for a bunch of bad criticism.” When have I not set myself up for a bunch of criticism? Like, what am I going to do, ruin my reputation? Too late — especially at that time.
Not to be greedy, but I have to ask: Does your album-length cover of the Strokes’ Is This It really exist, and will you ever release it?
It does exist on a cassette tape. No, it will never come out. I don’t think it will. I found it for two minutes. It was still unmixed on the four-track. But then I moved again, and so it’s in some box of 150 cassette tapes, because I have four-tracks for years. Like, for years and years and years I just used cassette four-tracks. And there’s an unbelievable amount of them and they aren’t in any order. So I wouldn’t know how to find them again. I would have to go look. But I don’t think it would matter now. It didn’t need to happen then, I didn’t need to put it out, it’s not why I did it, and it wasn’t the same kind of thing.